What started as a simple idea, a road trip through some of the most pristine and undisturbed locations in the Himachal Himalayas, led to an epic adventure that none of us could have prepared for. Heroic landscapes, surprising cultures, laughter, arguments, illness, injuries and even a stolen dog. This is my story of an absolutely epic adventure through the Himalayas.
A road trip is a travellers rite of passage, a unique adventure that is as much about the journey as it is the destination. A road trip is an intrepid journey that throws you out of your comfort zone, a journey that is quite simply the modern equivalent to the epic hero’s quest and one that requires a willingness to submit yourself completely to the destination you are in, where the journey itself is an integral part of the adventure.
So when a chance to take a road trip through one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet came my way, I of course said yes immediately! I mean seriously, who would be fool enough to turn that down?
Trekking in Himachal Pradesh.
Himachal Pradesh is India’s adventure travel playground, with a distinct culture and feel to the rest of India that makes you wonder if you are actually in Nepal or Tibet. Himachal is quite simply spectacular, with snow covered mountains and rugged plunging valleys with turquoise blue lakes and raging, crystal clear rivers and the occassional Buddhist monastary nestled into the mountain ridges, and it was here we decided to test our mettle with one of the most epic road trips any of us had ever taken.
There are a ton of hill stations and smaller villages filled with cheap backpacker accommodations, guesthouses and homestays, as well as campgrounds and glamping sites, making the area a huge draw for backpackers and independent travellers, and there are a lot of options for exploring on foot through day or multi day hikes from a specific base, or hiring a motorbike or jeep to take you on numerous routes through the must see areas on specific trekking and riding loops.
If I’d have known renting a bike was an option beforehand I would have seriously considered this, as the few bikers we met along the way looked like they were having a whale of a time in some of the most spectacular riding routes in the world, but our small group took advantage of the custom road safari’s offered by Banjara Camps and Treks.
We were headed out on a rough Shimla to Sonaugi loop, taking in some of the most pristine and hidden parts of the Himachal Himalayas through landscapes ranging from lush green Himalayan Forests and barren deserts, to snow capped mountain peaks and ancient Buddhist Monasteries, staying in a range of Banjara’s luxury camps and local homestays along the way.
I was warned before starting the trip through the Himalayas that it would not be easy, and no truer words were ever spoken, but I was prepared for that. What I wasn’t prepared for was the adventure of a lifetime that this road trip would give me.
Road to the Himalayas.
I had already been in India for a short time before we started our trip, and it began rather portentously with one of India’s famed night buses from Delhi to Himachal Pradesh, those long, overnight, back breaking journeys that no one over 6 foot can ever be comfortable in. But at least they are still more comfortable than most budget airlines and I suppose I should be grateful that this one didn’t have a TV at the front blasting out Hindi pop songs at full blast all night. Not the best starts to an epic journey but hey, we were here and that’s all that mattered!
The old bus station in Shimla may not be much to write home about, it really is just a noisy, exhaust fume filled car park with a few small market shops and a cafe with plastic chairs outside, but it is also the starting point of countless adventures into the Himalayas themselves, the jumping off point for epic mountain escapades worthy of stories and song!
But in that exact moment all I could think of was getting a good meal and a bed!
So with a twelve hour overnight journey with no sleep, a three hour delay waiting for our hired car to turn up and a fully nutritious breakfast of hot chai and spicy crisps, I was eager to find some accommodation and drop my pack for a few hours.
The first of many temporary homes.
Arriving in Thanedar, the Banjara Camp’s mountain lodge more than made up for the overnight bus and I was glad to get a shower and something to eat, but just as importantly we arrived right in the middle of harvesting season. That meant the orchards surrounding the lodge were buzzing with activity and we were lucky enough to be able to join some of the locals picking apples, a tradition going back to 1916 when the first delicious red apples were introduced to the region making Himachal Pradesh the ‘apple state’.
I was instantly taken back to scrumping apples in my nan’s back garden when I was a kid, and then being fed endless dishes of apple crumble for helping her to pick the rest!
Back on the road!
But it wouldn’t be a road trip without actually being on the road, and the next morning we piled into the car for the next leg of the journey.
I was excited to see some of the mountain roads, hanging out of the window to see some of the famously steep drops and thin roads, watching the wheels of the car get semi dangerously close to the edge. Unfortunately the roads were relatively well developed this low down the mountain and weren’t as exciting as I had hoped, but at least we were bounced around the car like half a dozen tennis balls at Wimbledon as the car jumped over the uneven terrain.
The terrain was fun at first, with more than a few hairy moments as we tried to pass large buses on far too thin roads, edging past a truck that had spilled its contents all over the road and the driver trying to stack everything up dangerously high just like before with zero evidence of having learned any lesson from it and having to navigate a road block of a single stubborn cow that decided the road was its territory.
The roads through the Sangla Valley take in some of the most stunning views in India bar none, especially as the first flourishes of Autumn started to add strokes of orange and gold amongst the green landscape, contrasting with the vivid turquoise blue of the river, and we stopped far more often than we planned to just to take the time to slow down and appreciate it.
But eventually the long hours did start to take their toll as we were spending long days at a time sitting in the car, never a comfortable experience for my 6″2 frame, forced to actually make our own entertainment and converse with each other with actual words as we didn’t just have wifi in the mountains, we had no signals at all! I was honestly expecting some form of withdrawal symptoms to start appearing.
But this is what road trips are all about! On paper this may sound hellish in many ways, but those times spent talking for long periods, stopping every five minutes to take in the epic, unspoiled views of parts of the Himalayas that few tourists had seen, sharing snacks and sleeping on top of each other, quite literally a lot of the time, and then refusing to fall asleep for long periods because we would inevitably end up with something being done to us and the evidence put on social media, all of these times were a large part of the experience itself and part of what made it special.
All of this is part of the great bonding experience that road trips offer.
With a small detour to Rekong Peo to procure tourist permits for the area, a wonderful encounter taking in the full experience of Indian bureaucracy that led to us being more than two hours delayed, we reached one of the areas I had been most excited to see on this trip.
The Tibetan border.
Chitkul is the last Indian village before the Indo Tibetan border, the last remnant of any type of civilisation before the unspoiled mountain wilderness of the Tibetan Himalayas, and it really felt like it. The small village felt almost deserted, with a frontier like, lawless atmosphere that made you feel that you had reached the very end of the world.
But this sense of remote, far removed neglect was part of the charm. There were no tourists on a package tour here, no easy conveniences and no KFC on demand. This was one of those places reserved for those travellers with a true sense of adventure, the type of place where the one bar in town had a spot reserved for drinking contests in case Indiana Jones turned up with a headpiece from the Staff of Ra.
The place is so remote that even a relaxing diversion at the river will only be interrupted by a herd of goats passing through and a local goat herder who is just as surprised to see you as you are to have a goat come and peck you on the cheek!
Despite this a small tourism industry is slowly building up in this remote location. Fuelled by highly educated locals who yearn for a simpler life based around traditional community, small, eco conscious campsites are luring the most adventurous backpackers who are hungry for the same thing and want to use the town as a springboard into the epic trekking opportunities in the area.
These are no simple glamping sites, these camp grounds are bringing a revolutionary business model to the most remote of locations. With zero single use plastic initiatives and water provided in jugs from the crystal clear mountain river itself, teas brewed from local plants grown in the garden behind the tents and little to no impact on the environment they rely on, these camps are part of a burgeoning local tourism industry, a small one maybe, one that is reliant on the small number of independent travellers making it out here, but a sustainable one, and one that is bringing a sustainable economy to the local population.
But I didn’t come here just to see the accommodation options. Chitkul is famous for being the last outpost of civilisation in India, and that meant that not that far away, would be the only land border checkpoint between India and Tibet, and given the current tensions in the region that was something I had to see for myself!
Just think about this for a moment as a destination. Is it a huge tourist draw? A significant religious, historical or cultural monument? A site UNESCO would be interested in? Absolutely not! This is in no way a tourist attraction, in fact it is an active police and military border point between two countries, something that most travellers normally tend to only pay enough attention to for showing their passports on their way to somewhere else.
But this was the Tibetan border on the edge of the Himalayas, probably the single most spectacular mountain range in the world. A few miles in one direction is the glorious backpacker destination of India, a few miles in the opposite direction the untold adventure of the Himalayan mountains and the distinct cultural and political realm of Tibet.
Relatively few travellers get to see this part of the world, and that is something to cherish.
But given that this was India’s first line of defence, the lone ITBP border post didn’t seem like much of a deterrent, so given that I am an altruistic soul by nature I decided to give them a little bit of propaganda! My Superman like status should make anyone think twice before messing with them!
It was close to nightfall when we finally reached our camp for the night in Nako, the highest village in the Sangla valley at almost twelve thousand feet and the only village bordered by a large lake formed from the ice and snow melting from the peaks around it.
I was so tired from being in the car most of the day that frankly I would have been happy wrapping up and crawling into a bivi for the night, but I’m not stupid enough to turn down the luxury Swiss style chalet tents on offer at the campsite either!
Knaygoh Kinner Camps is a stunning campground in a stunning location! They packed as much comfort into a national park in the middle of the Himalayas as possible.
Glamping is a truly wonderful invention and don’t get me wrong, I love camping too and have spent many a night under a basic canvas tent or a bivi, but adding those few extra comforts makes a huge difference and even little things like being able to ask for a flask of hot water instead of having to boil it yourself over a fire made our campsite seem like the most luxurious of hotels.
Not even the cold and wind of the elevated mountains outside could get through the thick canvas, and covered with a lot of heavy blankets and comforted by the howling of the wind, it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
I really wish we could have spent more time in Nako, the unique environment meant that there were a lot of adventure activities on offer here and unfortunately it was the wrong time of year for the local Llama dance festival which let’s face it sounds pretty damn epic, but we had to press on!
The influence of Buddhism.
Given the proximity to Nepal and Tibet it is hardly surprising that Buddhism was a very strong influence on this part of India, and in fact I had been feeling its influence more and more the deeper we drove into the mountains.
As much as the landscape was changing from lush forest to mountain lakes and increasingly barren rock desert, there was a distinct change in the atmosphere as well. The local populations were changing in the small towns and tea shops we were stopping at, the culture was changing. It genuinely felt like we had left India behind long ago and at some point had actually entered Tibet.
The fact that we stopped along the way to visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas did absolutely nothing at all to dispel that feeling.
Tabo monastery, located just above Tabo village on the Spiti river was founded in 996 C.E and has nine temples, four stupas and numerous shrines spread over a huge complex, where robed monks still go about their daily routines as some of the very few travellers who have made it out this far marvel at the monastery itself.
For me though, I was far more interested in another attraction. The dogs.
Buddhism holds animals as sacred as human life and in fact believe that people can be reborn as animals and vice versa, which is why you will often see Buddhist monks feeding and taking care of stray or local animals as part of their daily routine.
This is something I have always loved about Buddhism. That tiny clause about holding people in the same regard I have always struggled with, but loving, taking care of and avoiding harm to animals I am fully behind every step of the way! All any animal ever wants is just a little bit of love, and maybe a hug too.
Now for anyone who knows me personally they know that I have spent my life studying Japanese martial arts, I was brought up from childhood with the code of Bushido, which is why even though I am not religious in any way (and would in fact call myself an atheist), I have always had a particular affinity for Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular as that was the primary belief system adopted by the ancient Samurai. This was why in my youth I spent time in Buddhist monasteries in both Japan and China and why now I feel completely at home in this environment.
The fact that I get to spend my time and energy helping make a few dogs lives a little bit better for a moment with some hugs and cuddles has nothing to do with that at all!
The beauty of remote monasteries.
If the robed monks, Buddhist stupas and distinctive buildings weren’t enough to remind me of my vicinity to Tibet rather than India herself, just a short drive away Tabo was Dhankar Monastery, a living film set of a Buddhist enclave that made you think you were actually in an adventure movie, on a spiritual quest to perfect your martial technique with a grand master or in search of a guarded ancient artifact!
Maybe that was just my twelve year old mind running away with itself, but the beauty of the setting was undeniable. Set deep in the mountains at twelve and a half thousand feet, this ancient Buddhist Gompa overlooked the Spiti valley far below, the Spiti and Pin rivers crashing dramatically together in miniature silence as the sheer height we were at made the landscape below into nothing more than a living artists impression.
Stuck in the Mudh.
A local homestay was our rest stop for the night, in a small backpacker friendly town called Mudh. Ibex homestay was exactly what I love about backpacker accommodation, cheap, spacious, basic but clean. There was honestly not much here at all, but that didn’t really matter all that much. Being so tired from the journey into the mountains the fact that there was a bed at all was a welcome respite from being in the car.
Mudh is the quintessential backpacker hideout, small, remote, the jumping off point for treks and adventures in the region and full of local guesthouses, the type of place where you would expect to see backpackers everywhere, but it seemed oddly deserted. Granted we were almost at the end of the season just before winter set in and even the locals headed further down the mountains to warmer heights, but still.
We were only here for the night though, and after a quick breakfast and a chapati slapping incident we won’t get into, we piled back into the car to get back on the road. We were about to ascend to the focal point of the entire trip, Langza.
Remote village life.
As we navigated the rough, almost off road terrain away from Mudh and Kaza, we passed through an increasingly ethereal moonscape. The barren terrain was like nothing else on earth, with small peaks of snow breaking through the jagged rock and rubble and creating a uniquely stark but beautiful landscape that stretched out as far as you could see.
Yet despite this, defying all odds and the limits of human endurance, a small community of around 140 people was thriving here. At 14, 500 feet, where the air was thin and making any exertion even more difficult, a small community of no more than thirty or so houses had found a place in the most hostile of environments and had claimed it as their own.
It was this community that welcomed us into the Banjara Camps homestay, yet another example of why local homestays are always the best option to stay in. Hospitality was through the roof and we were given a bed and heavy duvets so comfortable the cold wasn’t an issue. I just wish I had more time to enjoy and experience this remote way of life before disaster struck.
Struck down with altitude sickness.
We had been having a blast on our epic road trip, but the truth is we had been heading further up the mountains far too quickly. We had reached over 14,500 feet in just a week, and that was a recipe for disaster.
I had been feeling a little off the day before, but the morning we reached the homestay altitude sickness felled me like a tree and I was practically dragged to bed where I stayed the rest of the day.
My symptoms were heavy, especially the nausea and headaches, but I was starting to hallucinate too and that was not pleasant. I knew the best practice recommendations and knew that all I had to do was rest and acclimatize but it was still not the greatest experience.
I took some ibuprofen for the headaches and kept an eye on my own symptoms. One of the curses of being a qualified nurse means that I know exactly what symptoms I could potentially get, but the benefits mean that I knew what to watch out for too. My symptoms weren’t great but they weren’t showing that I was developing HACE or HAPE, the cerebral oedema and pulmonary oedema that occurs when acute mountain sickness develops into the potentially fatal stages and becomes a medical emergency.
It was not a pleasant night, but with all the bed rest by the morning I was feeling much better. All I needed was a more rest at this height to allow my body to acclimatise.
Eventually with rest I did get better and was able to push on. The drive across the mighty Kunzum La to the Rohtang Pass is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, taking in some of the most stunning mountain scenery in India.
And Altitude sickness can kiss my arse as we took time to reach one of the highest points in the region at 15,100 feet! The air was thin but the scenery was spectacular.
This last leg of the journey, through snow capped mountains, cold harsh rock deserts and eventually mountain lakes and back to forests again was worth the entire journey alone.
The chance to see this amazing part of the world was a privilege and an adventure that I would not have missed for the world, and I urge everyone out there to come out to Himachal Pradesh and explore the Himalayas for themselves!
Are you ready for your own adventure?
The mountains are not for everybody. This is not a trip that everyone can, or should, take. There are very few home comforts here, no KFCs or Wifi. This is a trip that will force travellers out of their comfort zones, force them to accept a different culture and way of life with open arms. This is a small glimpse into a hardy way of life that few in the West can imagine beyond the comfort of their Netflix documentaries.
This is a trip for the true adventurer, those who accept the mountains and are willing to be accepted on her terms in return.
There were times when it seemed we were spending longer times on the bus than we were at any given destination, times when we were literally eating, sleeping and working on top of one another, sometimes quite literally, but those were also the times that became the glue that held the adventure together.
This wasn’t just a whistlestop tour of far flung Buddhist monestaries, military border checkpoints and epic mountain ranges, this was a trip of bonding over ginger tea and an open fire, of merciless selfies when one of us fell asleep, of endless double entendres, jokes and laughter, and most of all friendship.
But most of all this was a reminder that the journey is always as important as the destination itself.
We are all so focused on the destination, where we all want to be, we forget to stop and enjoy the journey.
The memories of the Himalayas will stay with me for the rest of my life, but some of my favourite memories won’t be of the amazing places we saw or the things we did, they will be of the experiences we had together in between those times.
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This is a paid article written in partnership with Banjara Camps And Treks with products or services supplied by them. Full editorial integrity is maintained at all times. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.