McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India

McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh
December 3rd – 4th 2010


My bus from Shimla was supposed to be a deluxe. It was supposed to take 10 hours to get to Dharamsala. My plan was to sleep through the journey on a reclining chair, in the warmth of a bus, and arrive around 7 – 8 am, when most places are starting to open. Of course, instead of being surprised by a better bus and being on time as planned, I got a piece of junk (I knew it!) with leaky windows that can’t stay closed AND arrived 2 hours ahead of schedule, which might sound ideal except that means I arrive at 5 am in the freezing cold, with almost every hotel and guesthouse closed.

The journey was a lot of fun. Like I said, leaky windows. The roads are extremely bumpy (it’s the highlands, can’t expect a smooth ride). Being a piece of junk with no heater, you’d hope the windows had clasps so they could stay locked. But a few didn’t and even after you shut them tight, the bumpy journey causes it to slowly open itself again, allowing the cold air to fill the bus. Most people on the bus had thick, big shawls that served like a giant cocoon blanket. I had 4 layers on top (2 thermals, 1 long sleeve, 1 micro fleece) and 2 layers at the bottom (1 thermal, 1 pants). It did little to keep me warm. Did I mention how much I hate freezing weather? I stayed up most of the night, walking around the bus closing leaky windows. People were asleep and I was the only one who seemed affected. In a way, I guess my prayers for a shorter journey DID come true. Of course, I really had hoped for 24-hour reception at guesthouses in McLeod Ganj (the area about 30 mins above Dharamsala, where everyone goes). In India, I haven’t made reservations because most of the time, I could get a room with no problems but then again, those cities usually had some places with 24-hour reception.

I got dumped by the taxi outside the guesthouse I wanted to stay at. Everything on the street was closed and eventhough the taxi driver tried to help me wake someone (anyone) up, there was no response. I thanked the driver and he left. The front gate of this small guesthouse was open so I walked inside and was greeted by a hall with rooms but they all seemed occupied. I climbed up the stairs to the very top of the place, found one room, thought it was the guy who ran the place, knocked on the door, made a dog bark a lot, was greeted by a sleepy-looking woman, who then told me the owner was downstairs, at the very bottom. So back down I went. The area to where the owner sleeps was locked. I tried calling out but after a few attempts, I gave up. I walked back into the narrow and dimly-lit hallway, cold and unsure of what to do. Everything everywhere seemed closed. I thought about sleeping on the stairs since it’s only about 2-3 hours before people start to wake up. But it was so cold. I walked outside and up and down the street. Luckily for me, a white guy was walking around (at 5 am?!) and he wanted to offer me a place to stay (he was living there for a while I think?) but it didn’t look very convenient to oblige as he said he was walking to the Buddhist temple for a teaching (I think by the Dalai Lama himself? Not sure.). As he would have to walk way back to where he stays, and perhaps delaying his arrival to the teaching, I didn’t want to get in his way so I declined. He then suggested I try the ‘Yellow Guesthouse’ because there was some activity there. So I did. There was a sleepy-looking fellow who heard me call out and let me in. He said there was a room available but it was recently vacated (no doubt by the people who made him wake up at an ungodly hour to let them out) and was messy. I asked if I could just sit in the room for 2 hours, just enough time for places of business to open and I can go find other guesthouses but he refused unless I pay the room rate, which was a double room which meant it cost more. I was just amazed at how much of an asshole he was. It’s cold outside, I don’t have anywhere to go, and he wouldn’t even allow me to sit in an occupied room for 2 hours? It’s not like he was cleaning it, it was just empty. Failing to convince him, I left into the darkness again. I walked toward the main square this time and there were a few people awake at this hour, just hanging around. Some were taxi drivers, some were loiterers (or insomniacs). One guy realized my situation and told me he knew where I could stay. In my head, I immediately thought he was a tout. Meaning the place I would be staying at, probably had to jack up their rates to cover his commission. Shit! I don’t know why I was stubborn. As much as I hate being taken advantage of, I was in quite a pickle. I refused and walked around like a dumb-ass for a little while more before realizing, screw it, I’ll just pay up since the situation is what it is. So I went back to the main square, found the guy, and he brought me to a guesthouse about 5 minutes away. Got me a room which had a hot shower and TV. He then told me he actually works for the guesthouse. That was a relief. He even offered me a slightly discounted rate. I was too tired at this point so I accepted since it seemed like a good deal.

The bed was cold as hell. The covers did not help. I struggled mightily to sleep, which I did, and before I knew it, it was 9 am. I woke up, found out the bed was DAMP (no I did not pee on it but now I know why it was so bloody cold), took a hot shower, then put on all my layers again, and went to see Parvin, the guy who brought me there. I found out the “deal” he gave me was for one night’s stay, which I used up for those few hours I was there. If I wanted to stay that very night, I would have to pay AGAIN. WTF, I arrived on December 3rd 5 am. The fee I’m paying covers the whole day AND night of December 3rd does it not? Isn’t 5 am, technically, the morning of December 3rd? Apparently if you arrive at 8 am, then the math works out properly. Any time before, counts as the previous night, even for 2 hours. Basically, what it boils down to is this: If you sleep in the bed, it counts as one night.

I also found out the bed was damp because they recently washed the mattress (!) and the air is so cold that air-drying doesn’t quite dry anything. Fine, I laid the bed cover down, told him I’d sleep on that, and asked for a thick comforter, which he provided. As for the fee, screw it, it’s all right, I’ll just pay up. He did give me another slight discount for the next night. My guess is, he felt bad about charging me for a whole day when I used the room for 2-3 hours.

At night, McLeod Ganj was a bit terrifying. Everything’s closed, and it’s cold and dark with few street lights. But during the day, the place is transformed. It’s bustling, people are out and about, shops are open, people are eating breakfast, there’s some traffic on those narrow streets, and street stall shopkeepers are lining up their wares. I walked up the hill toward the main square and was immediately greeted by a beautiful view of the Himalayas. I immediately knew I was going to like the place.

(A Buddhist temple in the middle of town.)

(Prayer wheels at the pink temple.)

(Prayer flags are everywhere in “Little Tibet”.)

(A closer look at the prayer flags. That’s Lung-ta, the Wind Horse.)

McLeod Ganj is where the Tibetan Buddhist exiles, including the Dalai Lama, came in the late fifties. It’s a whole new world compared to other parts of India. There are many monks with their buzzed heads and in their red and yellow monk uniforms. There’s a mix of oriental looking Asians (the Tibetans), black Indians, and foreigners.

There’s also a huge mix of food choices there. There are small joints for Italian, Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and supposedly, even Israeli. I ate Italian for brunch at the guesthouse whose hallway I sat and freezed by butt off the previous night. They run a popular restaurant in addition to the guesthouse. They make their own pasta and the spaghetti carbonara which I had was pretty darn good. Food was cheap and the view from the restaurant was great too. Before you all think “Wow, Italian?! Can I get some gnocchi and brick-oven-baked pizza and some red wine?”, it’s really a Tibetalian restaurant. Meaning, it’s not like any Italian restaurant found in the west. It’s just a Tibetan restaurant that serves, among other things, Italian food, as do most of the other restaurants in McLeod Ganj.

(Grilling some goat’s legs? BARF.)

(Very delicious Japanese meal.)

(Person selling ‘momos’.)

(Tibetan dish called ‘Tenthuk’. Good stuff.)

Since we’re on the topic of food and restaurants, there’s a restaurant down the street from where I’m staying called ‘Lung Ta’, Tibetan for ‘Wind horses’, seen on many prayer flags. Anyway, that place serves the most amazing Japanese food. It’s really authentic. I had a set meal of fried tofu, rice, miso soup, some salad, and veggie and I swear, it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve had on my travels, top 10 at least. I don’t know if it’s the food, or it’s because the restaurant had a unique charm or the fact that all the profits from the place go toward aiding Tibetan political prisoners, but I liked it very much. Good food, good service, good cause.

And speaking of political prisoners, ever heard of the Panchen Lama? Everyone knows the Dalai Lama but little is known (at least to me) of the Panchen Lama. One day, as I walked toward the main Buddhist temple, I happened across a poster describing what the Chinese did to the Panchen Lama, who’s the 2nd most important figure in Tibetan Buddhism. He was kidnapped as a kid and never heard from again. Tibetans take this very seriously, since they believe the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are god-kings.

(Yellow sect monks praying.)

(Buddhists from foreign countries in prayer.)

(The shoes monks wear.)

(How the prayer wheels work.)

(The Dalai Lama’s residence.)

The Buddhist temple of Tsuglagkhang was a whole new experience. As spiritual as McLeod Ganj felt, walking into the complex was extra spiritual. The temple upstairs was filled with monks praying and chanting together. Outside of the small prayer place, there were several Buddhist foreigners doing their own prayer Buddhist prayer rituals as well. Some were holding prayer beads, some were going up and down on a wooden board, and some just sat and quietly contemplated and observed. What was interesting was the shoes the monks wore. Everyone may notice their red/yellow clothes but if you look at the shoes they wear, it’s very normal. They are pretty much wearing what foreigners wear. Not the little black cloth shoes I pictured which the Shaolin monks wore (‘kung fu shoes’). I bet the Dalai Lama rocks a pair of Jordans.

I’m burnt out with museums. I’m so selective of them I almost never visit them these days. But I was so stoked about the Tibetan Museum. I read everything they had displayed, looked at every picture and item they had, took my time in there instead of rushing out. I was so interested to learn about the struggles of the Tibetans after what the Chinese did. I couldn’t believe the Chinese destroyed so many monasteries and temples and scriptures. They even wore holy Tibetan scriptures on the soles of their shoes! I couldn’t help but feel sympathy toward the Tibetans and some anger at the Chinese.

BTW, I didn’t get to meet the Dalai Lama. Once in a while, he meets a public audience and shakes hundreds of hands. Once in a while, he holds teaching sessions. And lots of times, people just don’t get to meet him.

(People at Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts rehearsing some beautiful Tibetan songs.)

(The view during my trek to find the TCV.)

(Staff from TCV playing cricket…)

(…as some of the orphans watch.)

(Some orphans from the TCV who like their picture taken.)

(Kids hanging out.)

I did spend my first afternoon eager to sample the Tibetan music/dance. I went to find the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts but was informed that the performers were out of town. I walked another 30-40 minutes uphill to Dharamkot to try to find the Tibetan Children’s Village, an orphanage. It was an interesting trek to find it as I had to walk through some hiking paths. It was almost like an Indiana Jones moment, finding the “lost city”. I couldn’t help but feel sad when I sat and watched the children. It was a Saturday so they weren’t in school. They were hanging out with their friends, playing. Some were doing homework in the sun. I didn’t quite know how to make them feel comfortable around me, as I had lots of questions to ask them about life there. I tried to get some of them in a picture but most were just shy. But I learned later that they learned English in school. I should’ve known, as a lot of signs around the giant orphanage complex were in English.

I didn’t want to stay yet another night in the freezing highland so the next afternoon, I took a bus and got out of there. I would’ve loved to stay another week or two but not in this weather. Maybe next time, during the middle of the year, I will pay another visit to spiritual, beautiful, and inspiring McLeod Ganj. It’s really easy to fall in love with the place.

McLeod Ganj Pics