Childhood vacations are etched in our memory like a patchwork quilt of extremes. As you grow up, only the really good and the really bad aspects of your trip stay with you. As a child, I had the fortune of taking many vacations with my family (I guess I inherited the travel bug from them). One of them was to Mcleodganj way back in 1993 or 94, when I was barely five or six years old. Fortunately, what I remember from that trip is mostly the good stuff. It was where I had my first experience of snow. I still remember gaping at snow-covered mountains as we drove up to our destination, repeatedly asking my folks how far we were from them, worried sick that by the time we reach, the snow might have melted away! It was also the first time I saw Buddhist monks and my first thought was that the whole of Mcleodganj is some kind of a boarding school for adults from China (politically incorrect childhood stereotypes). My biggest takeaway from the trip, however, was the discovery of momos–those little steaming-hot meatballs packed with such divine flavour that is infinitely enhanced by the fiery red chilli and tomato chutney–with whom I share an eternal love.
Twenty or so years later, when my friend and I found ourselves waiting at the Jaipur airport, discussing how we can utilise the ongoing 50 per cent off on all domestic flights sale to our benefit, I suggested that we book ourselves on a flight till Chandigarh, my hometown, and then drive up till Mcleodganj. I was undoubtedly psyched at the prospect of revisiting that quaint little hill station I remembered so fondly from my childhood–the land of the best momos in the world, the colourful monastries reverberating with soothing Buddhist chants, the prayer bells. I almost couldn’t wait to get away from the muggy Bombay weather and the drab office life to be in the cool hills.
So, after spending a day with my family in Chandigarh, we (two of my friends and I) left for Mcleodganj on the morning of 10 July in our hired car. As is customary while driving on the highways of Punjab, we made our first stop at an authentic Punjabi dhaba for some typical ghee-dripping, coma-inducing breakfast.
After stuffing our faces with buttery paranthas and using the conveniences with questionable signage, we were once again on our way. And as expected, within the next two hours, we were surrounded by pine tree laden mountains, serpentine valley rivers and–my childhood favourites–snow peaks in the distance.
Finally, after six hours of marvelling at beautiful sights, making pit stops for clicking pictures and drinking heavenly tea at this really cute looking dhaba, we finally arrived at our destination. Hungry as always and in need of some chilled beer (as always), our first stop was McLlo, located right at the junction of roads leading up to Dharamkot, Bhagsunag and the shopping area. As we refuelled for the day ahead, we made bookings at one Kalsang Guest House, located a short walk away from the junction and uncountable, shortness-of-breath-inducing steps up the Dharamkot road. The rooms were kinda spartan, but clean and dirt cheap (like unimaginably cheap), so we were happy. The best part, however, was the balcony in front of our room that offered a great view of the entire town.
At around 3 pm, checked-in and freshened up, we set out to explore the town. Our first stop was the Bhagsunag temple, a 5,000-odd-year-old temple dedicated to Shiva. There is an interesting anecdote about how the name Bhagsunag came to be, that you can read here: http://www.kangrapilgrimage.org/bhagsu.html
After visiting the temple and exploring the surrounding area, we commenced our slightly strenuous but absolutely beautiful climb up to the Bhagsu Falls.
We decided to make a stop at the Venus Cafe, a beautiful spot located next to the waterfall, where we rejuvenated ourselves with a cup of hot steaming tea. There is something about hot tea in the mountains; hot tea and Maggi. And also bread omelette. Maybe aloo parantha even, but those are awesome no matter where you eat them. Anyway, I salivate and digress. We spent about an hour just relaxing and looking around, dipping our feet into the icy cold waters of the fall till they were numb. The only drawback was the litter. Packets of chips, plastic cups and cold drink cans, though not too many, were strewn around in the water, in spite of the very conspicuously located dustbin. I don’t understand why we would think it’s okay to trash such a beautiful place. Also, I don’t know when Indian men will learn not to be creepy. While we were sitting by the fall, two random guys approached us, asking us if we could get a picture clicked with them. WHY!?!?!
Climbing up and down the falls had made us significantly ravenous and we decided that this was a good time to begin our hunt for the legendary momos. On our way, we quickly enquired about the Triund trek, which I remember from my childhood as very tiring but extremely snowy, thus completely worth it. One of the locals told us that there is still snow at Triund, which is about 12-14 km from Mcleodganj. We were super excited to hear that and decided to wake up early next morning and begin our trek.
After a quick stop at our guest house, we walked down the Dharamkot Road towards the marketplace and chanced upon the cutest little cafe I’d seen so far in the town. The name, ‘Momo Cafe’, was enough for us to decide that this is where we shall sample our first of the many rounds of momos. The moment we stepped in, we knew we were at the right place. The cafe was pretty much the size of a small kitchen, dimly lit and crammed with four sets of tables and chairs, with tourists and locals happily mingling over tea and momos. The place seemed to really hit the spot with tourists especially. The table tops had glass slabs covering a display of currencies from all over the world, with little notes of appreciation scribbled across them.
Doubly excited by Momo Cafe’s ambience, we pored (and drooled) over the menu, completely baffled by the tongue-twisting names of dishes we’d never heard before. We decided to seek the assistance of the owner, a Tibetan lady who was happily chatting away with two foreigner guys sitting on the table next to ours. When we asked her to help us decide what to order, she had this completely zapped look on her face that we thought meant she didn’t understand Hindi. We tried English as we had seen her converse comfortably in the language with our neighbours. Sadly we got the same response from her, only this time she looked more irritated than zapped. Finally, the guys sitting next to us answered our question and we placed our order with the smug owner lady. It ticked us off a bit as it felt like she was being rude to us on purpose, even though we were extremely polite and patient with her and had even profusely complimented how lovely we thought her cafe looked. Observing her behaviour towards the local Tibetans and foreign tourists, which was pretty warm and hospitable, the only reason we could come up with was our being Indian tourists (I know it sounds ridiculous, but more on that later). What really pissed us off however was that she almost shouted at my friend when she asked her if they had anything in chicken, as all we saw on the menu was mutton and pork. Anyway, we finished our meal (which was awesome) and got out of there. Several other instances of rude behaviour made us decide never to come back.
We took a stroll on the winding roads of Mcleodganj. The little town truly comes alive after sunset and has quite an active nightlife. The streets are lined with numerous eateries, cafes and bars offering a wide variety of Indian and international cuisines, in order to cater to the large number of international tourists that visit Mcleodganj. At night, as you walk along streets lit by flashy neon signs from these places, you can hear a wide variety of music emanating from their confines, from Bhangra pop and Bollywood to rock and hip hop. Surprisingly, you often come across boyband music from the ’90s, so if you’re in the mood to relive the days when you had a corny taste in music, you would definitely like it here.
We soaked in the various sights, sounds and smells of post sunset Mcleodganj, sampling momos at different stalls (you can never have enough!), and finally decided to rest our tired feet at our earlier hangout McLlo, as it was close to where we were putting up. We took a table on the terrace brightly lit up with disco lights, which offered a beautiful view of the the valley below twinkling with dots of light.
It was freezing cold, but we still could not resist some crisp cold beer to sooth our parched throats. Barely a word was spoken, which indicated how tired we were, having been up since 5 in the morning. So we decided to call it a day, dragging ourselves back to Kalsang and our room up the endless flight of steps.
We woke up at sunrise to a beautiful view from our balcony and lovely weather. We had to cancel our Triund trek because one of my friends pulled a leg muscle, so we decided to spend the day exploring the town’s Buddhist monastries. As we stepped out at around 8 am, the town was stirring awake from sleep. Most of the eateries were shut and roadside shops were just about preparing to start their day. It was a faint chill in the air mingling with the gentle warmth of the still sparse sunlight. It was indeed a beautiful morning. We stepped into Snow Lion, the only place open at the time, to grab some coffee.
By the time we stepped out, the sun was up and shining brightly and the streets were abuzz with people rushing to work. At this point, momos for breakfast seemed like a great idea and just a few steps ahead, we came across a really sweet Tibetan lady running a momo stall. She was selling potato momos, something we hadn’t eaten before, so we decided to try them out. They were wonderful! We must have polished off some three plates, despite having some local bread and milkshakes not even half and hour ago.
My friends wanted to check out some shops offering local handicrafts, so I decided to take a solo stroll and click some pictures. I can’t stress enough how great a day it was to be taking a walk!
Came across the word ‘Amdo’ at Momo Cafe, where we tried the Amdo tea, which tastes like salted milk. Quite unusual and nothing like I’ve ever tasted before. Initially I thought it has something to do with yaks, but it’s actually a very significant region in Tibet.
I caught up with my friends after a while for lunch (mountains and cold weather make you perpetually hungry!) at the Moon Peak Cafe. It was different from other cafes in Mcleodganj that we’d seen, which usually have a minimalist traditional decor. Moon Peak Cafe, we read, was initially established as a photography studio where the owner also took photography classes for kids. Now a cafe, the space has a contemporary feel with stark white walls adorned with framed photographs and paintings, mostly modern and abstract.
Now, for me, and I can vouch for my friends too, interacting with locals forms a major part of the travel experience, which shouldn’t be merely touch-and-go. In order to truly explore a place, one needs to look beyond its ‘travel destination’ veil, and no one can help you understand this better than the people who reside there, who actually live and breathe what the place has to offer rather than merely looking at it through the rose-tinted glasses (like the ones I lost :p) of tourism. Sadly, we found a dearth of such opportunities in Mcleodganj. And it really is sad because the place boasts such intrigue and beauty, you can’t help but want to know about it! From whatever little interaction (or attempts thereof) we had with the local Mcleodganj people, most of who are Tibetans, the only strong conclusion we could derive was that there is a certain animosity among them towards Indians. Usually locals in small towns are pretty enthusiastic about helping tourists, but here it seemed like they didn’t want to talk to us at all. I’m sure we’re all aware of the Tibetan-Chinese conflict that has plagued the country of Tibet and its people for many years now. Most Tibetans who live in Mcleodganj belong to refugee families who migrated to India to escape Chinese oppression. For us, all our vague notions were dispelled when we visited the Tibet museum, which unfurls a very poignant, highly detailed story of the troubled country and its people. Parts of it are downright disturbing, especially the innumerable cases of self-immolation by Tibetans as a form of protest. I tried to research on what bearings this might have on the general Tibetan sentiment towards India, but was unable to find anything except an interview of a person from a Tibetan youth organisation who said that all India cares about is pleasing China.
Deeply moved by what we saw at the museum, we made our way to the Namgyal Monastry, the most revered sight at Mcleodganj, being the personal monastry of the 14th Dalai Lama. Photography is strictly prohibited at the Tibet Museum and Namgyal Monastry, fyi. The beauty and tranquility of the monastry stirred our minds out of the India-Tibet-China imbroglio. The main attraction here is the Buddha temple that houses a huge, magnificent golden statue of Buddha. The walls are adorned by beautiful paintings, which if I remember correctly, depict scenes from Buddha’s life. The best thing about Buddhist places of worship, unlike Hindu temples, is that there are no pundits hounding you to donate money, which is why the offerings you see here constitute things like biscuit packets, chocolates and juice cartons. Stepping out, you can see many people chanting and meditating.
We grabbed a quick lunch and some beer and continued to roam around for a while, before heading to Dharamkot, a small town barely a few minutes’ drive from Mcleodganj. The drive was short but absolutely stunning! A bit scary as the road is really narrow with one side opening out to a deep valley. The surrounding area is dense with lush green deodar trees and as it was almost sunset, a slight chill hung about in the breeze. We took a short trek from the car parking and parked ourselves on a nice spot overlooking the valley. As usually happens on treks, we were accompanied by Janu, a scrawny little black dog, who later abandoned us and joined an army of other dogs which seemed to be in combat with an army of monkeys. Funny scene, don’t ask.
We descended after a while for our last night in lovely Mcleod and ended up joining our guesthouse owner and his friends for dinner. It was, to say the least, interesting to talk to them. I guess we expected to find at least some answers to questions that had been lurking in our minds throughout our trip. We spoke about several inane things, mostly to our guesthouse owner and briefly to a guy who claimed he was in charge of the local beauty pageant ‘Miss Tibet’. The phrase ‘your government does nothing’ was flung about at several occasions. But it sounded more like it was coming from herd mentality rather than a personal opinion.
The next day, we decided to leave around noon and woke up early to make the most of our last few hours in the beautiful town. We revisited our favourite momo joint one last time–the lady selling potato momos–and then headed to the Buddhist temple closest to our guesthouse. Towering over the other smaller establishments in the street, the structure was a melange of all the colours you can possibly imagine. The interiors boasted the same bright colours along with a big Buddha statue similar to the one in Namgyal monastry. We were allowed photography here, so we made the most of it.
Finally, it was time to leave, but not before packing some momos for the road, which we consumed within the first half and hour of our journey. There is lots more to do in this beautiful place that our two-day trip didn’t permit. But we sure enjoyed every bit of our time spent here and hope to come back soon. Whenever I leave a place behind, I formulate 10,000 plans in my head on how I can move there permanently, and sweet ol’ Mcleod was no different. So, until I find myself a teaching job or have enough money to start my own cafe in Dharamkot, so long Mcleodganj!
This entry has been shortlisted for Holidify’s Travelogue Writing Contest in association with Linger. The content and pictures may not be used without prior permission of the author.
Submitted by: Neehar Mishra
The original post can be found here.