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A weekend in the valley of the White Mountains

S Muralidhar | Updated on November 27, 2014

Picture perfect: The best part of the stretch before reaching Dharamshala was a section of the road that cut through a pine forest. S MURALIDHAR



For a wintry getaway, drive to the Kangra valley

The lure of the mountains is a constant even when the weather is not oppressive in the plains. And there is no better way to fully soak-in the beauty of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas than to head out on a road-trip.

So, earlier this month when an opportunity to drive up to Dharamshala in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh came up, we naturally grabbed it. For weekend trippers looking to get a break from the noise and pollution of the city, a drive in this lower fringe of the Dhauladhar range in Himachal can be a refreshing break.

To explore the region made famous by the Tibetan settlement in McLeod Ganj, the options include flying into the Gaggal airport, also known as the Kangra airport. But, we chose the longer route up to the hills by starting our drive from Amritsar. And the car that we chose for the road-trip was the Nissan Terrano.

The plan was to clock about 5 to 6 hours of driving including the lunch stop, spend the night at the elegant Taragarh Palace in Palampur and head further up into the mountains the next day.

Starting out from Amritsar airport and weaving through a few narrow lanes on the fringe of town, we quickly hit national highway 15 (NH15) leading up to Batala and Gurdaspur. The highway is perfect for cruising with its wide, well-marked lanes and sparse traffic. On either side of the highway are sugarcane and wheat fields many of them being harvested. The odd-combine harvester moving slowly on the tolled highway is the only irritant on an otherwise easy-breezy stretch of road that extends to nearly 100 kms of our journey.

Highway to bliss

The Terrano we were driving was the XV variant with the 1.5-litre dCi diesel engine in its higher state of tune. Offering upto 110 PS of peak power with most of it being available from about 3,000 rpm, the Terrano overtakes and cruises with ease on the highway. Later, as we start the climb to Palampur, the ample torque of 248 Nm comes in handy providing enough pulling power to handle the winding roads and hair-pin bends for the two passengers and some equipment in the car. We were up nearly 3,500 feet into the mountainside in a couple of hours.

The next morning, we were up early and with the Dhauladhar mountains peeping out of the clouds behind the Taragarh Palace in Kangra Valley, our expectations for the day were rising too. The drive up to Dharamshala is a steady climb and you cross quite a few narrow bridges, some of which were originally built nearly 100 years ago. These one-lane wide bridges have been built over small rivulets that empty into the Maharana Pratap sagar lake. Traffic is either chaotic or organised into alternating streams of vehicles depending on whether there is a traffic cop or a volunteer at hand to regulate movement across the bridge.

Zen in the air

The air gets crispier and the views become more spectacular as we head up to Dharamshala. The best part of the stretch before we reach town was a section of the road that cut through a pine forest. We drive past Dharamshala, and head to the Norbulingka Tibetan Institute. Set up by the Dalai Lama and meant to be a replica of the original Norbulingka Monastery in Tibet, the one in Dharamshala now attempts to preserve the culture and identity of the Tibetan community that has settled in the region for the past three decades.

The centre is now into teaching, training and preserving the rare Tibetan traditional arts like wood-carving, Thangka painting, appliqué Thangka and metal sculpture work. Also within the compound of the Institute is the Seat of Happiness Temple with the 4-metre tall gilded Sakhyamuni Buddha as its deity. The temple is set amidst a Japanese-style Koi pond.

The rest of the morning was spent savouring baked delicacies at some of the innumerable cafes and bakeries in the area. Carrot cake and quiches are particularly popular amongst the tourists. Later, we set out to drive up to McLeod Ganj and the Terano was put through its toughest test on some of the steepest and narrowest of lanes that we have driven on. We took the shortcut by mistake, but it turned out to be a choice that threw up new experiences.

Once we arrived at Mc Leod Ganj, the town’s main street is so narrow that even the relatively compact Terrano seemed quite big and out of place there. Packed with roadside stalls selling fruit, food, books and Tibetan trinkets, pedestrians rule here, vehicles are usually unwelcome guests. But, the drive up is well worth it once you set yourself down in one of the rooftop restaurants with the snow-capped White range (literally what the Dhauladhar Mountains are called) in front of you, as you dig into succulent momos and hot chai. Now, that is a weekend in the hills you’ll want to experience.

Published on November 27, 2014

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