November 7, 2016 10:20 am
After days of Indian craziness I don’t actually think either of us realised how much we would appreciate a little bit of downtime until it happened. When we reached McLeod Ganj we were just starting to feel a little better after our bout of Delhi belly, and were looking forward to some fresh air and a few days sweat-free. A week later and we have only just even considered moving on. Despite being a particularly small settlement, McLeod Ganj, and its much smaller hillside counterpart Dharamkot, are great places to waste away some time against an incredible Himalayan backdrop and amongst the beautiful Tibetan culture. Dharamkot is a popular backpacker destination, so despite its size, chilled atmosphere and lack of tiring heat and pollution, you can definitely make a week here a well-spent one.
Yoga and meditation
Although it is now heading into low season in Dharamsala, there were still a whole host of yoga, meditation, vipassana and herbal healing classes and courses taking place in both Dharamkot and Bhagsu. Tushita is the place to go for meditation – on the hill just before Dharamkot, this centre offers both free drop-in meditation sessions at 9.30am daily, and full courses. For yoga, there are signs in windows and on lampposts everywhere, so it’s probably best to ask around or keep an eye open for the kind you like. Whether you fancy an hour in the afternoon or something more intense, guaranteed there will be something in the area for you.
McLeod Ganj markets
Whilst quieter Dharamkot is a much nicer and calmer place to make a base than buzzing McLeod Ganj, there is still plenty going on in the latter to pull you down the hill during the day. The two main streets in McLeod Ganj, Temple Road and Jogiwara Road, are lined with shops and stalls selling a range of Tibetan clothing, jewellery and religious paraphernalia, as well as warm mountain-suitable clothes and scarves and the ordinary hippy fare. It’s a great place to stock up on souvenirs and cold weather attire, or just to wander around taking in the mix of colour and materials used to create a huge range of handmade items.
Tibet museum and temple
Whether or not you know anything about the struggles and strife of Tibet and its people, the Tibet Museum in McLeod Ganj is an invaluable and informative resource to learn more about the country’s circumstances. I myself was not aware of Tibet’s history or the Chinese occupation until I reached McLeod Ganj, and learnt so much from this free exhibition comprising photographs, first-hand accounts and informative timelines. The museum also details the Dalai Lama’s life and duties, which are incredibly important in McLeod Ganj with this being his place of residence.
Tsuglagkhang Temple, Tibet’s main temple, is in the same complex as the museum. Whilst quite simple, it is the exiles’ equivalent of the Jokhang temple in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, so is of huge importance to the Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala. The monastery is based in the complex, so there is also a large community of monks and nuns in the vicinity, praying or debating in the afternoons.
Cafe culture in Dharamkot and Upper Bhagsu
The main draw in these two areas is the cafes, bakeries and restaurants that are permanently frequented by a relaxed set of travellers. The international food is surprisingly good, particularly in Dharamkot where we ate like kings for the full week. Dharamkot pulls in a large Israeli crowd, so there is falafel, hummus and a range of other Israeli delights on every menu. This is also the place to get your Italian fix if you are missing the carbs – Morgan’s Place was definitely the go-to for top-notch pizza. Places like Trek and Dine and Moonlight Cafe have a good atmosphere at night, with low tables, cushions on the floor and Arabian-style lanterns which instantly create a sociable, relaxed vibe. For a taste of home, and food that’s a cut above the rest, get yourself away from the main Dharamkot Road (by all of two minutes) and head to Cool Talk Cafe which sits above the main path. The food is incredible, from the curries to the London-style brunches, sandwiches with proper, delicious sourdough bread and fresh cakes – yes, we tried it all. The views of the mountains are second to none, it’s a great place to meet other backpackers and, most tellingly, locals, and is wonderfully fresh and modern for somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas… Basically, if you want a lazy day or a sociable atmosphere, settle yourself here or in one of the many culinary delights in the local area.
Dharamkot, Bhagsu and McLeod Ganj loop
Whether you’re gearing yourself up for the Triund Trek or just fancy a wander, this loop is a nice way to see the villages and views in between. The round trip would probably only take 2-3 hours if done in one go, but from wherever you begin it’s nice to take a look in the local shops, take some pictures and have some lunch on the way. The route is pretty obvious as the road follows the whole way around, except from between Dharamkot and Bhagsu where it is a path. If you fancy a glimpse into the future, look out for Swarmi Gee’s bus shelter on the way out of Bhagsu towards McLeod Ganj – he slightly blew my mind with his palm readings, which cost just 100 rupees.
Temple and waterfall walk
Admittedly, the Gallu Devi temple isn’t up to much, but after all the laying around and eating in Dharamkot you might find that your body appreciates the increased exertion. The waterfall, about an hour and a half from Dharamkot and 45 minutes further than the temple, is a decent walk with good views and an impressive waterfall to chill off in at the end. We did this walk the day before heading to Triund, which was a small but effective warm-up.
Triund and the snowline
This trip is definitely worth a day or two of your time. The trek is slightly challenging but entirely rewarding, with stunning views of Dharamsala and the Himalayan range. For more info, see Tom’s article on the trip.