Discover tranquility in the Himalayas
Last minute holidays are always the norm for work professionals having a hectic life. The moment my boss gives me a green signal for my leave; I pack my bags in under 2 hours and hit the road!
Fortunately, Dharamsala is one such place where you can plan your journey within a week.
Nestled in the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, India, Dharamsala is currently the seat of the Central Tibetan Administration, and the Dalai Llama’s residence. The moment you set foot into Dharamsala, you are transported to another world of calm and peace (although most of it can be disrupted by the bustling crowd of Indian and foreign tourists). The city is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and dense forests, and looks right out of a book on a winter wonderland. A note of caution, though- Dharamsala can get quite crowded, as it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India.
Also note, while Dharamsala is a town in itself, it is also referred to as the entire region encompassing McLeodganj, Dharamkot, Bhagsu, etc. The mention of Dharamsala here is of the region and not the town, as the town is pretty mundane, crowded and there’s hardly anything to do there.
Budget can vary depending upon the type of hotel and mode of transportation. Our budget for the trip was Rs.15,000/- to Rs.20,000/- for two persons for 2 days (including shopping). Our budget was slightly higher as we decided to travel cheap but stay in a slightly expensive hotel, but there are other, much cheaper options to explore and bring down the budget.
Dharamsala is well connected from New Delhi, and several options to reach Dharamsala can be availed. S and I opted for bus, as it is the cheapest and most convenient form of transport there.
Flight: New Delhi to Dharamsala Airport (Kangra Airport) – 1 hr 10 mins. Cost: Varies from season to season. Approximate cost (return) from New Delhi can be Rs.9,500/- onwards. Flights are operated by SpiceJet and Air India.
Train: Dharamsala does not have a railway station, and the nearest station is Pathankot (Punjab), which is 85 km away. Tickets from New Delhi (NDLS) to Pathankot (PTK) can be booked on the Indian Railways’ website, and a taxi/bus can be hailed from Pathankot. This route, however, is not recommended, as it is long wound and inconvenient.
Road: 500 km (approx.) – 9-10 hours by road. Private taxi operators ply from New Delhi to Dharamshala.
Bus: There are a lot of private buses that ply from New Delhi (Majnu Ka Tilla) to Dharamsala. Approximate travel time is 8-9 hours. Overnight bus journeys are the best way to save on time and cost. Tickets cost approx. Rs.1,900- 2,000/- for semi-sleeper one way. Since we booked at the last minute, our tickets for 2 persons (return) cost Rs.4,165/-. You can book your tickets on Red Bus.
Note: While catching the bus at Majnu ka Tilla, be very careful about which bus operator you have booked with and where the bus is located. Usually, bus operators send the details of the bus and contact person in advance, but finding the bus at the bus stop can be quite a challenge. Always ask people around, and be there at least 30 mins in advance to avoid missing the bus.
Dharamsala is located in a hilly region, so the best way to travel internally is by trusting the good local folks there. Usually, tourists hire taxis to take them around, and they are easily available. We hired a taxi (Maruti 800) to take us to a hotel, and negotiated a day rate of Rs. 1,000/- (including tip) with him to take us around Dharamsala and McLeodganj. Usually, taxis to fixed destinations have a fixed price, so there is a lesser chance of being duped, or negotiating with them.
You can check this site to book/get an idea of the taxi rates, as fixed by the taxi union.
Other options include local buses, which are cheap, but the wait time is very high; and auto rickshaws.
Best time to visit Dharamsala is between March and October.
March – April is springtime, so weather is cool and pleasant, and nights can get a bit chilly.
May – September – is summer first, and then the rainy season in July-August. Temperatures can rise, and so can the number of tourists. Rainy season can be quite a dampener too.
October – Autumn sets in and is the best time to get a clear view of the skies and the peaks. Temperatures dip, and there is a pleasant chill in the air.
November – February is not a good time to visit, as winter sets in and temperatures dip to single digits.
Our biggest mistake was not packing enough woolens in March, and the chill in the air pleasantly surprised us during the time. If you plan to visit in March or October, make sure you carry at least a woolen cap, gloves, a medium-heavy jacket with a sweater and some warm socks. Summer months would probably just require a good sweater with a hoodie (and light woolens if you’re like me, who feels super cold everywhere). Carrying an umbrella or rain-coat is a must during the rainy season. The streets of Dharamsala and McLeodganj are also very steep, so make sure you pack a sturdy pair of shoes/trekking boots.
Where to Stay:
There are plenty options to stay in Dharamsala, particularly in McLeodganj.
Hotels: You can check out Booking.com or tripadvisor.in for good deals on hotels. Make sure you stay as close to the market in McLeodganj as possible, particularly to save costs on hailing a cab from the hotel to the main market.
We had book the Pavilion in Dharamsala (4.5 star rating), as I needed to take a luxurious break from the bustle of work. Our cost in March, 2017 for 1N/2D was approx. Rs. 7,000/-.
Day 1 – Mcleodganj
Mcleodganj is heaven for backpackers and tourists alike. The city pulsates with people, monks, eateries, shopping places and Buddhist temples. The market starts and end in two-three narrow streets completely filled with shops selling Buddhist artefacts and woolen clothes. The eateries there are absolutely amazing, and you will be spoilt for choice in terms of the cuisines.
Places to visit:
McLeodganj is pretty mainstream, and for me, the main attraction was just to walk in the cold and see the bustling marketplace. I bought lots of hand-made woolen clothes there, at prices I would never get in Delhi! I am not big on temples, et. al, but you could visit the Dalai Llama Temple Complex while you are there. Apart from that, there is really not much to see in McLeodganj.
Places to eat:
Now McLeodganj is one place I would go to fill my stomach up! Among the many options, my personal favourite is the Illiterati Café. It’s a little away from the marketplace, with a non-descript board, but the view there is stunning, and the food, amazing! I have classified the eateries based on the cuisine, so here goes:
- Continental Food:
- Illiterati Café;
- Namgyal Café;
- Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen;
- Carpe Diem;
- Snow Lion Restaurant (I saw a lot of crowd there);
- Woeser Bakery (Dessert!)
- Tibetan Food:
- Tibet Kitchen;
- Pema’s Thang; and
- Peace Café;
Day 2 – Dharamkot and Bhagsu
Places to visit:
Dharamkot is the starting point of the Triund Trek, so those heading out for day treks can take a break to eat breakfast / snack at any of the cafes there. If you’re in the mood for some soul-searching, then Tushita meditation centre is a good place to head out. Overall, Dharamkot is a place to relax and enjoy the lower Himalayas. The beauty of the forest and the mild chill will refresh you in no time! If you’re lucky (March / October), you can ask your taxi driver to take you up the mountain where the snow line begins. This was a surprising discovery for us, and we ended up at a winter wonderland up in the mountains, where we played with the snow for almost 2 hours! We then trekked up to our car, and had some amazing tea and maggi at the one stall nearby. Make sure you speak to your local cab driver about the chance of going to the snow line near the triund trek point, and don’t miss this experience!
Apart from this, Bhagsu is popular for the Bhagsu Nag temple and the Bhagsu waterfall.
Places to eat:
Dharamkot is another haven for foodies! Don’t miss the Trek and Dine Café for amazing Israeli Food. You can also check out Space Out Café, Om Café, Nick’s Italian Kitchen, and Moonlight Café in Dharamkot.
There’s one hidden secret in Bhagsu that not too many people will tell you about. It’s the mystery of the Bhagsu Cake. I suggest not missing out on eating this cake, as it is one of the best experiences I have had in Dharamsala.
Here’s a little vignette on my quest for the Bhagsu Cake:
The Mystery of the Bhagsu Cake: Revisiting the wonderful memories of growing up, with just one bite of a cake!
Props to PV to make us go on a treasure hunt that fell outside every map and every restaurant menu card in Dharamshala.
On our impromptu journey to the land of the monks and the refuge-seekers, with pouring rain and temperatures dipping to 3 degrees celsius, S and I were on our own trip to seek what PV promised as something for which we would ‘bless her soul’. Through the narrow lanes and winding roads up in the mountains, S and I took a detour to the valley of Bhagsu, known for the temple of Bhagsu Nag. We fell right into the midst of religion-hungry travellers, who sought God’s good graces to fulfill their unfulfilled wishes, and then went right out to fulfill their stomach’s wishes at scores of Punjabi dhabas and chaat corners that had mushroomed in every corner of Bhagsu.
Meanwhile, S and I were on our own pilgrimage, seeking the elusive Bhagsu Cake. Our quest led us to every shop, confectionery store and Punjabi dhaba, where we met curious and suspicious glances in response to our queries. We found it rather curious too, since our bakery item was a local delicacy of the place, while Punjabi food was not, and yet, we were being eyed with suspicion from every store owner of that valley. There even came a time when our will almost caved in, and we considered sitting in a prostrate pose before God himself in search for our answer.
Finally, one store owner decided to help, and guided us in the direction of a desolate street, away from the milieu. We carefully tread that path, not knowing what to expect. The lonely road took us to a tiny German bakery, where we asked an affable-looking lady playing with her toddler, about the cake. She turned out to be the owner of the bakery, and agreed to serve it to us.
When we seated ourselves at the German bakery (more like an Israeli-Tibetan-Indian-Italian-home cooked meal serving restaurant), we wondered what we were doing in a strange land, asking for our off-menu item to a bunch of suspicious-looking people. We somehow mustered some courage and decided to go for it- ‘two slices of Bhagsu Cake please!‘
Now before your imagination runs wild and you think that these two fools went to the valley in search for something akin to the brownies of Amsterdam, read this (and I am quoting myself verbatim here):
‘Have you ever eaten something that brings back memories of every childhood biscuit and chocolate that you have ever had ? Bhagsu cake is the answer! It’s a small rectangular piece of heaven, layered with biscuit (I think the Complan one), with a caramel filling, and a thin layer of chocolate on top to bring the experience to a culmination. One bite, and it will transport you right back to a time when you were young and with not a care in the world! If it doesn’t, either way, you should never miss the Bhagsu Cake!’
Here’s a picture of what it looks like:
Overall, we had a wonderful and relaxing time in Dharamsala, and it was a treat to get away from the noise and pollution of Delhi to relax and eat in the mountains. We went on Friday night and were back, refreshed and energized, on Monday morning! Dharamsala is weekending done right!
If you have any further questions, or comments, do write to me here. I am happy to help / customize itineraries / answer questions / read your comments! Cheers!