Discovering the diversity of the Indian Himalayas

By Donna Altes
This article appears on page 6 of the November 2020 issue.

Last year, an enigmatic email from a friendship begun six years before on an adventurous trip to Papua New Guinea piqued my interest. My friend Knox Bell shared that Original World/Spirit of India (San Rafael, CA; 888/367-6147, was looking for “intrepid travelers” for a month-long adventure into the “Ancient Cultures of the Indian Himalaya” (plus Ladakh), and he thought of me! Within 30 minutes, I had called the travel agent and I was on board.

After having to cancel two other trips due to a complicated medical year, it meant a lot to have this Indian Himalaya experience dangling on a string in front of me. The goal of getting on that plane to India kept me going through surgeries, months of hospitalizations and long, painful rehabs.

Finally, in late August 2019, holding a glass of bubbles and comfortably ensconced in the plane, I smiled, happy to be “back in the saddle” of international adventure travel.

The plan

The farther I venture outside of large cities, the more peaceful and content I become. I was yearning for the craggy spires of the virgin-white-snow-laden Himalayas, far away from the madding crowd.

What I find remarkable about India is its diversity. The Indian Himalayas provide a stark contrast to the dusty plains of the north and the tropical hothouse of the south. In this region of hill stations, fertile valleys, lunar landscapes and crystal-clear mountain air, local inhabitants have carved out a spartan existence in the pockets of habitable terrain.

The Indian Himalayas are a crossroad of Asia’s three main spiritual practices. Islam is strong in the Kashmir Valley; Jammu, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh represent the northern limits of Hinduism, and Ladakh is home to a large Buddhist population.

Today, this area is covered with military roadblocks and outposts, and Jammu and Kashmir were off-limits to tourists. Problematic as well are India’s disputes with neighboring Pakistan.

The marvelous scenery and the intimate connection to the peoples who have chosen to make the inaccessible Indian Himalayas their home made this trip one of the most memorable I have taken.

On our way

This adventure began in the mountains and small villages of Himachal Pradesh, with the latter two weeks spent farther north, in the Ladakh region.

Meeting the other seven world travelers on the first half of the trip, our journey began in hot, humid and crowded Delhi, where the air quality was at its worst. We were all anxious to board the train to the charming hill station of Shimla.

As we wandered through the picturesque nearby village of Sarahan, all the brightly clothed villagers we encountered made eye contact, smiled and interacted. Westerners — in particular, Americans — were a rarity on this trip.

People-to-people contact is why I travel, and northern India provided daily opportunities for interaction.

In comparison to Delhi, with its crowds and poor air quality, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh were sparsely populated and surrounded by spectacular scenery, fresh air and peacefulness.

At Sarahan’s Bhimakali Temple, we encountered the first of many climbs we would make up to shrines, monasteries (28) and temples. The monasteries were all situated atop hills, which necessitated climbing hundreds of steep, uneven stairs, often without handrails. It was a challenge for me.

The rewards upon high were ancient paintings, frescoes and ornate silk thangkas (Buddhist paintings). Each of the elaborate pieces of wall art told stories about the myriad gods and protectors of the Buddhist and Hindu religions.

In each monastery, the Buddhist Wheel of Life was displayed, with its six realms of reincarnation (dependent on the previous lifetime’s karma).

Heading for the hills

Our modi operandi of travel were three comfortable SUVs, since the narrow, unpaved roads weren’t suitable for even a small bus. The drivers were expertly skilled in maneuvering on the rocky roads, which often had been washed out by water flowing down from the glaciers.

Endless, colorfully decorated Tata trucks were constantly passing us on these treacherous roads, with sheer rock walls (bearing “Beware of shooting stones” signs) on one side and sheer drops on the other (often with only an inch to spare). Several times, the lead driver had to enlist the help of others on the road to guide/push the vehicles through the dangerous spots. I closed my eyes a lot.

As we visited the small villages nestled into the Indian Himalayas, it was like entering another world. Our tent “lodge” at Kinnaur Valley was suffused with the clarity of thinning air (12,250'), birds singing and the ubiquitous dogs barking. I was a happy camper (even though the power at our camps was turned on for only one hour a day).

Driving higher and higher to Nako, we were getting acclimated to the climbing elevation. High above the Spiti Valley, we needed to ward off oxygen-deprivation symptoms, so most of us began taking Diamox the day before we began our climb. It worked!

As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped. Thank goodness I’d taken along my new silk long johns! Packing was difficult due to the restrictive 15-kilogram (33-pound) limit we had for our intra-India flights. Everything needed to be weighed before it was packed.

The changes in landscape were remarkable, from lush green valleys to arid high desert, devoid of vegetation. Our visit to the late-10th-century Tabo Monastery, with its 45 resident lamas, was enlightening as we sat and talked to the head abbot, who was responsible for bringing modern education to the monastery school.

After a visit to Ki (Key) Monastery, housing a large collection of thangka paintings, we also wandered through one of the highest inhabited villages with a motorable road in Asia, Kibber, which was totally self-contained and isolated.

Local interactions

A thrilling yet scary drive over the famous Kunzum Pass was dominated by the Bara Shigri Glacier, the largest glacier in Himachal Pradesh. As we were driving, I saw a celebration of Ganesh in progress, and the joyous music and vibrant colors were so compelling that I told the driver to stop and let me out. I jumped into the fray, getting into the middle of the dancers, and had so much fun!

While we were visiting the institute of Tibetan arts and handicrafts in Norbulingka, we heard that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in residence a few kilometers away at his palace in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. There was a huge Long Life Prayer Ceremony being performed by four different Buddhist sects! Four thousand red-gowned monks would be in attendance.

We dropped everything, jumped into the vehicles and hurried to be part of this amazing happening. (We couldn’t believe our guide didn’t know anything about this scheduled event.)

Once we got there, thousands of people in colorful Tibetan dress were in attendance, and we were right in the middle of it. There were lines of volunteers serving food for free to anyone who was hungry, and the Dalai Lama was on a giant screen for everyone to see what was transpiring inside the sacred rooms. At 84 years old, he looked pretty frail, but he is still able to be part of ceremonies like this, honoring the Tibetan people and their culture.

Tradition and a temple

After arriving in Amritsar, in the state of Punjab in the Himalayan foothills, we left at the crack of dawn to tour the city. Later in the afternoon we drove to Wagah, the border town between India and Pakistan, to witness the “lowering of the flag” ceremony that takes place between these two countries that were once one.

For three hours in the sun, high heat and humidity, we sat in the VIP section on the India side and became enmeshed with the thousands of Indians cheering, chanting, screaming and getting excited. The patriotism for India was palpable.

A number of officers from each team put on a rousing, athletic performance to the satisfaction of the crowds. The elite soldiers on both sides mirrored each other’s high-kicking, quick-marching steps.

It was emotional on both sides as the Indian and Pakistani flags were lowered on either side of the only border that remains open between the two countries. Once the flags were lowered, the ceremony ended with the slamming of the border gates.

The event is held every night, with thousands of Indians and Pakistanis in attendance.

Early the next morning back in hot and humid Amritsar, we visited the famous Golden Temple, one of the most sacred pilgrim sites for Sikhs. Many Sikhs were sleeping outside, waiting for the temple complex to open.

Somehow I got separated from my group and my guide, and I tried to enter the complex with my socks on. I discovered you cannot enter the Golden Temple area with anything on your feet, and you have to walk through pools of water to cleanse your feet as you go in.

I had no one to interpret for me, as the crowds all around me pushed to enter. Two of the guards stopped me as I tried to enter. I pointed to my feet and motioned that I cannot take off my socks. I then had an idea. I showed them a photograph of the bottom of my foot after several reconstructive surgeries, and they both immediately became empathetic and understood.

They sat me down and found two green plastic garbage bags to tie over my feet, then they allowed me to enter. I was the only person out of thousands in the Golden Temple that day who had anything on her feet. Everyone stared, and people even stopped me to take pictures. But I was so grateful to those two guards who understood, without words, what I needed.

The gargantuan amount of food served by volunteers from the temple’s kitchens (where we were supposed to help serve but we arrived too late to participate) was completely manned by people giving of themselves. On the average day, up to 100,000 people eat a free meal there. What an amazing community the Sikhs have in Amritsar!

The next adventure begins

My 2-week Indian Himalayas tour came to an end, and a new group of six flew from Delhi to the town of Leh, in Ladakh, for the 2-week “Ladakh Festival” tour ($3,595 plus a $965 single supplement) that I had also booked.

Gone, once again, were the high temperatures, humidity, poor air quality and crowds. The air was crystal clear and delightfully cool.

We were scheduled to spend four days in beautiful, breathtaking Kashmir, but, due a governmental change on Aug. 5, 2019, Kashmir lost the special status it had enjoyed since 1954, which granted the region limited autonomy, causing tensions in the area.

Skirmishes ensued, schools and businesses were closed, and our 4-day houseboat adventure in Kashmir was canceled. So at the 11th hour, our scheduled stay in Leh was extended, the town serving as a home base for the next two weeks.

On our first day in Leh, we were told to rest — no walking or exertion — to get acclimated to the elevation (11,483'). Raring to go on day two, we visited the town’s fascinating labyrinth of winding streets and quaint bazaars.

Every single person I passed made eye contact and smiled, saying “Julley,” the word everyone uses as you would “Namaste” or “Hello.”

Waking up at the crack of dawn the following day for a full-day excursion, we traveled to the Thiksay Gompa, where we were to be guests of the resident monks, who were in the middle of their ritual morning prayers. We were amazed that we were allowed to be there and even take photographs. What a thrilling hour that was!

At our eclectic ecolodge in Nubra Valley, a 6-hour drive over the Khardung La (mountain pass) from Leh, Knox and I decided to take the opportunity to have dinner with two worldly Indian businessmen we met. We learned a great deal of their views about American and world politics in just two hours.

One note — the lodge’s power was only on for a couple of hours; everyone’s chargers were ready to go when we got the signal!

As we passed through Hundar village, located in a sandy desert valley, it was time to make friends with some camels. Getting on and off a camel with two humps was not easy for me, but with the help of a couple of men, I was able to hoist myself up. (It still scared the heck out of me when the camel stood up.) Physicality has never been my strong suit.

During the long drive back to Leh, we passed a village harvesting barley as a community effort. We stopped, ran down to where they were working and became happily involved with the hardworking, friendly locals.

My interactions with locals continued when we were driving down a country road on our way to the Ule Ethnic Resort for two nights. I spotted a group of traditionally dressed women and yelled at the driver, “Stop the car!” I jumped out and introduced myself to the ladies, who were on their way to a wedding.

Our guide told them in their native language that I was looking for a husband. The women grabbed me and tried to take me to the wedding, saying that before the night was over, they would find me a husband! It was hysterical. They were serious.

On an excursion to Choglamsar, we had an opportunity to experience a Tibetan SOS Children’s Village, created out of concern for the exiled Tibetan children living in India. They are very involved in keeping the Tibetan culture alive for the young ones of today’s world.

We met the chief representative of the school and heard him talk about Tibetan refugees and their spiritual practices in Leh. He told us how his grandparents had fled by foot over the mountains in 1959 to escape the Chinese takeover, and he shared that his two sons are the fourth generation to live in exile. It is critical that they keep the Tibetan culture alive in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan children.

On our way from our home base up to the Ladakh Camp at Pangong Lake (14,200'), we drove over the challenging Changla Pass (17,586'). We picnicked in the summer pastureland of yaks and passed pristine glaciers and Himalayan horses.

Finally, after countless switchbacks and bumpy dirt/gravel roads, going up and up and up, we arrived at Pangong Lake, one of the largest brackish-water lakes in Asia.

Each of us had our own tent with an attached “bathroom.”

To say it was cold is an understatement (-2°C, or 28°F). The wind blew hard and heavy, and the tent flapped all night. It was an adventure!

The “Ancient Cultures of the Indian Himalaya” tour ($4,285 plus $985 single supplement) was an amazing, unique, strenuous adventure. The diverse scenery was astonishing, but the high point of the experience was the warm, welcoming people. I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world!