Are we going to see the Dalai Lama?
Dharmshala, India was a welcome place to visit compared to other places we have visited in the country. Cooler temperatures and warm people helped to make the destination fantastic. We heard the Dalai Lama was in town and figured it was the best time to go if we ever wanted a chance to see him without going a seminar or public event. Maybe... just maybe we will see the Dalai Lama.
Roadside Flat Fixing Sikh
We headed out of Amritsar as quickly as we came in a taxicab owned by the "brother" of a tuk-tuk driver we had met earlier in the day. It was a 6 hour taxi ride to the mountains with only one flat due to driver error. Our driver thought it a good idea to pass another vehicle and when two 5 lb. rocks were in the road, he figured he could just... go over them. POW... and we were on the side of the road fixing it. We sat on the road watching the driver fix the flat wondering if we would ever get to where we were going. Within 20 minutes the tire was fixed and we were on our way.
The 110 Stairs Of McLeodGanj
Dharmshala, India - Not as Advertised
We arrived in Dharamsala, India... the home of the Dalai Lama Temple and the un-official and exiled government headquarters for Tibet, and found quickly that the hotel we booked was not indeed in Dharamsala, but in McLeod Ganj 10km up the mountain. Another taxi from Dharamsala to McLeodGanj where our hotel was booked. The taxi driver stopped and said "this is it". We looked around and saw no hotels, hostels, or guesthouses. Just a set of stairs going straight down the mountain. He pointed below and said,"Down there".
We lugged our packs down the 110 stairs (yes we counted them) going straight down to our hotel, having to stop half way to catch our breath. We got down to the bottom and took one look at the hotel we had booked, and called Hotels.com to cancel. The place was not as advertised. We sat at the bottom of the 110 steps wondering where we could stay and a guy named Ganesh who said he had a hostel close by, invited us to take a look.
View from the Hotel Backpackers
Hotel Backpacker In Mcleod Ganj
Ganesh is the proprietor of the Hotel Backpackers. We agreed to take a look at the too-good-to be true deal he was offering us. We got to the room and opened the door. The view from our balcony is magnificent! We have an amazing view of the Bagsu Valley and the Himalayas in front of us including a peak called Hanuman Ka Tibba at 18,500. Only one peak in North America is higher, and that's Denali (formally called Mt. McKinley, in Alaska which is less than 1000 feet higher) We agreed to stay in the room and were lucky to have found such a great place. Check this place out. Ganesh is a great guy who runs a quality hotel with excellent amenities for the price
Stroke of Luck
We luckily booked our crappy hotel in the right place to begin with. McLeod Ganj is a much better place than Dharmshala to spend some time, and actually the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Government is located in McLeod, not Dharmshala. It was a welcome surprise as if we had just stayed in Dharmshala, we wouldn't have liked it as much. McLeod is a hill town in the foothills of the Himalayas at almost 7,000 feet, and getting used to the altitude to climb down, and more particularly up the 110 stairs that linked the main road (there is only one) to our hotel, took some getting used to. Anytime we wanted to do anything... we had to take them.
McLeodGanj Main Road
We explored the village with its narrow, traffic congested roads. The one lane main road is clogged with people walking, taxis, trucks delivering food and supplies. The traffic at time is insufferable for such a small place. Honking horns and racing motorcycles and taxis in such a narrow passage was the only down point of this area, however we feel fortunate to visit now because in 5 years, this place will be un-walkable. We really loved the town however. There was a Cafe Coffee Day we would visit daily and people watch. There was a good mix of restaurants and shops. We would also spend time at Cafe Budan where the mocha coffee was excellent and homemade bread and omelettes were the best we have had in India. We fell in love with Momos. They are dumplings stuffed with various things that are either fried, steamed or baked sold all over town. They are wonderful here and the Tibetan unofficial national food. You could also get 5-7 for about a buck. We also tried some yak cheese while we were there. Not bad really, just a little "different".
The Dalai Temple Complex
Dalai Lama Temple Complex
We went to the Tibetan Museum in the Dalai Lama Temple Complex and saw the temple and residence of the Dalai Lama who is here at this time after being in the states. He was not taking appointment to meet him, nor engaging in any lessons or speeches, so we didn't get to meet him. However, the museum detailed the plight of the Tibetans and their exile from the Chinese government. It was both depressing and interesting reading the displays about the oppression of the Chinese Government and without getting into the politics of the situation, felt as if the Tibetans got a raw deal.
McLeod in general, is heavily populated with exiled Tibetans who trekked across the Himalayas to get to a safe haven in India. They claim 1,200,000 Tibetans have been killed since their occupation and overthrow in 1949. The Temple Complex was not what I would have suspected nor the residence. Modern and not "Buddhist Templish"at all. It was nice and peaceful with great valley and mountain views.
Bhagsu Waterfall and Valley
Hike To Bhagsu Waterfall
We also hiked to the Bhagsu, which is about 1.5 to 2 km from McLeod. There is a waterfall near the village and hiked down to the river bottom but, declined to go all the way to the waterfall due to the time of year. The water levels are low this time of year. Until the snow-pack begins to melt, the waterfall and river are at very low levels. This worked out great however, because if it were later in the year, it would have been impossible to simply sit in the valley taking in the beauty of the mountains and stream. I stacked rocks into a tower while Shelly watched and we headed back to McLeod in the afternoon. A great day!
A mural on the road to Bhagsu
Lazy Days in McLeod
The remainder of our time in McLeod was spent sitting in our favorite cafe... Cafe Budan where the mocha coffee was excellent and homemade bread and omelettes were the best we have had in India. We fell in love with Momos. They are dumplings stuffed with various things that are either fried, steamed or baked. They are wonderful here and the Tibetan unofficial national food. You could also get 5-7 for about a buck. We also tried some yak cheese while we were there. Not bad really, just a little "different".
There really isn't much to do in McLeod if you are not into Yoga (there are tons of retreats) or Buddhist meditation centers, or if you don't hike. We don't hike too much and hiking to the snow-line didn't appeal to us. So we sat on our balcony, drank coffee and ate food and trekked instead back and forth from our hotel to the main road which was good enough exercise for us. The first day we had to climb the 110 stairs, we were exhausted. The altitude and stairs whipped us. We had to stop a few times and catch our breath. By the end of the week, we were able to traverse the steps without resting, multiple times a day. It was good to get the exercise.
Much Needed Rest
We needed the rest from our whirlwind tour of Udaipur, Agra and Amritsar and McLeod gave us exactly that. It was a great place to upload pictures and posts as the internet and 3g here, was better than some places we had visited in India. We met a great couple from the US who are Buddhists and are traveling the world for the first time in their 70s, sat and relaxed with them almost daily at the cafe for hours talking and sipping coffee. It was nice to unwind and simply hang out. We really enjoyed McLeod and Dharmshala, India and feel fortunate to have spent time in such an important place for the Tibet Government and the Dalai Lama, and understand the plight of the Tibetans a little better. Free Tibet!
Prayer Wheels At The Dalai Lama Temple
Change In Perspective
What to say about McLeod Ganj? It was eye-opening. I remember the Beastie Boys were all about Freeing Tibet and I remember wondering why and not caring. Now we do understand. We have met the people who have fled and have sought refuge. We have sat and talked with the Tibetans who explained to us their struggle to return to their homeland. Now we just feel fortunate to live in a country (albeit far from perfect) where we have the freedom to believe what we want.
If we were exiled and had to trek over mountain passages and lose family members in the process to go to a foreign land that speaks another language to live out the rest of our days... we would not be happy people. The Tibetan people are. They are forgiving and kind people who speak softly. They are devout in their beliefs and simply want to go home. We didn't see the Dalai Lama, but the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet taught us something. Understanding and tolerance is the key. Traveling has taught us this simple lesson of life. Be tolerant of others and try to understand the people you come in contact with. This has made us better people and know that by traveling, traveling will teach us much more.