Dharamsala located in the Kangra Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh in north India is one of the popular hill stations in India, thanks to the mild climate, the mountainous landscape and the surrounding nature. Not only the nature makes it a must-see while traveling at the foot of the Himalayas but also is its connection with Tibet. It is the seat of the Tibetan government in exile and is a symbolic place for understanding the contemporary history of Asia.
Dharamshala is divided into two districts of Lower Dharamsala, which is less charming and Upper Dharamshala, where surely you will love to stay. McLeod Ganj and Forsythe Ganj teem with young tourists, yoga centres, reiki massage centres and countless guest houses. Today it is known as the Little Lhasa and is one of the most important centers for the study of Buddhism and the history of Tibet.
I descended into town to go shopping and I loved to sit at the food dhabas, which served delicious aloo parathas, a kind of flatbread made from a chapati stuffed with potatoes and vegetables, and other delicacies. When you go to Mcleodganj, you absolutely must taste the Momo.
Being a mountain resort, the best thing you can do is walk and walk and walk amidst the fresh air, the tea plantations and forests near Dharamshala. These walks in the forest have made my stay a memorable one with temples, monasteries, waterfalls, lakes, colorful Buddhist flags that move between the pine trees. For those who like adventure and extreme sports, there are travel agencies offering trekking, paragliding, rafting and much more.
Dispelling the myth that Dharamshala has only Buddhism and Tibetans, in fact, here you can also visit some of the most important Hindu temples like the Jwalamukhi Temple, a popular destination for Hindu pilgrims and Brajeshwari Devi Temple dedicated to the Goddess of Light. The latter, before being destroyed by the earthquake of 1905, was famous for its wealth in pearls and diamonds. Despite the precious stones have been lost, the rebuilt temple is very beautiful and still worth the visit.
Like every year, during Dussehra, every evening there is the show in the square of the Ramlila, the epic story of Rama, who defeated Ravana, the kidnapper of Sita, wife of Rama. The show lasts 11 days and ends with the killing of Ravana. During the 11 nights, between the sounds, countless marriages are celebrated in this period.
Meanwhile they build the puppets that are used for the final installment of burning huge effigies of Ravana, his giant brother Kumbhakarna and Meghnath. They are placed in an open space, filled with fireworks and firecrackers, and at the crucial moment the figure of Rama fires a flaming arrow to the heart of the effigy.
There are also many historic sights and I decided to visit the War Memorial on the outskirts of the city, built in honor of the military heroes of Himachal Pradesh, who fought for independence. The St. John's Church here is the only tangible memory of the colonial era, and here you can see Lord Elgin's Memorial, dedicated to the British Viceroy, who died in 1863.
If you want to trace the Tibetan history and find out more about the cultural heritage of the roof of the world, you are obviously in the right place. The Tsuglagkhang Complex at McLeodganj is the sacred building where the Dalai Lama stays. The views of the Dhauladhar mountain range, the woods and the beauty of nature make this peaceful and quiet place a must visit. Inside the complex you can visit the monastery, the museum, the cafeteria, the library, the prayer wheels and rooms dedicated to meditation. Visitors can roam freely within the entire residence without obstacles.
The Kangra Art Museum and the Tibet Museum exhibit artifacts, manuscripts and documents belonging to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. While the Norbulinka Institute is known for its commitment to preserve and teach the ancient Tibetan arts. I advise you not to leave Dharamshala without spending some time in it with its shady paths, wooden bridges and small rivers with waterfall, give the place serenity and harmony.
Dharamsala is surrounded by a stunning landscape, surrounded by large forests of conifers and cedars. From here many hiking trails that are lost between mountains and hills, such as the evocative Triund Hill. Dharamsala is conveniently connected to all major attractions of the region and is the culmination of the ancient trade route to Manali and Ladakh.
Our next destination is to Kasol in Parvati Valley, which is 220 KM from Dharamshala and just 75 KM from Manali. Parvati valley is surrounded by Himalayan peaks reaching 6000 meters and is crossed by a river that extends from the hot springs of Manikaran. Here anyway Parvati mated with Shiva, or better called Shankar here. Over here, over 4000 meters, where there is the Mantalai Lake, Shiva is said to have smoke his Chillum here.
Kasol is a small town, little more than a cluster of a few houses on the road that led from Kullu to Manikaran, along the Parvati, the river that gives the valley its name. Exhausted from the long journey, I rest for a whole day, without great expectations, without thinking about what I had in store for the next day.
The mountain landscapes are lovely and the valley is known for the unbridled cultivation of charas or marijuana, something very similar to hashish attracting international tourists, but especially from Israel, of every hippy generation recount the activities related to its thriving market. Now we are out of season and fortunately we do not see foreigners, and we can enjoy these landscapes in absolute tranquility.
A really interesting excursion route is Malana. This small village of farmers and mushroom houses of stone and wood, has its own local body and is organized with a particular caste system. Tourists are considered impure and it is forbidden to touch and photograph people, temples and houses. Who transgresses has to pay a fine of 1,000 rupees. Thanks to this special feature, their customs, their traditions and habits have remained intact after several generations despite the interest of foreigners.
A truly special place, walking through its streets we discover a unique culture. People of a disarming simplicity and authenticity. There are three guesthouse, shortly before or after the village, which are family houses which host tourists to give them something to eat and sleep. You eat in the living room of the house sitting on mats around a tandoor oven. Here we have some local beer, which is a bit like whiskey and served with little cold drinks and lemon juice. Despite being December, it is not particularly cold because of the excellent sun exposure.
When I was small, I often heard about a festival in Kasol. Kasol instead is the typical hippie village with Western customs, restaurants with European menu, small reggae bars and so on. We take four different buses. There are no tickets or controllers, but a myriad of people squeezed together with children, old people and animals, one on the roof, another attached behind, who travel in search of this festival.
The music is trance, where Indians and foreigners dance together. This is not a traditional Indian festival with masks and drums, but a real trance party with people dressed in fluorescent colors dancing in the crates. A bit puzzled by the situation, however, I begin to enjoy the evening. The use of hallucinogenic drugs is not uncommon in these villages, and are not just tourists who use them. I return to a guest house for the night.
The next morning, at breakfast, we decide to go to Kheer Ganga. The idea of walking four to six hours up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, with no bag or sleeping bag intrigued me, but they are not things that happen every day, and so I decided to leave. In a bus we arrive at Manikaran, famous for its thermal springs. Perched on the mountains and crossed by the Parvati River, with big and long bridges that connect the two halves, it is another surreal village of Himachal Pradesh.
From here we take another bus that will take us even higher. Once at the end of the stretch, we take a car and thereafter we walk on small paths, surrounded by high mountains and dense forests. Behind us, the giant valley is still and solemn, with the sun that lights the mountains as a spotlight, the cold, dry air, the muffled silence of such an imposing nature compared to us, four tiny beings.
I stop in a shop because it's the last we meet. A chai, a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits. We must not be too heavy. I have only a small backpack, while the others, equipped with hiking shoes, big backpack with water bottles and sleeping bags, seem much more ready for the journey.
There are now four in the afternoon when we start to walk, with the fastest pace in single file. The climb was increasingly steep that shorten my breath and every half hour or so we stopped to get some air. The walkways often branch out, often disappear, but our guide seems to know the way and repeats to count the rivers we cross. Sometimes you have to cross them by putting your feet on the stones that emerge out of the water, while higher up using the great trunks that serve as bridges. No one has anything to say. We're climbing the Himalayas.
After nearly four, we are tired and we go slower, and it is dark, where we cannot see anything. I must thank the illuminated display of my old mobile phone. The guide meanwhile, continues to repeat that we cannot stop because it is dangerous to stay in there at night.
I'm not sure I remember the last hours of trek, but I certainly remember the arrival. The guide screams and whistles, while accelerating the pace without leaving my hand. The forest is less dense, and one can see the top lights. We use our last strength for this last part of the way and we are finally here, at the top. It is freezing cold but we do not feel.
We throw ourselves to the ground screaming in unison, we are on top of the world! And we really were just a step away from heaven, a sky so full of stars that is more white than black. Our breath creates enormous clouds of smoke. We only have a great desire to live and the heart burst with joy.
Kheer Ganga can be reached only three months a year, for the rest is down because of snow. There is nothing but a row of iron huts to rent for the night for a few rupees and a tiny dhaba where you can get good chai and and some local food. It's all heated with wood, and there is no electricity. In the morning when we wake up we find ourselves off from the world, in the purest nature.
And then we dive in the pools of natural hot baths of Gaurikund, under a sun very close and with incomparable views. The day before, I never imagined to find myself there, in that corner of paradise on earth. I forget the fatigue and the unforeseen of the journey, and let myself be lulled by the boiling water, naked, on top of the world.