India has never been on my bucket list but, when a friend asked if I would consider joining them on a journey to the Himalayas I said, “Tell me more…” Given the information, I became interested. The landscape looked absolutely breathtaking, and I liked the idea that we would be travelling in a small, escorted group. We were invited to a lunch with Sarju who would be our guide, and lives here on the Sunshine Coast.
In preparation Sarju met with us repeatedly to customize an itinerary that fit our interests and needs. It made us feel very assured about going.
Arriving in Delhi we were met by Sarju, and spent our first night at a very comfortable hotel with an amazing buffet. Contrary to what my mother told me as a child we were never hungry in India!
The next day we flew to Dharamshala where we were welcomed with beautiful flower leis. The area is verdant and hilly with terraced fields of rice. Our hotel was perched on a cliff that afforded amazing views of the valley below.
In the evening, we took a stroll and found ourselves in the midst of a celebration honoring, Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god of beginnings and success in new ventures. People were playing music, singing, and letting off fireworks all at the same time. We saw it as an auspicious start to our journey!
Our hotel was perched on a cliff that afforded amazing views of the valley below.
The next day our driver took us up a very steep and twisty road, slaloming around cows, donkeys, scooters and other vehicles, until we reached the town of McLeod Ganj. Also known as Little Lhasa, it is famous around the world for being the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama.
Our trip was planned so that we could hear him speak. His Holiness covered a range of topics from compassion to tenets of Buddhism that are supported by modern particle physics! In a relaxed but reverent atmosphere novice monks served tea and bread during his talk.
On our last night in Dharamshala we were invited to the home of the owner of the driving service we had used there. Vicki had been very attentive to our comfort and safety to the point of accompanying us everywhere. It was a remarkable cultural experience with singing dancing, ceremony, food, and a tour of his village.
The generosity, kindness and compassion his family showed us still resonates with me today. We had other home visits as well, some arranged, others spontaneous. To offer hospitality, our hosts would stop work or come in from their fields. Though poor in what we would consider material terms these people had a wealth of spirit that enriched us.
We were always made to feel welcome.
From Dharamshala we made our way gradually into the mountainous Himalayan region so as to acclimatize safely. In places the landscape appeared unworldly, with fantastical imaginings of jagged peaks and rock layers contorted by immense geological processes. Cascades of melt water from this region’s glaciers give rise to South Asia’s great rivers. From steep hillsides people carve terraces into the hillsides to grow crops and plant apple orchards. In barren, mountainous terrain you find these farmstead oases.
At first you are struck by the harsh and austere life people must lead, working mainly by hand. Yet here in the shadow of snow covered mountain peaks, and rugged, inhospitable landscapes, live people who are incredibly welcoming and generous.
There were no tourists here – just us with our local guide
Our destination was the Kullu region of India. Here we stayed in a lovely home in the Tirthan Valley next to a river. Upon our arrival, we were serenaded with traditional music and then presented with a Kulu hat and a drink before being shown our rooms.
During our stay, we went on a beautiful hike up to the Chhoie Waterfall, and also drove up 8200 ft to a little village called Sarchi. It was like taking a step back in time. Back at our homestay, the owners were interested in getting to know us, the food was terrific and we were honoured with an evening of cultural entertainment when a number of local men and women came in traditional clothing to play music and dance, teaching us how in the process.
In the village, there are about 100 Himachal houses that are typically multi storied houses made of wood. Most of the roofs in this village were colourful tin roofs, but some were slate tiles. Some houses are brightly painted, others are not. There were no tourists here – just us with our local guide, giving us an opportunity to visit a small mountain community.
This same kind of hospitality occurred every place we went. We had many opportunities to meet local people and learn about their customs and traditions.
After leaving the Tirthan Valley we began our climb to higher elevations. We travelled to the town of Sangla and here we stayed in a cottage in the middle of an apple orchard. While here we had the opportunity to visit the village of Chitkul. On the way to this village which was situated at an altitude of 11,320 feet, we saw the most beautiful fields. They were growing a grain that was orange in colour, and herbs which gave the walled plots different hues of green, yellow and tan. Scattered throughout were clumps of trees, and ancient stone barns.
Behind this beautiful vista was a river and towering, partly forested mountains. People here have made a marginal area into farms and orchards by terracing the steep slopes and building irrigation canals that tap springs fed from the melting snow in the mountains above. Their homes reflect the natural building materials at hand: stone for walls, timbers for roof beams and slate for shingles.
Our first stay in the Spiti region of the Himilayas was in the very small town of Tabo. It is known for the Tabo Monastery which has been in continuous operation for the last 1000 years. Original paintings on the walls are still in amazing condition. Inside the temple was very calm, peaceful and very simple. We also did a short hike up to some caves, that were situated up on the side of a mountain above the monastery. These caves served as dwellings for monks during the harsh winters, but today they are used as meditation caves by the monks.
Later that day we travelled a short distance to the town of Kaza. We used this as our resting spot for the next 4 days as we visited a number of very interesting locations that were day trips from here.
When we began planning for our trip, I had been looking forward to seeing the Ki Monastery, also more than 1000 years old. What was unique about this monastery is that it was built on the top of a small mountain. We did a short hike to get above it for the best photo op.
My husband and Sarju decided to hike up even further, to the top of another mountain while we drove around and picked them up at the top. Again, we had the opportunity to participate in a spontaneous lunch made by a villager that our two hikers met when they reached the top. We were all invited to join him and his family for lunch. They didn’t have much but fed us a delicious rice dish and shared some chang – a Tibetan beverage that kind of tasted like beer.
In this region, we visited the incredibly beautiful Pin Valley. The landscape was absolutely stunning while we made our way to visit a local festival. Villagers from the 13 small villages in the valley joined together to celebrate their Budhist Rimpoche’s birthday through dance and song. It was so interesting to watch and experience the local customs of the area.
We also stayed overnight in the very small village of Langza. The owner of the house and her chef were very kind and again made us feel so welcome. The chef shared with us how to make a local dumpling. Our evening was spent asking lots of questions and listening as our host shared what life was like in this northern region.
The next morning the lady of the house surprised us by dressing up in her wedding regalia replete with a beautiful jade necklace and jewelry. This was just one more example of the trust, kindness, and generosity that we were privileged to experience. We departed feeling more like friends than guests.
In the highest and coldest village we visited, Tso Moriri, we were out for a walk and Sarju started talking to a woman who was doing some weaving outside, on the roof of her house while laughing children played around her. Before long we were all on the roof with woman showing us she worked the loom with her hands and feet. It reminded me of the Sechelt Nation weaving that is done here at home.
In the barren hills around, snow was coming down, yet here she sat, amidst colourful lengths of yarn, taking time and seeming pleased to show strangers her work. There is so much more that I would love to share but these are just a few examples of the kinds of experiences we had that made this trip so different from many others we have had.
Throughout our travels in Spiti and Ladakh, we experienced so many unique and incredible places – such as Hikkim where you will find the World’s Highest Post Office, and the Dhankar Monastery built over 1000 years ago that has been deemed a World Heritage Site, as well as Chandra Tal – where we experienced luxury tent camping and hiked to a beautiful lake that was like a mirror reflecting the surrounding mountains.
This truly was a trip of a lifetime. What we saw — the incredible landscapes, the ancient Buddhist monasteries, the amazing places we stayed, the people we met all along the way –- so warm, kind, compassionate and welcoming, along with our fellow travelling companions, drivers that took such great care of us, and our amazing guide — made this a journey I will remember for a very long time.
About the Author
Cathy McCubbin is a retired principal living in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada
She enjoys travelling to new places, biking and sharing her experiences with friends.
Journey to Himalayas
Journey to Himalayas is a small tour company owned and operated by Sarju Sooch which specializes in ‘off the beaten track’ adventures. Small group size ensures that travellers have the opportunity to explore remote regions and enjoy rich cultural interactions with local people.