Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever. -Mahatma Gandhi
Aside from being the marijuana capital of India, the Himachal Pradesh region, and in particular Dharamsala, its capital, is internationally famous for its banana pancakes. Okay, maybe not internationally famous. Okay, not even nationally famous. Alright fine, it’s not actually famous for that at all. But Coby received word from a friend who had been to Dharamsala that the one thing we had to do there, if nothing else at all—no hiking, no trekking, no visiting the Dalai Lama, was to try the banana pancakes.
Thus our goal was set.
We first arrived in Dharamsala on Thursday, October 8, after a two hour bus ride from Aavishkaar, our host school. We were laden with camping equipment rented from the school. As it was well past lunch time, we spent a little while searching out the fabled pancakes, but none were immediately apparent, and so we quickly settled for Indian food (which isn’t really settling, because Indian food made in India is spectacular).
The town as a whole struck me as unimpressive. There weren’t any temples, impressive structures historical or otherwise, not even a Café Coffee Day—the Indian equivalent of Starbucks; in any city you’ll find at least a trillion of them.
After our lunch we had to take another bus ride. This one was only ten minutes, and it took us up the mountain to a place called McLeodganj (pronounced MAC-lo-gahnj), which, while purported to be a separated town, is really just the interesting section of Dharamsala. Here there were signs for the Dalai Lama’s temple, many other temples, bookstores, street vendors who catered mostly to tourists, a wealth of Tibetan culture hidden within all of the above, and a Café Coffee Day. This is where the banana pancakes are. I knew this thanks to the superhero-like instincts of an American who has been five months without pancakes.
But of more immediate importance: McLeodganj is where the trailheads are.
We stopped in a small food vendor for some fruits, vegetables, and spices, and then started up the mountain. By that point it was already about 4:30 PM, so we could only hike for an hour and a half to two hours before it was dark. We found a campsite off the trail amid a spider web of prayer flags. Monkeys swung through the trees above us, but eventually grew silent, or ran away, when they realized we were there. Our dinner that night was a papaya with salt and red pepper flakes. It was delicious.
The meat of the adventure occurred the next day. I woke up before dawn to take pictures of the (literally) thousands of prayer flags surrounding our tent as the sun rose behind them. These were the last pictures I took in India before my camera battery died. Luckily I was able to take a few decent ones on my iPod.
We hiked for an hour. After that, we reached a tea stall, where we stopped for tea and naps. A sign at the stall told us we were at 2100 meters. McLeodganj had been at 2000 meters. We hadn’t made it very far yet.
But we carried on! The weather quickly turned foggy, and for the rest of the day we couldn’t see more than our immediate surroundings. We stopped several times throughout the day for water or breathers. Our destination, a place called Triund, was at 2,800 meters. It took many hours.
Along the way we passed two more tea stalls. These were tiny rooms made of rock and tarp, which offered bottled water, juice, soda, coffee, masala chai, and various snacks. These stalls made the hike quite a difference than my hike up Half Dome last summer. The Half Dome hike was of approximately the same difficulty, but ultimately longer, and hiked in a single day, without any tea stalls. To me, the stalls spoke either of pandering to tourists, or the Himachal people’s inherent affinity for mountains.
Another highlight of the trail was passing herds of sheep going down the mountain, or groups of horses laden with other hikers’ bagged going up.
At 2:30 PM we reached Triund! Triund was advertised to us as a town at the top of the trail. It was neither a town, nor at the top of the trail. If we so desired, we could have continued on toward Indrahar Pass at 4,342 meters. Along the way we would have passed a series of gorgeous caves in which to camp. But it was Friday, and we were promise-bound to return to Aavishkaar on Saturday night.
Triund was not a town so much as a permanent collection of five tea stalls, a hotel, a bathroom facility that was always locked, and many sheep.
One of these tea stalls advertised pancakes. After observing the menu several times over, I had to admit they didn’t have banana pancakes. We made do with plain. Oh well. (It was the most satisfying meal I’ve had since coming down from Half Dome last summer).
We set up our tent, relaxed for a while, and then explored the area. Triund was set up on a very wide ridge, which we could walk along for ages, clamboring over rocks and walking through herds of sheep. Eventually we stopped on an immense boulder far from everybody and everything else. It was still foggy. On our rock, we could see nothing except the sun. It looked like a faint yellow circle cut out of gray fabric.
But as we continued to sit there, and the sun began to set, the fog cleared. What I saw next I’ll never forget. To my left, the world fell away. Trees and ridges descended forever. In front of me, and far away, there was little Triund, and beyond, the trail that led up toward Indrahar Pass.
To the right, the Himalayas. Not just the foothills, the comparatively little Dhauladhars of Himachal Pradesh. There was a Himalaya. It was immense and breathtakingly beautiful, and it seemed so close that if I walked back to Triund and then, perhaps, just a little farther, I could touch it. I knew it was not so, but it seemed that way.
The mountain whose ridges descended in a pyramid-like triangle (somewhat visible in the photo above) reminded me of a throne. It would be a throne for gods. I felt like I was in the presence of majesty.
That night we shared food and drink with a group of Indian businessmen who were on retreat together and camping nearby. Coby and I took time to observe the stars. Like the night sky at Aavishkaar, there were more here than I’d ever seen before.
On Saturday morning everything was wet with a layer of dew—or fog, I couldn’t tell. We took our time packing up and enjoyed another meal at the tea stall. We left Triund at 8:45 AM, and by noon we returned to the trailhead. We taxied from McLeodganj back to Dharamsala. In the car with us was a man from Uruguay who was exploring the country. He told us that before coming to the city, he didn’t know the Dalai Lama lived there. But on his way in he could tell somebody important lived there.
“How?” I asked.
“The rest of India, the roads are full of potholes,” he said. “Here the roads are nice.”
After making quick use of an internet café in Dharamsala, we hopped a bus back to Aavishkaar.
A few days later, on Tuesday, we had a bus to Delhi scheduled to leave from Dharamsala. So we returned to the city early in the day and returned also to McLeodganj. We explored the town for a while. We even tried to find the Dalai Lama’s temple, but despite the helpful signs, had to give up the search. We did find the holy grail of Himachal cuisine: BANANA PANCAKES!
In Café Carpe Diem, we were led into a little lounge area pulsing with melodies of the Beatles and smelling faintly of the region’s other famous product. The cover of the menu displayed “Carpe Diem” written in many different languages, none of which were Hindi. Coby wryly noticed that for a place titled “Seize the Day,” everybody in it—customers and employees alike—didn’t seem in the mood to seize much of anything. Everybody was lethargic, lazing around apathetic-like, possibly due to the aforementioned product. But none of the quirks could bother us when they presented the fluffiest, most perfectly-crafted banana pancake I have ever tasted. It was possibly the greatest banana pancake that has ever existed.
I’m not even kidding. Himachal Pradesh might not actually be famous for its pancakes, but it damn well should be. The hiking there is decent as well.
So. Would I go back to Dharamsala, McLeodganj, and Triund? Well to that I answer, does a bear sh*t in the woods? Does the Pope wear a funny hat? Does the Dalai Lama eat banana pancakes?