Adventures in Asia: Dharamshala, India

When I finally made it to Dharamshala, after the hassles of dealing with missing bank cards and a bricked Mac, I was a little frazzled and in need of some rest. As soon as I landed and as I approached the mountains in the ride from the airport, I could feel a sense of peace settle on me, like a warm fuzzy blanket.

I had booked a hostel stay at a place called the Bunker, on the outskirts of Dharamkot village. I was happy to be away from the tourist crowds in McLeod-Gunj, but it also meant getting to my accommodation was a little bit trickier. The taxi driver told me the road was closed for construction, so I had to walk the last “10 minutes” — it was over a km in the foothills of the Himalayas, lugging all my bags, so definitely longer than that — but my heart lifted as I strolled through beautiful forest and mountain roads.

Once at the Bunker, I settled down with a book and enjoyed the good company gathered around me. Life moves at a different pace here.

The next day, I left early in the morning with my camera and a half filled bottle of water for a morning walk. I discovered a small waterfall and kept walking. I wanted a view of the village and valley so I hiked further and further up along overgrown and unmarked trails until I eventually hit a larger trail with a lot of foot traffic. I turned left and continued my walk, but soon after I met a friendly lady who convinced me to join them and walk the other way towards a place called Triund.

The way she spoke about it made it sound like a breezy hike. It wasn’t long before I realised I couldn’t keep up with her and her family and started lagging behind. She was Tibetan and her nephew was born and raised in Dharamshala. We rounded a bend and she pointed to what I thought were some huts on the lower slopes and told me that’s where we were going. Despite my lack of food and low supply of water I thought I could manage that.

It turns out the place I thought we were heading to was only the half way mark, two tea houses called Magic View and Best View. Shortly before this, when I’d been contemplating turning around due to my lack of water, a stranger on the path gave me an almost full 2l bottle, so I continued on.

The nephew told me we were 80% there and it would only take me 45 minutes to reach our actual destination, but I was skeptical. However, I carried on, one step at a time. I was now quite determined to reach the top, even if I was slow.

It was an agonising climb for me. I wanted to turn around almost every step of the way. I had only had one day to acclimatise and my ex-asthmactic lungs were struggling for air. The hike itself is also challenging with the rocky boulders and uneven footing.

I made it. As I turned the final corner and caught sight of the gorgeous peaks of the Himalayas I couldn’t help but burst into tears of joy and gratitude.

I took a walk around the base camp at Triund but didn’t stay too long as I was starting to feel a little ill and my stomach was grumbling. I was very aware of the long road back home.

Just when I thought I would need to beg someone for some food along the trail, one of the sons I’d hiked with earlier on ran past me and gave me a full bag of almonds. I felt like I’d won the lottery. Reenergised, I finally made it back to the hostel after my 8 hour adventure. And I only got a little bit lost when a cow was blocking my path. I wolfed down my dinner that night!

The following day I was happy to laze around at the Bunker, reading Tagore, playing with the resident dogs and sharing stories with fellow travellers. It’s such an amazingly cozy place that residents from the hostel next door also hang out there.

On my last full day in Dharamshala, one of the guys at the Bunker took me to an animal sanctuary called Peepal farm about an hour’s drive from Dharamkot. It is an incredible place, where dogs, cows, mules, horses and other smaller animals are nursed back to health. Some of them are adopted into new homes. One of the co-founders gave me the grand tour. I loved his candour when he spoke about volunteering at the farm and told me “we don’t want slackers and we don’t want hippies”.

The farm is run by a handful of full-time staff and they accept a couple of volunteers at a time. They grow a lot of their own food and sell some vegan chocolate spread, peanut butter, dried herbs and kefir.

On the way back to Dharamkot my heart was full with the blessings of my experiences on my travels. Back at the hostel, three of my dorm mates told me they’d hiked up to Triund and near the top they encountered a group of people gathered around a man who had collapsed. Someone had tried to give him CPR but with little success and they helped carry the man down the mountain. Sadly it seems he passed away. It was a shock to hear considering I’d hiked up there a little recklessly. It really helped to remind me how fragile life is and what a gift each breath and every moment is.

After four days, I departed Dharamshala, but it felt like much longer. My time in the mountains was incredibly restorative. I realised again how I appreciate time in nature, worshipping at the altar of the great outdoors, making my pilgrimage into the mountains. I was much more able to feel spiritual in the remote foothills of the Himalayas than the “holy capital” Varanasi. I also met such great people, other travellers and seekers of adventure and truth.