When trekking in the Himachal Pradesh, travel light: take just a crate of eggs, sacks of rice, porridge and lentils - and a folding table, chairs and tablecloth

The man in the turban raised the shotgun and squinted down the muzzle directly at us. Over his shoulder a Himalayan tableau of boulders, mountains and sky shimmered. We froze. It all looked horribly familiar from those staged group photographs we had seen on the front pages for months.

"Wait there," he motioned, and scuttled off into a turf-roofed hut. Within seconds he was out. "Now," he said, "you can take my picture. I've had a proper shave."

We were 10,000ft up in the Daula Dhar mountains that cradle the Dalai Lama's exile home of Dharamsala, not far south of the Kashmir valleys where four Western hostages have been hidden by mujahedin guerrillas for the past six months.

Since the kidnapping, the idea of walking in parts of the Indian Himalaya has changed from being a mild adventure to a serious risk, and Westerners have opted for Nepal or stayed away. The "cool, green heights" of Kashmir, some of the most beautiful walking country in the world, are now entirely off limits, except to the foolhardy. But here, just across the state border in Himachal Pradesh, it was possible to experience that same landscape - lush valleys, glinting rivers, icing-sugar mountains - without danger. Or at least with only those self-induced dangers that make the Himalayas such a challenge.

Our plan was to follow the migratory path of the nomadic Gaddi shepherds who for centuries have taken their small flocks of goats and sheep up from the Kangra valley and over the high passes in search of good grazing. Travelling light with their tents, a bag of rice, chapatti flour and the obligatory hookah, the Gaddi are on the move for six months of the year through a lonely landscape extending hundreds of miles to India's northern borders. Self-sufficient from the meat, milk and wool of their flocks, they require little, except protection from evil spirits, which is amply provided by the goddess Durga, whose little shrines light their way across the mountains.

For the eight of us, a map would have been a more suitable protection as we trooped out of the old British hill station of McLeod Ganj into the pine and rhododendron forest that led to the mountains. Unfortunately (or fortunately) none exists for this scarcely visited region, with its shifting trails. We relied on the intuition of our guide, Mark Butterworth, the son of an English family who Stayed On - his knowledge of the Gaddi trails the product of a dream-like boyhood, following the shepherds across the hillsides, listening to their tales of adventure and the supernatural.

Our path over boulders, up riverbeds and across slithery hillsides meant that we and our porters carried as little as possible - sacks of rice, porridge and lentils, a crate of eggs, the tents, and a single concession to Eric Newby-style eccentricity - a folding table, chairs and tablecloth.

The days passed blissfully, climbing through an ancient landscape, swimming in glacial pools and slowly hoisting ourselves up towards the clouds. At 14,000ft, we struck the Minkiani Pass, fulcrum of the Gaddi odyssey, with a simultaneous view of the simmering plains of Kangra below and the unclimbed, snow-capped peaks on the horizon towards Tibet. But the mood of the porters had become less celestial. The word was that the path ahead had been washed away.

It was one thing to herd a flock of goats along a pathless ridge dropping sheer into a gushing glacier below. But could it be done for a group of clod-booted Westerners without climbing tackle? We needed more than Durga to help us.

The seven-hour climb down the valley and up and round the next ridge felt like circumnavigating an iceberg using just your fingernails. Every ankle twist or missed grip seemed to offer a slide into mossy oblivion below. Two lammergeiers (Himalayan vultures) cruised above us, unconvincingly pretending to mind their own business.

Then suddenly it was there - what we had travelled thousands of miles to see. A biblical scene of hundreds of sheep and goats, some only a few hours old, herded by their shepherds in a forest glade. Presiding on a dais under a goatskin canopy, the oldest shepherd puffed his hookah like Kubla Khan. Any dangers were forgotten.

When to go

Mark Butterworth leads a spring and autumn expedition each year following the trail of the Gaddi shepherds in the Himachal Pradesh. The next departures are on 3 April 1996 and 9 October 1996. Further details from Himalayan Kingdoms, 20 The Mall, Clifton, Bristol BS8 4DR (0117 923 7163).

How to get there

Michael Williams's journey to McLeod Ganj started with a flight to Delhi from London (see previous page for information on costs). He stayed in Delhi at the Imperial Hotel, Janpath (00 91 11 332 5332 - rooms about pounds 80 per night), a slightly faded art deco pile whose cool walled gardens are an antidote to Delhi hassle. The 12-hour journey on the overnight Jammu Mail to Pathankot in the Punjab is an experience in itself. The first class, air-conditioned sleepers are austere but comfortable - a bit like British Railways c1953. McLeod Ganj is a two-and-a-half hour taxi ride from Pathankot.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine