The beauty of the Indian Himalayas in springtime and the intoxicating air of the mountains made this three-day trek from Dharamshala / McLeod Ganj a wonderfully authentic, low-impact experience.
McLeod Ganj and Dharamshala
You probably know that Dharamshala is the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the population of Tibetans is immediately noticeable. McLeod Ganj is essentially a suburb of Dharamshala, named for Sir Donald Friell McLeod (ganj is the Hindi word for neighbourhood) who was a governor of the Punjab province and this was once a hill station where the British Raj administrators ruling India escaped from the heat of the plains.
We got to McLeod Ganj via the Kangra Valley railway, alighting from the train and walking up the (steep) hill to what is sombrely known as “Little Lhasa” for the Tibetan capital.
We didn’t do much sightseeing here but spent a day and an evening roaming around the town and enjoying the variety of good cafes and restaurants, including Tibetan of course. It’s a bustling place, colourful with prayer flags and with lovely views of Dhalaudhar peak from cafe terraces.
It was easy to arrange a multi-day trek from McLeod Ganj. We talked to a couple of trek organisers listed in the guidebook and chose one based on not much other than gut instinct. There was a guide and an assistant guide, who took care of everything to do with eating (cooking fresh, simple hot food) and sleeping and met us at our guesthouse shortly after breakfast. We carried light packs with just sleeping bags, clothing, snacks and drinking water.
Day 1: Trek from McLeod Ganj to Kareri Village (5.5 hours)
It was a hot day by mid-morning as we trekked through forests of oak and rhododendron, alongside the refreshing Nyund stream and across lush meadows.
The last part of the day involves a steep climb up a ridgeline to the village. The countryside is beautiful and we passed several tiny villages. I appreciated the opportunity to get amongst rural India rather than just seeing it from a train window at 50 miles per hour.
Kareri is an attractive village surrounded by white gold and feathery wheat fields and shaded by walnut trees. The mud and dung-plastered cottages have slate roofs. The snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhars are snowy to the east and large bounders dot the landscape. We spotted some pretty birds flashing through the trees, including an Indian Paradise Flycatcher.
The whole village was occupied with either harvesting (using hand sickles) or spreading a fresh layer of watery dung over their courtyards. These dry to a hard surface in the sun on which the grain can be winnowed.
In Kareri village we stayed in the loft of a family home, on camp mats in our sleeping bags under the rafters. After a walk to a quiet field behind the village to relieve myself, I lay in the darkness listening to frogs and insects singing, as well as mice scampering around.
Day 2: Kareri Village to Kareri Lake (7 hours)
In the morning the family was up early and we emerged before 7am for a breakfast of tsampa porridge. Sitting on the porch I watched a hen and her chicks being shooed out from a neighbouring house, followed by two small children. Older children filed past on their way to school, accompanied by a fat black dog with a sticking up tail. He returned a little later, his task for the day complete.
On the second day the trail sidled around and above the village before slowly climbing up a gorgeous river valley. The track is often steep and crosses the river on swaying wire bridges several times. The stream tumbles through boulders into green and gold pools. Tall thin conifers and rhododendron trees line the hillsides.
It is a valley of ladybirds, you can’t walk two steps without seeing two or three. A pair of magestic eagle hawks soared high, circling, then swooping through the valley. Their bodies are creamy and their wing span huge.
At about 2.30pm it was starting to seem like it must be an endless valley but in fact there was only an hour to go before we reached our destination. Eventually we topped out on the final ridge and found the lake.
Kareri Lake is the culmination of this trekking day and this pretty stretch of water reflects the surrounding mountains and feeds spring alpine wildflowers. There was still patchy snow on the hills.
Here we sheltered for the night in a stone shepherd’s hut situated on a flat saddle between the lake valley and a steep, wooded drop into the next.
The guides built a bonfire and cooked up supper as we watched about a billion stars slowly emerge. Layers of dry grass spread over the mud floor were our mattress and our night was utterly peaceful.
Day 3: Kareri Lake to Bagga (4.5 hours)
The morning dawned bright and clear (again) and we walked around the lake and up to a low pass, crossing vestigial snow. Purple rhododendron flowers and delicate mauve and white daphne contrasted with the green grass. The air was often thick with insects, including butterflies.
A “shepherd man” and his flock of sheep and goats surged over the brow of the pass just as we arrived to enjoy the view. The littlest ones got a ride in the arms of the shepherds and they even let me cuddle a baby goat. These are the “Gaddi”, the shepherd people of the Chamba and Kangra region.
Then it was a tough drop down into the valley (look after your knees) as we left the alpine pastures and entered the lower lands filled with lush spring growth. The new leaves on the deciduous trees were almost autumnal in their gold and orange colours.
A troop of languars watched us lazily from a sunny rock garden before scampering up the hill to the safety of the trees. The Jacaranda trees were bursting into bloom and the wheat fields were studded with colourful flowers.
At last it was back to Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj, via a local bus for the last section. The bus passed the colonial church of St John in the Wilderness in a curve of the road, entirely shaded by mature pine trees.
This trek was a locally-organised, environmentally-friendly travel experience that was just the right level of challenge for experienced hikers who wanted something a bit less strenuous. We had just finished two amazing major treks in Nepal and the fact the highest point of this trek at Kareri Lake is only 2,934m – I loved it!
All too soon it was time to leave this peaceful mountain town and catch the train to Amritsar.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you trekked in the Indian Himalaya or visited Dharamshala?