Imagine a sky, bleeding blue; mighty mountain peaks with rugged terrain; the odd flake of snow – all interspersed together in a surreal ghetto where a government functions in exile! Yes, that’s Mcleodganj, a place made of and sustained by dreams.
Named after David McLeod, the then Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, this tiny Shangri La was established in the mid-1850s as a British garrison.
From the time when his holiness Dalai Lama sought asylum here in 1960 following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Mcleodganj has come a long way. Today, McLeodganj is more identifiable as the Land of the Lama than even Ladakh.
Just as you tackle some gentle curves on your way from Dharamsala to McLeod, the air loses the thrum of the Dhol and puts on a rather meditative veil of saintly chants and silent prayer wheels.
Thus I arrived in McLeodganj on one fine evening in July riding my Man O’ War all the way from Delhi. It was an arduous ride. My brother I left Delhi on a sultry summer night on our respective Royal Enfields to seek refuge from Delhi’s heat and to take a break from the shackles of corporate cacophony for a couple of days.
It was a decent ride from Delhi as we crossed Chandigarh just before the sunrise. Weather was relatively gentle and we rode comfortably until we arrived in Anandpur Sahib. As the day progressed it just got hotter and even as we neared Dharamsala we were disappointed.
“Yaar ye to dhokha ho gaya!” my brother said (Bro, looks like we have made a big mistake). He was referring to the weather when he said that.
“Lagta to hai. Isse achha to Uttarakhand mein kahin plan bana lena tha.” I replied (Yes, I agree. It would have been better had we planned for some place in Uttarakhand).
But there was no turning back. So onwards we marched towards the realm of the highest Lama. Even as we rode on the lines of Alfred Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade started to play itself in the corner of my mind – similar verses but with a few altered words:
“Forward, the Royal Enfield!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the Brothers knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to take the U Turn,
Theirs but to ride and arrive:
Into the valley of Kangra
The first signs of moderate climate appeared as we crossed Duggal and neared Dharamsala. It soothed our nerve quite a bit. Dharamsala – as we entered it – looked nothing like mini Tibet. It was more like mini Punjab. The streets were crowded with shops and people and it seemed to be bursting at it seams.
That was not a good sign for we had come here to escape the din of city life and after a long ride it appeared that we have found another. Without even halting to take a look around we rode straight towards our final destination with trepidation in our hearts.
As soon as we crossed the town and the crowd, the hamlet gave way to vistas of Dauladhar Range of Himalaya and pine and most comforting of all, the gentle and cooler breeze.
Forested with Chir Pine, Deodar and Rhododendron trees, McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh is surrounded by towering Dauladhar Range of Himalayas on the three sides and sweeping Kangra Valley on the remaining.
McLeod extends along a chir pine-covered ridge with undulating valleys below and the near vertical walls of the Dhauladhar range. Nearer we approached, the cooler it got and we both took a sigh of relief for here within reach was our escape from Delhi.
Even as we approached McLeodganj, I instinctively stopped my vehicle at a trisection. It was a strategically located Liquor Shop. The road straight ahead led to McLeod, another one up the hill on the left led to Naddi Village and yet another down the hill on the road to Army Settlement.
From dusty, crowded and hot Dharamsala, down in the plains to the temperate environs and fresh air up in the mountains, the transformation was palpable.
After such long ride it was tempting not to take the chill pill (beer) from the shop. So without resisting the temptation and despite my brothers caution of “Thoda sabar kar le. Aate ke saath suru” (Have some patience, we have only just arrived) I bought 2 bottles to rejuvenate myself after a hard night’s and long day’s ride.
Since we were aware of the bustle of the city which today is same as most of the popular tourist destinations in India – sprinkled with hotels, markets, tourists et al – we took the road to Naddi to look for accommodation.
I started with a lovely looking cottage type accommodation at the end of the road. It was named Udechee Huts. I walked in looking for good bargain but boy was I disappointed! The price was exorbitant (as per my budget). The price I was quoted by the Uncle ji sitting at the reception was INR 3600 per night. I tried my best to bargain but he didn’t budged. So with a little anger and frustration I walked away to look for another accommodation.
The problem with hotel booking in touristy places is that on the spot they always ask more than twice you’d pay had you booked online or through a travel agency. In places less touristy better accommodation than this cost no more than a 1000 bucks even when booked on spot and whenever I travel I find accommodation upon arrival.
So I went back towards the road and entered Hotel Hill View which is just off the arterial road that connects Naddi to Dharamsala and McLeod. There I met a friendly receptionist Dinesh (094184-25775, 086288-25775). After some bargaining he agreed to the sum of INR 1000 per night. It was a unbelievably good bargain considering our bikes were parked on the road and we were looking for accommodation.
So we settled down in our room. The room on the lowest floor was neatly turned down. It had a TV, an attached washroom with Western toilet and running hot and cold water. Everything we could have hoped for was there.
The most amazing part of the room was the panoramic view of the Dauladhar Range from large window. It was just breathtaking so was gulping down the beer with a view of lush countryside and towering peaks of Dauladhar which at sunset burnished gold.
In the evening after some rest and lunch, I headed for a stroll even as my brother decided to rest. Although not as crowded as McLeodganj, Naddi was still abuzz with tourist, a potpourri of Punjabi couples, overseas families, bantam backpackers and seekers of salvation.
A promenade along the pine covered ridge with view of the hamlet with Dauladhar Range abruptly rising up against the sky is a sight to behold. There was a small flea market like set up along the road selling curious and souvenirs. Then there were several locals with telescopes offering view of the hidden mountain stream to the curious tourists.
But the most endearing sight was watching the industrious people in the outskirts of the bustling town engaged in their daily chores and fending for food and forages. This is what I love the most about being footloose in Himalayas and McLeod despite its rampant commercialization was no exception. It is the simple way of life, the guileless people with unadulterated smile on their face. It is one of those places where you do nothing and you have done everything you wanted to when you planned to choose this charming hill town as your escape.
But I was here for a trek. Initially we had planned for Kareri and Lam Dal. But what is a travel experience if everything went according to plan. Yes! Now was the time for twist but today is not over yet. It’s time for some r(Wh)isky thing…you know what I am talking about rite? Something to keep me warm 🙂 and then to bed. For tomorrow is another day.
In the next post, I will talk about my not so planned trek…so watch out!
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