I had accepted an invitation to my friend´s wedding in India in May. May is the middle of the Indian summer and the weather is scorching hot nearly all over the country. One place that has spectacular weather in May is Dharamshala, the Himalayan home of the Dalai Lama. Dharamshala was easy to reach from Delhi (where I was flying in) and can be reasonably seen in 2-days. My other idea, Kashmir, needed at least 3 days. So, Dharamshala it would be!
May 14, 2023: Shalom
After a 14-hour direct flight from New York, made longer due to rerouting out of Russian airspace due to the Ukraine war, I landed in Delhi and reached my airport hotel at 00:30 on Sunday the 14th.
I slept for 4 hours and woke up at 5:00 to travel to the domestic flight for my 7:30 flight to Dharamshala on SpiceJet. That flight took 1 hour. The plane was in poor shape, but luckily it flew. I noticed that most of the flight attendants were from Northeast India. I later learned that Northeast Indians are considered more “exotic” looking and give businesses higher status.
The flight was bumpy, but we landed at Kangra Airport. From the runway, we could see lots of snow in the Himalaya.
I pre-booked a car through my hotel. The ride took 1 hour up into the hills. Our drive took us through 3 distinct towns. We first passed through Dharamshala, a normal Indian town. 3 kilometers uphill, we reached McCleod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama. When most travelers say Dharamshala, they actually mean McCleod Ganj. Finally, we reached Dharamkhot, the hippie backpacker town in the pine trees. The road for most of the way was one-lane with two-way traffic, but the final section to reach Dharamkhot was especially windy and narrow.
When I think of India, I do not think of pine forests and cool weather, but that was Dharamkhot.
I checked into my hotel and, after chatting with the staff, decided to make today my “town exploration” day and would go on a day-long Himalayan trek on Monday.
The first thing I noticed when walking around town was that the restaurant next to my hotel was an Israeli restaurant. Hmmm that is strange!
I kept walking through the pedestrian-only village and continued to see Hebrew writing everywhere along with yoga classes of varieties I have never heard of, crystal shops, jewelry-making classes, and vegan restaurants. There was even a Chabad house – a replica of their global HQ at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Needless to say, this town has a strong vibe, an “energy” if you will. Nowhere in the world have I seen so many white people wearing robes and so many men with hoop earrings.
I have run into Israeli backpackers many times before: Kathmandu, Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, and the San Blas Islands in Panama and have always had good interactions. In general, they travel for a few months after completing their mandatory military service. When backpacking, Israelis tend to be found in large numbers in very specific towns– even though many travel solo. I´m not sure whether this is due to word of mouth or the traveler infrastructure to cater to Jewish religious needs. Israeli backpacker towns always seem to have two things: healthy, delicious food and marijuana. While I do not smoke, the Israeli backpackers will always offer me some or tell me they have a connect.
I then walked down the hill to McCleod Ganj. The town was originally founded by the British Raj as a summer hill station. In 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India during the Chinese takeover of Tibet. He was offered refuge in McCleod Ganj. Since then, the town has been both his home as well as the home of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Most of the people in McCleod Ganj looked Tibetan including many monks. The center was quite busy in the central business district. Merit wheels line the streets just like on the Everest trek. Here, they were spun mostly by older women and tourists. Vendors lined the road.
10-minutes downhill from the main square is the Dalai Lama´s compound. The compound, open to the public, contains the residence and office of the His Holiness and a temple where he conducts religious teaching and ceremonies.
After clearing security, I entered the complex that Lonely Planet accurately describes as looking like a spartan American high school.
The complex has two temples. Each one has a throne where the Dalai Lama sits for teachings. Behind the thrones were statues of Buddha and on the sides, statues of other deities. One of the statues drew particular interest from the visiting Tibetans who bowed and took photos.
Behind the temples lie the office and residence of the Dalai Lama. It is strictly off limits and protected by the HHDL PD. People can gain audience with the Dalai Lama, but there must be it must be done in advance and there must be good reason. Tibetan refugees are automatically guaranteed a private audience. The best way to see him is to attend a public teaching. Unfortunately, there was not a teaching when I was around- the next teaching was the next weekend.
There wasn´t much else to see in the complex, so I decided to take the scenic path around the perimeter. The walk goes through the pine trees and is lined with Tibetan prayer flags. It is also guarded by monkeys. While the monkeys did not bother me, they easily could have attacked and done serious harm with their sharp teeth!
I headed back into McCleod Ganj town and got lunch in a Tibetan restaurant. I ordered thukpa, a soup. By this point, my legs were shot from all the hills and so I returned to the hotel for a glorious afternoon nap.
When I awoke, I encountered my neighbors who came from Hyderabad. To reach Dharamshala, they took a 24-hour train followed by a 12-hour overnight bus. Wow! I mentioned the yoga classes and they said they avoid classes and prefer to practice in private.
For dinner, I went to an Alice In Wonderland-themed Italian restaurant recommended by my friend Arisht. The restaurant has a second outpost in Goa. My guess is the Goa location is closed during May and the staff all moved up here. At $5-7 for a main, it was expensive for India but wow it was delicious.
Exhausted from the flights and the long day of walking, I called it an early night.
May 15, 2023: Trek to Triund
After 2 nights without sleep, I finally got some sleep. And I needed it because today was a big day: the goal was to trek to Triund Hill. Before leaving town, I got breakfast at an Israeli restaurant that was the earliest spot to open in the entire town at 8:00. I ordered a granola and Greek yoghurt bowl. Israelis know how to eat healthy.
It was now time to start the hike!
I climbed up steps and steep trails from Dharamkhot to reach the Gallu Temple. This is the official start of the trek. My legs were already burning due to the steepness, but luckily the “official” trail was flatter.
The pathway started through the forest. Eventually, views of Kangra and the plains below appeared. I stopped for my first water break 20 minutes in and encountered two monks who were taking a day excursion. They had quality hiking shoes. They offered me grapes, which I accepted.
Just before halfway, I got my first peak of a snowy Himalayan peak peeking over the green hills. Majestic!
At the halfway point, I stopped at a random tea house appropriately called Magic View (shops pop up everywhere when hiking in South Asia). There, I got a masala chai and chatted with a South African couple.
I hiked for another hour up steep switchbacks to reach the top of Triund “Hill” at 2,875 meters. It is called a hill because it is half the height of the nearby mountains and is green in the summer. The landscape here was quite different. Gone were the trees and instead I was on a flat grassy plain with a straight-on view of the oh-so-snowy Dhauladar Range. Many herders were walking around with donkeys. There were a few shops as well.
While this was the end of my trek, it is possible to continue higher into the mountains. 1.5 hours uphill will get you to Snowline and if you continue for another day or two, you will reach the Indrahar Pass at 4,300 meters.
While admiring the magnificent views of the snowy mountains, I met a lady from New York of all places. She is a contract worker in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Liberia during the war. She was in Dharamshala to write a book.
The path down led me along the ridgeline where I got to interact with more donkeys and get more stunning views of the mountains. The trail here had many steps. It then switchbacked down an ugly slope all the way to a river. By this point my legs were jelly.
19 kilometers later, I had reached the town of Bhagsu, another suburb of Dharamshala.
Bhagsu is best known for its 16th century temple, built on the supposed spot where the god Nagdevata fought King Bhagsu for stealing water from a sacred lake. The king lost the battle and asked for repentance by building the temple. Adjacent to the temple are two sacred swimming pools, which is a funny and seemingly very random sight.
I then walked uphill back to Dharamkhot past many Hebrew signs and yoga practices. On the way, I stopped by an Ayuvedic juice stand. The guy made a concoction of kesar, thandai sharbat, and a bunch of other words I don´t know. It supposedly would give me instant energy.
Anyways, the drink tasted like cucumber, but slightly carbonated and with jelly in it. A little strange, but tasty.
It was 15:00 but I had not eaten yet, so I went to Bodhi Greens for a vegan buddha bowl and ran into none other than the New Yorker from the top of the hill we continued our nice conversation.
I didn´t do anything meaningful the rest of the day since the hike was so long, but I went to bed early to get up at 4:00 for my flight back to Delhi. Amazingly, to ensure that I would make it on time, the cab driver (who lives an hour+ away) slept at the hotel.
Dharamshala is a unique place. It is one of the only places in India to have good weather in May and one of the only to have pine forests. But more than that the unique combination of Tibetans and Western spiritual seekers makes you feel like you are not in India. While not “Indian”, the food was fantastic, and the people were generally nice and very relaxed.
While I thought the highlight was going to be visiting the Dalai Lama´s temple, it in fact ended up being the trek. There are not many opportunities to take a 1-day trek and feel like you are high in the Himalayas. While I have no need to come back, I would wholeheartedly recommend Dharamshala to any Indian traveler during their summer.