McLeod Ganj : 50 Years in India / 7 days in 'Tibet'

McLeod Ganj Travel Blog

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50 Years in Exile
It was on 31st March 1959, 14 days after fleeing Lhasa that Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso concluded the first leg of his arduous journey.  Home fast receding behind him - and likely never to be seen again - he staggered through tears and dysentery and into the arms of a welcoming Mother India. 

It was 21 years since he'd last heard his birth name Lhamo Thondup; one given when born 23 years and 8 months ago to a farming family in Taktser, Amdo province, north east Tibet.  So that would make it about 24 years and 5 months since he'd been little more than a twinkling in his father's eye on that fateful, fruitful night in 1934, 9 months or so since he'd most recently died.  Sex and death.  There's a lot of that when you've had at least 28 parents to date.  Riding into India on the back of his dzomo (Tibetan Yak) at 26 years remove from his former official title Ngawang Lobsang Thupten Gyatso, and approaching 600 years since he'd last heard the first of Gedun Drupa and been expected to respond, I wonder which subject the 14th Dalai Lama found more confusing as he arrived in a lifetime of exile, politics or identity?  Reincarnation and responsibility.
Stevie snot-raggin' in McLeod Ganj
  No getting away from either it seems.

That was 50 years ago.  Today with far less fanfare, far more hair, a far simpler name ( well, the surname's a little bit weirdy!) and a cold, this weary traveler arrives at 3.00am in Dharamsala - which invitingly means 'pilgrims' rest house'.  Glad to be shot of one of the worst bus rides of his 15 months journey making and cocooned against the pre-dawn chill in the Bhuttico co-operative workers shawl he'd bought in Kullu, he gladly makes the acquaintance of Jantine (from the Netherlands); she being similarly disgorged by a midnight bone-shaker bus into the cold and uncertainties that inhabit such times of the day.
'Shadow Beads'
  We chat ( and in my case 'sniff' ) and await the first bus to McLeod Ganj, the small hill-tucked town 6 kilometres from here where the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Dalai Lama - when he's around - have been permitted to take refuge this last half century. 

"Aaaaaah-CHOOO!!!"  (snot - snot- snot) Yes I'm afraid my arrival in Mcleod Ganj is heralded with large quantities of snot and mucus.  Sneezes trumpet my progress through the streets.  Damp, shredded white bog-roll tissue, a fluttering ticker tape parade cascading from my pockets.
25 years of the Tibetan Women's Association
  Owing to the condition of my nose this will be a muted and inglorious visit to 'Tibet' in India; this little relocated 'Land of the Snows.'  The cold I picked up, maybe in Kullu? Manali? Simla? is now in full bloom.  I sit sipping a ginger-lemon-honey-tea and wait in the sun for the Kunga Guesthouse to free me up a room.

As the week progresses so do my symptoms.  Most days are spent sniffing and sneezing and expectorating little green djinns into tissue paper or directly onto the pavement (an anti-social but inevitable habit after enough time spent traveling in China and India).  The cold, whilst subsiding a little as the week goes on, does not depart, but merely steps to one side to allow a new act on stage; the next avatar of my illness, a throat-wrenching, chest-splitting cough that will not leave me (along with the gunky nose) for a good fortnight or so.
  True to say, life in India for me so far has been a tale of rarely if ever 100 percenting on the health front.  A bare average of 70% I'd say.  And as I jested with Damian and Kelly in Manali the other day, 'if it ain't a cold, cough or bout of food poisoning, life in India is always one long drawn out, noxious fart.'  Seriously.  We're talking constant Bio-Hazard leakage here guys!  Clear signs (clear smells) that your biological gears are constantly shifting, crunching and grinding in an attempt to handle this difficult new gastronomic terrain.

Of course, a good old gooey cold and honking cough are two of a host of things guaranteed to enforce a sense of exile.  Already in long-term self-imposed exile from such comforts as Home, ‘normality’, family and friends and gladly from such joys as mobile phones, 9 to 5 slavery, income tax, British rain, TV, domestic politics and chores - my snot-ragging effectively further exiles me; this time from the community of Fellow Travelers.
  A conversational quarantine, broken only by my good new pal Jantine, as people rightly seek to keep their own beleaguered immune systems intact in India as long as possible.  We are all under threat and dropping like flies it often seems! 

A cold shrinks your world.  With little interaction (and little desire to do so) and neither the physical capability or will to get out and about and do much, your world contracts to the space between your eyes and the pages of your current book.  Your reach into the world no further than that required to lift your cup of coffee or cake from plate to mouth.  And then it retracts a little further still, into your mind or at least a world of small and inconsequential observations and thoughts. 

I sit inside Nick’s Italian Cafe (one of so many cafes in town with an incredibly fine array of high quality foods, pastries and cakes) and stare out the window to the far end of town as it crescent moons around the hillside.
McLeod Ganj view
  The wind is up and buffets the tall, tapering tips of fir trees quite violently from side to side in the distance.  Like storm-tossed ships masts at sea.  Crows struggling with uncomfortable wind-swept purchases fly up from the boughs and flutter back down again.  Up and down up and down.  They appear to bounce.  As if the trees were a trampoline.  Or the trees resemble more, green flicking, sky licking flames blazing from side to side.  The crows, tiny black dots at such a remove now take on the quality of ashes rising, spiralling into the air, cooling and descending again.  A small observation.  But my favourite of day four.  Travel does not have to be big visions and moments all of the time.  The world should shrink, I guess, from time to time.  

The personal frustration for me is that illness robs me of the fine mountain walks in the area.
Valley views
  A four to five hour “easy enough” hike will get you right up into the snowline with incredible views a good friend has told me.  But whilst I hope and hope everyday, my symptoms never lift enough to make such a trek feasible.  My frustration able to manifest itself in little more than an over-vigorous crunching of my 400th orange Strepsil.  The even quieter little village of Bagshu resides about 2 kilometres further on from McLeod Ganj.  On one sunny day I manage a walk to and through it, the further 1.5 kilometres required to reach the modest and unremarkable Bagshu waterfall.  Still, the views of tree carpeted, cloud-crowned hills on the way and the village women washing saris and carpets in the valley river below are a pleasant enough reward for an hours stroll or so.  A small boy bursts out into drum-song on the waterfall trail every time a tourist comes within ear shot, but he’s not so good - ‘no baksheesh kid’ - and I prefer the mashed-up beats that echo back off the mountain flanks.
Carved Gods
  A rock in a seating alcove declares ‘Rester c’est exister.  Voyager c’est vivre.’  I heartily agree.

So why come to McLeod Ganj and what’s there to do?  Well, for reasons of the aforementioned, I’m maybe not the best person to quiz.  My seven days in ‘Tibet’ unfortunately reduced; their potential curtailed to little more than coffee-sipping, cake-nibbling ambles up and down the cute little tourist curio shop lined three-strip circuit of McLeod’s heart.  There are loads of nice little shops, good bookshops ( “YEY!” ) and, as mentioned, lots of excellent cafes along the streets fringed by smiling, personable Tibetan refugees keen to eke out a living far from home selling hand-made jewelery, postcards and fresh steamed vegetable momos (Tibetan dumplings).
High above the mountains fly...
  There are plenty of places for yoga, language and music lessons if those are your bag.  Volunteer projects too. 

Quite often there are music performances or cultural ’happenings’ in the evenings so keep your eyes upon the ever shifting rainbow-walls of fly posters.  I attended a great free traditional Tibetan music performance at the Tibetan Younglings School one evening where an energetic Tibetan solo artist went through his string-stroking ‘n’ plucking and foot-stamping repertoire.  His songs interspersed by our humble host (who runs the charity for ‘Tibetan destitute children’ that the shows raise funds for ) imparting titbits of knowledge about Tibetan culture whilst bemoaning how sad he was to see how far it had died back when he fled Tibet to McLeod Ganj some 15 years ago.  I also catch an interesting and extremely well attended screening, put on by the organisations Talk Tibet and Return to Tibet, of their short docu-movie entitled Open Road : The Failed Secret Mission to Return to Tibet.
Colourful prayer wheels.
  A documentary about a botched attempt by 50 or so Tibetans to ’illegally’ cross back into their homeland to coincide with the opening of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.  A plan that was evidently not very well executed and scuppered with ease by Indian border guards.   

One essential stop is the small, clearly presented and powerful Tibet Museum which sits inside the Tsuglagkhang Complex on Temple Road.  This complex also houses the official residence of the Dalai Lama and the main Namgyal Gompa temple.  A series of photo and text galleries as well as a short movie highlight - I felt with great restraint - the history of the Chinese invasion of Tibet from 1950 onwards and the endless litany of crimes against culture and humanity that have been inflicted upon the latter by the former ever since.  Even in short an international Commission of Jurists in the 1960s supported the supposition that over 1.
It's a topsy turvy world we live in ;D
2 million Tibetans had been killed and more then 6,000 monasteries and institutes of learning had been destroyed.  Much that is unwholesome has occurred since the 1960s.  Even by the time of The Dalai Lama’s famous autobiography Freedom in Exile (1990) the Han Chinese population in Tibet outnumbered indigenous Tibetans by some 7.5 over 6 million.  The exhibits discuss the multi-faceted assault on the sovereignty of Tibet such as ’mass scale physical destruction’ of the natural and cultural landscape and ’policies aimed at erasing Tibetan culture, religion and ultimately its identity.’  They note it is the ‘destruction of the Tibetan psyche that has been most damaging.’  Only in the last week China was forced to admit to the recent execution in Lhasa of two Tibetans accused of ‘inciting’ the liberation protests/ riots that occurred in March - I believe of this year?.
'Tree Print' (Bhagsu)


The main reason of course that many visitors come to McLeod Ganj is in the hope of catching a glimpse and a teaching of the Big Man himself; ole Dalai Lama XIV aka Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso nee Lhamo Thondup nee...  Hmmm, this could take a while.  I prefer just to call him DL! :)  All over the north of India you’ll come across travelers feverishly bending and rewiring their itineraries in an attempt to coincide with one of his stops at ‘home’ in McLeod Ganj or elsewhere.  But this ain’t an easy task.  He’s a man in demand.  The world needs peace it seems and no one is considered more skilled at 'selling'  the idea of peace and its prospects than the ever-smiling DL; his efforts having been recognised with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

So where in the world right now does one find DL?  Well he ain't currently in the clouds of McLeod that's for sure.
Prayer Wheels & Ladies in the Tsuglagkhang Complex
  And a shame for yours truly that is too although I knew it would be so.  Well, he’s recently returned from a trip to the United States (and then Japan) where President Obama controversially canceled (sorry ’postponed’ ) a planned meeting with him ostensibly to appease the Chinese whom Pres was about to go visit and suck up to because they now own his country.  This made him the first US President in nearly 20 years to decline to meet the Nobel Prize garlanded advocate of world peace at the White House; a denial that embarrassingly came barely a week before Pres Obama himself inexplicably received the award. 

Right now he’s up in the north easterly Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh where he first arrived when he entered into exile 50 years ago.  It’s ’disputed territory’ i.e. The Chinese would like to have it therefore it is ’disputed’.
Spinning for 'merit'
  China makes a hobby of creating ’disputed’ territories. ( Of course Britain once did too).  The DL’s decision to go there is apparently an ‘anti-China [...] separatist action.’ * according to Chinese Foreign Ministry reps.  Poor old DL!  Always being accused of fomenting ’separatist’ and ’splittest’ attitudes and rebellions almost every silent step he takes anywhere in the world despite the fact that his stance has been for some long time that Tibet requests to be granted full autonomy, not independence.  A stance the Chinese have always, and probably will always deny along with the DL’s excellent and potentially globally revolutionary ’Five-Point Peace Plan’ that I have reproduced in full at the end of this blog as I consider it required reading for anyone vaguely interested in the state of our world and potentials for better futures.
'Wood wind'
  As DL writes in the Tibet Museum : ’Our culture with compassion and mercy at its core, and gentleness and morality as its essence, has potential not only for Tibetans, but also the whole world.’  

'Hell' I think to myself 'If only more of the worlds perceived separatists were Nobel Peace Prize clutching individuals who’ve devoted their entire adult lives to propagating messages and stratagems for global peace, mutual understanding and inner enlightenment.  You never know, the world might just start to become a better place!'

Stepping away from the Tibet Museum and the murky and painful worlds of politics and history, I walk a little further to the Namgyal Gompa, the main Tibetan Buddhist temple in McLeod and the venue for the DL’s teachings when he’s in town.
Moonlight over McLeod Ganj
  I step up.  A sign invites one to ‘Circumambulate this way’ directing the flow of faith and curiosity in the traditional clockwise direction.  Three walls of the central Gompa hold 63 of the copper Mani prayer wheels that are spun (clockwise again) by the faithful to obtain more ‘merit’ for the next life as they circumambulate.  (Boy I love that word!)  The prayer wheels are filled with thousands of ‘Avalokitshvara’ mantras - the ubiquitous ‘Om Mani Padme hum’ chants - and givin’ ‘em a spin is equivalent to their recital and wins you their power of prayer or ‘merit’.

I sit on a small bench beside a time-worn old boy with broken spectacles and broken teeth and bending back as he props his frail old frame with a stick in one hand and flips wooden beads on a large prayer string with the other.
'Free Tibet'
  The faithful circumambulate past and spin.  One lady saunters along slowly, spinning wheels unconsciously with her right hand held out for the purpose whilst holding a mobile phone with the other and nattering away.  More merit.  Less mobile phone credit.  I think I know which concerns her soul more.  This vision sets my mind to one of its perennial mumble-grumble thoughts about acts of faith.  Is turning up and spinning a few copper ornaments - even daily - really, really a genuine act of faith; of profound belief and hopes for a better (spiritual) future and whatever else?  Or is it just too easy?  Nirvana by flippin' a few tin cans?  Lazy even.  Just a habit and little or no more.  I dunno.  I love Tibetan culture and their beautiful colourful temples and the spinning of the prayer wheels - which I often partake in myself for the fun and visual flare of it all.
The spectral sounding 'singing' bowls.
  Its a gesture that’s simple and honest and beautiful.  And I guess maybe that’s all faith should or needs to be?  So I'll stop poking at it right now.

Inside the gompa, sat behind the little throne DL delivers many of his lectures from sits a large intricately carved and particularly cadaverous wooden statue of Buddha in his final stages of pre-Enlightenment emaciation.  Besides it - as if challenging his fasting - aside from the small gestures of money the usual quaint little piles of food offerings that always amuse me so much.  Here we find cartons of Tropicana fruit juice and packets of those travel-diet stalwarts Oreos.  Also carefully stacked boxes of Orion's Choco-Pies, 'Chips Ahoy' cookies, almond butter cookies, oatmeal digestives, chocolate bourbons and most quaintly a little cellophane-wrapped gold-foiled trio of Ferrero Rocher ( 'Why monsieur, wiz zeez Dana** you are really spoiling uz!' ).
Street view of Chorten Gompa (currently being renovated)
  Each pile is lovingly capped with a jar of Durbar Honey.  Yes, he may have become a formidable and famous ascetic, Enlightened and beyond the reaches of world cravings but it's clear to see the Buddha had both a sweet tooth and a penchant for raiding the cookie jar!

“Ah-ah-aaaah-AAAAHTCHOOOOOOO!!!” ( snot - snot - snot ) Oh boy this colb just isn’t going to leeb me alone it seems.  Strepsil number 500 consumed.  My voice is in tatters by now.  Thankfully Jantine is a patient new travel companion, not seeming to mind as I sniff into my Vegetable Thukpa, sneeze into my momos or cough into my coffee as another conversational angle disintegrates into splintered wheezing and throat-clearing.  Bless her! 

And so, I didn’t get to meet DL this time, though he was to be in McLeod later in the month of November.
Goat munchies :)
  Writing this in bustling, excited Bodh Gaya as I am now in late December (with another cold for company!) he arrives here on January 5th too.  But I’m sorry DL, my friend, I can’t bend my itinerary that far for you.  I can’t hang around.  There’s a whole world out there still to see!  To quote Barack Obama’s letter to you when, as a presidential candidate in 2008 he also canceled a planned meeting with you ‘Your Holiness, I regret that our respective travel schedules will prevent us meeting during [my] visit [...] but I want to take the opportunity to reassure you of my highest respect and support for you, your mission and your people at this critical time.
Faith can be an exhausting pursuit! :)
  “AAAAAAHHHHHTISHOOOO!!!” ( snot - snot - snot )

* ‘China calls Dalai Lama a separatist’ - article in Times of India 4th Nov 2009
** Dana - the Buddhist term for any offerings, charitable or otherwise freely given (sometimes in hope of receiving merit)

[ Notes : The XIV Dalai Lama’s ‘Five-Point Peace Plan’ for the future of his nation of Tibet that was first delivered as part of an address given on Capitol Hill, USA on 21 September 1987 :

1.
Prayer flags cut the skies.
The transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace.


2. Abandonment of China’s population transfer policy which threatens the very existence of the Tibetans as a people.

3. Respect for the Tibetan peoples’ fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms.

4. Restoration and protection of Tibet’s natural environment and the abandonment of China’s use of Tibet for the production of nuclear weapons and dumping of nuclear waste.
Sun down and silhouettes


5. Commencements of earnest negotiations of the future status of Tibet and of relations between Tibetan and Chinese peoples.

As the Dalai Lama enthuses in his autobiography Freedom in Exile, it is important to expand briefly on the aim of point 1 of the ‘Plan’; that being the turning of the whole of Tibet into a proposed Zone of ahimsa - ahimsa being the Hindi word for peace and non-violence.  Some key elements of this proposal being :

- Demilitarization of the entire Tibetan plateau
- Prohibition of all manufacture, testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons as well as manufacture and use of nuclear power and other technologies that produce hazardous waste.
Tree branches brush the corrugated plastic roofs of the Tsuglagkhang Complex where they have been integrated into the architecture rather than felled.

- ‘The Tibetan plateau would be turned into the world’s largest natural park or biosphere.  Strict laws would be enforced to protect wildlife and plant life; the exploitation of natural resources would be carefully regulated so as not to damage relevant ecosystems; and a policy of sustainable development would be adopted in populated areas.’
- ‘National resources and policy would be directed towards the active promotion of peace and environmental protection.’

Good stuff, right?!  ]
Transitory says:
hope the health improves! You are on an amazing journey.
Posted on: Dec 30, 2009
hummingbird50 says:
Always good stuff!!!
Posted on: Dec 30, 2009
sylviandavid says:
Stevie..... Nice blog.... fun read.... Sylvia
Posted on: Dec 26, 2009
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50 Years in Exile
50 Years in Exile
Stevie snot-raggin in McLeod Ganj
Stevie snot-raggin' in McLeod Ganj
Shadow Beads
'Shadow Beads'
25 years of the Tibetan Womens As…
25 years of the Tibetan Women's A…
McLeod Ganj view
McLeod Ganj view
Valley views
Valley views
Carved Gods
Carved Gods
High above the mountains fly...
High above the mountains fly...
Colourful prayer wheels.
Colourful prayer wheels.
Its a topsy turvy world we live i…
It's a topsy turvy world we live …
Tree Print (Bhagsu)
'Tree Print' (Bhagsu)
Prayer Wheels & Ladies in the Tsug…
Prayer Wheels & Ladies in the Tsu…
Spinning for merit
Spinning for 'merit'
Wood wind
'Wood wind'
Moonlight over McLeod Ganj
Moonlight over McLeod Ganj
Free Tibet
'Free Tibet'
The spectral sounding singing bo…
The spectral sounding 'singing' b…
Street view of Chorten Gompa (curr…
Street view of Chorten Gompa (cur…
Goat munchies :)
Goat munchies :)
Faith can be an exhausting pursuit…
Faith can be an exhausting pursui…
Prayer flags cut the skies.
Prayer flags cut the skies.
Sun down and silhouettes
Sun down and silhouettes
Tree branches brush the corrugated…
Tree branches brush the corrugate…
The Strange Lights of Faith ( I ha…
The Strange Lights of Faith ( I h…
Tangerine horizons
Tangerine horizons
Under Construction : I love the …
'Under Construction' : I love the…
Washing carpets in the river
Washing carpets in the river
The valley approach to the Bhagsu …
The valley approach to the Bhagsu…
McLeod Ganj
photo by: Stevie_Wes