If you are the kind that scours the work calendar for long weekends to escape from the daily humdrum – away from the urban chaos, you also need to be the kind to plan it weeks (if not months) in advance. Or you’ll end up doing what we did!
Not that it is not fun, but like N says – there’s travel adventure/backpacking fun that you enjoy when you are in your 20s. You decide on a destination on sheer impulse, head to the nearest bus-station, wangle your seat and head off – reservations be damned, hotel bookings can wait till the destination is reached..and the return – well, let the journey begin before that? In your 30s, caution weighs over recklessness. Being in office Monday morning is as important as taking that quick holiday, travelling in comfort is essential and having all your bookings in place – that does mark the transition over travelling years.
So we tried recapturing our younger selves – packed our backpack, took a Metro to Vidhan Sabha, a cycle rickshaw to Majnu Ka Tila and plunged into a sea of confused humanity of backpacks and tired office faces eager to escape the plains for the hills – just like us. We’d booked Volvo buses only to realise private operators are mostly an amorphous set of boards- they most likely have panchayats, where they decide how to fill seats on buses to optimise their operations. Tip 1, if you plan on a weekend away madness, choose government buses – most state governments run Volvo buses to tourist destinations. Brings me back to point in the intro para – plan it weeks in advance. The government buses get sold out really really fast! But the first view of the hills and the valleys through the large bus windows as the sun rises makes the overnight trip really worth it.
It also does not help that your weekend and the destination you chose also happens to be the time and place of an international T20 match featuring India. So apart from the backpackers heading in the same directions as us, there were also horn-happy youngsters out in their swanky cars – the width of the bonnet just about the size of the width of the narrow mountain roads winding up from Dharamsala to McLeodgunj.
Friendly tip: While people say they are off to Dharamsala, what they don’t tell you is that they spent hardly any time in that town. Everyone drives up to McLeodgunj a few kilometres uphill. Yes, you can walk it up, but I’d suggest take a taxi and save your breath for the gorgeous panoramic views of the Kangra valley.
McLeodgunj is far more than just a hill station – it has political significance too, for it’s the seat of the Tibetan government in exile – a government trying to fight Chinese annexation of Tibet. Since the annexation in the 1940s, there has been amass exodus of ethnic Tibetans to escape persecution. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, India offered him asylum and several thousands of them settled in Dharamsala making it into a little Tibet. To understand the struggles that Tibetans went through, there is a Tibetan museum just by the Dalai Lama temple. So when you visit the temple, do spend an hour there. It is an on-going struggle for autonomy – a demand that China has refused to entertain, calling Tibet an inalienable part of its territory. Across McLeodgunj, you’ll come across posters seeking a boycott of Chinese goods to show solidarity with the Tibetan cause.
We stayed in one of the hotels managed by the Norbulingka Institute- The Serkong House, so a visit to the Institute was part of the deal. There are daily shuttles from their two hotels in McLeodgunj to the Institute, which is in Dharamsala. Spending half a day in the institute is definitely recommended. It’s like a little haven, with the sounds of gurgling waters, chirping crickets, huge fish and abundant greenery, giving it a surreal feel. The Institute also trains local Tibetans in several ethnic arts and crafts, which are then sold through their shops. It’s fairly pricey on the Indian wallet, but all the proceeds go into preserving a culture in a home away from home. That perhaps makes the premium that you pay for owning their handmade artifacts worth it. The guides say Norbu in Tibetan means precious and lingka refers to picnic. A precious picnic, for sure! While there, sit in the cafe, soaking some sunshine with a glass of ginger-lemon-honey tea in the winter. That’s all you’d perhaps want to do through the break.
McLeodgunj was once an important British station – but today, you will hardly see any signs of it. A massive earthquake in 1905 not only killed several officers, soldiers and their families, but also reduced most colonial buildings to rubble. And the Raj decided to move their summer capital from Dharamsala to Shimla. This church, among the last straggling remnants of the days of the Raj is a must-visit. St.John in the Wilderness can look neglected if you try to visit it over a working week-day. But on Sunday, the church doors are opened for two services. And looking at the altar, the sun filtering in through stained glass decorations, you can’t but imagine how the services would have looked a century and a half ago, when families would have congregated in the Sunday best to reaffirm their faith and mingle. Don’t miss out on walking through the gravestones, some hidden by the spreading wilderness. Some ornate descriptive ones will tug at your heartstrings – young families wiped out within days of each other – you wonder if it was illness or an accident or perhaps even suicide? There’s one memorial you can’t miss. That of Lord Elgin, the second Viceroy of India, who spent his final months in Dharamsala and wanted to buried here.
Set aside the dark thoughts and in the time that you are in McLeodgunj, take as many walks as you can to admire the Kangra valley from different angles. You can trek up to Dharamkot – the town where people head to for accommodation when McLeodgunj is fully booked. You get lovely views of McLeodgunj and Dharamsala down below.
You can also walk towards Bhagsu, an old village famous for an old temple that is reverred by the native Gorkha populations settled here. There is also a waterfall, the Bhagsunag falls. We walked till nearly there and then turned back – wondering why – the snaking traffic, the honking and the steadily billowing dust from the stomping tourists and their huge vehicles clogged my asthmatic lungs pretty bad. Rather than fall ill, we walked back!
This post cannot end without a mention of the food you can hope to eat in this hill station. Eat in the small eateries that dot the place. Some are definitely better than the others, but one thing that stood out across most places, big and small that we ate in was that food was always cooked fresh and has a vibrant, rustic taste that increases your appetite a tad more! Where did we eat? Well, we tried the Clay Oven (for Tibetan and Nepalese fare), Jimmy’s Italian (yummy wood-fired pizzas) (they are owned by the same family), Moonpeak Espresso and a few smaller places that Tripadvisor had rated high. The spinach and cheese momos – you rarely see that in the plains and the wholesome flavourful Tibetan flat-noodle soups and the spongy steamed Tibetan bread.
What do I love most about my three-day break in McLeodgunj? Apart from the fresh food and the cleansing honey-ginger lemon that I tanked up on, it has to be the Kangra valley views- the glorious sunsets ( I can never rouse myself up for the sunrise) and the walk through the cemetery – remembering men, women and children who lived over a century ago. This quaint hill station, today is the keeper of their memories.