Monsoon is an excellent time to travel. Some might prefer to enjoy the rains with chai and pakodas from the comfort of their balconies but those who venture out know how alluring the countryside is in this season. Lush green trees, natural plunge pools, overflowing rivers, the smell of wet mud. What’s not to love?
While the Western Ghats are a monsoon favourite among travellers, I decided to head further up north from Delhi this year. First up was a two-week workation from a co-living cum co-working place called AltSpace near Dharamshala, followed by an off-road vacation in Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand with my friends.
You might remember issue #10 of my newsletter where I wrote about slow travel and my first pandemic workation last September. I wasn’t actively looking to do another workation in the mountains this time around, but a friend discovered AltSpace on Instagram and before I knew it I was at ISBT waiting to board the Himsuta bus to Dharamshala.
Located in the sublime Khaniyara valley and surrounded by rice fields and sleepy villages, the AltSpace campus is a WFM (“Work from Mountains”) setting of dreams — clean private rooms, desks with mountain views, high-speed internet, meals included, countless trails for evening walks, easy access to cafes, affordable pricing, and water-cooler conversations with fellow-inhabitants from all walks of life (though slightly biased towards tech startup folks). No, this is not a sponsored post.
The beauty of such spaces is that Monday blues become non-existent, or at least less intense. While much of my daytime was spent working a full-time job, I enjoyed evening strolls through rice fields and farms with my four-legged companions every day. On weekends, day trips to Mcleodganj, Dharamkot, and Bir fulfilled the tourist yearnings to eat Tibetan food, visit monasteries, buy postcards and prayer flags, visit Tibetan bookshops, and walk through the inner alleys of the Tibetan refugee colonies.
On one such evening excursion chasing the sunset with two of my friends (one of whom I met at the campus itself), we came across a stunning church amidst a forest. It looked enchanting, truly living up to its name: ‘St. John in the Wilderness.’ Although it was shut at the time, the tall Deodar trees around it, neo-Gothic architecture, blooming lilies of the Nile, and complete silence made the entire scene feel like it was straight out of a storybook. A Protestant church dating back to 1852, it is located in Forsyth Gunj, en route McLeodganj from Dharamshala. The churchyard also contains the grave of Lord Elgin, former Governor General of Canada and later Governor-General & Viceroy of India during British rule. The church is famous for its Belgian stained-glass windows donated by Lady Elgin, and the structure even survived the 1905 Kangra earthquake.
Another evening was spent eating momos, tingmo, and thukpa at Kalimpong – a cute family-run restaurant in Mcleodganj that has exactly four tables, two windows, and the most charming old-world ambiance. A favourite among Tibetan monks and tourists alike, the setup reminded me of Vietnam where such hole-in-the-wall restaurants are common, and I wished we had more such places in Delhi. What makes it even more special is that it has stood the test of time – competing with new cafes, pubs, and restaurants that have popped up around it to cater to the demands of mass tourism.
While my last workation was a mixed bag in terms of productivity, this time I managed to find a balance between work and recreation. The surroundings were beautiful but not distracting. AltSpace, being a campus created for the purpose of co-working and co-living, was more conducive for a workation than a regular homestay or guest house and most inhabitants were engaged in remote full-time jobs or online coding boot camps.
Despite staying at AltSpace for two weeks, I wasn’t able to cover all of Khaniyara valley, Rakkar, and nearby places. I wanted to hike up one of the surrounding mountains to catch a bird’s eye view of the valley below, revisit Norbulingka Institute, and take a dip in the river flowing next to the campus. I couldn’t do any of this thanks to the rain and limited free time, but enjoying the monsoon on campus and making spontaneous trips to places with my co-travelers was a lot of fun. If anything, all that I couldn’t do is incentive enough to go back, perhaps this time in the winter when the snow peaks are visible from the campus!
Until a few years back, I would’ve never imagined that working a full-time job and earning a salary that allows me to live a comfortable life and pursue hobbies outside of work could be possible while working from scenic places. At times I wonder what it would take to do the kind of work I really want to do, to live the kind of life I really want to live. But working from places like AltSpace is also a reminder of how far I’ve come. That, this too, is a dream-come-true of sorts and there’s much to be grateful for even today!
A lot of friends and acquaintances still ask me how I manage to travel so much and how I fund my trips. I wrote a blog about this a few years back. Remote work makes it easier, but I didn’t always have a remote job. Remote work brings its own set of constraints to travel, such as the need for high-speed internet and power backup (so remote places are off the list) and a conducive work environment (access to a desk/table and quiet spaces with network for calls and focused work). Availability of readymade food or easy access to groceries is also useful for busy work days (again not so easy to find in remote destinations – which are typically the kind of places I like to explore). Nevertheless, as I’m discovering, it’s possible to find a balance and park off-grid adventures for holidays.
My other monsoon trip was a long-weekend getaway with my school friends. We hadn’t taken a trip together in years and one of them recently relocated to Dehradun, so we decided to pick a place close by to save on commute time. R and I took the Shatabdi from Delhi and met our friends P and M in Dehradun, from where we took a taxi to Buranskhanda near Dhanaulti. P had found a homestay called Lacliff Nature Home – a newly-constructed off-road property where we were the first guests! The hosts had constructed a two-room house for themselves but decided to rent it out so they could meet people from different backgrounds and parts of the world while their children were away for school/college.
Getting to it entailed a 30-minute downhill hike from the nearest road. We were lucky it wasn’t raining when we reached or the trail would’ve been slippery and full of leeches.
From the moment we arrived, our hosts treated us like family, insisting we call them Uncle and Aunty. They helped us settle in and fed us delicious pakodas and chai. They told us about all the touristy things we could do and see in the vicinity, while we nodded and replied that we were already where we wanted to be.
The next three days were mostly spent on the balcony of the homestay, much to the amusement of our kind hosts. The house overlooked the mountains and valley below and offered the most mesmerizing views of the clouds floating in and out. We weren’t just watching the clouds, we were in the clouds! We made hundreds of time-lapse videos, played card games, caught up on each others’ lives, listened to our favourite songs (while P sang a few), and at least once a day, hiked to the nearby farms, stream, and school. We tasted walnuts straight off the trees, drank water from the stream, and walked past fragrant coriander farms. It was the best kind of vacation to enjoy with friends. We had no desire to sightsee and barring our hosts and a few local farmers, there were no other people in sight during our entire time there.
On our way back, the hike from the homestay to the main road was a lot more tiring and took us twice as long to hike uphill. We took a few breaks to catch our breath and enjoyed the panoramic views. We also passed by some caves that have been linked to the Pandavas, though our hosts rubbished the story and said it was made up to attract unsuspecting tourists (heh!).
Quiet places surrounded by greenery that aren’t too remote are hard to find. We were surprised that Buranskhanda had preserved its simple mountain-village life despite being just two hours away from Dehradun. An off-road property may scare off some travellers, but if you’re physically fit, it is worth it. The trail is not very difficult and you can take as many stops as you want. As they say, the journey is as beautiful as the destination.
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