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Top 5: Hidden Himalayan gems

Tired of tedious treks and postcard vistas? Brionie Pereira delves a little deeper into the Indian Himalayas for a taste of its lesser-known experiences

 

A plate for every palate: Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh

While most visitors flock to Mcleodganj in northern India for its proximity to the Dalai Lama, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile offers both salvation and salivation. The tiny mountainous town, situated in a crease of the Dhauladhars, has more types of cuisine than it has kilometres, owing to the mix of Tibetan refugees and expats who call it home. For staple Tibetan and Bhutanese fare such as momos (steamed dumplings), shab tra (stir-fried meat and vegetables) and thukpa (spicy noodle soup), head to Tibet Kitchen near to the center of town. Not too far away, you’ll find fiery Cantonese lai fun noodles competing with Indian street food doled out of wayside carts. Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen, up a narrow staircase in the main square, serves pasta, Greek salads, lasagne and a great view of the valley below. Lung Ta on Jogibara Road offers near authentic Japanese meals, including sushi rolls and miso soup, for less than £2. Its Korean cousin, Café Ri, tucked away in a back alley on Bhagsu road, makes the best seaweed soup and sticky bulgogi (marinated beef).

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Airbenders and soul-searchers: Bir Valley, Himachal Pradesh

About two-and-a-half hours south of Mcleodganj, through a winding valley of tea gardens and streams, lies a unique constellation of little villages at the foothills of the Himalayas. Bir, in the Kangra district of Himachal, is a melting pot of a thousand Indian villagers, a small Tibetan colony and increasing numbers of volunteers, and international students of meditation and philosophy. Previously host to the International Paragliding Festival, it’s considered one of the best spots for paragliding in the world, so it isn’t uncommon to see professional gliders descending into the fields of the pastoral Tibetan colony. Licensed pilots can take you on your first dizzying ride across the mountains from summits in Billing, a short uphill drive from the colony. The bucolic region also hosts meditation retreats, sustainable living workshops and volunteer projects year-round, including the International Yoga Festival, due to take place in October.

 Eco-tourism trips in Spiti Valley, focusing on conservation, organic farming and handicraft preservation are available here

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Ancient tribes, new-age tunes: Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh

Hot-listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the rice terraces and verdant plains of Ziro Valley in the Eastern Himalayan state of Arunachal are home to the Apatani, an animistic tribal group characterized by facial tattoos and striking noseplugs. Apatani culture dates back to the 19th century, but has been eroded by the passage of time and lack of any written records. The valley still abounds with ancient practices, from traditional agriculture to sustainable bamboo villages and harvest festivals, presided over by shamans. In September, modernity meets the medieval when the peaceful valley fills up with music lovers from all over the country for the Ziro Music Festival. Aside from the musical stylings of national and international alternative artists, the outdoor festival also provides a platform to local folk musicians, and hosts heritage walks and treasure hunts around the valley. You won’t find any hotels here, but it’s best to reside in a homestay to get a real flavour of the tribal culture. If you’re lucky, you might be treated to the local rice-beer and spicy, wood-fired pork.

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The literary trail: Around Uttarakhand

The Greater Himalayan region of Uttarakhand has long inspired awe with its snow-clad peaks, gigantic glaciers and imposing pine forests, and while the ‘Land of the Gods’ is best known for its temples and a terrain suited to all kinds of outdoorsy adventures, it’s also the land of artists and intellectuals. In the Dehradun district, Mussoorie is a bastion of British architecture and spills from the mountainside like a waterfall. Music fans can look forward to the Big Gig music festival in May, while the Mussoorie Writers Mountain Festival welcomes a flood of writers from around the world. Further south along the mountain, you can cure your writer’s block in the lake district of Nainital — a former haunt of Rudyard Kipling — before taking an hour’s drive to the inconspicuous, orchard-lined environs of Ramgarh, where Nobel-laureate Rabindranath Tagore found his literary voice.

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No country for meek men: Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh

Spiti Valley is usually swept under the rug in favour of its more popular, older sisters Leh and Ladakh, but Himachal’s ‘Middle Kingdom’, which marries India with Tibet, holds as much mystery and intrigue as the latter. The frosted desert thaws and opens to travelers for only six months of the year, and from the minute you enter, you feel almost sure the moon’s seen more humans than Spiti’s lunar landscape ever has. Here you can visit Dhankar, a village with a population fewer than 100, whose tiny white houses look like jagged teeth rising from the façade of brown mountain, or Ki Monastery, where 300 monks chant in medieval prayer rooms. In Pin Valley National Park, the confluence of two rivers greens the austere terrain, and if you’re lucky, you might spot one of the elusive snow leopards that haunt the area. In eerie Tabo, you can live alongside monks in a 900 AD monastery, while higher up at 14,200ft, is Kibber, one of the highest road-accessible villages in the world.

 

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