Where: Dharamsala (or Dharamusalata as my co-walkers called it) and McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India.
The Dalai Lama actually lives in the community of McLeod Ganj, but this is right next to the town of Dharamsala and Dharamsala is the dominant community, so this is why everyone uses the Dharamsala name. However, for the whole of this page I will be mostly talking about McLeod Ganj, as this is where we really stayed.
When: September 2011
Why: I visited Dharamsala on my Himalaya adventure and Indian back packing trip.On this trip I also visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Bir and the Himalaya, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and Hampi.
Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj is where the Dalai Lama lives. It is a wonderful, Tibetan/Indian town that clings on to the side of the Himalaya. It is a magical place, hidden away up in the clouds, with monkeys and mountains – and I loved it. It is like somewhere from a dream or a fairytale.
Dharamsala is the first place that we went to in India, after Delhi, and it was just wonderful. We were high, high up in the mountains, up above the clouds.
On our journey to Dharamsala, the land had slowly gotten more and more rocky and small hills had appeared, but it was only when we reached Dharamsala that we were truly in the foothills of the Himalaya and it was here that we really started to get altitude.
We were driven up to the community of McLeod Ganj, quickly climbing over 1,000 feet, up tiny, windy roads, up and up and up.
The community of McLeod Ganj really does seem to cling to the mountain side, up in the clouds – and so you feel as if you are in a very special, isolated magical land – up above the rest of the world.
The views from McLeod Ganj were phenomenal and it was so naturally beautiful. When we were there, it was summer – so sunny and bright; there were monkeys playing in the car park of our hotel and as we were waiting to check in at our hotel we all watched a huge eagle circle and swirl below us, its enormous shadow swooping across the tree-tops. It was truly magnificent. You can see why the Dalai Lama settled here.
I really liked McLeod Ganj. I thought it was a great town and a wonderful community. It was small and friendly and not too busy. I thought that being the centre of a world religion, it would be crowded with pilgrims and strange people, but in fact it was a very sleepy, little place and very quiet and friendly.
McLeod Ganj is very much a Tibetan community. Prayer flags flutter above the town, and many of the restaurants here serve Tibetan food. They also though have lots of cool shops and market stalls, artisan cafés and some great cake shops.
We stayed in McLeod Ganj because we were supposed to have an audience with the DL as part of our trek, but sadly he was in Brazil – so we just went to go to his house and see his temple. We also got to do some hiking too though, and we got acclimatized to being in the mountains.
Dharamsala is a magical place and I really hope that one day I can return there. It was one of my favourite places in India, and I highly recommend that if you visit India, you go out of your way to visit it – as it is somewhere unique in the world and very, very special.
As this part of my trip was organized by Charity Challenge, they organized all of the transport.
We caught a train from Delhi New Station to Pathnakot station, where we were met by two 4WD cars to drive us to Dharamsala and the foothills of the Himalaya.
There isn’t a station in Dharamsala, the closest are in Pathnakot and Chakki Bank (both in the same town – 50 miles away from Dharamsala). We travelled into Pathnakot, and out of Chakki Bank.
If you are organizing your own transport to Dharamsala, you can book Indian train tickets on the Cleartrip website. A one-way, 2AC ticket from Delhi to Pathnakot would cost you 875 rupees (£12 pounds), and the journey takes ten hours.
Each seat reservation in 2AC and 3AC includes access to a sleeper bed, which includes blanket and pillows. On this journey we travelled 3rd class AC, so that meant there were three tiers of beds and those on the top bunks (me) had quite a climb to get up to our beds.
You can catch a bus from Pathnakot to McLeod Ganj. This is run by HRTC (Himachel Road Transport Corporation). According to wikitravel the bus takes three to four hours and costs 75 rupees (about £1). For more information, visit the HRTC website.
The drive to Dharamsala is amazing! Pathnakot is on the main plains of India, but as we got closer to Dharamsala the roads became more twisty and we drove up interesting river valleys, with monkeys chasing our car. The scenery here is just stunning and we saw loads of cows and monkeys. We also drove through lots of small interesting communities.
The roads were okay, although after a few hours we all started to get a bit car sick (our driver kept accelerating and decelerating all the time). However, it was one of the most beautiful journeys I have ever taken and I would love to go back.
McLeod Ganj is small enough to get about on foot, although it is rather steep in some places.
If you want to go down to Dharamsala or up to the waterfall at Bhagsu, you can get a auto-rickshaw/ tuk-tuk. We caught a tuk-tuk to Dharamkot and it cost us 100 rupees (£1.50). We then walked back (downhill).
What we did on our trip
Dalai Lamas’ Temple (Tsug lag khang)
Sat on a rocky outcrop, on it’s own hill at the base of the town, is the Dalai Lama’s temple and his house.
You can walk straight to the temple or walk there via a pilgrimage path. We took the pilgrimage path, which has many prayer wheels along it, prayer flags, shrines, springs, cows and gorgeous views. This was a wonderful way to walk up to the temple. We saw some amazing pilgrims making their own way to the temple, on their knees.
To get to the pilgrimage footpath, walk down the high street and where it forks outside the temple, take the left road downhill, but stay on the raised pavement. This eventually turns into the pilgrimage path which weaves its way around the mountain. It took us about an hour to walk to the temple and we had lots of fun spinning all of the prayer wheels and looking at the amazing views.
At the temple, we saw the monks taking part in a strange sort of play fighting, where they argue their religion and defend it against criticism. Every time they made a great point they’d hit the back of one hand into the palm of the other – almost like a touchdown kind of boom; like ‘boom! Come back at that argument, why don’t you?’ It’s funny.
Inside the temple, there were three of four shrines that we could visit. As the centre of a world religion, you would think that the temple would be quite ostentatious and grand – but actually, the shrines were quite small and nice. Some of the incarnations of the Buddha, which were depicted in statues, were a bit strange or scary – but they were fascinating.
As part of our trek, we were supposed to go to hear the Dalai Lama preaching, but he was in Brazil so we didn’t get to meet him. Hey ho.
The temple is in a gorgeous location, on an outcrop next to town. There were great views of McLeod Ganj from the outcrop.We spent about an hour exploring the temple and watching the monks.
We also visited the Tibetan Museum which is located just outside of the temple. The museum explains about the persecution of the Tibetans by the Chinese, the exodus from Tibet, and how people still regularly desert the country to come to India. The museum explained about the hardships that people face trying to escape Tibet and what a risky journey they undertake. It was fascinating and very moving too. They also had speeches and films of those who escaped with the Dalai Lama. It’s all very sad. I hope one day they can all go home…
Hiked to Bhagsu Waterfall and visited the village of Dharamkot
Bhagsu Waterfall is located up the valley from McLeod Ganj. To stretch out the kinks in our walking legs, we decided to take a hike up to the waterfall. We caught auto-rickshaws to the village of Dharamkot, which is uphill from McLeod Ganj, and then hiked to the waterfall from there.
Dharamkot is lovely. It’s a great little community, like McLeod Ganj, but quieter, with some fun shops, an interesting temple and a great outdoor, spring fed swimming pool. In hot months, apparently, this gets very busy – but when we were there, there were only one or two people swimming in it.
We hiked about 20 minutes up to the waterfall. By the fall there were platforms and a café – and loads of Indian boys were jumping in and out of the water and playing and splashing around. Most of the walk was on a good footpath although there were one or two tricky, rocky bits, closer to the waterfall. It was a nice, gentle hike to start getting us ready for the higher Himalaya.
We decided to walk back down hill to McLeod Ganj, and we had a lovely afternoon stroll, taking photos, relaxing and chatting. We saw Buddhist monks, who stopped to chat, and some holy cows. It was great.
Incidentally, many Israeli solders come to Dharamsala after they have finished their military service and apparently many of them stay in Dharamkot – so there is quite a large Hebrew community here too.
Shopped and bought cake
Surprisingly, Dharamsala was one of the best places I went to in India for shopping. All down the main high street were lots of interesting stalls, selling fun and funky touristy things – and there were quite a few good clothes and shawl/blanket stalls. There were also a lot of hiking shops – so if you need gear for a trek you can get it here for good prices. And price wise, things here seemed to be cheaper than elsewhere in India – there were a lot of bargains that I regret not buying. I did get some very funky scarves and trousers though and I did start my Christmas shopping here.
Dharamsala also had one or two wonderful bakeries with nommy cake, and loads of great Tibetan cafés. Ooooooo cake.
After we had finished our Himalayan Charity Challenge, and on the way back from Bir to the station at Pathnakot, we stopped off at the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala. The Norbulingka Institute is a centre, set up by the Dalai Lama, to preserve traditional Tibetan culture.
They have the most wonderful garden café. It’s set in a beautiful Japanese zen-like garden, with loads of little streams, prayer flags, bamboo trees and flowers. It was so pretty and peaceful and such a nice place to eat. The café served great Tibetan food and we had a lovely last lunch together here.
After lunch, we went to see some of the temples in the institute and had a look at the fascinating museum and the great gift shop. We then got the opportunity to speak to the lovely museum curator who told us all about the institute and it’s purpose and history.
The Norbulingka is set in such a lovely building. Apparently the building is supposed to represent the Buddha of compassion (the one with a million arms and hundreds of eyes), so it is in a circular shape. At the heart of the circle is a spring with a prayer wheel in – so the prayers are at the heart of the Buddha. It was a really gorgeous place.
Where we stayed
The Hotel Suryu was a fine hotel with the most amazing views. Our room overlooked the high street and Dharamsala and the plains down below us.
The rooms were nice and large and we had free wi-fi. They also had a good restaurant with a well stocked bar. And monkeys in the car park.
Please note, some of this information may not be correct or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to sites which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.