Himachal Pradesh is a place to go when the plains of India become baking hot in May and June. This hill state rises up from the plains in the south to the high Himalaya and beyond to cross further mountain ranges to the north up to the edge of the Tibetan massif. Large river valleys scored into the landscape are the main settlement areas. The Kullu Valley, with its developed and tourist-oriented economy is the backbone of the state starting near Mandi and striking north through Manali to the foot of the Rhotang La (mountain pass). This is a landscape of green valleys with heavily forested sides, well tended fields, tumultuous rivers, small towns, villages with traditional wooden houses and all overlooked by distant views of snow capped peaks. It is the agricultural powerhouse of the northern hills.
To the south in Himachal Pradesh, the Kangra Valley is best known for McLeod Ganj (often referred to by the adjacent town of Dharamsala) and its most famous resident, the Dalai Lama. Forts, temples and river gorges also compete for attention. Few venture from the tourist haunts of Shimla, McLeod Ganj and Manali to make it north-easterly to the splendid Chamba Valley with its rugged scenery, hill stations and beautiful temple complexes.
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For places of stark and utter beauty in Himachal Pradesh, and landscapes to touch the soul, head for the bleak, high-altitude regions of Lahaul, Spiti and eastern Kinnaur. Once forbidden to foreigners, the region is in the rain shadow of the Himalaya and has much in common with nearby Tibet.
You can start your journey into this state by catching the small narrow gauge train from Kalka (north of Chandigarh) up to Shimla. This slow journey taking most of the day. Ascending through 107 tunnels, over 864 bridges and around numerous bends, the railway works its way up 1500m (4,600ft.) to Shimla once the summer capital of the British government in India.
The town clings to the side of a steep ridge and looks as if it could slip at any time. But it doesn’t. No cars are allowed in the upper part of the town so this is a place to wander, visit the markets, watch people promenade along the Mall and take a tour of the baronial Viceregal Lodge and Botanical Gardens.
Domestic tourists flock to Manali in the north to cool down, explore the hills and make a journey up the Rhotang La (la means pass) to experience their first snow. Foreigners come here to chill out and for those with too much energy there’s trekking, skiing (in winter), river rafting and other adventure sports.
At altitude this is the place for the hot months between May and September. September, after the monsoon until December, although it will be colder, is a good time to visit Shimla as views to the mountains will be unobscured by low cloud. The road from Manali to Leh in Ladakh passes a considerable way through Himachal territory and is only open between late June and mid September.