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Published: October 20th 2011
As I sit on my balcony, overlooking a steep alpine valley stretching into the distant haze of the Indian valley below, four huge eagles ride spiralling thermals up from the valley floor, over my head to the peaks behind my privileged position at Om Hotel in Mcleod Ganj, Dharamasala, India.
I arrived via a brutal sixteen hour one stop flight from London to Delhi, twenty-four hours in the bustling chaos of India’s capital, and a twelve hour bone jangling sleep deprived bus ride up through the hills, to the place his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama calls home.
Although the bus ride was the most uncomfortable in my travel career to date; it was the first time I have hit my head on a bus roof due to the size of the bumps and the speed at which they were taken by our red-eyed silent driver, the change in the air quality as we progressed north was noticeable, and welcomed by the motley band of travellers on the Alton Towers inspired trip.
As the sun rose we began climbing steeply up switch-back Alpine roads, edging closer and closer to our destination. We reached McLeod Ganj at 7.30am, I
OM Hotel - View from my Balcony
It was from here on day one that the Eagles made their appearance in the valley.
found my sanctuary in Om Hotel at 8am and was asleep by 8.30am!
McLeod was a tiny settlement in the hills, of no real repute until 1959 when the Dalai Lama arrived here and claimed asylum following his exile from Tibet. Since then it has become a centre for the study of Buddhism and Tibetan Culture and is home to an ever increasing number of Tibetan refugees fleeing their homes following persecution from the Chinese authorities for maintaining their spiritual and cultural traditions. It is estimated around 2,500 Tibetans leave their homes each year and make for refugee centres in Nepal, Bhutan and India. In McLeod Ganj and the surrounding larger town of Dharamasala there are currently around 80,000 Tibetans living in exile. The town I am now staying in is still small, but has a population which is a real mix of the hill people of India and a Tibetan community who now call it home. Buddhist Monks walk the streets freely talking to anyone who engages with them, and the choice of street food is more diverse here than anywhere I have been in India. Tibetan Momo and Noodle stalls sit comfortably next to Thali stands and
Chai Wallahs. If ever you are here I strongly recommend Tibetan Thenduk Noodle soup at Norlings Restaurant, easily my favourite.
I came here to volunteer with a social work organisation called LHA who work with the refugee community, (not all Tibetans here fall into the common idea of refugee, many of the thriving businesses and hotels here are Tibetan family owned and run) and the Monastery to improve living conditions for new refugees and assist in the education of Monks studying English. I volunteered to take part in conversational English classes with local Tibetans and Monks for one hour each day. Although I was sceptical of the idea of “pop charity”, having only a few days to give, and being wary of actually hindering the language education process due to coming and going quickly, I attended my first session with an open mind. Between 4 and 5pm for 4 days I sat in a very full classroom and engaged in informal conversation with two people at a time. During the day they had learnt some form of grammar and the informal class was an opportunity for them to practise using it in discussion. I met eight different students, working
with them for one hour each in pairs. There were two students who stood out in particular – Samdup, a 25 year old Monk whose monastery is in Shimla is here for two years to study English as he intends to go to the USA to work with American Buddhist Monks, and Geckil, a 25 year old woman who left Tibet for an audience with His Holiness in McLeod Ganj and has not been allowed to return. Their reasons for studying English (Geckil was passionate about just finding work and needed English to be able to get a job in Tourism) were very different, but their pride in being Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhist shone through in all they said.
We would practise the grammar they had learned, but there was also mutual learning about each other’s worlds. I asked them directly what they thought of short-term volunteers like me and their response was unequivocally positive. They felt that it actually helped that they were speaking to different people each day in their informal sessions, and at the end they thanked me genuinely – and I thanked them. Little did they know they had re-ignited parts of my brain I thought
They look so cool in their prescribed attire - for his sake I have cut off the bottom, he was wearing pink crocs!
were cauterised by my time working in London!
The work LHA does is obviously extremely valuable in the community and I feel proud to have been part of it, even for a little while.
The rest of my time in McLeod was up to me to fill. On my second day I made my way through a guard of honour of craftsmen and women selling their brightly coloured wares down both sides of temple road to the Tsuglagkhang temple complex, home to the Tibetan Museum, and the official home of The 14th Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Museum was interesting but did not hold much information about Tibetan culture, it was purely a testament to the trouble faced by Tibetans since the Chinese occupation in the 1950’s. It also celebrated a growing number of martyrs who have self immolated (set themselves on fire) in public places in protest at the treatment of Tibetans in their homeland. I can completely understand a need for the protection of Tibetan culture, and a need for global awareness. I also personally agree with Tibet being a free and independent nation, but I remain unconvinced about the benefits that can come from setting fire
to oneself. By dying you can be of no further use in helping the process and the grief it must cause families and communities can only be imagined. By celebrating these actions does this not contradict the peaceful teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama? It appears to me that extremism in any sphere is actually a counterproductive force in affecting desired change.
My ideas were challenged later that evening when I headed out for dinner. As the town grew dark I bore witness to a huge procession of monks, Tibetans, and a number of tourists all chanting a Buddhist Mantra, holding candles and walking laps of the town for one hour. This turned out to be a reaction to something which had happened in Tibet earlier that day. A peaceful protest in eastern Tibet had been fired on by Chinese forces, three people had died, twelve injured and in reaction to this a nun had self immolated in the town square. The people of Mcleod Ganj came together to commemorate them and to mourn. The following day all Tibetan businesses were closed and it was said that all Tibetans worldwide would fast for one day to try and
Dharamkot from Bagshu
Peaceful hill villages hugged by the massif around them
alert the world media to what was happening. At a talk given later that evening by a former political prisoner it was clear that Tibet’s problems would only continue as powerful world governments refuse to acknowledge their cause for fear of damaging fragile relations with the worlds new economic superpower, China.
It is obvious that in McLeod Ganj one only receives the bias information of the Tibetan side of the story, but it is evident there is a story, and it needs to examined and challenged by those that can make a difference.
There was a lighter side to the heavy nature of the day’s experience. Five minute’s walk up the hill from the Museum is the monastery. As I arrived a large group of young novice monks flooded into the chompa and for fifteen minutes I watched them “knock about” as any other kids would do in their school playgrounds. It was a welcome tonic compared to the museum exhibition and the talk later that evening.
Mcleod is surrounded by some stunning mountain scenery leading up into the Himalaya. I spent a hot sunny morning walking the seven kilometres up to the mountain village of Dharamkot,
My Daily Chai Wallah in McLeod Ganj
across the mountainside to Bagshu, and back to McLeod.
A road leads to Dharamkot, but between the two villages is just a path worn over time by the footfall of peasant farmers and their bovine companions. The scenery was stunning and far more rural than down at the hippy hotspot of Mcleod. The path passed through terraced fields, cows grazing, and women in brightly coloured saris carrying bundles of hay on their heads. Dharamkot must have been what McLeod was like before His Holiness and the tourist hordes arrived. This whole hillside, whether in the Tibetan community of McLeod, or up in the hills of Dharamkot and Baghsu feels like another world from the hustle bustle of the Indian plains below. It imbibes you with a sense of peace, of the world moving slowly, and of you being a small part of it for just a while.
Whether talking with Monks, walking in the hills, listening to stories of Tibetan refugees, or sitting watching Eagles soar, I have enjoyed this unique community in the hills. It challenges you and relaxes you all at the same time, and is well worth the bumpy twelve hours in a bus to get there.
Which is just as well... it’s another bumpy twelve hours back down again!
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