Dharamshala Day 1

Lobby of the Grace Hotel in Dharamshala, northern India

This gorgeous place is where I spent Thursday and Friday nights after a four-hour drive from Amritsar through the Punjab to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh.

I was accompanied solely by driver Ashu, which is short for something like Ashwari, I saw from his ID card, but they always invite you to use their nickname, presumably because Europeans are so lazy and inept with foreign names.

Ashu with our Indian-made Toyota

It was three hours through flat green farmland, the roads lined pretty well all the way with gum trees. ‘Planted by the British’, said Ashu. I get a little pang of yearning when I see gum trees in a distant land.

Gum trees line the main highway through Punjab

It was a very flat, straight road and by the time we stopped for lunch I’d had my fill of eccentric vehicles and eccentric driving. It was a divided highway but rather than drive to a point where you could do a U-turn, people just drove their horse-buggies or tractors or tuk-tuks or motorcycles in the direction they wanted to go, even if it was on the wrong side! But at least they kept to the verge.

On the subject of lunch, I didn’t eat my eggs and fruit that day (the day I nicked them) because the place Ashu stopped at did a very nice pizza-like dish for less than 200 rupees including a soft drink – a bit over $A4. Plus they had a flush toilet with soap and water and it was comfy and sunny. The eggs carried over. Will our heroine get to eat them? Will their time come to save the day? Stay tuned…

The green roofs are the residence and temple of the Dalai Lama

Then suddenly we started climbing the foothills of the Himalayas, which start at Himachal Pradesh. The ‘Hima’ bit in these names means ‘snow’, as you can probably deduce. The roads became narrow, dusty, rocky, clogged with vehicles and pedestrians both animal and human, and potholed, by monsoonal rain as much as by official neglect. Alas, the verges are strewn with rubbish – the besetting sin of the sub-continent. After an hour’s climbing we reached Dharamshala and THIS wonderful place.

My bedroom

This is my room in the Grace Hotel, a 200-year-old heritage property that used to be the country residence of the late Mehr Chand Mahajan, who became Chief Justice of India after independence and also Prime Minister of Kashmir. He was a big player in the founding of the nation; he oversaw the integration of Kashmir into India and also worked on the commission that set the boundaries between India and Pakistan.

The late Mr Mehr Chand Mahajan

I was in the ‘Chief Justice Suite’, and that’s his portrait on the wall. But as if this weren’t enough for a history buff like me, the modest hotel brochure mentioned without fanfare that among the people who’ve stayed here (whether as guests of Mr Chand or of the hotel now owned by his son the brochure didn’t say) were Mahatma Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and Rabindranath Tagore, the great 19th century Indian writer, poet, painter and philosopher. I repeat: Gandhi stayed here! Possibly in MY bed!

Door to my room. Note rocking-chair in lobby

I was gobsmacked speechless with delight. Actually, I wasn’t speechless; I hammered the courteous manager and staff with questions, scarcely able to believe having stumbled across such a treasure. Why don’t they advertise it better? There was no mention of it in my itinerary apart from the name and address. Not that I’d want them to; there was only a handful of other quiet, unobtrusive guests, and who would want more?


Isn’t the dining-room superb?

Old-fashioned breakfast spread – none of your DIY buffet crap

Loved the old-fashioned brekkie too: fresh fruit, juice, toast, honey and jam. An omelette came shortly after, and a decent milk coffee. All brought fresh to my table by this young man, who danced attendance on me throughout. In fact I could have wished he was a bit less attentive and a bit more relaxed. If I went to move a plate or something he’d leap in to do it for me!

The lobby in the morning.

After a while I worked out why the Grace Hotel was a little modest about its existence. For one thing, the paintwork on the timber windows was a little… distressed, shall we say, as were the timber frames. But they WERE casement windows which you could open to let in fresh air and the sound of distant chanting, and they had mosquito screens. Fresh air good, dog barking bad. Yes, those mutts were back, so it was back in with the earplugs and they only woke me once in the middle of the night.

The hot water went off at one stage and I had to wait for it to heat up, which I did out on my balcony with a cold beer, so that was no biggie. The beer had been chilled for me by the attentive young man, because the power was off at the time and my fridge wasn’t on either. He had a secret stash of ice somewhere out the back, for which I forgave the hotel the other minor inconveniences.

The power went off again later in the evening, right when I was at the dining table, fork in hand. It was utterly pitch dark, not an atom of light. Then the young man turned up with his torch app and faintly illuminated my dinner for me till the power came back on a few minutes later.

I never did get the TV to work. I mentioned it to the attentive young man and he promised to see to it while I was out but … it stayed lifeless. Just as well I had no inclination to watch TV. As long as there was cold beer and a view….

It took us 5 minutes manoeuvring to get past this car on the turnoff to the hotel

It’s also very hard to get to, is the Grace Hotel, up a steep narrow road, down another one which should be one-way but isn’t (see above pic), and round a corner so sharp the car couldn’t do it and my chaps had to schlep my bags up the steep ramp. Also, although the hotel is situated on a lofty spot overlooking a valley, its approaches have been swallowed up by the ramshackle urban sprawl of Dharamshala, which by day is a nightmare of noise and dust and traffic. I went for a walk yesterday evening but gave up after half an hour because it’s either uphill all the way then down, or vice versa, and I got heartily sick of being honked at to keep out of the way: standard practice, not road rage, but ear-splitting in the narrow streets. I was barked at a few times by mangy dogs and one even came up to me, baring its teeth, till a motorcycle scared it off. There were distractions: monkeys leaping about – shoulda brought the camera! – and the ever-present cows wandering at will, a spectacle which never ceases to amuse me.

Cow in traffic.

I took this pic on yesterday’s excursion to a place 70km away from Dharamshala, down in the valley, with wider streets.

I asked to go to cool mountain places in India, and I’m so glad they gave me Dharamshala because its main claim to fame these days is as the place to which the Dalai Lama and his followers fled in 1959 when the Chinese invaded and took over neighbouring Tibet, with the apparent purpose of stripping the country of its natural resources and obliterating the Tibetan culture by repressive and cruel measures and encouraging settlement by thousands of Han Chinese. There is a photograph of Chinese workers taking down Tibetan-language street signs in the main street of Lhasa and replacing them with Chinese signs. Despite the difficulty of getting photographs out of the country over the years, all this repression is minutely documented at the museum.

Memorial to Tibetan martyrs

One of the saddest things shown here is the recent phenomenon of young people burning themselves to death in protest at what China is doing. It started in the 1980s, I think it was, and to date 138 young people in their late teens and twenties have self-immolated. All their portraits are on the walls. It was all terribly sad and moving, to the extent that I even shelled out a donation from my dwindling supply of rupees.

Dalai Lama’s house

The house behind the green roofs is the Dalai Lama’s residence. Opposite is a Buddhist temple, both built and paid for partly by his worldwide followers and partly by the Indian government which welcomes him.

Jit beside the temple

It’s about time I introduced the guide who was with me for two days in Dharamshala: Jitendra, or ‘Jit’ for short. I called him Jitendra every time he called me ‘ma’am’ instead of ‘Annie’.

Cable car

Directly below where Jit is standing outside the temple is this partially-built cable car! Jit said there’s nothing at all problematic about it here. If it helps people get up to the Dalai Lama’s temple and maybe (if they’re lucky and make an appointment and if he’s in) have a squiz at the great man himself. He found it curious that in Tasmania we were objecting to putting one up our mountain.

Jit with cows

This was on the main road to Dharamshala. Just down that off ramp from Jit was an Anglican church and graveyard left behind by the British. The gravestones all bore dates in the mid-1800s. The Indians have maintained it as a historic site, but it is still a working church with weekly services.

Church of St John in the Wilderness. Could be in England!

Dharamshala has for decades been one of the prime destinations on the Hippie Trail. I saw more Europeans at the market here than I’ve seen since I got to India! Still not very many, somewhat surprisingly.

I’m signalling to Jit to ‘get those monks in the shot!’

This cafe (below) struck me as the classic image of Dharamshala. Note the monks inside having an espresso, and the funky dude out front. I wanted to try it out but it was way past my caffeine time and I had my mission…

Street cafe, Dharamshala

…to find my Indian fridge magnet. I collect one from every country I visit.

Toodle-pip, as they probably said in the days of the Raj, from my favourite place so far – dogs, noise, dust, rubbish and traffic notwithstanding.