Home to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, and starting point for some exhilarating treks into the high Himalayas, DHARAMSALA, or more correctly, its upper town McLEOD GANJ, is one of Himachal’s most irresistible destinations. Spread across wooded ridges beneath the stark rock faces of the Dhauladhar Range, the town is divided into two distinct and separate sections, separated by 10km of perilously twisting road and almost a thousand metres in altitude. Originally a British hill station, McLeod Ganj has been transformed by the influx of Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese oppression in their homeland. Tibetan influence here is subsequently very strong, their achievements including the construction of temples, schools, monasteries, nunneries, meditation centres and the most extensive library of Tibetan history and religion. As well as playing host to hordes of foreign and domestic tourists, McLeod Ganj is a place of pilgrimage that attracts Buddhists and interested parties from all over the world, including Hollywood celebrities Richard Gere, Uma Thurman and Goldie Hawn. Many people visit India specifically to come here, and its relaxed and friendly atmosphere can make it a difficult place to leave.
Despite heavy snows and low temperatures between December and March, McLeod Ganj receives visitors year round. Summer brings torrential rains – this being the second wettest place in India – that return in bursts for much of the year. Daytime temperatures can be high, but you’ll need warm clothes for the chilly nights.
It’s easy to see why most visitors bypass Dharamsala itself, a haphazard jumble of shops, offices and houses. The only place of interest is the Museum of Kangra Art, with a small collection of Kangra miniatures and some modern art. On foot, the quickest route up to McLeod Ganj is up a steep 3km track that starts from behind the vegetable market, passing the Tibetan Library and Secretariat.
The ever-expanding settlement of McLeod Ganj extends along a pine-covered ridge with valley views below and the near vertical walls of the Dhauladhar range towering behind. Despite being named after David McLeod, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab when the hill station was founded in 1848, little evidence of British occupation remains. Intersected by two narrow potholed roads, the focal point of McLeod Ganj is its Buddhist temple, ringed with spinning red and gold prayer wheels. Today, Indian residents are outnumbered by Tibetans, who bedeck their ramshackle buildings with fluttering prayer flags: McLeod Ganj is not simply a political haven for them, but also home to their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and to the Tibetan government in exile.
It’s easy to find your way around McLeod Ganj. At its northern end, the road up from the lower town arrives at a small square that serves as the bus stand. Roads radiating from here head south to the Dalai Lama’s Residence and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, northeast to the village of Dharamkot, the Tushita Retreat Meditation Centre and to the Tibetan Children’s Village next to Dal Lake, and east to the hamlet of Bhagsu.
Meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is in great demand. Tibetans fleeing their homeland come to him for blessing and reassurance; monks and nuns from all over India and Nepal look to him for spiritual guidance; and an ever-increasing number of Westerners arrive in Dharamsala hoping for a moment of his attention. Twenty years ago it might have been possible for people to meet His Holiness on an individual basis; now casual visitors should count on attending a public audience, when he greets and shakes the hands of several hundred people. These are held every few weeks if His Holiness is in town, though there are no fixed dates or timings. Ask the Branch Security Office (above the Welfare Office on Bhagsu Road t01892/221560) when the next audience will be, but note that they themselves only know a couple of days in advance. You’ll need to register here too; bring a passport and some passport photos, and expect to wait. If you’re interested in attending His Holiness’s public teachings, check wwww.tibet.net for dates, locations and what to expect. Private audiences are granted to a select few, and can only be arranged by writing at least four months in advance. The Dalai Lama’s secretary receives hundreds of such letters each day, and each case is reviewed on its merits.
Trekking from Dharamsala
Trekking from Dharamsala
Dharamsala is one of the most popular starting points for treks over the rocky ridges of the Dhauladhar Range, which rise steeply from the Kangra Valley to 4600m. Trails pass through forests of deodar, pine, oak and rhododendron, cross streams and rivers and wind along vertiginous cliff tracks passing the occasional lake waterfall and glacier. Unless you are very experienced, you’ll need a guide as the routes are steep and memorial stones testify to those who didn’t make it. The Mountaineering Institute on Dharamkot Road can help arrange guides and porters, and stocks maps. Despite the availability of rough huts and caves, it’s best to take a tent. The best season to trek here is September to November, when the worst of the monsoon is over and before it gets too cold. Winter climbing should only be attempted by mountaineers experienced in the use of crampons and ice axes. for a map of the hiking routes described below.
Dharamsala to Chamba over Indrahar Pass
The most frequented route from Dharamsala to the Chamba Valley, over the Indrahar Pass (4350m), is arduous in places, but most trekkers manage it in around five days. The first section, from Dharamkot, winds through thick forest and steep rocky terrain for 9km to a grassy plateau at Triund. From here the path climbs to Laqa Got, and then on a seriously steep section up to the knife-edged Indrahar Pass where, weather permitting, you’ll enjoy breathtaking views south to the plains and north to the snowy Pir Panjal peaks and Greater Himalayas. The descent is difficult in places and will take you via the Gaddi villages of Kuarsi and Channauta to the main road, from where you can pick up transport to Brahmour and Chamba by road.
Other routes from Dharamsala to Chamba
Several other routes cross the Dhauladhar Range, including the Toral Pass (4575m) which starts from Tang Narwana (1150m), 10km from Dharamsala. The most difficult route north is the five- or six-day trek across Bhimghasutri Pass (4580m), covering near-vertical rocky ascents, sharp cliffs and dangerous gorges. A much easier four- or five-day trek from Dharamsala crosses Bleni Pass (3710m) in the milder ranges to the northwest, weaving through alpine pastures and woods and crossing a few streams, before terminating at Dunali, on the Chamba road.