To Norbulingka: It was our third and last day. Done with a relaxed breakfast at Llamo’s once again, we hired a taxi for the day. Our destination was Dharamshala’s Norbulingka complex. The complex has a monastery, a doll museum, paintings and a tiny café. There are also monks in residence.
The monastery is colorful and picture perfect. More than that, it was peaceful. The Doll Museum is interesting; depicting Tibetan life and culture; a procession, a marriage, King’s ceremony, a domestic scene around a home. Each depiction is in a glass case with an explanation. Next to this is a large room with beautiful Buddhist paintings- the Thangka.
Finally, a prayer hall where we met a cute girl with her mother. This child aged about two was intent on catching the tail of the monastery’s pet dog. Before leaving though, we did enjoy some honey lemon ginger tea under the colorful prayer flags.
Near to the institute, is the Chamunda Devi Temple. We drove to it and paid respects. There is also a small stream running through the temple filled with devotees.
Soon it was time to back to the bus stop- to catch the dreaded Volvo to Delhi. On the bus stop we met Rahul and Deepti, who were incidentally on the bus on our way to McLeodganj. We chatted and exchanged numbers. Six months down the line we went to Leh together- a fantastic trip it was. All in all, we had a great trip; we relaxed, saw a wonderful place, and unexpectedly climbed a snow capped peak. Travel can gift you so much if you accept with an open mind. Even friends!
Impromptu trek to snow at Triund: The next morning Shambhu told us it had snowed in Triund. Wow! Wish Sanjay had asked for something more! We decided then we just had to trek up to Triund no matter what. We packed a bag with some food, water, torch and clothed ourselves in layers.
But first, we needed to have a good breakfast for the climb. So we headed to town to Llamo’s Croissants. Another cheery place; it has two tiny levels with a balcony. You eat your breakfast on low mattresses and tables. Grab a book and dig into bowls of muesli with curd (sour if I may say so); carrot cakes; hot croissants, chocolate donuts and eggs with fresh juice or tea/coffee. The breakfast is delicious and you can watch all sorts of people.
Triund is about 24 km from McLeodganj. Since we had one day, we were going to cover half the distance by car. The road is narrow and bumpy. A local taxi dropped us at the midpoint where there is a temple and a tiny tea shop. Only trails from here and we began our climb waved off by a local couple. It was 11 in the morning and we were running late. We had about 7 hours at the max. To go up and be back before sunset-after which the temperature drops considerably and the paths and stones become unsafe due zero lighting.
The first half an hour went quickly; but I began to feel my breath puff as we climbed higher. For some time I slowed my pace and then learnt to perch my feet on stone edges and breathe in tune to the climb. Another hour gone by; and it began to drizzle. We saw a tea stall in a distance; there are precisely 2 (next to each other) on this entire route. Our pace quickened and we took shelter under plastic sheet roof. We met a group of 3 friends (a Canadian, American, and German) and shared tea, cookies and conversation. Once the rain slowed we were off again. The trek up is scenic with rich green trees and bright red and pink flowers. The city is below you in a distance and there are stretches where you see no one but yourself.
I was tiring at around 2 and thinking of going back down. Sanjay, however, insisted that we could do this and we must! He pointed out to the snow nearby and then said: “it is just an hour and a half more, and I promise we will have maggi at Triund”. How does one refuse an offer like that? So with a deep breath we set off; I admit was nervous that most people at this point were coming down.
The climb became tougher as we had to climb over rocks versus walking on stone filled trails. The snow made it a slippery and slow climb. Digging shoe heels and fingers in the snow, we finally reached up at about half past 3. And what an achievement it felt like! Triund was almost a snow field. No civilization except a tiny Daak-house and a tea stall. Someone had made a statue and a snowman. We sat and enjoyed our maggi and tea with the snow people. Soon it was time to head back. The tea stall owner told us we must head down fast and wished us luck.
Down we went; this being tougher than we had anticipated. We were tired from our climb and the pressure to be back down before sunset was constantly on our mind. We prayed for no rain and continued our descent. Luck was on our side, and the clouds cleared for some sun. Having a stick can help considerably as you put less pressure on your knees. We climbed and walked the same trail- seemingly longer. No stop for tea this time. It took us almost 4 hours to reach the point where we had started off- a little longer than our climb up. Thankfully, the taxi driver was waiting and we heaped into it.
It was pretty dark by now but we decided to head to town and not Udeechee for dinner. What don’t we do for good food joints, I tell you! We dragged our almost collapsing legs to Carpe Diem – a place which serves all kinds of yummy food. Carpe Diem means “seize the day”; it is from a famous Latin poem and also the slogan of a group of Middle Ages Knights. How cool is that? Sanjay opted for a Tibetan version of Pad Thai and I think I ate hummus and pita bread. The food was great and we very hungry. Between that, though, I did notice that the place has interesting décor and people. All tables have glass tops under which people have left some mementoes like pictures, comments on tissue paper, a map!
Done with dinner we took an auto back to Udeechee and crashed into bed after a hot shower. Shambhu kindly gave us 2 hot water bags. We slept with those plus our own electric heating pad tucked under legs and backs!
Off we go: Sanjay and I finally had a long weekend all to ourselves and we were going to make the most of it! So we booked our tickets on the Volvo to McLeodganj- a place on our travel radar since some time. It is about 20km up the mountains from Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh and primarily a Tibetan settlement; filled with monks and foreign students/tourists.
Back to our trip. The Volvo ride was pretty uncomfortable to say the least. The seats are not what one would expect and they played the same movie (Vivah) thrice till it stopped each time at the same point after the hero and heroine go for a picnic during courtship! But once we got off at McLeodganj, we knew the trip was going to worth every song we endured.
We were picked up by the hotel car- we were staying at Udeechee Huts in Naddi, an isolated village, about 20km higher up from McLeodganj. Round and round we went till we reached Udeeche Huts- settled on a mountain top with not much on either side. Our hut room was of OK size and clean. The best part was that we had unobstructed views of the Dhauladhar range. Time seems to stand still at such places. Where happiness means looking at snow capped mountains, grazing horses and rosy cheeked children walking to school. And hot chai certainly adds to the charm!
It was just 8 in the morning and we had the whole day to ourselves. We headed down to McLeodganj-walking down the turning roads and then a short cut through the local school and woods.
Exploring McLeodganj: The best part about the town is that it is walk able. There are two main streets running parallel and a few lanes behind. All you have to do is walk and observe. It is a quaint place filled with character. We headed first to the Tsuglag Khang, the Dalai Lama's temple complex at one end. A simple building, it houses statues and paintings of Buddha. So I went in and chanted the Buddhist prayer I learnt from a friend “nam myoho renge kyo” (indicative meaning being “to devote oneself”). Then I went and turned the prayer wheels, something I always do in a Buddhist temple as I find it reassuring for some reason.
It was almost noon and time for lunch. Mcleodganj is a foodie’s paradise. But what you need to do is explore, explore, explore! We headed off to Jimmy’s Caféserving mostly Italian food and sandwiches. It is a cheery looking place with old movie posters and shelves lined with books. I picked up one titled “Tales from Tibet” while Sanjay chose his ever favorite Tin Tin. My vegetarian pizza was thin crust and delicious; Sanjay’s chicken sandwich looked wonderful even to me! We read some more and enjoyed ice teas till the sun came down a bit.
We went again strolling down the streets, first to the prayer wheels at the center. These are red and blue and green versus the plain gold in the temple. They line four walls and off I went to turn them round and round.
The streets are filled with cafes, curios and stalls. You can look around for a long time. There are colorful caps, gloves, scarves, bags, Buddhist key-chains, wheels, singing bowls and stone jewellery. But most of the stuff is expensive. This is because of the large number of foreigners in residence plus the tourist inflow which increases substantially every year. So, we window shopped on the streets and walked till we reached the town’s end- which came pretty soon.
We walked a bit further out of town towards the St. John’s church (constructed in 1852) and the memorial of Lord Elgin, the British Viceroy of India (1862-63) who died while on a tour to McLeodganj. You need to walk down and then take a left. The area befits a black and white Hindi horror movie. Spooky with not a soul in sight; the church stood with its shutters closed with chains. One side were some graves, which we quickly crossed and right behind the memorial. Out of the blue we heard a loud voice from inside the church (this is serious stuff and the absolute truth) and we fled! We slowed our pace once on the main road and then caught an auto (tuk-tuk) up to Naddi.
We were just in time before it started to drizzle and then pour. Sanjay asked Shabhu (the caretaker) if there would be any snowfall and he said there had been none in summer in the last 2 years. It continued to rain and we slept to the sound of raindrops splattering on our roof.
After much controversy, Häagen-Dazs, the premium brand of ice cream and yogurts finally landed in India. There is a chic café outlet at the Select City mall in Saket, Delhi. However, we decided to pick up tubs of Haagen-Dazs and London Dairy to do some serious evaluation.
So what is the score? Our choice of flavors were Belgian Chocolate (Haagen-Dazs) and Tiramisu (London Dairy). They both come impressively packaged in good looking tubs, sealed twice with sturdy spoons. A spoonful of the still-frozen ice-cream from both tubs did not taste exceptional. However, the taste changes satisfactorily after you let them be for a few minutes.
Haagen-Dazs is no doubt the creamiest ice-cream I have ever tasted. The flavor is rich and there are fine shaves of chocolate which you just about taste versus the chunks you usually bite into most ice-creams. We let the ice-cream melt completely and it gives us a super-thick and super tasty chocolate milkshake
London Dairy does no justice to tiramisu. It is a bit of vanilla with coffee and chocolate flavors. Not much to write home about and certainly not as creamy as Haagen-Dazs.
The final verdict: London Dairy costs about Rs 75 a scoop but that’s besides the point as I did not like it.
Haagen-Dazs tastes great but at Rs 185 a scoop, is steeply priced. I like to have 2 scoops of ice-cream and Rs 400 for an ice-cream cone is pretty expensive. If you have deep pockets go for it; if not head to Gelato or the home grown Gianni and Nirula’s. They taste is as good and cost less than half!