EXPLORER GUIDE TO Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, India – Page Two
By Lauryn Axelrod
Continued – Back to Page One
All the major sites in and around Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj can be easily reached by walking or a short taxi ride, and all are accessible to the independent traveler. Thus, there is no need for a tour. However, you might want to enlist a resident or monk to explain things to you–most are more than willing to tell you about their village and culture.
For trekking excursions outside of the immediate region, check out the small, local tour and trekking operators along the three main roads of the village. All excursions will provide the necessary equipment and guides.
The clear favorites and most reputable are:Yeti Trekking
TIPA Road can arrange treks to Kullu, Spiti, Lahaul and Ladakh. Eagles Height Trekkers
Can also arrange treks to more remote regions. For maps to nearby treks, hikes and basic camping equipment rentals, visit The Regional Mountaineering Center in Dharamkhot.
There is no shortage of rooms in McLeod Ganj. From hotels to monasteries, most rooms are cheap and rarely full.
Most of McLeod Ganj’s hotels are on the budget end, with rates ranging from $3-$15 a night.
The Green Hotel
A large, but clean and friendly hotel run by Nepalis that is a favorite with travelers. A deluxe, private room with bath runs about $8-10 USD a night. Other rooms can run as little as $5 USD/night. Great restaurant and a cybercafe. Ladies Venture
A small, quiet hotel with a lovely garden and restaurant. Private room with bath, $7-8 USD. Om Guest House
Down a path just past the bus station
Another favorite with travelers. Good views and restaurant. Singles/doubles about $7USD. Drepung Loesling Guest House
Lots of long-term visitors stay here. Breakfast with room. Doubles with views and a private bath for $8-10USD. Dorm rooms and shared bath rooms less.
Chonor House Hotel
Near the Dalai Lama’s temple
Run by the Dalai Lama’s sister in conjunction with the Norbulingka Institute, the Chonor House is a lovely, somewhat upscale place with rooms decorated in traditional fashion by Tibetan artists. Also has a cybecafe, massages, laundry, phones, the Norbulingka gift shop and a fine restaurant. Doubles/Singles $20- $45USD/night.
There are also a few deluxe upscale places, rather like Indian Hiltons.
The Surya is near the Dalai Lama’s complex and has standard deluxe rooms for about $50-$75 USD per night.
Monastery rooms don’t tend to be deluxe and hot water is not always available 24/7, but if you want to experience the monastic life, it’s worth it.
Dip Tse-Chok Ling Gompa
Past the Om Guest House down a steep path (bring a flashlight at night!)
The Gompa has several Spartan rooms, but the atmosphere among the young monks is quiet and peaceful. $4-5 USD/night.
Zilnon Kagyeling Nyingmapa Gompa
Rooftop café and small rooms popular with long-term visitors and volunteers. $2-3 USD/night.
There are two meditation centers near Dharamkot that offer room and board. The Dhamma Sikhara Vipassna Meditation Center is a longer-term retreat center specializing in Indian Vipassna meditation, and the Tushita Meditation Center for Mahyana Buddhism nearby is a silent meditation center, which means you can’t talk unless it’s an emergency. Both offer daily classes and lodging and board for those who are taking classes or on retreat. Rates are low, but the accommodations are Spartan. And at Tushita, if you so much as kill a fly–of which there are many–you’re likely to get reprimanded.
Homestays can sometimes be arranged through the Dharamsala Earthville Institute (DEVI) located at the Khana Nirvana Community Café.There are also a few new hotels, rooms and apartments for rent in Dharamkot and Bhagsu. Inquire at the cafes and shops in the village and look for signs on the bulletin boards in McLeod Ganj.
You’ll never go hungry in McLeod Ganj. A large number of small restaurants around the village offer cheap and filling Tibetan meals, including Momos(stuffed, steamed or fried dumplings) and Thukpa (a thick Tibetan noodle soup) and a Tibetan Lo Mein. Local favorites are the Gayki, the Snow Lion and the Bakhto. Israeli cuisine is popular at the Ashoka and there’s always a line for the few tables at the Shambala. The best place for Western food and a cold beer is the McLlo Restaurant above the bus stand. Noisy and crowded, it’s also popular meeting spot and party-place for the folks who’ve had just about enough quiet meditation.Another favorite travelers’ hangout is the Green Hotel Restaurant. Ample portions of freshly made Tibetan food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly Nepali staff, make it a good place to meet and eat.
The Tibetan Government-sponsored shops located along the main roads and at certain attractions offer high-quality merchandise–clothing, books, silver and rugs–at reasonable prices, and the money goes to support community projects. The Stitches of Tibet shop will custom make a chuba for you from your own fabric. Kashmiri carpet shops offer rugs and textiles and other Kashmiri crafts. Be wary, however, of the high prices (always bargain) and the quality of “silk rugs.” Don’t fall for the “it’s an investment” line.The best shopping is found along the roads of McLeod Ganj, which are filled daily with local vendors selling everything from silver jewelry (most of it made in Nepal or Bali–make sure you buy “925” silver or above) priced by weight to prayer beads and wheels, warm woolen shawls, antique coins and handmade paper and journals. Prices are more reasonable than in other parts of the country and many of the goods are of very high quality. There are also many English-language bookstores in town, so you stock up on the latest novel, travel guide, Tibetan history or Buddhist philosophy books.
Buddhist festivals are celebrated with a certain restraint in McLeod Ganj. You are unlikely to come across the flamboyant street theatre you might find in Bhutan or Nepal, but you will have a chance to see the more religious aspects of the holidays. Major celebrations include The Himalayan Festival in December; Losar, the Tibetan New Year, held in February, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, which usually offers a more festive spectacle. In between these two events, smaller holidays and events of a religious nature are celebrated in the monasteries and temples.
For exact dates of events according to the Buddhist calendar, see tibet.com/dasaguide.html
The best times for travel to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj are March through June and October —November. Winter is not miserable, but as you will be doing a lot of walking, it is important to bring good winter boots and warms clothes. Monsoon season begins in July, and while it’s rainy and humid, it’s still not a bad time to be there. Just be prepared to get wet–really wet.
There are no flights to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, and the nearest airport is about 10 miles south. Your best bet is to take a bus or shared taxi.
The nearest airport at Gaggal is 13km south of Dharamsala, after which you must hire a taxi or catch a bus to get to McLeod Ganj. Flights can be arranged through India Airlines from Dehli or other cities.
Pathankot, the terminal of the broad gauge railway, is 90km south. There is a narrow gauge train from Pathankot–very slow and more of a tourist attraction than a mode of transportation– to Kangra. Dharamsala is 17km by road and McLeod Ganj is a few miles further. You can catch a taxi or a bus from Kangra.
Main gateways for deluxe and local buses to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj are Dehli, Manali and Shimla. Deluxe buses to and from Dehli run daily and cost $10-$15 for the 12 hour trip. Buses make several stops in roadside dhabas for food and bathroom breaks. The Manali bus also takes about 12 hours and costs about the same. You can also go on to Leh from Manali, but it’s a long ride. Buses from Shimla are cheaper and the trip is only about 8 hours long, but the ride on narrow mountain roads is harrowing.
Local buses are cheaper, but for long journeys like these, it pays to take the deluxe. Tickets for deluxe buses can be purchased through the HRTC office at the bus stand. Several travel agencies in town also run deluxe buses. Check with Potala Tours and Travels or Himalchal Travels.
A shared taxi is another alternative if you don’t like buses. However, even if you split the cost with three other passengers, the ride from Dehli, Manali or Shimla could run $50/person. If you are coming from some other place, it might be your best option.
It’s very easy to walk around McLeod Ganj, so you will not need much in the way of transportation. However, auto rickshaws and taxis are available near the bus stand for trips to Dharamsala, Dharamkot, Gangchen Kyishong and the Norbulingka Institute.
VISAS AND OTHER OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS
Indian visas are valid for one month or six months and must be obtained prior to entry into the country. Contact the Indian Embassy or consulate to apply.
If you are planning on a long-term stay, get a six-month visa, which can sometimes be extended by leaving the country (to Nepal, for example) and then returning. Even if you plan to work or vounteer, it is best to apply for a regular tourist visa, as educational visas are very difficult and time-consuming to obtain.No special permits are needed to visit Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj. For trekking in other nearby regions (especially regions of Ladakh, Kullu and Spiti) apply for permits from your trekking outfitter or from state agencies.
The Indian Rupee is the currency, and the current exchange rate is approximately 40 Rs = $1 USD. There are several places to change money–the State Bank of India on Jogibara Road and a few storefront exchange offices–and Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the upscale hotels and shops.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
McLeod Ganj is located at about 10,000 feet, so the possibility of a little altitude wooziness is possible. Travelers should purchase bottled water–this is India, after all–and be wary of fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been peeled.
If you do get sick, the Tibetan Delek Hospital in McLeod Ganj at Gangchen Kyishong uses Western medicine and volunteer doctors (and service is free). There are also local acupuncturists and traditional herbal doctors, should you be willing to try them. Best to bring a fully-equipped first aid kit (and some extra supplies to donate to the Tibetan Women’s Association or TCV).The village is very safe. You will find few of the hustlers and touts common in the rest of the country. Female travelers will also find the lack of harassment from men a refreshing change. Still, watch your valuables and keep your passport with you at all times.
For a small village, you will discover that McLeod Ganj is well-connected to the outside world. There are several public phone booths and cybercafes, where you might find yourself seated beside a monk who’s checking out the latest news on CNN.
The Green Cybercafe next door to the Green Hotel is the largest, but is often full.
The Khana Nirvana Community Café also has a few computers and is a great place to have some food and check your email.There also several other cybercafes in town, including one at the Chonor House Hotel and the Tibetan Youth Congress offices.The post office is located on Jogibara Road.The telephone area code for McLeod Ganj is 91-1892
Contact information for the Tibetan Government-in-exile’s offices and departments.
A very thorough history and description of McLeod Ganj, with lots of detail on Buddhist monuments and Tibetan offices.
An amazing number of links to Tibetan resources and information.