Backpacking in Himachal Pradesh 2021
For many of us, backpacking in Himachal Pradesh will be high on our itineraries and for an excellent reason. Here you will find everything you need to know about travelling to this incredible state. It is very different from elsewhere in India and has its own very distinct identity. The state is known as the Devbhumi, or”Land of the Gods.” It earned this reputation in the ancient Hindu texts, and today it keeps it effortlessly.
As soon as you enter Himachal Pradesh, everything becomes noticeably more green and fertile. Himachal Pradesh means snowy slopes in Sanskrit, but the vast portion of the state is very green for most of the year. The pace of life becomes more relaxed, and there is a definite air of peace compared to the frantic plains below. As you move into the interior, the mountains become ever higher until they eventually culminate in the spectacular snow-covered peaks of the Spiti Valley.
There are thirty-three wildlife sanctuaries and two national parks that are a vital refuge for some of the world rarest animals, such as the musk deer and the ever-illusive snow leopard. It is also a multicultural state that adds to the allure of everything. There is so much to discover here, and it seems each valley is entirely unique to the next. One thing that there is in common is the sense of warm hospitality from the local people. I truly loved backpacking in Himachal Pradesh, and I wholeheartedly recommend coming to see this great state for yourself hence my choice to write this post.
The best 4 places in Himachal Pradesh.
Before I start, I want to inform you that this post is simply an overview of what’s good in Himachal Pradesh. I won’t be going into detail about anything. It is merely a cover post for the state that gives you an insight into it as a whole. There is so much on offer here it is hard to know where to start.
From Hiking in the mountains to meditating in the depths of nature, this state has a little something for everyone. The question is, what is it you are looking for on your dream trip. Everyone wants different things from their time and money. This post aims to help you decide on what it is that you truly desire. The list is far from exhaustive I am only covering the most famous places that are likely to appear on your itinerary.
I will highlight Himachal Pradesh is in a highly seismic part of the planet, and the area has a significant risk of there being an earthquake. It is a small but significant risk and you shouldn’t be overly concerned. However, it would be wrong for me, not to mention that at all.
Number 1 – The Kinnaur to Lahaul valley loop.
Hands down, my number one choice of things to do here. The route starts in Shimla and ends in Manali with many off the beaten track attractions such as the ancient Kali temple in Sarahan. It is an epic six hundred kilometre journey that takes you through the lush foothills of the Himalaya to the deep deserts of the Tibetan plateau and back again.
There are endless opportunities to hike and explore the depths of this whimsical corner of the universe. One village after another seems lost in time in the ever-increasingly hostile environment. Visually stunning monasteries offer a dramatic contrast to the incredible backdrop of snowy mountains.
It can take a long time to complete this loop, and it is only possible at all during the summer season. I had to wait for a fortnight to get a bus, so budget lots of time on this journey as you never know in this unpredictable world. If you come here to spot snow leopards, I would advise you to come in the dead of winter. At this time the outside temperature frequently plummets below minus twenty-five degrees centigrade in the night. Even the snow leopards think it is too cold and seek refuge at lower altitudes making them easier to spot. In fact, it is one of the best places in the world to find them.
The whole journey is incredibly scenic, but it really picks up the pace when you leave Reckong Peo. Then it is one breathtaking view after another. I have several posts for a full break down of this route, but I suggest you start with my six best things to do in the Spiti valley for an in-depth insight into what’s on offer. I recommend this route for the more adventurous of you. The clean mountain air and the timeless culture are really something special, and it is one of my most favourite places in the whole country.
Please make sure you read all of my posts on this route, as there are many considerations, such as the prospect of altitude sickness or the complete lack of healthcare. As beautiful as it is here, it is very remote and no small undertaking. Countless unforeseen risks could have a big effect on your trip, such as the unpredictable weather. My work is a handy resource as I have spent considerable time in the area.
Number 2 – Shimla.
This beautiful town sits at the foothills of the Himalaya and is the administrative capital of Himachal Pradesh. The British chose the town as a summer getaway in the 19th century, as the searing Indian summer heat sent them searching for a cooler climate. Before the British occupation, Shimla was a sleepy hamlet, but today it is the bustling state’s capital. The colonial rule has left an indelible footprint on the architecture here.
The town is strung out across a 12km ridge. It is well worth a day or two to look around and get a feel for this unique state’s epicentre. You will probably be spending a bit of time here anyway while applying for your permit if you’re heading to the magnificent Spiti Valley anyway. There’s plenty to see, such as Christ Church; this beautiful building looks like it belongs painted on the front of a biscuit tin. The old victorian theatre was once a haunt for Rudyard Kipling, and today its sheer grandeur is something to behold.
One of the best things about visiting is just getting here on one of the last working steam trains in the world. Chugging through the pine-clad forests and passing through what feels like countless tunnels is a lot of fun, to be fair. The way I got to Shimla is to take the Kalka Shatabdi train number 12012. It leaves Dehli at 7.30 am and arrives in Kalka at 11.45. It allows plenty of time to connect for the 12.30 train to Shimla.
You can arrange these tickets from the government ticket office in the New Delhi train station. It is on the second floor, and please ignore anyone who tells you there is a problem doing this as many touts would rather go through their office and pay commission.
Number 3 – Manali.
This little town has been drawing in backpackers for decades. Manali itself is just one big tourist magnet with little to attract anyone. However, the surrounding countryside is stunning, and there are many activities to get involved in. Paragliding, zorbing, mountain climbing and just about every spiritual pastime you could possibly imagine are on offer at every turn.
It is a great place to relax and that’s a concept many people take literally with all that weed on sale in Manali. Some travellers come and stay here for months on end. For me, it’s a place to break up hard journeys and a place to indulge in some luxuries such as a full English breakfast. Whatever the reasons you come here, you will get caught up in the place’s appeal despite its complete lack of actual sights. Your Himachal Pradesh adventure will probably involve you visiting here, so absorb the controversial charm this place oozes.
Manali is a key transit point for tourists coming to or from Leh via Keylong. It is also the gateway to the stunning Lahaul valley. If you are heading in either direction, you will have to have crossed the Rohtang La pass and will probably be exhausted, so the chance for a little comfort will be much appreciated. It is also the gateway to the Parvati Valley that is popular with long term travellers. This valley’s beauty is breathtaking, but it is a big draw for hippy travellers for reasons there is no need to disclose. I will leave that to your imagination.
Number 4 – Mcleodganj
This once tiny village is the home of his holiness, the 16th Dali Lama who is living in Exile here after being forced out of his homeland. The village has been dubbed Little Lhasa due to the massive Tibetan presence that is screamingly apparent from all of the maroon robed monks walking around. This alone has been drawing visitors from around the globe for years. When backpackers say they are visiting Dharamshala, they probably mean Mcleodganj, which is a mere three kilometres from town.
There is plenty of attractions around town such as monasteries, temples, churches, lakes and a lovely little waterfall. There are countless chances for soul charging walks in the Dhauladhar mountains, and I strongly recommend taking some time to explore the beautiful surroundings.
However, it is spiritual pursuits that grab most tourists attention. Backpackers have the chance to learn meditation, Buddism, Reiki, yoga and just about anything else you can think of. Whatever the reason you come, the peaceful and laidback backpacker vibe can keep you here for days on end.
For those of us on a spiritual journey, Dharamshala connects easily to Amritsar and the fabled Golden Temple. One destination seriously complements the other.
Transport in Himachal Pradesh.
This is one state that is hardly connected by the mighty Indian railways. Instead, most people depend on the bus service or, to a lesser extent, the numerous private jeep services. The Himachal Road Transport Corporation or the HRTC form the public bus service that connects every corner of the state. They can become packed out easily, so book a seat if you can, as standing for hours on end on the long winding roads can become taxing on your soul.
The public bus service is both frequent and very affordable. There are also a lot of private bus services that ply many of the same routes. They are more comfortable than the HRTC busses, but they obviously cost a little more.
There are plenty of night busses available, but I suggest avoiding them as accidents are frequent, and there is no need to tempt fate. Some times there can be severe delays due to the inhospitable terrain, and your day trip can run overnight without warning.
To put it into perspective, it has taken me thirty hours to get over the Rohtang La pass before. The road had turned into soggy mud from heavy rains, and traffic quickly got backed up in both directions. The Indian army came to our rescue, and eventually, the bus made it over. Then it was further sixteen hours to Kaza! In this part of the world, you never know what nature will chuck at you next.
The jeeps are fairly reliable but can also become severely overbooked. I would advise you to double-check how much legroom you are paying for before you start. Ten hours in a jeep with two people on one seat is nothing short of hell. I have paid the price for not double-checking this too many times, and I implore you to learn from my mistakes.
Costs of travel in Himachal Pradesh.
Well, I have some good news for you. Himachal Pradesh is one of the cheaper states to travel in, although this does not apply to all state destinations. Shimla is certainly the notable exception, especially in the peak season. It can be difficult to find a bed at all, let alone a sane price for one. Your best bet is to try the YMCA as it is geared towards foreign backpackers and less competition. Most domestic tourists have no intention of staying there and that means you won’t be outbid.
Outside of Shimla, there is a well-established backpacker infrastructure in all of the major towns. As busy as Manali is during the peak season, it is still not difficult to find a budget bed in town. Outside of the major destinations, things are inexpensive anyway, so it’s all good news to preserve your wallet. No one wants to come home early, after all.
The food of Himachal Pradesh.
As I have stated before in previous posts, every state in India has its own distinct cuisine, making it difficult to define what precisely Indian food is? Himachal Pradesh is no different, and the cuisine varies depending on where you are. In the Spiti Valley, you will find the food is more akin to Tibetan than Indian. You will discover Thukpa and Momos feature on menus everywhere. This is a reflection of the unforgiving nature of the land, where few crops can grow.
Elsewhere in Himachal Pradesh, you will find a rich array of dishes on offer that you will find hard to get your hands on outside of the state. My all-time fav was chana madra. The states’ very own version of the Indian classic of chana masala that they do so well. Here is the link to a post by the Times Of India on the unique food you can find here. I recommend reading it as travelling your tastebuds is a good portion of the fun for most of us.
If you can catch them in the season, the state produces some of the best fruit you will ever try. Kannur grows some fine apples and cherries that the local people highly prise. They are shipped off around the whole subcontinent and can fetch a pretty penny in cities such as Delhi or Jaipur. I can confirm they are extraordinary and worth the money.
In summary of my post on backpacking in Himachal Pradesh.
Well, it has been a bit of a long post, but there was a lot to say, in all fairness. Himachal Pradesh is one incredible state, and it deserves a good word or two. I want to inspire you to take the time and come and check this place out for yourselves. Despite this post being lengthy, I am sure you will have lots of questions. I am here to answer them all. Simply leave them in the box provided, and I will get back to you.
I hope you have enjoyed this post and found it entertaining and of value. It comes from actual experience, and I am not copying from anyone. Everything I write comes from first-hand accounts and is based on how I perceived my time. Of course, everyone has there own perceptions and make their own trips, but it makes for a good baseline for what to expect. I think that’s enough out of me, right? So I will wrap this post up and say that’s all for now, folks.
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