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McLeod Ganj

A hillside haven

Story by Rupert Marlow November 26th, 2015


The journey from Amritsar to Dharamsala is about four and a half hours and at this point, I should fill you in on a travelling game that Sarah and I play. Basically, between the hours of 8am and 10pm, it‘s fair game that should a travelling companion be asleep, a ‘selfie‘ must be taken to go out on social media - as a sort of punishment for being such a poor travelling partner. I was exhausted on the morning of our drive from Amritsar so within an hour or two, Sarah had made her first of the trip, redressing the score to 2:1. I had started strong with 2 on the flights out. For my own wellbeing, photos of The Wife are not to be posted here.

Our introduction to Dharmsala was memorable. We arrived at a decent looking hotel only to be led, after check-in, down to what they romantically called ‘the Cottage‘. The view was staggering. On our arrival, the weather was such that as the ground fell away below the hotel to the west, the sun, split by clouds cast ‘God-rays‘ onto the hillside and landscape below. Sadly, we then had to turn round and confront our room and endure the experience of finding stained bedsheets and a cockroach climbing up my t-shirt within about two minutes of sitting down.


Up to reception we went, explaining the situation and asked to be moved - at which point we were shown a receipt from the exterminators and were told it wasn‘t true. I could rant on about this but in short, we were moved, eventually waiving the initially requested ‘upgrade fee‘ to another room - which incidentally had blood on the clearly unwashed duvet and the reluctantly provided replacement smelled of damp and garlic. This was not going to be a fun or pleasurable 3 nights. It was a budget hotel and we expected some degree of compromise but not that much!

So, rather downhearted, we set off to explore the surrounding area. The best plan apparently was to head up from Dharmsala to McLeod Ganj by taxi up a hair-raising twisty, unbelievably steep concrete track, far too quickly, in a small car with no seatbelt, constantly contending with oncoming traffic and motorbikes that seem come out of nowhere. Still, the walk would have been gruelling - as we found out the next day as part of our new-found resolve to ignore the hotel and get on with enjoying the area.

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McLeod Ganj is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan influence is clear in this delightful town with many Buddhist monks of all ages at large in their robes and trainers with many clutching the latest smartphones. Consisting of only a few small streets, it is easily navigable on foot and Sarah and I fell in love with it instantly. We particularly loved the friendly locals, photogenic stalls and endless views.

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We had a great time aimlessly wandering the narrow streets, occasionally hopping through the adjoining passageways that link the two main roads. For supper, we ate in the well reviewed and recommended Tibet Kitchen - serving a sort of fusion of Tibetan and Indian meals. The ginger, honey and lemon tea was also excellent. The drawback being the strong ginger clears one’s nose so that following a frightening taxi ride home, we could truly experience the smell of the replacement duvet - the hotel was genuinely called ‘Pong View‘ and we were finding out why! In an effort to combat this and achieve some sleep, a vast quantity of Sarah‘s duty-free perfume was applied to the bed covers, we settled in and tried to get some kip.

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Each morning we treated ourselves to pancakes and a very good coffee in the charming Tibetan Mandala Cafe before embarking on our days exploring. On the first visit, we met a very nice man - whose name I have embarrassingly forgotten, but we have a ‘selfie’ (a term and practice I despise unless one participant is asleep) who suggested a plan for the day‘s exploration. After a chat about cameras and photography, we set off to Bhagsu in search of a waterfall at the top of a steep stepped ascent adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, like much of McLeod Ganj and were quickly glad that we had opted for trainers rater than flip-flops this time round.



Returning to McLeod Ganj and after lunch at The Four Seasons Cafe, we set out in search of Dharmkot - a decent walk out of McLeod Ganj up the hill towards the snow-capped Himalayan mountains. We basically walked until we weren‘t sure we‘d make it home on time, turned back and reached the conclusion that we‘d gone wrong somewhere along the way as all we saw was a large water treatment plant. Still, it was a nice walk!

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On returning to McLeod Ganj, our attention turned to souvenirs with many shops selling various items including meditation bowls which, when ‘rung‘ emit the most amazing chimes and somehow, different tones depending on how you strike them. Using a sort-of baton, you run the lightly padded end around the rim of the bowl as the lasting tone builds to a crescendo then strike it with the unpadded harder end of the baton to add a 2nd layer of sound. I don‘t know if this is the best way of ringing them but it worked for us. The notes are quite mesmerising but since I find sitting cross legged very uncomfortable I am unlikely to use them for meditation. I bought two very smart matching pair of hand made, beautifully decorated ones of different sizes with the intention of using them for car keys, change and general ‘pocket dross’ on my bedside table and in the office at home but didn‘t have the heart to tell the shop keeper - who every time he rang one would shut his eyes and hold the bowl high in the air and let it chime for far linger than necessary. No doubt I‘ll use them as an alarm clock for Sarah from time to time - when I feel I can cope with the repercussions, or when she is heading to London on the 6am train so with a few days to cool off before seeing me again!

After ‘The Treasurer‘ (Sarah) had driven a hard bargain on the pair, and picked up (yet another) pashmina for herself we headed to another rooftop bar for a couple of pints of ‘sleeping-aid‘ before heading to bed.

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Kangra fort

On recommendation from the local tourist office, our final day was planned out. We were to spend a lot of time in a taxi with Pancas, who seemed to be a frustrated rally driver. We were heading to the ancient cliff-top Kangra Fort, well protected on 3 sides by a large ravine containing a beautiful meandering river. It reminded me almost exactly as I had pictured Cair Paravel in my head, from The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe - a childhood favourite. It was a magical place. Open plan in places with prominent viewpoints and well defendable ramparts and gates as you enter the meandering lane from the main office. The Treasurer found the 2000% inflation on the locals entry fee amusing. We paid our £2 accepting the discrimatory £1.90 ‘tourist tax‘ as a good example as why sometimes a percentage can be misleading compared an actual cost. Besides, it was definitely worth it!

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The Rock-Cut Temples

The driver, while we were in the fort, was in the pits, preparing for the next leg. When we got back to the car park, he was ready and we shot off in the direction of the rock-cut temples - something I have wanted to see for a long time having seen my father’s holiday photos (at great length) from their travels. Given that I am my family’s IT support, I have spent more time in their photo libraries than I care to remember, sorting out the mess they seem to make on each import - maybe I am just a dreadful teacher but they arealmost certainly dreadful students! I hate to think what I‘ll be confronted with when we get back. The Rock Cut Temples are just that, a temple complex, cut directly out of solid rock, so not built as such but painstakingly carved out of subterranean stone and with some considerable detail and intricacy too.

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naddi view point

Pancas ‘McRae‘ drove us back with one stop left in the plan. Our friend from the cafe had recommended Naddi View Point to watch the sunset turn the snow-covered mountain tops orange in the evening light. We were racing agains the sun and Pancas knew it. He was particularly irritated at my suggestion to stop for an amusing street sign for Sarah. Once ‘snapped’, at speeds threatening the sound barrier in our tiny Suzuki, Naddi nearly slipped through our fingers but we made it just with minutes to spare, the final few hundred yards of off road pot-holed rough track pounding his trusty missile of a super-mini to its extreme along with our spines.

We made it and he got an extra tip for coasting slowly home to allow us all - the car included to recover. After supper, we headed home, full and tired from the long day and looking forward to the prospect of travelling away from the hotel. We‘ll miss McLeod Ganj. It was one of my favourite places of all time - even if I did have to be photographed sleeping with my hairy double chin out to get there!

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Footnote: All images were shot on Fujifilm’s excellent X100s, X-T1 or iPhone 6s Plus on 13-15 November 2015. Property of Rupert Marlow. All rights reserved.
McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India