TOP OF THE WORLD?
Home to 14 of the world's highest peaks, this massive mountain range forms a majestic barrier between the Indian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau. It stretches in a formidable arc of about 2,500km principally through northern India's states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Sikkim, and across the kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan. The name comes from Sanskrit "hima alaya" meaning "abode of snow" and it is from the melting snows and glaciers here that three of the world's greatest rivers are born: the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra.
Traditionally Buddhists and Hindus believe that the highest mountains are sacred, reaching up into the realms of the gods as a sort of transition between the human and the heavenly worlds. Among them are remote Mount Kailash in the Ngari region of Tibet; Kanchenjunga on the border of eastern Nepal and Sikkim in northern India; and of course over on the frontier of northern Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest, the world's highest peak at 8,848m (over 29,000 feet), known in Nepali as Sagarmatha or "Forehead of the Sky" and in Tibetan as Chomolungma or "Mother of the Universe".
EVEREST HERE WE COME?
Despite the political problems in Nepal, the most popular hiking holiday in the Himalayas remains the trek to Everest Base Camp on the Nepalese side of the immense mountain. Since Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary conquered the peak in 1953, the trail to the starting point for serious climbing has become something of a hiking thoroughfare. And with good reason - the route passes through the spectacular Dudh Khosi valley and takes in colourful villages as well as Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa "capital" of the Solu Khumbu region, and the glorious Thyangboche monastery beyond. The trek is notwithout challenges, particularly as Everest Base Camp lies at an altitude of 5,545m - over three miles high.
Of the 37 treks that adventure travel company Guerba (01373 826611; www.guerba.co.uk) offers in the Himalayas, the classic Everest Base Camp trip is consistently in demand. The group holiday starts with a day's sightseeing in Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, before you proceed by plane to the airstrip at the village of Lukla. From there you make a nine-day trek to the Base Camp, staying in lodges and including three day-stops for acclimatisation. The return to Lukla is made in four days and from there you fly back to Kathmandu. The 18-day trip runs during the autumn and winter and costs from £630 per person (based on two sharing, as are all the following journeys) with an additional US$200/£118 required for kitty money on the trek. The price covers a guided tour of Kathmandu, all internal transport including flights, full-board trek and a comprehensive trek packwith sleeping bag, down jacket and rain poncho. Flights to Kathmandu need to be arranged separately: expect, for example, to pay around £900 for departures this autumn on Gulf Air (0870 777 1717; www.gulfairco.com) from Heathrow via Bahrain.
As well as offering treks to the Everest area and to Nepal's Annapurna region further west, the small-group adventure specialist Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) visits the remote principality of Mustang on the Tibetan border. Something of a forbidden kingdom and still retaining its own ceremonial king, Mustang opened to trekkers only in 1992. This hotel and camping trip takes in some of its extraordinary monasteries and picturesque villages as well as the ancient walled capital of the area, Lo Manthang. The 22-day guided journey departs on 22 July next year and costs from £2,149. The price includes flights from Heathrow to Kathmandu, all transport in Nepal, six nights' hotel accommodation and 13 nights' camping, and most meals.
ANY MORE NOSTALGIC KINGDOMS TO VISIT?
Head to Sikkim in northern India, which until 1975 was an independent kingdom. Today it is the country's second smallest state (after Goa), its culture sadly being eroded by a steady flow of incomers - so get there soon. For the moment, though, Sikkim remains a semi-secret land of ethereal Buddhist monasteries, snow-capped peaks and rivers glistening with garnets. In addition to the usual Indian visa, though, you will need a special permit to visit (available from the Indian High Commission in London, or the consulates in Edinburgh and Birmingham: see www.hcilondon.net).
Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, dominates the western border area, and trekking is possible in its very shadow. One of * * the most spectacular hiking routes here runs from Yuksom,now little more than a village but once the capital of the kingdom, up through wild and wonderful scenery to the pass of Goecha La (at 4,940m). The Adventure Travel Company (01420 541 007; www.adventurecompany.co.uk) offers this seven-day trek as part of its "Through Sikkim to Kanchenjunga" holiday, a 13-night trip that also takes in Calcutta, the hill station of Darjeeling and Sikkim's capital, Gangtok. The price from £1,599 per person includes flights to Calcutta from Heathrow, transport, accommodation (in hotels and camping plus one overnight train), most meals and the services of a group leader. Departures are in April and October next year. Sikkim also features in Coromandel's "Himalayan Kingdoms" 16-day holiday (01572 821330; www.coromandelabt.com).
This trip starts in Calcutta, proceeds by air and Hindustan Ambassador car to Darjeeling, and on to Sikkim where you visit some breathtaking monasteries before driving on to the Jaldapara Wildlife sanctuary and finally to Bhutan from where you return to Calcutta by air. The trip costs from £2,663 per person for departures in October and November, including flights from Heathrow, full-board accommodation, and all local transport.
AND OTHER INDIAN PEAKS?
The twin peaks of Nanda Devi in Uttaranchal are widely regarded as the most beautiful of the Indian Himalayan range. Surrounding the second-highest mountain(s) in the country (after Kanchenjunga) is a seemingly impenetrable ring of lesser peaks, set in a spectacular wilderness area. This is the land that pioneer mountaineers Eric Shipton and Bill Tillman famously explored in 1934.
Their journey forms the basis of a holiday offered by Walks Worldwide (01524 242000; www.walksworldwide.com). The "Nanda Devi Quest" starts from the Hindu pilgrimage town of Rishikesh from where you set off on a 12-day trek through the Nandakini Valley, up the Kuari Pass with its panoramic views, over to Auli and down to Dehra Dun. The 18-day holiday departs in May and September next year and costs from £1,595 per person including flights from Heathrow to Delhi, onward rail and road travel, accommodation, most meals, and the services of a guide.
Colours of India (020-8343 3446; www.colours-of-india.co.uk) offers a luxury holiday in the area, including a comfortable "Walk on the Wildside" through the hills and villages of the little known Kumaon region close to Nanda Devi. The trip culminates in three nights at a luxury tented camp complete with pashmina blankets, excellent cuisine and views of the snowy peaks and the holiday also takes in five days at the Jim Corbett National Park (so called after the legendary tiger hunter). The 15-day trip costs from £3,166 per person including flights from Heathrow to Delhi, accommodation, most meals, transfers and four game drives.
I WANT UTTER LUXURY
Uttaranchal also offers the super-stylish hotel and spa, Ananda in the Himalayas (00 91 11 2656 8888; www.anandaspa.com). Once the residence of the Maharajah of Tehri-Garhwal, Ananda is now a 75-room establishment dedicated to beautifying the mind and body. All of which takes place in a serene space, with sublime views of the River Ganges in one direction and panoramas of the Himalayas in another. Carrier (0161 491 7630; www.carrier.co.uk) offers a five-night package here from £1,738 per person including flights from Heathrow to Delhi, a night in the Indian capital at the Imperial hotel, and transfers. The price also covers a full-board spa package at Ananda.
AND FOR SHEER EXCLUSIVITY?
The kingdom of Bhutan is one of the world's most remote and exclusive destinations. Only those willing to pay highly for the privilege can visit this clean, green land of vertiginous peaks, clear glacial rivers and beautiful monasteries. Bhutan's status as a semi-hidden, stylish Shangri-La was confirmed in 2004 with the opening of two luxury retreats in the Paro Valley. The first is Amankora (00 65 6887 3337; www.amankora.com; doubles from US$1,000/£715 per night including all meals), which is part of the luxury Amanresorts group. The second is Uma Paro (00 975 8 271597; www.uma.como.bz; doubles from US$250/£147 with breakfast), one of the new ventures of Como Hotels.
Greaves Travel (0870 850 2497; www.greavesindia.com) arranges tailor-made itineraries to Bhutan: for example an eight-day holiday with four nights at Uma Paro including guided walks and tours costs from £2,599 per person. The price covers flights from Heathrow to Calcutta; two nights in Calcutta and transfers by air and car. Other companies arranging trips to Bhutan include Peregrine Adventures (01635 872 300; www.peregrineadventures.com), which offers trekking in the country.
WHERE CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
On 5 October a new venture will be launched in the Kumaon region of India, aimed at breathing new economic life into mountain villages through tourism. Village Ways (00 91 5962 251048; www.villageways.com) essentially comprises a series of comfortable stone-built houses in five villages that visitors trek between, being guided, cooked for and entertained by the local community. Partly set up by British travel specialists from Inntravel, the Association of Independent Tour Operators and Casas Cantabria, the scheme consists of three walking circuits all set against a stunning backdrop of Indian Himalayan peaks. Holidays cost from £597 per person for nine nights, including road or rail transfers from Delhi and all meals. International travel needs to be arranged separately: for example, during October British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Delhi from around £400.
Meanwhile, up In Ladakh, the largest district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Discovery Initiatives (01285 643 333; www.discoveryinitiatives.co.uk) offers a Snow Leopard trek, which helps to fund the conservation of this endangered species. Its 14-day holiday in Ladakh presents the possibility of seeing one of the world's most elusive creatures; although the chances of even glimpsing a snow leopard are slim the extraordinary landscape and the more probable sightings of Tibetan hare, Himalayan marmots and golden eagles should more than compensate. The company is a wildlife specialist that has won awards for responsible tourism and it plays an active part in helping conservation ventures. The trip costs from £2,295 per person including flights from Heathrow to Delhi, transfers by air and car, accommodation in hotels and tents, most meals and expert wildlife guidance.
REMOTE AND COMFORTABLE?
Set on the Tibetan plateau, India's Ladakh lies beyond the Indian subcontinent. Yet for all the haunting harshness of the scenery you can still travel here in reasonable comfort. Transindus (020-8566 2729; www.transindus.co.uk) offers independent, 15-day trips that take the form of a land journey. You start from Delhi, with your first stop the holy city of Amritsar. The trip continues on to the Himalayan town of Dharmasala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, and culminates in a four-day stay at Ladakh's capital, Leh, from where excursions are made to outlying monasteries. Where possible luxury accommodation is provided, although in Leh stylish hotels are not an option. The holiday costs from £2,059 per person, which covers flights from Heathrow to Delhi, accommodation with breakfast and local travel.
HOW ABOUT THE REAL TIBET?
Almost literally locked into the Himalayas, Tibet has been traditionally difficult to reach and its isolation (both under self-rule and more recently courtesy of the Chinese government) has tantalised the imagination of the West. Today, given a knowledgeable tour operator, you can tour this poignant place relatively easily, although the comfort factor may be limited.
Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844 400; www.himalayankingdoms.com), which offers 60 tours and treks in the Himalayan region, has a 16-day "Land of the Windhorse" trip visiting markets, monasteries and other extraordinary cultural sites around Tibet's capital, Lhasa. The itinerary actually starts (and finishes) in Kathmandu from where you take a spectacular flight along the spine of the Himalayas to Gonggar, the airport for Lhasa. The holiday costs from £2,595 for departures in June, August and September next year. The price includes flights from Heathrow to Kathmandu, all further transport, all accommodation, all guidance and most meals.
Overland specialist Dragoman (01728 861133; www.dragoman.com) also offers a trip from Kathmandu, an amazing four to five-week venture travelling by truck from Nepal's capital through Tibet and on to Xian in China proper. Dragoman describes this as tough going, only to be attempted "by people who are prepared for cold, discomfort and itinerary alterations". But it is trip-of-a-lifetime stuff, during which you can even take a hike to Tibet's Everest Base Camp. The journey costs from £1,225 per person, with an additional $480 (£282) payable into a communal kitty. The price covers transport and accommodation in hotels, lodges and tents. International flights need to be arranged separately.
IS IT SAFE TO GO TO NEPAL?
Over the last 10 years Nepal's revolutionary communists have become a powerful force of 10,000-plus. Their armed struggle to end Nepal's constitutional monarchy and revamp the country's political system started in 1996 when six police posts in mid-western Nepal were attacked. Since then many attacks have been made.
Periodic ceasefires between these Maoist guerrillas and the government have held for several months at a time but so far the underlying problems have not been solved. Currently a ceasefire, agreed at the end of July, is in place. Although the Maoists have not specifically targeted visitors, the situation has had a dismal impact on the tourist industry in Nepal. Yet despite the guerrilla activities, travel endures. Explore Worldwide, for example, continues to run a number of holidays in Nepal and urges potential visitors not to write off the country. That said, the company has scaled down the number of its Nepalese trekking trips.
The Foreign Office advises vigilance, and cautions visitors against joining large gatherings in Nepal. It also warns that bus terminals, hotels and airports have been targets for guerrilla attacks, and says the security situation in the Kathmandu valley remains unpredictable. For more information see www.fco.gov.uk/travel.