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Published: October 7th 2017
Here in McLeod Ganj, a pretty corner of Himachal Pradesh’s Dhauladhar mountains, India gave the Dalai Lama refuge after he fled Tibet in 1959. Otherwise known as Upper Dharamsala, it is the tranquil, scenic end of town, set 500m up the mountain from its transport hub and scruffy market town counterpart in the valley. Halfway between the two, Gangchen Kyishong is the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile which undertakes political advocacy and administers to the educational and cultural needs of the roughly 100,000 Tibetans now living in India.
When I was approaching Lower Dharamsala, I had found myself wondering what I was actually doing here. I’m lucky enough to have been to Tibet, albeit to a necessarily limited extent; yet by definition I have seen infinitely more of their home country and much more recently than the people I would be encountering over the next few days. Many, of course, would have been born in exile and might never see the country they still call home. I felt guilty and a fraud: what right did I have to have seen their home country when they were unlikely ever to do so, or ever to do so again? The
Dharamsala area attracts a huge number of people, whether coming to enjoy a dose of Tibet-by-proxy, to pay homage to an incredible religious leader, or to help refugees in a foreign country. I didn’t really fit into any of those categories. Apart from the fact that, like George Mallory’s reputed rationale for tackling Everest, I was visiting McLeod Ganj “because it’s there”, I couldn’t remember why I had put it on the list. Maybe the Mallorian answer would have to suffice for now, and the guilt was just something I’d have to swallow.
This was the second of the long travel days on this trip, and I was decidedly sceptical about whether it was going to work. I’d psyched myself for a long day on the road. The online booking platform for buses in India, redBus.in, gave only one arrival time for the Shimla to Dharamsala route, regardless of which bus you chose. Each one of the six throughout the day was due to arrive at “00:05”. If you took the 21:30 option, that would be simply miraculous. Although only a distance of 242 km, it would require nothing short of a magic carpet to reach Dharamsala in that
kind of time. I was booked on the 09:40, and I sincerely hoped I wasn’t in for a 15+ hour journey.
We stopped for lunch at 2.45pm, randomly – or so it seemed – pulling over into what might generously be called a layby, opposite a large but simple restaurant. The driver’s assistant gave some sort of instruction which triggered barely perceptible movement in my nearest neighbours, the rocking movement of the bus having lulled them into some kind of zombie state. I hazarded a guess that this was at least a “bio break” (to quote my former American colleagues), and hauled myself out of my seat into the not-very-fresh air, and then realised that food must also be involved when I saw the driver comfortably seated inside the restaurant. A range of food was being ordered. I’m fortunately not given to travel sickness, but I can’t say the same for at least a couple of my fellow travellers, and even I wasn’t going to order anything adventurous. Roti and raita would suffice. Half an hour later, we hit the road again, only to pull over into a bus station a little further on where we disgorged about half
the bus-ful. How frustrating to be so near your destination and yet waiting out the time at a nothing-much eatery… or maybe that’s my impatient London head talking. No-one seemed remotely bothered. I looked at my map. We were in Hamipur, only half-way. I braced myself for another six hours on the road…
…and was pleasantly surprised when, barely two hours’ later, we passed a sign saying “Dharamsala 14 km”. Whatever the state of the road, I could walk from here, if push came to shove. It certainly pays to be pessimistic. The Lonely Planet had quoted ten hours for the trip, I’d assumed twelve, dreaded fifteen, and we’d made it in a little over nine. While the road down the mountain from Shimla is pretty bad, narrow and winding, the road along and up from Hamipur was much better, properly two-way and well surfaced. Now to find a taxi to take me the last 4 km up to McLeod Ganj – “Very steep road, mam,” I was told by the taxi agent when I queried the fare. Wear and tear on the clutch costs money.
The next morning, I woke to the sound of the river far
below as well as intermittent birdsong: deliciously un-Indian, not one car-horn interrupting the tranquillity. I opened the curtains and found myself with a tree-dominated view through which peered the two high peaks I’d seen the night before, the highest of this trip so far, gloriously lit by the sun against blue sky. Beaming widely, I threw on some clothes and scampered up the four floors to the Hotel Moon Walk Residency’s restaurant and outside terrace. (Yes, I admit, the name of the hotel had been a factor in my decision-making process a couple of weeks’ earlier.) It was a glorious morning, the sun streaming down, and the mountains looking temptingly benign. They were to prove a useful weather-gauge. If the mists were coming down from that direction, I’d stay indoors or make plans to take shelter in the next hour or so to avoid the resulting rain. The weather oddly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the place. It was late monsoon season, so the rains weren’t unexpected, but I couldn’t help thinking that, as with Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands, there was something just as appealing in the mystery suggested by mists and cloud as the dramatic spectacle revealed
by the sunshine.
I’d arrived after dark, and soon realised my bearings were out when I found myself walking downhill and reaching the Delek Hospital (“NO HORN PLEASE” – good luck with that on such a steep and bendy bit of road) and the gateway to the Central Tibetan Secretariat, both of which I’d noticed on my taxi’s climb up the mountain the previous night. However, what I hadn’t spotted before was the wall of missing persons notices. Well, sort of. These are some of the monks and nuns who have self-immolated in protest at the Chinese government’s actions over the last few years, and their faces are all around McLeod Ganj. I was particularly heart-struck by the pictures on the wall halfway round the kora, the ritual circuit, of the Tsuglagkhang Complex. Here were 100 Tibetans, including many ordinary people, who committed this awful act of protest in 2012. Pretty 23-year-old Tingzin Dolma in her bright red rain jacket, looking like a girl out for a day’s innocent fun with her friends. The wind-reddened cheeks of 30-year-old Kalkyi. She’s in traditional dress, a look of hard work in her eyes. Laughing Kynchok Woeser, a 23-year-old monk, his prayer
beads wrapped around his wrist, photographed with a momo raised to his lips, the second before he takes a bite. And 18-year-old Nagdrol, his long hair flopped over one side of his face in the close-up photograph. A smile plays on his lips, though his eyes remain serious. One young man is photographed already engulfed in flames and running. I couldn’t see his name, his picture being on the top row, but he’s shouting as he runs, and somehow I feel he’s shouting his cause, not screaming with pain. His eyes are wide open, not squeezed shut in agony. I cannot begin to imagine what would drive anyone to this awful act, such strength of belief in a cause. I felt utterly humbled.
It’s hard to get away from politics here.
Looking through my own photographs just now, I see that the weather has leeched out colour, and that seems to reflect my impressions, my mood as I think back to McLeod Ganj. The Tsuglagkhang Complex is the exiles’ replacement for Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, but it’s necessarily built of concrete and feels more like university accommodation than a place of worship or quiet contemplation. The centre of town
is filled with souvenir shops, including many selling purportedly Tibetan textiles and artefacts, but somehow the atmosphere is more like a mini version of Kathmandu’s Thamel district, though mercifully without the hassle – none of the “You want taxi? Trekking trip? Hashish? T-shirt?” There are monks and nuns a-plenty, of course – the red-robed figures an erstwhile companion affectionately called “Buddha guys” – and, from a practical perspective, I’d be tempted to conclude that they’re better off here than back in Tibet, certainly in material terms. Universally, for example, they seemed to be well shod – I admired the wonderfully deep red trainers that coordinated perfectly with the monks’ robes. Many had smartphones, glued to their ears or the subject of fixated attention, like teenagers in the West, and some carried golf umbrellas. Lay Tibetan women were dressed in the dark dresses and bright aprons that I’d remembered Tibet from ten years’ ago, but seemed to carry themselves more proudly here, more dignifiedly, not here in India the second-class citizens that their cousins and friends are forced to be back home.
The next day I left McLeod Ganj behind, at least for an hour or two, and went to
explore neighbouring villages. It was wonderful to escape buildings and people, and walk through trees, enjoying natural scenery, something which hasn’t been a feature of the vast majority of my previous explorations in India. Of course, there was still the odd too-fast driver or motorcyclist, intent on announcing their impending arrival with plentiful use of the horn, but, over the entire trip, I was only to encounter one driver who seemed to speed up on seeing me; generally they allowed enough space for the poor pedestrian, though it pays to be cautious and stand to one side, particularly if two vehicles are about to pass each other.
Bhagsu – properly Bhagsunag – is only a kilometre or so round the mountain from McLeod Ganj. Its centre was even more chaotic than its neighbour’s because vehicular traffic was banned beyond that point. Here the chaos was the result of the incomprehensible game of bumper-cars that is an Indian car park, whether official or not. I remember being bemused when I first encountered this in Delhi in 1994. The volume of traffic was such that cars would be abandoned haphazardly, the handbrake left off so that enterprising parking-wallahs could push the
cars around as required to liberate vehicles required by returning owners. Here in Bhagsu, beyond the bumper-car arena the lanes narrowed, once again lined by tourist-enticing stalls and shopfronts. I walked past a nondescript but elderly Shiva temple and a male-dominated open-air swimming pool (it’s inconceivable that women would participate in such a public set of baths in India), and found my target, the track up to Bhagsu’s main claim to fame, its waterfall. Me and hundreds of my closest friends. You do very little in India on your own, or so it feels most of the time. It was a Sunday and the atmosphere holiday-like, everyone out to enjoy the break in the monsoon – thunder had punctuated the previous night’s sleep and I’d woken to continuing rain which I’d waited out until it eased off at midday. (I may travel to India a fair amount, but I’m still very British in regarding rain as something to be avoided where possible, rather than, Indian-ly, sought out and enjoyed for the relief it brings from the stultifying heat.) Enterprising locals had set up a range of distractions along the kilometre or so of track, from abseiling down what must have
been pretty tiny cliffs, to the provision of sustenance to counter the (very minor) challenges of the trek. All ages were out, kids being carried across the rocks in the river, courting couples impractically clothed and shod, young men showing off to their mates. As I turned for one final photograph of the falls, I noticed the tops of the mountains were once again shrouded in mist. I’d be keeping an eye on the weather for the rest of the afternoon.
Back in McLeod Ganj’s Main Square – better described as “main chaos”, there being nothing square about this small area coping with two-way traffic from seven or eight different directions – I took another of the feeder roads. This one led slightly downhill, past an extended and typically overflowing parking lot, where people driving up from Lower Dharamsala leave their vehicles, and round the next valley in the opposite direction to Bhagsu. My destination was one of the oldest colonial remains in this area, the delightfully named Church of St John in the Wilderness. Almost invisible from the road, the church inhabits a time warp. Its solid stone construction is out of keeping with the concrete haphazardness of
McLeod Ganj, albeit its roof is now decorated with very Indian-ly practical blue tarpaulin sheets. Inside, the solid wooden benches and pretty single stained glass window are augmented by rows of plastic chairs, dripping strings of white fairy lights and a couple of neon strip-lights. Even with the main road to Dharamsala just above, it feels tranquil, sad, forgotten, in amongst the Himalayan cedars. In the grounds is an impressive memorial to James Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine and former Viceroy of India, erected by his widow, Mary Louisa, in 1864. Their Victorian finery in this setting? Yes, I could just about see it.
On a more frivolous note, McLeod Ganj brought back gastronomic memories of Tibet and Bhutan with the momo, small steamed (for preference), half-moon-shaped dumplings, usually filled with mince or chopped vegetables. I’d found myself consciously avoiding Book recommendations, and looking for somewhere “local”, with atmosphere and people-watching potential. On the way towards Bhagsu, I found a tiny roadside shack, the kind of place that’s often filled with men, the locals unintentionally making it a little challenging for a female tourist to enter. However, here I could see a woman inside the doorway, part of
a tightly-seated octet of Indian tourists. The cook, almost invisible in the depths of the tiny crowded kitchen area, nodded doubtfully at my request for momos, “Ten minutes?” Clearly he wasn’t expecting me to wait – Westerners=Impatience – but what better guarantee of freshness? And these were definitely worth the wait, accompanied by the owner’s proudly homemade chilli relish and multiple cups of masala chai. In the meantime, tourists had left, replaced by the owner and cook having their own tiffin-delivered lunch. A couple of wee lads appeared, one of whom I could see out of the corner of my eye, staring avidly at my diary scribbling, though he’d jerk away, feigning a lack of interest, if I looked up. There was a map of the world up on the wall. I chatted a little with the two men, the owner’s English being particularly good. He was curious, pointing towards the North Atlantic. “All sea?”, he asked incredulously. He asked where I was from, where I’d flown to, how long it took, shaking his head. Another world.
(I didn’t notice buttertea, that other Himalayan staple, on any menu, and I have to admit I wasn’t exactly inconsolable. The only
time I’ve actually enjoyed the oddly savoury confection was at the end of a day’s trekking in Bhutan where we were wet and tired, and buttertea was part of the lavish hospitality showered upon us in a mountain village. Hot liquid of almost any description would have been extremely welcome in those circumstances, and I went back for more.)
There’s nowhere like India – well, Lebanon came close – for making the exhausted tourist in need of a refreshing long one feel quite so much like a fallen woman. Rather than pay someone from an ostensible drinking establishment to purchase me a beer – the previous night, the neighbouring Hotel The Vaikunth’s advertised “BEER BAR” appeared either fallacious or closed for a private function (it wasn’t clear from the explanation I didn’t get when I asked), so one of the waiters had gone out to source the evil liquid specifically – I raided the shop myself, braving the bemusement/opprobrium of the owner, and carefully hiding the merchandise in my shoulder bag to avoid a similar reaction in my own hotel’s reception staff. Sipping my “super strong”, “high power beer”, GODFATHER, in my room, I felt like a naughty schoolgirl…
and it was delicious.
So that was Himachal Pradesh, or the infinitesimal amount of this fascinating and challenging state that I was going to see on this trip. Next stop, Ladakh.
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