Dharamsala is a hill station in Himachal Pradesh and is famous for being the home of the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, following their escape from Chinese occupied Tibet in the 1950’s.
Two years ago, Lynette had been lucky enough to be in Dharamsala when the Dalai Lama was in residence; she got a ticket to attend one of his talks. Unfortunately, I was not so lucky as his holiness was travelling abroad at the time of our visit.
Villages around Dharamsala
When travellers talk of going to Dharamsala, what they actually mean is that they are going to McLeod Ganj, a hectic commercialised suburb 10km further north where the Tibetan government in exile is headquartered. For a quieter experience, you can also choose to stay in Bhagsu or Dharamkot, outer-lying villages that have cheaper accommodation and a slower pace of life.
We stayed in Upper Bhagsu; having arrived in Dharamsala by bus from Jammu, we had to then get a taxi to the main square in Bhagsu. After getting lost and using a local phone to call for directions, followed by a tiring walk up a lot of steps, we made it to our guesthouse. White Rabbit Friends House is run by a friendly Israeli lady called Maya and her Indian husband, Gopal. Our room was perfect, reasonably priced with ample yoga space for Lynette and stunning valley views.
McLeod Ganj is littered with boutique shops, cafés, restaurants and travel agencies. We enjoyed a circular walk from Upper Bhagsu, down into McLeod Ganj then up again into peaceful Dharamkot. It was very hot during the day but much cooler mornings and evenings. The scenery was very beautiful and it made a lovely loop back to the steps of our guesthouse.
Whilst we were in town we visited the Tsuglagkhang Complex, home to the Dalai Lama as well as the main Tibetan temple for exiles living outside Tibet. The temple is the concrete equivalent of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa and provides an important spiritual link to the exiles homeland.
There is also a museum documenting Tibetan history, including the Chinese occupation and the subsequent Tibetan resistance and exodus. A visit here is a must; it makes for harrowing yet eye-opening reading.
Food options in and around Dharamsala are plentiful but in general, once we find somewhere with good food and service and more importantly decent tea, we tend to stick to it. In this case, we found The Old German Bakery in Bhagsu ticked all the boxes; we ate most of our meals here. With a good fruit, musli, yoghurt and honey for Lynette and ample choices for me, it made for the perfect breakfast place. It also did a good take on many dinner options.
Trekking to Kareri Lake
We hadn’t done any trekking in India so far this trip, due to illness and altitude, so we decided to hit the hills around Dharamsala. After much deliberation, we decided to go on a three-day two-night trek to Kareri Lake, a high altitude lake 2,975 metres above sea level.
With two guides organised through Lynette’s local friend, we set off from McLeod Ganj main square at 9am. Despite being young and relatively inexperienced, they did well and knew the route. However, they did have a tendency to push us to move faster than we would have liked!
At the end of a tiring first day, we reached Kareri village, a traditional mountain hamlet with simple homes and fields where buffalo are still worked. It was a very peaceful and beautiful place. We were looked after by a kind husband and wife, who provided us with huge portions of delicious food!
We then endured a very cold, uncomfortable, broken night’s sleep in a tent outside their home. The next morning we were given mixed nut porridge, aloo paratha (Indian flat bread stuffed with potatoes) and chai for breakfast. Having awkwardly gotten dressed and ready in the confines of our tent, we were off on day two of the trek towards Kareri Lake.
Day two turned out to be a 7-hour uphill slog, partly on road but mainly up through jungle and mountainside. There was one other trekker and her guide, including their personal cook, who we kept overlapping throughout the day. The scenery of green grassland, pine forest and bolder-lined streams was a refreshing change, though we wished that the route wasn’t all uphill!
Finally though, after an extremely long day, we made it to the final stop – the high altitude lake! Unfortunately for us, Kareri Lake didn’t live up to our expectations; it wasn’t the amazing blue colour that we had imagined. The setting was very beautiful though, an expanse of boulder-strewn mountains and sweeping green hills with a nomad shepherd the only other person for miles around.
The lake itself was almost dry but, in such a beautiful location, it mattered very little. Our tent was pitched within a small sheltered area of stone walls with a wooden roof, which provided some protection from the elements. As we settled in, we were brought chai and biscuits followed by a small cup of tomato soup and popcorn, an interesting side dish! Given the longevity of the day and the coldness that was fast creeping upon us, we accepted these gratefully.
As night fell, the sky was incredibly clear, an amazing starry blanket. Dinner of dal, vegetables and rice was eaten while huddled around an open fire. It amazed me that such simple yet delicious food is still cooked in this traditional way, given the mod-cons of today. The cook, from Kareri village, and his wife, as in most rural villages in this part of the world, cook all their meals and chai on an open fire every day. It was something that this man had grown up doing and would do every day for the rest of his life.
We then settled in for an even colder, even more uncomfortable night. Neither of us slept much at all and we both ended up sleeping fully clothed in our sleeping bags in jumpers, trousers and even hats, whilst trying also to protect our noses from the cold!
Morning arrived in a whirlwind; our guides were outside our tent before 7am with bowls of the same rice porridge, cold, barely toasted bread and chai, all practically thrown at us! This was followed by an abrupt “OK, let’s go!” and without a chance to breath, at 8am we were off, trekking the way we had come, back to the village. Today, however, it was clear that our guides wanted to get back ASAP, if not sooner!
We marched along at double the pace, only stopping for a brief 5-minute rest before we were off again! Unsurprisingly, we made it back to Kareri village in record time and were served a much needed lunch at about midday. We then faced a 30-minute downhill jaunt to the taxi, waiting on the nearest road to take us back to McLeod Ganj.
We were very glad to have completed the challenge but it was by no means an easy trek! Returning to our guesthouse, it was a relief to have a hot shower and feel clean again!
Gallu Devi Temple
Our last day in Dharamsala flew by with a later breakfast and a pleasant walk to the Gallu Devi Temple, the starting point for the hike up to the panoramic mountain meadow of Triund. The last 100 metres turned into an uphill scramble in flip-flops but the views at the top over Dharamkot and Bhagsu made it all worth the effort.
With just enough time for a final dinner and chai at our favourite haunt, it was off to the bus stand to catch our 12-hour night bus to Rishikesh.
It is likely that we’ll return to Dharamsala at some point in the future; for me this first opportunity to see a place I had heard so much about meant a lot to me. I now have my own memories of another truly beautiful place in India, the diverse country that I have come to love.