How To Explore McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala in Two Days!
Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj?
When people talk about Dharamsala where they probably mean is the small suburb of McLeod Ganj. This is where the backpackers gather, where the rolling views of the Himalayas take breathtaking shape and where the Tibetan government in exile, including the Dalai Lama, now reside! It makes for a meting pot of cultures, people and food and is somewhere that we loved as soon as we arrived!
We hadn’t initially planned to venture as high up into India as Himachal Pradesh but with time on our side we knew we had to go and see what was on offer. Turns out this mountainous state was one of our favourites and we just wished we’d had longer to explore. Our first stop on our Himachal tour would be McLeod Ganj. It took four public buses and a lot of winding, bumping roads to make the ascent from Amritsar to Dharamsala but the views were almost as good as the final destination!
Arriving in McLeod Ganj
One last nail biting bus journey took us the final half hour hop to McLeod Ganj where we were greeted by neon lights, street vendor stalls steaming in the cold night air and narrow streets brimming with shops and cafes. We trudged around in the darkness looking for a place to stay and in true Indian style were hooked in by a man offering a clean cheap room! It was perfect for us!
It being dark when we arrived we obviously couldn’t see much of our surroundings but we could certainly feel how much higher up in the mountains we were due to the much cooler, crisper air than 38 degree Amritsar! We wrapped up as warm as we could with our mostly summer attire and waited to see what morning would bring.
We Woke Up Here…
It was only when we woke up and stepped out onto our little balcony that we saw the true allure of McLeod Ganj in all its jaw-dropping beauty. The 180 degree views of the snowy peaked mountains of the Lesser Himalayas took our breath away! We sat on the balcony with a steaming cup of chai and tried to soak it all in! We think that this is the point that our love for India was completely and utterly cemented; this country is special and has so so much to offer!
How to Spend Two Full Days Exploring McLeod Ganj;
Its obvious as soon as you step into McLeod Ganj that there is something other than Indian culture here and that, of course, is Tibetan. The streets are lined with vendors selling freshly steamed Tibetan momos, the market stalls are manned by Tibetan ladies in their traditional wear and the stunning central temple has more of an oriental feel than Indian. McLeod Ganj is of course home to the Tibetan government in exile and more famously the Dalai Lama himself.
Worryingly we knew very little about this “autonomous” region of China and we sought to find more. If this is also true for you then your first day in McLeod Ganj should really be dedicated to learning and understanding a little more about the history and plight of the Tibetan people and culture.
Luckily, there is an amazing little museum right at the bottom of the village which will do just that. We headed here on our first morning and learnt so much about Tibet and its people; how they’ve bravely fought against Chinese oppression and continue to fight to maintain a Free Tibet. Unfortunately, this has been harder said than done as over a million Tibetan people have died in the process and their ancient culture is still in serious threat of being completely erased.
The museum is an absolute MUST visit as it not only sheds some light on the settlement in McLeod Ganj but, for us, showed the continued desperation of the Tibetan people to free their country and save their culture – something we did not really realise the depths of. The museum is free of charge but does recommend donations to help keep it maintained. It will take at least an hour maybe more to explore thoroughly.
Dalai Lama Temple
Next door to the Tibetan Museum is the Dalai Lamas very own residence and temple. We would recommend visiting the museum first if you, like us, don’t know too much of the history as it will make the experience a more thorough and meaningful one.
The temple itself is simple yet you can feel it’s importance within the Tibetan community here. This is where the Dalai Lama often holds his public talks and we could just imagine the incredibly wise words that had been spoken and listened to within those walls.
Around the temple are lots of golden prayer wheels which anyone can take a turn to spin; the idea is that each holds a prayer inside which, once spun, will be blessed upon you and your family. The Dalai Lama temple is a peaceful place and also somewhere you can witness some of the many Tibetan monks gathered to pray and light candles or offerings.
Unfortunately, we had narrowly missed seeing the Dalai Lama leaving McLeod Ganj two days before but check his website and you may just be able to plan your visit to coincide with one of his stays or even attend one of his talks.
A lovely way to finish off a morning of Tibetan culture and influence is to take a walk around the Kora Circuit. It leads directly on from the temple and can be followed along on Maps.me if you can’t find your way.
The Kora Circuit is a ritual and sacred track leading around the Dalai Lamas residences. The Kora Circuit replicates the Lingkhor Path around the Potala Palace in Lhasa where many Tibetans used to pray and mediate as they encircled its route. It is a similar scene here; carved out through the forest the trail is so completely peaceful and at one with beautiful natural surroundings of Himachal Pradesh.
All around the circuit you will see small Tibetan stupas and temples, prayer wheels and stones painted with mantras. You will most likely pass monks in their traditional maroon robes quietly chanting and praying as they complete their own ritual walk or sat in contemplation on one of the many benches scattered along the trail overlooking its magnificent views. We wandered the circuit on a beautiful day with the suns rays creeping through the tall cedar and oak trees and the hundreds of coloured prayer flags blowing in the wind!
The Kora Circuit takes a while to complete but is totally worth it to soak up some of the peaceful spirituality which truly hangs in the air here.
Shop for Tibetan Handicrafts
Lastly, as you make your way back up into the centre of McLeod Ganj you can spend some time browsing the many treasure trove like shops! Like many popular spots in India the streets of McLeod Ganj have become pretty much aimed at tourists shopping. However, what’s nice about here is that some of the shops do actually sell genuine Tibetan handicrafts like yak wool scarves and hats and Tibetan style jewellery!
It’s a bit of a shoppers paradise but don’t forget to check out the street stalls that line the length of this village too. The people are very friendly and the ladies can often be seen sat lovingly knitting new things to sell there and then!
After a day in McLeod Ganj its hard not to feel a little exhilarated from the fresh mountain air and the spectacular views everywhere you look. Take this a bit further on day two by taking these few short walks to explore the surrounding trails and villages!
Dal Lake Walk
You simply can’t come to McLeod Ganj and not go on a walk of some kind. The most famous trail that begins here is the Triund Trek; we unfortunately did not have enough time to complete this but if you do it came highly recommended by everyone we met!
Instead, we took the short morning walk to Dal Lake. There are several paths you can take to get here but they all take you through some towering forest trees and around some spectacular bends. It was lovely to get out in the fresh mountain air after months of big polluted Indian cities. We had imagined in our head that Dal Lake would be something slightly more spectacular than it was when we arrived but we have included it here nonetheless as the walk to it from McLeod Ganj is an easy and gentle one! Just don’t be disappointed at the end…we did warn you!
Walk to Upper Bhagsu
Another walk on day two but this time one which takes you north of McLeod Ganj to the next village of Upper Bhagsu. This can easily be done in the afternoon (or morning for that matter!) and can be reached in 20-30 minutes from McLeod Ganj square.
The gentle walk takes you through the top of McLeaod Ganj on the edge of the forest with trees on one side and spectacular views of the mountains and towns below on the other. Once you reach Upper Bhagsu there’s an assortment of handicraft shops and super chilled cafes to explore all serving up a mixture of Indian, western and Tibetan cuisine!
Upper Bhagsu is swiftly becoming the popular alternative to McLeod Ganj and where you will find many backpackers, yogis and people who came for two days but just haven’t managed to leave yet hanging out! Its pretty cool!
Sample Tibetan Food
Talking of cuisine, you simply cannot visit McLeod Ganj without sampling some of its Tibetan food. It really is delicious and where our love affair with momos officially began. The flavours are very different to those in Indian cooking and so it is a fabulous change up for the taste buds!
There are countless cafes and restaurants to choose from in McLeod Ganj and the majority of them serve some Tibetan food. It seems most people in McLeod spend a few hours here or there just relaxing in one of the many cafes reading a book, sampling some food or sipping on the ever addictive chai.
A few of our favourite places were as follows;
Peace Cafe; served up amazing Tibetan soups; Thenthuk or Thukpa as well as a great eggs on toast and breakfast bowls
Four Season Cafe; great for Tibetan noodles and delicious steamed or fried momos – this place is always packed!
Carpe Diem; simply for the unbeatable views!
Day 1 or 2
Situated in the main square of McLeod Ganj this is one of the first things which catches your eye when you arrive. It’s tiered red and gold ceiling stands out against the skyline surrounding it and each of it’s ornately decorated walls with murals and depictions holds a row of spinning prayer wheels.
You don’t need long to explore Kalachakra Temple so just find a spare ten minutes in either day! Or if you just don’t find the time it is simply lovely to wander past and gaze up at every time you happen past it in the small alleys of McLeod Ganj.
McLeod Ganj may have been a lot more touristy than we expected but, actually, it has still somehow managed to retain its charm and warmth (despite the freezing cold weather!) If you are planning a route through Himachal Pradesh then we would definitely recommend it as a stop; it is a lovely blend of cultures and if you can coincide your visit with that of a Dalai Lama talk we imagine that McLeod Ganj could hold a very special place in your hearts!
C & J x