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.’ It was time for me to continue my northward journey to McLeodganj.
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 are located in Dharamshala. 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 started functioning only a week ago from Rishikesh to Dharamsala. Newly made friends came to see me off at the bus station, it was a sweet gesture I was unaccustomed to. The bus reached Dharamsala at the unearthly hour of 0530, instantly freezing me. I’d met a bunch of youngsters and we hailed a shared taxi 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 reasonable hotel to stay and headed out for a cup of chai. 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. After a hot shower, I went out for a walk and let my feet take me wherever the heart wanted.
Places to Visit in McLeodganj :
Bhagsunag Temple & Waterfall
I quickly showered and went strolling across town toward Bhagsu Temple & the waterfall. I remember that I wasn’t pleased at all to have encountered typical tourists on the way, who were huffing and puffing while having bottles of beer. The Bhagsu waterfall wasn’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 a nice hike. There were trippy paintings in the interiors of a rustic stone structure. 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 to my hotel in McLeodganj and had delicious street chat somewhere near Bhagsu.
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 had a rather similar pattern, it rained/snowed every 3-4th day. That day the temperatures had been unusually warm for January, and 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 at a cheap dhaba.
The path was gentle until 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, and there was almost no possibility 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. Snowy peaks surrounded us and it really felt quite cold when the sun was covered by the clouds. We walked around Triund top for an hour clicking pictures and collecting trash to be carried on our way down that had been strewn carelessly by tourists. It was time to start our descent to make it back to McLeodganj before night fell.
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 : Next day, 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 my companions 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.
Naddi 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 quite 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 to read ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ with ginger lemon honey tea. Madness ensued while buying cakes at the Tibet Quality Bakery, a wonderful and affordable place bang in the middle of the road.
Chocolate Log : A quaint English cafe built as a hut on Jogiwara Road 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.
One of the day’s I chose to do nothing and
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. It made me wish 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. The four of us split here and I was left alone at the Tibet Kitchen. I met a volunteer over lunch and an invite for visiting an NGO nearby.
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 souls 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 brought from a nearby village and copious quantities were consumed. They didn’t charge us anything for the dual treat. (My Rajasthani connection with the owners was to thank for this.)
Read : The Havelis of Shekhawati
On a sunny morning, an eventful shared taxi & bus ride took me to the beautifully designed Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala. Set amongst pretty gardens, various art forms like Thangka painting, woodcarving, statue-making & embroidery are 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. They do excellent social work, supporting rural women to be independent. Men-folk in the mountains usually loiter around, drinking, smoking 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.
Food Day – An entire day dedicated to eating!
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 delicious 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 in McLeodganj. 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
It was already February and I wasn’t ready to go back to a settled place yet. 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 was 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 Dharamshala bus station and the bus 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 of 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?
My Manali experience here : Reminiscences from a two day snowfall