Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stairway To Heaven ... NOT!

Pink House Hotel
Jogiwara Road - Below and Across From Yongling School
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, H.P., India

Javid, the owner of Pink House, was very helpful and friendly, answering questions about my reservation and upcoming visit to Dharamsala. He arranged for a ride from the airport in Gogol for 700 rupees ($11.35) upon arrival, which I thought was a decent price by US standards for a 10-mile taxi ride. Considering that the taxi from my hotel in Delhi (where everything is more expensive than in Dharamsala) to the airport was just 400 rupees ($6.50 for a 13-mile journey), it turned out not to be such a great deal after all. The driver dropped me on the street and pointed to some extremely long, very steep, dangerous looking stairs in varying degrees of disrepair (note to self #1 … is this the only access point?”) and said “look for the sign”.

The hotel is nice enough, not swank and not a dive, with many rooms having balconies and views of the foothills and Himalayas. Javid was updating many of the rooms during my stay, making them more comfortable, but also causing noise problems and clutter while the repairs were being made. The rooms have differing views depending on which direction you are facing and which floor you are on (1st floor rooms have poor views), but all have cable TVs (old CRTs with poor reception), balconies, large beds, cabinet (no closet or wardrobe), bath with western-style toilet, sink, and a shower with no enclosure (your bathroom is your shower in India), but no heating system in sight (note to self #2 … “it seems awful chilly in here”). There is also Wi-Fi throughout the hotel (note to self #3 … “I hope the Wi-Fi isn’t as slow as it was in Delhi!”), with a router on each floor, so the signal is strong everywhere … WOO-HOO!

The first few days I had breakfast at the “rooftop café”, which is just barely that, a roof with a couple plastic tables and chairs, no roof, no cover, and no heat on cold November mornings. Still recovering from jet lag, I was up early each morning watching the gorgeous sunrises and noticed that the servers first arrived to take orders at varying hours, sometimes 7:30 am, other times well after 8:00 am (note to self #4 … “I wonder what time they start serving breakfast?”). The Tibetan bread, which became my morning staple, with locally made peanut butter (70 rupees/$1.15) was tasty and a pot of milk coffee (warm milk with varying degrees of instant coffee added) set me back another 80 rupees/$1.30, so $2.50 seemed fair enough (note to self #5) for a decent, not great breakfast.

I quickly became exhausted by and very concerned (see note to self #1) about the hundreds of stairs from Pink House up to Jogiwara Road. Being a disabled Veteran with very bad knees and back, the stairs, which are extremely dangerous by day and treacherous by night (very little light), vary widely in height, have loose or missing rocks and bricks (many steps are crumbling), and many are constantly soaked with the water escaping from the numerous pipes crisscrossing the steps (another tripping hazard). I stumbled on several occasions due to varying heights and uneven surfaces, twisting my knee on one occasion and nearly tumbling head over heel down the steep incline on a few others. Having made a commitment to stay long-term (I was visiting for 7 weeks and received a small discount on my room), I decided to stick it out until I felt my health or life was in danger.

Pink House staff are very friendly and helpful most of the time. Rooms can be cleaned if you make the journey to floor number 4 to drop off your key in the morning and inexpensive laundry services are also available ($1.00 to $2.50 for a few shirts, pants, socks, and undies), dropping items off (again on the 4th floor) in the morning and picking them up the same evening.

Being November and at an altitude of over 5,750 feet (1,750 meters), days were very comfortable when in the sun (plentiful this time of year) and a bit chilly in the shade, but nights dipped into the 30s and 40s and the rooms quickly became very cold (see note to self #2). In-fact, I had not seen a heater anywhere in India since my arrival, including restaurants, other businesses, and hotels, which may not have been an issue in Delhi, but made for some mildly uncomfortable experiences in the mountains. After a nearly two weeks of freezing my bum off in the middle of the night when I had to use the toilet (loo) and in the morning, I asked about the possibility of getting a heater in my room, but was told “you have two blankets don’t you?”. I decided to suffer a little rather than make an issue out of it because the steps were making it likely I would not be there much longer anyway.

The Wi-Fi signals were great due to the routers on each floor, but unfortunately the internet was extremely slow (note to self #3). Being an avid blogger, TripAdvisor “Top Contributor”, and wanting to upload reviews and photos, as well as keep in contact with my family and friends via Skype and Facetime, the Wi-Fi was woefully inadequate. Beside the numerous and frequent power outages in McLeod Ganj which resulted in no Wi-Fi (or TV), the Wi-Fi quickly became an issue due to the inordinate amount of time it took to do anything and the frustration caused by Skype and Facetime calls home where I could only hear every fifth word being said.

Again, after the first few days, I decided to move indoors to the “relative” warmth of my room for breakfast, not knowing when the servers would arrive on the roof each morning (note to self #4). I asked when breakfast was available each morning and was told 7:30 am, but I found that the staff in general do not seem to awake early because when I called at 7:30 sharp each morning I either spoke to someone who had obviously been awakened by my call (staff sleep in the reception office, which is not on the ground floor, but on the 4th floor next to the rooftop café) or someone else who barely spoke English. Most of the time, my breakfast arrived within 15 minutes and the young men delivering it were friendly and helpful. However, on a few occasions my order did not arrive after 45 minutes to an hour, causing frustration and late arrival to my 9:00 am (not including the nearly 30 minute walk UP THE HUNDREDS OF STEPS and down Jogiwara Road from McLeod Ganj) Buddhist Philosophy class at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archive. I also inquired about an early breakfast during the Dalai Lama’s teachings (November 11-13 2014 – 8am – 12pm daily with arrival NLT 7:30am), but was told “the kitchen opens at 7:30am” … maybe), so I ordered my breakfast the night before and drank cold coffee and ate stale Tibetan bread for three days. After 20 years in the Air Force, I have experienced worse conditions.

I never ate anything at Pink House other than breakfast because I avoided navigating the dreaded steps except for a trip up each morning and one down each night. The menu was extensive and from what I saw the food looked pretty good, but the value is questionable based on my breakfast costs and comparable meals in town. Having paid $2.50 for a small pot of weak coffee, a piece of local bread that can be purchased for 10 rupees (16 cents) in town, and a tablespoon of peanut butter, in comparison to the wonderful $3.00 dinners I regularly ate, the food did not seem like such a great value after all.

After 3 weeks, I had enough of the treacherous stairs, painful knees, and risk to my existence on Earth, the widely varying and undependable breakfast hours (they probably got tired of me waking them up every morning at 7:30), and the very slow Wi-Fi, so I decided to find a place closer to the road, the Tibetan Library, town, and my yoga instructor … mostly the deadly stairs … finding a comparable room and view at less than half of the price (333 rupees per night or $5.35), being centrally located between destinations WITH NO STEPS!

At first glance and in terms of western standards and prices, Pink House appears to be an exceptional value at $10-$20 per night, but comparatively speaking in McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala, that did not necessarily turn out to be the case. The longer I stayed in the area and the more people I spoke to, the more I realized that Pink House was one of the more expensive and isolated places in town. A Buddhist monk friend paid 2,00o rupees per month ($32.00) for his centrally located room, a basic but clean room with shared bath, and another was paying 300 rupees ($4.85) per night for a double room at a monastery just off the main market with a private bath, so $15 per night was quite expensive in this neck of the woods.

If Pink House where in the U.S., Europe, Japan, or Korea (among other more expensive destinations), they would get 10 Bombs Out Of 10. But in terms of other local (India in general, Dharamsala in particular) establishments, on which I base my “VALUE” determinations, Pink House is very middle of the road. Therefore, if you have great knees, do not mind the cold or paying a bit extra for the convenience of eating in your room, and enjoy beautiful views, fair service, and in-house laundry services, then Pink House is a very good choice. But be warned, there are better values out there, particularly for those visiting for extended periods where significant discounts of 50% to 70% can be had over nightly lodging prices.

CombatCritic Gives Pink House Hotel A Slightly Above Average 6 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better





Key Words: Pink House Hotel, pink, house, hotel, rooftop, café, menu, wi-fi, internet, laundry, McLeod Ganj, mcleod, ganj, Dharamsala, Dharamshala, India, travel, value, Yongling

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Long Walk (Uphill Both Ways), All For Not

I decided to try Taste of India on a nice Sunday afternoon in mid-November, walking 15-minutes up the steep TIPA Road from the Main Square in McLeod Ganj. 

When I finally arrived, low and behold the door was locked (2:45 pm), the TV on, and the windows looking like they had not been cleaned in years. I had doubts as to whether the place had been abandoned or not, but the TV made me believe that their were inhabitants, food or no food, but they were nowhere in sight.

I was looking forward to some authentic Indian food after reading the many good reviews on TripAdvisor, but it was not meant to be, so I strolled back down the hill in search of other options,

CombatCritic MUST Give Taste of India 1 Bomb Out Of 10 ... MORE BOMBS ARE BETTER!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Good, Reasonably Priced Fare In A Country Not Well Known For Great Italian

Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen
Jogawara Road, Market Area (Upstairs)
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, H.P. India 176219
Prices: $$$$$

Dining Room
Jimmy’s is the only restaurant in town that serves only Italian food … bruschetta (learn how to pronounce it Americans), pasta, pizza, main courses with actual meat and more! You have to look up and on the right as you walk up Jogiwara Road (from the direction of the Dalai Lama’s Temple) about halfway through the McLeod Ganj “market” (shopping area) on the way to the Main Square to see Jimmy’s neon sign up on the third floor.

TV and Asian Style Seating Area
The restaurant is large by Dharamsala standards and nicely appointed with marble-top tables, nice modern colors, plenty of windows, and movie posters on the walls. They have a large screen LCD TV, which happened to be televising a cricket game while I was there. There are two small areas, one in the front as you walk in and another in the back near the TV, where those with good knees can sit at a low table on mats Asian style. Being an old military retiree and disabled Veteran, I went for a table and chairs.

The menu is large with numerous antipasti (appetizers), both veg (vegetarian) and non-veg as they are referred to here, several primi (first courses), including pizza and pasta dishes, as well as homemade ravioli, lasagna and gnocchi, and, finally, secondi (second courses – think meat) where you can choose from chicken, mutton, or pork prepared in a variety of ways. They also have many drinks, including milk shakes and lassi (a yogurt-based drink found throughout India similar to a milk shake, but without the ice cream).

Veggie Bruschetta
For my antipasto, I decided to try the mixed grilled vegetable “bruchetta” (90 Rupees/$1.46 - spelled “bruschetta” in Italy and unlike the pronunciation used by most Americans, pronounced “brew-sket-a”, not brew-shet-a, as the “sch” in Italy is pronounced like “sk” is in English). What I received was four large toasted slices of the best Italian-style bread I have had in India to date with an abundance of tasty grilled veggies (eggplant, mushrooms, onion, and bell peppers) with melted mozzarella cheese on top. Normally, bruschetta is served with cold vegetables (tomato, vegetables) on top and no cheese, but I was quite pleased with the taste. Bravo!

Gnocchi in Pesto Cream Soup, I Mean Sauce
For my primo, I chose the handmade gnocchi with ham in a pesto cream sauce (190 Rupees/$3.10). The gnocchi was excellent and perfectly cooked, not too chewy and not falling apart in my mouth, and the sauce was flavorful, not requiring salt, pepper, or added cheese as is the case with most pasta dishes I have had in India, but with a touch too much garlic (and I love garlic). My only complaint, and I shared this with the owner before leaving, was the same as at many restaurants in the U.S., and that is that there was far too much sauce. Proper pasta is served “al dente” and lightly basted in the sauce just prior to serving by flipping the pasta in the pan containing the heated sauce, but many restaurants outside of Italy overdo the sauce and mine was more like a thick soup with the gnocchi and ham being overwhelmed by the sauce. The owner shared with me the reason it is served this way and that is because his Indian customers are used to thick sauces (think curry, jalfraizi, and vindaloo) and believe that al dente pasta is undercooked, so he is catering to the majority of his clientele. Fair enough.

Chocolate Milk Shake
Feeling hungry and decadent, I also ordered a chocolate milk shake with ice cream (120 Rupees/$1.95) because I had read that they had an excellent peanut butter milk shake (not on the menu) on TripAdvisor. If you order a milk shake in India, do not expect what you normally think of a shake in western countries as they do not contain ice cream unless so stated. Drinks in India are routinely lukewarm as refrigeration is not great and ice is not a good idea because of potential water-born illnesses, so your milk shake will likely not be cold and frosty as you would expect. Mine tasted good enough, but the ice cream was not fully blended and at nearly $2 it was probably one of the worst values in my restaurant experiences here in India.

CombatCritic Gives Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen 7 Bombs Out Of 10 … With Deductions for Excess Sauce and Costly, Unfrosty Shake … More Bombs Are Better!






















Key Words: Jimmy’s Italian Kitchen, Jimmy’s, Jimmy, Italian, kitchen, pasta, pizza, restaurant, McLeod Ganj, mcloed, ganj, Dharamsala, India, Jogiwara, road, market, CombatCritic, travel, value, menu


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Palaco Handmade Crafts: Beautiful, Ornate, Handmade Crafts ... Reasonable Prices ... Outstanding Service!

Palaco Handmade Crafts
Shop #5 Temple Road (Behind State Bank ATM)
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, HP, India 176219
Phone: +91 97364 86748
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/PalacoCrafts

I would have missed Palaco Handmade Crafts if i had not started talking to the owner Taj while waiting in line for the ATM. The shop is behind the State Bank ATM on Temple Road about 125 meters from the Main Square, heading toward the Dalai Lama's Temple, and just 50 meters from the Buddhist Stuba (Buddhist Temple with prayer wheels) in the middle of town (same direction).


The shop is in the back on the left and is small, but filled with beautiful treasures from Tibetan, Kashmiri, and Indian craft makers, normally small families and individuals and not the mass produced garbage you find in many shops.

Silk and Kashmiri (Cashmere if you are American) woolen scarves, bedspreads and carpets, intricate inlaid wood trays, bowls, lamps and other small furnishings and knick-knacks, brass "chakra" bowls, Buddhist "tangas", purses and bags, and many other crafts are avaialble at very fair prices.

Taj is a wonderful person, inviting me for a cup of saffron tea made from VERY EXPENSIVE kashmiri saffron on my first visit, he is truly a warm and friendly person. Their prices are so low that you do not need to haggle like most stores in India, knowing that you are getting a good deal and an outstanding value.

CombatCritic Gives Palaco Handmade Crafts A Rare 10 Out of 10 Bombs ... BOMBS ARE GOOD!

Key Words: Palaco Handmade Crafts, Palaco, handmade, crafts, Tibetan, Kashmiri, India, Indian, McLeod Ganj, mcleod, ganj, Dharamsala, Dharmsala, silk, wool, Taj, purses, inlaid, wood, Temple Road, Shop #5

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mediocre Service, Non-Existent WiFi ... Superb Thai Curry

“Mediocre Service, Non-Existent WiFi ... Superb Thai Curry

The Clay Oven

McLeod Ganj, Himachal PradeshDharamsala 176219India

The restaurant sits just off the main square on the TIPA (Dharamkot) road and looks nicer than most in McLeod Ganj with wood beam ceilings, earth tones, and a nice terrace. 

The free WiFi was nearly non-existent, so don't bother if you need to get anything done while waiting to be seated, get your menu or your food.

I stood at the counter waiting for a table for nearly 5 minutes while employees danced around me saying nothing and with just three parties in a place that seats 50. I finally got my menus another 5 minutes after the grumpy guy (owner?) at the register ignored me and I sat myself.

I ordered the green chicken (Thai) curry (200 rupees - $3.20) and waited close to 30 minutes ... but IT WAS WORTH THE WAIT! Accompanied by white rice, the curry came in a clay pot, was generous in size, and hot, not scalding. The flavor was as good as any green curry I have had stateside and I have had quite a few. Spicy, but not overly hot, there were chunks of white meat chicken, mushrooms, and onion with just the right curry to rice ratio. Good stuff and at $3+ it was definitely the best value in terms of curry I have experienced!

The food quality and value alone would rate 9 BOMBS, but deducting 1 BOMB for lousy internet and another for mediocre service ...

CombatCritic Gives The Clay Oven 7 Bombs Out Of 10 ... MORE BOMBS ARE BETTER!








Key Words: The Clay Oven, clay, oven, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, Mcleod, Ganj, India, Thai, Tibetan, Indian, curry, coffee, Italian, pizza, pasta, menu, travel, value, CombatCritic

Snow Lion Restaurant ROARS ... Good Food, Excellent Value!

Snow Lion Restaurant
Jogiwara Road (Opposite Buddhist Temple - Stuba)
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala 176213, India
Phone: +91-1892-221289

Prices: $$$$$

The “snow lion” is a mythical creature featured on the Tibetan flag and I had seen the Snow Lion Restaurant while walking by on the busy main market street in McLeod Ganj, but had not entered because there were normally no free tables. I sauntered in one evening after seeing that the popular table by the front window was free.

No sooner had I sat down than two young Russian girls asked if they could join me, a common practice here in Himachel Pradesh. They were mildly friendly and soon went about their conversation while lounging on the couch opposite me. Many of the tables have double cushioned seats, so many of the young bohemians with unwashed dreadlocks and tattered clothes make themselves at home while surfing the internet (not just here, but in many cafés), feet on the seats and all. The restaurant is clean and comfortable with semi-bright lighting and the staff is very friendly and inviting.

The food is strictly vegetarian and the menu offers a wide variety of appetizers, entrees, drinks, and desserts. Momos are a Tibetan specialty, a savory pastry filled with vegetables, potato, cheese, meat or a combination thereof and served either steamed or fried. I tried the fried potato and cheese momos (80 rupees - $1.30), consisting of eight large pieces with soy and chili sauces available for dipping. Fresh and flavorful, Snow Lion's momos are very good and an excellent value.

I had seen “sizzlers” on several menus around town, so I decided to try the vegetable sizzler as an entree, adding some crispy-spicy potatoes and the lemon-ginger-honey tea (40 rupees - 65 cents) I have come to love. The potatoes arrived first, very thin French fries with a tasty seasoning and some VERY HOT slices of red and green chili intermixed. I decided to save most of them to accompany my entrée. The sizzler, aptly named because it is served on an iron skillet, much like fajitas would be served at a Mexican restaurant stateside, sizzling and steaming. The assorted vegetables, including
green beans, carrots, tomatoes, onion, cauliflower, and squash (I think) sat upon large cabbage leaves and was tasty although not well seasoned. I added some chili sauce, a condiment used like catsup here, and tossed the rest of my spicy French fries in for good measure. I have to say that for an all vegetable meal, I was quite full, but not so full that I could not resist the wonderful dessert options.

I asked if they had vanilla ice cream because the “eggless” apple pie looked scrumpdidiliumptious. They did, so I ordered a hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The pie was lukewarm, not hot, but it was very good as was the ice cream. The crust was crisp and delicious and the filling sweet, but not overly so. A nice finish to a very good, well-priced meal.

The WiFi is moderatley fast, the environment comfortable and inviting, and the service efficient and very friendly, and I understand that they open fairly early, by Indian standards, for breakfast. The only drawback is that the loo (toilet) is upstairs and is NOT the “western” variety, so be prepared to squat and bring your own TP as it is rarely found in public toilets, including this one. Snow Lion also offers rooms above the restaurant, so if and when I have a look, I will update this review.

CombatCritic Gives Snow Lion Restaurant 9 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!



Key Words: Snow Lion Restaurant, snow, lion, restaurant, McLeod Ganj, McLeod, Ganj, Dharamsala, India, cafe, coffee, free wifi, wifi, Tibetan, momo, menu, travel, value

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Carpe Diem: Sieze the "Lait" ... "Cafe au" That Is!

Carpe Diem Restaurant and Pizzeria
Jogiwara Road - Above Cinema
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, H.P. India
+91-988-219-2294

Cuisine: Breakfast, Coffee/Tea/Beer, Indian, Italian, Thai

Prices: $$$$$

Rooftop Terrace
I heard good things about the pizza, understanding that they have a wood-fire oven. The place is not easy to find unless to look up to the third floor of the building above the cinema on Jogiwara Road. The indoor restaurant is up one flight of stairs, but the rooftop terrace is quite nice if the weather permits.

The indoor restaurant was empty at 8PM on a Sunday night, but the terrace was packed, leaving one table for me. The crowd seemed to be young, American/European/Australian bohemians dressed in baggy clothes with dreadlocks, which is extremely common in McLeod Ganj at least. There are six or seven tables with chairs and a sitting area with low tables and mats to sit on (do not forget to take off your shoes).

Mutton (Lamb) Pepperoni Pizza - 210 Rupees ($3.40)
The menu is eclectic, but I had to try the "excellent pizza" I had heard so much about. I ordered the non-vegetarian pepperoni pizza (210 rupees - $3.45), thinking that it would be the standard spicy, greasy, pork variety we American expect ("pepperoni" in Italy is green bell peppers). The pizza came rather quickly and looked quite good actually. Not huge, it was thin and crispy, much like the pizzas you get in Rome and the flavor was also decent ... until I got my first bite of pepperoni. I actually like lamb from time to time, but not on my pizza. The pepperoni was obviously made of lamb (mutton here) and although not disgusting by any stretch, it was a little off-putting because it was not expected. Beside the taste of lamb sausage, the pizza was good, but next time I think I will order a vegetarian option or go with a Thai green curry or Indian dish.

One of the few restaurants that serves beer (you better like Kingfisher), the menu is huge and the prices are fair, a little higher than many places around town. The service was fast and friendly.

CombatCritic Gives Carpe Diem An Initial 6 Bombs Out of 10 ... MORE BOMBS ARE GOOD!

Key Words: CarpeDiem, carpe, diem, Jogiwara Road, breakfast, café, Thai, pizza, Dharamsala, food, Ganj, restaurant, beer, India, internet, Italian, McLeod, McLeod Ganj, menu, restaurant, Thai, Indian, terrace, travel, value, CombatCritic