5 Things to Know Before You Go: Dharamsala, India

March 29, 2019
Emma StiefelExplore

This article is part of a series exploring the locations Year On fellows venture to during the Explore phase of the program. Kyle Uhlmann, the Year On community coordinator in Dharamsala, shared tips for how fellows and other visitors can best prepare for their time in India.

Photo: Shashwat Nagpal, Creative Commons 2.0 license

1. Food:

Must-try Indian foods include a universe of “curry” dishes ranging from palak paneer (spinach with cheese) to kofta (spicy meat or vegetable balls), chai (black tea with milk), naan and paratha (flatbreads), and street foods like samosas. The Tibetan refugee population in Dharamsala has introduced foods like momos, vegetable-filled dumplings. The company that provides food for Year On fellows cuts the spice level in their food to make it more palatable for Americans. Mcleodganj — a Dharamsala suburb home to the Dalai Lama — has many restaurants catering to tourists, so if you find yourself craving Western food you can eat out there. Kyle recommends trying different kinds of street food and visiting sweet shops to try local favorites.

2. Weather:

During the fall, when Year On fellows are there, the weather in Dharamsala is mostly temperate, though it will get colder and colder as winter approaches. Dharamsala sits in a valley, surrounded by the far end of the Himalayas. The mountains will likely have snow on them, but down in the valley it will be warm enough for banana trees to grow. You’ll want to wear a jacket after it gets dark, but should still be able to enjoy good weather during the day. Dharamsala also suffers from bad air pollution, and on especially low air quality days — depending on weather conditions or events like the Diwali festival, when locals set off firecrackers — it can be so smoggy that the tops of the mountains are obscured. If you have sensitive lungs, you may want to plan to stay inside or wear a pollution mask when the air quality gets too low.

3. What to Pack:

Bring wool socks, a raincoat, and a warm jacket for when the weather gets wet and chilly. You may also want to pack some nicer clothes for teaching, in addition to what you wear casually. Indian attire is more conservative than in the US, especially for women, so you should bring clothes that extend at least to your knees and cover your chest and shoulders. Power outages are frequent, so a flashlight may also come in handy. Most toiletries and other necessities are readily available in Dharamsala or Mcleodganj. India has also has very cheap SIM cards, so you’d likely be better off buying one in-country than purchasing an international card.

Photo: Gunther Hagleitner, Creative Commons 2.0 license

4. What to do for Fun:

Dharamsala is close to the Himalayas, so there are many beautiful trails for you to hike. Year On fellows stay in a quiet countryside village, so there are also plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature or visit farms. The Tibetan community in Dharamsala also makes it a great place to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism and maybe catch a talk from the Dalai Lama. You can expect to learn more about Indian culture, of course, and could experience everything from celebrating  Diwali, to getting traditional clothes custom-made, to farming with the landlord.

5. What to be Mindful of:

Kyle observed that one of the most challenging things for fellows to adapt to is the sheer volume of people of India. Streets and classrooms are often crowded, and the resulting atmosphere can feel chaotic and overwhelming to many foreigners. Perhaps the most jarring way this dynamic manifests is in driving: Indian roads are often full of trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes, as well as the occasional cow, all swerving around each other in a race to get to their destination faster. Kyle also noticed how much more strictly hierarchical Indian society is compared to the US. He remarked that, “I think the fellows have to get used to the idea that in the U.S. we value equality quite a bit, but here Ramesh [the landlord of the property Year On fellows live in] is king and you have to accept that if you want to live on his property.”

Read the other 5 Things to Know Before You Go blogs: 

Learn more about Year On.

Start charting your own educational path. Subscriber to learn more about Year On and get exclusive updates about our gap year programs.

Thank you for subscribing! Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest Year On updates.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Related Posts