Arriving in McLeodganj to perhaps the strangest greeting from a guest house yet I was somewhat sceptical about what the place held in store for me. My first full day in the town was however everything I was looking for and some.
Waking up to the sun streaming over the mountains and straight into my room was a hot but happy experience. After eating a couple of eggs (WITH yolks) at my hostel I set off to see what the town was like. Full of Tibetans, travellers, yogis and Indians the area is perhaps the most relaxed place, both in terms of vibe and the place of females in daily life, that I have been to in India – with women walking round in shorts (primarily western women- but even that is a change of pace) and having a much more visible presence than they do in the bigger cities of India. For the first time since I arrived I felt immediately comfortable. Walking around the town I realised that even I would find this a difficult place to get lost. Made up of 2 main streets and nearly no side streets I was always either walking uphill or downhill. Spending an hour trawling round the town and looking at the market stalls and cafes I decided to head up the hill. This was prompted by discussions with one Indian guy at the airport the day before and discussions with three Australians at my hostel who all said that Dharmkot, the next town up, was far nicer. This walk also conveniently doubled as my chance to work out where exactly the track was for the day walk I wanted to do up to Triund.
Walking the 2km uphill to Dharmkot I arrived at a hilltop cafe – filled with people I decided to stop in for a chai and a chat. Nearly everyone there was staying in Dharmkot and attending a yoga course of some kind, some doing their teacher training, some a retreat and others just live here and it’s one of their daily activities. I felt slightly out of place, while everyone seemed to be seeking some sort of enlightenment through yoga and meditation I announced that I had come here to escape the heat and really didn’t know much about the place! Upon hearing this everyone was filled with advice, ranging from get out of McLeodganj and come to Dharmkot to “you should get a 6 month visa and move here for 6 months”… I have acted on none of that advice. Perhaps however my favourite person I met was the man in a shirt and dress pants who handed me a leaflet inviting me to a Shemanic Ceremony.
As everyone dispersed I asked for directions to Triund, I was told to walk round a corner and the rest would be obvious… Some people are liars. Following the track/road for a while I suddenly came to a split, one going left with a car parked in the middle, the other going right with nothing. Knowing that at some point the track stopped allowing cars I followed the one with the car parked in the middle of the road thinking that would be their way of stopping motor vehicles going up the track. Walking for 45 minutes I was surprised the track didn’t rise up given that Triund is over 9,000 feet high, and that there was no one else on it. It turned out there was good reason for this… I had taken the wrong track. I worked this out when I came to a Tibetan Monk temple and asked the monk sitting there how far from Triund I was. He just laughed. Happily, the temple I found was awash with prayer flags all flying in the breeze, it was aesthetically very pleasing.
Deciding that these trees were as good a place as any to take a break and read for a while I holed up on the hill and lay in the shade with my book. Eventually I retraced my steps and found the split in the path again… Knowing where I went wrong I was adamant that tomorrow would be fine! I returned to Dharmkot where I found yet another cafe full of yogis who I sat and had lunch with.
Eventually returning to McLeodganj I found a drop in yoga class just steps away from my hostel that I decided to attend. The class had about 12 people in it and was led by a lovely German (I think) woman, Vijay. Vijay was lovely and for the most part a good teacher, she did however insist on calling ‘toes’ ‘fingers’ and ‘fingers’ ‘toes’ which I found progressively funnier as the class went on… The high point for me being when she told us to stand only on our fingers and stretch our toes to the sky (no one else in the class seemed to find the confusion at all funny!).
Returning to my hostel I was thrilled to see the three lovely Australians I met that morning sitting on the rooftop. I was determined that we should become friends. The friend targeting commenced. I asked them about their travels and plans, learning the two boys were in a band together and the girl had just done her yoga teacher training in Nepal, I diverted the conversation towards dinner and said I had been told of a nice cafe to go to. HOOK, LINE AND SINKER. They took the bait and suggested we all go have dinner together at the place I knew of. Googling the place before we left I thought it was just below the town. As we descended down the hill and the town of McLeodganj disappeared behind us I became mildly apprehensive that I had got us lost… Not a good way to cement a friendship. We continued to walk down an unlit road with cars and motorbikes hooning towards us periodically when out of the blue a small block of shop emerged that thankfully contained the cafe Illiterati that I had suggested. The cafe was great, doubling as a bookshop and the food was delicious, if only a little slow (Dad you would have walked out). I had a ball and they seemed to tolerate my company well. I considered the evening an absolute win on the friendship front.
Waking up to the not so peaceful sound of the water tank in my room filling at 5:00am I was unable to sleep so I decided to get up and tackle Triund.
While the walk was only 9km (ish… Indian measurement isn’t all that accurate) it rose up 1.4km so I was told it took 4 hours ish. Setting off from McLeodganj at 6:00am I walked up past Dharmkot and the right way round the original track. About 1 hour in I reached the spot where cars had to stop and signed the register saying that I was going into the mountains and stopped for a couple of Vegemite crackers (Vegemite courtesy of Jo, the Australian from my tour).
Here the track turned into forest type land and was very rocky but not all that steep. The track was empty apart from a few Monks walking downhill. Every now and again I would round a corner that would either give me a great view down the valley or a clear view up to the mountains.The track was sporadically littered with chai shops and with 3.5km to go I stopped to take in the view and enjoy what I like to call Indian crack (due to it’s addictive nature), a masala chai.
While chai is delicious all of the time I definitely think it is made more delicious when consumed post/during-exercise! The owner of the shop sat with me and explained to me that he got up every morning at 5:00am and walked up the hill to open the chai shop, his son later followed with the ponies carrying any supplies needed for the shop – he has done this for the past 34 years! Leaving the chai shop I pressed on up the hill, the terrain became steeper and rockier with rock hopping becoming a more crucial element of moving forward than walking. 5 minutes away from the top the terrain changed again to undulating grass that turned into a plateau. The view was spectacular, a view right down the valley to Dharmkot and McLeodganj to my back and the mountains ahead of me.
Settling in on a rock to admire the view the land around me was a hive of activity, people packing up tents, taking photos and drinking chai, I however relished my space on the rock above them all just taking in the view. As I enjoyed my 4th chocolate bar of the entire trip (to India, not up the hill) and peeled my mango my enjoyment was cut short… I was stung on the finger by a wasp. Bastard. My finger promptly started swelling and a rash developed down my arm. Venturing to the nearest chai shop to ask if they had any antihistamines I was greeted with confusion, and then the offer of either a bandaid, or a spray. Opting for the spray option thinking it might be vaguely useful I watched the man pour water into a spray bottle and spray my hand. I have no idea what this was meant to do but I can confirm it was no help whatsoever. Assuring the chai walla he was very helpful and thanking him I started my trip back to McLeodganj for an antihistamine.
Stopping at the other chai shop I asked again for an antihistamine – while he had no such thing he gave me a complimentary cup of chai while chattering about the medicinal properties of the spices. Stoked with the free chai but with a hand that was growing at an alarming rate I downed the drink and kept moving. By the time I reached McLeodganj two of my fingers were akin to sausages and my palm had begun to puff – the Australians thought this was quite a funny sight.
Despite being covered in dust and dirt I was unable to shower as the water for the day had yet again run out. Baby wipes to the rescue I made myself slightly more presentable and went into town for lunch.
Sitting in Moonpeak Espresso, drinking an iced chocolate, eating a grilled eggplant toastie and reading my book I began to understand the appeal many westerners see in living in an area like Himachal Pradesh for a period of their lives – yoga, hiking, diverse population and home comforts like western food all within such a small and peaceful community – it’s a pretty good life. While I’m not planning to move here, I have abandoned plans to go anywhere else in India and instead will stay here for the week until I depart to Japan.
The day concluded with me eating a traditional Tibetan dinner of momos and watching Flight of the Concords with my new Australian friends!