Spanning from Pakistan in the west to Bhutan in the east, the mighty Himalayan range includes the highest mountains in the world, diverse cultures, and otherworldly landscapes.
The Himalayan mountain range contains many of the highest mountains in the world, but aside from a handful of very popular trekking trails—including Nepal’s Everest Base Camp trek—they remain remote, hidden, and quite inaccessible. Spanning from Pakistan in the west to Bhutan in the east and stretching through parts of India, Nepal, and Tibet, the Himalayan chain encompasses sub-ranges such as the Karakoram and Zanskar ranges, themselves containing formidable mountains. Even more “accessible” and frequently visited parts of the Himalaya, such as Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh in India, or the aforementioned Everest region of Nepal, take quite some effort and time to reach from the major cities of their respective countries, let alone other parts of the world.
The Himalaya is inhabited by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other minority religions of various cultures and traditions, and the landscapes aren’t anything near uniform, either: India’s Ladakh and Nepal’s Mustang are dry, barren, and windy, while the valleys of Bhutan and Kathmandu are lush and green, with high rainfall. One could spend a lifetime traveling just the Himalayas and still barely scratch the surface. But, if you don’t have that long, here are 12 of the most beautiful, otherworldly places in the Himalayan Mountains.
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The remote Upper Dolpo region of western Nepal, in the rainshadow of the Himalayas, is said to be a beyul. In Tibetan Buddhism, a beyul is a natural place of extreme beauty that’s used as a religious retreat by monks, ascetics, or other people seeking a greater connection to the world by removing themselves from distractions. They were places where Guru Rinpoche (also called Padmasambhava)—an important figure who introduced Buddhism to Tibet—spent time. According to Tibetan Buddhist knowledge, there are 108 beyul, only some of which are known or have been discovered. They’re both mythical and actual real places, found across the Himalayas.
Dolpo is a real, accessible beyul, although it takes a bit of effort to get there from other parts of Nepal (and an expensive permit). Trekkers to Upper Dolpo need to take their own food and tents due to lack of infrastructure and supplies.
The Barun Valley sits within the Makalu Barun National Park in eastern Nepal, at the foot of Mt. Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world (27,824 feet). It contains a great variety of flora and fauna, as a huge range of climate and ecosystems are found within the valley, including the endangered red panda. Although the Barun Valley is not far from the Khumbu Valley, where Everest is, it gets far fewer visitors, so the trekking trails are relatively quiet and much less developed. Visitors can admire awesome views of Everest without having to jostle for space on crowded trails.
WHERE: Upper Mustang, Nepal
On the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and separated from the rest of Nepal to the south by the Himalayan range, the walled city of Lo Manthang sits at 12,500 feet. It was founded in 1380 and was once on the main Nepal-to-Tibet trade route. Lo Manthang remained the capital of the independent Kingdom of Lo until 2008 when it officially merged with Nepal.
Now, the small walled town is home to a few hundred permanent residents, although many migrate south across the Himalaya for the harsh winter. Lo Manthang is the endpoint for many treks through Upper Mustang, a remote area that is easier to visit than it used to be due to the availability of flights from Pokhara to Jomsom, and the development of Jeep tracks. Visiting does, however, still require an expensive permit.
Monasteries of the Ladakh Valley
Once a western Tibetan kingdom, Ladakh is now a Buddhist-majority union territory in northwest India. Major trade routes between India, Kashmir, and Central Asia passed through Ladakh for centuries. It’s at a very high altitude—the capital, Leh, is at 11,562 feet—and can only be reached on a flight from Delhi or long and arduous road journeys from Manali (Himachal Pradesh) or Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir).
Ladakh is culturally and geographically Tibetan, with the local people speaking Ladakhi, a dialect of Tibetan, and following Tibetan Buddhism. The territory of Ladakh contains several valleys, but the Ladakh Valley is the most accessible. Numerous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries throughout the valley are dramatic, and each offers a slightly different experience. Alchi Monastery contains well-preserved murals, Hemis Monastery hosts a flamboyant annual summer festival, the stepped tiers of Thikse Monastery resemble Lhasa’s Potala Palace, hilltop Matho Monastery affords dramatic views across the valley and to other monasteries in the distance, and that’s only the start.
WHERE: Himachal Pradesh, India
A steep valley branching off from the broader Parvati Valley, which itself branches off from the Kullu Valley, Malana was totally isolated until the construction of a dam and a road a few years ago. Getting there still requires a steep climb from the road’s head, or a longer three-day camping trek from Naggar, near Manali.
Malana’s culture is dramatically different from elsewhere in Himachal Pradesh. The inhabitants believe they are descended from the armies of Alexander the Great, and they speak a Sino-Tibetan language called Kanashi that is very different from the Hindi spoken elsewhere in the state. They also practice an extreme form of untouchability, the Hindu caste-based practice. Outsiders who visit the village, whether from India or elsewhere, are considered ritually impure and are forbidden from touching anything in the village, or are slapped with a fine.
WHERE: Sikkim, India
The Himalayas aren’t just about the pointy mountain vistas–there are a number of incredible high-altitude lakes, too. Gurudongmar Lake, in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim, is one of the highest lakes in India, at 17,800 feet, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Like many other places across the Himalayas, it’s associated with Guru Rinpoche, who visited the lake many centuries ago. It’s a glacier-fed lake and feeds into streams that connect with major South Asian rivers. It’s holy to Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, so the lake sees a steady stream of pilgrims, although it’s totally frozen in winter.
Gurudongmar Lake is located in northern Sikkim, just a few miles from the border with Tibet. This is a militarily sensitive area, and while Indian travelers may visit more freely, international tourists require a special permit.
Valley of the Flowers
WHERE: Uttarakhand, India
Just the name of the Valley of the Flowers National Park should be enough to pique the excitement of any flora-loving traveler. The high-altitude valley in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the Zanskar Range of the Himalayas, is famous for its huge variety of Alpine wildflowers. Orchids, poppies, primulas, marigolds, daisies, and anemones blanket the valley floor from May to September, including some species that are endemic to the area and relatively new to science.
The Valley of the Flowers is also rich in animal life, and various bears, deer, birds, and even elusive snow leopards live here. It’s a popular hiking destination, too, and connects with the Nanda Devi National Park. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the best time to see the flowers is when the weather is wet, which will be July and August. The monsoon season doesn’t provide the best trekking conditions.
Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge
The Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge in south-eastern Tibet is the world’s deepest gorge. The river of the same name originates in western Tibet, from the holy Mt. Kailash and Lake Mansarovar, and becomes the Brahmaputra River as it flows through India and Bangladesh. The gorge is about 150 miles long, and it contains a huge range in climate and a large variety of animal and plant life, which has not been extensively studied because of the inaccessibility of the gorge. It’s difficult for non-Chinese travelers to visit, although some foreign kayaking expeditions have explored the extremely challenging river, with varying success (and several deaths).
In south-western Tibet, bordering Nepal, Mt. Kailash (21,778 feet) is more than just a mountain; it’s sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and followers of the Tibetan Bon religion. The mountain, and Lakes Mansarovar and Rakshastal beneath it, are also the origin of four major South Asian rivers: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali. Needless to say, it’s a major pilgrimage destination, despite the challenge of trekking here. Pilgrims (and other trekkers, too, if they wish) circumambulate the mountain. Hindus and Buddhists go around it clockwise, as is done with other Buddhist sites in the Himalayan region (from Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu to mani stone walls in the Everest region), while Jains and Bonpos go the other way. The circuit around the mountain is 32 miles long.
The large Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan sits at a high 9,800-feet altitude and is revered for both its ecological and cultural value. It contains some of Bhutan’s most impressive monasteries that are best representative of the small country’s architectural style, including Khumbu Lhakang. The Phobjikha Valley is also special because it’s here that the country’s protected black-necked cranes migrate for the winter. They arrive at the end of October, circling about the Gangteng Monastery, which hosts the Black-Necked Crane Festival annually in November in honor of the birds and their national importance.
WHERE: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan
While Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim nation in present times, the Himalayan areas were a major center of early Buddhism, and remnants of this culture and history remain. Buddhist carvings, statues, and stupas can be found at archeological sites and in museums in the Swat Valley. The Swat Valley is surrounded by the Himalayan chain as well as the Hindu Kush, a western extension of the Himalaya. Although political instability has plagued the Swat Valley in recent decades, it has long been a favorite tourist destination among local Pakistanis, and was dubbed the Switzerland of the East by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II when she visited in the 1960s.
WHERE: Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
Skardu District is where K2, the second-highest mountain in the world (28,251 feet) is located, and this attracts many mountaineers to the area. The Baltoro Muztagh, a sub-range of the Karakoram Mountains, which are a western extension of the Great Himalaya, houses several other peaks above 25,500 feet, too. Bordering India’s Ladakh to the southeast and China’s Xinjiang Province to the east and northeast, the landscape and culture of Skardu are quite like those of its neighbors, and the people of Skardu mostly speak Balti, a language related to Tibetan. The Deosai National Park is on the Deosai Plain that, at an average elevation of 13,500 feet, is second in height only to the Tibetan Plateau.