Jimmy’s Kitchen is probably the nicest restaurant in McLeodganj. It is clean, and framed posters of Hollywood films give the interiors a modern look. Enjoy its crisp pizzas, but don’t look out of its first floor windows. Outside, the Dalai Lama’s adopted Shangri-la lies in tatters. It is a miserable garbage dump, crowded by tourists from India and all over the world. The once serene mountainsides have been taken over by grotty guesthouses and piles of vehicles that drag in thousands of devout and peace-seekers through the narrow pathways where not so long ago monks walked.
The road from Dharamshala to McLeodganj is steep and called a khada danda by those who traverse the route that needs a wily driver to snail along the hills with deep gorges on one side.
Many years ago it was a pleasant though tiring walk to the Dalai Lama’s abode. Now it’s a huge traffic glut littered with broken liquor and beer bottles that lead to examples of Punjabiyat hanging in the form of tandoori chicken at the top of the hill.
Where the action is
But ask the youngsters living in Dharamshala and they are more than happy to tell you that it McLeodganj where the action is. There is food; there is booze and more. Unlike the headquarters of Himachal’s biggest district, Kangra, there is also life in Mcleodganj. People there remain awake longer than those living down in the valley.
“We often go there for a bite and some fun,” said a journalist colleague as we stood on the terrace of his house in Dharamshala. “That’s where the Dalai Lama lives,” he said, pointing to the lights high up in the mountains. It was about 8 pm and everything around his place was in darkness.
I presume I had expected something different in Mcleodganj than the crowds of fat uncles and aunties walking aimlessly on the two streets of the small hill town. Scrawny dogs wagged their tails and people hung around the bus stand, wondering whether to leave or stay longer.
We left — this time for a drive through the clouds.
Believe me, there are better places in that part of Himachal Pradesh than Mcleodganj. They may not attract the likes of Richard Gere, one of the Dalai Lama’s famous devotees, but at least they offer the peace and quiet one would expect in the mountains that would not be disturbed by cars and jeeps ferrying weekend holidaymakers from the plains.
I found peace in the circuit house in Dalhousie where clouds walked in silently into the room one summer morning. It’s not always that a brush of misty coldness wakes you up. I wanted to keep sleeping.
Dalhousie still retains a lot of its old world charm, though I doubt whether Subhash Chandra Bose, who spent several months there in 1937 recuperating from his stint in a British jail, would recognise the natural water spring from which he drank everyday during his walks in the hills.
Subhash Bowli is an ugly marble memorial to a great man built by the public works department. Any structure conjured by the PWD anywhere tells a sad tale of how good engineers and architects lost their imagination the day they joined the government. This one is no different.
The structure has stairs leading up to a covered platform where hangs a time scarred picture of Bose. The walls are blackened and scratched with the names of Mina, Tina, Rakesh and Sanju who chose to fall in love in the shadow of the rotting photograph. Bang in the middle is a small tank with turgid water that was probably left behind a few decades ago to ferment. I am not sure whether nationalistic Bengali tourists who visit the place in their puja holidays have ever complained. I did, loudly.
The only other eyesores in Dalhousie were the Subhash Chowk and the Lahasa Tibetan Market. Most of the stuff sold in this market is made in China, which made me wonder about those strident calls for Tibet’s independence. However, it’s not for me to judge.
There was more to see and enjoy during this holiday as I sat by the window back at the circuit house watching the sun, which slowly turned into a ball of fire and seemed to swim lazily above the clouds before disappearing behind the tree-clad mountains.
Next morning our sagely driver, Dinesh Arora, declined to take the way we wanted to get to Pathankot from where we were to catch our train back to chaos and clutter of Delhi.
“Sir, hum Jote se chalenge, Banikhet se nahin. Bahut scenic beauty hai,” he explained. From what I had seen of Dinesh, there was little room for argument. Our plans of taking a boat ride in the huge reservoir of Chamera I hydropower project lay by the wayside.
For three days Dinesh had driven us in his jeep through the sharp mountain bends, into the lush valleys and back to the Circuit House not far from Subhash Chowk where loud tourists descend every evening to eat ice cream and dump vast amounts of garbage.
The lifetime ride
On our last day in the mountains Dinesh promised us a ride of a lifetime as we shot up a steep road just outside Dalhousie for Jote, which sits at 2,500 meters. It was a long, tortuous drive that brought us to this little mountain pass with couple of teashops and a small hotel aptly named Hotel Hill Top. A smart, black dog stood by, as Dinesh told us how it was difficult to stand there when the wind blew.
“During winter the snow here is this high,” he said, putting his hand far above his not-very-large frame. The few people living there leave the place for four months a year, he added.
From Jote it is all the way down to the plains — a surreal and an eerie drive through the clouds that touched us. Words can’t describe this journey; I suggest you go there for a drive for the experience.