Flights usually depart London in the evening.
The group flight will arrive into Amritsar and we will transfer to our hotel. Those who have made their own flight arrangements will join us at the hotel in Amritsar today. Amritsar is the Sikh's holiest city and in the late afternoon we visit the Golden Temple, their main shrine. Shoes must be removed, feet washed and heads and arms covered before we can enter. Stunningly beautiful the Golden Temple is surrounded by tanks of holy water. The atmosphere is incredibly calm as devotees stroll round the temple and sit and listen to the continuous recitals from the Granth Sahib. A visit to the huge community kitchens is a must to see the thousands of meals prepared by volunteers every day for the pilgrims. If there is time we can also visit the nearby Jalianwala Gardens, site of the notorious massacre under General Dyer in 1919, which led to 319 Sikhs being shot by British troops.
Day 3 - 4
We leave the Punjab heading north into the foothills of the Himalaya. Today is quite a long but spectacular drive as the road winds its way into the hills. The barren plains make way for forests and as we gain height the heat of the plains gives way to the cooler fresher air of the hills. We enter the state of Himachal Pradesh and the Dhauladhar range makes a stunning backdrop to the hill station of Dharamsala, a quiet unassuming town until 1959. This all changed when the Dalai Lama settled here after fleeing from Tibet at the time of the Chinese invasion. McLeod Ganj is the upper part of the town and is the area with the greatest Tibetan influence and is where we are based for two nights. We have a full day to explore the town and will visit the Dalai Lama's temple and the Tibet Museum. There are many other monasteries and temples around the town and a colourful bazaar. (187km, 5-6 hours driving).
Travelling by road, we head through picturesque countryside towards the little visited town of Mandi. We drive through the pretty Kangra Valley with its many tea plantations and there should be time to stop at a tea estate. Enroute we visit Baijnath Temple and Rewalsar, where a charming hilltop lake is revered by Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, who have each built their temples on its banks. Mandi, situated on the Beas River at the foot of the beautiful Kulu Valley, was once a halting point on the salt route to Tibet. Now a large bustling town Mandi is overlooked by most visitors but it has over 80 temples and shrines including some impressive sixteenth century Nagari style temples. We drive through the town and stay tonight a short drive out of Mandi. (200 kms and 7-8hrs driving)
From Mandi we head east for a while until we join the mighty Beas River and the beautiful Kullu Valley. At Kullu we head north and follow the river all the way to Manali. As we ascend the valley we are surrounded by lush fir and pine forests and the scenery becomes more and more impressive. This valley is popular with Bollywood film makers and many Hindi movies have been shot in the hills around here. Finally we arrive in Manali, a bustling hill station now popular with Indian tourists escaping the heat of the plains. (110km, 4-5 hours driving)
We have a full day to explore Manali. Manali is surrounded by beautiful fir and pine forests and there are lovely walks in and around the town. The ancient wooden Hadimba Devi Temple is the most important temple in Manali. Set in the forest it is an easy walk from our hotel. Manali has a colourful Tibetan bazaar full of souvenirs. Or you may want to take a taxi to Naggar (12km from Manali), the old capital of the area. The ancient castle is now a hotel. Nicholas Roerich, the famous Russian artist and traveller lived in Naggar and his estate is preserved as an art gallery and museum and is well worth a visit.
We now leave the lush green forests behind and embark on the spectacular road journey to Ladakh across the Great Himalayan Range. This journey rates as one of the world's classic road journeys. The days can be long and some of the road surfaces are not the best but for those prepared to take advantage of the opportunity to travel this spectacular route through the wild mountain scenery of Lahoul and the high altitude plains of Changtang, to the remote northern territory of Ladakh will not be disappointed. Today is a long drive and you need to be prepared for delays along this stretch of the road. Leaving Manali we pass several waterfalls as we climb towards the Rohtang Pass. A popular sightseeing destination for Indians the road can get very busy at times and due to the large amounts of snow in winter the road condition is not very good. It will be slow going to the top of the Rohtang Pass at 3,980m where we cross the Pir Pinjal Range of mountains. South of the Indian Himalaya, the Pir Pinjal are no less spectacular than their grand neighbour and from the top of the pass we can see immense jagged peaks ahead. The weather can be misty and cloudy to the south of the Rohtang but once we have crossed the pass into Lahoul the scenery changes dramatically - we leave the green fertile valleys of Himachal Pradesh and climb up onto the barren mountainous desert of the Tibetan Plateau. Lahoul is the northern boundary of Himachal Pradesh and the people and culture are more akin to Ladakh and Tibet than to India. The valley narrows as we head north with the mountains towering above us. Passing through Keylong, the district headquarters we continue on to Jispa, where we stay in a basic guest house tonight. (145km, 7-8hrs driving)
Another long but spectacular day as we cross the mighty Himalaya. Climbing from Jispa the road zig zags up to the Baralacha Pass (4,845m). We are now surrounded by huge mountains and it's hard to imagine how a road was built through this landscape. From the pass we descend to Brandy Nallah and wind our way to the bottom of the Gata Loops. This is an amazing series of 21 hairpin bends which climbs onto the Tibetan Plateau. The scenery becomes even more dramatic as we climb to the Lachalung La and further on the Nakli La. Descending from the Nakli La we come to the spectacular wind eroded landscape of earth and rock pillars around Pang. There are lots of tea tents at Pang where we can stop for a well earned cup of tea. From Pang we continue north across the Morey Plains. These vast high altitude plains are home to the hardy Changpa nomads and we may well see their encampments in the distance and spot the huge herds of yaks. Leaving the main road we divert across an open landscape to Tsokar Lake. We stay in a fixed camp about a mile from the lake at Pongunagu (due to ecological reasons camping is not allowed on the lake shore). This salt lake supports a vital industry that allows the Changpa nomads to trade with merchants from the rest of Ladakh. The area is home to herds of rare kiang (Tibetan wild ass), which we may see in the distance. (230 km, 8-9 hours driving)
This morning we drive back to the main road and head north climbing to our last pass, the Taglang La. The road seems to wind up forever to the top at 5,328m. The Taglang La reputed to be the second highest motorable road pass in the world (the highest is the Khardung La which we have a chance to drive up to in Leh) and the views from the top are superb. Hundreds of Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the winds which blow over the pass and we can look north towards Leh and the Karakorum and south back to the Himalaya. Descending steeply the road drops to a small river which we follow down a stunning gorge. Passing several small villages we finally join the mighty Indus River at Upshi. We follow the Indus now nearly all the way into Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We will arrive in the late afternoon at our guesthouse for a welcome hot shower after the rigours of the last few days. (154km, 5-6 hours driving)
Ladakh, or 'Little Tibet' as it is sometimes called, is now part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Before the 10th century Ladakh was part of Western Tibet and from the 10th to the 19th century Ladakh was an independent kingdom with its own kings. In 1834 Ladakh was invaded by Zorawar Singh and became part of India. Still culturally and religiously akin to Tibet it is one of the last bastions of living Tibetan Buddhism. We have five days to explore the monasteries and main sights of Ladakh.
Today we will visit some of the monasteries in the Leh valley. We first drive to Shey, a former Royal Palace of the Ladakh kings. Inside is a small temple containing a 350 year old copper and gold statue of Buddha. From Shey we drive (or there is the option to do a two hour walk across the fields) to Tikse, where we visit the monastery - perched on top of a hill - its red and white buildings can be seen for miles. A recently built temple contains a magnificent image of the Future Buddha. We return to Leh early afternoon and there is time to explore the back streets and bazaars of Leh or you may just wish to have time relaxing in one of the garden cafes with a cup of coffee and fresh apricot pie. For the trip departing 30th August we will work the sightseeing around any of the Leh festival performances.
We leave Leh this morning following the Indus River westwards. We pass Basgo where an ancient ruined fortress is built atop the wind eroded cliffs. We turn off the main road to visit the monastery at Likir, a beautiful building, reminiscent of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. From here we drive to Yangtang village from where there is the option to walk to Ridzong monastery, set hidden in a valley. This solitary gompa is renowned for its strict monastic teachings. Just below in a grove of apricots is a small nunnery, which is inhabited by young nuns from the Nubra Valley who have come here to study Buddhism. After Ridzong we rejoin the Indus again, which we follow to Saspol. Just after the village we cross this mighty river and drive to Alchi, a pretty village set in a grove of apricot trees. Barley fields surround the village and at harvest time the village is a buzz of activity.
The main attraction in Alchi is the monastery, which is the most important cultural site in Ladakh. Built in the 11th century, it is a treasure trove of early Buddhist art in the Kashmiri tradition, a style quite different from the Tibetan art found in Ladakh's other monasteries. It was founded by Rinchen Zangpo who was said to have built 108 temples in Ladakh and is responsible for reviving interest in Buddhism at that time. After breakfast we make an excursion to Lamayuru. The drive takes us through some of the most spectacular scenery in Ladakh. A short way from Alchi we pass through Khalatse after which the road leaves the Indus and winds its way round to the lunar landscape at Lamayuru. This part of Ladakh is where 50 million years ago the continents crashed together and the Himalaya were formed. The monastery is set on top of a beautifully eroded crag, complete with rock caves and pinnacles and has an almost fairytale quality as it stands over the village below. We have time to explore the monastery and the village before driving back to Alchi.
After breakfast we drive back to Leh visiting Basgo Fort en route. The rest of the afternoon is free for individual exploration. The old town and the local bazaar are well worth a visit.
There is the option this morning to take a jeep trip to the Khardung La Pass, reputedly the highest motorable road in the world at 5,602m. This can be arranged and paid for locally and your leader will have details. The rest of the day is free for individual sightseeing. You may like to take a hike up to the old Royal Palace and Tsemo gompa, set on a hill high above Leh, or you could climb the 500 steps to the Shanti Stup, a wonderful white peace pagoda built a few years ago by Japanese Buddhists. You can walk or drive to both hilltops and both have spectacular views over the Leh Valley.
We transfer to the airport for the spectacular early morning flight over the Himalaya to Delhi. If the flight is on time we should have the afternoon in Delhi for last minute sightseeing. Humayum's Tomb (a forerunner to the Taj Mahal) is worth seeing if there is time.
Those on the flight inclusive package will depart for London this morning for the daytime flight back to London. Land Only arrangements will finish after check-out from the hotel.