McLeod Ganj

March 18-22, 2009

From Amritsar we continued to McLeod Ganj.

Pnina was here on her last visit in India and she couldn’t stop raving about the place.  She said after weeks of hassles in Delhi and Rajasthan, she arrived in McLeod Ganj to find peace and quiet.  She happened to come early in the season, just after the snows melted enough to allow buses to reach the town, which is located at the foothills of some very tall mountains.

And we’ve heard similar things from other people, that it doesn’t really feel like India, that staying there too long feels like cheating.  Example: our friends Tyler and Sarah.

What makes McLeod Ganj different is that most of the people here are Tibetan.  This town (or, more precisely, the nearby town called Daramsala) is home to the Tibetan Government in Exile, including the residence of the Dalai Lama.  Tibetan people tend to give tourists some personal space, instead of constantly hassling and scamming, so it really is a nice break from normal India travel.

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The Tibetan Center

A short walk from McLeod Ganj is the main Tibetan Center.  It includes an important Buddhist temple and monastery, the Dalai Lama’s residence, a museum, and other administrative buildings.  You can wander around this center freely and observe monks deep in their studies.  Each trainee has a teacher who claps his hands whenever he poses a question to his pupil.  It’s an interesting dance to observe.  The museum wasn’t quite what we expected – it mostly talks about the administration of Tibetan affairs in exile; but it does give a brief overview of recent Tibetan history.  It goes something like this:

  • In 1950 China’s military entered Tibetan territory with the aim of liberating the peasantry from the monarchical rule.  The Tibetans put up a fight, but they were no match for the Chinese force who soon entered the capital, Lhasa.
  • In 1951 China and the Tibetan administration signed a truce called the 17-point agreement.  Among other things, it says that the defense forces of China and Tibet will be unified, but also that Tibet maintains some level of autonomy and that the position of the Dalai Lama will continue to be respected.
  • It’s likely that China’s intentions initially were good, but faced with a constant rebellion from Tibetans, things turned ugly over time.
  • In 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet with a small convoy.  He made a difficult journey over the Himalayas and arrived in India weeks later.  He soon set up a center for the Tibetans in exile, which after some time was relocated here to Daramsala.
  • The Dalai Lama was followed by many other Tibetans.  Today there are roughly 140,000 Tibetans in exile, of which 100,000 are in India.  The majority of the rest are in Nepal and Bhutan.  There are also many Tibetans living in other provinces of China (e.g. Sichuan, Yunnan).
  • Back in Tibet there was an ongoing struggle against the Chinese.  In 1959 this struggle escalated to a full uprising which was quashed by the Chinese.  It happens that 2009 is the 50th anniversary of this failed struggle, so there are various commemoration events in Daramsala and elsewhere.
  • Tibetans suffered other hardships over the years.  Perhaps one million died during the Chinese “Great Leap Forward” plan (as did many millions in China itself).  Spiritual treasures were robbed and destroyed as part of the cultural revolution.  On top of this, many ethnic (Han) Chinese have moved into Tibet, such that Tibetans may now make up a minority in their own land (we couldn’t find definitive statistics on this).
  • Over the years the Dalai Lama has steadfastly pushed for peaceful resistance, and for his efforts he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
  • In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics there were new protests in Lhasa and elsewhere, and more crack down by Chinese authorities.

We’re sure that all of this is presented from the Tibetan’s point of view and it’s only fair to understand the other side.  We’ve heard that prior to China’s invasion Tibet was technologically backwards, having made little headway in electricity, “modern” building materials like glass, and public transport.  Some argue that Tibet’s leadership was essentially a monarchy, with the bulk of the masses living in serf-like conditions.  Chances are there’s truth to both sides and we’re not ready to make any conclusions yet.  We’re hoping to visit Tibet later on our trip to see things first hand.

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(The main temple building)

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(The Dalai Lama’s residence)

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(Prayer wheels; each one contains scrolls with many prayers; by turning the wheel it’s as if you’ve said all those prayers; yay efficiency!)

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(The museum building)

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(We found this baby boy lying on a comforter, crying – he couldn’t reach his bottle; Pnina walked over and helped him out; We think he belongs to one of the women who were working in construction in the Tibetan center’s courtyard, but we’re not sure.  We’re sure that a baby lying in the center of a monastery doesn’t have much to fear, but it still strikes us as odd to leave a baby hanging around and not care when strangers approach to feed him).

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Shoe Repair

When packing for a year-long trip, the name of the game is “be minimal”; you’re going to carry everything with you quite a lot, so you’re better off taking less.   One tricky issue is what kind of footwear to bring – shoes are particularly bulky and heavy, so you want to take as few pairs as possible.  Pnina and I decided to go with two pairs each: a pair of sandles and a pair of everything-else shoes.  Pnina took her old trusty sneakers, but I opted to get low-rise hiking shoes.  The shoes I chose, made by Vasque, cost a little north of $100, not a ton but still more than I generally spend on shoes.  So you can imagine how annoyed I was when just 2-3 months into the trip my shoes literally started falling apart; the stitching on top started coming undone, and I ended up with four big holes, two per shoe.  So, I can’t recommend this brand – GoreTEX doesn’t work too well if you have big gaping holes in your shoes.  But luckily in McLeod Ganj you can get your shoes repaired for about $3.  This guy did a great job.

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Spiritual People

Daramsala (and India in general, actually) is a magnet for spiritual people from all over the world.  People come here to learn religion, yoga, meditation, reiki, horoscopes, etc.  For practical people like Pnina and I, these traditions are interesting to observe but it’s a whole different wavelength so we’re useless in conversations about any of these topics.  Couple examples…

We ran into a lady monk at the Tibetan complex.  She said that she’s from Houston, though from her appearance and accent it’s clear she’s originally from some Asian country.  After her kids moved on to college, she decided to leave her wealthy life behind in Texas and come to Daramsala to study with a guru.  Now she has no possessions and she does whatever her guru tells her to do.  For example, over the last two weeks he told her to sleep in the streets.  “What if it’s cold?”, we asked.  And she replied that by meditating she finds all the warmth she needs.  OK.  By the way, she doesn’t contact her husband or children at all, but she says there’s no need to communicate with them when she can simply keep them in her prayers.  For practical people like Pnina and I, this kind of behavior is just so out there.  We understand trying to avoid life’s excesses and focus on more important things, but what’s more important than being in touch with your family?  And what’s the point of  going homeless?

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And then we ran into this English guy, Dave, in a shop that sells various Tibetan crafts.  He had an electric pitch fork with him and he was busy testing out various singing bowls.  We asked what it was all about and he said that he recently learned something called “sound therapy”, which is where you lie down and he places bowls on various parts of your body and proceeds to make them sing.  He had a near-complete set of bowls but he was missing one.  We’re sure that the therapy feels nice – vibrating metal bowls on your body, a kind of massage.  But we don’t follow the way these bowls are supposed to tap your energy centers, or whatnot.  Anyhow, Dave was a nice enough guy but it seemed like every conversation eventually came back to how this or that religion’s ancient scripts can predict the future if we only find the right way to interpret them.  Alrighty then.

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The scenery around McLeod Ganj is beautiful – green foothills below, snowy peaks above.  So it’s a good place to hike.  There are a bunch of hikes available.  We chose a simple day-hike to a place called Triund.  They call it “the snowline hike” because, depending on the weather, you’re likely to climb just high enough to reach the snow.

As we often do, Pnina and I set out by ourselves.  We found a map in one of the tour agencies and we took a picture of it to use on the hike.  We figured it was simple enough, but as is so often the case (sigh) we managed to get lost about an hour into the hike.  Now, lost in this area is not such a bad thing – the view is beautiful wherever you go.  Still, we had our hearts set on reaching the snowline to see the view up close.

At some point it really became unclear where the trail goes, so we started hunting around the hillside.  Right about this time we saw an older guy climbing down from the top of the hill telling us not to bother going that way, he tried.  He introduced himself as Ivan, from Russia.  Ivan’s English wasn’t very good, which lead to some confusion.  We thought that he was following the same trail as us, and that he simply took off a little earlier.  In fact he came from the opposite direction and he wasn’t looking to reach the snowline at all.  So we had a blind-leading-the-blind situation for a good 1-2 hours, with Pnina and I looking at each other saying “this doesn’t seem like the right way”.  When we finally cleared the confusion it turned out that Ivan had already visited the snowline the day before and he’d be happy to show us the way.  So we backtracked for a while and eventually found our way.

By the time we reached the top it was cloudy, so we didn’t get the snowy-peak view we were hoping to get.  If you attempt this hike, our suggestion is to head out early.

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(Early on it was clear, but we weren’t high enough to get a good view of the peaks)

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(Ivan and Shahaf)

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(We finally reach the top at Triund, and the view is so-so; bad luck)

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The next day we wanted something less ambitious, so we took a casual stroll to a nearby waterfall.  Pnina says that the last time she saw this waterfall there was much more water and the path wasn’t paved; goes to show how things change in 9 years.  We found a big group of college-age Indian kids hanging around at the bottom of the falls, taking photos and really hamming it up.  I couldn’t resist taking a photo myself, and when they noticed they started hamming it up even more.  🙂  Then they came over to where we sat and pulled us up to start dancing.  Nobody parties like Indian people.

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(Pretty house on the way back)

Bonus Shots

A lot of women work in some heavy-lifting construction jobs in McLeod Ganj and elsewhere in India.

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McLeod Ganj really gets a ton of Israeli tourists (as do other places in India, e.g. Goa).  It’s very common to see signs in Hebrew at various store-fronts.

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