Way back in the spring, a reader, Bill, wrote a comment on the blog asking if we could make a page about how to travel to Dharamsala.
Dharamsala, as you may know, is the Himalayan town in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh where His Holiness the Dalai Lama has lived since 1960, along with a large Tibetan population. His Holiness’ residence is actually in McLeod Ganj, a sort of suburb of Dharamsala, situated uphill from the main town, and which is predominantly Tibetan.
We’ve been keeping Bill’s request about traveling to Dharamsala in mind for all these months, and then we heard from another reader, Daya, that she had been living in Dharamsala. We asked if she would be interested in writing a guest post on how one gets from Delhi to Dharamasala these days, and she kindly agreed and sent us this great post – thanks, Daya!
MARCH 30, 2013 UPDATE ON FLIGHTS SECTION IN THE POST BELOW: Sadly, it look like there are no flights right now into Gaggal Airport into Kangra, since Kingfisher has gone bankruput. At least we don’t find any on TravelMarket.com. We know a friend who flew into Chandighar and out of Amritsar for a Dharamsala trip, and those flights are there, though the drive is pretty far – looks like 3.5 to 5 hours.
Guest post by Daya
Upper Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj – called by the Tibetans “Dhasa” and “Little Lhasa” – is a little off the beaten track and getting there can be a bit daunting. Most of the common paths to Dharamsala involve a 10 to 12 hour bus, train or taxi journey that starts in Delhi. Flights are a bit quicker, but have certain other drawbacks we will outline below.
A Word About Indian Roads
As a general rule the roads of India are potholed and narrow, with speed “humps” randomly thrown in. As you travel further north into the foothills of the Himalayas the roads grow extremely narrow, winding up the mountainside around frequent hairpin curves, with roundabouts and potholes tossed in.
But that’s not all. The rule in India is that you should honk your horn a lot: at traffic jams, every time you go around a curve, when you pass another vehicle on the road, when you pass a pedestrian or animal at the roadside, when you want the vehicle in front of you to go faster, when you see a friend. As I said, the rule is honk – a lot – which becomes increasingly irritating when you’re on a bumpy, hair-raising ride on hairpin curves for hours on end.
So with the bumps and the horns and the hairpin curves, I do my best to stay off the roadways of India in general and Himachal Pradesh in particular. So my preferred means of travel to McLeod Ganj is by train.
Train: Delhi to Dharamsala via Pathankot
The best thing about traveling by train to Pathankot is that you can get a comfortable sleeper berth and be able to lie flat, and sleep, all night, unlike the bus or a taxi.
But the train does not get you all the way to Dharamsala. You’ll take the train from Delhi to either Pathankot or Chakki Bank, and from there you’ll need a taxi for the 2.5 hour drive to Upper Dharamsala.
Here’s a video by some Japanese tourists making the train trip:
Night Train: First Class vs. Second Class Air-Conditioned Sleepers
There are numerous night trains from Delhi that board in the late evening for arrival in the early to late morning of the next day. I prefer never to travel below 2AC, which means the train car is second class and air conditioned.
2AC gives you a comfortable compartment that seats four, and has seats that fold down into four beds at night, which the train attendants stock with clean sheets, a blanket, a pillow and a hand towel. There are curtains that can be closed to make the compartment private, but honestly that doesn’t help much. These cars are noisy. There are children and babies, and folks tend to talk and make noise and turn on lights when they get on at various stations in the night. And the bathrooms are seldom very clean. (I recommend developing your squatting muscles before you ever come to India. There are many occasions where you’ll wish you had the strength to squat instead of sitting on something!)
Since I’m an older woman traveling alone, I like to travel first class, or 1AC. The first-class compartments, which sleep four, have a door that can be bolted from the inside. There are seldom children in these 1AC cars so the travel is quiet and the toilets are the cleanest of any train in India – which isn’t saying all that much. (Travel with a soft pack of wipes and some disinfecting hand wash.) You’ll be provided sheets, a blanket, a pillow and a hand towel and the food is usually a little tastier than the meals offered in 2AC.
If you are over 58 you get a 30% discount on train travel and if you are a woman over 58 traveling alone you get a 50% discount. Most of my 1AC tickets for this journey are 700 to 900 rupees ($13 to $17 US *) and all the tickets for everyone are still, by U.S. standards, very cheap.
Your Choice: Pathankot or Chakki Bank
There are several night trains that go either to Pathankot or Chakki Bank railway stations. Both are in Pathankot, in the Indian state of Punjab. Most folks prefer taking the Jammu Mail to Pathankot station because that train stops for a long while at that station. There’s a bigger variety of trains to take though if you are willing to get down at Chakki Bank. The train doesn’t stop as long there so I make sure the conductor and other workers and my neighbors on the train know I’m getting down at Chakki Bank. They help me watch for it and get down off the train when the time comes.
Watch out for the Porters’ Prices
By the way, the porters (“coolies”) in Delhi will gouge you for the price of carrying your bags if you let them. When you get out of the cab, immediately settle your price with the coolie. If you say “train loading” you are asking for a price that you will pay when he has delivered you and stowed your bags at your reserved seat on the train. 50 rupees (94 cents) for a 23 kg bag is fair and actually the law (unenforced though it is). Coolies will try to get as much as they can squeeze out of you. I usually have two heavy bags and a couple of light ones. The coolie will stack both of those very heavy bags on his head and carry a light one on each shoulder. I usually decide ahead of time what I’ll pay, 200 rupees ($3.70) is generous – though much less than the coolies want from us westerners – and I stick by it.
Here’s how the negotiation normally goes:
I say, “Train loading” and show him my ticket.
He looks at my bags, sees I’m in 1AC and says, “Five hundred rupees.”
I say, “Two hundred.”
He says, “Four,” and down and down he goes until finally, “Okay 200,” when he sees that I am sweetly immovable.
The coolies are cheaper once you get to Pathankot or Chakki Bank and will probably ask for only 100 rupees ($1.89) to get everything off the train, out to the taxi stand, and into your taxi.
Taxis from Pathankot to McLeod
At both Pathankot and Chakki Bank there are prepaid taxi stands where you can book a taxi for the 2.5 hour drive to McLeod at a current rate of 1,650 rupees ($31), all inclusive. But, of course, those drivers like a little baksheesh (a tip) as well and you can choose to give them a hundred rupees or two at the end of the journey if you like. They will stop at a lovely hotel a few villages down the road from the train station where there is a bright green lawn, a restaurant and clean toilets. You can get breakfast there if you like or at least a chai. You should buy the driver’s chai as well.
Or you can take a bus, as the travelers did in this video:
How to Book Your Train Ticket
You can book your train in advance at the Make My Trip website if you have a cell phone number that will work in India. Otherwise, you can book with a travel agency once you get to Delhi or Majnu Ka Tilla or book in person at the International Tourist Bureau on the first floor (second floor to us Americans) of the New Delhi train station. That office holds a number of extra tickets for international travelers and, although the wait can sometimes be an hour or more, is the best place to find a ticket when everything appears to be booked everywhere else. Don’t forget to bring your passport.
Do not approach the train station with your Lonely Planet tour book glistening in your hand. The touts are everywhere. If you tell them you are headed to the International Tourist Bureau, they will tell you it burned down, or that it has been moved and that they can take you to its new location – they will snag you in any way they can. Instead, ask one of the many policemen stationed around the New Delhi train station where the tourist bureau is and they will keep pointing you in the right direction.
To see the big array of trains to Chakki Bank as well as the Jammu Mail to Pathankot go to http://www.makemytrip.com/ and search for each destination separately.
Private Taxi: Driving from Delhi to Dharamsala
A private taxi is as comfortable as you can get on the road from Delhi to Dharamsala. You can ask your driver to stop wherever you like, and not to honk, smoke or play the radio. He will know the very best chai stands and restaurants with clean toilets so you won’t be worried that if you eat somewhere you’re going to get Delhi Belly before you even get to Dhasa.
I traveled by taxi in March 2012 and the fare was 6,500 rupees ($123) from Majnu Ka Tilla (‘MT’ to the Tibetans), the Tibetan settlement in Delhi, to my guesthouse in McLeod. That included all tolls and petrol. The driver will expect you to pay for his chai and food when you stop to eat and he’ll want baksheesh at the end. How much you give is up to you; I gave the driver 300 rupees ($5.66) last March and felt it was very certainly inadequate. But remember, you are still traveling by mostly miserable roadways. Also, sadly, many taxis and all of the buses do not replace their shock absorbers when the factory installed ones wear out, so bumpy roads take on a whole new meaning.
Buses: My Last Choice
Then there are the buses. I list these last because they really are my bottom choice, even though many of us have found ourselves on on one of these buses, for one reason or another: flight problems, no trains, being short on money. If you need to take the bus, I recommend that you always travel by government operated buses. The private companies sometimes have comfortable buses but they can and do cancel their schedules in a second.
The Himachal Pradesh (HP) state government buses traveling from Delhi to McLeod (or to lower Dharamsala) can be found at the HP government ticketing site.
Booking a Bus Ticket
You can book your tickets ahead of time at the HP government site or you can book at the government bus stand at Kashmiri Gate, Delhi, or at most any travel agency in Delhi. If you intend to stay in the Tibetan settlement in Delhi, Majnu Ka Tilla (‘MT’) you can book at travel agencies there. In the past the buses heading up to McLeod and to Lower Dharamsala have made a stop at MT after they departed from the Kashmiri Gate bus stand but you must check to be certain that is still the case.
As you look at the Himachal government ticketing site, you see that there are five grades of buses that travel to Lower Dharamsala. From Lower Dharamsala you will either need to take a taxi, shared jeep or a bus up to McLeod. The taxi, which is often the only transportation available early in the morning when you arrive, charges 200 rupees ($3.78) to go to McLeod at this time.
Book a Volvo Bus
The Volvo at 1,000 rupees ($19), is far and away the most comfortable. The seats have lots of padding and are velvety in texture. Most of the seat backs don’t collapse backward into the person sitting behind you. I like to get in the very front seat if I can so that nobody is putting his seat back into my lap. You should know that there are no toilets on board. The bus will stop very late in the evening for a short dinner break and it will stop early the next morning for a chai break. Those are the only two toileting opportunities, the ‘facilities’ at which may shock you. If you have an emergency though, the drivers will always stop immediately by the side of the road.
I’ve never taken any of the cheaper buses that have about the same itinerary and take the same length of time. The difference is they are just increasingly less comfortable as the price goes down. And, do remember, most of the buses, even the Volvo, don’t often have working shocks for those very bad roads.
The upside of this long, always winding, way one must take to get to McLeod Ganj is the country grows more and more amazingly beautiful as the journey progresses north. You will find yourself glued to the window, sniffing and gazing, as time flies by.
Taking a Flight from Delhi to Gaggal Airport
Flying to Gaggal Airport near Kangra in the Kangra Valley below McLeod is the quickest way to travel from Delhi. I’ve never flown but if that interests you and you can afford it here’s a website – travelmarket.com – where you can begin your exploration. [See update at the beginning of the post.]
The Final Leg: Taxi from Gaggal to McLeod Ganj
From the Gaggal Airport you’ll have to take a taxi or a bus to McLeod. If there are pre-paid taxi stands at the Gaggal Airport I recommend you book you taxi ride through them. They’ll have the fairest prices – as do prepaid taxi and auto rickshaw stands at the airports and train stations all over India – and you’ll pay the fare at the stand before you ever get into the cab. (Not ever a bad idea to settle the fare ahead of time when hiring taxis, rickshaws or coolies – although you never pay them individually until their service is complete!) The distance from the airport to McLeod Ganj is about 25 km / 15 miles, and I make a guess the taxi would charge 1,000 rupees ($19), but don’t quote me.
You could also take a bus from Kangra to Lower Dharamsala, then switch to another bus for McLeod. And I suppose there are auto rickshaws at the Gaggal Airport to get you to a bus stand in Kangra. Traveling by bus after having had such a short and comfortable flight seems a rather odd choice to me and I recommend that, if you can afford the flight, do, by all means, hire a taxi to take you the rest of the way comfortably.
So – there are your choices!
Tashi delek and Happy Yatra!
*This is the conversion as of today, October 13, 2012. The exchange rate is 52.92 Indian rupees to 1 US dollar.
- Make My Trip Website for Train Bookings
- TravelMarket.com for flights from Delhi to Gaggal Airport near Dharamsala
- Himachal Pradesh (HP) state buses from Delhi to Dharamsala site
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YoWangdu Tibetan Culture blog
by Lobsang Wangdu