Home to the highest peaks on the planet, the Himalayas stretch from Pakistan across India, Bhutan and Nepal until reaching China in the east. This is some of the most spectacular terrain on the planet, whether seen from a mountain summit, from the banks of a glacier-fed river in the fertile valleys, on a high pass festooned in Buddhist prayer flags, or even from an aeroplane window.
The country most closely identified with the Himalayas is Nepal, with eight of the world’s top ten peaks, including Everest, called Sagarmatha in Nepali, at 8,848m above sea level. In the 70 years since it was first summited, thousands have tried to follow in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, seduced by the superlatives. Some are satisfied even by a view of this mountain, with tens of thousands trying each year to reach South Base Camp (5,364m), an increasingly popular trek from Lukla which passes beneath 20 peaks above 6,000m.
Across Nepal, there has been a frenzy of road construction, which has opened up formerly inaccessible areas, such as the once forbidden kingdom of Mustang in the north. This staggeringly beautiful region, where high altitude desert meets the snow capped peaks of the Annapurna massif and Dhaulagiri range, is culturally closer to Tibet with Buddhist monasteries and temples dotted across the landscape. The improving infrastructure has also given Nepalis greater access to schools, hospitals and trade routes, while developers and investors are penetrating deeper into the Himalayas, engaging in logging and hydropower projects. Some locals are concerned about how outside influence is changing their traditions and cultural inheritance.
Like Nepal, India is another good value Himalayan destination. There’s the region of Ladakh in the far north; Kumaon in Uttarakhand, just a few hundred kilometres north of Delhi; and to the northeast the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Among these mighty mountains is also the opportunity to witness traditional village life, with its attendant festivals and rituals.
The most exclusive destination in the Himalayas is Bhutan, which, when it reopened after the pandemic, trebled the visitor levy to £187 per person per day. Called the Sustainable Development Fee, it is being used to renew efforts to avoid the perils of mass tourism, with the income used to plant trees to offset the carbon footprints of visitors; up-skill workers in the tourism sector and electrify Bhutan’s transportation network. The country has also launched the Trans-Bhutan Trail, a 400km route that spans the country, aiming to attract “environmentally aware, socially responsible tourists”, in the words of Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. The full hike takes several weeks but visitors can cherrypick sections to suit their ability.
Finally to the bookends of the Himalayas – Pakistan and Tibet – at the western and eastern points, respectively. Pakistan, home to K2, the world’s second highest mountain, and the staggering ranges of the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, has some of the least trodden trails. Here, travellers can also witness the culture of the indigenous Kalash, the last of the animist tribes to inhabit this region. In the east, Tibet, known as the Roof of the World, is an outstanding destination for trekkers and also has limited footfall, particularly at this time when Covid travel restrictions have only just been lifted in China. For climbers, the ascent of Everest via Tibet and the North Col is one of the toughest and most rewarding mountaineering experiences.
All the key gateways to the Himalayas are worth spending a few days in, especially the Kathmandu Valley, which has one of the world’s densest collections of UNESCO World Heritage Sites including magnificent Newari architecture, Buddhist and Hindu temples and gilded stupas. Also in Nepal, a new hotel Shinta Mani Mustang opening in August 2023, focusing on high-end adventure, is set to be a game-changer for a region better known for budget travel. On offer will be rock climbing, horse riding, cycling and multi-day treks.
In India, the easygoing town of Leh is an excellent base to explore the rugged landscape and snowy peaks of Ladakh, including tracking wildlife such as wolves, blue sheep, urial, and some say, the highest concentration of snow leopard anywhere. From here, there are also classic straight-up mountain climbs — of Stok Kangri and Gulap Kangri, both peaks around 6,000m above sea level.
An ancient kingdom and a fresh-faced democracy, Bhutan continues to value cherished traditions, such as Buddhist rituals, national dress and the vernacular architecture of painted and carved wooden farmhouses. The country perfectly combines trekking with cultural experiences, including visits to Buddhist temples, monasteries and nunneries, precariously built on cliff edges, in part hewn from rock.
In Pakistan, the top draw is a stunning trek to K2 Base Camp at 5,150m without any of the crowds around Everest. The 14-day route takes trekkers across the Baltoro Glacier with its shifting ice and crevasses, beneath seven of the 19 highest mountains on the planet.
Also without crowds, the Advanced Everest Base Camp Trek in Tibet is an impressive trail ending at 6,340m; this is part of the route climbers use to summit Everest via the North Col. Even less frequented is the East Mount Everest Base Camp – Kangshung Face, that offers views of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and other big peaks. Tibet has long been a tricky place to visit with changing travel restrictions and permit requirements. Since China opened its borders in January, it is slowly becoming feasible to travel here again by booking a tour package through a specialist travel agency. Independent travellers cannot visit Tibet.
There are several entry points to the Himalayas, including Kathmandu (Nepal), Leh (India), Islamabad (Pakistan) and Paro (Bhutan). China remains closed to tourists and even before Covid, travel to Lhasa (Tibet) was not straightforward. There are not always direct flights from the UK to these destinations; connecting airlines include Turkish Airlines, the Middle Eastern and Indian carriers (about 16-20 hours including transit time). As an example, London to Kathmandu return from £800 with Emirates; London to Leh return from £845 with Air India; London to Islamabad return from £550 with Etihad. For Bhutan, the best routing from the UK is via Bangkok or Delhi; the onward flight to Paro is with Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines. If a tour operator doesn’t include international flights, consider using a reliable agent, such as DialAFlight, which can support travellers when there are schedule changes or weather disruptions.
The Himalayas cover a vast area but in general the best months to visit are spring (late April until June) and autumn (September/October), depending on the destination. An exception is Ladakh, where tourist facilities are only open between May and September. There will inevitably be more tourists at these times of year but not unbearably so.
Some operators offer deals but not usually at a particular time of year. Many trips can be booked last-minute but it is important to be physically well-prepared for the altitude and terrain. For Bhutan, it’s smart to book early because of limited airline capacity into Paro.
Costs can start from less than £100 per day (excluding international flights). Always look at the small print to see what’s included and what’s not, whether meals, trekking permits, park entrance fees, porters’ fees (and their insurance), renting gear (down jacket, sleeping bag, walking poles) and baggage allowance on domestic flights.
Make sure your travel insurance covers the intended activity, including moving above 3,000m, mountain rescue services and helicopter costs. It is important to budget for porter and trekking crew tips; ask the organiser in advance how much they recommend to set aside. Note that travellers to Bhutan must pay a daily Sustainable Development Fee (£187 for adults; £94 for children aged 6 to 12 years; no charge for children aged 5 and below; more at bhutan.travel).
It’s smart to use a reputable tour operator to organise a trekking holiday in the Himalayas. When comparing operators and trips, choose a trek that suits your ability and builds in acclimatisation time. Inquire about the experience of guides and support crew, as well as their medical training in case of emergency.
World Expeditions has been operating in the Himalayas for more than 40 years. They offer The Full Nepal Traverse of The Great Himalaya Trail, which takes 150 days to complete and takes in all of Nepal’s 8,000m peaks including Everest, Makalu and Annapurna, with one departure per year (from £22,460 including flights; the next departure is February 25, 2024). Guides are trained in wilderness first aid, and equipped with a satellite phone and portable altitude chamber. The trail can be broken down into seven shorter sections and there is a useful search engine on The Great Himalaya Trail website.
KE Adventure Travel offers the challenging 30-day Snowman Trek in Bhutan, one of the greatest high-altitude Himalayan treks anywhere. This trip, across eleven high passes, reaches an altitude of 5,300m, in the shadow of Gangar Puensum, the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. From £16,195 including all meals and accommodation, international and internal flights, full service camping (including all equipment) and the substantial Bhutan visitors’ levy.
Shakti Himalaya offers a seven-night journey in Ladakh, India, from £6,815 per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation in Shakti village houses. The trip includes transfers, a vehicle at guests’ disposal, all meals, all activities including two raft trips, an accompanying English speaking guide, support guide and porters (excluding international flights). There is an option for overnight camping in remote locations. As well as Ladakh, Shakti offers journeys in the Indian Himalayan destinations of Sikkim and Kumaon.
Wild Frontiers offers a number of Pakistan trips including the 15-day Hindu Kush Adventure group tour visiting the Swat Valley, Chitral and the Valleys of the Kalash, Gilgit and Hunza, from £3,475 (excluding international flights).
Trans Bhutan Trail has more than 20 hikes of various durations, including a 15-day round-trip trek between Thimphu and Bumthang, from £6,076 per person, including accommodation at three-star hotels, camping, all meals, guides, and the daily visitors’ tax (excluding international flights). There are also shorter hikes, such as the four-hour Pelela to Rukubji and two-hour Viewpoint to Trongsa Dzong. Trans-Bhutan Trail is a not-for-profit social enterprise credited with restoring the trail and now operating itineraries along the route; all revenue is reinvested into the trail and surrounding communities.
The best destination for budget-conscious travellers is Nepal. It might be cheaper to make independent arrangements, say, when arriving in Kathmandu, but be wary of trekking without a local guide (see new rules below); it is safer to join a group and employ an experienced support crew.
In Nepal, World Expeditions has the 17-day Gokyo and the Renjo La in Comfort trek with views of 8,000m peaks, including towards Everest. This is 13 days of trekking on less crowded trails, staying at comfortable eco lodges and private eco-comfort camps (hot showers, western-style toilets, heated dining rooms, raised beds with thick mattresses) from £2,030, including internal flights with extra luggage allowance, all meals on the trek, park entrance fees and trekking permits, guide and trekking staff, as well as a trek pack (sleeping bag and liner, insulated mat, down jacket) and portable altitude chamber.
Also in Nepal, KE Adventure Travel has a 15-day Ganesh Himal Panorama Trek following a remote section of the Great Himalaya Trail, with views of the Annapurnas, Manaslu, and the Ganesh and Langtang peaks. From £2,895, including international flights, transfers, accommodation (hotels, lodges and full-service camping), meals, guide and support crew, plus free hire of a sleeping bag and a down jacket. Departures on April 2, October 15, November 12 2023.
In India, Village Ways has a 12-night Binsar to Jageshwar journey, an introduction to walking in the Himalayas. Guests hike village to village in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary staying in community guesthouses. From £1,025 per person, for a group of four, including transfers to/from Delhi, most meals, guiding and porterage.
Packing for a trip to the Himalayas requires more preparation than your average holiday. If trekking be prepared to carry a pack containing daily essentials and extra layers – it’s worth training to find a backpack that feels most comfortable. In remote areas porters are often used to carry overnight bags between checkpoints. Here are the essentials you’ll need when visiting the world’s tallest mountains.
Do I need a visa? UK passport-holders require visas to visit Nepal, India, Bhutan, Pakistan and China. Some visas can be granted online. For Pakistan, visitors need a letter of invitation, which tour operators such as Wild Frontiers can provide.
Do I need cash? Yes, while major cities will accept card payments, on the trails and in remote corners cash is essential.
What is the latest Foreign Office advice? Check for Foreign and Commonwealth Office updates on your destination. This might include warnings about weather, strikes and fuel shortages.