Since the first successful ascent of Mount Everest, 60 years ago next week, the Himalayas have become far more accessible to walkers. We round up this amazing region's best treks, across Nepal, India, Pakistan, Tibet and even Burma
Fri 24 May 2013 16.00 EDTFirst published on Fri 24 May 2013 16.00 EDT
Hindu scriptures say that in "a hundred ages of the gods" you could not do justice to the Himalayas. So where do mere mortals start? Knowing where to go in an area 10 times the size of France is daunting, especially when just getting there is expensive. Everest gets most of the headlines, but the Himalayas are vast, especially when you include mountain ranges west of the Indus – the Pamir, Hindu Kush and Karakoram.
This 4,000km crescent, stretching from Kyrgyzstan to Burma, is a geography of superlatives – the highest mountains, the deepest gorges, tracts of wild forest, the rolling high plateau of Tibet plus, in Bhutan and the Indian state of Assam in the eastern Himalayas, some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet.
Then there are the people. It is true that in some areas the Himalayas are wild and barely populated, but in most there is an incredible diversity of cultures that have adapted to surviving in an environment that can be exceptionally hostile as well as incredibly beautiful.
These huge peaks are also the meeting point for three of the world's great religions: Islam in the west, Hinduism to the south and Tibetan Buddhism to the north.
It's an incredibly dynamic region. New roads and airports are making some areas more accessible, while diminishing the appeal of others, like the famous Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
Political change has also altered horizons. Mountains along the northern border of Burma have recently become accessible for the first time in decades, while visa restrictions and unrest in Tibet have made travelling there more difficult.
Trekking is also changing. Many assume walking in the Himalayas is only for rugged types who enjoy roughing it. That was true in 1953, when Everest was first climbed and trekking tourism didn't exist. Now there are new ways to experience the Himalayas: luxury lodges for those looking to take in the views with a bit of comfort; treks that focus as much on culture as scenery; and new lodges and homestays for those who want to relax and get beneath the surface of Himalayan life.
The walking itself is usually not too difficult, no more so than in the Lake District – apart from the altitude, of course. It's the altitude, along with problems of travelling in one of the least developed regions of Asia and fears about hygiene, that put some people off. Staying healthy in the Himalayas is certainly more difficult than it is at home, but if you're used to walking and are cautious about gaining altitude then you're unlikely to have any problems. And the rewards are spectacular.
Where, when and how
The summer monsoon is much heavier in the eastern Himalayas than it is in the west, and so the most popular trekking periods in much of India, Nepal and the region east of there are April and October. Skies tend to be clearer in the autumn, although it's colder too, but that's when Everest and other popular treks are at their busiest.
If you want to trek in the summer holidays, then look further west. Zanskar and Ladakh, largely Tibetan Buddhist in terms of its population but politically part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, are north of the Himalayan chain and enjoy much better weather in July and August. These are also the best months for K2 and the rest of the Karakoram, including Kashmir, and the Hindu Kush.
The most popular trekking areas – like Everest, the Annapurna region and Ladakh's Markha valley – have a network of basic lodges to stay in, opening up these areas to independent trekkers who don't want to carry a tent and are on a more limited budget. It's also possible to reach Annapurna, or Nepal's Langtang region, by bus, without the need for costly internal flights.
For those with a bit more to spend, there are off-the-peg itineraries from specialist travel agents in the UK. The best of these use good local outfitters and provide a guide, either western or a local who speaks good English. For those who don't want the hassle of organising transport and accommodation, this kind of trip is perfect – and for camping treks in remote areas, they're essential. You can also approach a local agent directly, which is useful if you have a group of friends who want to trek together.
Since Nepal's civil war ended in 2006, the number of trekkers visiting the Everest region has more than doubled to 35,000 a year. At the height of the season, around 60 flights land at Lukla airport each day. The Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar, the gateway to Everest base camp and used for altitude acclimatisation, now has better mobile coverage than much of Snowdonia. So if you go in peak season, expect a crowd. If you have a group of mates who all want to see Everest, most companies will organise a private tour.
World Expeditions is one of the biggest operators, running over 20 treks this year, with accommodation a mixture of camping and lodges on the classic standard trek to Everest base camp. An 18-day trek costs £1,650, which it can also arrange. Some of its autumn departures are already full, so hurry if you want to go in the diamond jubilee year of the first ascent.
If you prefer a bit more comfort, there are now two chains of luxury lodges on the way to base camp, Yeti Mountain Homes and Everest Summit Lodges. We're not talking five-star spas here, but an en suite bathroom and a hot water bottle are a big step up from standard lodges.
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If you're looking to beat the crowds, trekking guide Bonny Masson has this advice: "If you've got the time, do the original trek the British expedition took in 1953." This started in Kathmandu, but a bus will now take you to the end of the road just beyond the town of Jiri. The trail beyond is a tougher walk than the stages from Lukla, which most people now reach by air. "You'll get a better slice of life in Solukhumbu and the trails are quieter." Alternatively you can trek out of season, in December or February, when numbers are down and the trails are quieter. But you should be prepared for lower temperatures.
Adventurous types can trek to the little-visited east face of Everest inside Tibet via the Kama valley, one of the least known but most beautiful approaches to the world's highest peak. Unlike the Nepalese side, this wild valley has hardly changed at all. In recent years, the visa situation in Tibet has been inconsistent, but that now seems to be settling down. KE Adventure Travel offers a 20-day trip out of Kathmandu, including nine days of trekking, for £2,995.
More than just trekking
Stunning views are what prompt many to go trekking, but the Himalayas is an incredibly diverse region culturally. For those who want to combine great walking with gaining an insight into how people live in such an extraordinary region, there's now a wide range of holidays offering treks combined with other activities.
Wild Frontiers, known for its stylish approach to adventure travel, now offers some excellent journeys that include trekking. It is one of the few companies that will take you trekking in Kashmir, a wonderful place to walk in the summer, and then pamper you on a houseboat on Dal Lake (10 days from £1,690). It also runs an amazing trip, sadly full for 2013, to the Hindu Kush (17 days from £2,395) that mixes a visit to the Kalash area with trekking on the Pakistan-Afghan border, along the Wakhan Corridor.
At the other end of the Himalayas, far to the east, Mountain Kingdoms is one of the first to offer a trek in northern Burma (20-day trip from £2,645) through pristine jungle and along rocky outcrops to reach the snow-capped Mount Phongun Razi. Trekking here mixes the jungle appeal of other parts of south-east Asia with the high drama of the Himalayas – and the opportunity to explore Rangoon and the temples of Bagan. And if you're looking for something a bit less strenuous, there is an alternative itinerary through the foothills.
If trekking was developed for explorer types who see disaster as a welcome change of pace, then the industry has done a great deal to broaden its appeal. Young backpackers have been wandering around the foothills of Nepal's Annapurna range for decades now, arriving in Pokhara by bus and surviving on next to nothing. World Expeditions offers an off-the-peg 11-day equivalent for newbie trekkers from £990, which takes in the pretty villages of Landruk and Ghandruk. You won't sleep higher than 2,500 metres but you'll still get stunning views of the Annapurna range and the colossal pyramid of Dhaulagiri, seventh-highest peak in the world.
The Mountain Company offers an 11-day beautiful village walk in India's Kumaon mountains in Uttarakhand. You stay in basic but homely accommodation en route, on easy trails between villages, and end with a few days at the luxurious and very relaxing Himalayan retreat Shakti 360° Leti (a 10-night package including accommodation in Delhi is £2,576pp).
Once kids get over the initial shock of the idea that a walk can last for days, not hours, trekking can be a brilliant family trip option. Exodus offers a great itinerary in Ladakh for families that takes in visits to Tibetan monasteries, rafting on the Indus and a three-day trek that crosses the Sarmanchan La, a pass that reaches 3,750m. Prices start from £1,899, including flights, and the trip is suitable for ages eight plus.
Nepal is also a great place to take children, combining a trek with a visit to Chitwan national park, close to the border with India, where they can see wildlife and ride elephants. Steve Webster is a long-time resident of Nepal who runs Escape2Nepal, a small travel company specialising in "soft" adventures that are just right for children – its 15-day family adventure trip costs £1,720pp. He also has a quiet guesthouse, Shivapuri Heights, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, away from the ever-increasing noise of Thamel, the city's tourist district.
Although tourism in the Himalayas is changing fast, it's still possible to do a big trek in the wildest landscape on Earth. These really are for the hardier trekker, with weeks of camping and a tolerance for serious walking and high altitude. In Pakistan's spectacular Karakoram mountain range, there are fewer villages in the high mountains, and treks feel remote and exploratory.
The jewel in the crown is the trek to K2's base camp, taking you past some of the most beautiful peaks you've probably never heard of, like the Trango Towers and Masherbrum, before reaching Concordia, the confluence of two mighty glaciers with spectacular views of K2 itself. It takes around 15 days, walking eight miles a day, to reach base camp and leave via the Gondoro La, a pass of over 5,400m, into the beautiful Hushe valley. Previous trekking experience is essential. KE Adventure offers a 22-day itinerary starting at £2,495.
While the Annapurna massif is as beautiful as ever, the construction of a road up the Kali Gandaki, the world's deepest gorge, to link Pokhara with the Tibetan border, has abruptly terminated interest in trekking the well-established Annapurna circuit. No one wants to trek beside a road. A new road is also being driven on the eastern side of the massif, towards the village of Manang.
Luckily for Nepal's trekking industry, the long and arduous trek around Manaslu, higher than Annapurna and just to its east, is plugging this self-inflicted wound. Mountain Kingdoms offers a slightly different route in the early part of this increasingly popular trek that makes each one of the 18 days it takes to loop around the Manaslu Circuit's remote north side as culturally fascinating as it is spectacular. The trip costs £1,725 and is the perfect introduction to the wilder side of Himalayan trekking.