Trekking in Ladakh

Having just returned to Delhi from another memorable trip to Ladakh, I’m feeling completely inspired and fulfilled by the beautiful people, culture and landscapes. Trekking in this magical part of the world is so unique and memorable, combining rich culture and epic mountain scenery. There are so many options for different requirements, preferences and abilities, it can be hard to choose a trek. The hundreds of agencies in Leh and online advertising their services can also make the process a little overwhelming. Having now completed three treks in Ladakh, I thought I’d offer my advice on navigating your choices and having the best trekking experience in Ladakh.

Trekking in Ladakh

When to go

The main trekking season in Leh is essentially June to September, with July and August being the busiest months. Outside of the main season, Ladakh sees few tourists and many guesthouses and restaurants shut. However some trekking is still available, even in the middle of winter when people undertake the Chadar ice trek and snow leopard sighting expeditions. If travelling outside of the season be aware that flying to and from Leh will probably be your only option, and you will need to make arrangements before arriving

Trekking in Ladakh

Acclimatising

Whether you arrive in Leh by air or road, a few days to acclimatise are essential given the altitude (Leh is around 3500 metres above sea level). This is a great time to check out your trekking options, get to know the great cafe and restaurant scene, and if you’re feeling up to it have a look at some of the sights around and above town.

View of Leh

Shanti Stupa, Leh

Choosing an agency and guide

When you see the number of agencies in town, overwhelming can be an understatement to describe your choice. Indeed, do you even need to go through an agency, or can you just hire a guide yourself, or go without one? This will differ for everyone and there is no general rule. A good guide can completely enhance your trek, providing you with knowledge of land and culture, and helping with directions and safety. However a bad guide can certainly detract from your experience, and I have had both of these experiences myself.

The first thing to note is that you absolutely do not need to make any arrangements before your arrival in Leh. It is perfectly fine to just explore your options and make decisions when you are in Leh, and can speak to agencies directly. Indeed traveller recommendations will often be the best way to ensure you have a good experience. Also, if you are an individual traveller or even a couple, you may like to join a departing group to reduce the costs, and you can find brightly coloured signs advertising such groups at agencies around town. Often, it will just be the feeling you get from an agency that will dictate whether you are happy to go with them, but there are still other important considerations you should make. Do they use local, Ladakhi guides who will have superior knowledge of language and culture? Can you meet the guide before your trek? Also, check what is included and not included in the price, and if you are open to going with others, how much the price will go down by if more people join. Sometimes, it will be easier or better value to just hire a guide and make your own transport and accommodation arrangements, so keep this in mind too.

If time is of the essence and money is less of a concern, then it may make sense to make some enquiries or tentative bookings before your arrival, and I have met some trekkers who did have success this way. However be aware that you may be paying more, and you will still have to take care to ensure you can meet your guide and confirm the details and the feeling you get from the agency when you are on the ground.

From my own experience, I can confidently recommend the fantastic Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company for all inclusive homestay treks. The experience of walking with a female guide is unique and enlightening, and is available to females and those with at least one female in their group.

Some treks, such as the popular Markha Valley route are well marked and frequented during the season, so you may chose to go without a guide on a trek such as this. However a good guide can still enhance the experience and as always, it is best not to trek alone.

Markha Valley Trek

Homestay or tent camping

Some treks, such as Rumtse to Tsomoriri are exclusively for tent camping. If you go through an agency, donkeys will be used to carry the group’s tents, food and the majority of your own supplies, and you will only have to carry a small backpack with your daily needs. It is lovely to wake up every morning in a tent, in a remote and beautiful location. However, if you are on a trek that has homestays, I would certainly recommend going with that option rather that camping. The amazing culture, hospitality and food that you experience in a Ladakhi homestay will undoubtably be a highlight of the trip. Beyond this, staying in a homestay is usually the same price as camping in the allocated locations, and is certainly cheaper than an all inclusive camping trek.

Homestays on Sham Trek

Nimaling Tent Camp

Choosing a trek

I have completed three Ladakhi treks, two homestay and one camping, and conveniently one easy, one moderate and one challenging. The three day Sham Trek was an easy walk along relatively flat terrain, with short days but staying in lovely village hometays at night.

Sham Trek

Sham Trek

The five day Chiling to Shang Sumdo Markha Valley Trek was certainly more challenging, culminating in a 5100 metre pass, but is still quite accessible and involves fantastic scenery and homestays, making for a great choice.

Markha Valley Trek

Markha Valley Trek

Finally, the Rumtse to Tsomoriri trek involved memorable high altitude lakes, interactions with nomadic people, and beautiful camping, but many high passes and longer days of trekking, so is a more demanding hike.

Rumste to Tsomoriri Trek

Rumste to Tsomoriri Trek

Other popular options you may like to look into are the three day Zingchen to Chiling trek, which ends with a day of rafting, or an ascent of the 6153 metre ‘trekking peak’ Stok Kangri for those with a little more experience or ambition.

Packing essentials

Although your homestay will provide you with three meals a day, including a substantial dinner, lunches can sometimes be a bit light, and the wait between lunch and dinner long. Rather than buying packaged snacks along the route, it can be a good idea to bring some dried fruit or nuts along to snack on. During the main season (July and August) on most of the homestay treks, you will only need to carry a small day pack as a sleeping bag or a lot of warm clothes are not necessary. However these will be necessary on most camping treks, so you will need to carry a larger pack, go with an agency who will provide donkeys, or hire a donkey or porter yourself. A sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses are vital on all treks given the harsh sun in Ladakh, and despite the infrequency of rain, a rain jacket is still a good proportion. Also, don’t forget your camera and a spare battery and memory card, as Ladakh is a photographer’s dream!

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Recharging in McLeod Ganj

After two crazy weeks in Delhi dealing with some unexpected and particularly unpleasant visa issues I was in much need of some time to recharge. Within hours of finally sorting out the visa, I had booked a flight for the next morning to take me to Dharmshala’s tiny airport, a short hop from McLeod Ganj. Often referred to as ‘Little Lhasa’, McLeod Ganj is where the Dalai Lama sought asylum and established the Tibetan Government in Exile, as well as the home of tens of thousands of Tibetans who followed in search for freedom. It has since evolved into quite a bustling village, popular with domestic and international tourists for many kinds of spiritual and outdoor pursuits. I only spent four nights in McLeod Ganj, but it was just what I needed to continue my adventures with renewed energy and enthusiasm. However this was my fourth visit, so I have many more tips and recommendations to share which I will do in a coming post. But for now, this is how I spent a lovely four days in beautiful McLeod Ganj.

Recharging in McLeod Ganj

Relaxing

First and foremost, I relaxed. I slept well, I read, I spent time in the hotel garden, I watched a movie in McLeod Ganj’s tiny cinema, I wrote in my journal, and I took lots of photos. I just took advantage of the cool air and peaceful vibes and rejuvenated my body and mind.

Recharging in McLeod Ganj

Nourishing

Most mornings for breakfast I would end up at one of McLeod Ganj’s cute little cafes and tuck into a big bowl of fruit salad and a pot of green tea or a soy latte. I also enjoyed many bowls of my favourite Tibetan dish, Veg Thenthuk, which is a clear veggie broth filled with fresh vegetables and hand made square noodles. The perfect change from often heavy and greasy north Indian dishes. I also stumbled across the nicest little healthy cafe Crepe Pancake, where I devoured amazing avocado salads, green juices and soy fruit smoothies.

Avocado brown rice salad and green juice at crepe pancake

Ginger Tea

Moving

Getting my heart pumping and pushing my body always helps me feel happy, healthy and alive. I did the short walks to the Bhagsunag waterfall and Dharamkot a couple of times each, and for the first time took on the day hike to Triund hill. The hike is all uphill on the way, with epic views from the top, and then back downhill the same way into town. It was such a fun little walk, and I will definitely be doing a post all about it.

En route to Triund

Triund views

Learning

There are so many opportunities to learn in McLeod Ganj. There are courses on Tibetan language, buddhist philosophy, yoga, Ayurvedic massage, Thangka painting, jewellery making and even momos (Tibetan dumplings)! And that’s what I did. As I only had a few days I didn’t take on anything more profound, but I have taken Tibetan cooking classes before in McLeod Ganj and am a keen momo maker at home, so enjoyed the opportunity to refresh my knowledge! After trying different companies, I would highly recommend the taking a class with the lovely Sangye from Sangye’s Kitchen. I also make sure that whenever I am in McLeod Ganj I devote some time to furthering my knowledge about the plight of Tibet. Amongst other things, this time I viewed the updated exhibit in the Tibet Museum, which included the heart wrenching and underreported tales of the many Tibetans who have self-immolated. I also spent time in the fascinating Dalai Lama temple, a must in McLeod Ganj.

Monk at Dalai Lama Temple

Interacting

Coming from Delhi, McLeod Ganj is virtually hassle free! The Tibetan people are usually friendly and not at all pushy. Further, it is a traveller haven, and as a solo traveller I would often end up sharing a table in a cafe with another traveller, a local, or even a Tibetan monk, which resulted in some fascinating conversations. I also ended up staying in the lovely, clean and cosy dorm room at the friendly Hotel Ladies Venture which was another great way to meet people.

Shopping

Let’s be honest, a bit of shopping can be great at making you feel better. However, when travelling, it can be hard to find the balance between budget, bag space and the desire to buy all of the beautiful and exotic things you encounter, which you certainly will find in McLeod Ganj! For me, I try to only buy things that are quite small and will be useful throughout my travels. I also prefer to buy fewer things but spend a bit more on getting things that are unique, good quality or ethically produced when I can. In McLeod Ganj I found the gorgeous little Rogpa cafe and charity, which amongst other things employs Tibetan women to produce beautiful handcrafted products. I treated myself to this lovely printed shirt which will be a perfect, slightly nicer addition to my travel wardrobe.

New purchase from Rogpa

So if you’re ever feeling run down, fed up, or exhauseted by your Indian travels, a few days in lovely McLeod Ganj will have you back on the road ready to take on India again!

Surviving Agra

Agra may be densely populated, extremely touristed, heavily congested and highly polluted, but it is also home to the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is absolutely a must see in India. Sure, there is more to India and if all you see is the Taj Mahal you’ll certainly be missing out. But with its incredible beauty and intricate design, if you have the chance to see it, don’t hesitate! It really upsets me when I hear people say that Agra’s crazy reputation puts them off seeing the Taj Mahal. Although with all its touts, scams, hassle and congestion Agra can be overwhelming, how you cope with it also has a lot to do with your own attitude and the measures you take. Here are my top tips for staying cool, calm and collected in crazy Agra!

Taj Ganj Rooftops

Taj Mahal

Time

Being in a hurry is one of the worst things that you can do. If your allow yourself plenty of time to get around each site, your experience will almost always be less stressful. Keep in mind that in India things often won’t go to plan. Your meal might take an hour to come out, your train might be six hours late (it happens!) or you might just need a break from the heat, smells and traffic. At times like these, you’ll be so glad you allowed yourself that extra hour, afternoon or even night in Agra. While it’s certainly possible to see the Taj Mahal as a day trip from Delhi, this is likely to leave you thoroughly exhausted and you’ll miss out on the other amazing things there are to see in Agra. So I’d highly recommend budgeting extra time for Agra to have the best experience.

DSCN2107

Have an open mind

Although it helps to be educated about what hassle, scams and annoyances you might expect in Agra, having an open mind is always the best policy. Use your common sense and don’t let situations get the better of you. In my times in Agra, I have been made by my rickshaw drivers to look in many shops, been quite aggressively bargained with despite showing no interest and been taken to many marble factories against my will. Although I could have been upset or yelled at my rickshaw drivers or the shopkeepers, I try to remember that they are just trying to make a living. If you keep smiling and remain polite, the experience is likely to be better for yourself and others.

Taj Mahal Views

Enjoy the view

If things are getting a bit hectic on ground level, make your way up to one of the many rooftop restaurants in the Taj Ganj area. You can relax with a cool drink or a cup of chai, and marvel at the instantly soothing beauty of the Taj Mahal, which seems miraculously close. Photos never seem to capture this moment, it’s something you have to experience for yourself. After a day in Agra, make sure you head back to a rooftop restaurant to claim a seat for the iconic view of the sun setting behind the Taj Mahal. The stresses of the day will melt away, and although the food often isn’t amazing, you’ll be so thoroughly entertained by the view that it won’t even matter.

Taj Mahal Sunset Views

Rooftop Restaurant

Chose the right hotel

The romantic notion of a room with a view of the Taj Mahal lures many travellers to some of the many overpriced and underwhelming hotels in the Taj Ganj area immediately surrounding the Taj Mahal. However by looking a little further out or forgoing the view, you’ll often get a much better value room. After all, no matter where your hotel is, you won’t be able to see the Taj view while you’re sleeping. And if you’ve taken advantage of the the rooftop restaurants throughout the day, you will have seen plenty of Taj views. I found the perfect balance with Hotel Sheela, which is located in Taj Ganj, but instead of being built upwards, Sheela’s simple, clean and good value rooms are located around a peaceful garden courtyard.

Taj Mahal

I hope with these tips I have encouraged you to take on Agra, and survive! I have another post coming in a few days on seeing the Taj Mahal, so stay tuned for more info on this incredible monument!

Climbing Adam’s Peak

Reading about walking up thousands of steps in the darkness and experiencing an epic sunrise and endless views of the Sri Lankan hill country was definitely one of the things that most inspired me to visit the country. And whilst climbing Adam’s peak wasn’t quite what I expected, it was still so memorable and absolutely one of the highlights of my time in Sri Lanka.

Climbing Adam's Peak

Nestled in the heart of the Sri Lankan hills, Adam’s peak has spiritual significance for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians, so what is your unforgettable travel experience is a religious passage for thousands of locals too. For most people, the journey will begin from the small town of Dalhousie, easily accessible by bus, taxi or tuk tuk from nearby Hatton. People usually leave Dalhousie at around 2am to begin the 1400m ascent so they can catch the famous sunrise from the top. The path is well marked and ranges from large, flat steps to small, steep ones with long railings. Along the way you’ll see temples, waterfalls and wildlife, and depending on when you go possibly hundreds of pilgrims and travellers. If you allow yourself plenty of time, you don’t have to be particularly fit to complete the climb. Just be prepared for for some serious pain in leg muscles you didn’t even know you had in the next few days!

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What I should probably tell you about next is what happens when reach the top. The amazing views and the incredible sunrise. That’s certainly what I read in my guidebook, and what drew me to Adam’s Peak. But what what my guidebook didn’t tell me was that it’d be freezing, the steps and hand rails would be wet and slippery, I’d be walking through thick mist the whole time, and I would finally reached the top wet and cold and not be able to see more than a couple of metres in front of me. But hey, all this probably made the experience even more epic, and it just means I will have to go back!

Mist on Adam's Peak

Top of Adam's Peak

To be fair, I knew that it was far from the best time of year to be making the climb, but I’d still hoped that I would at least get to see something from the top! So should you still make the trip to Adam’s Peak if you’re not there during peak season? Absolutely! Apart from being great exercise and a physical challenge, the whole experience of walking through the misty darkness at 2am was almost magical. Also, as the climb is taken as a religious pilgrimage, you are likely to bump into a few locals at any time of the year and you’ll still see some fascinating temples and other sights. Staying in the quaint town of Dalhousie is also part of the experience, and is a nice place to unwind. If you are fortunate enough to be able to plan your trip to Sri Lanka to coincide with the pilgrimage season (December to April) then all the more reason to go. And make sure you send me a picture of that epic view I never got to see!

Adam's Peak sights

Practicalities

-I opted to go without a guide, so I can’t speak from experience of the benefits of taking a one. Although I may have missed out on some inside knowledge, the climb was very well marked and certainly navigable without a guide, so I opted to save the money and take things at my own pace. However if you want some company, local knowledge or just want to support the locals, your guesthouse will be able to arrange a guide for you for a very reasonable price.

-You can get some cheap accommodation in Dalhousie, but the food is quite expensive by Sri Lankan standards. There are no cheap, local restaurants. I was happy to support the lovely family at my guesthouse, but if you’re on a really tight budget stock up on snacks before you go. I know I was happy to have some dried fruit and nuts with me.

-I took the train to Hatton and got to Dalhousie by bus. When you get off the train, walk past the taxi drivers into town and ask directions to the bus stand. You’ll need to take one of the frequent buses to Maskeliya, from where you can change to a Dalhousie bus. Of course you can just get a taki, but for me riding on local buses is a part of the experience and is a great way to save money.

-I stayed at Achinika Holiday Inn in Dalhousie. They have a variety of differently priced and sized rooms, some with stunning views (weather permitting of course). Being low season, it was actually some of the cheapest accommodation I got in Sri Lanka, and they served huge portions of yummy food in their restaurant.

Rishikesh for the non-Yogi

A trip to Rishikesh may seem unnecessary or even a little intimidating for the non yoga enthusiast, but with it’s beautiful scenery, adventure activities, temples and spirituality and relaxed vibe you should definitely think twice before overlooking it!

Rishikesh Travel

Recharging

Rishikesh is such a peaceful escape from the chaos of Indian cities. Just spending a few days relaxing at a guesthouse by the Ganges can be exactly what you need to get back into your travels. Rishikesh has some great food, everything from cheap and yummy thalis and dosas to veggie burgers and pesto pasta. I love the food and the vibe at Little Buddha cafe in Laxman Jhula. It’s such a lovely place for an evening meal up in the treehouse style rooftop overlooking the swirling waters of the Ganges below. A stroll along the ghats to watch the evening Ganga Aarti is also a must in Rishikesh. Every night, people gather around Swarg Ashram to release little flower-filled leaf baskets into the river. The baskets are lit alight and float downstream as offerings. For a few rupees you can buy your own, or you can just sit back, and soak it all in.

Laxman Jhula, Rishikesh

Water Sports

If you feel up for something a little more adventurous, Rishikesh offers some fun opportunities. Having only recently emerged from the Himalaya, the Ganges here are relatively clean and have some fun rapids, making it great for white-water rafting. Apart from being popular with foreign tourists, Rishikesh is also a top destination for locals. For this reason, things can get really busy on weekends, and naturally prices go up! If you can avoid it, try not to book your rafting trip for a weekend. Rishekesh is also a great place for kayaking, both for beginners and more experienced paddlers. I took a couple of lessons with a great company De-N-Ascent Expeditions who I would highly recommend. Finding a reliable and experienced company to go rafting or kayaking with is really important, and I’m planning a whole blog post going further into this, so stay tuned! At this stage I’ll just say that it’s worth spending a bit extra to get a professional and safe experience.

Kayaking in Rishikesh

Bungee Jumping

White water rafting still not extreme enough for you? Rishikesh takes things a level further. How about India’s highest bungee jump? That’s right, Jumpin Heights, just out of Rishikesh, offers you the opportunity to jump off an 83 meter platform, as well as other awesome activities. Jumpin Heights was where I did my first (and so far only) bungee jump, and while it was completely terrifying, I couldn’t have asked for a more friendly or professional experience.

Jumpin Heights
I couldn’t get a photo of the actual jump!

Yoga

Yes, you read right! New experiences are a huge part of travel, and what better place than the world capital of yoga to take your first class! You don’t have to stay in an ashram, eat an Ayurvedic diet or spend hours meditating to give yoga a try. Drop-in classes are cheap in Rishikesh and there are heaps of options for beginners. For about 250 rupees you can see what all the hype is about with a one hour class. At worst, you’ll end up with a great travel story, but who knows you might end up discovering a new passion or making some new friends!

Laxman Jhula

Bonus Suggestions

  • Take a side trip to Haridwar, without a doubt one of my favourite cities in India!
  • Risheksh is a great place to begin a trip further into the Himalaya, why not sign up for a multi-day trek?
  • Take a refreshing dip at one of the beaches along the Ganges, but be careful of the current!

With all this and so much more, I hope I have encouraged you non-Yogis to to add Rishikesh to your list, even if you don’t end up taking that yoga class!