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Irene's Adventures

India - McLeod Ganj (Dharmsala)

INDIA | Wednesday, 1 September 2010 | Views [730] | Comments [3]

We took the public bus from Amritsar to Pathankot, and then transferred to Dharamsala. It is only about 190 km but it took us 8 hours to get here. The roads are narrow, winding and not always paved plus it is the milk-run (stop at every little place to let people off or on). The bus was crowded, with 3 adults squashed into school bus size seats. The second bus was reminiscent of a 1950’s city bus, very old. It was raining when we boarded and some of the seats were wet from some of the open windows and the seams in the roof of the bus leaked. Oh, well, it didn’t rain the whole way.

McLeod Ganj is nearly 2000 meters up into the start of the Himalayas. The roads are very narrow, steep and winding and due to the monsoons recently, some parts of the road are sort of washed out or buried by landslides. Nothing dreadful, just enough that keeps the driver on his toes. This area gets the most (or second most, depending on your source) amount of rain in all of India. But it is absolutely beautiful. Even through the mist and rain, one could see the beauty of the valleys, rivers, and trees. Even if you think you know mountains because you’ve been to Banff, forget it! This is totally different.

The whole entire town is built of steep switch-backs. There are deep gutters running along every street to drain the torrential rains. The streets are only wide enough for one small car. Footpaths and rugged stone steps to lead to the shops, homes, and guesthouses that are not on the main roads. You are either going up or down, never flat. You go to the back of any shop and it invariably leads to a set of steps going up or down to another level you didn’t even see from the road. When you get to that level, you find it goes to yet another level, with a whole other set of buildings attached by walkways. Within these levels are mazes of alleys and walkways. One hears things like “where is that shop?” “Oh, just go to so-and-such and it is behind that and on the second level”. Some shops are even nestled in behind the stairs, no bigger than that unused space most people have in their basement. Not an inch of good space seems to be wasted. It is an absolute maze! It reminds me of a three dimensional Tetris game. Thankfully it is a very small town.

One can really feel the sense of community. Everyone seems to know everyone. No one is in a hurry. The cars have a hard time manoeuvring past the people walking and stopping to chat on the roads. Maybe because it is predominantly a Tibetan refugee town, they stick together and that is where the stronger than usual community ties come into play. That being said, it is not a refugee town as one would think. The people here have shops and businesses, with the usual blue tarp covered stalls lining the streets. They may be refugees, but they are anything but the miserable, hard-done-by group. On the contrary, they laugh, always have a ready smile and are super friendly. There is a definite sense of tranquility. It is easy to understand why some people who came here 2 years ago for a visit are still here.

It is so high up in the mountains that it always seems to be foggy.When we went down the mountain one day, it was bright and sunny, only to look up the hill to see Mcleod Ganj totally engulfed in fog / clouds.At times it seems like we are on the edge of the earth, as we can only see to the trees directly in front of us; the world beyond is obscured with fog, giving it the illusion that there is nothing past those trees that we can see.It really helps tie into the Buddhist philosophy of living in the “Here & Now” and that everything is temporary and changing.

Edge of the earth

Our new-found Buddhist monk friend explained that most people spend 90 percent of their time living in the past, 5 percent in the future and 5 percent in the now.We need to spend only 5 percent in the past, to remember the lessons learned through experience, and 75 percent in the now, and 20 percent in the future, as dreams and goals are what motivate us to be better humans.There you go, your Buddhist teaching for the day....LOL


It is monsoon season and the rain water is pouring down the roads, turning them into small rivers. One lady commented that she hadn’t been down this one road for a few weeks and today she noticed that one pathway was completely washed away. She was wondering how the nun’s get to their residence now. The temperature is about 24C, so it is still warm enough to wear sandals and shorter pants, which is great because shoes and long pants would just be soaked. When it thunders it echoes on for about a minute, or more, reverberating through the mountain tops. The sun does come out briefly,,,, sometimes,,,,,, sort of,,,, and sometimes it pours like God must be emptying his bathtub!! Most times it just rains.

There were prayers in the Gompa (Temple) for the people of Ladakh who were flooded recently. A couple thousand people all sat on cushions provided and were lead in prayer by the Karmapa..... The chanting was mesmerizing and beautiful. Blessed small loaves and chai were distributed to everyone, as this was quite early in the morning. The praying never missed a beat through the food distribution. There were people dressed in traditional Tibetan and Ladakh garb, adding emphasis to the region being prayed for.

butter lamps

Because this is a Tibetan refugee town and because it is also the resident town of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and has a proportionate amount of monks to residents and tourists, the ethics of Buddhism run deep.I have been volunteering at the English school and the topics suggested by the students to be discussed (and hence English practiced) have been “What things make you jealous?” and “What is your best and worst quality?”The answers are humbling.Most of the people were jealous of an education and their worst quality is that they don’t always give to the poor.Their best quality is praying for all sentient beings to be happy (even a goat hides from the rain) and honesty.They are also jealous of money and material things, good looks and boyfriends.Their other worst qualities are being lazy and selfish.One young fellow in my group had the good quality of being a “social butterfly”.The humor and the innocence of that answer did not go above the class’s head.

One 16 year old girl in my group came from Tibet 5 years ago.Her older brother, who had escaped years ago, sent money so that she could pay a guide for her to cross the mountains.No doubt the family had to decide which member got to go and which didn’t.There were about 10 other people in the group; they had to travel at night and in foggy or rainy weather and cautious of cooking fires, to dodge the Chinese patrols.It took them 2 months!She was 11 at the time.

You are all invited to watch a documentary CD that I purchased from a monk who brought 17 kids out of Tibet to be given an education in India.They did not have to be smuggled out, but it gives you a very good idea of what this young girl and her family had to go through in order for her to escape.It is heart wrenching and you will no longer view the posters and banners saying “Free Tibet” with the same heart and mind.I think this kind of communal tragedy also adds to the strong sense of community here in McLeod Ganj.

We went for a walk to the neighbouring villages of Dharamkot and Bhahsu.It isn’t far, only about 2 Km, but it took us 2 hours.Granted, we didn’t walk fast, but at times the trail literally went through corn and millet fields, through farm yards, steep, winding switchbacks and stone paths.Common sights are goats, dogs, pack mules, and monkeys.Those buggers can be down-right aggressive!!

One afternoon, I was blocked by a monkey sitting in the entrance to the guest house.I found out the hard way not to make eye contact with them, as the bugger came tearing toward me, making his little monkey growls and swiping his sharp clawed ‘hands’ at me.I ran like hell up a few steps while the annoying little dog that has keeps me awake every night came to my rescue, barking and chasing the monkey up a pole.Needless to say, the annoying little dog still keeps me awake at night, but I am not quite so annoyed.

Anyway, back to the neighbouring villages.They have a totally different feel than McLeod Ganj, as they are predominantly Hindu and Israeli, respectively. That is not a criticism of these two groups; it is merely an observation as to the difference in life style and customs. There are more shops and less blue tarp vendors; but there are more tarpped restaurants.They seem to be just flung up on the side of the street, and serve just about everything that anyone from anywhere in the world would consider home cooking – German, Italian, Israeli, Indian, Chinese.....Bonnyville restaurants could take an example from this and stop sharing the same cookbook.

We went into this weird, gaudy Fun-House kind of Shiva Temple.You go up the cave like steps through the mouth of a cement lion or alligator.There was a small alcove of various worship items, including a cow udder suspended from the ceiling – I told you it was weird!!There was another alcove with funky Indian music blasting (I don’t think ear buds have made it this far east, as there is ALWAYS funky Indian music blasting from people’s cell phones) and mini lights flashing on the wall.Rather gaudy for an alter.

Fun House temple udder worship

The people are not as smiley and cheerful as McLeod Ganj.For example, we were in a restaurant having breakfast (we started out early) and this beggar kid comes right up to our table and tries to snatch food right off our plates.We had to be quite rude to him to chase him away.He did NOT look starving. There are signs posted, warning visitors not to give to beggars, as they are provided for through Non-Government Organizations and they are only begging because they have become, basically, lazy.That being said, it is really hard not to give to the little old lady with no hands nor feet at the end of our street, who smiles so genuinely – Tashi Delehk!!

Happiness of happiness!!I got to see and listen to His Holiness the Dalai Lama teach on the Diamond Sutra.Anyone having read one of his books will attest to how difficult they are to read.Listening to him is no easier.He is a delightful man, always smiling and laughing, even while speaking on something quite in depth.He sits on his raised chair in the inner temple with only the chosen few around him.There is a huge outer temple that is covered by a roof, but no outer walls (that is where we sat).There is also a huge area downstairs, where there was large TV’s broadcasting live.I was sitting (cushions on the floor) next to a Tibetan lady who had a small view of him through the inner temple window.She offered to switch places with me so that I could see him.I was very grateful.

When he was finished talking he came out from the inner temple and walked a cleared path through the people, smiling, patting people on head, stopping to speak a few words to some others.He passed a mere meter from me.Sorry, no pictures to upload as cameras and cell phones strictly prohibited.You had to register prior with your passport and 2 photos, one for their records and one for your registration pass.You show your pass, go through the metal detector, they search your bags (pull everything out), then thoroughly frisk you.Uniformed and plain clothed armed guards are discretely everywhere.All for this Grandfatherly looking monk with a voice like Yoda from Star Wars.

During one of my English conversation classes, one young lady said that she had met him at his residence at a refugee reception.She said that he blessed her on the head and spoke to her, but she couldn’t remember what he said, as she was crying from happiness and sadness.I thought I understand why she was crying from happiness, but I was all together wrong.She said that in Tibet she had only seen pictures of the Dalai Lama and she didn’t think he was a real man.She thought he was only a statue.She was crying because she now knew that their spiritual leader and hope for a free Tibet was indeed a real person.She likened it to a Christian seeing Jesus Christ in the flesh.Having that story fresh in my mind made me appreciate how fortunate I was.As she told me, 6 million Tibetans will never see him and many think that he is only a statue.

We had to bring your own cushion, cup, and FM radio to tune into the translator.We happily put our cups forward in anticipation of chai with the loaves they served, and were rudely surprised to discover they brought out the good stuff for the Dalai Lama – the butter tea – gag – it is tea with ‘yak’ butter, and salt.It tastes like liquefied popcorn. GAG!! Granted, they did water it down so I managed to chug most of it back. Len, the good husband that he is, even drank Michaela’s for her. Gag.

We had noticed quite a few new faces about town the past 2 days, no doubt all here to attend the teachings. It was surreal to walk the road to the Gompa with thousands of pilgrims.The streets were a tangled mass of humans, dogs, less than usual cows and cars.Why anyone would deliberately choose to drive down that particular road on this particular day is beyond me.Welcome to India.....

morning chai

Next Delhi.......






Hi Irene
I read your blog with wonder, fasination and a touch of jealousy.
All the best for another wonderful adventure with Len and Michalea.
Safe journeys to all. :)

  Patti Boothby Sep 3, 2010 2:09 PM


You are getting better at putting a story together with pictures and now maps. Happy trails...Joe Cabay

  Joe Cabay Sep 3, 2010 3:31 PM


Great to see the pictures in with the stories Irene; we look forward to your next posting.

  Judy & Daryl Sep 4, 2010 8:27 AM

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