This is bliss,” I whispered to myself as I surveyed the verdant expanse, surrounded by mountains covered with rhododendron, and Himalayan cedar, pine and oak trees. Framed against a backdrop of rolling hills fading into the distance, a patch of terraced farmland added a spot of green to an already breathtaking landscape. I swallowed a mouthful of crisp mountain air and looked at the hiking trail ahead, curving along the bend of the mountain, disappearing behind it. A cool one-hour trek to a secret waterfall awaited us. I felt a sense of exhilaration pass over me as I stood on this mountain road at an elevation of 2,515m, after having walked the 2.5-km-long trail from the peaceful village of Dharamkot. This, of course, was only one of many magical moments on a trip through the charming towns and villages of the Kangra Valley.
Spread along a mountainside around 3km northeast of McLeodganj, the tiny village of Dharamkot is dotted with yoga and meditation centres, characterful cafés and cosy homestays. Despite an upward swing in commercial activity over the recent years, the small village retains much of its quaint charm, with neat terraced fields set against the majestic Dhauladhar Range, and walking trails winding through pine and cedar forests. The village is divided into a lower and an upper part—while the former bustles with tourist activity, the latter is still thickly wooded, perfect for those looking for a spot of calm. There is just one concrete road that loops through the village (and ends a few metres down from the popular Trek and Dine café), so the chances of getting lost around these parts are almost next to none, unless you stray off track into the woods. Dharamkot is largely a safe destination for independent women travellers. However, it is a good idea to exercise discretion while travelling around town and follow general guidelines to ensure a peaceful holiday.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Soon after our late breakfast of fluffy omelettes, fresh home-baked bread slathered with herbed cheese and cardamom chai, we decided to scamper down the short rocky trail to the village of Bhagsu Nag. The trail begins just beyond the rear gate of the homestay and winds down to Lower Bhagsu.
After passing herds of fuzzy mules along the trail and negotiating a rather challenging rocky section, we found ourselves in the market. The main street running through the village is flanked by souvenir shops and stalls, eateries and bakeries, inexpensive guesthouses, and Internet cafés. Pass the shops and head straight for the landmark Bhagsu Nag Temple. About half a kilometre from here, the road meanders to the walkway leading to the Bhagsu Nag Waterfall. The 20-m-high cascade plunges into a beautiful natural pool, which sees throngs of holidaymakers in season. If you find yourself craving adventure, hike the short but gruelling trail to the upper section of the falls to take in panoramic vistas. Or you could choose the narrow path downstream, off the walkway, to spend time in solitude by the riverside.
Tip The waterfall is best visited after the rainy season, when it is at its glorious best.
While in Lower Bhagsu, be sure to tuck into the famous Bhagsu Cake, a decadent dessert made up of thick layers of chocolate and caramel sitting on a crunchy biscuit base. You’ll find it neatly laid out in trays at most grocery stores. However, Singh’s Corner is the best place to try it, since it is here that the recipe is said to have originated.
For a change of pace after clambering up and down rocky mountain trails, hit the streets of McLeodganj to explore the town’s colourful market. A walk around this bustling area will take you past kitschy curio places, roadside kiosks selling junk jewellery, quintessential Himalayan organic shops, and swanky stores selling Tibetan art and handicrafts. The vibrant café scene here is worth exploring, with stopovers recommended at Tibet Kitchen for succulent mutton momos; Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen where the juicy roast-chicken pizza had us drooling; and The Chocolate Log for gooey chocolate cake and ginger wine. If you’re looking for a meal with a view, make your way down to Café Illiterati—a not-so-quiet book café looking out over the beautiful valley where you can unwind over coffee and sandwiches.
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Caution: Boisterous crowds are a common sight around these parts, especially in the evening. It is not advisable for solo women travellers to walk around the market area at night.
Hike to Gallu Devi Temple
The jaunt to bustling Lower Bhagsu left us with a yearning to see nature in all her pristine glory. And this inspired us to test our nerves over a more difficult hike to one of the scenic spots beyond Upper Dharamkot. One sunny morning, after much discussion, we set out on the 2.5-km-long trail to Gallu Devi Temple, which sits on a hill north of Dharamkot. The temple also serves as a starting point for the trek to Triund that lies around 6km from this place. However, if you’re not up for this wildly popular trek, you can choose from a multitude of easy to moderately difficult trails to soak up the natural splendour of this region. The hike to Gallu Devi is relatively easy to navigate.
Tip Wear good hiking shoes and carry water.
After making our way up the steep road from Lower Dharamkot to Upper Dharamkot, we strolled into the Himalayan Tea Shop, right next to the Tushita Meditation Centre. From here, the road trifurcates into a path snaking down to Lower Dharamkot; a motorable road to Gallu Devi Temple; as well as a precipitous pedestrian-only path to the temple. Ditch the pedestrian path, and walk the motorable road, which is longer but easier to traverse. The road is a hiker’s delight, with a path weaving through a lush pine forest, intermittently giving way to unbeatable mountain and valley views. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Dharamsala Cricket Stadium along the trail! A visual treat of mountains covered in luxuriant vegetation, dramatically soaring above a grassy ridge, awaits you at Gallu Devi. The low-key Rest-A-While Café, next to the temple, is indeed a good place to rest awhile before setting off on your next escapade.
Waterfall Café Trek
I’d vaguely heard of the trek to the ‘No Name Waterfall’ while doing my travel research back home. Hidden from trekkers milling about in this region, this little-known waterfall creates a crystal-clear pool of aquamarine water. A 2.5-km-long trek, beginning 20 metres from the Rest-A-While Café, leads to the falls. A delicious bowl of Maggi later, we were off on the Waterfall Café Trek—as it is otherwise known around this area.
Caution Before embarking on this trek, seek local advice on how to spot stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), or bichhoo booti, which causes a burning sensation when touched.
As we made our way past guesthouses, and the Sunset Café—a tea shack offering tasty nibbles, chai and chess—we were joined by the café owner’s pet German Shepherd that had seemingly taken it upon itself to act as our guide. The narrow trail is an exciting scramble, with gradual ascents and descents around rocky areas, giving way to exposed sections and rockslides, where you’ll need to be especially careful.
A few minutes into the trek and I noticed all signs of civilisation had disappeared: no bird calls, no network connectivity. The only sound was that of the wind rustling through the trees. Quirky messages painted on rocks along the trail ensure you don’t lose your way or the motivation to complete the trek. However, our adventure came to an abrupt end halfway through, when we got caught in a hailstorm. The trail is particularly treacherous after rain, with the leaf-covered ground and rocks becoming rather slippery. As we scurried back down, I promised myself I’d return to finish the trek to this “secret” waterfall.
A holiday in the hills need not always be about aching feet and jellied legs. Weary from my travels around the Himalayan countryside, I decided to switch gears and dabble in wood painting at Norbulingka Institute. Tucked away in Sidhpur—14.5km southeast of Dharamkot—Norbulingka is dedicated to preserving traditional Tibetan arts and crafts. A beautifully painted gateway leads into its verdant grounds with a network of streams and cascades—which did act as a balm for my frenzied nerves from the day before. Master artisans practise centuries-old art forms, such as Thangka painting, wood carving, wood painting and appliqué, at the workshops here, where you can learn any of these techniques.
The artisans at Norbulingka follow the traditional Tibetan style of relief painting called kyumbur, which gives a three-dimensional look to a design on an otherwise flat surface. However, the craft requires an immensely steady hand to trace the design on wood, using a syringe filled with a stiff mix of paint and carpenter’s glue. While I waited for the relief to dry, I ambled around the complex, which is also home to the fascinating Losel Doll Museum (Entry: free; Timings: 9.00am–5.30pm), with a collection of over 150 dolls, and a Buddhist temple that enshrines a 14-ft-high gilded Buddha statue. Norbulingka’s flagship store, right opposite the museum, stocks a variety of attractive but steeply priced shawls, bags, lamps and decorative items, all created in the workshops. Don’t miss the cheesy grilled vegetable sandwiches and the mud cake at the institute’s Norling Café!
Back at the workshop, it was time to fill the dried relief with colour. After spending the rest of the afternoon trying to perfect my brush strokes, I was left with a fleeting sense of celebration over having learnt a new skill and my finished amateur piece to attest to that!
In keeping with my relaxed pace of travel, I decided to swing by Peepal Farm (Timings: Saturday to Thursday 9.30am–12.00pm in Dhanotu Village. A stray animal recovery centre-cum-organic farm, this haven lies 20km southwest of Dharamkot. Founded in 2014 by animal lovers Robin Sharma, Joellen Anderson and Shivani Bhalla, the farm takes in all kinds of sick as well as injured animals and nurses them back to health. Joellen took me on an interesting tour of the property, which included the recovery centre for dogs and cattle; the small organic farm planted with herbs, legumes and vegetables; the farm shed where they produce eco-friendly cow dung pots; and finally the kitchen area. At the latter, we were joined by Shivani with whom I exchanged stories about the highs and lows of leaving Delhi for a farm life in the mountains. The organic store here stocks up on vegan goodies, ranging from peanut butter, chocolate spread, chai masala, crisps as well as herbs and spices. The farm employs women from the local community, thereby giving them a source of income. However, the star attraction of my visit here was the time spent playing with the dogs, all under the watchful eyes of Joellen. Peepal Farm offers volunteer programmes and even opportunities for culture jams and events.
British national Jodie Underhill came to India on a holiday in 2008. While volunteering at the Tibetan Children's Village in Dharamsala, she was disappointed to see the lack of waste management in the Himalayas. She returned to India in 2009 and subsequently launched Waste Warriors in 2012, a community-driven initiative to collect and manage garbage in the Himalayas. The project has presence in Dharamsala, Dehradun as well as Corbett NP, and has also lately been conducting clean-up drives in Delhi. Jodie was the recipient of the Service Above Self Award by Rotary International in 2015 for her exemplary efforts.
A vacation of many firsts, my travels in Dharamkot and around opened a pandora’s box of experiences, most of which were memorable. The picturesque village can be best described as ‘nature’s playground’ where there is something for everyone in your girl gang. Be it discovering the great outdoors, de-stressing over art therapy, gorging on delicious Tibetan fare, cuddling friendly dogs, this slice of Himalayan country has all the ingredients to make your girl power-packed adventure the best ever.
WHERE TO STAY
Dharamkot is a serene little town, away from the hustle and bustle of McLeodganj. Guesthouses, motels and homestays can be found aplenty here. Hotel Cloud Chat is perhaps the only ‘luxury’ hotel here. They have 14 well-equipped rooms with balconies, offering lovely views of the hills. Their in-house restaurant provides Indian and Chinese fare. Trimurti Garden Guest House is a clean, comfortable homestay in Dharamkot. All rooms offer magnificent views. Their Garden Café serves delicious homemade vegetarian food from the family kitchen. The cakes here are the best in the area.
Dev Cottage (Cell: 09459901869, 09816487080; Tariff: Rs.2,500–5,000) on Dharamkot Road offers cottage-style accommodation in the midst of a deodar forest. Dharamkot Inn in the main market has 19 rooms and a multi-cuisine restaurant. Flourishing Flora opposite TIPA Gate and Kamal Guest House are budget-friendly options.Opposite Hina Café in Dharamkot is Zostel, a great place for backpackers, with a café and Internet services.
For fancier options, McLeodganj has many hotels to suit all budgets. Fortune Park Moksha is a luxury stay with all modcons. Set in a garden, the beautiful Chonor Houseis located near the Dalai Lama Temple. Its rooms are rich with Tibetan murals. The restaurant is excellent. Glenmoor Cottages are set in beautiful deodar and oak forests, with impressive views of the Dhauladhars. HPTDC has several hotels in town, of which The Club House and Hotel Bhagsu are decent options.
WHERE TO EAT
Everyone has their favourite German Bakery or pizza joint in McLeodganj, but the more adventurous prefer heading to Dharamkot for its fragrant wood-fire-oven pizzeria offerings. Morgan’s Place and Moonlight Café are quite popular here. Trek and Dine has good ambience and variety. It is popular for its shakes and juices. Cool Talk Café has the most amazing coffee and vegetarian options. Om Cafe has good food and live music at night.
In McLeodganj, try Mcllo, a restaurant that overlooks the Main Chowk. For an excellent Continental breakfast, you could pop into Moon Peak on Temple Road. Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen on Jogibara Road is worth it for the food and music. However, if it’s Korean you crave, head for Dokkaebi that is located nearby. The small, clean Gakyi Café offers well-cooked Tibetan favourites at good prices. Other popular joints in the town include Namgyal Café, Chocolate Log Café, Nick’s Italian Kitchen and Snow Lion.
- Avoid walking the trail to Lower Bhagsu from Dharamkot after dark, as the path gets lonely by late evening and has stony sections.
- The Waterfall Café Trek is relatively treacherous, and is best done in a small group, irrespective of weather conditions.
Other Places To See
- Naddi Village
- Kareri Lake
When to go Spring and summer. The Dhauladhars are at their snow-clad best in spring
Nearest airport: Gaggal Airport (25km/45mins) is served by Air India from Delhi. Hire a cab to town for Rs600–1,000 approx.
Nearest railhead: Chakki Bank (100km/3.5hrs), near Pathankot, is connected to Delhi by the Jammu Express and Jammu Mail, and to Kolkata by the Jammu Tawi Express. The Swaraj Express links Mumbai to Chakki four days a week. Hire a cab (Rs2,500 approx) to McLeodganj.
Follow NH44 to Mehmadpur, then take NH205, NH3 and MDR46 to NH503 in Dharamsala Bus HSRTC Volvo services (Rs1,300 approx) to Dharamsala from Delhi’s ISBT Kashmere Gate.
A 15-minute drive from the bus station at McLeodganj led us down to Gandhi Paradise Hotel—in Lower Dharamkot—from where it was a short uphill walk to Trimurti Garden, which was to be our home-away-from-home for the next couple of days. A white and yellow edifice hidden behind a network of dense trees, this café-cum-guesthouse is run by an Indo-German couple: Ashoka and Mira. The friendly barks of the bumbling resident Labradors, Coco and Moti, welcomed us to the homestay, which is fronted by a well-manicured garden. Soon I was exploring the walkways crisscrossing the grounds, leading to secluded corners amidst boulders and shady trees—ideal for catching up on some reading and freewheeling conversations. The lovely views from the balcony of my simple but spacious room at once inspired the adventurer in me to put on my backpack and wander around the mountain village. But not before wolfing down a hearty breakfast on the sunlit verandah overlooking the garden.
Tip Ask for a room (with an attached bathroom) on one of the upper floors for the best views.