Himalayas – Places to Visit
Auli is nestled between the snow-capped mountain peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas in the Chamoli district of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, near the famous Hindu pilgrimage site of Badrinath. An interesting trekking route is the ideal way to enjoy the breathtaking mountain panoramas of this very scenic region. The surrounding mountain peaks include the Mana, Kamet and Kanda Devi. The 270° view makes every traveler forget the troubles of the long journey. The conditions are also ideal for skiing. Auli is often lauded as a skiing paradise to match the best ski resorts in the world. A ski lift and a chairlift connect the excellently prepared upper and lower slopes. Skiers can enjoy almost 20 km of pristine slopes, which are used by beginners and experts for cross-country runs, slaloms and downhill runs. Also worth seeing is a small Hanuman temple which is connected to a known episode from the Ramayana epic.
Corbett National Park
Scenic Corbett National Park stretches out in the Indian state of Uttarakhand across the Kumaon foothills and is one of the most famous wildlife sanctuaries in the Indian part of the Himalayas. It was founded in 1936 as the first nature reserve in India and named after the British big-game hunter Jim Corbett (1875-1955) who, in his later years, became a dedicated conservationist. The area, stretching along the romantic Ramnaga River and out over 520 km², is protected by a buffer zone of extensive deciduous and sal forests. Only this border area can be visited by tourists. The core area of 330 km² is not accessible to visitors. Corbett Park is famous for its large population of tigers, but one still has to rely on a bit of luck to see the elusive cats. Among the other animals in the park are elephants, crocodiles, jackals, wild boar and more than 500 different bird species.
Dharamsala, initially a British hill station at an altitude of 1800m, is located in the Kangra district of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Several thousand Tibetan exiles have found refuge here since 1959 and have established a traditional Tibetan community with different centers of Tibetan culture. It is a pilgrimage center visited by Buddhists from all over the world, but it is refreshingly spared the noise and tumult associated with most Indian cities. Dharamsala is divided into a bustling economic center called Lower Dharamsala and, higher up, Upper Dharamsala, also called McLeodganj, where most Tibetan refugees live. The influence of the Tibetans’ presence is visible everywhere through the construction of temples, schools, monasteries and meditation centers. McLeodganj is world renowned as the Indian residence of the current Dalai Lama. Among the more interesting buildings that can be visited are the residence of the Dalai Lama, the Namgyal Monastery, the Tsuglagkhang chapel and a few impressive buildings from the British colonial period, such as the Anglican Church of St. John in the Wilderness.
Dharamsala is the starting point for several highly recommended treks into the green mountains of the surrounding Himalayan region. The best time for treks is from mid-August to late October. The treks pass through the rocky ridges of the Dhauladhar mountains that rise steeply behind the Kangra Valley to an altitude of 4600 m. The area around Dharamsala offers many opportunities for simpler or shorter treks as well, such as the route to the Torah pass (4575 m), which starts 10 km away from Dharamsala in Tang Narwana, at an altitude of 1150 m. A 2 km walk leads to Bhagsu, from where one can walk along a 3 km long path to Dharamkot. A slightly longer walk is the 8-km trek to Triund. The snow line of Ilaqa Got is only 5 km away.
Gangotri, the holy place at the source of the Ganges, sits at an altitude of 3042 m, 105 km from Uttarkashi, in the midst of the unique landscape of the Garhwal region in the Indian Himalayas. The center of the village is the Gangotri shrine, considered the spiritual source of the Ganges. In May every year, the temple is opened for the arriving pilgrims and closed again for the winter in October or November on the day of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges, the holiest of all Indian rivers, is the incarnation of the goddess Ganga. The prize of Ganga’s descent is eventually granted to Bhagiratha as a reward for a rigorous penance. The geographical source of the Ganges is 18 km away from Gangotri at an altitude of more than 4000 m at the Gangotri Glacier at Gaumukh and can only be reached on foot. The multi-day trekking tour first goes beyond the tree line and then follows anupward trail to the Gangotri glacier in the midst of a barren and rocky high plateau landscape with fantastic views. A few sadhus, holy ascetics in the Hindu tradition, live in caves on the high plateau, defying the freezing altitude throughout the year in their light clothing. The Ganges originates from huge caves in the ice at the glacier tongue. Here, in the place of Bhagiratha asceticism, the river still carries the “birth name” Bhagirathi. Only after the holy river has merged, at an altitude of 480 meters, with the Alaknandadoes, it becomes the Ganges in name. Gaumukh, the birth place of the river, means “mouth of the cow.” The name traces back to the particular form of the glacier caves from which the water flows. The trek leads back via Tapovan to Gangotri.
The scenic Garhwal region lies in the western part of the Indian state of Uttarakhand. It consists of rugged mountain ranges, separated by narrow valleys and deep gorges. Agricultural activity is limited to the areas in immediate proximity of the rivers. The name of the region traces back historically to a variety of Garhs (principalities), each of which had its own fortress (garh). The highest mountains are in the northern part of the region. They include the Kamet (7756 m), Trisul (7120 m), Badrinath (7074 m), Dunagiri (7066 m) and Nanda Devi, the second highest mountain in India with 7816 m. The Nanda Devi Sanctuary is a National Park situated around its summit, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. Its magnificent natural beauty can be explored through different panoramic walks and challenging trekking routes. Among the most important pilgrimage sites that can be reached through established hiking trails are Gangotri, Kedernath and Badrinath. Another trekking attraction is the Valley of Flowers.
The city of Haridwar, 214 km from Delhi, also called the “Gateway to Lord Vishnu”, is located in the state of Uttarakhand and is an important Hindu pilgrimage site. Having descended from the heights of the Himalayas, it is here that the Ganges begins its slow journey across the plains. Together with Nasik, Ujjain and Allahabad, Haridwar has a special significance for Hindus. Every third year, the KumbhMela festival, Hinduism’s biggest religious festival, is held by rotation at one of these four places, attracting many millions of pilgrims, devotees and tourists. The highlight for Hindu pilgrims is to take a ritual bath in the Ganges by descending one of the several step-shaped Ghats that line the river bank. Har-ki-Pauri is the best known and most sacred Ghat in Haridwar. It is here that the god Vishnu is said to have left his footprint in the rock. Every night, an Aarti (religious ritual of worship with lights) is performed on the banks of the Ganges and many small lamps are placed into the water, creating a special atmosphere as they float down the river.
Kullu was once called Kulanthpitha, “The end of the habitable world”. The town is located in the state of Himachal Pradesh in a particularly scenic area at an altitude of 1200 meters. The majestic heights of the Himalayas rise in the background and the fabled ‘Silver Valley’, around which legends have been woven, lies on the banks of the river Beas. Kullu is at the heart of an intricate web of valleys in the region; each of the numerous valleys has its own unique character and each is seemingly more beautiful than the next. The mountain slopes are spectacular in any weather, from the glorious sunshine to the shrouding haze of the mountain fog. In “Silver Valley”, magnificent mountain flowers bloom on the high mountain meadows. The main economic activities here are handicrafts and the cultivation of apples, plums, almonds and peas. The elegant, handmade scarves, shawls and woolen caps of the region are much coveted souvenirs. An interesting cultural event here is the multi-day Dussehra festival held between late October and early November. It’s a colorful Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of the divine power over the forces of darkness with dances, chants and processions.
Ladakh, part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, is sometimes called “Little Tibet”. It is a former Buddhist kingdom and a high mountain environment, known for the beauty of its largely treeless mountain landscape and its Tibetan Buddhist culture. Traditional prayer flags, chortens and monasteries are part of the impressive landscape. Ladakh’s mountains rise to an altitude of about 7000 m, while the valleys rest at an altitude of 3000 m. This is one of the world’s most arid regions. The few oases are mainly found along rivers and are almost invariably owned by influential monasteries that are also responsible for their management. The most important river is the Indus. Terraced fields with irrigation systems extend up to 4500 meters high, allowing for the cultivation of vegetables and grains. Fruit and walnut trees grow in the more sheltered locations. The main tourist season is from June to September. From the capital Leh, one can take many interesting trekking and mountaineering tours that can last from several days to several weeks, as per preference.
At the northern end of the Kullu Valley, on the banks of the Beas River, is the ancient city of Manali, an important base station in the mountain region, affectionately referred to by the locals as “the queen of hill stations”. Surrounded by high mountain peaks, the city lies below the snow line at an altitude of 1950 m. The word Manali means “abode of Manu” and refers to the mythological ancestor Manu who stepped off his ark in Manali after a great flood had deluged the world. Here, according to legend, Manu recreated human life and helped it spread, which is why Hindus regard the entire region as sacred.
All local temples are famous pilgrimage sites. The Hidimba Devi Temple, also called the Dhungri Temple, is an important place of worship, especially for tourists on honeymoon. It is located on the slopes above the city in a cedar forest, amidst thousand year old trees. The four-story pagoda-style complex was built in 1553 and its exquisite carvings are captivating. Among the other local attractions are the many Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries in the area. From an economic perspective, Manali is a center of fruit cultivation. The surrounding landscape is characterized by traditional clay and stone houses and picturesque apple, pear and plum orchards.
Due to its mild summer climate, Manali is a popular holiday destination and one of the main centers for mountain climbers in Asia. The city’s location marks the beginning of an ancient trade route to Ladakh, and continues from there across the Karakoram pass. A magnificent landscape tempts visitors with countless trekking tours, mountain climbing and adventure sports. Offers range from high mountain tours, mountain bike tours, paragliding and kayaking to skiing and snowboarding holidays.
Lauded by the British for its “lake landscape”, with green slopes and diverse flora and fauna, the town of Mussoorie, located 34 km away from Dehradun at an altitude of 2000 m, is one of the most popular hill stations in India. Mussoorie’s fame stems not only from its extraordinarily beautiful landscape but also its varied community life and grand hotels. The traditional souvenirs from Mussoorie include wooden objects, richly embroidered Garhwal textiles and wool clothing. Shopping centers are the Mall (main promenade), the Kulri Bazaar and the Landour Bazaar. After the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, he first settled in Mussoorie. This inspired many Tibetan refugees to settle in the mountain town and many remained there even after the Dalai Lama moved to Dharamsala a few years later. More than 5000 Tibetans still live in Mussoorie today and shape its appearance with their culture. The surrounding area has many tourist attractions such as lakes, waterfalls, mountain peaks and temples, all of which offer interesting trekking tours and excursions. The best known nature walk in the region is a hiking trail with the unusual name “Camel’s Back Road”.
The small town of Rishikesh, 24 km away from Haridwar, owes its international fame to the Beatles, who arrived here in the 60s to meditate in the ashram of their Guru, Maharishi. Surrounded by hills on three sides, the town is situated at an altitude of 356 m on the scenic banks of the sacred Ganges, its water still alluringly clear. Rishikesh is traditionally a place for practicing yoga and meditation. A large number of ashrams and temples attract many thousands of tourists and pilgrims to the city every year. Hindus believe that meditating here will hasten liberation from rebirth. Rishikesh boasts many flourishing yoga centers, both new and traditional, gaining the city a reputation as the “yoga capital” of the world. Local attractions include the Triveni Ghat and the Bharat Mandir, the oldest temple in town. The Triveni Ghat should be visited at sunset, as this is the time of day when many Hindus offer milk sacrifices to the holy river. Rishikesh is also the point of departure for onward journeys to the holy places in the Garhwal mountains. From here, famous centers of pilgrimage such as Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, Gangotri and Gaumukh can be reached. For nature lovers, there is a wide range of trekking and rafting tours.
In the shadow of the main Himalayan ridge lie the sparsely populated valleys and plateaus of Spiti, which are characterized by an extremely dry climate. This barren mountain region, culturally dominated for over a 1000 years by Tibetan Buddhism, was closed to foreigners until 1992. It opened up for tourist development only in the late 90s and, with its interesting mix of natural and cultural experiences, is a worthwhile destination for trekking and jeep safaris. The best time to visit is from July to October. At an altitude of 4000 m, numerous villages dot the legendary valley of the Spiti River. The northeastern areas are barely accessible to this day. Places worth visiting are the many monasteries, with the Tabo monastery being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even the small Lhalung Gompa is worthwhile in terms of art history. Dhankar, the old capital of Spiti with its Buddhist monastery, is perched on a rocky outcrop in a picturesque location.
Uttarkashi, 99 km from Gangotri, is an important place of pilgrimage, with Hindus often equating its sacredness with that of Varanasi. Uttarkashi is situated in a spacious valley, 145 km away from the Rishikesh railway terminal, at an altitude of 1352 meters on the banks of the Bhagirathi River. People gather here every year for the “MaghMela” (14 January), both from nearby areas and from further afield, to take a holy dip in the river along with the idol of their village deity. Uttarkashi is an ideal place for white water rafting, mountain climbing and trekking tours, with some excellent routes. There are many attractions waiting to be explored in the surrounding area. Among the scenic highlights are Nachiketa Tal, Dodi Tal, the Bhagirathi depression, the charming town of Maneri and Dayara Bugyal, the “high altitude meadow”. The cultural attractions include the Jyotir Math, the northernmost of the four monastery-like structures founded at the beginning of the 9th century by AdiShankaracharya, the reviver of the Vedic tradition, as the headquarters of the four cardinal Shankaracharya institutions. The other three Maths (monasteries) are in Puri (South), Sringeri (east) and Dwaraka (west). Their occupants and leaders, who carry the Shankaracharya title to this day, are regarded by Hindus as undisputed authorities and keepers of the traditional Vedanta teachings.
The Zanskar region, locked in by mountains, is the most overwhelming and remote corner of Ladakh. There are only about 10,000 people living in this area of 7000 km². This former Buddhist kingdom lies at an altitude of 3500-7000 m in the valley of the Zanskar river and its tributaries. Due to its extreme weather conditions, this awe-inspiring area on the mythical “roof of the world” is cut off from the rest of India for a major part of the year. The only access route to Zanskar is via high Himalayan passes that are only accessible at certain times. The ancient footpaths that crisscross the area throughout offer some of the most spectacular treks in the Himalayas. The barren landscape is of a majestic beauty and offers countless breathtaking views. Culturally, the area is characterized by Tibetan Buddhism, with its chortens (Tibetan for stupa), prayer walls, monasteries and prayer flags waving in the wind. The trekking routes are long, hard and high, but never boring! They connect remote villages and monasteries that are completely cut off during the long winter behind high passes. The best time to visit is between June and September. A popular route is the one from Lahaul over the Shingola Pass which, at an altitude of over 5000 meters, is on the crest of the highest Himalayan range. As with the other passes at extreme altitudes, the Shingola pass can only be crossed during late summer.