For serious hikers, trekking in the Himalayas is the ultimate walk in the woods. Home to eight of the world’s highest ten peaks, Nepal usually tops the list of their dream destinations. But the kingdom’s most popular trekking routes are becoming increasingly crowded. Savvy backpackers are now opting for the Indian Himalayas, which offer equally spectacular scenery with one big bonus – you often have the trails virtually to yourself.
On a steamy April morning, Rajesh Ojha, picks me up from Delhi airport in his Toyota land cruiser. Rajesh has invited me to join him and his friend, Dev Hardy, on a visit two of Rajesh’s Banjara Camps located in the stunning northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Banjara means ‘nomad’ in Hindi, a nod to the itinerant Himalayan wanderings of Rajesh and his business partner, Ajay Sud. In 1993, this pair of peripatetic college buddies stumbled upon spectacular Sangla Valley in Himachal’s remote Kinnaur District, and their lifelong love affair with this wild corner of the Indian subcontinent began.
“When we started Banjara there was no ecotourism in India,” recalls Rajesh. “Eventually we realized why the Dalai Lama says that every year you should go to a new place. And alone, if possible. Because it breaks the pattern of your living. People are not just happy but ecstatic when they come to our camps because of all of these unique, authentic landscapes in a rural, rustic setting.”
India’s outdoor adventure capital
Bordered by Tibet to the east, Jammu & Kashmir to the north, and the state of Punjab to the west, Himachal Pradesh is a fairytale land of towering peaks divided by steep wooded valleys dotted with apple & cherry orchards and cultivated terraces. It is also India’s undisputed outdoor adventure capital. From trekking and rafting to climbing and skiing, Himachal is where the serious action is on the subcontinent. It’s also home to several of the British Raj’s colonial era hill stations, along with a panoply of ethnicities, languages, deities and cultures. Himachal is where many Indians and foreigners alike retreat to relax, rejuvenate, seek spiritual solace, and get back to nature amid the restorative power of the Himalayas (a Sanskrit word meaning Abode of Snow”).
After driving all day across northern India’s breadbasket, the Punjab, we ascend into the foothills of the Himalayas. Our first destination is the popular resort town of Shimla. This former summer capital of the British Raj popular is strung along a mountaintop ridge with steep forested hillsides falling away in all directions. Filled with mostly Indian vacationers, Shimla’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, the Mall, is where the action is, along with the always bustling Lakkar Bazaar. The pine-scented air is refreshingly cool compared to the suffocating heat of the Punjab. And Shimla’s mock-Tudor houses and classically styled municipal buildings that would not look out of place in any provincial British town make me feel as if I’ve stepped onto the set of A Passage to India.
The road to Tibet
From Shimla to Banjara’s flagship Sangla Valley Camp is an eight hour drive along winding rough mountain roads carved into the sides of mountains packed with hairpin U bends, narrow ledges, bottomless drops, overhanging boulders and carved tunnels. In other words, a typical Himalayan motoring experience – half exhilarating, half terrifying, but never, ever dull. Located on the banks of the Baspa River and surrounded by towering, snow-capped peaks, Sangla Camp is set in an apple orchard, indicative of how surprisingly temperate the climate is here at an elevation of almost three thousand metres.
“The immense, pristine natural beauty of the valleys forged by gushing crystal clear rivers, the awe-inspiring towering mountain peaks that stood guard, alpine flower strewn meadows and pastures…it all made us long to share this paradise with other like-minded travelers,” recalls Rajesh as he shows me around the sprawling compound.
Set in a lush meadow, the main campsite has cozy Swiss-style tents with attached, tiled bathrooms and running hot water, while the luxurious two-story stone and wood main four-star lodge has several spacious, well-appointed rooms. I opt for one of two rustic log cabins facing the riverbank. Over the next three days, Rajesh leads me on a series of hikes throughout the valley, where we visit the neighbouring villages of Rakcham and Batseri. The latter’s elaborate wooden Devta temple reflects the confluence of Hindu and Buddhist traditions in this remote valley, once the final stop before the border crossing on the ancient Hindustan-Tibet trade route.
“The culture and even physiology here is a unique blending of Buddhism and Hinduism,” Rajesh explains as we stroll through Batseri. “They call themselves Hindus but they follow so many Buddhist practices. Here, a Llama is as revered as a Hindu priest.” Sangla Valley, Rajesh adds, only opened up to the outside world a few decades ago. “Its history of over two thousand years of isolation makes Sangla Valley so unique,” he explains.
At Sangla Camp, we spend long, leisurely days hiking some of Sangla’s popular trekking routes. There is the trail to reach the enormous glacier overlooking Batseri village, where we get to play in the spring snow. A mellow four-hour walk along the Baspa River to Rakcham village, considered Sangla Valley’s signature stroll. And a hike through the Mastrang forest, famous for its swaths of colourful wildflowers that bloom later in the season, where we break for a lazy picnic lunch under clear blue skies. And finally, evenings gathered around the camp’s bonfire with fellow guests, sharing travellers’ tales. After a couple of blissful days, Sangla begins to feel like the summer camp of my dreams.
Apple orchard valley
After a few days spent exploring Sangla Valley, Rajesh and I turn to Shimla via Thanedar Orchard Retreat, another of Banjara’s properties, located about 80 kilometres from Shimla on the on the old Hindustan – Tibet road. Perched on the side of a steep valley draped in apple and cherry orchards, Thanedar’s cluster of well-appointed cottages and cabins offers the promise of a tranquil stopover. This area holds a special place in Himachal history as the birthplace of India’s apple industry. It all began in 1916 when Samuel Stokes, a social worker from Philadelphia, brought the first apple saplings here to his adopted home. Today, apples represent a multi-million dollar industry that has transformed this once isolated valley into a thriving agribusiness centre.
As we hike up through deodar cedar forests toward the ridgeline, a panorama of snow-clad peaks opens up. The Sutlej River snakes along the bottom of a steep gorge two thousand metres below us. Running down its sides, netting covers most of the orchards, protecting their protect high-value crops from threats like hail, birds and the burning high altitude sun. Thanedar feels like a gentler side of the Himalayas, and is a perfect place to relax snd reflect on the Dalai Lama’s musings about travel before the long drive back via Shimla into Delhi’s urban monstrosity awaiting us early the next morning.
IF YOU GO
When to go
Trekking season in the Indian Himalayas runs from May through November, while the optimal times to visit Nepal and Tibet are spring and fall.
From mid-October until early May, Air Canada offers daily non-stop flights between Vancouver and Delhi. The nearly 16-hour flight may be one of the world’s longest long-hauls, but the pain is mitigated somewhat because you’ll be flying on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. And if you’re lucky enough to fly Air Canada’s much lauded International Business Class, you’ll enjoy plenty of onboard pampering, the privacy of your own fully flat bed Business Class pod, and the advantage of arriving relatively refreshed and ready for Delhi’s sensory onslaught.
A pioneer in soft adventure family holidays and treks across the inner Himalayas, Banjara Camps & Retreats can arrange fully customized tours of several Himalayan regions, including Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. For more information and to book, visit their website. For a taste of the Banjara experience, view this video.
Where to stay in Delhi
After a long transcontinental flight or an exhilarating but exhausting Himalayan adventure, the Lodhi is the perfect place to unwind and pamper yourself in luxurious tranquility. Spread over seven acres in the heart of Delhi, this former Aman property overlooks Lodhi Gardens and the tomb of the famous Mughal Emperor Humayun. Built of cool white stone, its sculptural elegance is as stunning as its style is minimalist; you feel at first like you’ve entered a luxurious spiritual retreat decorated everywhere with contemporary Indian artwork. Enormous deluxe rooms feature massive balconies and private plunge pools. www.thelodhi.com
Delhi dining tip
While in Delhi, check out Rajesh’s award-winning Cafe Lota, located on the grounds of downtown Delhi’s International Craft Museum. This airy, laid-back retro outdoor space serves up traditional regional Indian favourites with a modern spin, as well as offering cookery classes. Try the Chicken Ghee Roast, banana blossom fritters and Bengali-style sole and pumpkin.