It was magic hour in the mountains, when the first shine of day begins to spill over the eastern horizon. I was standing with a handful of early risers atop 8,515-foot (2,595-meter) Tiger Hill, on the outskirts of Darjeeling, a town (or, in British colonial parlance, "hill station") nestled between Nepal and Bhutan in India's Himalaya foothills.
Darjeeling is famous for more than just fine tea; it sits on a ridge with commanding views of the Kanchenjunga massif's highest peak, which, towering 28,169 feet (8,586 meters), is the third highest on the planet. As dawn lit up the summit, a chorus of oohs and aahs rose around me. The sun crept higher and illuminated three more of the five highest mountains on Earth in quick succession: Mounts Makalu (27,766 feet [8,463 meters]), Lhotse (27,890 feet [8,501 meters]), and Everest (29,035 feet [8,850 meters]).
Tibet and Nepal may dominate most travelers' imaginations, but India inspires surprising Himalaya dreams of its own. Exceptional mountaineering is a given along India's northern frontier—from Jammu and Kashmir in the northwest near the Pakistan border, and all the way east through Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, West Bengal, and Sikkim, which is tucked between Nepal and Bhutan. But the action for travelers here also extends to white-water paddling, elephant safaris, unique cultural exchanges, and the chance to glimpse a Bengal tiger in its element. And while periodic skirmishes with Pakistan have dampened tourism in the fabled mountain valleys of Kashmir, the stability of neighboring Ladakh, with its vibrant Tibetan culture, continues to draw visitors.
Despite its subcontinental proportions, India is surprisingly easy to navigate. The British-designed railway system is a reliable way to get north from either Delhi (for the northwestern states) or Calcutta (for the northeastern). Once in the foothills, buses and inexpensive car-and-driver transport are the modes of choice—except in the roiling city of Darjeeling, which has an antique narrow-gauge train that carries passengers from the plains into the mountains.
Many major outfitters, such as Mountain Travel Sobek (www.mtsobek.com) and Adventure Center (www.adventurecenter.com), lead trips in the region. But if you're interested in keeping low to the ground (and light on the wallet), there are a number of good local companies with imaginative offerings. Here's how to savor India's Himalaya at your own speed, one sunrise at a time.
Darjeeling Riding the Rails to Soaring
The launch point for the earliest Everest expeditions, Darjeeling has a rich climbing heritage. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, founded after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent in 1953, offers multiday adventures ($500 for 30 days; +91 354 225 4087) and mountaineering courses ($250 a month). Darjeeling is also home to a large population of Tibetan Buddhists who fled Maoist troops in 1959 and found safety there. The monasteries they built afford distant views of Mounts Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Kanchenjunga. The town is a true adventure gateway: rafting and kayaking in the wild rapids of the Tista and Rangeet Rivers, mountain biking through the Singalila range, hang gliding, ballooning, and elephant-back safaris. To get there, take the 125-year-old Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its 19th-century steam engines run passengers 55 miles (89 kilometers) and 7,034 vertical feet (2,144 vertical meters) from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling ($5; www.dhr.in).
Base Camp: The spacious rooms, wood-burning stoves, grass-mat floors, and terrace views of Mount Kanchenjunga make the Tibetan-owned Bellevue Hotel ($22; www.darjeeling-bellevuehotel.com) a standout.
Ladakh Trekking to Ancient Temples
Effectively closed to outsiders until the 1970s, the region of Ladakh is an arid, ancient Himalayan land, almost entirely Tibetan in culture, with whitewashed gompas (Buddhist temples) climbing the steep hillsides from mountain valleys. At a lofty 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) and only 75 miles (121 kilometers) from Tibet's western border sits its capital, Leh. Acclimatize on your first day by scouting the labyrinthine alleyways and earthen buildings of the old town. Local tour operators, such as Shangloo Travels, guide single day ($44) and multiday trips ($77 a day; www.shanglootravels.com). Trek to the sheer walls of the Nun-Kun or Stok-Kangri massifs, climb high passes to the Rupshu and Markha Valleys, or visit Zanskar Valley's main town, Padam. To cool off, the Indus and Zanskar Rivers have Class III and IV rapids. Drier and no less rewarding are ventures to Ladakh's ancient Tibetan monasteries, such as the Hemis and Lamayuru gompas, which were spared the fate of monasteries destroyed under Chinese rule.
Base Camp: Family-owned Padma Guest House & Hotel ($11; www.padmaladakh.com), near the center of town, commands magnificent views of the surrounding Himalaya from its gardens, where adventurers swap tips and forge plans.
Kulu Valley Seeking Multisport Action in the Himalaya Foothills
The Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh is often called the Switzerland of India. Anchored by the towns of Kulu in the south and Manali in the north, the valley is the adventure hub of the western Indian Himalaya, along with white-water kayaking, rafting, hiking, climbing, paragliding, and, in the winter months, even heli-skiing. Peaks loom in the distance while fruit orchards and wildflowers line the nearby banks of crystalline Beas River. Trekkers will find huts and rest houses scattered throughout the mountains. The Directorate of Mountaineering and Allied Sports (www.dmas.nic.in) rents equipment and leads courses in trekking, climbing, skiing, and water sports. A short car ride gets you to Solang Valley or up 14,308-foot (4,361-meter) Rohtang Pass for expansive views of the glaciers, peaks, and jagged ridgelines of Himalayan giants. Hindu temples and a few Tibetan monasteries dot the valley. The Manali market is a good place to meet merchants selling colorful handwoven shawls.
Base Camp: Faux-Swiss chalet Manali Resorts ($223; www.manaliresorts.com) overlooks the twisting Beas River.
Badrinath Prowling the Valley of Flowers
One of the four great pilgrimage centers in the Garhwal Himalaya—along with Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Yamunotri—Badrinath sits at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), ringed by towering mountains that serve as the source of the Ganges River. But the greater pull is the spectacular trek into Valley of Flowers National Park near the borders of China and Nepal, which bursts into bloom during the monsoon season from mid-July through August. The glacial valley, ranging from 11,000 to 14,000 feet (3,353 to 4,267 meters), is protected from cold northern winds by 22,000-foot (6,706-meter) peaks, giving it a unique climate. Its dry mornings and misty afternoons promote more than 300 species of flowers, including poppies, orchids, and vast stands of rhododendron. The trek begins in Govindghat, about 16 miles (26 kilometers) south of Badrinath. Along the nine-mile trail to Ghangharia, rest houses are available for overnight stays, where you're likely to encounter Sikh pilgrims traveling to a sacred lake in an adjoining valley. A three-mile (five-kilometer) side trail leads into the Valley of Flowers, which can only be visited by day.
Base Camp: The government operated tourist bungalows at Badrinath or Ghangharia ($6, April to November; www.gmvnl.com) are a good bet, but book a spot a month in advance. From there you can catch a bus to the other main pilgrimage centers.
GO GUIDED: More Ways to Tame the Land of Tigers and Temples
THE WILDLIFE SAMPLER: Spot tigers, leopards, bears, and 500 species of birds from the back of an elephant on an Eco Adventures 13-day tour of Uttaranchal's Jim Corbett National Park ($2,200; November through April;
www.magical-india.com), in northern India, named for the eponymous early 20th-century hunter of man-eating tigers.
THE SACRED TREKA: World Expeditions 22-day trip ($2,490; May and September; www.worldexpeditions.com) leads to the sacred, spellbinding peak Nanda Devi, at 25,646 feet (7,817 meters), the highest in India. Highlights include visits to Haridwar, on the Ganges River, and a stop at the hill station of Naini Tal, as well as treks through traditional Hindu villages.
THE EPIC DRIVE: Delve into exotic worlds on a 17-day Mountain Adventures tour ($2,620; June through August; www.mountainindia.com) over the highest drivable road in the world to the kingdom of Ladakh, with its cliffside monasteries, Tibetan villages, and gleaming lakes. Visit the home of the Dalai Lama, tour British hill stations and Amritsar's Golden Temple, and gape at the Taj Mahal.
THE HONEYMOON: Live like kings with stays in former royal palaces on a 17-day trip with Snow Lion Expeditions ($4,100; October, November, January, and February; www.snowlion.com) through storied Rajasthan. It includes a camel trek in arid Osian and a multiday visit to the teeming Pushkar Camel Fair.
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