I felt better doing yoga & hiking around Rishikesh, recuperating from asthma in the last week of January, 2014. The backpackers at the ashram were gung-ho about their exploration of India, soaking in the spirituality in low season. They were travellers who had been around the world and spoke about ‘India being the country that was gonna save this rapidly disintegrating world.’
Read : Soul Searching in Rishikesh
The cutest couple ever ‘Sasha & Masha’, from Kazan in Russia spoke about their plans to head up to Dharamsala & McLeodganj. The headquarters of the Tibetan Government in exile were located here. I was a bit apprehensive of the cold in the absence of winter clothing. It turned out to be an unforgettable sojourn all right, in the END!
Tickets were booked in the centrally heated bus that had only started functioning a week ago from Rishikesh to Dharamsala. Newly made friends came to see me off at the bus station, a sweet gesture I was unaccustomed to. The bus reached Dharamsala at the unearthly hour of 0530, instantly freezing me. A shared taxi was hailed to go to Jogibara Road, which was a 15 minute drive from the bus station.
It had snowed the night before and a thin layer of white was ubiquitous. McLeodganj at first glance appeared to be a pretty little town with a tranquil Buddhist feel about it.
I quickly found a place to stay on the main street and restlessly headed out for tea. The only place open was a punjabi dhaba, serving delicious breakfast and the opportunity to savour it in a sunlit balcony. Monks in red robes wandered about giving McLeodganj an otherworldly feel.
Bhagsunag Temple & Waterfall : I quickly showered and went strolling across town toward Bhagsu Temple & the waterfall. Wasn’t pleased at all to have encountered typical tourists on the way, who were huffing and puffing while having bottles of beer. The waterfalls weren’t the greatest I had seen and anyway seemed to be too crowded to enjoy some solitude.
Shiva Cafe : Up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere ‘Shiva Cafe’ was super cool with trippy paintings and rustic layout, playing progressive trance. There was a baba on whom everybody converged to get some holy stuff. A gang of six punjabis, all the way from Australia invited me to share some joints. I was in fits of laughter doing a happy trance-dance over glasses of endless chai. 😛
It was close to evening, so I rushed back and had delicious street chat.
At our hotel, a small bonfire was arranged in the outdoor space. Other solo travellers from various parts of the world had arrived and we sang songs in the chilly night.
Triund – In all its snowed out glory
The weather in Mcleodganj has a rather similar pattern, it rains/snows every 3-4th day. I insisted that the walk to snowy Triund must be done as soon as possible. We were 4 of us and left very early in the morning, filling ourselves with huge aloo paranthas.
The path was gentle until the Galu Temple, after that fresh snow appeared and made it into a real adventure. Picturesque views on the trail made us all joyous in the abundant sunshine. Sometimes the snow was a foot or two deep and my feet sank. An entirely new and pleasurable experience as Triund Top was hardly at 3000m, no chance of AMS.
It was an indescribable feeling at the top of the ridge, the entire valley was visible even though the clouds played hide & seek. There are rudimentary dhabas serving tea & maggi amid the furiously cold winds. Indrahar La was visible in all its glory. We walked around for an hour clicking pictures and collecting trash to be carried on our way down that had been strewn carelessly by tourists.
Peace Cafe : We slid downhill and fell numerous times, making fun of each other. Peace Cafe was our choice for devouring some food, while Dhoom 3 played on TV – the foreigners hilariously mimicked the fight. Monks sat beside us nonchalantly, enjoying the excellent Tibetan dishes on offer. I felt a miraculous pain as we headed back to our hotel, and had to be carried beside the bonfire as the result of a twisted ankle.
Naddi Village – A hidden gem : I woke up a little late and found a note outside my room to meet up for breakfast at Black Magic Cafe. I gingerly got ready and reached the café, only to find them gone after having left another note to walk toward Naddi Village. I hobbled along the way greeting strangers and young cyclists. A local cricket match was in progress on the ground beside Naddi Lake. The village was covered in snow, being at a slightly higher altitude than McLeodganj and had pristine views. I found a little gem of a place to have chai whilst gazing at the mountains and chatting up with the village folk. A small temple on the road looked inviting and I prayed for a bit, for myself and for the world. Someone offered me a ride on the way back and I was happy to be back as the skies looked ominous.
Snow Lion Cafe : The aroma of coffee and cakes wafting from Snow Lion Cafe became almost irresistible as it started raining. It was sheer delight while i read ‘The Enchantress of Florence’. Madness ensued while buying cakes at the Tibet Quality Bakery, a wonderful place bang in the middle of the road.
Chocolate Log : A quaint English cafe built as a hut amid greenery run by a cute couple, the home-made wine was enticing enough for me to buy some for all of us. Ginger wine at 500 Rupees per bottle was a steal, among the four flavours.
As weather would have willed it, it started raining as we made our way to the temple complex in the morning. The Kalachakra temple & Namgyal Gompa were closeby and we had a quick look. The plight of the ‘Roof of the world’ depicted in Tibet Museum left us all teary-eyed after witnessing the poignant videos. Someday I want to go back in time and walk to Lhasa and see the Potala without the Red Army.
Some monks invited us to a prayer ceremony at a small Gompa in the evening. Prayer wheels were diligently rotated for good karma. We wandered around and saw the cultural museum and the colourful Nechung Gompa.
Tibet Kitchen : Possibly the best Tenthuk, Gyathuk & Shabalay in McLeodganj, if not in all of North India. I wolfed down enormous portions of lip-smacking authentic Tibetan fare. The decor is pretty chic, and warm lights add to the inviting interiors.
Nick’s Italian Kitchen: On the Bhagsu road, the open air terrace in bright sunshine was just the right place to put my feet up and read. The chocolate mousse recommended by the owner was brilliant – ‘Life isn’t perfect, but dessert can be!’ The coffee made from freshly roasted beans is exceptionally good too.
The sounds & humming of Buddhist prayers reverberated and refreshed us at the ceremony. The monks were all modern beings and almost everyone had an iPad. They served us butter tea while the chanting continued.
Later at the hotel, an authentic Indian food experience was sought. The owner’s wife prepared the most wonderful dinner, sending us in a happy frenzy. Chhang was bought from a nearby village and copious quantities were consumed. They didn’t charge us anything for the dual treat. (My Rajasthani connection worked)
Read : The Havelis of Shekhawati
Next morning, an eventful shared taxi ride & then a bus took me to the beautifully designed Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala. Set amongst pretty gardens various art work like Thangka painting, woodcarving, statue-making & embroidery is taught for preserving traditional Tibetan art. Norling Cafe had pathetic food though, to keep it real – it was barely edible.
The mystique of tantric took me to the huge Gyuto Tantric Monastery and I wasn’t disappointed. There was nobody to explain the history though, which I would have dearly liked.
I had been invited by a volunteer to the NGO – Jagori Grameen, located in timeless Rakkar village. Brilliant social work they do, supporting rural women to be independent. Men-folk in the mountains usually loiter around, drinking, doping or gambling. It is the women who toil to make their homes a happy place. Women, with all their love and care doing a thankless job. Its time we gave them their due, and appreciated them with all our heart.
McLeodganj has some excellent cafes by dint of being a busy tourist destination all year round. It was drizzling in the morning as we walked to Moonpeak Espresso. Their Himachali thali turned out to be exquisite with subtle flavours. The adjacent Mandala cafe served excellent darjeeling tea and equally good coffee.
Dharamkot is famous for the pizzas at ‘Out of the blue’, it was closed when we got there and had to settle instead for Clay Oven in the main square. The owners at Snow Lion Cafe had become friends by then and it became my daily routine to just sit and watch the world go by with ginger lemon honey tea and book in hand.
Tibet Quality Bakery was raided again, to buy cakes for the hotel staff as presents. Their joyous faces made our day. Peace Cafe was the unanimous choice for dinner, and we ate like hungry beasts, as if that was our last meal on earth!
Onto new horizons
After whiling away time at various cafes finishing my book, bus timings to Manali were found out for me to experience real winter. I went to the Church of St John in the wilderness and was mesmerised by the architecture. A solitary place teaching yoga was open for me to drop in for a free class. Everybody else wanted to shop, so I accompanied them to strike better deals as thangkas and singing bowls were bought.
We said our goodbyes and I slept early, my bus to leave at 0530 in the morning. The manager came to drop me in the bitter cold to ensure I got on the bus. What was to follow though, I was unprepared for.
We reached Dharamsala bus station and stopped for a bit. I left my bags and told the driver i was going for a piss. When i came back, the bus was gone, with all my baggage, the dslr, clothes, everything. (Not trying to explain the rush of emotions any further!)
My photographic memory reminded me the bus number, I ran to the station office and told them what had happened. Luckily they instantly knew who the driver was & called him and told him of his folly. I was made to sit in another bus going in the same direction while my original bus waited for me.
I was reunited with my bags in 30 minutes. All’s well that ends well, I guess!
Have you ever been in such a situation too, on your travels?