McLeod Ganj and the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhars
Dharamsala (pronounced Dharamshala) is a hill station in Himachal Pradesh, famed for its large Tibetan community centered around the Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan Buddhist roots of Dharamsala stretch back into the 8th century, although most of the local population long since reverted to (and remains) Hindu. "Dharamsala" literally means an "inn attached to a temple", and it was so until the district headquarters in Kangra became too crowded and the British moved 2 of their regiments in the late 1840s to what is now Dharamsala. This over the years grew to be district headquarters of Kangra, and the very location is now known as the Police Lines.
Dharamsala was mooted to be the summer capital of India, but it was not to be, as much of the town was destroyed in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 4th April 1905, which killed over 10,000 people in this sparsely populated area.
After falling into obscurity in the early days of Indian independence, Dharamsala regained some social standing in 1959 with the arrival of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile . Currently, it is a very popular hang-out for foreigners and students of Buddhism.
The town is divided into two distinct areas that are separated by a ten minute (9 km.) bus/jeep ride (7 rupees): Dharamsala itself (or Lower Dharamsala), a typical small Indian town that, other than for the bus station, is of little interest to tourists, and Upper Dharamsala, known more commonly as McLeod Ganj (thus named after David McLeod, once the British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab). It is this upper district that is home to the Tibetan community and the center of tourist activity. Unless specifically stated, all listings in this article refer to McLeod Ganj.
Other villages near McLeod Ganj include Forsyth Ganj, a short hike away on the way up from Lower Dharamsala, Bhagsu (2 km north), already a commercialized warren of concrete, and Dharamkot, the flavour of the month. For a really quiet (and basic) experience, try Naddi (3 km) or Talnu (11 km).
Lower Dharamsala consists of most of the government offices, Schools, Zonal Hospital, and commercial areas. It also has a few tea gardens. One in the area of Chilgari and another just beyond Dari. One can enjoy the view while driving through.
Lower Dharamsala is at an altitude of 1400m, while McLeod Ganj is at around 1750m, making them considerably cooler than the plains below. Temperatures in January can dip below freezing, while June can go up to 38°C, and the monsoon season from July to September is very wet indeed. Even in March, when the Dalai Lama holds his teachings and the weather down in Delhi is downright balmy, you will still need a heavy winter coat, but these can be purchased at reasonable prices in town.
Newly upgraded Gaggal Airport (IATA: DHM) in Kangra, 10 km away, has flights from Delhi on Air Deccan (daily via Pathankot) and Jagson Airlines  (three times weekly via Kullu). Flights are prone to cancellation due to bad weather or because enough passengers didn't show up, so leave some leeway for onward connections on the way out.
Most people come to Dharamsala by bus. It has good connections with other parts of North India, although the journeys are often slow due to the narrow winding roads in the hills.
The main bus terminal is in Lower Dharamsala, but some public HRTC buses to Delhi and Pathankot go all the way to the main square of McLeod Ganj, where you can also book advance tickets for the return trip. Unreserved HRTC buses from Pathankot cost Rs.75 and take 3/4 hours to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj. Many private bus companies are available for travel from Manali, Dehradun and Delhi. Overnight buses from Delhi, many private ones leaving from the Tibetan colony of Majnu ka Tilla, take upwards of 13 hours and cost from Rs. 500 upwards. The cost on 20/12/07 was Rs 450. NOTE: the Tibetan buses have ceased operation in conjunction with the March 10th protests and subsequent riots in Lhasa; it is unclear when the service will resume.
The nearest broad gauge railhead is at Pathankot and the neighboring station of Chakki Bank, a comfortable overnight journey from Delhi. Train buffs can continue on the very slow and rickety but pretty Kangra Valley Railway to Kangra, a journey that easily takes up to 6 hours and still leaves you 18 km from McLeod Ganj, but most travellers choose to continue by bus or taxi instead. If you do choose to go to Kangra then from the train station you need to walk and autorickshaw to the bus stop where buses are available to take you to Dharamsala.
A taxi from Pathankot to McLeod Ganj takes about 3 hours, and the official fare from Pathankot is Rs.1300 (return).
McLeod Ganj is small enough to be navigated on foot. Public buses to Dharamsala leave roughly hourly and cost Rs.5, while chartered autorickshaws charge around Rs.100. Trips from McLeod Ganj to nearby points (eg. Bhagsu) shouldn't cost much more than Rs.30.
Giant prayer wheel and thangka
of Arya Sitatapatra, a form of Tara, at Tsuglagkhang
- Tsuglagkhang Complex, Temple Rd. This is the largest Tibetan temple outside Tibet, and it has a large meditation hall containing some beautiful statues and thangkas, as well as a Kalachakra temple with beautiful murals. It is the monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and is located just in front of his residence. On the basement level of the complex you will also find the Namgyal Cafe, which is run as a work-training center for Tibetan youth with daringly fusionesque if often unremarkable food, but great atmosphere in the evenings.
- Tibet Museum, opp. Tsuglagkhang, tel. +91-1892-22510, . Small but interesting museum on the history of Tibet and its people. Open Tu-Su 9AM-5 PM, entry Rs.5.
- Tibetan Library, , near the Tibetan Government in Exile, with a small but interesting museum.
- Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), . Stages performances of traditional Tibetan dance, music, and theatre.
- Every year in February-March for ten days or so, and occasionally at other times, the Dalai Lama  holds public lectures. Registration at Tibetan Branch Security Office (near Hotel Tibet) is necessary, preferably 3-4 days beforehand (although shorter notice may be possible). Bring a cushion to sit on, a FM radio with headphones to listen to the simultaneous translation from Tibetan to English, a cup for tea, and a sunhat/umbrella, but as little else as possible, as security is tight. The last day of teaching concludes with public prayers, for which no security pass is needed. Donations are welcome.
- Visit the 17th Karmapa at his temporary residence at the Gyuto Tantric University in the town of Sidhbari near McLeod Ganj. For detailed information, check the Kagyu school's official web site: Kagyu Office
- Bhagsu Waterfall, 3 km from Dharamsala. An easy walk down Bhagsu Rd through the village of the same name, then 1 km up to the waterfall itself. Despite a sign advising visitors not to venture further, the path to the waterfall is in reasonable shape, except for the final 50 meters which are distinctly dodgy, especially in slippery weather.
- If you are in for a brisk walk, climb the hill beyond Dharamkot to Triund with a beautiful view of the first peaks of the "real" Himalayas, and a wide view over the plains at its feet. As the peak is over 3000 meters, make sure to wear good shoes, carry water (some food if you like) and and an extra vest or coat. At the top, even in summer, the weather can change from hot and sunny into a small snowstorm very quickly. Every year some tourists get themselves into serious trouble this way, wearing only sandals and a T-shirt.
- Dal Lake, 4 km from Dharamsala (past Naddi). Fairly well signposted, this thoroughly anticlimactic sacred pond is the color and texture of its yellow lentil namesake. Don't bother.
The half-Tibetan, half-Indian bazaar bustle of McLeod Ganj
Courses range from yoga, meditation, reiki, Tibetan and Indian cooking classes, Tibetan language classes and Thai massage. All courses include vegetarian meals, and are offered at the following meditation centers:
- Tushita Meditation Center, . 10-day Introduction to Buddhism courses, 5-day meditation courses, and more (mostly residential). Silence is held most of the day. Situated near Dharamkot.
- Vipassana - Situated near Dharamkot, offers a 10 days meditation course. You need to register in advance at their web-site . The course will teach you the vipassana technique as taught by Goenka. You have to be in complete silence, and you are provided 2 meals and very light dinner. The course is free, you can leave a donation if you please.
- Buddha Hall - reiki with Usha - Usha is a grandmaster reiki teacher who runs courses in reiki (I,II,III and Master) as well as tarot and crystal healing from Buddha hall in Bagsu, (Opposite the German Bakery). She is a very flexible and compassionate teacher - highly recommended.
- Z-Meditation,  - five day meditation course in McLeod Ganj (go down the stairs at Yongling School. It's the big green building). The course is much more varied than vipassana - it includes a few techniques on meditation, some with painting, some about subjects related to your own life, and also 2 hours of daily yoga, 3 meals, and a refreshment break. The entire retreat is undertaken in silence.
- Guerrilla Yoga, - five day yoga courses of several varieties in McLeod Ganj (go down the stairs at Yongling School. It's the big green building). Private instruction is also available. New studio, opened in March of 2008, great staff, very friendly. Also has local art for sale, commission free.
- Asho Institute in Bhagsu Village also provide courses in ayurvedic nutrition and tai-Chi.
- Llhamo's kitchen learn how to cook traditional tibetan food, including momos from a delightful tibetan man called Llhamo. It all takes place in llhamos single room house right in the centre of town.
There are some opportunities to volunteer while you are here. For long term options (3 months or more) ask at the LHA office in the middle of the town. Or contact Volunteer Tibet . Teaching English and computers are most common options. There are a few institutions for benefit of exile Tibetans and local Indians. There are ads on billboards and also in the free local magazine "Contact". There is also an option to come and talk to Tibetans to help them improve their English, while getting to know each other's culture and personal story. Go to the organized meetings of one of the organizations and don't accept requests to privately tutor monks that address you on the streets; some of them will ask you to be their sponsor after a few days. Do not expect any gratitude for teaching English for free. Chances are your students, on top of your professional effort, will request you to give them (large quantities of) money, plane tickets, visa and passports. If you are a woman, monks in robes, without robes, ex-monks and other men will pursue you and propose marriage.
- Tibetan Singing Bowl. Buy the hand-made Singing Bowl, its very easy to play and is used for Sound healing, Music therapy or just to relax.
Many Tibetan things can be bought in Dharamsala - woolen shawls, prayer flags, prayer wheels, thangka and mandala paintings, Tibetan jewelry & trinkets etc., and also partners for marriage. Do expect to be cheated once your spouse comes with you to your home-country.
- Maza Falafel, Near Bhagsu Temple. This one offers Good Falafel in Rs. 70. Located on the way towards the Bhagsu Temple. Opposite German Bakery
SunSet Cafe-pass the bookwarm up the hill,fresh food and unreal views
McLeod Ganj is a great place for eating, and the town has an abundance of restaurants, especially in the mid to upper range that cater to foreign tourists.
Some Tibetan favorites
Dharamsala is a good place to try Tibetan food and beverages.
- Momos - dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, steamed or fried
- Thukpa - a hearty noodle soup with veggies or meat
- Thenthuk - thukpa with handmade noodles
- Pocha - salty tea churned with butter, a Tibetan staple
- Carpe Diem, Jogibara Road. Featuring occasional live music. Western-style food (e.g. pizzas) and excellent home made muesli.
- Green Hotel, Bhagsu Road. Really popular, with decent, hearty food and good pies. Meals Rs 30-50. Best breakfast in Town!
- Himalaya Restaurant, Bhagsu Rd. Barebones eatery full of plastic chairs and hungry Tibetan monks. There's extra space on the roof if needed. The menu is all Tibetan and all cheap at Rs.25-50 for mains.
- Jimmy's Italian Restaurant, near the main square, nice decor (old movie posters) and friendly staff. Better than the other Italian places in town. A real treat with great salads, pasta, and pizza.
- JJI's Cafe. Delicious Special Muesli. Sometimes they play Bob Dylan.
- Lhamo's Croissant, Bhagsu Rd, . One of those "only in Dharamsala" places, offering French pastries (Rs.40-50), Tibetan herbal teas (Rs.25 a pot) and some pretty good Western food (Rs.100 or so). Excellent Choclate Banana Cake and Marble Cake, Do try a Slice each.
- Lung-Ta, Jogibara Rd (all the way near the southern end of town), M-Sa noon-11PM, closed Sundays. Excellent Japanese food - pay attention to the daily specials. Non-profit, proceeds go towards helping to free political prisoners.
- Malabar Restaurant, Jogibara Rd (near the bus stand), 11AM-11PM everyday. Serves Indian standards along with a few selections of Chinese and some continental dishes.This is one of the oldest restaurants in town.
- Momo Cafe. Best momos in town. The chai is also particularly good.
- Nick's Italian Kitchen, Bhagsu Rd., 6 AM-9 PM every day. Great Italian food at low prices. Great view from terrace. Very popular. An American writer with residence in Rome taught the recipes in 1996 to Kunga, the owner. A Dutch linguist gave advice on interior decoration in 1996. Rooms are over-priced.
- Om Hotel. Right near the main bus square in Mcleod Ganj, this family run restaurant/hotel has great Tibetan food, and is very cheap. Great view from terrace.
- Snow Lion Restaurant, 11AM-9:30PM everyday. This is a popular place for both Tibetans and Tourists alike. If you want to taste what the locals eat. go there. Prices are very reasonable for the quality.
- Rewa Cafe, Jogiwara Road (down the hill, five minutes past the post office). Best Tibetan food in town.
- Taste of India, Jogibara Rd, 10AM-11PM everyday. Some say it's the best Indian food in town, others find it mediocre, but it's certainly popular; this depends on whether you are lucky with your order: the best is absolutely fantastic, but sometimes the dishes are bland. The owner runs 3 day cooking courses from the restaurant. She also owns a South Indian restaurant on Bhagsu Rd (one of the last shops in Mcleod on the way to Bagsu) which serves simple but very tasty southern dishes.
- Pema Thang's Guest House, Bhagsu Rd (opposite Bhagsu Hotel) 11AM-10PM everyday. They offer amazing continental and local fare, all of it vegetarian. Lip smackingly yummy, try the fried banana with nuts and the pepperoni pizza, which will leave you astounded. They also serve great thenthuk.
- Le Vrai Café, Jogibara Rd. Just above the Chocolate Log, and down the hill from the post office, this is the place to get European continental food and atmosphere. Run by a Franco-Tibetan couple, expect top quality coffee, plenty of chess and a real locals' atmosphere. Epitomizes the trans-nationality of McLeod, to be celebrated and savoured.
- Moon Peak Coffee, Temple Rd (halfway down the hill). The best coffee in town. The owners also run a photo lab next door by the same name. Sit and have a coffee while waiting for your photos to print.
McLeod Ganj has a wide selection of accommodation, most of which is located close to the main bus stop. Just walk around. It is easy to find somewhere suitable. There are also 2 smaller towns within walking distance, Bhagsu and Dharmakot. They are quieter than McLeod, whose main streets (esp. Bhagsu Rd) suffer from the usual Indian curse of lots of beeping cars/bikes/rickshaws pushing through the streets, and have a wide array of cool places to stay and courses to do.
For long-term stays, head down the Yongling stairs on Jogiwara Road; there are about a dozen cheap good places down there, with great views.
- Akash Guest House (Jogiwara Rd, Tel: 01892-221990) - Run by two friedly Kashmiris.
- Kareri Lodge - neat & clean rooms with amazing views from the balconies.
- Kalsang Guesthouse (TIPA-road) - clean rooms in various sizes and price-ranges. Nightly visitors can easily sneak in and out through system of several passways and staircases. Management very tolerant towards lovers staying in.
- Drepung Loseling Friendly guesthouse run by monks. Slightly claustrophobic rooms, very cleans sheets and comfortable bedcovers.
- Rainbow House - Very clean and affordable, with hot water.
- Snow Lion Guest House. Great budget place right in the center of town. Rs 175 for tiny double room with communal bathroom.
- Tashi Khansang - clean budget rooms with both shared and attached baths, run by a friendly Tibetan family which lives downstairs - great security is provided by the house dog!
- Tibetan Ashoka Guesthouse - very clean and comfortable rooms at reasonable prices.
- Green Hotel (www.greenhotel.biz), Bhagsu Road (head east from the bus station), ☎ +91 1892-221200 / 221479 ([email protected]), . A traveler favorite, reasonably clean, and a decent restaurant. You can refill your water bottle cheaply here to save on plastic, and there's an internet cafe in the restaurant. Best cakes in town, specially carrot cake! Rs 150-800.
- River View Apartmants, Jogiwara, Heru Village, tel. 9816206406, 9816292228. All rooms with balcony and kitchen.
- Pink House - jogiwara road, opp, yongling school Mcleodganj ,Dharamshla-176219 (H,P,) India.mob:91-94181-43227/ph:01892-221145 INR100-500. Newish place resulting in nicer rooms than other budget accommodations. Location off of the main roads makes for a quieter stay.
- Hotel Tibet, TIPA Road. First better hotel of McLeod. Nice, warm bedcovers (down). Clean. Good service. Reasonable meals. Good deals off-season.
- Annex hotel, Surya Road, tel. +91-1892-221002, . Annex hotel has a great view over the Kangra Valley. It is located on a quiet side street just minutes away from the main square. The hotel has 10 rooms, all of which have balcony, tv and attached bathroom. There is also a rooftop cafe from where you can watch the sunset, an internet facility and a common lounge room. Rooms from 500-1200 Rs. You can also make ticket, tour and trek reservations from the hotel's travel desk.
- Bhagsu Hotel, . State-run Himachal Tourism hotel, which despite the name is located in McLeod Ganj. At the upper end of the price range with carpeted rooms and en-suite bathrooms. Has a pleasant pseudo-English garden with lawn and flowers. Rs.800-1600.
- Pema Thang's Guest House, opp Bhagsu Hotel, tel. +91-1892-221871, . Tibetan-run older guesthouse, tucked on a quiet side street with great views over the Kangra Valley. Rooms are starting to show their age, but they're scrupulously clean and comfy and feature a TV and 24h hot water. Double rooms Rs.770-1100, industrial-strength gas heater (necessary in winter) Rs.200/day extra, kitchenette facilities available for longer stays.
- Chonor House, off Temple Road, . Easily the best (and most expensive) place to stay, home to stars like Richard Gere. It's not five-star luxury, but it's tastefully decorated, has great views, good food and it run by the Norbulingka Institute, whose proceeds go to helping refugees. Rs 1,900 and up.
- Asia Health Resorts, ☎ +91 1892-220877, . Located outside of the main centers of McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala, this modern hotel is somewhat sterile, but takes a stab at upmarket, and is the only place in the area where you'll find a (small) swimming pool, and a gym with steam and sauna. Also offers Ayurvedic massage, a rooftop bar and some rooms & suites with a/c.
- Surya McLeod, . Another somewhat upmarket choice, rooms in this large hotel have tv and look reasonably comfortable, and some boast views over the valley. There's a restaurant, bar and ping pong table (!) on site. Rs 1800-3400.
- The holy Sikh city of Amritsar and its Golden Temple is a 6-hour bus ride away.
- Manali is the next hub for journeys deeper into the mountains.
- Dalhousie a small hill station close to Pathankot.
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