After our busy days in Rajasthan and Punjab, Steve and I really wanted to move on to a cooler and quieter place. Before deciding to go on this trip, we had watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown that focused on Punjab. In the episode, Bourdain had taken a scenic train ride into the Himalayas to villages known as hill stations. Due to their higher elevations in the mountains, hill stations are popular vacation destinations for Indian families looking to escape the heat. We decided to check them out.
Each hill station has its own vibe. Some are more laidback and others more luxurious. The first one we decided to go to was McLeodganj. We left Amritsar to head north into the mountains by train, which turned out to be an experience on its own. We had booked the journey in sleeper class – one step up from general admission and a popular option for Indians. When we boarded and found our assigned seats, they were already full with a group of 5-6 older Indian ladies and several older Indian men squeezed on benches meant for three each. They could tell we were confused so they waved us over and shuffled around to make room. A man perched on the edge of the bench took Steve’s backpack and threw it up on the top bunk (even though there was a lady sleeping – she just moved around it). My pack got thrown up on an empty side bunk and we were on our way.
It wasn’t until we got to the next stop that we realized these ladies were not sitting in their assigned seats and we had accepted our fate of being squished in like total suckers. A young, well groomed Indian guy got on and looked at the many ladies + Steve sitting on the bench where his assigned seat clearly was. There were some words back and forth in Hindi between him and one of the ladies who was trying to shuffle and make room for him but he clearly wasn’t having any of that and eventually a few of the ladies got up and left. They did come back periodically during the trip to talk their friends but they didn’t dare try to sit down again.
Our plan once reaching Pathankot was to take the smaller local Kangra Valley “toy train” that was supposed to be incredibly scenic and dirt cheap. There were lots of people and lots of luggage already on the platform so we stood off to the side and waited. As the train pulled up, pandemonium broke out with people jumping off and on and luggage getting stuffed through windows and doors. As much as we wanted to take that train, flashes of our ride the day before hit us and neither of us was up for that again. We headed out the train station exit to look for other options ( not before taking some video that I posted on Facebook and Instagram). In the end, we took a cab all the way to McLeodganj. It was more expensive but it had A/C and a more direct route. Our driver was excellent and it was absolutely the right call.
McLeodganj is home to the exiled Dalai Lama and a sizeable Tibetan refugee population. It had a very different feel to it with all the Tibetan monks in the streets and different types of Tibetan foods served in the restaurants. We had planned to stay six days to do some day hikes but unfortunately, both of us got really sick on our second day and we hardly left out guesthouse until the fifth day. Our guesthouse had amazing views of the mountains and valleys as well as some resident monkeys that kept us entertained.
On the last day, we managed to walk to the Dalai Lama’s monastery and the Tibetan history museum. The Tibetan account of the invasion and cultural genocide inflicted by the Chinese was sobering. Many of the inhabitants of McLeodganj risked their lives trekking through the mountains with few possessions in order to escape. India and Nepal have taken in many Tibetan refugees and helped them create settlements such as McLeodganj to maintain their religion and culture. Tibet is still under Chinese rule. Entry and media coverage are very strictly controlled so it was very eye-opening to read about this history from the Tibetan perspective. The most challenging section for me was the photos and quotes from monks still in Tibet who are fighting for independence and to bring the Dalai Lama back. I’m glad we visited the Dalai Lama’s monastery after that because it was uplifting to see the monks able to practice their religion and keep their traditions alive even though they arent were they want to be right now. Unfortunately my phone died so I wasn’t able to get any photos.