THE GRAFFITI SCRAWLED on the bunkhouse exterior struck me as rather impatient. Surely there were worse places to be waiting around than the Garhwal Himalayas, where the peaks of northern India jostle with the mountains of Tibet and Nepal.
Yet among the Sanskrit prayers that had been written on the walls, some wag had inked: “Where the hell is Chanderam?” The bunkhouse caretaker evidently had a habit of running late.
His were not the only whereabouts I was pondering. I was in some of the most majestic mountain-country on earth, looking out over a sweep of alpine meadows, a deep umber grassland that bled into green and yellow at the banks of a faraway stream. Above us loomed the spires of Bandarpunch and Swargarohini, the tallest in a rampart of peaks that reach higher than 20,000 feet. But I hadn’t seen another trekking party since setting off on the trail four days and 25 miles earlier.
As I’d sat by the roadside cradling a cup of milky chai, I’d sensed from the gathering crowd of onlookers that tourism isn’t thriving in the Indian state of Uttarakhand the way it is in other parts of the Himalayas. An overnight train from Delhi and a daylong Jeep ride along crumbling cliff-face roads had brought me to Sankri, a hillside outpost on the southern rim of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. That first morning I was the village’s star attraction: Whole families had turned out to inspect me and watch my guide, Rajan Singhâa garrulous local man with a sun-lined faceâhaggle for vegetables, rice and flour in preparation for our foray into the high Himalayas.
Foreigners haven’t always been unusual in the Garhwal. Between the world wars, when the British Empire held sway over the subcontinent, adventurers came from far and wide to map the region’s valleys and scale its highest summits. Mountaineers like Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman lay the technical foundations for the ascent of Mount Everest here; in summer, colonial households repaired to the high-altitude towns of Mussoourie and Dehradun to escape the heat. But with the fall of the Raj, the rise of Nepal as the trekking hub of the Himalayas, and border disputes between India and China, the Garhwal’s fame ebbed.
Today, the Garhwal is a more rugged and authentic alternative to the teahouse circuits of Nepal; a region that remains largely untainted by modern tourism.
“Osla, with its houses strewn along a ledge overlooking the river, felt like the very margins of India. ”
Our plan was to take a six-day jaunt along the Har Ki Doon Trail, a 50-mile round-trip said to be ideally suited to the fair-weather trekker. We would sleep in rudimentary rest-houses and eat only what we had managed to cram into our rucksacks. The villages we’d be stopping in would all be 7 to 10 miles apart on a path that follows a steady gradient up a single valley, a positively leisurely prospect compared with the up-and-down slogs from one valley to the next that characterize many Himalayan trails.
We set off from Sankri on a wide, stone-paved track that ran north into a steep-sided valley. Far below us ran the Tamsa River, milky and swollen from the recent monsoon. Over the course of the day, the trail bent to the contours of the gorge, taking us through fragrant forests of deodarâa Himalayan cedar treeâand tall rai conifers, toward the snowy mountaintops that were our ultimate destination.
Torluka, the first overnight stop on our route, was an alpine idyll steeped in afternoon sun. We walked past terraced fields of amaranth, which had turned vermilion in the run-up to harvest, and continued down a lane of houses built of huge deodar beams inlaid with stucco of mud and stone. Ruddy-faced children shouted to us from behind brightly painted balustrades, while women in colorful petticoats, their ears jangling with gold jewelry, trudged from field to storehouse bent double under bales of sorghum.
There are an estimated 20,000 people living within Govind National Park, and the assortment of ethnicities in evidence in TorlukaâBhotia, Pashtun and Caucasian among themâhinted at centuries of transience and intermingling. These settlements grew up as staging posts for traders carrying goods over the mountains into Tibet, and local hospitality is still more geared toward grizzled cloth-merchants than the Gore-Tex brigade. Simple restaurants served rice, daal and endless cups of tea to men sporting felt caps and paunches cultivated during the inertia of the just-passed rainy season.
For those who would rather not camp, Torluka has a Forest Rest House that dates back to the Raj and a guesthouse owned by Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GWVN), a government-subsidized tourism company. My room in the latter was basic and threadbare, with a rickety bed-frame piled with heavy woolen blankets and walls festooned with dust and cobwebs.
Our village sojourns did little to diminish my sense of being somewhere wild and seldom-visited. From Torluka, the track shrank and grew less hospitable, clinging to the wall of the gorge. It frequently vanished altogether, its passage interrupted by monsoon landslidesâa favorite, and unnerving, conversation topic of Mr. Singh’s.
“Here, there used to be 22 houses,” began a typical aside, as we pigeon-stepped across another tongue of fallen shale. “Then, whoosh”âa flourishing hand suggested the devastation’s pathâ”everything is gone.”
As the terrain grew more rugged, so did the villages. Osla, with its squat homesteads strewn haphazardly along a ledge overlooking the river, felt like the very margins of India. It reminded me of what Nehru once wrote of the Garhwal: that it was “extraordinary to be so near and yet so far from the rest of the world.”
We spent the afternoon lounging by the beds of marigolds and sweet William that surrounded the lawn of the GMVN guesthouse. When the sun dipped behind the western crags, we cooked dinner over an open fire, and Mr. Singh and some local men took swigs from a bottle of bitter grain-based moonshine, chasing it down with long drags on a crude copper water-pipe. I found the booze undrinkable, but it made one hell of an accelerant for our fireâhandy in temperatures that dropped below freezing as night closed in.
The Lowdown: Har Ki Doon Trail, India
Getting There: Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi is the closest international hub. From there, you can take the Shatabdi Express train to Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s state capital. Govind Pashu Vihar National Park is about 100 miles further north by public bus.
When to Go: Trekking in the Garhwal Himalayas is best before or after the monsoon season (late June to early September). In spring (April to June), days are warm and wildflowers abound; in autumn (September and October), night temperatures dip below freezing but the skiesâand subsequently the viewsâare generally clear.
Trekking There: Various agents in Dehradun offer guided treks in Govind. Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (
), a government-sponsored agency, can arrange tailor-made trekking itineraries, and runs a network of guesthouses throughout the region. Their six-day Har Ki Doon trek costs around $420 per person.
What to Pack: Hiking the Har Ki Doon Trail involves spending the night at altitudes up to 12,000 feet, so warm gear and a good sleeping bag are essential. Stocking up on supplies in Dehradun is advisable, as there are limited opportunities to purchase food along the trail.
The next morning we signed the Osla register, which was lovingly safeguarded by a bespectacled man in a long blue loincloth, and embarked on a steady climb through terraced pastures and ancient forests of silver oak.
The landscape became more spectacular with each mile. The hills gave way to mountains, and the mountains to giants, until in midafternoon the valley unfolded into the cupped palm of Har Ki Doon, the “Valley of God.”
Our foray ended at a collection of tin-roofed buildings surrounded by titanic boulders. We dumped our bags, stamped silver mica dust from our boots and gazed out at Swargarohini and Bandarpunch. Though awe-inspiring, the area was just one drop in an ocean of wilderness. To our east, I knew, lay trails that were all but undiscovered by tourists. By the time Chanderamâa mousy man with a handlebar mustache whom I recognized as the most enthusiastic participant in the previous night’s drinking sessionâcame puffing into view, a sack of firewood slung over his bony shoulder, I had already vowed to return.
It was another two days before we finally bumped into some other trekkers. When they came, they came in numbers: a hundred or so civil servant trainees from Delhi, here on a team-building exercise.
“We want them to learn that there is another India outside of the cities,” said the ebullient expedition leader, when I asked why he’d brought his charges to Har Ki Doon. “And we didn’t want them to be too comfortable!”
For where, after all, is the adventure in that?
A version of this article appeared May 11, 2013, on page D8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Hidden Himalayas.