Think of India. What do you see?
There’s a good chance you’ll conjure up images straight from the street markets of Delhi, the desert forts of Rajasthan, the hustle and bustle of Mumbai or the laid-back vibe of Goa. And, for most people who visit India, that’s exactly what they experience.
But there’s another side to the country that many international tourists don’t see. It’s a part of India that’s as diverse as it is beautiful. Where large parts of the landscape are also some of the remotest places on the planet. And where a large proportion of its people are fiercely Sikh, Muslim or Tibetan Buddhist rather than Hindu.
Northern India is literally a breath of fresh air. Sure, it can be a challenge to get around, but experiencing the best of it can be done in three weeks. And our ultimate itinerary will show you how.
When to go and where to start
For most of India, the best time to visit is between December and March to escape the oppressive heat from April to June, and the monsoon rains between June and October. For most of Northern India, however, it’s the opposite. The snow and sub-zero temperatures of the winter give way to crisp, clear blue skies and warmer temperatures between May and August. It’s when domestic tourists swap the city heat of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai for the relaxed mountain ambience of Srinagar and the Himalayan playground of Ladakh.
In fact, our ultimate journey can’t really be done outside of these months as some of the roads will be impassable. So, if you’re planning on visiting the region in early or late summer you might want to check here for the current status of the two main arterial roads; the Srinagar-Leh Highway and the Leh-Manali Highway. The Devil On Wheels blog also has details on predicted opening and closing dates to help you plan ahead.
Our starting point is India’s capital, Delhi – a sprawling metropolis of over 18 million people. We actually love the old city, but if you’ve already spent a few days here, it’ll serve as stark contrast to many of the sights you’ll come across on your North India trip.
From Delhi, it’s a 500-mile journey to our first destination, Srinagar. But with flights as low as £22 / $28 with Air Asia, there’s no reason to worry about picking up cheap trains and buses. And there’ll be plenty of time for long-distance road travel later on in your itinerary!
In fact, a major bonus of flying this route is the unbelievable view of the Himalayas as you approach Srinagar. Just make sure you get a window seat on the right-hand-side of the plane!
Srinagar is the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and, for many years, served as a summer retreat for the British Raj, as they desperately sought to escape the sweltering heat of Delhi. Many of the intricately designed houseboats that now serve as tourist accommodation on tranquil Dal Lake are remnants from that time.
The lake comes into its own during the summer months when the reflective calm waters mirror the green of the Kashmir Valley and white snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas behind.
As a result, domestic tourists flock here so booking ahead is probably a good idea. Of course, the quality of the accommodation ranges from basic to luxury but we can recommend Young Alzira as a good mid-range option.
If you’ve arrived on the early flight from Delhi you’ll have plenty of time for an afternoon lake tour in a shikara. It’s a wooden boat nominally used for transportation and fishing, which has been converted into a Kashmiri version of a Venetian gondola. It might sound cheesy but the four hours we spent on board in the company of the self-proclaimed New King Of Kashmir were amongst the most relaxing we’ve ever experienced.
And you’ll need to relax as you’ll be expending plenty of energy over the next few days!
The Kashmir Valley
Probably the biggest advantage of Srinagar for the more adventurous traveller is its close proximity to the Kashmir Valley. It’s an area that hasn’t seen a large influx of western tourists, mainly because of the recent struggles in Kashmir and the general lack of basic facilities. But, likened to Switzerland for its green meadows and Alpine beauty, it’s an area that just begs to be explored.
We booked a two-night, three-day trek with a guide and a small team of porters, up to Gangabal Lake (altitude 3600 metres). We slept in traditional Kashmiri tents and were provided with traditional Kashmiri nightwear to keep us warm. Which is just as well as, even though it was late-May, the snow was still melting around us.
And we had the pleasure of meeting a nomadic family of shepherds who entertained us with their yeti stories. And, in particular, how certain female yetis had stolen the husbands of nomadic Himalayan women, held them captive in their mountain caves and forced them to father their children.
There’s a great film in there somewhere.
It can be tough going, especially when you’re confronted with pockets of knee-deep snow. But it’s an exhilarating trek. And one that will linger long in our memory.
Read more in our post A Taste of Kashmir.
* Our accommodation and lake tour in Srinagar, and the Kashmir Valley trek were arranged through Shafi and his team at Invicta Tour & Travels, New Delhi.
The Srinagar to Leh Highway
You’ll need an evening of rest back at the houseboat because the following morning you’ll be starting the spectacular 18-hour, 434 km road journey to Leh. It’s possible to do it without an overnight stay en route but you shouldn’t underestimate the journey. Nor might you want to be left in the hands of a tired driver who’s been driving through the night on a high altitude road!
The best option (if you’ve not hired your own vehicle) is to have an overnight stop, usually in the town of Kargil or the hamlet of Mulbekh. The cheapest ways of getting there are by bus, followed by a shared jeep (with up to 6 other people) – both of which can be booked in Srinagar. They’ll be cramped and you won’t be protected from many of the bumps in the road. But they’ll get you from A to B for a modest cost.
Alternatively, you can book a private taxi, which not only provides extra comfort but also gives you the flexibility to stop at places of interest and photo opportunities along the way. However, because of taxi union rules, only taxis with Ladakh-registered number plates can roam around and stop at places of interest. Those with Srinagar-registered plates must take you directly to Leh (apart from an overnight stop). Splitting the cost with other travellers doing the same route is an obvious choice.
The drive itself is a memorable one, passing over three mountain passes and through endless barren (and very cold) desert. But the gradual increase in altitude also prepares you for your eventual arrival in Leh at 3,500 metres. Believe me, you’ll be grateful for this as it helps to protect against the dreaded “altitude sickness”.
After arriving in Leh, you’ll still need a day of relative rest before you go out exploring too far. In fact, the air is notoriously low in oxygen so just walking around can sometimes be a challenge. But once you’re breathing comfortably, there are plenty of things to keep you occupied for a week or more.
For instance, you can do a self-guided walking tour, taking in Leh Palace, Tsemo Fort & Monastery and Shanti Stupa. You can hire a taxi to go and see some of the hilltop stupas and monasteries in the surrounding valley such as Hermis. And you can witness the fascinating spectacle of Tibetan monks giving morning payers at Thikse Monastery. Or you could learn how to meditate at the Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre.
If you’re up for a challenge there are multi-day treks available, such as those in the nearby Markha Valley. And there are plenty of tour agents in town to book through.
But whatever you do, listen to your body and take it easy, because altitude sickness can be a serious issue, and in severest cases, life-threatening.
For more on Leh, read our post Why You Should Make Leh Your Next Adventure Holiday Destination.
Turtuk & the Nubra Valley
You can visit the stunning Nubra Valley on a one-day trip from Leh but, if you can, we’d recommend taking a two-day trip to include an overnight stop at uber-remote Turtuk on the Pakistan border.
On the way, you’ll climb to 5,389 metres (18,380 feet) over what’s claimed to be the world’s highest mountain pass (it’s not – there’s a slightly higher one in South America), and drive through eye-popping Himalayan wilderness on an enormous scale.
And don’t miss the huge Jampa Buddha at Diskit that silently watches over the Nubra Valley.
We’ve written about the trip in a lot more detail in our post Ladakh’s Unmissable Nubra Valley.
You can also do a two-day visit to Pangong Tso, one of the world’s highest lakes and accessed via quite possibly the worst 140km of road I’ve ever experienced. In the back of a taxi.
We opted for a one-day return trip instead, which only allows you two hours at the actual lake. Although at an altitude of 4250 metres (13,950 feet) you probably wouldn’t want to linger too long anyway. But, again, if you’re up for it, there are some camping options close by.
Don’t miss it, though, as it’s truly stunning. The turquoise and ice blue of the lake contrasts with the stark pastel shades of the barren mountains surrounding it. Meanwhile, the small spit of land at the head of the lake fills up with Indian families eager to get their selfies at the spot which served as the background to the finale of the Bollywood smash hit “The Three Idiots”.
Read about our trip there in our post The Sublime Colours Of Pangong Tso.
Before leaving Leh for Manali, you’ll have the same transportation choices as you did in Srinagar. But, if anything, this route is even more challenging as there are very limited accommodation choices along the way. If you can afford it, the best option would be to team up with other travellers to share a taxi, as we did. This is effectively done on your behalf by the tour companies in town – you just register your interest in a particular route on a particular day and they work with each other to find other people willing to share with you.
Instead of heading straight for the Leh-Manali Highway, we opted for a detour to Tso Moriri – another high altitude lake and even more remote than Pangong Tso. It’s just as staggering in its beauty and is well worth making the effort to reach it.
The tiny lakeside hamlet of Korzok provides extremely basic accommodation, which reflects the fact that the area has only been opened to foreign tourists over the last few years.
There’s little to do here except wander around and enjoy a picnic beside the lake before the sun sets and the temperature plummets. Then it’s back to your lodgings for an early night in preparation for a dawn start and the long drive to Manali. And at an altitude of 4,522 metres (14,800 feet) you’ll be glad to get as much sleep as you can.
The Leh to Manali Highway
By detouring to Tso Moriri, you’ll rejoin the Leh-Manali Highway after missing another extremely high mountain pass at Tanglang La. But the scenery between the lake and the highway is memorable in its own right, with its combination of salt plains, farmland and desert. And, if you’re lucky, your driver will go off-road, too.
Eventually, you’ll rejoin the Leh-Manali Highway at More Plains and you’ll head up and down through three more mountain passes until you reach the lower-altitude green valleys and pine-clad mountains of Himachal Pradesh.
It’s a truly epic journey that’s fraught with potential delays because of changing weather conditions. In fact, our journey from Tso Moriri to Manali took a total of 14 hours. But it’s one that any traveller with even the merest sense of adventure would surely wish to take.
Manali & Chandigarh
Weather permitting, you’ll arrive in Manali late afternoon/early evening and there’s a good chance your first priority will be another good night’s sleep.
But it’s worthwhile hanging around for at least another day as the town is an adventure destination in its own right. It does get packed as it also serves as a good resting point for people who are travelling in the opposite direction between Delhi and Leh. But there are enough restaurants, bars and shops to keep any weary traveller happy, especially in the old town.
When you’re ready to move on, pick up the 16:30 bus for the 9-10 hour journey to Chandigarh. You’ll need an overnight stop at a hotel somewhere between the Stand 43 bus station and the train station (we chose Hotel Classic which was perfect). And then it’s an early taxi the following morning to catch the 7 am train to Amritsar.
Our final destination is a special place. Located in the Punjab, Amritsar is home to the glorious Harmandir Sahib (or Golden Temple), the holiest religious complex of the Sikh religion.
For us, visiting this revered site was arguably a better all-round experience than the Taj Mahal. Yes, it’s a magnet for pilgrims and domestic tourists which means huge daily crowds. But the heartening Sikh values of hospitality and sharing will ensure you leave with a smile on your face.
Select your accommodation within walking distance of the Temple if possible – we can recommend Hotel Akaal Residency – and then spend as long as you can wandering around the complex, accompanied by the calming sound of religious chanting. And make sure you take lunch at Guru Ka Langar (or Langar Hall), which has been serving free food to all visitors every day for the past 450 years!
We’d also suggest you return after dark when the illuminated Temple and its 750kg of gold take on an incredibly vibrant glow.
On your second full day, pay a visit to Jallianwalla Bagh, site of one of the more shameful events in British colonial history, when up to a thousand peaceful protestors were shot dead on the order of one rogue Officer.
And, for something completely different, take an afternoon taxi trip to the Pakistan-India border crossing at Wagah. I guarantee you’ll witness one of the most bizarre events of your life as you gaze upon opposing soldiers literally trying to outdo each other with the sort of extravagant leg kicks you might expect to see at the Moulin Rouge. In front of a baying crowd. Just so they can close the border for the night.
As I say, bizarre. But unmissable.
And then, all that remains after your three nights here is to catch the train back to Delhi to complete your North India loop.
Read more in our post 4 Things You Must Do In Amritsar.
You’ll have gathered that this three-week trip is no picnic. And it’s certainly not for everybody. You’ll need a large dose of patience, an acceptance that things won’t quite go to plan, and a willingness to spend long hours travelling on some of the worst roads imaginable in some of the most inhospitable conditions.
But if you’re prepared for all that, the payoff is extraordinary. You’ll be rewarded with some of the wildest and remotest landscapes on the planet and learn at least something about a wide variety of cultures. And we dare say you’ll return richer for the experience.
So, what are you waiting for?
Please feel to contact us if you’d like any further advice on any of the destinations in this post. In the meantime, here’s a quick summary of our suggested itinerary…
Early morning flight from DELHI to SRINAGAR Do Shikara cruise on Dal Lake Accommodation One of the many houseboats
DAYS 2 – 4
Do Kashmir Valley trek (with guide and transportation) Accommodation Camping (2 nights), Dal Lake Houseboat (1 night)
DAYS 5 – 6
Shared taxi from SRINAGAR to LEH via the SRINAGAR-LEH HIGHWAY Accommodation Guesthouse in Kargil or Mulbekh / Padme Guest House & Hotel in Leh (recommended)
Do Acclimatise further in Leh Accommodation Padme Guest House & Hotel
Do Walking tour (self-guided) around Leh, including Leh Palace, Tsemo Fort & Shanti Stupa Accommodation Padme Guest House & Hotel
Do One-day mini-bus trip to Pangong Tso Accommodation Padme Guest House & Hotel
Do Taxi tour of temples, including Thikse and Hemis Accommodation Padme Guest House & Hotel
DAY 11 – 12
Do Two-day shared taxi tour to Turtuk and Nubra Valley Accommodation Homestay in Turtuk / Padme Guest House & Hotel
Do Nothing but rest and eat! Accommodation Padme Guest House & Hotel
Shared taxi from LEH to TSO MORIRI Do Explore the lake and surroundings Accommodation Homestay in Korzok
Shared taxi from TSO MORIRI to MANALI via the LEH TO MANALI HIGHWAY Do Take plenty of photos Accommodation Rock Top Inn & Cafe
Do Explore Manali (or just rest!) Accommodation Rock Top Inn & Cafe
Bus from MANALI to CHANDIGARH Accommodation Hotel Classic
Train from CHANDIGARH to AMRITSAR Accommodation Hotel Akaal Residency (recommended)
Do Explore the Golden Temple complex (daytime & evening) Accommodation Hotel Akaal Residency
Do Visit Jallianwalla Bagh and take a trip to the Wagah Border Retreat ceremony (afternoon) Accommodation Hotel Akaal Residency
Train from AMRITSAR to DELHI
Visit our INDIA PAGE for further posts on the country and information on where we stayed.
What did you think? Have you been to North India? Do you have any recommendations to add to our itinerary? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting there in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.