Having been to India twice before, I wasn’t planning to visit again for some time – there are so many other places and people I wish to see. However a reason came along that would push me to dive straight into the senses-assaulting beauty of this place again.
For those not aware, McLeod Ganj is a small outpost in the Himachal Province of northern India, right next a place some cricket lovers would also know – Dharmshala. It is best known for it’s most famous resident, his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, but we’ll get to that.
Below I’ve grouped the experiences into a few buckets to help the mental digestion:
Fast forward through 4 flights, 3 manageable layovers and 1 overpriced coffee and we finally alight at Dharamshala / Kangra Airport. With a bump and slowing of the rotters my thoughts came to a stand still – the view you are greeted with is extraordinary, no more so as it’s something I rarely get to see with such grandeur:
Eventually I left the airport, and guiltily admitted to myself I had no idea where I was going… you see I hadn’t technically made any real plans before coming here ^^ So I decided to head to for the one place I knew I wanted to see eventually – Mr Lama’s house. And with some walking, a few bus rides and help from many a kind stranger, I finally arrived at Mcleod Ganj.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Good news: Mr Lama’s house is easy to find, being right behind and partially part of the temple complex in McLeod Ganj.
Bad news: The reality of being a global figure and ongoing activist and figure for human rights and the plight of the Tibetan people, is that there is very little down time at home.
My preparation for the trip started with a purchase of a book, “A Force for Good” by Daniel Goleman. Over the preceding weeks and right until the middle of the trip I would slowly digest and savour some of the views and stories in this book. No reading on the planes, but a favourite movie was ‘She Remembers, He Forgets‘, it’s lovely (:
I missed my chance to see him (this time), ending my visit the day before he was meant to give a public teaching as he does. I did however, through a combination of the book I was reading and watching a live stream of the UN event in Geneva where he spoke the week before, gain a sense of the man he is and the viewpoints he holds. Which is why the 14th Dalai Lama has fast become one of my heroes. He truly supports a harmonious and collaborative world that embraces diversity in religion, politics and the like with no push to convert or assimilate others.
The morning was cold, so huddling into what I had (weather forecast forgot to add -5C to everything it said) I spent about 30min trying to find the agreed cafe. The previous evening I had been blessed with making a new friend, a Tibetan monk who had recently moved back to McLeod Ganj, and even better we was equally interested in speaking to me again. I was late to the cafe but thankfully he waited for me. This would not be the only time we met, but definitely the first time was the most surreal. All people are people (seems logical enough), but some images are far more exotic to my South African roots, one of them being any type of highly spiritual monk or nun.
While we never found a good time for some yoga & meditation (he’s a teacher of both, apart from Buddhism Dharma), we did get to meet again and share some thoughts on politics, harmony in the world and ‘Why do you all wear maroon robes?” amongst some of my less intellectual questions.
Being blessed to make new friends on any journey is one of my favourite things about traveling. In this instance I feel the blessing was even bigger as I could actively learn so much (: Big thanks!
Dal Lake & Naddi Village
On my second day the sun was heating up the shadows a bit and the mountain air started calling – so I decided to go find out what Dal Lake and Naddi Village are all about. The walk there was good with acres of Himalayan Pines stretching up and down the mountains you walk through. While the walk was good, the lake and village didn’t offer much I felt excited about. I did however get some more amazing panoramas of the snow capped mountains and enriched my bloodstream with 100% pure mountain air.
Without meaning to I ended up in Naddi Village again a few days later. I was following a path that I understood lead to a temple or waterfall or similar, but after a while it became apparent I must have missed that place. I emerged from the pines again at the crest of Naddi Village and took a winding walkway between the houses around to the back of the hill while looking for a place to eat my little sandwich. It was worth the walk and completely saved Naddi Village in my mind, the view was breathtaking – covering both the valley below and the mountains across the entire stretch of sky ahead of you.
LHA Volunteer Work
One of the biggest highlights of the trip came when I attended Lha’s volunteer conversation classes. You basically get to have fun conversations with a group of local Tibetan students of all ages, sharing stories and jokes and improving some English along the way. I would come back to these classes as often as my activities and their schedule allowed, which turned out to be three times.
It also let me see a cross section of the different shapes that Tibetan culture is taking locally, comparing the younger generation to the older.
With a potentially two-faced weather forecast I packed my bag and started the hike up to Triund on my third day. The hike itself gets better the further you go, with less and less traffic and an ever increasing expanse of the planes below and the mountains on each side to view. In the 3h it took to the top I made some passing friends, who would later become instrumental in the journey back down.
Apparently the snow isn’t meant to still be around as thick this time of year, all I know is that the front shop/shack makes the best Maggi noodles and tea I’ve had in my life. While traffic up was sparse, the top let me meet many other groups who had come up to enjoy the snow and hike.
After a while and some investigation I agreed with my new friends in rather not staying over for the night. So we headed back down, at which point my knee decided to hate me. Evidently the hike uphill with the backpack was a long forgotten activity and going back down wasn’t on the agreed roster for the day. My friends helped keep me distracted as we moved down from snow, to sleet, to hail and eventually to an ongoing drizzle that would see us back to McLeod Ganj. That evening I discovered two more pleasures as if for the first time – a scorching hot shower and hot chocolate with whiskey in it <3.
Food & Drink
So for the far majority of my time on this trip I kept being pulled back to a restaurant called Common Ground (yes, relation). A clean duplex from the outside with a small porch, inside you find the most loving and welcoming atmosphere you could ask for. It is a family run business with mom and sister running the show most of the day while dad is away working at the LHA community project. In the evenings both daughters also make and appearance so you get to enjoy their interaction with their parents even while food and drinks materialise at great speed from the partition in the back.
The owner of the restaurant deserves a special mention, not often do you meet someone who inspires such compassion and respect in everyone they meet. In asking around I found I was not the only one who would enjoy being a bit more like him, authentic and sincere in all interactions, always ready with a little laugh and full smile for all (:
The other diet related point that cannot go without notice is the local cuisine sold on the streets, momos (these are in fact fried and steamed dumplings). For Rs20 for 5 they are probably one of the cheapest meals around and when you add the home made chutney they come with there is no better feast to be had. These small stove-stalls become informal meeting places as you frequently find yourself speaking to others waiting for their share of deliciousness, the conversation does suffer once the eating starts however as they’re best while warm 😉
Tibet & it’s People
A running theme throughout the area is a teaching on Tibetan history, culture and current condition. Some of it you will take in quite passively through comments and posters, maybe some FREE TIBET slogans somewhere. There is however a wealth of knowledge to uncover if you go looking.
For a start, five days a week the Tibetan Museum is open and shows a long selection of short documentaries on Tibet at 11am and 3pm each of these days. If you go for an entire month I believe you might see one repeat viewing. These movies are a great addition to a visit of the museum itself as it tells the ongoing story of the Tibetan identity.
Next on the list is the Tibetan Library, which you find after a good 30min walk down the mountain. The Library building has a second and third floor used for showcasing and teaching, with the main library itself being on the first floor. We spent quite a bit of time looking through the older and newly published magazines, newsletters and books related to Tibet and Buddhism. Another plus is that from 1-2pm it is lunch break, so while you cannot go into the library you can enjoy an amazing buffet meal at the campus’ cafeteria shop for Rs60. This was such a great surprise we went for seconds and the chef told us they make a different spread each day of the week.
What you may or may not know is that Tibet also has a government-in-exile, and during this trip they were having their second democratic election. For me this was an amazingly interesting topic to uncover, including the differences of opinions in some of the campaigning of candidates, the history of how this government came to be (how it is kept alive) and how the Dalai Lama fits into this structure. While the whole topic is quite long I’ll mention that (1) I’m immensely impressed with this setup and (2) the Tibetan identity is very much alive and well globally.
Although it has never been my practice to date to spend so much time in one location, the experience of unwinding to match the local pace was lovely. It also brought to my attention the wealth of smaller activities and interest points you may not notice over a long weekend in the area.
On a personal level this trip has done a lot of good for me, including bringing me a lens closer to uncovering my passions. I don’t know when I may go back here again, but the lessons learned and the seeds planted won’t be leaving me any time soon (: