Dharamsala’s 3 Hippie Brothers
After motorbiking from Manali and paragliding in Bir, I finally made it to Dharamsala.
Touted as a hotbed of yoga and reiki, I had decided to come here a long time ago and expected a blissful, relaxed town, full of monks and gurus. As often is the case in India though, the place you want to go to is not where you think it is.
You see, Dharamsala, like Manali, is a famous name, but the yoga, reiki, scenery, and vibes it’s famous for actually reside further up the mountain it lies on, in Mcloed Ganj, Bangu, and Dharamkot. The further up you go, the stronger they are, until you hit pure mountains and waterfalls.
The towns of Dharamsala
Often called Mcleod for short, it’s probably best known for being the location of the famous Dalai Lama temple, even though that honor often gets attributed to Dharamsala. It has other noteworthy sites such as the Tibetan museum, various other temples scattered throughout the city and a bustling main square. You’ll find plenty of authentic Tibetan and Indian restaurants, as well as Italian, Hebrew and others, all ranging from enthralling holes in the wall, to cute establishments, to some that are a little too cute for the area and are clearly foreign run.
Mcleod is the first town of the three on the way up from Dharamsala, so while this does still afford it some great views, they get better as you continue, and it is the busiest. Still, it offers many amenities that you won’t find in its two hippie brothers, Bagsu and Dharamkot. If you opt to stay in either of those free spirited hoods, you’ll find yourself having to make the trek down for things like ATM’s, markets and temples on a regular basis. I was coming down almost daily for the gym or my reiki school, as well as various other necessities or activities such as a haircut or the Tibetan volunteering center.
As it has a little bit of everything, Mcleod can be seen as a happy medium between chill and convenient, but personally I needed even less horns and motorbikes in my life, so I went further up. I recommend the same, but keep in mind that the connection to the other two towns is a pretty steep, mile long hill. Don’t worry you’ll get used to it. If you really need, there are often tuktuks ready to take you up from the square, but be strong and walk it. It’s a good mental patience exercise and you can call it a semi workout after all that amazing curry. There is even a little chai shack half way up the otherwise vacant hill, appropriately named “The Accidental Café”, to offer you a break, a sip and a view if you get weary on the hike.
This is where the magic happens, the perfect mix of hippie and sanity. High enough to get the panoramic views, grown up enough to have some restaurants, but hippie enough to maintain a chill vibe and keep everyone very friendly.
There are plenty of guesthouses, most of which you won’t find online. If you really want to book something ahead of time to avoid the stress, book maximum one night and walk around when you’re here to find something you actually like. There really is something for everyone ranging from nice hotels where you’ll have a very comfortable stay in paradise to little shacks that will run you 100 INR a night if all you need is a place to rest your head. I made a friend whose room was literally on top of a barn, complete with a resident cow underneath, but it did the trick!
Keeping with the grown up hippie theme, Dharamkot offers two very legit meditation centers at the top of the hill coming from McLoed. One of them, Tushita, holds donation based drop in guided meditations at 9:30 every every morning. They are extremely relaxing and take you on a litte journey but are also very popular. They quickly became part of my morning routine, but not before learning the tough lesson that arriving after 9:15 will not get you a cushion or a spot.
To make my mornings even more blissful, the Himalayan Tea Shop, another tiny, no frills chai shack, was right next to it. Wake up, chill with some chai and happy conversation and head to Tushita to meditate for an hour to start your day. Loved Dharamkot!
If you follow the road, it curls along the mountain side, passing guesthouses and restaurants. Most have Indian, Tibetan, Italian, and Hebrew specialties. Not sure why the Italian options where there, but the Hebrew was obvious – 90% of the people I met there were from Israel. Walk around and find the restaurant that best matches your vibe. Personally, I loved Sanjay’s Milky Way. Sanjay was always there to shake your hand on the way in like a pal, and it was never too busy. Like most joints in the area, there was also a “sit on cushioned floor low tabled area” to really unwind at the back of the restaurant. I liked it so much that there were times when I tried to check out something different, but as soon as I walked into another restaurant, I walked right back out and over to Sanjay’s. It’s either you feel it or you don’t.
Keep following that same road and it will dip in and out of the valley bordering Dharamkot and Bagsu, taking your into real hippieville.
Another shortened name, Bagsu is truly free and untamed, with all the love of Dharamkot, but very little of the organization. Which might be just what you’re looking for. There are no shops, meditations and yoga are done on roofs or unwalled rooms, guesthouses are plain, and restaurants come with a little more local character than anywhere else. Your food comes when it comes, but that’s ok because there is a guitar in the corner, a smooth trancy beat vibing through the room, and interesting conversations full of unique ideas to be shared.
There is a strong laissez faire atmosphere here, which is quite refreshing. There’s really not much more to say about it, which is exactly why you might want to check it out.
Activities Around Dharamsala
Get into jewlery
On the main road in Dharamkot, there are a couple of great jewelry stores with rather inexpensive stones and gems. They’re great to talk to and will answer any question about a stone’s significance, its planet, zodiac, element, chakra, etc, etc.
If you find something that speaks to you, they can work with you to design and stud it on a custom ring for you. It’s a great procedure as you can periodically come back to check its progress at each step of the way to make sure it’s exactly what you want. They even offer jewelry classes to teach you how to make your own.
After a bit of research, I found a yellow sapphire that I absolutely loved and explained to Jay, the owner, how I wanted it on the ring. He seemed to understand, but I was able to come and see it frequently as it was in progress to make sure nothing was lost in translation, and it came out great!
Go to the midday hangout
Halfway between Dharamkot and Bagsu is a large flat area, a hot commodity in these mountainous parts. Around 2pm each day, people come out with their juggling balls, hackey sacks, Frisbees, etc to enjoy the view, the air and the company! You should definitely join them!
There are so many opportunities to do so in the Tibetan communities. You’ll find most of them in Mcleod with fliers all over the city with instructions on what they need and where to go. Lha for instance, invites anyone with fluency in English to help teach it to monks. If you can’t make a regular commitment, you can also come in for drop in, one-hour simple conversation. They have a wide range of needs though so if you have any more specific skills, you can volunteer for things like computer teaching, fundraising, photography, or offer your time for tasks like plastic cleanup.
Yoga and Meditate
But you probably already knew that, which is why you wanted to come here in the first place. But there really is something for everyone, from beginners to advanced and from drop-ins to month long retreats or teacher trainings.
Most of them don’t advertise online though so the best way to find what you’re looking for is to walk around town and see the fliers or get some word of mouth. Anything you find online will also be more expensive.
Doing yoga in this mountainous environment is so relaxing, and a drop-in is always welcome and a great way to start your day or a great compliment to a guided meditation!
Hike to Triund
There are many places to hike around, but one that I definitely recommend you check out is Triund. The path leading up the mountain to it is marked on Google Maps so it’s easy to find. Be careful though because it will show two, one going by the Bagsu waterfall. Although the waterfall is definitely worth seeing, I’m not convinced the rest of the path actually exists so better take the one in the opposite way up the mountain.
The hike is about three hours, with regular breathtaking views of the city and valley below and surrounding mountains. You’ll see regular “mountain farm” animals, such as goats, cows and sheep, along with their owners and their little shacks.
You should definitely bring some snacks up with you as they get pretty expensive up there, but a nice cup of chai is worth the 10 extra rupees when it comes with such scenery!
Also, bring your passport, they sometimes check them on the way up. I think it’s a safety thing in case someone gets lost.
The top has a small hill station where you can rent tents if you plan on spending the night. There is a little restaurant up there so you can have dinner and breakfast when you wake up. Sleeping over is unfortunately not something I planned for, but the view was so beautiful I wish I had! Waking up to it must be wanderlustful!
Check out the Rock Temple
Ok, so this one isn’t really in Dharamsala, but close enough for a day trip, and totally worth it for the impressive monolithic – made from a single piece (a huge piece) of stone – Masroor Temple. The temple is stunning, inside and out, and the top offers some great views of the surrounding area! Unfortunately an earthquake took down one of its towers some time ago so there are some chunky boulders lying around, but they sort of add to its mystique!
Not only is the temple itself amazing, but so is the drive over. The roads are a little rough as it is a little off the beaten path, but it’s worth the scenery, and a great opportunity to see some of the surrounding villages as well as pick up some cheap local fruit! Try to time your return with the sunset, it’s a real treat!
Sunset rainforest motorbike
Posted by Liviu Chis on Saturday, October 15, 2016
You’ll pass mountains, forests and plains. At sunset, the sun dances through the trees and the peaks for a magical return!
Working around Dharamsala
Like all of India, this was tough, mainly because of poor connectivity. Like I said in my last post, your best bet for consistent, reliable wifi is getting a SIM card and tethering through your phone. It really is too bad though because there are so many comfy places to plug in for the day in all three towns. With such mesmerizing view, amazing cheap food and fresh chai, work stops feeling like work.
The one place I did find whose wifi I could rely on was at the very entrance to Dharamkot, called Morgan’s Place. The view is really great, but it’s missing the chill vibes of so many of the other joints. I went there only when I had to make sure my connection wouldn’t fail me.
Fall in Love with Dharamsala
In all my travels, I have yet to stay in one place as long as I stayed in Dharamsala’s area. Granted, this is one of the few places I came to with a purpose – to learn Reiki, so a longer stay was definitely needed, but not once did I feel like it was time to go. Here I am on my last day, almost two weeks after my arrival, finishing this post as I stare at the mountains in front of me studded with colorful houses, sipping on a honey lemon ginger tea and not a hint of desire to leave.