After all the years of tourism, campaigning for a world class stadium and an airport – a luxury that few Himalayan towns can hope to enjoy – and boasting a film festival of its own, I’d imagine the last thing Dharamsala wishes to be classified as is a ‘peaceful hill town’. It does have its pockets of peace – and of course the headquarters of peace too – but there is a lot else happening. In fact, if there is one place in the northern Himalayas that can keep a wired millennial engaged, this is it.
Below are some ways to escape all the spirituality and get going with the ways Dharamsala has reinvented itself:
One part of the sporting world knows of Bir-Billing being one of the highest natural paragliding spots in the world, the other part has heard of cricket matches in one of the world’s most spectacular stadiums. In between these two sports that have placed Dharamsala high on the pedestal of fame – way beyond the usual scenery draw of other hill towns – are sporty challenges like marathons and mountain bike races. Don’t feel active? Settle in with a beer at a live football match screening in one of its cafes.
Many travellers would have noticed a pub called McLo’s just around the corner as you enter McLeod Ganj. It has been on that spot for years, welcoming newbies to Dharamsala’s better upper half. Sneha Mankani, an editor at Vogue India, has walked many times along the winding pathways of McLeod Ganj, Dharamkot and Bhagsu. She feels that the best surprise Dharamsala holds is the world food here. “From the best creamcheese carrot cake at Moonpeak, Italian at Morgans, American breakfast at Trek and Dine, Nepali thali at Clay Oven – you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to your meals there.”
‘Bringing Indian cinema to the mountains’, so goes the tagline of DIFF, i.e. Dharamsala International Film Festival. The festival has filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam at the helm of affairs, and has gained quite a following since it started in 2012. It would be incorrect to say that there was no film scene in the town before, because a number of filmmakers have made homes in the surrounding villages over the years, and screenings in backpackers’ cafes were common even in the 90s. Make it here for DIFF in winter though, and it would be a perfect holiday combining film and mountains.
Sarin and Sonam (mentioned above), along with hacker Akiba from Japan, were also involved in the setting up of a unique event called Hillhacks in association with Ghoomakad in nearby Rakkar village. It is an incubator community, or a super-wired hackers’ colony, or a space for self-discovery – depends on what you choose to interpret it as. Hillhacks, held at Ghoomakad, brings together artists and hackers who then indulge in making and sharing things as diverse as programming code and hula hoops.
Volunteering has been a mainstay in Dharamsala since the earliest days of the Tibetan upheaval. Dervla Murphy’s Tibetan Foothold gives an excellent account of those grassroots level efforts put in by travellers. Sneha, who also chose to volunteer there recently, gives a lowdown on the current situation: “While you’re there, you have a lot of options to volunteer. You’ll see a lot of flyers on the streets and can even speak to cafe owners and they’ll be happy to help you with current happenings/how and where to volunteer during the time of your visit.
“Remember that at a lot of places you have to dedicate enough time and days, so keep that in mind before signing up. Luckily, the same places have short, walk-in volunteering opportunities too, like the LHA Institute, where you can opt to have a conversation class in English with students who are studying the language there. It’s a great experience especially if you’ve never ‘taught’ before. You improvise and come up with spontaneous ideas on what to do. I ended up having a one hour conversation with a monk and we did a whole exercise on ‘describing things’. We spoke about our very different lives and became friends at the end of it. He’s promised he’d try to maintain a daily journal to improve his English, where he will try to describe in different ways his life experiences. Hope he’s kept this promise. :)”
Image Credit: Treklocations.com