Off the Beaten Path in the High Himalaya

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I first laid eyes on the Himalayan mountains from the vantage point of Chail, a hill station in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. It wasn’t your classic Himalayan view of 8,000-meter peaks and glacial lakes; this former Maharaja’s retreat is a land of forest and mist. Still, there was something undeniably alluring about the countless sharp ridges of chir pine and deodar folding in on each other as they receded into the hazy distance. There was just a suggestion, just a hint, of the grander mountains that lie beyond my reach. I found myself besotted with the idea of venturing into those foothills: I needed to see more.

I was certainly not alone; people from all over the world have found endless reasons to embark upon a trek in the Himalayas. Travelers are drawn to the highest mountains on the planet seeking adventure, meaningful cultural interaction, and even spiritual enlightenment. But the Himalayas are huge, cutting a broad swathe across six different countries. Visitors considering only the most popular trekking routes may be doing themselves a serious disservice. Before you set off on your own exploration of the Himalayan region, it’s important to consider your reasons for visiting in the first place.

“We have many customers from the USA, Canada, and Australia,” says Ganga Raj Thapa, the Managing Director of Nepal Hiking Team, a Nepal-based travel agency that puts together customized itineraries in Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. “Most of them come to experience trekking adventures, so we say that we mostly have adventure tourists.” And if you’re looking for an adventure, the Himalayas in Nepal are about as good as it gets. After all, there’s a reason that Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit have become household names: the sight of colorful prayer flags snapping in the wind against a backdrop of snow-clad summits and perpetually frozen glaciers is guaranteed to take your breath away.

But these well-known routes attract plenty of visitors, and heading off the beaten path can yield an even more rewarding adventure. Nepal’s lesser-known opportunities for alpine exploration range from simple day hikes to rambling, multi-week expeditions that will take you up close and personal to the most awe-inspiring mountains in the country. “We have several other trekking destinations still hidden,” says Thapa. And these hidden treasures are often where you’ll find an undiluted sense of exploration and discovery.

It was on just such a path that I set out at the beginning of the monsoon season. The Helambu trek passes through Nepal’s Langtang region, winding along steeply terraced fields, ascending precarious paths through forested hillsides shrouded in milky fog, and passing through rural villages linked to each other only by the most circuitous, switchbacked roads imaginable. After each difficult climb, my reward was the tantalizing glimpse of an icy mountain like Dorje Lhakpa or a high-altitude saddle like the Goisakunda Pass. There was scarcely another trekker to be seen, and the Tamang and Sherpa locals were as welcoming and hospitable as any visitor could wish for.

In fact, the opportunity to have authentic cultural experiences with friendly Nepali villagers is another excellent reason to opt for the less-traveled route. And here in the high Himalaya, religion is intricately woven into the fabric of that culture. “Nepal is the birthplace of Lord Buddha,” Thapa reminds us. Indeed, evidence of devotion and faith greeted me around every corner of the Helambu trek. In the village of Tarke Gyang, I explored the dark, hushed interior of a monastery frequented only by locals. Those same locals helped me to pinpoint the meditation cave of Milarepa, a celebrated 11th-century Buddhist guru famous for his “hundred thousand songs.” And all along the way, I found myself making clockwise circuits around dozens of stupas and spinning any number of prayer wheels as I passed by. In a word, it was inspiring.

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I finished the Helambu trek sore, exhausted, suffering from a mild case of cryptosporidiosis—and absolutely exhilarated. Immediately keen to take another trek through the mountains, I considered some of Nepal’s other options: the Manaslu Circuit Trek, Tsum Valley Trek, and Ganesh Himal Trek all see relatively little traffic and promised a similar sense of isolation and adventure. But my hike through the country’s Helambu region inspired me to explore the foundations of Buddhism in this part of the world. To do that, I turned to India’s recently-designated union territory of Ladakh.

Flying into the Ladakhi capital of Leh affords travelers with a gobsmacking panorama of the Dhauladhar, Pir Panjal, Great Himalaya, Trans-Himalaya, Zanskar, and Karakoram ranges. Leh itself is a small city of only about 30,000 people, situated in a cold desert valley with crisp winds, intimate homes strung with prayer flags, lots of friendly street dogs, and monasteries galore. Ladakhi culture is heavily influenced by Tibet, thanks to its former status as a connection on the historical Silk Road. And while tourists from other parts of India are frequent visitors, Leh remains comparatively undiscovered by foreign travelers. This makes it a great place to become acquainted with local culture without the overbearing influence of commercial enterprise.

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There’s no better place to get started than Hemis Monastery, which serves as the spiritual center of Leh and the wider region of Ladakh. The monastery is tucked away amongst craggy mountains about 35 kilometers from the city. To get there, you’ll have to take a narrow, twisting road into the hills, gradually ascending until the path turns a corner and dramatically reveals the whitewashed gompa walls with a decided flourish. Hemis is perhaps best known for its annual summer festival in honor of Guru Padmasambhava, a celebrated eight century master of tantric Buddhism. Sometimes known as Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava is reported to have lived for a time in Ladakh, spreading the tenets of Buddhism throughout the mountains. Hidden inside the monastery here, you’ll find a larger-than-life statue of Padmasambhava, in addition to a staggering range of vibrant artwork and religious offerings.

But you don’t have to stop exploring at Hemis; the monasteries of Shey, Thiskey, Matho, Phyang, Spituk, and Stakna (among others) are also easily accessible from the city. Each offers its own enchanting scenery and opportunities to immerse yourself in Ladakhi culture. In fact, this is actually one of the best perks of exploring the Himalayas in Ladakh: you don’t have to go far to leave the tourist circuit and partake of a genuine cultural experience. But if you’re still itching to escape into the wilder passes of the nearby mountains, there are a handful of trekking outfits ready to get you started.

“Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company is different from other travel companies,” says Rigzen Chosdon, the office manager at this trekking agency. “All of our guides are female, and we only hire local women since our main motive is to empower local women.” Booking a trek with LWTC is therefore a fantastic way to contribute to the region’s culture and economy, and it also results in a better experience for visitors. Trekkers with the group stay in villagers’ homes along their routes, rather than opting for hotels or campsites. This is an arrangement with lots of mutual benefits: visitors “will have a local cultural and food experience by staying in a homestay,” says Chosdon, “and for the villagers we could help the housewives to generate some income.”

Ladakh’s trekking routes may be unfamiliar even to visitors who are intimately acquainted with other parts of the high Himalaya. LWTC organizes expeditions along the Sham Trek, through the Markha Valley or Nubra Valley, and even to the picturesque azure waters of Pangong Tso. The alpine scenery along these routes is typically Ladakhi: rocky cliffsides, deep valleys, blue lakes, and snowy peaks abound. “What makes Ladakh stand apart from other parts of the Himalayas is that we have very different landscapes, and our culture and traditions are very unique,” Chosdon emphasizes. As a trekker in Ladakh, you’ll have the chance to experience both firsthand. The only caveat? For cultural reasons, LWTC caters solely to groups which are at least partially comprised by women. Single male trekkers and groups of men will need to book a trek with one of several other adventure outfitters headquartered in Leh.

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While Ladakh is easily accessed by air and easily traversed by road, its sparse population and relative obscurity make it a true gem if you’re looking to go off the beaten path in the world’s biggest mountains. But it’s far from your only option. Popular travel web site and guidebook publisher Lonely Planet has recently declared Bhutan the best country to visit in the year 2020. While this is sure to cause a boom in the country’s travel business, this tiny Himalayan kingdom has formally embraced a policy of high-cost, low-impact tourism. Visitors to this part of the world can expect to spend at least 200-250 USD per day, although this typically includes accommodation, meals, transportation, and a guide. This revenue generated from these fees has kept even the country’s most popular tourist spots in pristine condition.

And those popular destinations are worth your time. First on most lists is Paro Takstang, known popularly as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Perched directly on a vertical cliffside jutting out over the upper Paro Valley, this iconic red-and-white temple complex is more than just a striking photo opportunity. It’s also the cornerstone of Bhutanese Buddhism. Guru Padmasambhava himself is reported to have identified the site of the monastery when he arrived from Tibet on the back of a flying tiger, who was actually none other than his own consort Yeshe Tsogyal. It’s believed that she was temporarily transfigured into this form for the express purpose of allowing Padmasambhava to sanctify the monastery’s future location. Today, you can spend several hours hiking to Paro Takstang, enjoying expansive views of the forested valley as you climb a steep trail leading to this lofty monks’ abode.

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While this is the country’s most well-known attraction, that doesn’t mean you’ll have to battle any crowds to get there. Only about 274,000 foreigners visited Bhutan in 2018—less than a quarter of the total tourists who entered Nepal in the same year. This can make the small mountain kingdom feel positively uncharted in comparison to some its more crowded neighbors. And if you want to really immerse yourself in the raw solitude of the Eastern Himalayas, consider one of the country’s little-known trekking routes.

“We excel in providing unique, less traveled, less explored places for guests,” says Deepak Tamang, CEO of Raven Tours and Treks. This Bhutan-based trekking agency specializes in finding off-the-beaten-path destinations which emphasize cultural connections and environmental responsibility. “Bhutan has been very successful in preserving its culture, tradition, environment, and forest cover,” Tamang explains. Thanks to its policy of limited tourism, the country has also been able to avoid hordes of visitors and overcrowded teahouses full of itinerant backpackers.

“For first-time trekkers, I would recommend camping for one or two days, or a trek that is four or five days,” Tamang suggests. He proposes either the Sagala Trek or Druk Path Trek for newcomers, both of which offer moderately difficult hiking in a spectacular alpine environment, as well as regular encounters with highlanders and yak herders. Both routes also connect easily with the major hubs of Paro and Thimpu, although you’ll leave the trappings of urban civilization behind as soon as you enter the mountains. For experienced trekkers looking for a challenge, there are even more remote options: the Jumolhari Trek, Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek, or Snowman Trek take hikers across high-altitude passes, through secluded valleys, and across elevated yak pastures. Trekkers can spend several weeks on these itineraries, catching sight of towering massifs like Mount Jumolhari, Jichu Drake, and Kangchenjunga. And on such an epic trekking adventure, you’ll really feel like you’ve left the crowds behind.

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Of course, even a shorter visit to this small Himalayan kingdom can be equally rewarding. “A genuine connection with locals does not have to be in the mountains,” Tamang explains. “One can also mix with the locals in the only city without traffic lights,” he says of Thimpu, the country’s capital. Raven Tours and Treks also organizes village and farm visits for its clients, allowing tourists to experience firsthand the country’s unique concept of “Gross National Happiness.” In this way, a carefully-crafted trip to Bhutan can provide the authenticity and nuance of experience to satisfy even the most intrepid trekkers.

But whichever country you ultimately decide to visit on your next adventure into the heart of the world’s most remarkable mountains, do yourself a favor: consider leaving the typical tourist routes behind. Whether it’s pure adventure, immersion in local culture, or a sensitive exploration of Himalayan spirituality, you may just find what you’ve been looking for. And you’ll have those awe-inspiring mountain views all to yourself.