Dharamsala or, more specifically, McLeod Ganj, was somewhere I’d wanted to go from as far back as being in the south of India. Though not a Buddhist (or of any religion at all for that matter), the lure of the Himalayan foothills, the chance to meet Tibetan refugees, plus the fact that it’s the home of the Dalai Lama, made the area very, very appealing.
After a tiring 8hr bus journey, I was greeted by a man waving a business card for his guesthouse so, after checking his prices, I decided to follow him for what he described as a 5 minute walk. What I saw was completely different to what I expected of McLeod Ganj; there were bright neon lights covering the streets, restaurants of all cuisines packed with customers, and people stumbling out of rooftop bars: had I somehow ended up back in Goa? Or perhaps Bangalore? No, this was the commercial side of a very holy and significant Buddhist area. After climbing down what felt like hundreds of steps and passing through narrow gaps between guesthouses, I finally reached mine, settled in, ate, and awaited the morning.
Soon enough morning came and I headed straight outside to find one of the best views I’d seen in India so far (this turned out to be Triund Hill). I hit the steep steps I’d earlier climbed down and went off to see what this hilltop refugee town was all about. The place, situated along a narrow series of hilltops, was thriving with activity; people praying, yoga classes taking place, Monks walking about on their iphones, all of this with a beautiful Himalayan backdrop.
Now, I knew that at some point in India I wanted to some sort of volunteer work but I’d never really come across the right place to do it or the right time. Here though, I found that I could drop in and teach Tibetan Monks a bit of English, or at least try to so, after wandering around a bit more, I decided to head back home to organise a few things before going on. I arrived to be greeted, once again by ‘the Boss’ as I liked to call him, who asked me my plans for the day and whether I’d like to go paragliding. Paragliding? In the Himalayas? Yes please!
My companion for the day was a lovely Brazilian girl who’d spent the last 3 years living around India as an assistant director; she was also staying at my guesthouse and had already arranged the paragliding but, as it was cheaper with two, I was brought in; this turned out great. Paragliding was something I’d never done, nor really ever even thought about doing but, as with most unexpected things, it was fantastic; the views of the mountains and the lower plains in sight, plus the air acrobatics the guide performed, made for a great flight and something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
After an adrenaline filled morning followed by a more relaxed afternoon, I did what any normal person would do and went into ‘town’ to see what the local nightlife was like; I’d remembered how busy it was the previous night and it was no different so, after a meal and a few drinks, the day was rounded off perfectly (I later went on to meet another guy in the guesthouse from France; the 3 of us, in all, would go on to spend nearly a fortnight together.)
Now, if you’re in McLeod Ganj and want to get involved with the locals in doing some volunteer work, there is a place called Tibetan world; here you can drop in at either 10am or 4pm to talk to and teach Tibetan refugee Monks a bit of English; though brief, it’s one of the more rewarding things you can do in the area. The Monks love talking and, if you get to know them, they’ll tell you, sometimes with upset, all about the Tibet/China conflict which is very interesting. Anyway, if you’re not into this kind of thing and would rather do something else, there are many places to try yoga or, if you’re more artfully minded, there is a place where you can learn traditional Tibetan painting techniques (I only found this place on my last day, which I deeply regretted).
One thing I did finally do which I’d been meaning to do throughout India was meditation; there is a monastery in the forest about a half hour walk from the centre of town called Tushita- here you can drop in on a morning at around 9:30 am for a session of meditation (though get there early as places soon fill up). The sessions I went to were led by either an Australian guy or an Irish guy (which I found very amusing), but are generally very good.
I happened to be here at the right time as, on one particular day, we were all invited to a teaching by a famous Tibetan Buddhism teacher: Khyongla Rato, also known as Khyongla Rato Rinpoche; this man was a Monk for over 30yrs and was an incarnate Lama from being a young boy. Khyongla was a senior tutor to the Dalai Lama in his early years and is still a prominent figure in his life so, as you can imagine, a teaching by him was something I really didn’t want to miss out on, religious or not (he was also the guru for other significant Buddhists and Monks such as Nicholas Vreeland and Richard Gere of all people).
He was a very well humoured man and was well aware of criticism; at one point he even said that he was no longer a Monk ‘because he has too much anger and resentment in him’ which I thought was hilarious, yet honest.Though I found his teachings on meditation and enlightenment thought provoking, I still don’t believe that meditation is spiritual; it is certainly calming and mind clearing, but spiritual it is not.
Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, the scenery surrounding McLeod Ganj is beautiful. There are waterfalls and old Christian churches buried within forests, snowy peaks to climb and, of course, many hikes to do. I later decided to take the Triund hike (which I’ll write about in a future post) with my Brazilian friend and a Belgian guy who, for the length of the hike, spoke maybe 2 sentences. There are also a few short hikes to do, or more ‘walks’ as I call them, to places like Dal Lake (which actually passes by a very beautiful Christian church by the name of ‘St.John’s in the Wilderness) and to Bhagsunag waterfall.
As always on my travels, I made a couple of mistakes. Firstly, I headed to another little area called Dharamkot which, though nice with its varied restaurants, is filled with pseudo-hippies and their kind so, as you know, I had to leave as soon as possible. The other mistake was walking around without a jacket of some sort. In Dharamsala I saw some of the most violent thunderstorms I’d seen in my life; everyday, usually late afternoon, the air would turn humid and within half an hour the place was being pelted, the power would go out, and I’d get drenched trying to find shelter.
There wasn’t a time more annoying as when me and an American friend (a girl I actually met in Bangalore) were walking back from Bhagsu when, in the middle of nowhere, the sky turned dark and we knew we were in the sh*t. However, this wasn’t all bad and though we looked like drowned rats, the whole area looked completely different in the rain and we happened upon 4 Indian girls who, much more clever than us, decided to carry raincoats with them; as always the girls wanted photos and we got a few of our own.
I felt generally quite humble in the Dharamsala area. McLeod Ganj expecially. Here I was, a tourist (whether I liked it or not) wandering around, eating great food, drinking nice drinks, and spending money (though always on a budget). When you travel around India you will often be told that ‘guest is god’ or something of that nature and, though you feel silly, you also generally feel that this is true and you accept it, but not here.
Here I felt humble not just because of the people around me, but also because of the history of the place and the situation the people here are in; the Tibetan refugees that first came here in 1959 (including the Dalai Lama), had to flee, with many of them having to pass over the Himalayas. The people that live here, whether people know it or not, are still in exile (though some self imposed) and live a life knowing that they cannot return to their country without serious repercussions from the Chinese government.
With my time in India ending within 3 weeks, I’d started to reflect on what I’d seen and the people I’d met, some of which I’ll never forget. In McLeod Ganj for example, especially after the paragliding, the teaching of Monks, and my own teaching from a prominent Buddhist figure, I seriously started to think about how things can change in such a short space of time; whether it be a few days, a couple of weeks, or nearly 4 months; hopefully in these spaces of time things have changed for the better.
I wouldn’t say that travelling has changed me as a person (I can still be a grumpy tw*t) but I’m definitely more calm on the whole (can’t remember the last time I got stressed out) and I’m certainly seeing things generally in a different way, but whether that’s a good thing or not will remain to be seen…