New plans, new resolutions and of course a new start is exactly what defines everybody’s New Year. So my 2018 started on a very different and interesting note. Unlike the annual plan of partying with my friends, this December Manish and I took an impulsive decision of starting our year with what we love doing the best- Travelling!
The beginning of December was already so amazing, all thanks to the incredible three days spent in Magnetic Fields Festival in Rajasthan (Read review). Once we came back to Mumbai the travel bug wouldn’t let us sit still so we plunged into an impromptu adventure to the North of India with my brother and some close friends. Since we had Himachal in mind, we started looking for the closest airport and cheapest tickets. The thought of having nothing planned, no hotel bookings and no itinerary was just so thrilling and is what got us all excited about our New Year trip!
On 30th December as we landed in Amritsar, I was so nervous because I had never ever boarded a flight without knowing where I’m staying but at the same time I was so happy because it doesn’t matter where you’re going, it’s who you have besides you and I was with a bunch of amazing souls. So apart from booking tickets from Mumbai to Amritsar we had also booked ourselves a car and driver for the road trip to Himachal.
As we loaded luggage in the car we discussed all the possible routes and spots with our amazing driver aka Paaji. Dalhousie, Dharamshala, Shimla and Kulu Manali are some of the major tourist attractions in Himachal. However since we had 5 days in hand and were driving from Amritsar we had to settle down with McLeodganj and Dalhousie for our trip as they were the closest destinations. Our four-hour drive from Amritsar to Himachal consisted of a few dhaba stops, unending sunflower fields, crazy ghaats and some pure Bollywood music.
As we drove through the interlocking mountains with snow covered peaks, plunging valleys, thrill yet tranquility etched in every nook and corner. Himachal is a surreal topography straight out of a fairytale with this raw nature erupting in every path, every town and village standing afoot with their own quaint and distinct character. On reaching Dharamshala we started scouting for hotels. Since it was the end of December almost everything was packed and for some reason I was not at all worried. The freedom in the air was just something else.
Dharamshala, a city in the Kangra valley fenced by hills and cedar trees around, the pious hill station is home to the famous Dalai Lama and so many Tibetan refugees. The suburbs include beautiful towns like Mcleodganj, Dharamkot, Naddi, Bhagsunath and more.
Twenty minute uphill from Dharmshala is McLeodganj (aka Upper Dharamshala or Little Lhasa). As you move further from the market square the town has such a spiritual and peaceful vibe. The entire place comes alive with the sound of the monk prayers and Tibetan bells. This place might not be the prettiest to look at but it’s the vibe and the locals that make McLeodganj so beautiful. As you move further up you will find the quaint Dharamkot- a small, peaceful, nature bound hillside hub of hippie cafes and Israeli tourists.
After a zillion stops and enquires we stumbled upon the Great Himalayan Resort in McLeodganj. It’s a beautiful property right down a steep slope bordered by mountains. The cottages are compact and cozy, nothing fancy but well equipped with all the necessities. What caught our attention was the location and the vibe. The hotel had 12 cottages and tents to camp including a reception area right in a small valley overlooking another gorge and bordered by tall mountains. While the resort was in the hustle and bustle of the little town it still felt like it was in the middle of nowhere because of the winding hilly road that separated it from the main centre. The highlight of our stay was the scenic experience of the sunrise and sunset. All our nights ended with a beautiful bonfire lit up by the hotel staff as we chomped down our Maggi under a blanket of stars. We spent the next three days wandering and exploring all around McLeodganj.
Where to stay:
Dharamshala, McLeodganj and Dharamkot are literally located one above the other on a hilly terrain. My preferred choice would be McLeodganj followed by Dharamkot. The former has a very pure vibe and has the famous Dalai Lama Temple, a crazy market square, cute little momo shops and Tibetan locals. Dharamkot on the other hand is located a little higher on the hill and seems super secluded but exotic. The place has cute guesthouses and is filled with quaint cafes that attract tons of hippies and Israelis every year. I loved the vibe, it was so peaceful and calm. It also depends what time of the year you’re travelling in. According to the locals, Dharamkot is buzzing in the summer with international crowd and extremely quiet in the winter.
When staying in McLeodganj pick a hotel that is close to the centre but not right in it because the square is way too chaotic. Since you’re on a mountain you will get tons of places that offer a room with a good view. I would highly recommend the Great Himalayan Resort. If you’re looking for something more upscale then try out Chonor House which know for it’s gorgeous Tibetan style rooms and is located right next to the temple. Even in Dharamkot there are tons of options that actually have beautiful rooms with terraces overlooking the valley.
Great Himalayan Resort
Things to do/ Tips & Suggestions
– Visit the Dalai Lama Temple (Sit and witness the prayers and chants but avoid clicking photos inside)
– Walk and explore the market square
– Visit the Bhagsu temple.
– Do the Triund Trek (Make sure to spend a night camping on the mountain, the trek is fun and a must do)
– Bhagsu waterfalls are overrated, can be skipped but the trek to the falls is too much fun!
– Kalachakra Temple is absolutely beautiful.
– Idrahar Pass Trek (optional trek)
– Explore Dal Lake
– Namgyal Monastery
– Enjoy shows at Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts
Where to shop:
McLeodganj has some amazing little local shops that sell such cool local stuff. Just make sure to bargain.
– There are tons of shops opposite Bhagsu Tea Stall (which is on the main street off the centre not near the waterfall) that sell some amazing knitwear and woollen accessories. The designs are so beautiful and the material will keep you very warm.
– There is a Tibetan Market set up right outside the street of Dalai Lama temple where they sell tons of clothing/ jewellery/ home stuff (Do bargain)
– There is an entire street full of local stores on both the sides of the Kalachakra Temple that’s sells shoes, clothes, hippie outfits, hats and much more. We bought some amazing woolen outfits from here for our NYE.
-Eat Momos and Thukpa at MclLo. It’s a small tiny joint right before the main square but it has the best momos in town. All the other places are too hyped.
– Try the Cappuccino and Carrot cake Woesar Bakery, apparently it’s the best carrot cake in the whole of Dharamshala (basement of Black Magic restaurant)
– Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen serves the best pizza and pasta in town. Sit at the rooftop and enjoy the valley view.
– Bhagsu Tea shop for the best tea and biscuits. It’s the cutest little stall in the whole of McLeodganj.
I totally enjoyed my black coffee and Parle G Biscuit.
– Try the Spinach Cheese momos and woodfire pizza at Namgyal Restaurant inside Om Hotel.
(I didn’t get a chance to try this but had it on my list)
– The food and vibe at Café Detour is amazing
– Trek and Dine Café in Dharamkot
– Illiterati Books and Coffee
– Seed Café (Great view)
– Crepe Pancake Hut (perfect for breakfast)
– Moonpeak Espresso (Coffee+ Wifi+ Banana Cake)
– Carpe Diem Rooftop
– Shiva Café ( a long hike but the place serves some good Maggi)
Momos at MclLo and Bhagsu Tea Shop
Dalai Lama Temple and the Tibetan Market
Bhagsu Trek and Waterfall
What to Pack
This totally depends on what season you’re travelling in. We travelled in the last week of December and it was freezing. You definitely need 2 to 3 layers of clothes- woollens, thick jackets, thermals, beanies, ear muffs and gloves. Make sure to carry comfortable walking shoes. Since the crowd isn’t the best, ladies, make sure to cover up.
Best time to visit:
While the summer might be a popular pick I would always recommend the winter. A little nip in the air, bonfire nights, hot momos, spiritual chanting and cozy woollen outfits. Can it get better than this? The period between November to February would be the best time to visit.
– It’s best to hire a driver and car if you want to go around Dharamkot, McLeodganj and Dharamshala.
Closest Airport: Gaggal Airport (17.9kms away, approx 50 mins)
New Years Eve- Our New Year night turned out to be quite an eventful affair. We headed to Dharamkot at 10pm on 31st December looking forward to ending the year with a spontaneous zest. Upon reaching, we kept walking towards the centre of the town despite the otherwise silent abode. In the midst of quiet cottages and deserted streets, we stumbled upon a buzzing hippie cafe bringing us a sense of euphoria. We welcomed 2018 in this quaint cafe along with fellow hippies who were singing and chilling. We couldn’t have asked for a better unconventional yet classic way to celebrate the new year.
Although, at 1 AM the cops started shutting down nearby cafes forcing us to leave the premises, it was an exhilarating experience almost like a movie scene. We ended up walking downhill since there were no cabs available. It was so dark and the only light was the soft glow of the moon. As we walked on a road flanked by soaring trees on both the sides, we turned on our phone torch to show us the path and chatted all the way to the bottom of the hill; the experience was simple yet so soulful, it absolutely can’t be expressed through mere words. On reaching the hotel, we continued with our celebrations by lighting up a bonfire and dancing away to Bollywood mountain songs (insert *Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale*). It was the best celebration of 2017 and the perfect start to 2018. The Tibetan touch, graceful weather, pure air and the happiness in every breath, Oh! McLeodganj was a pathway to rejuvenation.
After a fun three days stay in McLeodganj we drove to Dalhousie (4 hours approx) and we were super lucky to find rooms in the Snow Valley Hotel, an affordable and absolutely beautiful property with an insane view of the Himalayas.
(The rooms costed INR 3,000 per night on 1st January)
Dalhousie has an old world colonial charm more like a countryside vibe surrounded by soaring Himalayan peaks and tons of pine and deodar trees. This quaint Himachal town is known for it’s Victorian architecture, Hindu temples, Tibetan markets, culture, art and adventure.
Things to do/ Tips & Suggestions:
– Explore the Tibetan market in the Gandhi Chowk area
– There are tons of stalls where you can eat delicious Maggi, dumplings and grill sandwiches.
– Shop for local blankets. They’re the best.
– Khajjiar is known as the mini Switzerland of Himachal. Honestly feel free to skip it. It was just a green patch of land with a few cafes, would not recommend at all.
-If you’re looking for snow head to Dian Kund. We spent hours playing in the snow there.
– Would not recommend PanjPulla, it is outdated and overrated.
– If you want to trek then check out Bakrota Hills, Sach Pass or Ganji Pahari
– Visit the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary
– Boat ride in the Chamera Lake
Closest Airport: Pathankot (83.7kms, approx 2 hours 40 mins)
Snow Valley Hotel
After spending two days in Dalhousie which by the way are more than enough, we drove back to Amristar with our Paaji. If you have time in hand then make sure you go further North to Shimla, Kullu and Manali. There are tons of amazing Hotels in Manali that will take your breath away.
I’m so happy about all the choices I’ve made last year including this impromptu trip to Himachal. Travelling is rejuvenating, thrilling and eye-opening in every way. All I can say is that when you get an opportunity to travel, just leave your worries behind and simply plunge into every new plan without a thought. After all life is an adventure or nothing at all!