Back Roads: the Far North
Trip Code: AITBFN
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This meandering, gently paced journey showcases the pristine beauty and cultural diversity of the Indian Himalaya.
A world away from the hustle and bustle of India’s teeming cities on the plains, the mighty Himalayan range offers spectacular scenery and a wide variety of ecosystems, ranging from dense forests in the lower foothills to the semi-arid upper ranges. Various tribal groups as well as Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist communities have long resided in the areas you’ll pass through.
This trip is an opportunity to experience the mountains in a first-hand way, with several easy day walks taking you off the main road and into abundant natural beauty and picturesque villages.
Note: The 15 day itinerary has one night less in McLeod Ganj, Kullu and Shimla.
Day 1 Delhi
You will be met by our local staff on arrival in Delhi and transferred to your hotel for an overnight stay.
Day 2 Amritsar
Transfer to the station this morning to board the train to Amritsar. You will be met on arrival and transferred to your hotel. Located in the north-western state of Punjab, Amritsar, literally meaning “holy pool of nectar” is the spiritual and cultural centre of the Sikh religion and is home to the majority of India’s Sikhs. A small city (population just over a million), Amritsar is a popular tourist destination, visited for its rich Punjabi culture and cuisine. The narrow streets and lanes of the walled city, with their colourful and vibrant street hawkers, rickshaws, shopkeepers, traders, local eateries and dhabas (literally, wayside eateries) invite exploration. [Image: Vrlobo888].
Day 3 Amritsar
This morning visit one of India’s most dazzling temples – the beautiful and sacred Sri Harmandir Saheb. Also known as the Golden Temple, it was initiated by the fourth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Ramdas and completed in 1601 by his successor Guru Arjan Dev. A breathtaking sight, it is a harmonious synthesis of Islamic and Hindu styles of architecture (its dome is shaped like an inverted lotus).
After spending some time exploring the complex, you have the option to eat a meal at the langar (community kitchen / dining hall) where food is served to all visitors for free. The institution of the Sikh langar was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. It was designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or social status, a revolutionary concept in the caste-ordered society of 16th-century India where Sikhism began. Thousands of people dine at the Golden Temple every day (its vast hall can seat 3000 at a time). The kitchen works almost 20 hours; all the preparation, the cooking and the washing-up is done by voluntary helpers, known as Sewadars.
Later visit the summer palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh – one of North India’s most remarkable rulers (known as the ‘Lion of Punjab’) – who established the first Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. The palace, spreading across 34 hectares of garden, is now a Museum; it houses objects such as 18th and 19th century arms, armoury and paintings and centuries old coins and manuscripts.
This afternoon take a guided walk through the Walled City or the Old City of Amritsar, popularly known as Hall Bazaar. It comprises a collection of shops with dwellings above them. Lined along the streets, within narrow gallis and lanes, each katra (area) has its own speciality. Guru Bazaar, Mai Sewan Bazaar and Katra Jaimal Singh sell an array of jewellery, clothes and textiles, whilst Bartan Bazaar sells all sorts of utensils, and Katra Sher Singh sells tea. Continue on to the Papad-Wadian market – located behind the Golden Temple – a blend of wholesale and retail. The Punjabi jutis (footwear), ladies salwar-kameez (especially the Patiala salwar), shawls and stoles, woollens and the traditional local craft, phulkari (colourful embroidered shawls and headscarfs) are must buys.
In the late afternoon take a one-hour drive to Wagah, an army outpost on the India-Pakistan border between Amritsar and Lahore to witness the border closing display. Just before sunset each day an elaborate 45 minute flag-lowering ceremony takes place between the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakastani Sutlej Rangers.
Day 4 Gurdaspur
Set amidst vast green fields, crisscrossed by canals, Punjabiyat Lodge is located about an hour’s drive from Amritsar. Your two-night stay here offers an opportunity to experience life on a working Punjabi farm. Accommodation comprises four spacious stand-alone traditional Punjabi mud brick cottages, beautifully sited to maximise spectacular views across expanses of farmland. Each cottage has a covered front deck and a private open roof terrace. Food -– particularly the tandoori cuisine and barbequed snacks – is a highlight of a stay at Punjabiyat.
Day 5 Gurdaspur
Spend today relaxing and enjoying some of the activities on offer in this quiet rural environment. You may like to observe or participate in various farming activities, including a visit to a nearby dairy farm (about a 20 minute bicycle ride) where you can learn about traditional dairy farming and even participate in milking the cows. There are also many opportunities for walking and cycling with a good network of trails and tractor and tonga (traditional horse-driven carriage) rides can be arranged. Take a stroll through the local village, visit the Sikh temple, Ghallughara Saheb (about a 20 minute walk) or call in to the Sikh History Museum – one of the three being built by the Punjab government to encourage youngsters to take pride in their culture and history.
Day 6 McLeod Ganj
After breakfast begin the 4-hour drive to McLeod Ganj with a stop en route at the magnificently sited mountaintop Kanga Fort. At the entrance is a museum containing some valuable old photographs of the fort prior to the devastating earthquake of 1905 and some exquisite stone sculptures, carvings, idols and other artefacts. After lunch at the café in Kangra Fort, continue the drive to McLeod Ganj. Evening free to wander the town and have your first taste of Tibetan food.
Day 7 McLeod Ganj
Spend today sightseeing, including visits to Bhagsunag Temple, St John’s Church, Namgyal and Nechung Monasteries and the Tibet Museum. Also take the Kora walk covering the Tsuglagkhang Complex (a 30 minute walk around the temple and residence of the Dalai Lama). Lunch at Norling Café at Norbulingka Institute and afterwards visit its workshops where you can observe Tibetan artisans practicing handicrafts such as woodcarving, embroidery and thangka painting. [Image: Norbulingka Institute].
Day 8 McLeod Ganj
Day free to explore the town in more depth. There are many excellent cafes, bookshops, handicrafts shops and casual workshops that you can join – Tibetan cooking classes, introductory classes on Tibetan Buddhism and Ayurvedic massage to name a few. If you want to explore further afield, we can arrange for you to do a day hike into the beautiful upper reaches of the nearby hills, with a local guide. [Image: Jace].
Day 9 Kullu
After breakfast commence the 6-hour drive to Kullu. Pass through the tea gardens of Palampur and stop en route to visit the temple of Baijnath, before continuing through the picturesque gorge of the River Beas. Continue the drive along the meandering river, passing by apple orchards, teeming bazaars and sleepy Himalayan villages. Late afternoon arrive and check-in to a riverside villa at Neeralaya, your ‘home’ by the river.
Day 10 Kullu
Take an excursion to Naggar, the former capital of the Kullu Kingdom. Visit the 450-year old Naggar Castle, stroll around the village, and explore stone and wood carved temples dating back to the 15th century. Afterwards, visit Roerich Art Gallery or take a tour of a Himalayan cheese factory. Depending on the time of your stay, and the weather, white water rafting down the chilly waters of the Beas is also an option.
Day 11 Kullu
Today you have two options. You may like to take an excursion to Jana Village, a 5 kilometre / 3 to 4 hour walk. It begins with a jeep safari across suspension bridges, through fruit laden orchards, terraced fields, villages, pagoda temples and pine forests. Leaving the jeep, the path follows a dirt road that crosses valleys, mountain springs, apricot orchards and wooden houses along an easy trail.
Option two is to travel north to Manali and beyond to the Rohtang Pass, from where you look onto two very different worlds – from the inviting lush green of the south, to the cold, bleak boulders and shale of the north, rising to a series of icy peaks as far as the eye can see.
Day 12 Shoja
After a leisurely breakfast set off for your next destination. Drive 3 hours to the end of the Kullu Valley, enter the Tirthan Valley gorge and drive on to Shoja just below the picturesque Jalori Pass. After lunch, take an easy and relaxing walk of about an hour through a forest featuring a wide variety of pines and many wide-leaved higher Himalayan species. This evening enjoy a bonfire and barbeque dinner.
Day 13 Shoja
Today take a hike of 9 kilometres / 4 hours to Seroslar Lake. After breakfast drive to Jalori Pass, from where a well-defined trail leads to the lake. This is an enchanting walk through oak forest with clearings giving spectacular views down to the Sutluj valley, allowing you to observe the rich flora and fauna of the region. Enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the crystal clear lake.
Day 14 Shimla
After breakfast begin the 6-hour drive to Shimla; a hill station located amongst forested slopes, this was the summer capital for the British Raj. British soldiers, merchants and civil servants moved here each year to escape the heat and disease of summer in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Imposing Victorian monuments still dot Shimla bearing testimony to the pre-independence days of British rule in India. [Image: Vincent Desjardins].
Day 15 Shimla
You have a full day to explore Shimla, which has retained a lot of its colonial charm. You may like to visit the Mall (the historic pedestrian strip, now with a profusion of restaurants, bars and upmarket shops), the jewel-like Gaiety Theatre dating from 1887 and the Jakhu Hill Temple (dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman). Call in to the State Museum which houses a good collection of artefacts from various parts of Himachal Pradesh including a wonderful series of mid-19th century wall paintings from Chamba and the Viceregal Lodge, the most imposing British built building, standing atop Observatory Hill. [Image: Ekabhishek].
Day 16 Shimla
Today is free for you to enjoy the picturesque town of Shimla and the lovely views, or to take a day hike up what is locally called Shali Peak. In the morning you will drive to the village of Khatnol (approximately 40 kilometres / 2 hours each way) from where the hike starts. A five kilometre gradual climb takes you to the top of the hill that is crowned by a temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali. The view from here is uninterrupted in all directions. A pooja (blessing) by the Priest can be organized in the temple. Have your packed lunch on top of the peak (your guide will carry a packed lunch for you) and return to Khatnol for the drive back to Shimla.
Day 17 Delhi
After breakfast transfer to Shimla railway station to board the ‘Toy Train’ for the scenic 5½-hour journey – renowned for its breathtaking views of the hills and surrounding villages – to Kalka. Upon arrival board the connecting Shatabdi Express for Delhi, arriving at in the evening. (If two long train journeys in one day sounds too much, you can spend the night in Chandigarh and resume the journey to Delhi tomorrow). [Image: AM Hurrell].
Day 18 Delhi
Transfer to the airport for your flight to another Indian destination or return international flight home.
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