Our Asia specialist Cherylle has travelled extensively in India, but until recently, the Himalayan kingdom in the north of the country was an enigma to her – a magical land she had heard so much about, but not yet had the chance to visit. We decided to put this right and send her off on an exploration to this wonderful part of the country. Here she tells us all about it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I boarded the train north from Delhi, all I knew was I was about to embark on an adventure that included a holy Sikh temple, a visit to the home of the Dalai Lama and a very iconic journey on board the ‘toy train’ through the foothills of the Himalayas. On arrival in Amritsar, in the heart of Punjab, I was hit by an abundance of colour – my gaze was drawn to the vibrantly dressed locals milling through the streets, each one beaming with a big friendly smile. The number one thing to do here is of course visiting the famous Golden Temple, something I had heard so much about. On entering the temple, I was amazed again by the fabulous colours and gentle nature of the Sikh people. I spent some time in the kitchens, where each day volunteers at the temple cook food for free to feed the hungry. The vibe at this particular temple was something I have never felt, the whole experience was extremely uplifting – it’s an incredibly special place that I would urge everyone to visit. It was with a heavy heart that I left Amritsar – Punjab has to be one of my favourite parts of India.
From here, I was heading towards Dharamsala, but I took the opportunity en route to stop at a small farming village called Punjabiyat, which is a great way to break up the journey. I stayed in a lovely small homestay called Punjabiyat Lodge which is made up of four little cottages. It’s set in the heart of the Punjab countryside and gives guests a real insight into the farming lifestyle in this part of India. I grabbed a bike and cycled to the local village to be greeted by lots of villagers, again all so friendly and sweet. I think it’s so important to spend a few days in these rural parts of the country to really get under the skin of the country.
Moving onto Dharamsala, famously home to the Dalai Lama, this beautiful hillside city was exactly how I expected. It’s a former Tibetan settlement and you really get a feel for this when you’re there. The city is home to many Buddhist monks and has a wonderful sensation of peace. It felt amazing to be up in the mountains, with fresh air, gorgeous scenery and sensational bird watching.
Next up, I was excited to see what Shimla had to offer and was gearing up for the toy train that I had heard so much about. Shimla is just stunning; I absolutely loved this town, with its brightly coloured houses, stunning treeline and, best of all, the most beautiful train journey you could possibly imagine. The toy train has to be on everyone’s bucket list. Once the summer capital of British India, Shimla still holds the lingering echoes of a bygone era. The British influence was very apparent, not least when I found a shop in the town called ‘The English Wine and Beer Shop’! Bizarrely, these strange relics of its past, including a lot of grand Victorian architecture, somehow appear to fit in seamlessly against the backdrop of the stunning Himalayan hills.
The last stop on my journey through northern India was Chandigarh, a great city with sweeping boulevards, interspersed with greenery and fringed by the jagged skyline of the Shivalik Hills. The city is home to the Rock Garden, which is packed full of unique sculptures and is a must see when visiting this neat city. Here my journey came to an end, but I loved every moment of my time in the north of India and will certainly return to this magical Himalayan kingdom one day.