View from balcony of the Judge's Court.
A's dad arranged a mini-bus and a driver, Kishore, to take us to our next destination, Pragpur, in the Himachal Pradesh district of India. This was partly to accomodate the 7 of us comfortably, but also to reduce the hassle of travelling with a massive sitar and tablas. We stopped at a "heritage" restaurant after a couple of hours, which turned out to be more heritage-themed tourist trap, but the food was good so I wasn't complaining. I also had my first taste of jalebis - deep fried "squiggles" of dough, drowned in sweet syrup. These ones were quite small and, made fresh to order, were delicious (in that really-not-good-for-you way). The second half of the trip was full of hairpin bends, single-lane gravel roads and steep drops to one side, so we were relieved when we reached The Judge's Court, in the (real) heritage village of Pragpur, located in the Kangra Valley.
The Judge's Court, main building.
We were greeted by uniformed staff and had tea, biscuits and cucumber sandwiches in the dining room. The hotel warrants a review all of its own, which I'll do separately. Needless to say, the buffet meals, bukharis (wood fires in cast iron containers), fairy lights and two little puppies running around were a highlight of each day. We slept well that first night. After a buffet breakfast (masala hash browns, eggs any style, fresh fruit, bacon, sausages, porridge etc - the only downside being instant coffee), we took a walking tour of the village led by a local, Mr Kapoor. The village was beautiful and quaint, with colonial buildings dating back over 175 years; ornate wooden doors and window grilles, paved narrow streets and some brightly coloured houses. Many buildings were in a state of disrepair but somehow maintained their charm.
Laneway in Pragpur village.
The oldest buildings in the village were over 400 years old (that's more like it, in a country like India!), but the whole area is steeped in a history that dates back to one of India's first ruling lineage. The village is tiny with few vehicles, which lends to its quaintness. We then drove down to the nearby river, which must be the clearest and cleanest river in India! We shared some beers and nuts on the pebbly banks - my heart was set to come back for some fishing. We stopped briefly at a neighbouring town, tiny Garli, which wasn't too special after lovely Pragpur. There was a kulfi (ice cream) man on the side of the road, so we stopped to sample. He had a wooden box which held a block of ice cream wrapped in leaves and newspaper. He would slice the tip of a leaf and serve a portion of ice cream on it with the leaf-tip to be used like a spoon.
I'm told kulfi is frozen evaporated milk and sugar, perhaps with some nuts in it - whatever it was, it was quite nice.
On Christmas Eve, we had an early breakfast then Kishore drove us to Dharamshala/McLeodganj, where the Dalai Lama lives and governs. On the way we stopped by a wonderfully old, almost deserted fort that is built on the side of some impressive cliffs. There were sweeping views of the Himalayas and Kangra Valley, and the peace of the early morning was only disturbed by some restoration workers and Jain priests. Unfortunately, the road to Dharamshala was terrible (if you could call it a road) - potholed, dug up, scattered with rocks of various sizes, zigzagging up another mountain single-lane with more hairpin turns.
It was all worth it, though. We bypassed Dharamshala and drove all the way to the lookout at Naddi Gaon where we stopped for chai and marvelled at the mountains - probably the closest I'll ever be to the Himalayas, at least for now. It was sad to see monstrous hotels under construction, all vying for and blocking each others' views of the mountains and valley.
McLeodganj has a very laid-back and backpacker vibe, with two main streets lined with hostels, restaurants, shops and street stalls. We had lunch at McLo's (I wondered about the name), where we had excellent "momos" - fried dumplings, which we washed down with Kangra tea. There were lots of monks and, of course, Tibetan people, selling handmade jewellery and textiles. We didn't see the Dalai Lama, although he was in residence, nor did we make it up to the temple.
The Kulfi Man.
I'm a little ashamed to say that we spent too much time shopping. We did stop briefly at the church of St John-in-the-Wilderness on the way down, as well as the Martyrs Memorial (a bizarre, brightly coloured park dedicated to all Indian soldiers who have died protecting their land). Kishore drove us safely home, except as it grew dark, it became evident that the bus lights weren't working. I was sitting in the front passenger seat (fondly called the "suicide seat" but probably the best seat on the bus in terms of preventing travel sickness), and was first to notice Kishore discreetly trying the light switches and various other knobs and buttons on the dashboard, to no effect. He then started putting his hazards on so at least other vehicles could see us, but it didn't help us see the pedestrians walking on the side of the road! After some time and probably some near misses, we made Kishore stop and he & A's dad fiddled around and finally got the lights working.
Kishore with some local kids.
Back at the Judge's Court, we found three Aussie families had arrived, and in honour of them and Christmas Eve, a "party" was held on the lawns at dinner - this involved quite a big sound system, a light-up dance floor and the Sood DJs, who played a mixture of pop and dance songs (all Western). Strangely, they packed up about 30 minutes after everyone had finished dancing - just as the beer and wine started to flow and we were ready to dance... so we drank champagne and lychee liquer to silence instead.
After another lovely breakfast of aloo puri (potato curry) with some great bread, we exchanged Christmas gifts on the roof of the hotel, accompanied by more champagne. After lunch, Kishore drove us to the river where we tried our luck fishing. The rod was made of bamboo, and we had balls of dough as bait (we were assured by one of the hotel staff that dough was sufficient, though I had my doubts).
Fort in the Kangra Valley.
The accessible parts of the river were incredibly clear but not too deep, and we could see right to the bottom - no fish. Also, the dough had a rather limited life in the water. We spent most of the afternoon skimming pebbles, then throwing rocks at various points on the other side. We had a charming surprise at dinner - the local bagpipe group! We heard the bagpipes before we saw them - so they had our full attention as they strode into the lawns, single file - several old Indian men from the village, wearing beanies and playing the bagpipes. They marched as they played, did a couple of circuits around the lawn, and marched back out playing the same song they entered with. They only had a few songs in their repetoire (none of them were Christmas songs), but it was sweet so they earned an appreciative round of applause.
Jain temple ruins at the fort.