In the untouched valleys and towns of Bhutan, “a way of life continues just as it’s been for decades”, says Martin Symington in Wanderlust magazine. Exploring its remote corners on foot enables visitors “to touch Bhutan’s rural heart and understand its enduring traditions”. During the trip, our young guide, Rinzin, pointed out distant outcrops where monks meditated in isolation, often for up to three years – an undertaking regarded as a matter of course by young Bhutanese men. The trek ended by dropping down to Taktsang Gompa, better known as Tiger’s Nest monastery, via a little-trodden trail that plunged through forests and waterfalls, before climbing down steel ladders and stone staircases hewn from the mountain itself, says Symington.
By contrast, many visitors to Bhutan, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have panted their way up. Joining locals such as Chimi Zam – who at a young age “did not know that there was a world beyond the mountains”, owing to the Himalayan kingdom’s isolation – gave a “brief immersion in the lives of these happy, hopeful people” that was a luxury beyond anything “the indulgent spa hotels typically offered”.
Shimla, “the granddaddy of Indian hill stations”, with its colonial history and architecture, is “one of the most interesting places to visit in the Himalayas”, says Akash Kapur in the Financial Times. However, it’s also a town threatened by tourism, as the sandstone foothills “obscured by shoddily built concrete blocks, construction debris and other tragic signs of overdevelopment” demonstrate. Kapur visited in February, when the air was still cool and the ground icy in the mornings, but the crowds smaller and the hotels emptier. “The whole area is a little more serene, as if catching its breath before the storm of summer,” he says.
The initial drive into the mountains confirmed the “detritus of human habitation”. As he drove higher, “the villages and towns got cleaner and there was noticeably less garbage”. The well-preserved historical centre of the town is an intriguing dip into India’s recent past and an important reminder of why it remains a captivating destination. Shimla’s main avenue, the Mall, is crowded with monkeys, but surprisingly few people. While this was a brief moment of stepping into the past, later we were “surrounded by the new Shimla”, says Kapur: “hip cafés and busy fast-food eateries, souvenir and cellphone shops”.
Ladakh is “a land as real as it is magical”, says Matthew Hardeman in Spear’s magazine. Often referred to as “Little Tibet”, in India’s furthest north, the region is sandwiched between Pakistan and China and lies on a high plateau, where one of the world’s highest airports was built in 1948 before there were roads. Few “entrepreneurial travellers came here with lofty ideas of luxury” before Jamshyd Sethna began to offer “high-end travel” in the Indian Himalayas with a series of village walks.
Guests experience “rural life in the remote mountain regions, in comfort, and without any of the nitty-gritty arrangements and effort”. The nights are spent in traditional village houses, each with their own guest areas serviced by local, live-in staff, while the cooks prepare “sumptuous lamb curries”. Memories of the views over the Nubra valley, its flowers and winter’s first snow, as well as the visits paid to ancient Buddhist monasteries, are “indelible”, says Hardeman. Visiting Ladakh’s “cloud kingdom” initiates you into a “small and privileged club”.