For mountain lovers and the vertically inclined the Himalayas represent nothing less than the crowning apex of nature's grandeur. Here dramatic forested gorges rise to skylines of snow-capped glaciated peaks through a landscape that ranges from high-altitude desert to dripping rhododendron forest. Home to some 40 million people, this is no alpine wilderness, but rather a vibrant mosaic of peoples, cultures and communities, criss-crossed by ancient trading and pilgrimage routes that offer their own unique inspiration. Test your mettle against some of the world's most audacious and dangerous roads, or set a more measured pace on a trek through yak pastures to prayer flag-strewn passes haunted by snow leopards and red pandas. Stretching in a 2500km-long arc across Asia from Kashmir to Kathmandu, Lhasa to Ladakh, the Himalayan range is a big place. Focus your pilgrimage on one of the following dream trips.
Ladakh – India's little Tibet
Hidden over high passes in an arid, largely treeless rain shadow, Ladakh is classic Trans Himalayan scenery: huge khaki-coloured valleys and harsh rock walls brought alive by the occasional splash of irrigated green. Traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture remains intact here, with spectacularly located monasteries that burst into life during medieval masked dance festivals that have changed little in 500 years. For travellers there's a bit of everything – epic treks, sparkling high-altitude mountain lakes and a well developed backpacker infrastructure based around the capital, Leh.
When to go June to September
Suggested itinerary Hire a jeep or an Enfield motorbike and drive out to ancient Hemis, Lamayuru and Thikse monasteries, taking a side trip to the turquoise lake of Pangong Tso bordering Tibet; afterwards, do a five-day homestay trek through the Markha Valley.
Off the beaten track alternative Spiti, in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, has the same dramatic mountain scenery and monasteries but without the crowds. Trek from village to village with local NGO Ecosphere and overnight at the incredible monasteries of Dhankar and Tabo.
Tibet – roof of the world
The high Tibetan plateau is the rooftop of Asia, hidden from the Indian subcontinent behind the ramparts of the Great Himalaya. Despite Chinese-led modernisation, Tibet's great monasteries still hum with murmured mantras and the flicker of yak butter lamps. Sublime landscapes, ranging from rolling grasslands to high-altitude turquoise lakes, a vibrant Buddhist culture and the friendly and resilient Tibetan people are the highlights here, as are the views of Everest's North Face – miles better than anything you'll see in Nepal.
When to go Mid-May to September
Suggested itinerary Join a requisite tour for the ten-day overland trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, stopping at the incredible multistorey stupa (structure containing Buddhist relics) at Gyantse and the spectacular medieval monastery at Sakya.
Off the beaten track alternative Complete a rugged three-day trek around Asia's most sacred peak, Mt Kailash, in remote Western Tibet, and then visit the incredible Kashmiri-influenced art of Tsaparang and the Guge Kingdom, hidden deep in the weirdly eroded desert gorges of the Sutlej Valley. Freshly paved roads and a new airport outside Ali make the two-week trip much less arduous than just two years ago, though you still have to hire transport and a guide through an agency in Lhasa or Kathmandu.
Nepal – a trekker's paradise
The best way to experience the mountains is on foot, and Himalayan treks just don't get any more spectacular or convenient than in Nepal. Follow mountain paths past lines of spinning prayer wheels and charming stone Sherpa or Tamang villages to the foot of jaw-dropping 8000m peaks like Annapurna or Everest, safe in the knowledge that at the end of the day you’re guaranteed a cosy bed and hot dinner. There are few better ways to spend a couple of weeks of your life, at a cost of as little as US$25 per day. Add on a visit to the medieval cities of the Kathmandu Valley, once a Himalayan artistic powerhouse.
When to go March, April, October, November
Getting there Fly to Kathmandu and hop on a domestic flight to Lukla for the Everest region. Pokhara is the launch pad for treks in the Annapurna region.
Suggested itinerary To trek to Everest Base Camp you need a minimum of 14 days, but we recommend adding on a four day side visit to the stunning mountain lakes of the Gokyo valley. Figure in ample time for acclimatisation.
Off the beaten track alternative The 17-day walk around Manaslu is Nepal's latest (and we'd say greatest) teahouse trek (you stay in lodges along the way), or go camping expedition-style on an epic three-week trip to the Dolpo or Kangchenjunga regions.
Bhutan – the last Shangri-la
As the last surviving great Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan has an otherworldly air that seems rooted in another age. Traditional dress is the norm everywhere, old-growth forest carpets 75% of the countryside and remote Himalayan peoples like the Layaps and Brokpas live a life largely untouched by the modern age. Simply put, Bhutan is like nowhere on earth. The catch? The fixed minimum daily rate of US$250 per person is mandatory, although this does include transport, meals, guide and accommodation.
When to go March, April, September, October
Getting there Fly to Paro from Kathmandu, Delhi or Bangkok, or drive overland from neighbouring India.
Suggested itinerary: Explore the delightful Paro Valley and its iconic Tiger's Nest Hermitage before driving to the little-visited Haa Valley, the tiny capital of Thimphu and the sensual fortress-monastery of Punakha. Schedule your visit around one of Bhutan's colourful tsechus (monastic festivals).
Off the beaten track alternative The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Mustang in Nepal comes with a similarly hefty US$500 permit, though you'll get a chance to explore centuries-old Tibetan architecture and may even gain an audience with the king.
This article was published in January 2013 and updated in April 2013.
Bradley Mayhew is the co-author of Lonely Planet guides to Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya and India. He's just come back from three months in the Indian Himalaya: see what he has been up to at www.bradleymayhew.blogspot.com.