Up the Hill
The overnight bus ride from Delhi to McLeod Ganj is not for the faint of heart. But if you plan to see northern India, really see northern India, then it should be on your list of things to do. McLeod Ganj is known also as Upper Dharamsala; Dharamsala having greater name-recognition due to the fact that it is the main population center in the area that is the home of the 14th Dalai Lama.
As the bus winds its way the five miles (about nine kilometers) up the mountain from Dharamsala, however, you'll instantly notice the difference between "upper" and "lower" parts of town. Dharamsala is distinctly Indian, and is pretty much indistinguishable from dozens of other Indian towns of its size which hug the outer ranges of the Himalaya. McLeod Ganj still has an Indian flavor to it, but due to its burgeoning population of Tibetans and foreigners, it sports a vibe all its own. Many people who arrive in McLeod have the sudden sense that they aren’t in India anymore.
Small Town, Busy Town
Numerous non-profits and NGOs have sprung up here over the past couple of decades, to help provide volunteer services for the refugee community, and also to raise international awareness of the human rights violations that still occur regularly and consistently in Chinese-occupied Tibet. These volunteer organizations are a magnet for hundreds if not thousands of foreigners each and every year, who come to teach, counsel, train and equip these mainly young Tibetans to deal with the new challenges of life away from their homeland.
Indian locals, Tibetan refugees, Western volunteers, backpackers and spiritual truth seekers -- it all creates quite an interesting mix in this rather small town, by Indian standards. It is not an exaggeration to say that in the space of less than ten minutes walking down the street, you may encounter a local Indian Hindu shopkeeper, a Kashmiri Muslim selling carpets and jewelery, a Tibetan Buddhist monk in red robes, an Israeli couple on their motorbike (most likely an Enfield Bullet), a German trekker looking for maps, a Korean Christian missionary, and an American yoga instructor. And that’s just the beginning! McLeod Ganj is a microcosm of the planet, all in the space of less than a square mile or so.
The beautiful, majestic Dhauladar mountain range provides the backdrop for the entire Dharamsala area, with peaks over 15,000ft which surpass the very highest found in the continental United States. McLeod Ganj itself is perched at an elevation of around 6000ft, very similar to that of Colorado Springs.