Below are some of the major travel highlights for Himalayan Frontiers. For more in-depth attractions of each country on this route, click on the country names below or select a route to see the highlights on this section of the journey. Click on the icons below to focus on specific types of features (click again to return to all).
|In-depth highlights: Bhutan, China, India, Nepal|
India's bustling capital city comprises two main parts. Old Delhi was the capital of the Mughal Empire between the 12th and 18th centuries and is characterised by its narrow streets and alleyways, bazaars and historic monuments. The Jama Masjid (Great Mosque) is the largest and one of the most impressive in India while the Red Fort and Humayun's Tomb (separate features) are spectacular historic structures. New Delhi is a stark contrast, the imperial city of the British with wide, open boulevards and imposing buildings designed by architect Edward Luytens. Its attractions include the India Gate war memorial arch, Connaught Place, Lok Sabha or the Parliament Building, the Rashtrapati Bhavan, once the imperial palace of the British viceroy and now the residence of the President of India, and Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
|Red Fort of Delhi|
The Red Fort was built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as his palace fort and represents the zenith of Mughal creativity, a fusion of Islamic, Hindu, Persian and Central Asian influences. The red sandstone walls stretch for 2.5km and are 33 metres high, enclosing palaces, gardens and pavilions and remains a powerful symbol of India.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Red Fort Complex
The tomb of Humayun, second Mughal Emperor of India, was built in 1569-70 by his widow, 14 years after his death. Later used to bury various members of the ruling family, it has been called the necropolis of the Mughal dynasty. Located in the centre of a garden laid out in char baah style, it inspired several architectural innovations which would culminate in the construction of the Taj Mahal a century later.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Humayun's Tomb, Delhi
Qutb Minar is a red sandstone tower, 72 metres high, that was constructed in the 13th century. It is surrounded by funerary buildings, including the Alai-Darwaza Gate built in 1311, and two mosques including the Quwwatu'l-Islam (Might of Islam), the oldest in northern India.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Qutb Minar and its Monuments, Delhi
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and is known as the 'Pink City' since its buildings were painted for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1876. Jaipur was designed as a planned city, though today it exhibits the colourful chaos and bustle of many Indian cities, with streets packed with pedestrians, bicycles, cars, buses, camels and cows. Inside its old city walls, the City Palace now contains a museum for royal garments, miniatures, carpets, manuscripts and armour. The 18th century observatory of the astronomer Jai Singh, known as Jantar Mantar, contains a series of immense astronomical instruments made of marble and brass that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Elsewhere the pink sandstone facade of the Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal) is a famous Jaipur landmark. 11km north of Jaipur lies the spectacular Amber Fort, a hillside complex containing many courtyards and fine decorated palaces, halls, gardens and temples. The massive gateway can be reached by riding an elephant into the fort.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Jantar Mantar
The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognised, admired and magnificent buildings in the world. It was built between 1631 and 1648 by the orders of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum in memory of his third and favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to his 14th child. It's estimated that 20,000 workers were employed in its construction, including masons, marble workers, mosaicists and decorators. The Taj Mahal stands before a vast Mughal garden, laid out in perfect symmetry, with the canals providing an exquisite reflection of the building. It is a study in architectural precision, combining elements and styles from Persian, Central Asian and Islamic architecture. The white marble exterior is inlaid with thousands of pieces of coloured and semi-precious stones, decorative bands and calligraphic inscriptions. The Taj Mahal is best visited at sunrise or sunset when the sun casts the building in different lights, but many hours should be spent here admiring one of the world's great sights.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Taj Mahal
|Red Fort of Agra|
The Red Fort of Agra was a centre of the Mughal Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Construction was begun by Emperor Akbar and continued by his successors Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Its red sandstone walls stretch for 2.5km and enclosed the imperial city of the Mughal rulers, comprising ornately decorated palaces such as the Jahangit Palace and Khas Mahal, the beautiful white marble Pearl Mosque and numerous audience halls, courtyards and fountains. The Fort reflects a fusion of Hindu and Islamic styles leading to a distinctive new Indo-Muslim art. There are great views of the nearby Taj Mahal from Agra Fort.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Agra Fort
The city of Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges River, is the holiest Hindu site in India. Hindu pilgrims flock here from all over India to bathe in the Ganges, along the 4km of ghats, or steps, that lead down to the river. A boat ride on the river, especially at dawn, to watch this religious ritual is an extraordinary experience. There are also a number of burning ghats where cremations take place. The city itself, supposedly one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is a chaotic and crowded place, but fascinating to wander its winding streets amongst temples and bazaars, which specialise in selling silk.
Sarnath, located just 10km from Varanasi, is the site where Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment 2,500 years ago and is therefore an important site of pilgrimage for Buddhists. The Dharmarajka and the Dhamekh Stupas lie on the spot where he first espoused the Buddhist teachings. The nearby Ashoka Pillar and monastery housed some 1,500 monks at its height before destruction by Muslim armies. Rediscovered by British archaeologists in the 19th century, it has been restored and is now one of Buddhism's holiest sites.
|Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya|
Located in Bihar Province on the plains of the Ganges, Bodh Gaya is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world as the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment in 531 BC. Thousands of Buddhist pilgrims flock to the Mahabodhi temple, built in the 6th century AD on the site of the original temple built in the 3rd century BC. One of the oldest Buddhist brick temples in India, Mahabodhi is topped by a 50 metre spire. Other items of interest here are 25 metre high statue of Buddha and the giant Bodhi tree which is supposed to be the direct descendant of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved supreme insight.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya
|Royal Chitwan National Park|
Royal Chitwan National Park is located in south-central Nepal close to the border with India. It comprises 932 km² of 'terai' subtropical lowland. One of the finest game parks in Asia, Chitwan is renowned for its population of one-horned rhinos, of which there are roughly 400 in the park. There are also several species of deer, wild dog, sloth bear, elephants, striped hyenas, bison and small populations of leopard and tiger, of which there are about 80, though sightings are rare. The best way to view wildlife is to take a safari on elephant-back. Another option is to take a dugout canoe ride on the Rapti River to view marsh-mugger crocodiles and some of the estimated 400 bird species in the park.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Royal Chitwan National Park
|Lumbini - the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha|
Lumbini was the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, in 623 BC and has been a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists for thousands of years. The Indian Emperor Ashoka visited and built a commemorative pillar which can still be seen today. Numerous temple complexes have been built here over the years.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Lumbini, the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha
Nepal's capital is a fascinating city narrow streets and alleyways, palaces and hidden temples, with a huge diversity of people. The city is centred around Durbar Square, home to the Royal Palace and numerous temples. The alleys leading from the square are filled with shops and bazaars selling an amazing range of products. The Buddhist stupa of Swayambhu, known as the monkey temple, is the oldest holy shrine in the valley and offers spectacular views. Bodhnath Stupa is one of the biggest Buddhist shrines in the world, surrounded by temples. Pashupati is the most famous Hindu temple in Nepal, set on the banks of the holy Bagmati River.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Kathmandu Valley
|Towns of Kathmandu Valley|
The towns of the Kathmandu Valley combine the architectural and cultural richness of the capital in a much less developed setting, making for some beautiful and atmospheric locations. Across the Bagmati River 14km east of Kathmandu lies Patan (or Lalitpur), known as the 'City of Beauty', renowned for its Durbar Square with more than 50 temples and shrines. Bhaktapur (or Bhadgaun), known as the ‘City of the Devotees’, is a beautifully preserved medieval town of potters and pagodas.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Kathmandu Valley
One of the world's classic trekking destinations is in the Khumbu Valley of the eastern Himalayas underneath the towering peak of the world's highest mountain - the incomparable Mount Everest (8848 metres). Located in Sagarmatha National Park, this area comprises several dramatic mountain peaks in addition to Everest, glaciers and deep valleys formed by tributaries of the Dudh Kosi which flows southwards through Lukla (2,800 metres), the base for exploring the park. This is the home of the Sherpa people, with their unique culture based on the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which can be encountered in the town of Namche Bazaar with its Sherpa Museum and Visitor Centre and the famous and sacred monastery at Thyangboche. Trekking options in the park range from moderate introductory trails to the classic trek to Everest base camp and the challenging ascents of mountains like Mera and Island Peak.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Sagarmatha National Park
The Annapurna Range of the Himalayas Mountains is one of the most popular trekking regions in Nepal. The area offers spectacular views of some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, including Annapurna I, II and II, Dhaulagiri and the fish-tail peak of Machhapuchhare. It is also a culturally rich region, with mountain villages of a diverse group of Hindu and Buddhist peoples. From a base in the picturesque town of Pokhara, trekking options range from moderate introductory treks to the long circuit around the Annapurnas and a route to the incomparable Annapurna Sanctuary.
A former hill station of the Bengal government during the British Raj, the town of Darjeeling is located at 2124 metres overlooked by Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain at 8586 metres, with spectacular views of the Himalayas from Tiger Hill, just outside the town. The Himalayan Zoological Park attempts to breed snow leopard, Tibetan wolf and Red panda while the Botanical Gardens has a unique collection of Himalayan plants, flowers, and orchids. The Mountaineering Institute's Everest Museum is dedicated to climbers of the Himalayas. The Tibetan Refugee Centre was established in 1958 by Tibetans fleeing the Chinese invasion and sells Tibetan handicrafts. Other attractions include nearby Tibetan monasteries (particularly Ghoom Gompa), tea plantations and some colourful markets.
|Darjeeling Toy Train|
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was completed in 1881 and connects the hill station of Darjeeling with the low-lying plains of Bihar. Its tiny locomotive travels slowly along a narrow gauge rail, taking 8 hours to complete a mere 82km on a meandering route. The railway highlights the ingenious engineering required to lay track along the mountainous and jungle clad landscape. The scenery changes from paddy fields through hills filled with tea plantations and finally reaches the mountain slopes of Darjeeling, with stunning views of the Himalayas beyond.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mountain Railways of India
Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, located between Nepal and Bhutan, which was annexed by India in 1975. Steeped in Tibetan culture, the town offers spectacular views of the Himalayan peaks. Its attractions include the Drodul Chorten surrounded by 108 prayer wheels which commemorates the victory of good over evil, the Institute of Tibetology which contains numerous priceless religious paintings (thangkas), statues and Buddhist books and manuscripts and the Rumtek Monastery outside of town, the largest in Sikkim and the headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Pemayangste Monastery is the principal monastery of Sikkim, founded in the 17th century, and the centre of the Nyingmapa sect. This is a mystical type of Tantric Buddhism derived from Tibetan Lamaism, whose monks are characterised by the red caps they wear. Nearby lies Kecheopelri or the Wishing Lake, the holiest lake in Sikkim and a place of pilgrimage for both Buddhists and Hindus.
Thimpu is one of the most unique capitals in the world, a small city of 90,000 people where every building is required to be constructed in traditional style and decorated with Buddhist symbols. The Tashicho Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) dates to the 17th century and is the religious and administrative centre of the country. The golden-spired Memorial Chorten was built in 1974 to commemorated the Third King, Jigme Dorij Wangchuk, who died two years earlier. Other attractions in Thimpu include the Painting School, where children receive education in traditional painting, sculpture and woodcarving, the National Library, Textile Museum and shopping for Bhutanese souvenirs in the bustling and atmospheric streets of the city. If possible, time your visit to coincide with the Thimpu Festival held every Autumn.
The Paro Valley is one of the most beautiful in Bhutan, located along the Paro Chu River with rice fields, pine-covered hills and many of the country's most famous and historic dzongs. The Taktseng Monastery is the most famous and sacred in Bhutan, perched spectacularly on a cliff face 900 metres over the valley. Translated as 'Tiger's Nest' based on the legend that its founder flew there on the back of a tiger, the monastery can be reached on foot but tourists aren't allowed to enter. Drukgyal Dzong, or Victorious Fortress, is located along the main route between Bhutan and Tibet and was named after a 17th century Tibetan invasion was defeated. The imposing fortress of Ta Dzong today houses the National Museum with an excellent collection of sacred scrolls, religious icons, Bhutanese stamps and walls covered in thanka paintings and colourful murals. Kyichu Lhakhang is one of the holiest temples in Bhutan and is believed to date back to the 7th century when it was built to subdue a demoness. The Paro Festival, held every year in springtime, brings a carnival atmosphere to the town and monks engage in masked dances and prayer meetings that celebrate Bhutanese legends and traditions.
Punakha is located in eastern Bhutan, reached from Thimpu or Paro by a spectacular road journey over the Dochula Pass, which at 3,050 metres provides magnificent views over the eastern Himalayas. Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan, is located in a sub-tropical valley at 1,350 metres. The 17th century Punakha Dzong was once the seat of the Bhutanese government but today is the winter retreat of the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Located on the confluence of two rivers, the dzong is a magnificent example of Bhutanese architecture comprising numerous tiered halls, inner courtyards and golden spires. The nearby Cimi Lakgang Monastery is a beautiful sacred temple built in the 15th century by the 'Mad Monk', the Lama Drukpa Kunley.
Lhasa is the religious, cultural and economic centre of Tibet. Its most imposing feature is the Potala Palace, winter palace of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century and the symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Built between the 7th and 17th centuries, the palace resides atop Red Mountain and comprises over 1,000 rooms across its 13 stories, though only 15 are accessible to tourists. The complex includes the White Palace, which includes the throne of the Dalai Lama and his personal apartments, and the Red Palace, which contains chapels and stupa tombs of previous Dalai Lamas. Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's summer palace, is located on the bank of the river 2km from the Potala Palace. The 18th century garden palace is a masterpiece of Tibetan art. The Jokhang Temple Monastery in the centre of Lhasa's old town is the most sacred temple in Tibet, attracting pilgrims from all across the country. It includes the Jowo Rimpoche, a gilded statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, and is surrounded by the Barkhor, an 800m flagstone pathway which is walked by pilgrims and houses Lhasa's main bazaar. Other sites of interest in the city include Drepung and Sera Monasteries, the latter renowned for the daily philosophical debates by the resident monks.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa
Located north of Lhasa, Namtso Lake is the largest and one of the holiest in Tibet, attracting pilgrims who spend weeks circumnavigating it (80km long by 30km wide). The lake is located at 4,718 metres and is towered over by the Nyenchen Tanglha mountain range, with several peaks over 7,000 metres. There are numerous Buddhist temples around the lake, including some remarkable rock shrines.
Shigatse is Tibet's second largest town, situated at 3,900 metres near the confluence of the Ngang and Yarlung Tsangpo rivers. The Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of the great centres of Tibetan Buddhism and the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama. The monastery survived the Cultural Revolution intact and contains numerous impressive chapels and prayer halls, as well as a giant statue of Buddha in the Temple of Maitreya containing 280kg of gold and an ornate tomb which is the final resting-place of the fourth Panchen Lama.
|Everest Base Camp (North Face)|
A drive and trek to Everest Base Camp in Tibet provides spectacular views of the north face of Everest and the neighbouring Himalayan peaks. From the Friendship Highway just after Shegar, a dirt road takes you 85km to Rongphu, over the Pang La pass at 5,120 metres which offers a superb panoramic view of the peaks of Everest, Cho Oyu, Lhotse, Gyachung Kang and Makalu. The monastery at Rongphu (4900m) provides a stunning view of the north face of Everest as its colour changes with sunset. From here you can trek or take a pony cart to base camp, where there are great close up views of the Everest, a small hill decorated with hundreds of colourful prayer flags and a memorial to Mallory and Irvine's climb in 1924.
The Friendship Highway links Lhasa in Tibet with Kathmandu in Nepal across the spectacular mountain scenery of the Himalayas. Driving south from Lhasa, you cross the Kamba La (4794m) mountain pass, with superb views of the Yarlung Tsangpo River behind and the scorpion-shaped turquoise lake of Yamdrok Tso ahead. After following the lake shoreline, you pass Karo La (5010m), close to a hanging glacier near the summit, and then Simi La before reaching the town of Gyantse, home to the Pelke Chode Monastery and the Kumbum Stupa. The route continues through high altitude plateaus and mountain passes past Shigatse and Shegar and through Gyatso La (5220m) to Tingre. Reaching the Nepal border, the views of the Himalayan peaks are magnificent at Lalung La (5000m) and Tong La (5100m) including Shishapangma, the only mountain in Tibet over 8,000 metres. Descending to Zhangmu, the border is crossed at the Friendship Bridge, followed by a short journey to Kathmandu.
The tomb of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang was discovered in 1974 and was considered one of the archaeological finds of the century. Thousands of life-size warriors were sculpted from clay and buried with the emperor to protect him, with the complex designed to echo the urban plan of the capital Xianyang. It took approximately 700,000 people 36 years to create the tomb and its clay warriors. The warriors and their horses and chariots are standing in battle formation, and each is unique, with different ranks, hairstyles, costumes and even facial expressions. The first pit contained an army of approximately 2,000 warriors, with infantry, cavalry and archers which have been reconstructed but left on their original positions. The second pit was similar with the third thought to be the command post, containing officers, dignitaries and a cart with four horses. Much of the site remains to be excavated and renovated. The Terracotta Warriors are a must-see of any trip to China and one of the most extraordinary historical sights in the world.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor
Xian is the capital of Shaanxi Province and the largest city in northwest China. It was the first capital of a unified China in 221BC (under Emperor Qin Shi Huang) and has been capital of the empire on 12 separate occasions. Being the terminus for the Silk Road, Xian was also one of the world’s largest, richest and most cosmopolitan cities. Many monuments in the city attest to its great history. The remains of the city walls demonstrate how vast and impressive they were and Xian is one of the few cities in China with preserved walls, some 15km in length which can be cycled on to appreciate views of the city. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a 64m, a 7-storey high structure which was built in 648 AD to house Buddhist scriptures brought back from India. The Muslim Hui District contains the 15th century Great Mosque, one of the largest in China, set amidst narrow streets with quaint shops, bazaars and food stalls. Elsewhere the Shaanxi History Museum contains artefacts from prehistory to the Qing dynasty.
|Great Wall of China|
One of the Wonders of the World and one of the most extraordinary structures ever created, the Great Wall of China is truly a must-see for every traveller. Building walls to defend China from invasion was a strategy dating back to the 8th century BC, but it was under the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang from 220BC that the separate sections were restored and linked to form one structure stretching 5,000km from the Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert to Shanhaiguan on the east coast. Much of the original work on the Wall was completed during the Qin and Han dynasties up to 220AD but it was revived and extended during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) due to conflict with the Mongols. Over a million workers were involved in its construction and many died with the effort. Today the Wall, partially ruined, stretches across mountains, plateaus, grassland and desert over nine provinces, though only one-third of the original remains. There are several sections of the Wall that can be walked along, allowing you to appreciate the breathtaking nature of the construction and how it integrates into the surrounding landscape.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Great Wall
Like the country of which it is capital, Beijing is a vast city with a hugely rich history and a wealth of attractions in addition to the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace and a trip to nearby sections of the Great Wall (detailed in other entries). These include Tiananmen Square, the world's largest public square and site of Chairman Mao's mausoleum and his portrait above the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The hutongs are the maze of historical lanes and alleyways of Beijing, surrounding the Forbidden City, which offer a great insight into the traditional life of Beijing's residents. Also worth checking out are the many fascinating shops and markets, a night at the Beijing Opera or the astonishing acrobatics shows and not forgetting the chance to sample Beijing's cuisine, particularly the famous Peking Duck.