“The mountain has left me feeling renewed, more content and positive than I’ve been for weeks, as if something has been given back after a long absence, as if my eyes have opened once again. For this time at least, I’ve let myself be rooted in the unshakable sanity of the senses, spared my mind the burden of too much thinking, turned myself outward to experience the world and inward to savor the pleasures it has given me.” ― Richard Nelson, The Island Within
The echo of these words is in every city dweller’s heart. The mountains are a hug, a home, happiness. Any time of the year, and any time of life.
And happily, we have the best of them: the mighty Himalayas themselves, no less! The Himalayas offer the world’s best trekking trails, amazing river runs for rafting and kayaking, phenomenal paragliding and hand gliding sites and locales that are known to calm the mind and heal the soul of man since time immemorial.
Here, avid travellers and adventure experts have the answers to all your mile-high queries on how to max the mountains:
Ashish Dhar – Avid Mountaineer
I’d like to stay off the beaten track and see things that are not so touristy. Where should I go?
There isn’t much planning required if all you want to do is go to the popular hill stations, stroll around the ubiquitous mall road and buy woollen socks. But hey, those places are just the tip of the Himalayan iceberg. Each region in the Himalayas, even within a single state, has a distinct ecological and cultural identity of its own. So, where you want to go is really a function of what you want to see or do.
Ladakh and Spiti stand out for their stark aridity sprinkled with bright and colourful prayer flags fluttering on top of Buddhist monasteries. The influence of Tibetan culture in these areas stands testimony to how ancient cultural bonds coexist with national loyalties and transcend the compulsions of modern political realities. South of Ladakh lies the heavenly valley of Kashmir, strife torn and politically volatile yet sublimely beautiful.
Himachal has the most diversity to offer, with picture perfect Kullu and Parvati Valley, the desolate beauty of Lahaul Spiti, the contrasting landscape within the apple rich Kinnaur or the spiritually blessed Kangra valley located in the shadow of the mighty Dhauladhars.
Garhwal in Uttarakhand is home to the Ganges and its other famous tributaries like Alaknanada and Bhagirathi. Kumaon is the other half of the state comprising of hidden valleys, obscure trails and rich flora and fauna. The region is steeped in Hindu mythological legend and abounds with stories of Shiva and Parvati. The magnificent peak of Nanda Devi, considered to be an embodiment of the primordial mother Goddess herself, is claimed fervently as their own by natives of both Garhwal and Kumaon.
The highest peak of India is located in the eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim, the least populous state of India and perhaps the cleanest. Another stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism in India with a number of important monasteries, this state has a large section of population of Nepalese origin. The biodiversity of the forests in Sikkim is remarkable and in springtime, nature boldly paints these forests in shades of red, with rhododendrons in full bloom.
I’d like some help figuring out when to go, so I can catch the Himalayas at their most gorgeous
The first thing to understand is the motive for going. Are you going for the views or the wildlife or do you just want to enjoy the rains? Most people prefer clear blue skies and so, your first filtering criterion could be monsoons. Before and after the monsoons is when almost the entire Himalayan belt is accessible as well as pleasant. During the monsoons, it is best to avoid areas other than Lahaul-Spiti, Ladakh and northern Kumaon. In autumn and early winter, the eastern Himalayas (Sikkim and Darjeeling) offer great views of Kanchendzonga and Everest. In winter, the Ski slopes of Auli are a favourite spot for the active kinds.
What is the best way to explore the Himalayas?
Hiking is undoubtedly the best mode to explore these majestic mountains as it is the only way to access the untouched interiors. Any avid trekker will tell you that every bit of physical effort on your part is generously rewarded with views of such beauty that it is pretentious to try capturing it in words. Cycling / Mountain biking is also a great way to get around at a much faster pace, but it appeals only to super fit individuals. However, if you are averse to the idea of getting off your butt, hop on to a motorbike or a jeep and venture beyond the comfort of mobile network connections to get the real feel of the Himalayas.
The highest I have gone is to the top of my apartment building. Where do I go for my first trek?
There’s every chance that after your first trek, you will want to go back again and again. So, choose your first trekking trip wisely and don’t push yourself over the edge. You can try out the more demanding trails later but start out with something that is below 10,000 ft and with a gentler gradient. There are many trails in Himachal and Uttarakhand that are suited for a first timer. Although there can’t be rules about this but it would be safe to say that first timers may do well to avoid Ladakh and Spiti because all trails there start at very high altitude.
You mention altitude, which is also what I am concerned about. Tell me more about how to deal with it
A majority of healthy individuals suffer from altitude sickness when they gain enough altitude in a short time. About 20% of people ascending above 9,000 feet (2,743m) in one day are known to develop altitude sickness. Common symptoms: loss of appetite, fatigue, headache, nausea and dizziness. In severe cases, it can also lead to death. Thankfully, this can be prevented to a large extent by taking rather simple precautions like proper acclimatisation, drinking fluids in sufficient quantity and consuming carbohydrate-rich food. Nifedipine, Dexamethasone and Acetazolamide (Diamox) are a few drugs which are effective in case of altitude sickness but should be taken under medical supervision.
What about fitness—how should I prepare for an active trip in the Himalayas?
The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy being in the mountains. The path to fitness is endless but to start with, you can do a bit of walking and running every day, for maybe half an hour and then slowly increase the duration to an hour or more. Joining a gym for a couple of months before the trip is very effective for increasing stamina.
Can I take my children? How old must they get before they can come with me?
Children enjoy the atmosphere of the mountains much more than adults do, stuck as we are in the cage of our preferences. You may introduce your kids to gentle hiking at 5-6 years of age but take them for a chilled out holiday whenever you feel like it, even as early as when they don’t even know you.
Nirav Shah – Writer, Photographer
I am headed to Ladakh this year, and want to bring back some truly offbeat photos and memories. Where can I go?
While every landscape in Ladakh has its own beauty and wow factor, I can suggest two places that you should definitely take time out to go to when in Ladakh. For a photographer, travel enthusiast or just a couple looking to spend some time alone – the Pangong Lake is a beautiful locale to be at. Approximately 4-5 hours by road from Leh, it is a serene lake near the Indo-China border, nestled in the lap of the mountains. There are 2-3 tented resorts where you can spend the night; or for the adventurous, always look out for budget homestays with the locals there. Take your tripod along for some beautiful sunrise/sunset shots and enjoy the starry nights as you lie by the lake.
Another beautiful and completely different place is Turtuk, a pretty village by the river Shyok, about 2-3 hours beyond Hundur and Diskit . Be sure to arrange a travel permit before you leave Leh. The village is inhabited by the Balti tribe, with features very different from the Mongoloid race. A couple of days in this village amidst mulberry orchards will reinvigorate you. There are photo opportunities galore as you walk in the streets of the village and make sure you talk to the elders to understand the rich history of the village as well as the recent Indo-Pak conflict.
Note: This post is from our archives. Do check for updates before you travel.