The ancient Sanskrit poet Kaldisa called the Himalayas "the measuring rod of the world" -- in size and scale and splendor there is little on earth that compares in magnitude to the high altitude ranges that shelter these far northern reaches of India. Proclaimed by ancient Indian texts as Devbhumi -- "Land of the Gods" -- and believed to be the earthly home of the mighty Lord Shiva, the beautiful, far-flung Himachal Pradesh has an almost palpable presence of divinity. Bordered by Tibet to the east, Jammu and Kashmir to the north, and the Punjab to the west, the landlocked state is one of great topographic diversity, from vast bleak tracts of rust-colored high-altitude Trans-Himalayan desert to dense green deodar forests, apple orchards, cultivated terraces, and, everywhere you look, sublime snowcapped mountains. This is also where you'll find the largest concentration of Buddhists, their atmospheric gompas (monasteries) a total contrast to the pageantry of Hindu temples.

Shimla, the state capital, is easily accessed from Delhi by train, preferably via the Punjabi town of Amritsar, where the shimmering Golden Temple of the Sikhs takes the honors as India's best cultural attraction. Shimla shouldn't hold you longer than it takes to get ready to tackle one of the greatest road adventures in Asia -- negotiating the ledges, landslides, and hairpin bends of the Hindustan-Tibet Road through the remote valleys of Kinnaur, Spiti, and Lahaul. Hidden from the world for most of the year by a cloak of thick, impenetrable snow, these easternmost districts emerge from their wintry slumber to reveal white-capped Himalayan mountains, lush green meadow-valleys dappled with flowers, and Tibetan Buddhist gompas, of which Tabo, a World Heritage Site, is one of the most spiritually significant destinations in India. Due to limited accessibility (some areas only opened to visitors quite recently and a few sections near the Chinese border require a special permit) and the impassability of the roads, the region -- despite an upturn in tourist numbers in the last few years -- remains the least visited and most exhilarating part of Himachal Pradesh. You should set aside at least 4 to 5 days to explore the area -- stay longer if you want to visit more of its high altitude villages -- before landing in Manali, a town somewhat enlivened (some say ruined) by its designated role as Himachal Pradesh's "hippie hot spot" and favorite Indian honeymoon destination. You can either set off on a trek from this popular adventure center, or head west (via Mandi) to the tea-carpeted hills of the westernmost Kangra Valley and the hill station of Dharamsala -- seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile and home to the Dalai Lama.

Another option, but only in summer, is to head north to the lunar landscapes of Ladakh. Although Jammu and Kashmir, India's northernmost state, is a no-go area for many travelers, Ladakh, the western J&K province on the border of Tibet, is the exception. It sits astride the Ladakh and Zanskar mountains, surrounded by two of the world's highest ranges -- the Greater Himalayas and the mighty Karakoram -- and nothing will prepare you for the breathtaking, stark beauty of the landscape. Jagged peaks, rocky uplands, and vast barren plateaus are the dominant features of this harsh, dry land swept by dust devils and dotted with Buddhist gompas, large whitewashed chortens (pawn-shaped commemorative cairns), and chest-high mani walls made from stacks of engraved stones. Aptly nicknamed "Little Tibet," this is India at its remote best. Only visited for the few months of summer when the roads are passable, the communities outside of Leh (capital of Ladakh) and Padum (capital of Zanskar) remain literally frozen in time, with small Buddhist communities -- such as those you'll find in far-flung Lamayuru or the spectacular Nubra Valley -- living as they have for centuries, miraculously unhassled by outside influences, and with much spiritual and natural beauty to behold. Spend at least 5 days here (adjusting to the high altitude takes time), then fly out to Delhi and rejoin the 21st century.