Traveling Solo Across Northwest India

5th Jan 2013
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 1/14 by Sarah Touma
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 2/14 by Sarah Touma
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 3/14 by Sarah Touma
Leh Shopping
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 4/14 by Sarah Touma
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 5/14 by Sarah Touma
Thiksey Monastery
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 6/14 by Sarah Touma
Thiksey Monastery
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 7/14 by Sarah Touma
Thiksey Monastery
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 8/14 by Sarah Touma
Thiksey Monastery View
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 9/14 by Sarah Touma
Leh-Manali Highway
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 10/14 by Sarah Touma
Leh-Manali Highway
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 11/14 by Sarah Touma
Leh-Manali Highway
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 12/14 by Sarah Touma
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 13/14 by Sarah Touma
Photo of Traveling Solo Across Northwest India 14/14 by Sarah Touma

I was visiting India for the first time and I was excited about the rich culture and diverse experiences that the country had to offer. I had read about safety issues for women traveling solo in the country, but after talking to a few of my friends who had backpacked across India I was reassured and decided to take the plunge. And what a journey it was! This was one of my most memorable trips. There was a smile in every face and a helping hand in every corner. And not to mention all the kida who make you feel like a movie star!

I only had three weeks in India and that wasn't enough to visit all the exotic destinations in this vast country. So I decided to explore the north west area of the vast country – the regions of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh & the Punjab offer many different experiences. Like an Indian thali meal, you can enjoy a variety of flavours to satisfy even the pickiest of taste buds. This is only a small example of what India has to offer but every day I was excited, intrigued and challenged. The varied countryside, amazingly friendly locals, flavoursome food and melting pot of cultures has certainly whetted my appetite and I can’t wait to take another bite.

Welcome to frontier country. Sandwiched between Chinese occupied Tibet & the disputed Kashmir Valley, Ladakh is sometimes known as “moon land”. Bumping along the dusty roads, it’s easy to see why. The arid, weather beaten landscape has a distinctly lunar quality through which flows the mighty river Indus.
Photo of Ladakh Range, Ladakh Range, 194201 by Sarah Touma
The main port of call in Ladakh is Leh, a bustling tourist town filled with a mix of rosy cheeked Tibetans in traditional dress and tall, pale-eyed Kashmiris. A variety of religious beliefs rub shoulders with each other – the call of the muezzin and the chime of bells from Buddhist shrines become familiar sounds. Ruined Leh Palace looms over the town, hanging precipitously onto the side of a mountain providing a striking landmark. Leh is a great place for shopping, and the streets are filled with villagers from the surrounding areas who come to sell their local produce. Even if you aren’t in the mood for spending, it’s perfect for people watching.
Photo of LEH LADAKH (NORTHERN RANGE TREK N TOUR), Old Road Chullung, Leh, Ladakh, JK, India by Sarah Touma
Leaving Leh behind, the remote and desolate landscape is breath taking. Apart from the occasional village, the main signs of habitation are the white washed Buddhist monasteries, or “gompas”, dotted through the mountains. I visited Thiksey Monastery (above) and Likir Monastery to name just two in the region. These working communities are as welcoming as they are isolated. Monks go about their daily routine but always with a friendly smile for visitors, and you are encouraged to take an interest in their activities. I watched these ladies from the local village assist the monks at Thiksey in making butter lamps for their forthcoming festival. Due to their invariably lofty positions, the views from the monasteries are incredible. Although the altitude can be a challenge, it’s worth making the effort to climb up to the highest level.
Photo of Thiksey Monastery by Sarah Touma
No visit to the region is complete without experiencing the Leh-Manali Highway, a 490km road that crosses four mountain passes and links high altitude Leh with the heavily forested town of Manali. Although the road was officially completed a few years ago, exposure to regular bad weather means that its condition is poor and maintaining it is a permanent task. Be prepared for a very bumpy ride! The first stage of the journey takes you from Leh to Sarchu, a difficult yet exhilarating drive of approximately 10 hours which includes two passes and one of the highest plateaus in the world. The landscape is bleak with a silent, unearthly quality. Few signs of life exist along this dusty stretch of road, the only exceptions being the occasional herd of yak and the ubiquitous road maintenance gangs who cheer and wave as you rumble past. Day two of the journey along the Leh-Manali Highway sees you leave Ladakh behind and enter the state of Himachal Pradesh. “Himachal” roughly translates as “in the bosom of the snow” and here the scenery takes on a more Alpine feel as the amount of vegetation increases and towering snow-capped peaks surround you.
Photo of Leh Manali Hwy, Leh Manali Hwy, Rambirpor, 194201 by Sarah Touma
The bohemian town of Manali is at a lower altitude and is surrounded by thick forests as well as thick clouds, lending it a slightly highland quality. Old Manali is a particular pleasure to visit with many colourful wooden houses and quirky shops. Explore it during the morning, before the majority of backpackers emerge, as you will see the locals going about their business. Be sure to sample the local trout as well.
Photo of Manali, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sarah Touma
Heading south out of Manali, the landscape becomes increasingly “Indian” as the temperature rises and you pass lushly forested hills, rushing rivers and monkeys sat on the roadside. It is worth paying a visit to Mandi, a town with very few Western tourists. Here you can discover some of the 81 temples that Mandi boasts. This energetic town is fun to wander through at night as it is full of open fronted shops manned by elderly turbaned Sikhs, Hindu temples in full swing, tuk tuks, cows, donkeys, pigs, you name it……
Photo of Mandi, Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sarah Touma
For another change of pace, head to Dharamsala or more specifically, the small hill station of Mcleodganj a few kilometres beyond the main town. It is famous for being the home of the Dalai Lama and the exiled Tibetan government. As such, Mcleodganj has a large Tibetan population, as well as being popular with Western backpackers (and the occasional Hollywood star). It is also one of the wettest places in India, spending most of the time shrouded in cloud, so be sure to pack your waterproofs! Rain notwithstanding, this is a key stop-off for anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhist culture – the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives being well worth a visit.
Photo of Dharamsala, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sarah Touma
My journey ends at Amritsar, near the border with Pakistan. Here, you get to sample yet another flavour of India, as Amritsar is an important Sikh city. The town itself is old and fascinating but the main draw is, of course, the Golden Temple. I had the privilege of visiting at night and again during the early morning. On both occasions the temple was packed with pilgrims yet it still maintained an atmosphere of peace. To visit the temple you must remove your shoes, cover your head and bathe your feet before entering. The most holy Sikh text, the Guru Granth Sahib, is kept here and devotees queue for hours to pay their respects. It is a heady experience and one that should not be missed.
Photo of Amritsar, Amritsar, Punjab, India by Sarah Touma