January 4, 2013 by Parthajeet
“Slow down”, the man sitting on the front seat, with the AK 47, whispered to the driver. I looked ahead and saw a neon light emerging out of the dense December fog that we had been traversing for the last two hours. The peppy songs on the car’s stereo system had failed to raise my spirits as the car climbed the dizzying Himalayan heights in near zero visibility and freezing temperature. As the halo of the neon light became bigger, I saw a posse of about ten policemen, each one holding an AK 47, manning a road block. The winter-wear that they had donned made them look menacing; they looked ‘ready to kill’!
I was relieved!
We finally seemed to be entering human habitation. I was travelling with Vikram, the Chief minister’s younger son, since afternoon from Chandigarh to the hill station of Dharamsala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh in India. Whilst Vikram drove the powerful Skoda Laura at breakneck speed in the Punjab plains, from Chandigarh to the bordertown of Una whilst there was still daylight, the driver took over once night fell. The dense fog and the hilly terrain had reduced speed to about twenty kilometers an hour. The driver, a short jovial fellow named Sanjay, knew these roads well; otherwise it would be foolhardy to even attempt driving at this hour in near zero visibility.
Talking about the hour, it was 9 pm, and it was the dead of night in these parts. The posse of policemen was at the entrance to Dharamsala town.
Our car slowed down and came to a stop. A burly office came towards the door on the driver’s side; the driver lower the window, and I felt the chill of the night air hit my face like a knife. The security guard sitting on the front seat of our car muttered something in ‘Pahadi’; the officer took a quick look inside, saluted and smiled. Vikram nodded and gave a smile back.
“Where can we get some food now?” Vikram asked the officer
“Sir, you could try the Club Mahindra resort. I doubt anything else will be open at this hour.” the officer responded.
I was famished! We quickly made our way to the private resort, operated by one of India’s best known names in the hospitality sector. The entire town was asleep. By the time we were ready to order in the restaurant at Club Mahindra, it was nearly 9.30 pm and we were being told that they were about to close the kitchen. Ninety percent of the items mentioned in the menu were not available at this hour, and Vikram ordered the unmistakably Punjabi staple combination of “butter chicken, naan and….diet coke!” I am yet to understand the craze for ‘diet’ coke in these parts of India, along with the greasy butter chicken and the buttered naans.
I came to learn much about the culture of Dharamsala over the next twenty four hours. Punjabi culture had made quick inroads into the peaceful terrains of Dharamsala. Given the proximity to the progressive state of Punjab, not only tourists from Punjab drove down in hordes to Dharamsala during weekends and holidays, but several businesses were now being owned by Punjabis. An almost nondescript town in the sixties, Dharamsala had risen to prominence when the government of India gave shelter to the fleeing Dalai Lama from Tibet in upper Dharamsala, now known as Macleodganj. Hundreds of Tibetans had subsequently made Macleodganj their home over the years. So whilst Lower Dharamsala presents more of a ‘north Indian’ image, Macleodganj, about 7 kilometers away, presents a unique mix of Tibetan and Punjabi culture.
A walk down the mall road at Macleodganj during the day is like a walk across many cultures. It is not surprising to find the aroma of steaming momos, a Tibetan form of dumpling, emanating from a small roadside vendor, sitting next to a quiet yet fancy Italian food joint. A variety of Indian food joints can be seen as well, along with restaurants specializing in almost all types of global cuisines. Restaurant owners let you sit for hours with a cup of steaming coffee while you finish your book or surf the internet. 3G service is surprisingly very good, especially if you are on the BSNL network.
There aren’t too many star rated hotels to be found in Macledodganj or Dharamsala. The best of the hotels are priced in the range of Rs. 3000-4000 a night with a majority of the average hotels being in the range of Rs. 1500-2000 a night. Hollywood stars like Richared Gere, Madonna and others often come to Macleodganj to pay their respect to the Dalai Lama. Such stars usually rent out luxurious private homes during their stay.
Dharamsala has a small airport at nearby Kangra, known for its local tea plantations, and has one commercial flight operating daily to New Delhi. It is one of the most beautiful airports in the world, with snowcapped mountains alongside it. During the monsoons, it is not uncommon to hear about frequent flight cancellations. It is otherwise well connected by road with Chandigarh, a good six hours away. Dharamsala competes with Cherrapunji as the wettest place on earth, and it rains almost every day during the monsoons, although it is not uncommon to see rains during the winters. Winters often bring snowfall to Dharamsala. During most of the year, the Dauladhar mountain range abutting Dharamsala, can be seen covered in snow.
The best time to visit Dharamsala is during the months of August to November, when the temperature ranges from 10 degrees to about 30 degrees. The winter months are for those who can brave sub zero temparatures and want to get a glimpse of snow. Trips to the snowline are organized by local tour operators during most months of the year. Dharamsala is that quaint little getaway for those looking for a break from the racy city life.
Once can ‘get away from it all’ and live life in Dharamsala. Whilst you can bask in the sunlight in-between looking at snowcapped mountains and a book, lazily sipping the local kangra tea; remember to have you dinner before nine!