Backpacking to Mcleod Ganj

4th Sep 2017
Photo of Backpacking to Mcleod Ganj 1/1 by rysha hamza

The Trip

For the onward bus journey from Delhi to Dharamshala, we booked our tickets with Bedi Travels - one of the highly rated private bus operators in the region. The boarding point was Majnu ka Tilla - home to Delhi's very own Tibetan refugee camp complete with a Buddhist monastery, narrow alleys lined by hawkers selling Tibetan merchandise and cozy little cafes dishing out scrumptious food at unbelievably low prices. It was the perfect curtain-raiser for the drama about to enfold. We started from home a little after lunch and took the subway from the Botanical Garden Metro Station in the heart of Noida. Switching lines at Rajiv Chowk, we got off at Vidhan Sabha and hailed an e-rickshaw that took us to Majnu ka Tilla. Sinking into the other-worldly fervor of this not-so-elegant neighborhood of Delhi, we found our resting spot at Ama Cafe - a snug little joint frequented by college students, free-floaters and travelers alike for its delectable menu and casual ambiance. In a few hours, we were on our bus to Dharamshala, unable to contain our excitement as the vehicle screeched forward.

Photo of Majnu Ka Tilla, Delhi, India by rysha hamza
Day 1

We arrived in Dharamshala around 6 am and shared a taxi with a fellow traveler to Mcleod Ganj town square, another 5 km away. Zostel, the backpackers' hostel where our stay was arranged, was roughly 2 km from the centre, perched atop a hillock overlooking the Dhauladhar mountain ranges in the Upper Dharamkot area. As we were traveling light, hiking up the hilly road in the early morning hours seemed like a delightful idea. However, the elevation of the road and the rocky stretch at the end made it quite challenging for us, haggard souls.

Photo of Zostel Mcleod, Bhagsu Nag, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza

In about thirty minutes we arrived at Zostel, a tad bit early for our check in. We dawdled in the lounge area that instantly lifted our spirits with an exuberant burst of color. Perceptibly laid-back with psychedelic artwork, doodles and comments on the walls, matching cushions generously scattered on low-rise couches and a guitar and djembe tucked away in a corner, the place was designed to create a sense of belonging and unconditional acceptance. It was easy to talk to strangers and make new friends because of the shared camaraderie. The girl who sat at the table next to ours at Ama Cafe now sat across us on one of those plush couches, inadvertently giving in to her acquired fear of dogs even as she spoke about her first solo outing in the mountains. We also made friends with an environmentalist who had arrived that morning. The four of us soon became travel buddies and a plan was born in no time. We would hike to the Gallu waterfall in the afternoon and trek to Triund the next morning and camp overnight in the mountains. Our four-bed female dorm was ready for check-in by the time we finished breakfast at the Salvation Cafe, the in-house restaurant at Zostel, Mcleod Ganj.

Some people and some places possess the uncanny ability to light up our spirits by their mere existence. The neatly made bunker beds in bright fuchsia, the crocheted dream catcher dangling from the door handle, the netted hammock swaying in the balcony overlooking the misty mountains - everything about the place seemed to infuse oodles of life into our wearied hearts. After freshening up, we were back at the cafe eager to start our first hiking expedition. We started climbing up at around 1 pm and went past the Gallu temple when a bull came charging down the narrow, rocky trail. Retreating to a safer spot, the plan was reconsidered - it was scorching, we were hungry and the bulls demanded way. Wouldn't it be saner to go down to the town square and relish a hearty lunch at one of the many exotic cafes Mcleod Ganj is known for? Our group dynamic wasn't working; we soon lost track of each other. My friend and I spent the afternoon cafe-hopping and shopping for curios. We had lunch at Norling Restaurant, an unassuming outlet featured on the popular cookery travel show Highway on my Plate for the authenticity of its Tibetan offerings.

Photo of Tsuglagkhang Complex Dalai Lama Temple, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza

The cramped lanes dotted by Tibetan artifacts ranging from thangka paintings and singing bowls to handcrafted stone jewelery and yak wool shawls titillated the shopaholic in us. The indulgence led us down the road to the Dalai Lama's temple or Tsuglag Khang where erudite monks debated the loftiest philosophies of life as the smoky sierra of the Lesser Himalayas testified to their wisdom.

Photo of Backpacking to Mcleod Ganj by rysha hamza
Photo of Backpacking to Mcleod Ganj by rysha hamza

The museum within the temple complex exhibited photographic records of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and their futile attempts to overthrow the power mongers with grave details of the sufferings of those who were expelled from their motherland. The yearning for freedom and the gnawing desire to reclaim one's identity echoed in every piece. Even as I sighed cynically, the soft whispers of hope that emanated from their resolute voices shook my disbelief.

Photo of Illiterati, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza
Photo of Illiterati, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza

"There is no good explanation for what is going on here" - so true of life and the Illiterati Cafe. It took us a while to spot this gem removed from the hustle of the town. Cradling in the velvety arms of the Dhauladhar ranges, ornate with a vintage piano and antique woodwork, replete with books, creepers and a whiff of coffee, the Illiterati cafe is a reader's paradise. Smacking our lips clean of the last drop of the house specialty saffron-infused coffee almond ice cream, it was almost natural to transcend the plebeian getup of a tourist and enter the realm of an introspective traveler. We snapped out of this dream at dusk and shopped some more before calling it a day with some hot apple tea and lemon cheese cake at Nick's Italian Kitchen. Back in Zostel, as we guzzled a bottle of Budweiser on the rooftop, the cloudy night sky loomed large above our woozy heads. In the dorm, we got acquainted with the other guests before reclining to our individual beds.

Day 2
Photo of Triund Trek Trail, Trail to Triund Hill, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza
Photo of Triund Trek Trail, Trail to Triund Hill, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza
Photo of Triund Trek Trail, Trail to Triund Hill, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza
Day 1

After much deliberation, we decided to trek to Triund the following day. There was a lot of uncertainty at the outset. However, as we gathered momentum, the trek proved to be a thoroughly enriching experience. The original group was back in action with one additional member who was younger, fitter and more experienced. The weather was definitely on our side with the perfect balance of sun and shade. It wasn't as grueling as we expected it to be, but the snaky trail was tediously long. The last stretch through the deodars and rhododendrons was steeper with 22 switchbacks, each of which promised never-before glimpses of virgin nature. Every step along the way came with a realization - what a miss it would have been, had we given in to the frailties of the body and mind and stayed put at the base, forever wondering how it felt to be up there among the clouds. Inching forward through the mist with aching legs, awed by the magnificence of the landscape surrounding us, we managed to break the barriers of the mind and conquer the pristine heights of Triund. Camping gear was available on rent from the recreation shacks. For some reason, the most popular food in the most inaccessible regions like this one is Maggi. We assuaged our hunger pangs with a bowl of hot noodles and gamboled around like the feisty horses and cows grazing on the grass.

Photo of Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India by rysha hamza

The reverie was perfected by a rainbow that glistened right through the haze. That moment was one for the books! It rained madly that night. All hell broke loose as we lay huddled up inside our sleeping bags. The tent shivered in the storm and sparks of lightening shone right through the flimsy fabric. And there was music! We tuned into the forgotten melodies that still lingered in our souls and crooned beneath the hullabaloo of the torrent. When the skies calmed down, we crawled out of our den and got some dinner from the shack. It was a full moon night. The rays melted into the sombre clouds. The dogs gave in to their wild libido. Everyone and everything seemed to be in a trance.

Day 3

We started early the next morning and arrived at the base before the sun turned savage. Going up took us about four hours with all the water breaks and photography stops. The return was quicker and lighter on my calf muscles. En route, we stopped for breakfast at Magic View cafe, the oldest chai shop on that trail. Zostel felt like home when we returned - a place that comprehended the heart of a traveler. After a wholesome lunch consisting of Paneer Butter Masala and Butter Roti, we picked up our bags from the storage room and trudged along the pine forests to the town square down below. Our trip was coming to a gradual close. There was still some time left and we wanted to make the most of it. The famous Bhagsu waterfall was just around the corner but my mate was in no condition to hike any further. Moreover, we had already created some terrific trekking memories to last a lifetime. So we decided to take it easy and go for a Tibetan massage instead. Easing into the evening, we indulged on a Chickonara thin crust pizza and Super Fudge Brownie at Jimmy's Italian Kitchen, overlooking the Kalachakra temple (Jimmy's is the non-veg counterpart of Nick's). I had been dreaming about chicken ever since the cold got to me at Triund! Before embarking on a local bus back to Dharamshala, I picked up some Tibetan massage oils and herbal tea from Men - Tsee - Khang, the largest and the oldest Sowa Rigpa institute in India, patronized by the Dalai Lama himself. The bus ride with the locals gave us a taste of the everyday life of the many men and women taking up day jobs in Mcleod Ganj and returning to Dharamshala at the end of the day. We boarded our Volvo sleeper back to Delhi at 6 pm near Maximus Mall in Dharamshala.

The rotund ball of fire sank into the infinite depths of the snow-laced peaks hovering over this charismatic town as the Volvo whizzed down the harrowing curves to lesser lands. Our eyelids started to droop by the weight of the mighty vistas they had been feasting on. The bus lugged into Majnu ka Tila in the wee hours of the morning and we took a cab back to the familiar comfort of our plain sailing lives.