Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Notes From Kangra Valley

How things have changed in a decade!

The valley is now crowded with buildings, the roads looked like they had not been mended since my last visit. At McLeod Ganj, the vendors along Jogibara & Bhagsu roads selling sun-dried pork had been replaced by swank pizza joints; Mrs. Naoroji's shop had been reduced to an empty showpiece and strange new rules restricted the flow of public transport after dusk.

Tsuglagkhang Complex, McLeod Ganj

Is the public display of rage linked to the price of vinyl posters? It certainly seems so at the 'Tibetan Capital-in-Exile'. Huge banners and posters now dot the streets and chowks of McLeod Ganj, listing the brutalities committed by the Chinese in Lhasa; pamplets pasted on the lamp-posts and walls urge the world to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

Inside the Tsuglagkhang complex, it looks like a mini India now. People in a wide range of costumes and languages pay their respects at the Dalai Lama's shrine. It is difficult to make out who is Tibetan and who isn't.

Club Mahindra Kangra Valley, Dharamsala

If you've already seen other Club-M properties, this one is a clear let down. "Club Mahindra Kangra Valley, Dharamsala" is actually 14 km away from Dharamsala, closer to Yol, on the on a road to Palampur-Mandi. After having seen the spacious gardens and neat cottages at Binsar and Coorg, this place looked like an isolated, pathetic hotel along a dusty, noisy, state highway.

The building itself was unremarkable - just the usual tinted glass windows on the outside; a small cemented parking area; a foyer at two levels shared by a restaurant, bar and reception desks. A wooden staircase connected each of the four floors that housed 8-10 rooms.

If there was one thing that reminded you that you were not at another dodgy hotel but at a Club-M property, it was the staff. All of them, without exception, were smart and well groomed. A couple of them manned the reception area, a few were busy with housekeeping and room-service, and most of them were outside enjoying a game of cricket on the sunny lawns.

But what about the guests? The front-desk had claimed 70% occupancy but there was no sign of anybody. The parking lot was practically empty, the rooms were silent (no sound of kids, TV) and the dining hall at lunchtime was full of empty chairs. Perhaps all the guests had gone elsewhere in search of "family-fun-forever".

Our room reasonably spacious. It was not the 'studio apartment' we expected (no kitchenette, no balcony, no carpets). It had chunky furniture and a badly designed bathroom (the "exaust fan" actually blew air inwards) but the view from the windows was almost priceless. 'Almost' because you only had to ignore a few ugly buildings located next to the resort, to let your eyes sweep across the little emerald-colored rice fields and orchards, up the slopes of the nearest hills, past the fluffy clouds, up the sheer cliffs of the Dhaula Dhar Range, until you caught a glimpse of the Manimahesh Kailash peak (5656m).

You could sit by the window all day, watching the clouds romancing the mountains; imagining the panorama that would unfold if you were with the eagles flying high above...If you went soaring through the thermals over Kangra valley, just across the mountains lay Chamba valley - just 20km away. Or if you flew eastwards, road connecting Manali to Rohtang La was just 60km away. No wonder so many hang-glider's come to Bir!

Getting There: We took an overnight train Jammu Mail to Pathankot (~484km, 10 hours, Rs. 500, ) and from there, by taxi (90km; 4 hours, Rs. 2000!) to Kangra Valley. A better option would have been to take the overnight HRTC volvo-bus service from Delhi (11 hours, Rs. 660). The buses would have allowed us to completely bypass the taxi unions and their obscene rates.
There is a brand new airport at Gaggal but it is serviced only by Deccan and an unfamiliar company called MPLR Airlines. Flights from Delhi cost about Rs. 4500.

Getting Around: If you have a choice, come in your own car. If you have the time, stick to the local buses and "share-cabs" . The local taxi union sincerely believes in fleecing the tourists, so a one-way, 14 km drive from Sheela Chowk to McLeod Ganj will set you back by Rs.350. A bus-ride will cost you Rs. 20, at the most.
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