Backpacking Through North India-3: McLeodGanj
After covering Attari and Amritsar, via Delhi I headed to McLeodGanj, aka Little Lhasa of India. It’s called so because this cosy little town on the foothills of Dhauladhar range serves as a home to the exiled Tibetan community. Also the home to His Holiness Dalai Lama, this town houses the Tibetan government in exile. Leading to these facts, McLeodGanj’s and Dalai Lama’s place in Buddhism can be analogized to that of the Vatican and the Pope.
The town has extremely polite and courteous people, friendly monks, breath-taking views, a Buddhist monastery, a Church from the British era and some great food. For the first time in my life I saw a mountainous region replete with snow covered peaks, so the experience was definitely unique, plus this being a comfy little town of genuinely friendly and courteous people made my visit even more memorable. Having lived in cities like Bombay and Bangalore, I had forgotten how genuine can people be, McLeodGanj made me realize that.
McLeodGanj is also thronged by Hippies and backpackers, hence this small town has a unique air to it to help cater to their needs, you get multi cuisine food, ranging from Italian to Mediterranean (and Tibetan), bookstores with unique collections in multitude of languages, coffee shops serving lattes and cappuccinos, and of course, people from various nationalities. I was accompanied by a Chinese couple in the bus which seemed funnily odd considering they were visiting the Little Lhasa whereas they could visit the actual city in occupied Tibet. In short, it won’t be wrong to term McLeodGanj as a global village.
Hippies may come to McLeod to experience the spirituality, but the reason for me to include this town in my itinerary was to experience the Tibetan culture, which lately I’ve been fascinated about. I reached there early on a cold, sunny morning with clear skies (which is unusual in January) in a bus from New Delhi. As soon as you get out of the bus, you’re surrounded by representatives of various hotels around the town. They come down towards the main bus stop every morning and based on their luck they’re able to pick up the tourists. Being January, the tariffs were way cheap it being an off season for tourism. I found my abode for the next couple of days at Hotel Victoria House (yes, I’m naming it for my stay there was extremely comfortable and the lady who takes care of it was very hospitable, plus, you have amazing views of the valley from your window). I then set out to explore the town which is small enough to be covered on foot.
View of the valley from the hotel room. Notice the snow covered peak of the Dhauladhar range in the distant.
A view of the Kangra valley from one of the main streets of the town.
And on the other side of the street, stand the mountains.
Centered around the main square, on about 4 main roads, I’d call them lanes, is what the town is based on. For a moment you can forget that you’re at some place in India. You can’t help but notice the presence of monks and Tibetans everywhere, it’s amusing to see such adorable people walking on the roads. Also the presence of Tibetan symbology, viz. national flags, prayer flags, political messages, Buddhists monasteries dotted along the town etc. can’t be missed.
At the end of the Temple road lies Tsuglakhang Monastery where His Holiness Dalai Lama resides, his residential quarters stand opposite to the Buddhist Temple. Tibetans do clockwise circumambulations called Kora around significant religious places like monasteries, mountains (linked to various deities) etc. while reciting their prayers. Likewise, around the monastery there is a narrow, beautiful path to do the Kora, and luckily not many people are aware about it which helps maintain its sanctity. One gets wonderful views of the valley below at one stretch of the path where one can sit on one of the benches and admire the view below. It’s surreal, snow covered peaks to your left and the valley below you.
Friendly monks at the monastery.
Monks also gleefully oblige to have their pictures clicked with the tourists, like this one above posing for the camera of some tourists.
A stretch of the Kora path around the monastery (above and below).
The view od the valley from the Kora path.
Along the path can also be found Tibetan prayer flags. Tibetans put them high up on the trees and it is believed by them that the prayers written on the flags are blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space.
The path is dotted with Prayer wheels which contain Tibetan Mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hun’ and Tibetans believe that one rotation of the wheel is equivalent to chanting the mantra by the person rotating it and corresponding goodwill is endowed upon that person. One can also find dotted along the path, various temples with giant prayer wheels, one rotation of which rings the bell suspended above.
The mantra ’Om Mani Padme Hun’ written in Tibetan (language).
Next stop was Tibet Museum which is housed within the main gates of the monastery. The museum highlights the atrocities faced by the Tibetans under the Chinese repression since 1949. It contains detailed information on how the Tibetans moved to Dharamsala after the Chinese took over their country and initiated the cultural invasion and how Tibetans indulge in the act of self immolation for protests within Tibet today despite being told not to do so by the Dalai Lama. Also it contains interesting artefacts of the period before the Chinese occupation of Tibet, like old Tibetan currency notes, weapons used by the Khampa tribesmen etc. An interesting feature of the museum is the documentaries they show every afternoon on Tibet. The afternoon I went there, a documentary called ‘Undercover in Tibet’ was on the charts which showed how a young Tibetan in Tibet covertly interacted with Tibetans who told him their plight under the Chinese on camera.
Blood stained clothes of a Tibetan refugee who escaped the Chinese brutality during the early years of the cultural invasion, at the Tibet Museum.
Later that night I went to watch a movie at McLeodGanj’s only 40 seater movie theater ‘Cinemaa 1’. Located in the basement of one building on the Jogibara Road, movie DVDs are projected on the screen. The weekly timetable can be found on all major points of the town. The variety of movies they play are mix of classics and not so latest Hollywood movies, it’s understood that it takes time to get the DVDs of latest movies up to this town, so it takes about a month or more to get the popular movies to play after the release date. That night, luckily on the schedule was 7 Years in Tibet. I was at a perfect place to watch this movie. Again being the off season, there were only 3 people, including me to watch the movie.
The interiors of Cinemaa1.
Markets of McLeodGanj are colorful, targeting the tourists, Tibetans have set up stall at almost all the points of the town, selling items ranging from momos to Tibetan woolenwear, Music CDs to Cards and bookmarks containing Dalai Lama quotes.
Bit on the outskirts of the town lies the Church if St. John’s in the Wilderness. It’s the resting place of the second Viceroy of India, Lord Elgin. The Church, situated amidst thick Deodar trees outside the town stands true to its name, in the wilderness. It may look bit spooky from the outside, but it’s beautiful within (sadly photography is not permitted inside). It’s the kind of a place where one can sit for a long time and do nothing but listen to the silence of the forest around.
This town being secluded amidst the mountains offers a spectacular views of the night sky. With little light pollution, the view you get above is literally out of this world. It took me back to my college days in Ahmedabad when I was interested in amateur astronomy and used to study the night sky regularly. Never had I got such a beautiful view of the sky as in McLeodGanj. The sky is lit up with millions of stars, you can’t get this view in any city. I made a point to spend some time on the rooftop of my hotel every night I was there.
On my last day in the town, while strolling around leisurely on the streets, I came across this crowd awaiting someone; I asked and got to know that His Holiness is going to exit the monastery. Now all this time I didn’t even know that Dalai Lama was in McLeodGanj, for it’s unusual of him to be there as he keeps travelling a lot. And boy, how lucky was I. I got to see him up close. Again, perfect time to be at that place. That made my trip worthwhile.
Now coming to the food. During my entire trip, the most delicious (and also the worst) food that I’ve had was in this town. I am writing about it here in detail for I believe that the tale of McLeodGanj’s culinary delights need to be told…
You can’t help but notice that you get Momos, the Tibetan staple, here on the street side. I tried the steamed ones being sold by a lady outside the Monastery and need I mention, they were delicious.
When visiting the monastery, one must relish the delicious authentic steamed momos sold at the gate.
There is a Café called Black Tent that serves some really good Tibetan and American breakfast, nd apparently, the cappuccino they have there is really good. One unique aspect of all the cafes of McLeodGanj is that they are WiFi enabled and you can bring around your laptops, tablets etc. and work/play in the conducive environment.
Omelette served with Tibetan bread and butter at Cafe Black Tent.
The best Cappuccino I have ever had, again at Cafe Black Tent.
Next I tried the famous Wood Fired Pizza at Carpe Diem. The upper level of Carpe Diem is always preferable for one gets amazing views of the mountains and also it allows you to mingle with fellow travellers.
Wood fired Pizza at Carpe Diem.
For desert, there is always ‘Tibet Quality Bakery’ where you get authentic Tibetan bakery items, and yes, Yak Cheese is also available here. I tried the black forest block made from Yak Milk, it started tasting bit funny towards the end, but was worth a try.
Now coming to the worst food of McLeodGanj, funnily I had it at Café Norling which is certified by NDTV GoodTimes’ Highway On My Plate. Hence, by taking the suggestion of Rocky and Mayur, I ordered Thukpa and Fried Chicken and both turned out to be awful, I’m sure Thukpa must be not that bad. Also the fried chicken didn’t even had the skin removed. I tweeted to Rocky and Mayur after coming back to Bangalore and they too agreed that Norling, once a hard working eatery, has grown worse over the years.
Worst food I had at McLeodGanj, at Norling Restaurant. (Below) Rocky and Mayur second my experience.
This little kid I encountered in the town was named Lhasa. This signifies the nationalism Tibetans harbor for their country.
(Below) Colors of dusk at McLeodGanj.
Anyway, After 3 wonderful days, it was my time to bid goodbye to McLeodGanj, I wish I had planned more days for this town in my itinerary but I didn’t know this town would turn out to be so beyond my expectations. It’s natural to forget that you have to return back in the serene atmosphere of McLeod. With a refreshed mind, I turned towards Delhi, but I didn’t bid bye to this town, for you never bid bye to Dharamsala, you come back…
Now, let me share my two cents on the Tibetan issue. Since the cultural invasion by the Chinese in Tibet, large numbers of Tibetans have thronged to India and Nepal, and India rightfully has given asylum and citizenship to many Tibetans. Tibetans have continued their struggle to return back to Tibet ever since and have setup the government in exile at Dharamsala. Tibetans have suffered many atrocities by the Chinese within their land and hence even today the migration of Tibetans to India continues.
The Chinese have forcefully indulged in the erosion of Tibetan language and culture by changing the official language from Tibetan to Mandarin, and putting restriction on the traditional way of living of rural Tibetans by forcefully shifting them to filthy, congested concrete blocks on the outskirts of the towns from their ancestral grasslands on the pretext of protecting flora and fauna and ecosystem. The Tibetans in cites live under the heavy presence of Chinese police, even at Potala Palace in Lhasa, plain clothed Chinese policemen keep an eye on the monks and tourists alike. Tibetans are not allowed to raise their flag and can be arrested for doing so. Foreign media is virtually banned in Tibet under an unwritten rule. The Chinese have also started migrating in large numbers in Tibet and hence have taken over traditional jobs of the Tibetans. The human rights situation in Tibet is also worse. Many Tibetans also indulge in self-immolation under protest. Gradually demographically, Tibet is turning like America or Australia, where after the influx of the ‘outsiders’ the Red Indians and Aborigines have turned into a minority. But in Tibet’s case, it’s a forced and politically motivated influx, unlike the two examples.
Leading too these reasons, Tibetans don’t promote tourism in their land for they see tourism as promoting the Chinese agenda.
Tibetans today want the Chinese to vacate their country so that they can return back with respect. Now here I am bit confused, the struggle of Tibetans is genuine but sometimes it seems bit unrealistic to me. The Chinese though played the bad boy in 1949 and the following decade but it has helped the region progress economically. Today, in Tibet, almost everything ranging from infrastructure to instant noodle packets comes from China. Economically, Tibet is better off under the Chinese today. I feel Tibetans won’t be able to handle their economy without the Chinese, the country has little natural resources apart from Yak farming and growing turnips; plus, if it ever attains freedom, it will be a theocracy (headed by Dalai Lama) which is not sustainable in todays globalized and interconnected world.
Yes, Tibet functioned before Chinese invasion but it was an isolated land, foreigners were not allowed to enter the ’hermit kingdom’ and the country had little or no connection with outside world. Obviously, this won’t be the country’s model today, still I hope if ever Tibet becomes independent (highly unlikely) Tibetans are efficiently able to manage their country.
And don’t get me wrong, I totally support the Tibetan struggle for independence because for me, human rights comes before anything else, even before a Buddhist theocracy. But the sad part is that no one can help Tibet attain freedom, not even US for fear of souring economic relations with China which is emerging as the economic driver of the region. And China would in no way consider Tibet’s independence as an option, like recently when Barack Obama met Dalai Lama in US, China raised its discontent stating that US should not give Dalai Lama a platform in their territory to engage in anti China separatist activities.
Ending this lengthy post with a brilliant quote by a Tibetan monk: “I miss the spirituality we had before communism, but at least now we have central heating”
Anyway, despite all this I stand for the freedom of Tibet.