“McLeod Ganj feels like home. It keeps calling me back and I can’t help but return,” I said.
On a chilly morning of March 2015, I left Amritsar for a solo journey to the hills with a backpack on my shoulders and dreams in my eyes. I took the 6 a.m. bus to Pathankot and within an hour I witnessed one of the most glorious sunrises. The sun rays shimmered in the mist over the swaying crops of Punjab. I feel everything intensifies beautifully when you travel solo, especially if it’s for the first time. I reached Pathankot at 9:30 a.m., grabbed a sandwich with some hot coffee and boarded a rickety bus to Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh). I was liberated from my nervousness the moment I saw the distant mountain ranges sprinkled with glittering snow and the river streams which seemed to run along the bus. While Ruskin Bond’s book ‘Rain in the Mountains’ rested in my hands, I realized Himalayas had my heart long before I knew it.
After I reached Dharamshala, I took my third bus to McLeod Ganj. It is a laid back town about 5 km uphill from Dharamshala and seems like a memorabilia from Tibet. This is where the 14th Dalai Lama along with other Tibetans were offered a refuge when they fled from Tibet after a failed uprising against the communist party of China in 1959. I reached Mc Leod Ganj at 1:30 pm and did some happy dance when I saw the view from my room’s balcony. Whole of the Kangra valley was visible. Was this even real, I wondered. I went out to treat myself with some Paranthe and Lassi at my favorite Punjabi dhabba (Say hello to the Punjabi in me!). Mcleod Ganj has its own hippie vibes. The café culture, mouth watering cuisines, artistic hubs, handicraft shops, yoga & meditation centers along with Buddhist monks in their red robes, backpackers, hippies, photographers, writers and readers – all add their own charm to this little town.
After lunch, I went to visit HH Dalai Lama’s official home/temple/monastery, Tsuglagkhang, and a Tibetan museum. I spent the entire evening soaking myself in the sweetness of Tibetan prayers and took a seat in the Verandah. I had the pleasure of listening to an old Buddhist monk who shared with me a few of HH Dalai Lama’s enlightening stories. Later on I stopped by Jimmy’s Italian kitchen for dinner, bought some handicrafts and headed back to the hotel. Long walks and hot coffee in winters are my favorite.
I woke up early in the morning to catch a glimpse of the sunrise while Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the air. I grabbed some breakfast from the Peace Coffee House and started off the day with an ancient temple at Bhagsunag; it was a 2 km leisure walk from Mc Leod Ganj which further led to a 20 minute walk to a freshwater spring – Bhagsu falls. I met another female solo traveler and we shared stories and passed smiles over some delicious Maggi. At about 1 pm I headed back to the town and left for a short trek to Naddi – it is a sleepy little Gaddi village away from the hustle bustle in the arms of mighty Dhauladhar ranges. I have a heartwarming story from this place. I was invited by a woman, Tulsi, to her home for lunch just because I helped her carry some logs of wood uphill. I refused but she sweetly insisted and said that her little daughter will be happy to see a visitor. Three of us sat down on a mat and had sweet rice. While I was leaving, this sweet woman Tulsi, gave me a pair of tribal earrings. I refused but she sweetly insisted again. “Give it further to someone you love,” she said. I put my muffler around her daughter’s neck and she gave me the most beautiful smile; my heart exploded with joy. I returned to Mc Leod Ganj at 6 pm and spent some time at the Dalai Lama temple while the traffic in the far off valley seemed like stars dancing around.
My next morning started with a walk to a hippie village of Dharamkot. The wood-fired Pizzas and Greek salad along with some freshly fruit juice at a hillside café facing the snow clad mountains was a treat in itself. I spent half of the day teaching little Buddhist monks some Basic English and Mathematics. They, with their broken teeth, adorable giggles and innocent gestures, gave me one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
I spent the next few days teaching little monks, going on short trails in and around Mc Leod Ganj, visiting the tea gardens, war memorial and the HPCA Cricket stadium at Dharamshala. When my volunteer classes came to an end, my little students gave me a brown woolen cap to keep and my arms extended for a warm big group hug. It was all so overwhelming – meeting complete strangers and stuffing my backpack with stories, kindness and memories to treasure for a lifetime.
I definitely met people from other corners of the world, made friends, learnt about various traditions, tried Tibetan food for the first time, found myself cozy reading spaces under tall deodars, collected postcards, came across hidden gems during my trails, bought a lot of books and most importantly – I found time to spend with myself. Traveling solo not only empowered me but also healed me in a lot many ways.
Mc Leod Ganj will remain in my heart with a feeling of timelessness and courage for the traveler in me who set out of journey to learn, heal and grow in the lap of beautiful Himalayas. I kept reading Mr. Bond’s book ‘Rain in the Mountains’ and smiled ear to ear every time I read this quote – “It is always the same with mountains. Once you have lived with them for any length of time, you belong to them. There is no escape.”