The Himalayas are the highest mountain system on Earth, located between the Tibetan Plateau in the north and the Indo-Gangetic Plain in the south. They are the highest and most inaccessible mountains on the planet. The Himalayas spread across India, Nepal, China, Pakistan, and Bhutan.
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The Himalayan mountain system at the junction of Central and South Asia is over 2,900 km long and about 350 km wide. Its area is about 650,000 km². The average height of the ridges is about 6 km, the maximum height is 8848 m – Mount Jomolungma (Everest). There are 10 eight-thousandths peaks – peaks higher than 8,000 m above sea level. To the north-west of the western chain of the Himalayas is another highest mountain system – the Karakoram.
The population is mainly engaged in agriculture, although the climate allows only a few types of cereals, potatoes, and some other vegetables to be grown. The fields are located on sloping terraces.
The name of the mountains comes from ancient Indian Sanskrit. “Himalaya” means “Snowy abode” or “Kingdom of snows.”
The entire mountain range of the Himalayas consists of three distinctive stages:
- The first, the Predhimalayas (locally called the Shivalik Range), is the lowest of all, with mountain peaks that do not rise more than 2,000 meters.
- The second stage, the Dhaoladhar, Pir Panjal and several other smaller ranges, is called the Lesser Himalayas. The name is rather conventional, because the peaks rise to a solid height of up to 4 kilometers.
- Located behind them are several fertile valleys (Kashmir, Kathmandu, and others), serving as a transition to the highest points of the planet – the Great Himalayas. The two great South Asian rivers, the Brahmaputra in the east and the Indus in the west, seem to embrace this majestic mountain range, originating on its slopes. The Himalayas also give life to India’s sacred river, the Ganges.
Records of the Himalayas
The Himalayas is a pilgrimage destination for the world’s strongest mountaineers, for whom conquering their peaks is a cherished goal in life. Dzhomolungma was not conquered at once – since the beginning of the last century, there have been many attempts to climb the “roof of the world”. The first to reach this goal was in 1953, the New Zealander Edmund Hillary, accompanied by a local guide – Sherpa Norgei Tenzing. The first successful Soviet expedition took place in 1982. Altogether Everest has been conquered about 3,700 times.
Unfortunately, the Himalayas also set sad records – 572 climbers died trying to conquer their eight-kilometer height. But the number of courageous sportsmen does not decrease, because it is the cherished dream of every one of them to climb all 14 “eight-thousanders” and to get the “Crown of the Earth”. Total number of “crowned” winners for today is 30 people, including 3 women.
The Himalayas are rich in minerals. There are deposits of copper ore, placer gold, arsenic and chromium ores in the axial crystalline zone. The foothills and intermountain basins contain oil, combustible gases, brown coal, potassium and rock salt.
The Himalayas are the largest climatic divide in Asia. To the north of them the continental air of temperate latitudes dominates, to the south – tropical air masses. A summer equatorial monsoon reaches the southern slope of the Himalayas. The winds there become so strong that they make it difficult to climb the highest peaks, and therefore Jomolungma can be climbed only in spring, during the short calm period before the onset of the summer monsoon. On the northern slope, the winds from the north or west, coming from the continent, supercooled in winter or warmed in summer, blow all the year round, but they are always dry. From northwest to southeast, the Himalayas extend between about 35 and 28°N, and the northwest sector of the mountain system is hardly penetrated by the summer monsoon. All this creates great climatic differences within the Himalayas.
Precipitation is greatest in the eastern part of the southern slope (2,000 to 3,000 mm). In the west their annual sum does not exceed 1000 mm. Less than 1000 mm falls in the band of inner tectonic depressions and in inner river valleys. On the northern slope, especially in the valleys, the amount of precipitation decreases sharply. In some places, the annual sums are less than 100 mm. Above 1800 m, the winter precipitation is in the form of snow, while above 4500 m it snows all the year round.
On the southern slopes, up to a height of 2000 m, the average January temperature is 6. 7°C in January and 18. 19°С; up to a height of 3000 m, the average temperature of the winter months does not fall below 0°С, and only above 4500 m does the average July temperature become negative. The snow limit in the eastern part of the Himalayas is at an altitude of 4,500 m, while in the western, less humid, it is 5100-5,300 m. On the northern slopes, the height of the nival belt is 700-1000 m higher than on the southern slopes.
High altitudes and abundant precipitation contribute to the formation of powerful glaciers and a dense river network. Glaciers and snow cover all the high peaks of the Himalayas, but the ends of the glacial tongues have considerable absolute height. Most of the Himalayan glaciers belong to the valley type and reach no more than 5 km in length. But the farther east and more precipitation, the longer the glaciers are and lower down the slopes. At Jomolungma and Kanchenjunga the most powerful glaciation, the largest glaciers of the Himalayas are formed. They are dendritic glaciers with several feeding areas and one main trunk. The Zemu Glacier on Kanchenjunga reaches a length of 25 km and ends at an altitude of about 4000 m. The Rongbuk Glacier slides down from Jomolungma and is 19 km long, ending at an altitude of 5,000 m. The Gangotri Glacier in the Kumaon Himalayas is 26 kilometers long; one of the sources of the Ganges originates from it.
Especially many rivers flow from the southern slope of the mountains. They begin in the glaciers of the Greater Himalayas and, crossing the Lesser Himalayas and the foothill zone, reach the plains. Some of the major rivers come from the northern slope and cut through the Himalayas deeply through valleys on their way to the Indo-Gangetic Plain. These are the Indus and its tributary the Sutlej and the Brahmaputra (Tsangpo).
The Himalayan rivers are fed by rain, glacier and snow, so the main maximum flow is in summer. In the eastern part, monsoon rains play an important role in feeding the rivers, while in the west the snow and ice of the high altitude zone play an important role. Narrow gorges or canyon-like valleys of the Himalayas abound in waterfalls and rapids. From May, when the most rapid snowmelt begins, until October, when the summer monsoon ends, rivers gush down from the mountains, carrying masses of debris that they deposit as they emerge from the Himalayan foothills. Monsoon rains often cause severe flooding of mountain rivers, washing away bridges, destroying roads, and causing landslides.
There are many lakes in the Himalayas, but none as large or as beautiful as the alpine ones. Some lakes, such as those in the Kashmir Basin, occupy only a part of those tectonic depressions that used to be filled entirely. The Pir Panjal range is known for numerous glacial lakes formed in ancient sinkholes or in river valleys as a result of their moraine undercutting.
The abundantly moist southern slope of the Himalayas has exceptionally pronounced altitudinal belts ranging from tropical forests to high-altitude tundras. At the same time the southern slope is characterized by considerable differences in vegetation between the moist and hot eastern part and the drier and cooler western part. A peculiar swampy strip of black muddy soils, called terai, stretches along the foothills of the mountains from their eastern end to the course of the river Jamna. The terai is characterized by a jungle of dense tree and shrub thickets, in some places almost impassable due to lianas and consisting of soapwood, mimosas, bananas, stunted palms, and bamboos. Among the terai there are cleared and drained areas that are used for the cultivation of various tropical crops.
Above the terai, evergreen tropical forests of tall palms, laurel, tree ferns, and giant bamboos, with many lianas (including rattan palm) and epiphytes grow along the humid mountain slopes and river valleys up to heights of 1000-1200 meters. In drier areas, less dense forests of tallow trees, which lose their foliage during the dry season, with rich undergrowth and grass cover prevail.
At altitudes above 1,000 m, subtropical evergreen and deciduous tree species: pines, evergreen oaks, magnolias, maples, and chestnuts begin to mingle with the thermophilic forms of tropical forest. At an altitude of 2000 m, subtropical forests are replaced by temperate forests of deciduous and conifers, among which one can find only occasional representatives of subtropical flora, such as magnolias with magnificent flowers. Conifers, including silver fir, larch, and juniper, dominate near the upper border of the forest. Dense thickets of tree rhododendrons form the undergrowth. A lot of mosses and lichens covering the soil and tree trunks. Subalpine belt, replacing the forests, is a high grass meadows and bushes, the vegetation of which gradually becomes lower and thinner in the transition to the alpine belt.
The high-mountain meadow vegetation of the Himalayas is unusually rich in species, including primroses, anemones, poppies and other brightly blooming perennial herbs. The upper boundary of the alpine belt in the east reaches an altitude of about 5000 m, but individual plants are found much higher. When climbing Jomolungma, plants were found at an altitude of 6,218 m.
In the western part of the southern slope of the Himalayas, due to the lower humidity, there is no such richness and diversity of vegetation; the flora is much poorer than in the east. There is absolutely no terai band, the lower parts of the mountain slopes are covered with sparse xerophytic forests and thickets of bushes, above there are some subtropical Mediterranean species like evergreen stone oak and golden-leaved olive, still higher prevail coniferous forests of pines and the magnificent Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara). The shrub undergrowth in these forests is poorer than in the east, but the meadow alpine vegetation is more diverse.
The landscapes of the northern ranges of the Himalayas, facing Tibet, are closer to the desert mountain landscapes of Central Asia. The change of vegetation with height is less pronounced than on the southern slopes. From the bottoms of large river valleys up to the snow-covered peaks, there are sparse thickets of dry grasses and xerophytic shrubs. Woody vegetation occurs only in some river valleys in the form of thickets of stunted poplars.
The landscape differences in the Himalayas are also reflected in the composition of the wildlife. The diverse and rich fauna of the southern slopes has a distinctly tropical character. Many large mammals, reptiles and insects are common in the forests of the lower parts of the slopes and in the terai. Elephants, rhinos, buffalo, wild boar, and antelope are still found there. The jungle is literally swarming with various monkeys. Macaques and sloths are especially characteristic. Of predators, the most dangerous to the population are tigers and leopards – spotted and black (black panthers). Among birds, peacocks, pheasants, parrots, and wild chickens stand out for their beauty and bright plumage.
In the upper belt of the mountains and on the northern slopes, the fauna is similar in composition to that of Tibet. There live there black Himalayan bears, wild goats and sheep, and yaks. Rodents are especially numerous.
Population and Environmental Problems
Most of the population is concentrated in the middle belt of the southern slope and in the intra-mountain tectonic depressions. There is a lot of cultivated land there. On the irrigated flat bottoms of the depressions sow rice, on terraced slopes grow tea bushes, citrus fruits, vines. Alpine pastures are used for grazing sheep, yaks, and other livestock.
Because of the high altitude of the passes in the Himalayas, communication between the countries of the northern and southern slopes is much more difficult. Some passes are crossed by dirt roads or caravan trails; there are very few highways in the Himalayas. The passes are accessible only in the summertime. In winter they are blocked with snow and completely impassable.
The inaccessibility of the area played a favorable role in preserving the unique mountainous landscapes of the Himalayas. Despite considerable agricultural expansion of the lowlands and valleys, intensive grazing on the slopes and a growing inflow of climbers from different parts of the world, the Himalayas remain a sanctuary for valuable plant and animal species. The real “treasures” are the World Cultural and Natural Heritage national parks of India and Nepal – Nan Dadevi, Sagarmatha and Chitwan.
- Kathmandu: temple complexes of Budanilkantha, Bodnath and Swayambunath, and the National Museum of Nepal;
- Lhasa: Potala Palace, Barcor Square, Jokang Temple Drepung Monastery;
- Thimphu: Bhutan Textile Museum, Thimphu Chorten, Tashicho Dzong;
- Himalayan temple complexes (including Sri Kedarnath Mandir, Yamunotri);
- Buddhist stupas (memorial or reliquary structures);
- Sagarmatha National Park (Everest);
- Nanda Devi and Valley of Flowers National Parks.
Spiritual and health tourism
The spiritual principles and the cult of a healthy body are so closely intertwined in the various strands of Indian schools of philosophy that it is impossible to draw any visible distinction between them. Every year thousands of tourists come to the Indian Himalayas just to get acquainted with the Vedic sciences, the ancient tenets of Yoga teachings, to improve their bodies through the Ayurvedic canons of Panchakarma.
The program of pilgrims necessarily includes visits to deep meditation caves, waterfalls, ancient temples, ablution in the Ganges – the Hindu sacred river. The devotees can have conversations with spiritual mentors, receive from them advice and recommendations for spiritual and bodily purification. However, this topic is so vast and versatile that it requires a separate detailed exposition.
The natural grandeur and highly spiritual atmosphere of the Himalayas fascinate the human imagination. Anyone who has once come into contact with the splendor of these places will always be obsessed with the dream of coming back here at least once more.
Himalayan Garhwal – Asian natural wonder
The hills of Garhwal are literally dotted with pilgrimage towns and ancient temples over which the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas stretch across the districts of Uttarakhand and Chamoli in the central Indian state of Uttaranchal. The main center of Uttarkashi is 148 km north of Rishikesh, a city famous as the cradle of yoga practice. Uttarkashi, a good starting point for treks to the higher parts of Garhwal. The town is home to the leading school for aspiring climbers, the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Among its students was Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to conquer Mount Everest at 8,848 meters in 1984.
In the Garhwal Mountains there is also Devbhumi District whose name can be translated as ‘Abode of the Gods’. Each local trail, river, or peak is named after a Hindu god or goddess. Garhwal, a relatively easy-to-reach mountain range, represents the beautiful beginning of the Himalayas. Here you can walk through forests, valleys dotted with wildflowers, and a desolate glacial landscape of rocks and ice. The best time to visit Garhwal is from February to May and September or October.
In the shadow of the ominous Himalayan peaks, at an altitude of over 3,100 meters, there are four important pilgrimage sites, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnachth and Badrinath. Most people are found here between April and early November, when the pilgrimage season takes place. Then the snow falls, which discourages almost all but the most devout from visiting. All the four places mentioned can be reached from Uttarkashi, Haridwar and Rishikesh.
The sacred Yamuna River originates at Yamunotri and this is where the 13 kilometer trail from Hanuman Chhatti begins. The local temple was founded in the 20th century after the original shrine was destroyed by a flood. About 100 kilometers northeast of Uttarkashi appears the village of Gangotri, which was named after the Ganges River that flows through it. In the local 18th-century temple you can admire images of Hindu deities.
About 18 km upstream of the Ganges, beneath the mountain peaks of Bhagiratha, is the village of Gomukh. There is a path that winds through a picturesque river valley. From Gomukh there is a 26-kilometer trail that crosses the Gangotri Glacier and divides into two sections. One heads to the Tapovan Meadows and the other to Nandanwan with Shivling Peak. At this point the river is called the Bhagirathi. It becomes the Ganges itself after its confluence with the Alaknanda River . Agriculture in this area is limited to the immediate vicinity of the rivers, which are used for irrigation. Another interesting town is Kedarnath, situated beneath the mountain peaks of the same name. It was dedicated to Shiva, and its dominant feature is a beautifully decorated temple said to be 800 years old.
The most visited of all the shrines in the Garhwal Mountains is Badrinath, located 298 km northeast of Rishikesh. It has a colorful polychromatic temple dedicated to Vishnu which is crowded with pilgrims most of the time. The city also boasts of a breathtaking location as it is sandwiched between mountains. Nilakantha, named after Shiva Nilakantha, rises above Badrinath to a height of 6957 meters.
At the confluence of the Dhauliganga and Alaknanda Rivers is Joshimath, one of the four centers of education founded by Adi Shankaracharya, the great 9th century sage. The city is also a major crossroads of two ancient trans-Himalayan trade routes. It was originally the gateway to the Nanda Devi Reserve, but it was closed to the public in 1983. Nowadays, tourists mainly go to the ski slopes in Auli , which can be reached by road or by cable car.
The popular trail also leads to the Hemkund Sahib Sikh Temple and the Valley of Flowers National Park. The Valley of Flowers forms a carpet of anemones, primroses and other alpine plants. If you want to see everything in full bloom, you should visit the place in June or September. You can also do the 70km Curzon Trail, named after the British viceroy who used it. It begins in Ghats and borders the western edge of the Nanda Devi reserve. It continues through the Kuari Pass, which offers a beautiful view of Nanda Devi.
Nanda Devi Reserve.
It covers an area of 630 square kilometers and boasts three beautiful peaks, Nandadevi, East Nandadevi and Nandakot, which form a snow wall in the north. The highest peak, the mountain of the same name, reaches a height of 7,817 meters above sea level. It is also the second highest mountain in India. Indians worship it as a goddess because it is said to be the birthplace of Shiva’s wife, Parvati. Nandadevi was considered unconquerable until 1936, when it was conquered by two British climbers, Eric Shipton and Bill Tillman . However, the act disturbed the locals, who believed that the climbers’ presence angered the goddess.
One of the successors of this mountaineering couple was the American climber William Ansold, who went to the summit with his 22-year-old daughter, Nandadev, whom he named after the Himalayan peak. His daughter, however, died tragically. The center of Nandadevi Reserve was closed in 1983 because of a threat to the local fragile ecosystem. Even today the area is home to rare animals such as the irbis and pheasant.