"Close to Heaven"
INFORMATION McLeodGanj and Dharamsala|Travel and community Guide Dharamshala
Dharamsala, McleodGanj Brief Introduction
In addition to spectacular Himalayan trekking in the Dhauladhar Range, travelers have easy access to temples, monasteries, schools and libraries, as well as occasions to study Tibetan Buddhism, attend services at the Dalai Lama’s temple, see performances at the Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts, teach English to monks, volunteer with women and schoolchildren and even take a meditation or Tibetan cooking class!
But just strolling the streets of this walkable village is an experience itself. Industrious Tibetan vendors set up their stalls along the narrow roads each morning, selling everything from antiques and apples to prayer beads and handmade paper books created by children at the Tibetan Children’s Village. Tibetan women in their colorful aprons walk through the chorten in the center of town, turning the prayer wheels. People stop each other on the road and conversations flow easily. It’s not uncommon to be invited home for tea or supper by a Tibetan friend you just met.
Numerous guesthouses, small hotels and monasteries offer inexpensive accommodations, and the many local restaurants, featuring delicious Tibetan specialties, are cheap and clean. In the evenings, two video parlors show the latest releases or films on Tibetan history and culture, and the bustling "Western" restaurant above the bus station serves cold beer, which tastes great after a long day of hiking in the mountains--or meditation.
Many travelers find themselves enchanted with McLeod Ganj and stay for a long time. In fact, there is a good-sized community of Westerners---especially Israelis-- who have come to learn and study and stay. Some have set up cybercafes, restaurants and bookstores, others work alongside the Tibetans as volunteers and teachers.
But it’s also possible to visit Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj for a just few days en route to other locations in Northern India. Buses arrive and depart daily from Dehli and other destinations. Dharamsala is also a good base for exploring the Himalayan region and local trekking companies will arrange excursions to the rugged regions of Manali, Kullu, Spiti, Ladakh and Kashmir.
But no matter how long you stay, you will come away having experienced Tibetan culture close-up. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Attractions Dharamsala, McleodGanj
The attractions of McLeod Ganj center around Tibetan religious and cultural monuments and institutions, of which there are many.
The temple complex is always busy. Services are held daily and are attended by lamas, monks, nuns and lay people. Visitors are welcome to observe, but remember to remove your shoes and walk clockwise around the temple and past the chorten (prayer wheels) before sitting down.
In the shrine, you might come across a group of monks building an intricate sand mandala, and outside on Thursdays, groups of monks are scattered around the grounds practicing their debating techniques–an entertaining and thought-provoking ritual worth catching.
Around the temple complex there is a long meditation trail with small shrines, stupas and a massive chorten. The shrines near the chorten are always covered in thousands of prayer flags placed by pilgrims to the Dalai Lama’s home, which stands above and behind it.
There is also a small café on the temple grounds and a guesthouse, which is convenient if you plan to spend a lot of time there.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
An impressively ornate building, the Library houses the literary treasures of Tibet and has an ongoing exhibition on Tibetan history. While only scholars may access the library’s closed shelves, regular visitors are welcome to visit the open stacks with reference books, take classes (see Alternatives, below) and ask questions of the helpful staff.
The Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts (TIPA)
Dip Tse-Chok Ling Gompa
The Tibetan Children’s Village
The children–over 3,000 of them–are housed in numerous dormitories and small apartment complexes near Dal Lake. They attend classes in Tibetan language, literature, history, science, math, English and the performing and visual arts. Visitors are welcome to observe classes and long-term volunteers are sometimes accepted to help with the many needs of the children.
Stitches of Tibet
Plan to spend a whole day here, watching the craftsmen at work in the thangka studios, woodworking and sewing workshops. The temple complex is stunning, with portraits of all the Dalai Lama’s lining the upper story. One building also has a photographic exhibition on the creation of the Institute and talks about how it was built using traditional techniques.
But the real highlight is the Losel Doll Museum, an exhibition of intricately detailed, beautiful dolls depicting the costumes and activities of the people in each of the regions of Tibet. There are also dioramas of religious events, festivals and daily life. Replicas of the dolls are for sale, along with crafts produced at the Institute.
Norbulingka also has a restaurant and a guesthouse on the grounds, and, if you happen to find someone who will show you, an apartment that is one of the Dalai Lama’s residences.
St. John’s Church in the Wilderness
Activities in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
There are enough activities in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj to keep you busy for a long time. Besides meditation classes, Buddhist philosophy classes and volunteer work, the village’s location in the Kangra Valley, surrounded by pine, Himalayan oak, rhododendron and deodar forests, and near the Himalayan trekking regions makes it a good base for hiking and trekking.
Hiking and Trekking in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
Easy day-hikes or overnights abound in the area and most begin in the village of Dharamkot, a short walk from the center of McLeod Ganj. No guides are required for the small hikes, which, though strenuous due to altitude, are all on well-marked paths. One short hike will take you to Bhagsu–a popular local site with waterfall, Bhagsunag Falls. Near the waterfall, there are retreat caves, frequented by monks. Take care not to disturb them in their meditations.
A longer, more strenuous hike (about 3 miles one-way) begins at the Mountaineering Center and will take you up into the mountains to Triund, where the views of the Dhauladhar peaks are amazing. You will probably pass monks and villagers on the path, which is as much a thoroughfare as a trekking route. There is a small café near Triund and a resthouse for camping. Triund is also the beginning for longer treks.
The bridle path from McLeod Ganj to Dharamsala is also a good, if long, walk, and you will probably pass many villagers who use the route to get from Dharamsala to the Dalai Lama’s temple for services.
The hike to Dal Lake takes only about an hour through the Tibetan Children’s Village, The location is nice
Longer treks to the Chamba Valley, Kullu, Spiti, and Ladakh can be arranged in McLeod Ganj. Stop into one of the many trekking and tour companies located in town.
Nightlife in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
Short of hanging out at the Mcllo Restaurant , khana nirvana ,Xcite Restaurant, carpe diem or taking an evening stroll, there isn’t much in terms of nightlife. There are video parlors near the center of town that show two films nightly on generator-powered VCRs and large screen TVs. Admission is cheap and, if you’ve been on the road for awhile, it’s a good opportunity to catch a new release film you may have missed. Films about Tibet are also shown. The schedules are posted out front each day and it’s important to arrive early for tickets, as the "theatres" are small and usually sell out.
Sometimes other restaurants and cafes have entertainment–music, poetry or other café-like things. Check the bulletin boards around town for what’s happening.
Volunteering in Dharamsala, McleodGanj | Volunteer Opportunities
There are many, many opportunities for alternative experiences in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj–some formal, many informal. If you plan to volunteer or study for a longer period of time, it makes sense to contact the agencies and organizations ahead of time. Otherwise, you can just show up, see what’s available and sign on.
More formal arrangements can be made through individual monasteries or nunneries and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Inquire about longer-term positions teaching English to newly arrived refugees.
Library of Tibetan Works and Archives
Other Volunteer Opportunities
Tibetan Children’s Village
The Dharamsala Earthville Institute (DEVI)
Learning in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
Again, there are both formal and informal learning opportunities around the area. There are often weeklong meditation courses, cooking, Reiki and massage classes advertised on the bulletin boards in town. Most of these are inexpensive and fun, as well as educational.
Check the Sivan-Ekant Guest House for daily yoga and meditation classes, and the Khana Nirvana Community Café and DEVI for classes in Tibetan Language.
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives offers courses in Buddhist philosophy, conducted by a lama and translated into English. The courses are offered on weekday mornings and cost 100Rs/month. But you can also attend one for free. More advanced classes are also held for longer-term students.
TIPA also offers courses in the Tibetan performing arts, but these must be arranged independently and require a longer-term commitment.
The Tushita Meditation Centre and the Dhamma Sikhara Vipassna Meditation Center offer daily or long-term courses in meditation and philosophy. The Vipassna center has a specific schedule of courses, so it is best to make arrangements ahead of time. The Tushita Center has a daily Basic Buddhism class open to the public and the others are reserved for those who are staying at the center.
Dhamma Sikhara Vipassna Meditation Center
Tushita Meditation Centre
Touring in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
All the major sites in and around Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj can be easily reached by walking or a short taxi ride, and all are accessible to the independent traveler. Thus, there is no need for a tour. However, you might want to enlist a resident or monk to explain things to you–most are more than willing to tell you about their village and culture.
For trekking excursions outside of the immediate region, check out the small, local tour and trekking operators along the three main roads of the village. All excursions will provide the necessary equipment and guides. The clear favorites and most reputable are:
Himalaya Tour and Travels :Buddhist Circuit Tours , Air Tickets and Rentals.Bhagsu Road. 220714/221236
Himalayan Explorers : Trek Agency for Dhauladhar Mountains.Jogibara Road. +91-9318814348
Eagles Height Trekkers
For maps to nearby treks, hikes and basic camping equipment rentals, visit The Regional Mountaineering Center in Dharamkhot.
Hotels, Guest Houses, Lodges, Accomodation Dharamsala, McleodGanj
Times there are shortage of rooms in McLeod Ganj. From hotels to monasteries, most rooms are cheap and rarely full.
The Green Hotel
Om Guest House
Drepung Loesling Guest House
Chonor House Hotel
There are also a few deluxe upscale places, rather like Indian Hiltons. The Surya is near the Dalai Lama’s complex and has standard deluxe rooms for about $50-$75 USD per night.
Dip Tse-Chok Ling Gompa
Zilnon Kagyeling Nyingmapa Gompa
Homestays can sometimes be arranged through the Dharamsala Earthville Institute (DEVI) located at the Khana Nirvana Community Café.
There are also a few new hotels, rooms and apartments for rent in Dharamkot and Bhagsu. Inquire at the cafes and shops in the village and look for signs on the bulletin boards in McLeod Ganj.
Eats | Food in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
You’ll never go hungry in McLeod Ganj. A large number of small restaurants around the village offer cheap and filling Tibetan meals, including Momos(stuffed, steamed or fried dumplings) and Thukpa (a thick Tibetan noodle soup) and a Tibetan Lo Mein.
Local favorites are the Gayki, the Snow Lion and the Bakhto. Israeli cuisine is popular at the Ashoka and there’s always a line for the few tables at the Shambala. The best place for Western food and a cold beer is the Mcllo Restaurant above the bus stand and Xcite Restaurant. Noisy and crowded, it’s also popular meeting spot and party-place for the folks who’ve had just about enough quiet meditation.
Another favorite travelers’ hangout is the Green Hotel Restaurant. Ample portions of freshly made Tibetan food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly Nepali staff, make it a good place to meet and eat.
Shopping in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
The Tibetan Government-sponsored shops located along the main roads and at certain attractions offer high-quality merchandise--clothing, books, silver and rugs--at reasonable prices, and the money goes to support community projects. The Stitches of Tibet shop will custom make a chuba for you from your own fabric.
Kashmiri carpet shops offer rugs and textiles and other Kashmiri crafts. Be wary, however, of the high prices (always bargain) and the quality of "silk rugs." Don’t fall for the "it’s an investment" line.
The best shopping is found along the roads of McLeod Ganj, which are filled daily with local vendors selling everything from silver jewelry (most of it made in Nepal or Bali–make sure you buy "925" silver or above) priced by weight to prayer beads and wheels, warm woolen shawls, antique coins and handmade paper and journals. Prices are more reasonable than in other parts of the country and many of the goods are of very high quality.
There are also many English-language bookstores in town, so you stock up on the latest novel, travel guide, Tibetan history or Buddhist philosophy books.
Major celebrations include The Himalayan Festival in December; Losar, the Tibetan New Year, held in February, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, which usually offers a more festive spectacle. In between these two events, smaller holidays and events of a religious nature are celebrated in the monasteries and temples.
Weather in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
The best times for travel to Dharamsala and McLeodGanj are March through June and October —November. Winter is not miserable, but as you will be doing a lot of walking, it is important to bring good winter boots and warms clothes. Monsoon season begins in July, and while it’s rainy and humid, it’s still not a bad time to be there. Just be prepared to get wet–really wet.
Getting There and Around Dharamsala, McleodGanj
Local buses are cheaper, but for long journeys like these, it pays to take the deluxe. Tickets for deluxe buses can be purchased through the HRTC office at the bus stand. Several travel agencies in town also run deluxe buses. Check with Potala Tours and Travels or Himalchal Travels.
It’s very easy to walk around McLeod Ganj, so you will not need much in the way of transportation. However, auto rickshaws and taxis are available near the bus stand for trips to Dharamsala, Dharamkot, Gangchen Kyishong and the Norbulingka Institute.
Visa and Other Document | Dharamsala, McleodGanj
Indian visas are valid for one month or six months and must be obtained prior to entry into the country. Contact the Indian Embassy or consulate to apply.
If you are planning on a long-term stay, get a six-month visa, which can sometimes be extended by leaving the country (to Nepal, for example) and then returning. Even if you plan to work or vounteer, it is best to apply for a regular tourist visa, as educational visas are very difficult and time-consuming to obtain.
No special permits are needed to visit Dharamsala or McLeod Ganj. For trekking in other nearby regions (especially regions of Ladakh, Kullu and Spiti) apply for permits from your trekking outfitter or from state agencies.
Heath and Safety in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
McLeod Ganj is located at about 10,000 feet, so the possibility of a little altitude wooziness is possible. Travelers should purchase bottled water, and be wary of fresh fruits and vegetables that have not been peeled.
Traditional Tibetan Medicine: Tibetan physician, Dr Yeshi Dhonden,(01892-21461),Jogibara Road(8 am to noon). He has treated the Dalai Lama and people have recommended him to me to be effective.
If you do get sick, the Tibetan Delek Hospital in McLeod Ganj at Gangchen Kyishong uses Western medicine and volunteer doctors (and service is free). There are also local acupuncturists and traditional herbal doctors, should you be willing to try them. Best to bring a fully-equipped first aid kit (and some extra supplies to donate to the Tibetan Women’s Association or TCV).
The village is very safe. You will find few of the hustlers and touts common in the rest of the country. Female travelers will also find no of harassment from men a refreshing change. Still, watch your valuables and keep your passport with you at all times.
The Indian Rupee is the currency, and the current exchange rate is approximately 45 Rs = $1 USD. There are several places to change money–the State Bank of India on Jogibara Road and a few storefront exchange offices--and Mastercard and Visa are accepted at the upscale hotels and shops.
Communications and Cyber Cafes in Dharamsala, McleodGanj
For a small village, you will discover that McLeod Ganj is well-connected to the outside world. There are several public phone booths and cybercafes, where you might find yourself seated beside a monk who’s checking out the latest news on CNN.
The Green Cybercafe next door to the Green Hotel is the largest, but is often full.
The Khana Nirvana Community Café also has a few computers and is a great place to have some food and check your email.
There also several other cybercafes in town, including one at the Chonor House Hotel and the Tibetan Youth Congress offices.
The post office is located on Jogibara Road.
The telephone area code for McLeod Ganj is 91-1892
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