Lost in wilderness, at home in the mountains

Food, love, spirituality and the mysticism of the Himalayas are just some of the reasons that propel people from all over the world to not only visit, but make the mountains their home. However, in the tiny village of McLeodganj in Dharamsala, the principal township of Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh, things are a little different. The ‘Little Lhasa’ — as it is popularly known — exudes a quaint charm like none other, through its many shops selling curios, intriguing little inns tucked away in solitary hills and most of all, its cosmopolitan population that lets you be.

At 2,082 metres above sea level, the village has the mighty Dhauladhar range offering a spectacular view. The population, comprising locals and Tibetan refugees who have been here since the Tibetan government-in-exile made it its headquarters, has now grown wide, having enveloped foreigners as well, many of whom came visiting and made it their home.

Everything to do with love

While tourism is an important draw for most, a majority comes here to study Tibetan Buddhism and culture. It also brought Yannick Ramaekers, proprietor of Illiterati Café, to McLeodganj.

When you walk into his café, located on the Jogibara Road, you will most likely be greeted by Fondue — no, it is not a melting pot of cheese — but a friendly little dog eager to play. Originally from Belgium, Yannick first came to McLeodganj in 1995, a visit that was sponsored by the Australian Buddhist Centre. In 2003, he returned, but this time he lost his heart to a local woman and decided to stay for good. “It was love at first sight,” Yannick smiles. “You either give in or you break, and I knew within the first hour of my visit what it was going to be for me,” he says matter-of-factly.

His confidence comes from the life he has chosen for himself and his family, all of whom speak Hindi. ‘One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well,’ said the famous author Virginia Woolf, and what better place for one to dine in ‘well’ than in the shadows of the Dhauladhars? With a cozy seating area inside, a piano and books threatening to take over the entire place, it’s hard not to fall in love with your whereabouts. “This view will soon be lost though,” rues Yannick, a sad truth considering the hasty, unsightly and mostly illegal construction running rampant in the state.

We delve deeper into how the Illiterati Café came about as Yannick divulges, saying, “The place just came through. I bought it and started repainting it without putting much thought into it. The furniture is mostly handmade and the kitchen equipment is from Chandigarh.” There is a welcome interruption to the conversation, made by the arrival of a chocolate-drizzled Belgian waffle with homemade ice-cream encrusted in chocolate. Like a work of art, it looks too good to be destroyed — by being eaten that is. But then, temptation is hard to evade. The recipe is a closely-guarded secret, Yannick confides, a combination of a 15th century recipe and a homemade formula. Their special recipes include Chicken Schnitzel — chicken breast lightly fried in breadcrumbs, and pumpkin soup that was created by a visiting three-star Michelin chef.

Quite a coup, that one!

Despite their success, work here hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses. In the year and a half since it opened, the café has had its share of problems. One of the conditions that enable the foreign nationals to run an enterprise here is by entering into partnership with a local.

Yannick believes visiting McLeodganj or deciding to settle here is not a problem, but to work is a different matter altogether, with the bureaucratic machinery making it a tough task even for seasoned Indians. We learn that the Illiterati Café is going to be featured in the next edition of Lonely Planet, and hope that the spotlight will help end some of Yannick’s woes.

Back to Nature

Hotel Eagle’s Nest — located in upper Dharamkot (a small hill station almost 11 km from Dharamsala and 2 km from McLeodganj) and a short 15 minutes walk through a cool, shaded forest path — is not easy to spot.

It is made from the ruins of a mission house believed to be over 150 years old. No, you will not be greeted by holy spirits of nuns or priests, instead, you’ll have the pleasure of meeting the lovely Sheila O’Hara. “My husband Bo has been camping here for over 30 years. Fifteen years ago, when he found that this land was for sale, we decided to start the hotel along with two local contacts. And, here we are now!” she exclaims with pride.

Once in the UK music industry’s public relations department, Sheila is now as much a part of the local life as any of the natives here, making it a point to attend all family functions in the village. “The people here were very helpful in getting the place up and running, a slow process considering everything was brought up via horses and mules, since at that time there wasn’t even a kaccha road. The project was a lot tougher than we realised,” she recalls.

The restaurant at the hotel serves vegetarian food, though meat is sourced locally if customers really want it. “We like to think of this as an eco-friendly place. We use water harvested from the rain and have built this place with minimal changes to the surrounding area, since we wanted it to remain as natural as it once was and like nature had intended it to be,” she says. “Most of our recipes are made using vegetables grown in the surrounding forests. Whatever else we need, we source from McLeodganj, considering how urban and cosmopolitan the town has become. In fact, we get our cheese from a French girl married to a local. They have some great Indian cheese products,” Sheila reveals.

Their efforts have most definitely paid off, with the place being in what seems like an enchanting forest straight out of a Lord of The Rings novel, some truly breathtaking views of the Dhauladhars soaring high in the clouds and beyond, and an uninterrupted view of the Kangra valley. It’s a view that can leave even the seasoned travellers in awe.

Far from the madding crowd

We observe that a majority of the tourists in McLeodganj are Israelis, a notion affirmed by many locals too. Incidentally, we stumble on a sprawling café called Friendly Planet that is being run by an Israeli. Located in lower Dharamkot, the café’s vibrant outdoor seating area is throbbing with tourists — from backpackers to families — indicating that it is a place for everyone to come together. Run by Sagiv, in partnership with Machlu, a local, it is Sagiv’s sister-in-law Jasmine who talks about how this colourful place came about. “I met my husband Liron whilst travelling in India in 2003, and a little later he came up with the idea of this café,” she says.

So, how does a manager in a cellular company (Jasmine), an ex-army man-and-now-restaurant owner (Liron) and a computer engineer (Sagiv) from Israel end up here? “My country’s way of life is very ‘in-the-box’ and we wanted to break free from it. After a stint of mandatory service in the army and before university starts, most Israelis like to travel. Our preferred destinations were India and South America, because of their diversity and the fact that backpacking here is easy on the wallet,” says Jasmine. As for adjusting to life in India and its myriad social norms, well, it turns out that it was easier for her than it is for most Indians. “An Indian family in Dharamkot had initially taken me in. They had girls of their own, so navigating the cultural norms, hard as it was, was not completely impossible because I learned a lot from them,” she reminisces.

However, it took more time for the café to be accepted. Though Jasmine stayed in India for love, she left eventually in 2010 for the sake of her children’s education and now visits every now and then.

Friendly Planet consists of three kitchens — which is the amount required to cater to the crowd — and a special area for baking. Their specialties include ‘hummus’ (a Middle-Eastern and Arabic food dip made from cooked mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic) and their famous ‘Lamburger’, which, as the name suggests, is a burger with lamb cooked in their traditional way. According to Celine and Amanda, Americans living in Nadi, a small town on the outskirts of McLeodganj, Friendly Planet is a great place to bring their children to.

“We’ve been coming here for a year. It’s an hour’s walk from Nadi and I quite like the burgers and the kids love the pizzas,” volunteers Celine with a beaming smile. Married to a Kashmiri whom she met in a shop in Hampi (Karnataka), Celine has been living in India for 10 years. But why did she not opt for McLeodganj? “It has become too crowded. Nadi is a better place to live life in without bumping into people at every turn,” she laughs. It turns out that Celine’s thought is shared by many, especially because of Dharamkot and its surrounding areas’ rising popularity.

Planet Friendly also has a few rooms for the patrons to watch a movie in, lie down along with their weary children for a little rest or perhaps play a board game or two. The easy, feel-good ambience of the place doesn’t spare Fasal either, their hulking 16-year-old dog from Israel and one of Jasmine’s companions, who we find snoring by the entrance.

“He’s an old man now,” she says with a sad smile. Like Fasal, you lose track of time, which is just what the mountains are notorious for.

Time for leisure

Strum a guitar, have a hot cuppa of coffee or read your favourite book — for McLeodganj lets you be

From the kitchen garden

Sheila O’Hara is considering getting a recipe book published. Before that happens, she is kind enough to share two of her favourites:

Nettle Soup: Collect a bagful of the top of the nettles, put in water and boil. A little onion and garlic sautéed in butter can be used too. You must use a blender since the mix has a lot of fibre. Sieve to make it fine, season to taste and add a swirl of yoghurt or cream on top as decoration as well as for taste.

Rhododendron flower chutney: Collect about three bagfuls of the flowers. Take out only the petals, add chilli, garlic and salt and grind to paste-like consistency.

Other specialties include forest asparagus/ferns steamed in butter sauce and mushroom-based dishes using mushrooms from the forests.

Curious Facts

For reasons not known, Hotel Eagle’s Nest’s clientele includes a majority of physicians. Guess no one needs to unwind more than a doctor does!

While searching for more foreigners serving their native land’s cuisine, we found out that:

* They’re no more foreign than we Indians are.

* Food, that impossible-to-scale-cultural-bastion, well, they’ve bridged that gap!

So, pack your bags, open your minds and set off on a delectable journey through a land seeped in mysticism.

Source and References

Singh, N. 2013. Lost in wilderness, at home in the mountains. Hindustan Times, 31 October.

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