Often called Little Lhasa owning to its Tibetan population, McLeodganj--in Dharamsala, India--is an unexpectedly charming town brimming with warm people and the vibrant display of a rich culture
If there’s something I have learnt as a traveller, it’s this: Never judge a place at night-time. I arrived at McLeodganj a few hours after sunset, so my first impression led me to think of it as a small, cramped place owing to the very narrow lanes covered with buildings and people alike. To top that most hotels were packed and finding a room was getting increasingly difficult after trying the fifth one! Come morning and it was almost as though I was in another place altogether. I went to the balcony of my room to feel the cool breeze when my eyes chose to widen and my jaw unwillingly dropped. Let me explain. When people like me who’ve lived a city life for eternity witness a phenomenon called mountains, this I believe is a normal side-effect. But this was no ordinary mountain range. In the midst of two regular peaks was one innocent milky white snow-covered peak rising high up to touch the sky and look down at us mere mortals. This awestruck behaviour continued for a good one hour after which the great Indian belly began to complain about avoidance.
Imbibe the spirit
I always found Mcleodganj an odd name for an Indian destination. Interesting this little town, also known as Upper Dharamsala, was named after Sir David McLeod, a Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, while the suffix ganj is a common Hindi word for ‘neighbourhood’.
Often it has been said that a destination can be judged by the people that reside in it. The locals here were not only cheerful and friendly, but also passionate and united for their cause (freedom of Tibet). The undying spirit of the people in spreading awareness about their cause and their continuous struggle for freedom is applaudable. The Tsuglagkhang complex (located at the end of the Temple Road) that contains the Dalai Lama's residence, a monastery, temple and museum is testament to this unity. Steeped in Tibetan culture, every corner of this complex is resonant with depictions of Tibet’s history and its struggle for freedom. A tall shiny gold statue of Sakyamuni Buddha resides calmly in the heart of the temple surrounded by pillars adorning colourful thangkas with prayer wheels on the outside. The complex also houses a café and bookshop for visitors.
WHERE TO EAT
Snow Lion restaurant; Location: Jogibara Road, opposite a temple.
Momos are a Tibetan specialty, but not everyone gets them right. Snow Lion restaurant serves some of the best momos in town, among a host of other Tibetan specialties. Try the steamed momos with either a vegetable or chicken filling, you won’t be disappointed. While here, also try the banana and chocolate crepe or ask for a slice of the chocolate cake, not only is it delicious, but the portion they serve is very generous!
Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen; Location: Adjacent to Snow Lion
If Tibetan cuisine doesn’t appease your taste buds, head to Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen and sample their Medallion chicken, various kinds of pastas or the fried bacon strips they serve with breakfast. Along with lip-smacking food, this restaurant has a warm ambiance with film posters sprawled on their chrome coloured walls. This is the best place to enjoy an outdoor breakfast too as they open their rooftop space in the morning, where you can view the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountains. This restaurant also has a small space where they show films on DVD occasionally.
Ashok Restaurant; Location: Down Jogibara Road, on the main street
Ashok restaurant also has a good rooftop view and serves tasty Indian food together with alcohol drinks.
McLeodganj is a coffee lover’s paradise. It’s replete with coffee shops, most of which offer indoor and outdoor settings and serve good quality coffee and numerous accompaniments.
McLeodganj is a coffee lover’s paradise. It’s replete with coffee shops, most of which offer indoor and outdoor settings and serve good quality coffee and numerous accompaniments. Moonpeak Espresso and Mandala lie on the Temple Road, whereas Coffee Talk is close to the Tsuglagkhang complex, and First Cup Café is located en route from Dharamsala to McLeodganj. But what delights coffee lover the most is the large quantity of coffee (and even some desserts) they serve. Most of the coffee shops here use big mugs, just like the ones made popular on the television sitcom Friends. It gets better. The prices attached to these big mugs are very small. On an average, you can get a big mug of regular coffee for Rs. 40. Some of these cafes even have a significant collection of books that customers can read while enjoying their coffee.
I stayed in Bhagsu, 2 km from Mcleodganj, at a new hotel called Surya. The rooms here were clean, spacious and had a balcony that gave us a mammoth view of the mountains, even a snow-capped one. We wanted to stay in Mcleodganj itself, but after failing to find rooms in about 3-4 hotels, we went ahead to Bhagsu. You can try the following places:
Hotel Snow Lion (Location: Temple Road; Tel: 01892 221289) – the rooms are basic and are reasonably priced.
Kunga Guest House (Location: On Bhagsu Road; Tel: 01892 221 180) – It’s located right aabove Nick's Italian Kitchen and offers clean rooms with great mountain views on the higher floors of the building.
Loling Guest House (Location: Tipa Road; Tel: 01892 221 072) – Simple and clean rooms at really cheap rates.
A word of caution though: Ideally book a room before you arrive. Since it’s a small town, during the peak season it tends to get packed with people.
If you enjoy street shopping, the market displays some of the best jewellery replete with exotic gems and stones. But there’s a catch, the shopkeepers certainly don’t bargain. However, don’t be too disappointed, as there are a couple of shops that offer reasonable rates on curios, junk jewellery and clothes. You can also pick up souvenirs such as Tibetan thangkas, prayer flags, varieties of tea, T-shirts adorning the Tibetan flag, wall hangings, statues of Lord Buddha, carpets and curios.
McLeodganj isn’t a touristy place, but if you’re hoping to find yourself in a place that is cosy, content and lively, then it doesn’t get better than this.