Backpacking in Himachal Pradesh, India: Mountains, Monasteries and Torturous Bus Rides
About 30 minutes into a nine hour bus ride I started to curse the day I’d decided to go backpacking in Himachal Pradesh. The bus was completely full and I had to stand for hours on end in the crowded aisle. After around five hours I finally got half a seat to sit on, which wasn’t much of an improvement. One of my worst ever travel days was nestled among some of my best ever ones. It’s the kind of place you love one day and hate the next – luckily, over time, the good memories overshadow the bad ones!
My backpacking adventure in Himachal Pradesh started with an overnight train from Delhi to Shimla. From there I veered slightly off the main tourist route to Kinnaur and Spiti before joining back up with crowds in Manali, Kasol and Dhramshala. Planning on travelling to the mountains of north India? Keep reading for lots of tips and itinerary ideas.
After the draining heat and mega-city bustle of Delhi I was pleased to be making my way to the mountains. Shimla is a 12 hour train journey from Delhi (which includes a bit of waiting) — the last section of the trip is on the historic Toy Train, which rolls along a narrow gauge railway line featuring 107 tunnels and 864 bridges. Shimla was the summer capital of the British Raj and it’s immediately obvious why — it was actually pretty cold. There were some big issues with haze when I was there so I didn’t hang around too long. It’s a nice enough town but I knew I had to get higher into the mountains to see the truly iconic Himalayan views.
FURTHER READING: Two days in Delhi: Into the Belly of the Beast
Kinnaur (Kalpa, Chitkul, Nako)
You have to be a bit of a masochist to travel this region of India on a budget. The first of several exhausting bus rides took me from Shimla to Kalpa, a small, historic village below some huge mountains. The 12 hour bus ride was actually bearable, thanks to the fact that I had a seat for the entire time (very rare in these parts). I also met some cool people at the bus station in Shimla — daunting journeys like this are made so much easier when you can moan about it with other people.
We eventually arrived in Kalpa and found a guesthouse with an incredible view of the mountains. I did a few walks over the next couple of days and relaxed in the tiny village — this was what I came to Himachal Pradesh for! I also had to organise an inner line permit for Spiti — check out the post below for more details on that.
FURTHER READING: A Trip to Kalpa, A Scenic Village in the Indian Himalayas
Next up was a side trip to Chitkul, a small village just 40 km from the border with Tibet. The old stone houses and wooden monasteries date back hundreds of years. Local Kinnauries, who wear distinctive green-felt caps, smile and wave to the occasional tourists who wander their village’s lanes. From Chitkul it was another bus ride back to Kalpa. It takes around four hours to travel between the two towns and it was one of the most frightening mountain roads I’ve ever travelled on. One mistake by the driver would have sent us crashing thousands of feet to the valley below.
FURTHER READING: Chitkul: Off the Beaten Path in North India
From Kalpa (actually Reckong Peo, a larger town around 15 km from Kalpa) I hopped on a bus headed for Tabo, one of the first towns most people stop at in Spiti. The bus ride takes around 8 hours, but you can easily break up the journey in Nako. This ended up being a great decision. Nako is one of my all-time favourite mountain towns. The views are pretty amazing (and you don’t have to walk far to see them) and the historic village is really fun to explore.
FURTHER READING: Walking Through the Ancient Lanes of Nako
Spiti (Tabo, Dhankar, Kaza, Kibber, Ki, Mudh)
Spiti (combined with Kinnaur) is one of the best regions for people who want to see world-class mountain scenery without having to walk too far. You can see most of the good views on short walks and you can catch buses between many of the small villages. The villages themselves, which are mostly home to Tibetan Buddhists, are old, incredibly clean and very quiet. Basically, it’s the opposite of the huge cities that most people assume India is all about.
I travelled to Spiti on a crowded bus from Nako – I can’t remember how long it took (3-5 hours is my best guess) and most of it was spent standing up. Crowded aisles and narrow winding roads do not make for good standing conditions. I finally made it to Tabo and ended up hanging out with some Indian guys I met while waiting for the bus on the side of the road outside Nako. We stayed in the guesthouse of the 10th century Tabo Monastery. The inside walls of the monastery are covered in colourful murals dating back centuries – I wish people were allowed to take photos in there!
Buses run between Tabo and Kaza, but I recommend booking a seat in a shared taxi (or negotiating a cheap price with someone who is heading to Kaza anyway like I did) and stopping off at Dhankar Monastery. The mountain views from this historic hilltop monastery / village are pretty special, and the entire drive between Tabo and Kaza is one of the nicest stretches of road in these parts. It’s a lot easier to take photos out of the front window of a car than the side of a bus. Also, you’d almost definitely have to stand if catching a bus between Tabo and Kaza, a scenario which filled me with dread at the time.
FURTHER READING: Tabo to Kaza Via Dhankar Monastery
Despite being home to only around 3000 people, Kaza is the largest town in Spiti. You’ll find a decent array of tourist services in the town, including restaurants, cafes and guesthouses. It’s a nice enough place to rest for a while after some gruelling travel days. It’s also the transport hub for several small villages. Buses generally only run once a day so make sure you’re organised (and get to the bus station early to get a seat!).
The next stop on my Spiti adventure was Kibber, a tiny village resting at over 4000 metres above sea level. I went for hike even higher into the mountains and suffered from what I think was altitude sickness later that evening. The walk was worth it though – it was easily some of the most impressive alpine scenery I’ve ever seen and it felt like I was the only person for miles. I walked for around five hours and saw maybe one farmer the whole time. You can’t buy that kind of peace, and it certainly doesn’t come easily. It’s those times that make all the uncomfortable bus rides worth it.
FURTHER READING: Walking from Kibber to Tashigang: One of the Best Day Hikes in Spiti
Ki Monastery is one of the most well-known places to see in Spiti. I walked down the hill from Kibber (it took a couple of hours), but most people catch a bus from Kaza. It’s a great peace of architecture and, of course, there are some amazing views to be had. You can sleep at the monastery as well (apparently it’s free), but I skipped that in favour of a comfortable night in Kaza.
FURTHER READING: Hiking to Ki Monastery, Spiti: The Long Way Round
My final stop in Spiti was Mudh, a small village in the Pin Valley. It’s not the most attractive name, but the colourful mountains of the Pin Valley and the bright blue river bisecting them remains one of my favourite sights in Spiti. Again, I only saw one farmer on my entire half-day hike. It’s such a beautifully empty part of the world, especially when you’re not travelling in high season (more on that later).
FURTHER READING: Hiking in the Pin Valley, One of the Best Things to Do in Spiti
The tourist towns: Manali, Kasol, McLeod Ganj
I finished my trip to Himachal Pradesh in some of its most popular tourist towns. Hashish, spiritualism and Israeli food (and Israelis) dominate these parts. There are also heaps of Indians on holiday mixed in with travellers from all over the world. It’s kind of like a more scenic version of Khao San Road at times.
Manali was the end point of that horrible bus journey I described in the opening paragraph of this post. I was pretty traumatised by the whole experience, which promoted me to go into full relaxation mode for a few days. I didn’t see much of Manali outside of its cafes and restaurants. I did notice that the scenery was a huge comedown after Spiti though. It is well set up for tourists – there are hotels in all price ranges / levels of luxury and you can easily find your favourite foreign cuisine. It was a nice change from the typical dhal and rice you find further off the beaten path.
Kasol, a short journey from Manali, is primarily known for its hashish (you could say that about most of Himachal Pradesh though). People come from all over the world to smoke it and it seems to be mostly tolerated by the authorities (but I guess it’s still a risk to partake in it). I met a few people in Kasol and did a lot of hanging out in restaurants, with some short forest walks thrown into the mix. It’s a nice enough place, and it’d be great if you want to do acid at a rave in the middle of the forest, but in terms of hiking and scenery it doesn’t come close to Spiti and Kinnaur.
Another long bus ride, this time in a tourist minibus where I was guaranteed a seat, took me to McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama. Spiritual tourism is huge in this area and again it’s very well set-up for tourists. I met a couple of Australian guys and hung out with them, and various other people, at our guesthouse / the restaurant under it. It’s a social kind of place and there are some cool places to eat and drink scattered around the village (I was staying in Dharamkhot, just uphill from McLeod Ganj). It was the ideal way to end my time in Himachal Pradesh – it had been a tough few weeks but the highs more than outweighed the lows.
Backpacking in Himachal Pradesh is unlike anything else I’ve experienced while travelling. The vast open spaces and almost complete lack of other foreign travellers contrasted with the bustling tourist hubs to create the perfect backpacking destination. You can easily get way off the beaten path but you can also pop into a popular tourist town every now and then for your fix of socialising and familiar food. There are a lot more places I’d like to visit in Himachal Pradesh — hopefully I’ll return when I’m rich enough to afford private cars instead of insanely cheap but uncomfortably overcrowded buses.
How much does it cost to go backpacking in Himachal Pradesh?
Himachal Pradesh is an incredibly cheap place to travel, especially if you avoid high season. I generally paid between 300 – 500 INR ($5 – $8 USD) for comfortable rooms, 100 INR or less for meals and the equivalent of a few dollars for bus rides. The value was excellent as well – the rooms were much nicer than those of similar (or often far more expensive) rooms in other parts of India. It’s almost like a different country in a lot of ways, especially Spiti and Kinnaur. All of the things that may put you off India (overcrowded cities, visible poverty, scams, oppressive heat) aren’t really a factor.
When is the best time to go?
I went just before high season (early May) and it was a great time to travel. It was still a bit cold (it even snowed in Mudh) but the crowds were very thin. The road between Manali and Kaza generally opens up sometime in June (and usually closes again in October. This makes it far easier to travel to Spiti (you don’t have to go in and out via Kinnaur, a much longer route) but it does mean things will be busier. The ideal way to do it is to go via Kinnaur and time it right for the opening of the road to Manali. I almost managed to do that but the road opening was delayed, meaning I had to trudge all the way back through Kinnaur and around to Manali. It took a couple of days to do so and it was horrible.
Does backpacking in Himachal Pradesh sound like fun? Which places are you most interested in visiting? Let me know in the comments below!