His Holiness - Dharamsala - Tibetan Butter Tea and Mountains. I started off with these keywords . Before heading for a place, I usually set out with a rather romantic imagery in mind. Ever since my eyes gorged upon the show on NDTV Good times, I was yearning to visit Dharamsala. Sadly, the first few years in Delhi, saw me scraping through as a penniless researcher. It was only after finding a job that I could even afford to dream of stepping out of Delhi (to and fro trips to the hometown don't count). So finally finding that little window through the crazy schedule, I decided to seriously consider the plan. Although, we (Runjhun, my friend and I) went through a travel agency, the deal we got was a little steep. However, worth every penny.
We set off for a night bus ride from Delhi. Opted for the HRTC volvo bus (Rs 2300/- one way), that was remarkably comfortable.
At a minute's away from the main market, an enchanting hotel with a perfect ambiance to pump up our enthusiasm for the day. After freshening up and stuffing ourselves with a hearty breakfast, we set out to explore the city on foot. The hotel manager was kind enough to print us a map of the city for our reference. How I love maps! Set go!
Price: For a double bedroom: 2300/- per night
First STOP: The Dalai lama temple
Contrary to my expectations, the street winding towards the temple is a bummer. Hoards of tourists swarming the street, a beeline of shops, all hoping to sell almost the same products is a complete dampener. The monastery, Theckchen Choeling Temple/ The Dalai lama's abode is a breath of fresh air, however. Around 10 in the morning, we were greeted by a class in session. It was a ground full of monks young and old. Upstairs is the Buddha temple, that has stocked Buddha's original scriptures in Sanskrit, ranging from art, history, philosophy, language, grammar, logic. You name it and he has pinned it. The highlight is the MANI Prayer Wheel. According to Buddhism, "By turning the wheel once, one earns merit equal to the recitation of the mantras filled inside the wheel. Kindly turn it clockwise." - Anonymus, Theckchen Choeling Temple
After the visit to the temple, do visit the Tibet Museum located right next to it. The history of the country and its accession by China is well panned out in this space.
Perched atop the 20 metres tall Bhagsunag waterfall, is Café Shiva. Needs no introduction. It's a cherry for the hikers and those who wish to get baked eventually. Wonder how they make it back though! It's a beautiful place, surrounded by greenery on all sides. Worth the hike. You won't regret this.
A world apart, with the objective of preserving the Tibetan culture and therefore providing decent employment to the Tibetan refugees, Norbulingka institute is flanked by the feelgood Tibetan architecture, painted in refreshing warm colours and gurgling water streams meandering through the middle of the Japanese styled garden. A treat to the three senses: eyes, ears and the soul. If one has ample time to spend, he/she may also consider staying there in their Guest Houses. A must visit, long or short!
Entry fee: Rs 100/-
On your way to Bir Billing, a visit to Gyuto Monastery is unavoidable. It's a kind of university that specialises in Tantric Meditation. It has an exquisite construction,repainted in vibrant colours that contributes to it's grandeur. Since we arrived at the monastery in the noon, and immediately after visiting the temple, we were fortunate enough to witness a heartwarming moment within the monastery. A monk rang a bell for about a minute to announce the beginning of the lunch time. The student monks old and young, clad in yellow and red attire, together made a beeline for their very own mess. Very much like what a university life is!
The St. John Church is a breather away from the thoroughfare of the main city. It's a km's walk away from the main square. A part of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1905, and was later attempted to be rebuilt. The bell that hangs right outside the church boasts of an interesting and a funny narrative. It was the last of the sights we visited in McLeod.
Located about 30 kms away from McLeod, the fort belongs to the Katoch dynasty. It is one of the oldest forts in India and has been at constant battles with invaders. One of the earliest invaders being Muhammad of Ghazni and finally later conquered by Jehangir in 1620. It's a huge sprawling fort and overlooks the 'sangam' (confluence) of two rivers namely Banganga and Majhi. The view is breathtaking from the topmost courtyard and the fort is gigantic.
Entry fee: Rs 15/- Goes to the government.
Audio Guide: Rs 218/- (Recommended!) Goes to the Katotch Family.
The second day was when we set out to have our fair share of adventure in McLeod. The plan initially took off with the idea of hiking to Triund. Thanks to our organiser, Mithu - Ji, we changed our decision in a split second and headed for Bir Billing for paragliding. Bir Billing is the second highest peak in Asia and welcomes world champions almost every day. As they say "the rest is history". The photo above says it all. The rain flushed all our plans of paragliding down the valley. All we were left with was this photo and the yearning to make it again to Bir Billing. My suggestion: If you wish to paraglide, stay at the hotels right next to the landing spot. Weather in the mountains is extremely unpredictable.Once you are through with the sport, you may move further to McLeod to discover the place.
Eat to your heart's content!
The best part about the city is the food. One will find it in surplus amount and at an extremely reasonable price. Besides, what more can one ask for, if every café you visit welcomes you with a wide collection of books! It's a culture that has been imbibed and embraced by the locals and spells 'il PARADISO', for the travellers!
I particularly enjoyed our dinner at Lung Ta, the Japanese restaurant, run by a Japanese family. As luck shone bright on us, we had the occasion of reveling in the candle lit ambiance. With a warm cosy ambiance and some good wholesome food, we were rest assured of feasting on an authentic Japanese meal, and all that for a song.
My curiosity about the Tibetan Butter Tea was finally sated at the Tibet Café Tibet. So firstly, yak milk and yak butter (from the female) make up for the principal ingredients of the tea. I, however, had to be satisfied with cow milk. Secondly, since the Tibetan Butter Tea, is an acquired taste, it is salty, unlike the other tea we usually consume. In my opinion, this tea will make up for a perfect comfort drink during the winters.
While leaving McLeod, one of the last memories that trailed in my mind was of a quaint small café at the corner of a street with a notice on its door that read "We serve free food to the old and the needy".
I strongly suggest everyone who wishes to visit the city to keep an open mind and try different cuisines instead of going for an out and out Indian one.
Where to Eat and Drink: My recommendations for cafés in McLeod
1. Tibetan Cuisine: Illiterati (European food available too), Drumstick and Carpe Diem
2. Japanese Cuisine: Lung Ta
3. Italian Cuisine: The Clay Oven, Jimmy's Italian Kitchen and Nick's Italian Kitchen
One place to avoid: McLlo Restaurant, located at the main square. Bad service and the waiters have the least idea about the menu.
How to reach and get around
Nearest Airport: Kangra Airport, about 25 kms away from Mc Leod Ganj.
Buses: HRTC Volvo Buses are the best option. It's always wise to book in advance via the HRTC website. Delhi: Buses leave from Kashmere Gate. Best part is that they leave dot on time and arrive before the expected time.
Also, initially the buses used to stop at Dharamsala and travellers had to hire taxis to reach McLeod. It's no longer the case now. HRTC buses take you all the way up to McLeod Bus Depot.
Taxis: Taxis in McLeod cost anything between Rs 100/- (for the shortest of distance) - Rs 2000/- (for an entire day). Heavily depends on your bargaining skills.
Taxis from Dharamsala to McLeod will cost you around Rs 200/-
Tip: Mc Leod is a small place and can be easily covered on foot. Do not hire taxis until you need to get out of the place and head for Dharamsala, Kangra or Bir Billing.
Souvenirs: Where to shop?
If you are looking to buy souvenirs, I have two shops to suggest:
1. Thankas and Gifts, Jogiwara Road (Reasonably priced. The owner of the shop, Marleen, is a beautiful, warm lady who practices Buddhism, and is an apt person who will give you all the information you need on the souvenirs you pick.)
2.The shop next to the Tibet museum (for t-shirts).
Bon Voyage, and let me know in the comments below if you have any specific questions/suggestions or need any help with making your McLeod - Dharamsala - Kangra trip happen! Good luck!