Mcleodganj: Transforming tourists into travellers
January 1, 1970
by Devashish Mathur
All my life, I had been tripping through the places like a stereotypical tourist: booking the train/flight/bus tickets along with ‘well-rated’ hotels and cabs in advance, visiting the touristy over-crowded spots, taking up tour packages etc. Such pre-planned trips never quite satisfied my wanderlust. Finally, it was the June of 2017 when a hasty decision to take a break from all the life drama, monotonous college routine, polluted environment and traffic jams changed my perspective towards travelling forever. I, along with three friends from college, packed the necessary and planned to keep this low-budget journey unplanned.
Situated in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh just about 15 km from Dharamshala at the height of 2082 metres (6831 feet), Mcleodganj is undoubtedly one of the best hill stations in India. Owing to the large population of Tibetans, Mcleodganj is also known as “Little Lhasa”. The most prominent and exceptional feature of Mcleodganj that you wouldn’t find in any other Indian hill station is the cleanliness despite being popular amongst tourists and pretty densely populated. Having Kangra Airport at about an hour’s distance that provides the town with air connectivity to only Delhi and Chandigarh (March 2018 onwards) and the Pathankot Railway Station as the nearest broad gauge railway station which is about two and a half hour from Mcleodganj makes the roadway the best means of conveyance. No matter where you are coming from, the bus journey remains the most convenient option as it saves time, effort, money and possible nausea. Both State transport buses and private luxury buses regularly run between Mcleodganj and other major Indian cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, Manali, Karnal, Ambala etc. However, if you don’t have an itinerary to stick to and are looking forward to getting off the trail and making your trip more about the journey than the destination, then take a car.
We were fortunate enough to be able to arrange a car from a friend in Delhi and kicked off our journey within a couple of hours of forming our impulsive ‘run-away trip’. The best part? We could stop the car whenever and wherever we wanted to, take a detour and watch the sunrise by a stream while sipping tea. Having no scheduled check-ins, checkouts or restrictive packages, we travelled following our extemporaneous instincts. Our first travelling escapade was the morning tea we had while watching the dawning Sun from the mountains with our feet immersed in the crystal-clear stream in the middle of nowhere. Once we reached Mcleodganj, we found ourselves a hotel within our budget with a breathtaking view to kick back after the tiresome overnight drive. Soon after napping for a couple of hours, it was time to live the dream. Mcleodganj is a small town where the roads are so narrow that the traffic police requires adopting one-way system during the peak hours. Therefore, we preferred parking our car at the hotel and walking our way through the town using google maps. Wandering the streets led us to explore the city in the best way possible and discover food joints and viewpoints that one wouldn’t find online. Within six hours, we had visited Bhagsunath Temple, Saint John in the Wilderness Church, Kalachakra Temple on the Forsyth Ganj-Mcleodganj Road and of course, the Dalai Lama Temple as we satisfied our spiritual voracity.
A Hindu temple, Christian Church and a Buddhist temple amongst the must-visit places in Mcleodganj gives the visitors religious tranquillity in their unique natural setting.
The Dalai Lama Temple (Tsuglhakhang)
Mcleodganj is also known as the ‘town of Dalai Lama’ and welcomes an enormous number of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world. The town itself owes a majority of identity to the Dalai Lama temple and thus the temple is something that you wouldn’t wish to miss. When you find yourself standing in front of the monumental Buddha sculpture at the residence of the 14th Dalai Lama with the chanting monks, playing and giggling kids, praying devotees, chirping birds while the Sun goes down the mighty mountain- there is nothing like it. It fills you to the brim with inner peace and positive energy.
Another attraction for the visitors is the Tibetan Museum in the premises of the temple complex showcasing Tibetan culture through photographs, writings and other means.
Travel tip: There is a security check at the entrance of the temple complex and photography is also prohibited in most areas. Therefore, avoid carrying anything with you into the temple (especially lighters, knives etc.)
St. John in the Wilderness
Built during the 1850s, as the descriptive name suggests, the St. John in the Wilderness Church marks its presence amidst the dense alpine forest. Adding historical importance to the religious and serene site, the churchyard also the serves as the final resting place for Viceroy and Governor General of India, Lord Elgin.
About 3 kilometres from the centre of the city, Bhagsunath Temple is another attraction lying in the laps of nature. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple allures a large number of visitors to worship and cleanse their bodies and souls in the holy water of ‘jalkund’.
Travel tip: Carry one set of clothing and towel with you in case you plan to take a dip in the holy pond.
After wrapping up the religious sites, we decided to call it a day. We needed rest- not because we had a tiresome today but because we were going to have an even more challenging tomorrow. The following day we did our first trek, Triund. We had breakfast early in the morning, checked out of the hotel, kept the luggage in the car except the what we needed on the trek, parked the car at the local parking place, bought ration supplies for the trek as well as the night and hired a drop service till Dharmkot.
If you’re physically capable of completing a 4-5 hour trek, go for Triund. It falls under the ‘must do’ in one’s Dharamsala/Mcleodganj itinerary. Starting from Dharmkot, the Triund trek runs about 6 km and ends at the camping site escalating to 2875 metres above the sea level with the scenic view of the Kangra Valley that keeps energising the trekkers. With a moderate amount of inclination, the initial part of the trek remains mostly unchallenging. The patch of last two kilometres becomes a strenuous hike and often tests the determination of amateur trekkers. However, all the fatigue vanishes the moment one reaches Triund and witnesses the majestic panoramic Himalayan landscape. Take my word for it, the chilly night under a billion gleaming stars by a bonfire with no network coverage will have you lost for words.
Travel tip: Avoid taking trek packages and just follow the trail with your own or rented tents and sleeping bags, to save money and have a self-contained experience to Triund.
Other places where you can seek adventure in and around Mcleodganj are:
- Dal Lake, about 2 kilometres from the Main Square market, is a small pond with unclear water between the hilly forests.
- Bhagsu Falls, further of the Bhagsunath Temple, is a highly preferred touristy spot in Mcleodganj, especially during the monsoons. The fall turns into a small stream during the other seasons remaining a prime attraction for tourists.
Having such high religious significance, many parts of the town remain largely ‘pure vegetarian’ like the market near the Bhagsunath Temple. However, the market near the Main Square offers a wide variety of food. Saving you some trouble, I found the best momos on the Bhagsunag Road at Momo Dhaba and the best meals at a small cafe in front of the Skylark Hotel and Restaurant. You will find a large number of cafe all around the city. Do visit Shiva cafe at the Bhagsu Falls.
Mcleodganj brought out the traveller in me. On our way back, we didn’t speak much, didn’t even share how we felt and left the Mcleodganj experience as “tacenda”- matters to be passed over in silence; things better left unsaid…