The 2,500-kilometre Himalayan mountain range offers incredible experiences for those who love mountains, ancient cultures and wildlife. The walking and climbing on offer are superb but more significantly, the spiritual and cultural traditions are inspiring at an inner level and can forever touch your heart.
Michael Kern has travelled extensively in the Himalayas and finds that the regions of Bhutan and Ladakh are particularly special for him, continuing to act as a source of inspiration and perspective.
Ladakh: A Spiritual Heartland
The best time to visit Ladakh is between May and October. During winter months the temperatures can get as low as -30C, and the roads into Ladakh are usually blocked by snow from November to June. During these times, the only way in and out of Ladakh is by plane … or foot.
Up until about 40 years ago Ladakh was largely cut off from the rest of the world and remained mostly untouched by outside influences. Consequently, Himalayan Buddhist culture is a living tradition that is woven into the fabric of everyday life in the region. Leh is the capital and the only large town in Ladakh where many modern amenities can be found, but if you head out into the remote areas you can discover a world of dramatic scenery, from snowy mountain peaks to mountain desert valleys, populated throughout with traditional village communities, temples and monasteries.
Tibet: Under Chinese Occupation
Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1950s and 1960s, there has been an active policy to systematically dismantle traditional Tibetan culture. Tibetan monasteries that were great seats of learning were destroyed and monks were either killed or imprisoned. However, most temples and monasteries have now been rebuilt, even though they are still unable to operate without significant Chinese political influence. Nevertheless, the Tibetans have shown a remarkable resiliency of spirit and continue to practice their cultural and spiritual traditions wherever possible.
Those wishing to visit Everest’s famous north face may do so from Tibet, and the base camp is a great place to view this great Himalayan peak and the glaciers that surround it. The usual time to visit is between May and September, as the winter months can get bitterly cold, usually without modern amenities such as central heating and running hot water.
Nepal: Home of the Mountains
Nepal is a popular destination for trekkers and climbers and is home to soaring peaks such as the south face of Mount Everest and Annapurna. As a result, a comprehensive infrastructure has evolved to support travellers visiting the region and there are plenty of places to stay and eat. In the Kathmandu valley, a wide range of ancient temples and sacred sites can be found, from both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The areas around the stupas at Boudhanath and Swayambu are home to many Tibetan refugees, who have established numerous monasteries and the practice of Tibetan traditions in exile.
Bhutan: A Unique Experience
Bhutan has a deep and rich Buddhist culture and the numerous monastic festivals offer a great way to experience this. These festivals are called tsechus, and mostly take place in March, April, September and October. A potential downside for visiting Bhutan is a compulsory daily visitor payment designed to limit the impact of tourism, but at the same time to make a lot of money from those tourists who do visit; a policy that seems to work well! Nevertheless, this payment includes hotel accommodation, a guide, transport and food. Consequently, Bhutan has retained much of its ancient culture and spiritual traditions, which are in evidence everywhere you go.