Through wispy clouds, through sheets of rain, the first glimpse of St John’s in the Wilderness, an ancient Anglican church just two kilometres outside McLeodganj, despite its sinister gothic façade, is strangely welcoming.
The amazing sight, which becomes clearer as you cut through the clouds, navigating those final, narrow curves, erases all the weariness that comes after a 10-hour-journey. And as you pass it by, making a mental note of returning as soon as possible, an overwhelming sensation takes over – of endless possibilities opening up, and a new world just waiting to be explored.
When I first saw the church, as a child, my imagination conjured up images of a world created by Arthur Conan Doyle. The Hound of the Baskervilles could be lurking in the thick forest that surrounds it, hiding in the fog, ready to jump out at Sherlock Holmes. But now, making the approach for the fifth time, perhaps 15 years after the first, and with warm, afternoon sunlight streaming through the towering deodars, it sent a different signal
McLeodganj has evolved before my eyes. Whether or not this change is for the better depends on your perspective, perhaps. And the patience, if any, that you might have for witnessing local Tibetan flavour, once as vibrant as their cuisine, be diluted into a generic North Indian mess with an unmistakable Punjabi twang.
Never is this culture shock most overpowering than on the short, 30-minute ‘trek’ to the Bhagsu waterfall. Along the way, you will pass a stretch where the hotels are called Ahuja or Gupta – not names you would expect in Little Lhasa. There are small eateries selling shawarma, with chicken tikkas hanging from skewers, and there is no sign of the momo vendors who could be spotted every 10 metres back in town. You will pass crowded street markets, overflowing with tourist families, and a public bathing pool, overflowing with what appears to be water. At the end of the climb, you will arrive at the famous Shiva Café, which once used to be a hippie favourite, but now feels the need to identify as such, with large posters of Lord Shiva and Bob Marley jostling for space, and trance music blaring from the speakers.
But if you find yourself at the main square, like Robert Frost, staring down a fork in the road – the one going right, down to Bhagsu, and the other, towards Dharamkot – choose to turn left.
Dharamkot is, in many ways, the McLeodganj of 15 years ago – it’s quieter. It is also the starting point to the famous Triund trek, which we couldn’t attempt this time, what with our weekend experiment. The trek deserves a day to itself, and perhaps even a night. It takes around three-four hours one way, depending on your stamina – and the sights you will see along the way are breathtaking.
But our last two trips, made in the space of a few months, have made one thing clear: There are two McLeodganjs now. The old McLeodganj – a quaint paradise, where every corner told a story, where you could time your every step on Temple Road to the musical chants of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, and where the scent of incense lingered in even the dankest gullies, exists. But finding it takes effort. It has been shoved out of the way in the name of ‘progress’ – by unsupervised construction, an explosion of tourists, and new restaurants that sell dosas and idlis, just a few doors down from the venerable Tibet Kitchen, where for modest sum, you can get generous helpings of spicy Chinese food, and yummy momos.
One restaurant that eluded us on our last visit, despite making several attempts to find it, was Namgyal Café. Many years ago, the café used to be located in the Monastery, and it was famous for its large, freshly-baked pizzas, but the owner, we were told, had moved and set up shop at a new location. And still disappointed after missing it the last time, were determined to find the place. It thrives, unmarked, and unspoiled by the hustle and bustle outside, in an alleyway down the centuries-old Nowrojee store. It is still run by one man, and it still sells great pizzas.
But there is something special about Café Illiterati, which is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best damn place in town. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of McLeodganj; teeming with loners of different nationalities, who read, gaze at the majestic Dhauladars from its exquisite balconies, and sip coffee wondering if they should engage the stranger sat on the table next to them in conversation.
Returning to it, after months spent following its evolution on social media from hundreds of kilometres away, was something that we were most looking forward to.