This itinerary covers four fascinating cities – two on the banks of the holy river Ganges, two in the mountains.
From Delhi we took the train to Haridwar, one of the seven most holy places to Hindus and site of the Kumbh Mela, humanity’s largest gathering, once every 12 years.
We stayed in Haridwar for one night and organised a comfortable car for the remainder of the itinerary.
Also on the Ganges, Rishikesh is more of a backpacker and yoga scene, where we stayed for 2 nights.
Onward to the mountains, our next stop was Shimla for two nights. Once the summer capital for the British, Shimla is popular with Indian honeymooners and other tourists with its cool weather, pedestrianised Mall precinct and historical charm.
Finally we spent two nights in Dharamsala, home to the exiled Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Parliament, as well as a significant population of Tibetan refugees.
From Dharamsala we returned to Delhi. Our driver deposited us at Pathankot railway station in Punjab, from where we took an overnight train.
Destinations for body and spirit
This itinerary was a favourite of our family – we travelled with five adults and it worked well with a small group. All these cities are beautiful, but offer something different, so it was a great combination of culture, nature, adventure and spiritual travel.
It is worth noting that both the drives from Rishikesh to Shimla and Shimla to Dharamsala take the best part of day each – so this needs to be factored in to ensure you have enough time to spend – these are all cities worth spending a couple of days.
Haridwar - 1 night
We arrived in Haridwar around midday on the train from Delhi and settled into our comfortable hotel – the Khanna Palace Hotel. While not the most central, we were not inconvenienced by the location at all, as the hotel arranged a car to take us to one of the main temples and the evening Arti.
As one of the holiest places in India, the city is well set up for pilgrims who come here year round – but particularly May to October.
The crowded Mansa Devi temple is at the top of a hill overlooking the city. While there is a ropeway to the temple, this was not in operation at the time we visited due to an accident, so we took the stairs instead. For the less fit among us, this was not an easy climb but it was a humbling one – there were folks at least twice my age striding past me.
The highlight of Haridwar is a visit to the Har-Ki-Pauri ghat on the River Ganges. The ghat reputedly is the spot where Vishnu left a footprint and pilgrims come for the obligatory dip in the river. The river runs fast and cold in these parts, and people are well advised to hang onto the chains as they take a plunge.
After a quick dip and a change for those wishing to be refreshed in both body and spirit, it was time for evening Arti at the ghat. The Arti is viewed by thousands every night, and it is worth taking a seat early to get a good spot, but also for the people watching on a grand scale – people of all ages and walks of life are part of the human drama that takes place.
Uniformed collectors take donations and provide candles, which you can send down the river with your prayers at the appropriate time during the Arti. It is a beautiful sight to see the floating offerings flickering away as they travel on the fast flowing current.
We carried on up-river from Haridwar to the yoga and backpacker hotspot of Rishikesh. Also a holy city to Hindus, though not on the scale of Haridwar, foreigners have crammed yoga schools and ashrams in these parts since the Beatles paid a visit to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in the 1960s.
Rishikesh has a chilled out vibe and its main centre is strung out between two footbridges over the Ganges – Laxman Jhula and Ram Jhula.
We stayed a short taxi ride from the city at the Rainforest House. Simple but attractive rooms and its own ‘Ganges beachfront’ made this a pleasant spot, however the driveway was so steep it effectively stranded one member of our party with mobility issues.
Our hosts arranged a half-day white water rafting excursion for us which was taken by some amiable guides from Red Chilli Adventures. I’m not exactly adventurous, so the rapids were quite big enough for me, but I would suspect they would be for all but hardcore thrillseekers.
I was pretty happy to just coast along in the fast moving, cold water, which didn’t require much paddling and the milky, aqua waters wend through some very pretty areas. The banks of the river have ‘beaches’ with glittering silvery white sand where we stopped for a snack and photos.
It is not advisable to swim in the river around Rishikesh due to the currents and depth of the water – which has claimed a number of lives. But while on our rafting adventure, we were able to plop overboard wearing lifejackets in the calmer, but still fast flowing waters, and coast along. Even though it was a warm day, the Himalayan water was bone-chilling – so a quick dip was more than enough before our fellow paddlers pulled us back onto the raft.
At the end of our paddle the tour company dropped us back in the city where we had lunch at the German bakery and enjoyed wandering around the town.
Later that evening we also experienced the Arti, far smaller affair than that which we found in Haridwar, but still lively and popular.
Our long drive to Shimla took us through increasingly mountainous country, with the associated winding mountain roads, to the elevated city.
The lower part of Shimla, where cars are allowed, resembles something of a clogged carpark but a public lift takes passengers up to the pedestrianised Mall area – the heart of Shimla – which is a different proposition entirely. Vehicular traffic gives way to human feet, and the result is miraculous. Although many people complain that Shimla’s golden years have passed and the town is somewhat shabbier these days, the magic of this pretty, historical city wasn’t lost on us.
It is a pleasure just to wander around the main square and shopping area, where it is possible to pick up reasonably priced handicrafts, particularly shawls and scarves.
Our hotel in Shimla was the Hotel Mayur. Although the facilities at this hotel were poor and I wouldn’t recommend it, we had a large room with fantastic views of Shimla overlooking the Mall and Christ Church – one of the iconic sights of the city.
Out of Shimla there are a number of resorts where skiing and snowy activities are popular in the season. We drove to a couple of these, but owing to the lack of snow and some rather sad ponies providing rides at one place we visited, we would have been better exploring the town.
Of greater interest was a visit to Rashtrapati Niwas, formerly known as the Vice Regal Lodge. Set in flowering gardens, this impressive building completed in 1888 was once residence of the British Viceroy of India. These days it is home to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, and holds an important collection of photographs and documents illuminating some of the momentous decisions and events that took place here, including the Simla conference of 1945 and the decision to partition India in 1947.
Another long journey confronted us as we made our way further north. While the drive was pretty, we were a bit over the winding roads.
We were on our way to Dharamsala…or were we? The town most tourists are referring to when they speak of Dharamsala is Upper Dharamsala, more commonly known as McLeod Ganj - the home of the Dalai Lama. Lower Dharamsala doesn’t really have much to interest the visitor for long.
As we drove into Dharamsala, we noticed a very distinctive building on approach. The Dalai Lama’s residence perhaps? Actually no – the standout building in Dharamsala is the Cricket Ground – with its red turrets highlighted against the snow covered mountains towering in the background.
We arrived at the Norbulingka Institute where we would be staying – about a 30 minute drive from McLeod Ganj in Sidhpur – but a destination in itself. The Institute houses the Norling Guesthouse – simple, comfortable rooms decorated in traditional Tibetan style.
The rest of the Institute is dedicated to preserving traditional Tibetan art and culture, with a lovely temple, doll museum, students honing their skills in the workshops, a shop selling their wares, a café serving Tibetan meals, all within beautiful grounds. Even if you are not staying in the guesthouse, the Institute is well worth a visit.
McLeod Ganj is a popular tourist spot and a lively city, and is the focal point for Tibetans in exile in India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been resident here since 1960, and it has also become the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, as well as home to many thousands of Tibetan refugees who make their homes here. Throughout the city there are very visible efforts preserve Tibetan culture and governance through the various institutes around the city, including temples, schools, parliament and monasteries.
The largest of these is the Tsuglagkhang Complex – a large temple and meditation hall, in front of the Dalai Lama’s residence, and an absolute must visit. We were lucky enough to hear just one monk reciting prayers and it was something other-worldly to hear.
We also visited the Tibetan Parliament building and neighbouring Tibetan Library and Archives, and nearby Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute. All modest but beautifully decorated buildings holding some incredible collections of Tibetan art, artefacts and documents.
With a thriving tourist scene – there are plenty of eats to choose from around the Main Chowk and the main roads that run off it, particularly those on either side of the Chorten – Temple Road and Jogibara Road; and Bhagsu Road, running east. Local snacks include momos, but there is also a good deal of western food served in the cafes here.
There is also a range of shops in the same area, but if Tibetan Handicrafts are your thing, head to some of the cooperative centres that support refugees. We spent a good couple of hours at the fixed price TCV Handicraft Centre on Temple Road, which supports the Tibetan Children’s Village – enough gifts for a year of birthdays were purchased here!