Trekking in the Indian Himalayas is not only for the young and fit, as Justine Hardy and her mum discovered
Trekking is not a pretty word. There have been times that I have been accused of being a trekker in the tone of voice reserved for people who do odd things with orange quarters and stockings. It is onomatopoeic in that it tends to bring to mind faintly masculine women and sinuous men who talk in crampon-speak and mountain acronyms.

What the word does not conjure up is the smell of wild thyme and mint on a hillside in the midday sun, the tiered silhouettes of the mountains in haunting light, the sound of the pack ponies' bells in the early morning, a line of scrubbed children filing their way up the slope to school, the taste of freshly made bread cooked in the embers of the fire or the rich sleep that comes with physical exhaustion. What it definitely fails to bring across is the purifying effect that mountains have. Another misconception is that trekking is the domain of the young, the fit and the gym-obsessed. It is not. I have watched an ex-marine being overtaken by a 40-a-day smoker as they both battled up over an 18,000 ft pass. The smoker made it to the top first, lit a cigarette and declared it the greatest moment of his life. The ex-marine ate some disgusting steroid bar while muttering about lactic muscle fatigue.

The Himalayas are the ultimate trekking prize and they were once only really the goal of the young and backpacked. This is no longer true. The trekking areas of the North-east Frontier, stretching from the Tibetan satellite areas in the north to the thickly forested tribal states that border Burma to the east, have routes for anyone. Since Kashmir has been in its volatile period the north-east ranges have slowly started to open up their restricted areas like rare high-altitude flowers. The extremes of options open up this part of the greatest mountain range in the world to everyone from the ex-marine macho man from hell and his steroid bars to the twilight travel club, those who have dreamt of the timeless Indian range since the 1947 newsreels of Mountbatten playing gooseberry to Nehru and Edwina among the rhododendron undulations of the Himalayan foothills. It is verging on brochure jargon to say that it is never too late to start but my mother took to these mountains for the first time aged 66. She embarked on a series of trans-Himalayan love affairs with miniature hill cattle, perky goats, pretty children and wizened patriarchs of the hills.

The basic facts

There is a strange consistency in trekking guides and brochures claiming that you do not necessarily need to be very fit to take to the hills. This is just not true. It is not only the fact that you are going to be walking, climbing and descending for anything from three to ten hours a day but it is the dramatic change of lifestyle that needs a firm fitness foundation. You live in tents or very basic rest houses. There are no loo seats on which to rest weary haunches. It is a matter of taking to the bushes and rocks squatting in yoga fashion. In addition dressing in the confines of a tiny two-man tent is not a game for those who have lost sight of their toes in favour of creme brulee and truffle chocs.

Footwear is also of paramount importance. You might as well write out a cheque to Messrs Armitage and Shanks and pull the plug if you are not prepared to spend some money on a pair of proper Gore-Tex walking boots. Two things to take along; an open mind and a sense of humour. Be fit, be booted, leave expectations behind and open yourself up to the dream machine. Trite but true. To stand at the top of a pass looking out over a canopy of peaks is to experience total elation. That is quite an adrenaline hit available to anyone who has ever wanted to walk the mountains and cultures of North India.

First-time trekkers

My mother was worried that I would be bored going at her pace in the lower ranges of the Himalayas. She had been unnerved by my descriptions of the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh; the miles of giant rock scree and screaming passes where oxygen is too thin to be fun. Of course I like to impress my mother. I smiled indulgently, imagining long, slow days ahead. What a trek snob. The low-altitude treks of Himachal Pradesh pass through some of the most disarming and unchanged countryside I have ever seen. I thought the Kulu to Simla trek would be well-trodden and Andrex- scattered in the same way as some of the Nepalese treks. Instead we spent two weeks walking through villages peopled by characters straight out of central casting. Doe-eyed girls with pale Himachali skin waved from carved wooden balconies above; old women ground wheat between pitted stones; the token village drunks wove around the cobbled streets.

Sometimes we camped. On most nights we were in old rest houses built by the British at the turn of the century. We sat out on ancient verandahs in planters' chairs, playing obscure card games with changing rules, and inventing whisky cocktails with the local fruit juices. The above Kulu to Simla trek (best times April/May and September/ October) is probably the ultimate introduction to trekking. Other good beginnings are the short monastery treks around the Indus Valley in Ladakh. These are some of the most important working monasteries outside Tibet. These treks do need to be eased into with at least four days in the Ladakhi capital of Leh to acclimatise to the altitude. Most of Ladakh is above 11,000 ft and is a shock to most systems.

Intermediate

Once you have the taste and know your own limitations the choice widens. There are long treks like the three-week stretch from The Rohtang Pass in Himachal Pradesh right up to Hemis Monastery in Ladakh. This has the thrill of taking you through three very different cultures ending up in Buddhist Technicolor and high art at Hemis Monastery. In total contrast are the treks in the tiny former kingdom of Sikkim between Nepal and Bhutan. Here there are steep forested routes that have the romantic lure of taking you to the base camp of Kangchenjunga, the sacred peak of the Sikkimese people and the third highest peak in the Himalayas. This is mountain hut trekking with some steep ascending and descending. The Buddhist monasteries are again a big draw especially now as the next line of Tibetan Buddhist leaders, after the present Dalai Lama, herald from Sikkim.

Advanced

The most recently opened areas of the Tibetan border region offer some of the most potent challenges to the meaty-thighed brigade. They are perfect training territory for those determined to take on the summits. The long walk up the Parbati Valley, again in Himachal Pradesh, across the nerve- racking Pin-Parbati Pass into the Spiti region, rewards you by ending in a valley believed to be the most perfect example of how Tibet might have been if Mao Tse-tung had not behaved as he did. Much further north in Ladakh are the newly opened areas that include the Nubra Valley. While the climbing here often involves ice traverses, crossing mud slides and rock falls, the green hanging valleys are the secret gardens of Ladakh where brush strokes of wild flowers grow right down to the edge of that chortling variety of glacier stream that should have little elves making merry around them.

FACT FILE

Vital things to take

Reinforced trekking socks and 1,000-miler double-layer socks available from most climbing and trekking shops such as the YHA Adventure Shop, 14 Southampton Street, London WC2 (tel: 0171 836 1036). There is a clutch of climbing and adventure shops around Southampton Street where you can compare prices on other vitals: head torches, liner gloves, total block face protection, thermal hats and underwear, good snow-glare-proof sunglasses or goggles and fleece jumpers. A wind- and rain-proof light outer is usually better than a big jacket as they take up less space and you can adapt your layers underneath. Layering is the great trick. Thin layers always beat that big heavy jersey you love so much. Rohan make very good shell trousers (Rohan Bags pounds 45 from Rohan, 10 Henrietta Street, WC2) which dry out in a few minutes, always a great bonus while trekking. Take earplugs. Snoring and hooched-up porters can be too much after a hard day. Most good trekking companies will supply you with Arctic sleeping bags but do take your own liner and find out if the bags are provided.

Seasons

The general trekking season in the north-east Himalayas is May until October. Much of Himachal Pradesh is out of bounds in July and August because of the constant monsoon rain. Some of the high passes in Ladakh do not open until the end of June.

Getting there

It is wise to arrange your trek from Britain unless you have time to kill negotiating with ponymen and porters in pidgin English. Agents range from Western & Oriental (tel: 0171 221 8677, contact Mary Anne Denison- Pender) and Steppes East (tel: 01285 810267, contact Fiona Godfrey) at the "more-porters-than-you-could-poke-a-stick-at" end of the market to the old reliables such as Exodus (tel: 0181 675 5550) with 25 years' experience of looking after every type of trekker under the sun. If you want specialist local knowledge contact Roy Francis (tel: 01748 88411). He knows the area of Himachal Pradesh inside out and also runs trekking weekends in Yorkshire to give you an aperitif. The most glamorous man in the Himalayas is Captain Paddy Singh who runs Paddy's Treks, B5/203 Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi 110 029 fax: 00 91 11 616 8841. He is the authority on north-east Himalayan trekking.

You will need a visa for India available from the High Commission for India, India House, WC2B 4NA (tel: 0171 836 8484). A three-month visa costs pounds 13 and usually takes 24 hours to process. Some of the trekking areas need special access visas but these should be arranged by your agent.

Reading list

Indispensable: `Healthy Travel: Bugs, Bites and Bowels' by Dr Jane Wilson Howarth (Cadogan Guides pounds 9.99) gives some of the most realistic and practical advice about trekking, dealing with altitude and even trekking with children. `Trekking in Pakistan and India' by Hugh Swift (Hodder & Stoughton pounds 10.95) `Indian Himalaya' (Lonely Planet pounds ll.99). The best bet for area maps is Stanfords Maps and Charts 12-14 Long Acre, London, WC2 9LP (tel: 0171 836 1321) Stanfords has a catalogue listing all the Himalayan guide and reading material that they stock.

Good reads

`A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' by Eric Newby (Picador). `Over the High Passes' by Christina Noble (Collins). `Foreign Devils on the Silk Road' (OUP); `Trespassers on the Roof of the World' (OLT); `Setting the East Ablaze' (John Murray) and `Quest for Kim - In Search of Kipling's Great Game' (John Murray) all by Peter Hopkirk. `The Ochre Border' by Justine Hardy (Constable pounds 10.95).

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