Image by Rishabh Shah
Solitude and spectacular landscapes can be found on the other side of the Rohtang Pass. Here the skies take on a deeper shade of blue, the grassy mountains are devoid of trees, the dry cold wind howls around you, the Chandra river takes on an earthy hue and the roads turn dusty. Gone are the hordes of tourists that accompanied you from Manali to Rohtang. As you turn East from Gramphoo and head towards Kaza, your first stop is Lahaul. Set up your camp at Dadarpool. When you’re ready to head to Chandertal Lake, take a diversion from the highway. You’ll see prayer flags blowing in the wind as you approach the beautiful, high-altitude lake, the source of the Chandra river. The dusty highway continues to Kunzum Pass. Carry on to Kaza to visit the spectacular 11th century Kye Gompa (monastery) and Kibber, one of the highest villages in the world at 4,205 m. Then continue to Dhankar monastery, built on a 1,000-foot high spur overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. After a night at Kaza, head to Tabo, home to the oldest operating Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. It houses beautiful frescoes, an excellent collection of thankas (scroll paintings), ancient manuscripts, well-preserved statues and extensive murals covering almost every wall. Inhale Tabo’s cold desert air before crossing over to the verdant Kinnaur and Sangla valleys. For more adventure, trek through the Pin Valley National Park.
Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh
Image by Arif Siddiqui
Their ‘fluty’ voices have created quite a flutter in the world’s birding community, ever since they were described as a new species in 2006. The pint-sized Bugun Liocichla, a highly endangered species, is only found in Eagles Nest Wildlife Sanctuary, an hour’s drive from the lovely meadows of Tenga. The region is known for the drive through the Eastern Himalayas over the 14,000-foot-high Sela Pass–a famous battleground in the 1962 Indo-China war–to Tawang, India’s largest monastery. It has seen a rise in ‘tourists in floppy hats with binoculars’, who come to spot this elusive bird. For others, the drive through the mountains is fascinating enough; you start from the plains of Assam, go over the Nameri National Park to the Monpa country. Pass through Bomdila, descend to a valley at 5,000 ft and stay in the pretty village of Dirang. From here, you can visit the National Research Centre on Yaks (near Yewang Basti), the Regional Apple Nursery and Progeny Orchard at Rungkung, as well as a few monasteries. Also visit Mandala to meet the Monpas and Sangti valley to watch the black-necked cranes migrate over the Himalayas. Apart from visiting the high-altitude lakes of Pangong Tang Tso and Sagetsar in Tawang, take the scenic ride to the Monpa village of Zemithang (80 km away) for its wooden monasteries and a 60-foot chorten.
Dha-Hanu, Jammu and Kashmir
Image by BR Sharma
About 160 km east of Leh, lie the villages of Dha and Hanu. Perched on a ledge and overlooking the Indus gorge, at Dha (or Dah) you’ll meet the Dards, believed to be of ancient Indo-Eurpean descent, often locally refered to as ‘Aryans’. They dress in colourful clothes and sometimes don impressive headgear. Walk through the orchards and narrow village alleys or buy some of their yummy apricot jam. Ethnically and linguistically different from Ladakhis, the Caucasian looking Drokpas or Brokpas have Tibeto-Mongoloid features. Locals are happy to pose for a picture, if you are courteous enough to ask. Dha’s ‘twin’ village, Hanu is not far from here, but to explore this lesser known region of Ladakh you’ll need an Inner Line Permit (ILP), easily obtainable from your local agency in Leh. With only a few guest houses open in peak season, from June to September, accommodation is a challenge, but you can always camp here for a night to experience the region.
Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim
Image by Kulin Shah
Head north from Gangtok towards Mangan, and the road snakes through beautiful valleys, pretty villages and gushing waterfalls. At Chungthang, the road bifurcates; the right takes you to Lachung and the Yumthang valley, while the left hurtles towards Lachen, a small village about six hours from Gangtok, at 2,750 m. Spend the night at one of Lachen’s guesthouses and start the three-hour journey to Gurudongmar Lake, early next morning. Look out of the window to see the enchanting valleys of Thangu and Chopta. Nestled among the snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Himalayas, and a few kilometers from the Chinese border, at 17,000 ft, this lake is one of the highest in the world. Manned by the Indian Army throughout the year, it remains frozen from end-October to end-March, after which the snow thaws revealing blue waters in an otherwise desolate terrain. Sikhs and Buddhists revere the lake, because of legends associated with Guru Nanak and Guru Padmasambhava. A Gurudwara on the banks of the lake is adorned with prayer stones and flags erected by the devout. If the lower oxygen levels haven’t left you dizzy, explore the lake. May to June and end-September to early- November are the best times to visit; later, the route gets blocked by snow. Get an ILP for this region from Gangtok.