Travel: McLeod Ganj, finding Gods in the mountains
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary recounts her recent visit to the famous hill station.
The humdrum of everyday life has us running round and round in circles.
Weekdays merge into weekends that seem to end before they begin!
Which is why it's great once in a while to get away, close your mind, your eyes and open your soul.
Now that the summer is upon us the best option most Indians have is to pack your bags and head straight for the hills!
And that is exactly what we did with a couple of friends recently.
Except that this time we decided to give the usual suspects like Shimla a miss and went in search of tranquillity.
What better place for soul searching than a town that wakes to chants from monasteries and spends its day deep in meditation?
Harnoor Channi-Tiwary is the founder of Journey My Way, a personalised travel advisory firm journeymyway.com
Image: Bhagsu Waterfalls
Photographs: Rohan Tiwary
Looking for peace? McLeod Ganj is the place!
Even though Dharamsala is the official capital of the Tibetan government in exile McLeod Ganj is the tourist destination you should head to.
McLeod Ganj is not your typical hill station. It may not appeal to you if you're looking for malls and crowds.
If however you're looking for peace and a general aura of calm, this is your place!
It is not common to find this hill station flooded with Indian tourists, it is mostly foreigners who come and live here for a few months.
The drive being a little long, we decided to take the overnight train to Pathankot, the base station for Mcleodganj, Dalhousie and Palampur.
From the railway station, we hired a cab that agreed to take us up the hills and charged us Rs1500 for the two-hour journey.
Image: Rare map of Tibet
Hotels in McLeod Ganj are great value for money
Unlike the zigzag roads of most hill stations, the ride to McLeod Ganj is very comfortable and even people with mountain sickness shouldn't have a problem here.
Having said that though, the last 20kms though were quite steep and the landscape around us changed dramatically!
We had booked ourselves online at The Bhagsu (an HP Tourism property) and were delighted when we arrived there.
Not only was it great value for money (with a double room for Rs 1900), it also had a great location in a quiet by lane right next to the market.
The rooms were typical of Himachal Tourism resorts, large, airy and clean. After checking in, we stepped out of the hotel for lunch at the much-reviewed Pema Thang Guest House for pizzas and pasta.
The beauty of this vegetarian restaurant was that it overlooked a beautiful valley. We grabbed ourselves a table in the balcony and ordered a pizza, penne arrabiata and bruchettas.
The thin crust pizza was fabulous while the rest left lots to be desired but at Rs 150 per person, it was great value.
Image: Hotel Bhagsu's lawns
McLeod Ganj is easily traversable by foot
As we walked out into the main market road, we realised that McLeod Ganj is a small town easily traversable by foot.
A short 5-minute walk along the main road brought us to the Tsuglagkhang complex, which has the residence of HH the Dalai Lama, a monastery, temples, and stupas.
For visitors there's also a caf , bookshop, and the Tibet museum that tells the story of the Tibetans.
Keen to experience the life of Tibetans the authentic way, we decided to do the Kora -- a walk around the complex in a clockwise manner along a predefined path.
The Kora was perhaps our best decision in the entire trip.
This 15-minute walk is along a path cut into the side of the mountain and is lined with prayer wheels on one side and prayer flags on the other.
As we walked along quietly, we found ourselves in the company of many monks and locals who do the Kora numerous times everyday serenely walking along and turning the prayer wheels as they did so.
The experience is so peaceful that it gives one time to cut off from the world and introspect.
Image: Temple inside the Tsuglagkhang
Don't miss breakfast at the Green Hotel
Once we finished the Kora and returned to the gate of the complex where we started from, we entered and made our way to the museum.
The museum is a great collection of pictures that tell the Tibetan story of oppression by the Chinese.
All this walking had left us tired and after a great Tibetan dinner at Namgyal Cafe, we turned in for the night.
The next morning, we woke fresh and ready to explore this enchanting town further.
We walked down to the famous Green Hotel for breakfast and ate like a king.
The cafe is famous for its fantastic breakfast options and we found ourselves stuffing ourselves early in the morning with the Canadian Breakfast (complete with hash browns) and the Farmers' Breakfast (with a bill for two adding up to Rs 200!).
Both exceeded our expectations and are must-dos. We grabbed a table in the balcony, which offers great views. We found this to be common in restaurants across the town -- balconies with great views and very affordable prices!
Image: Canadian breakfast at the Green Hotel
Expect great veggie food here!
Energised with the grub, we decided to trek the 5km down to Bhagsu Nag Temple and Falls.
The temple is a large complex with a swimming pool built in for pilgrims who want to take a dip. For the tourist though, a side lane took one towards the majestic Bhagsu Nag Waterfall.
The water that cascades down from a great height offers a beautiful view and some great spots for lazing in the water!
The morning left us quite tired and we unwound in one of the many cafes that line the main market. In the evening we decided to play snooker in the fellow HTDC hotel next to Bhagsu Hotel.
After a few games, we headed towards Nick's Cafe for the wood fired pizzas that they are famous for! Most cafes and restaurants in the town offer only vegetarian fare but the food is great
Image: Pizza at Nick's Cafe
We promised to return!
The next morning as we packed our bags, we still had one last stop before we bade the tranquillity goodbye.
We headed back to Pathankot to stop at Dharamshala enroute at the Norbulingka Institute, dedicated to preserving the Tibetan culture.
The complex is a must do for any tourist. A stunning piece of architecture, it is built along waterways that flow into each other and ripple across pebbles.
As one walks on bridges and takes in the atmosphere, the only thing that can be heard is the sound of flowing water and the chants of monks. The Institute helps Tibetans create art in all its forms, many of which are for sale as well like furniture, clothes etc.
Bidding farewell to the hills, with our hearts lighter and a spring in our step, we promised to return.
A vacation like none other, the weekend in McLeod Ganj was one we'll remember for a lifetime!
Image: The Kora