There is a small collective of hardcore travellers that travel to India in search of themselves. From the second they are kicked off an Air India flight out of Heathrow they don baggy cotton pants or a sari and grow a beard. They stop washing, slow their pace of life right down to a infinitesimal stroll and speak to everyone like they’ve just escaped persecution in Tibet. After a few days looking dazed and confused in Delhi they post a few ‘us v them’ pictures on facebook and head North. And in heading North they are looking for a place nestled deep in Himachal Pradesh. A place that is not just a magnet to ‘nu age’ hippies but more significantly to the Tibetan Exiled government and the Dalai Lama.
Basically in 1950 China invaded the independent state of Tibet deciding it was actually part of China. It didn’t take long for the Tibetan people, led by the Dali Lama to get chinned and suddenly, against their will become Chinese. The Chinese never managed to sort the commotion completely and in 1959 a load of Tibetans, accompanied by the Dalai Lama split. They crossed the Himalayas and made it to India where they claimed Asylum. They ended up setting up shop in a tiny village north of Dharamsala called Mcleod Ganj. Every year a few thousand Tibetans bail Chinese occupied Tibet and head to the Tibetan exile. You might be thinking why anyone would take such a dangerous journey for the sake of chilling in India but the reality is harsh. Estimates of over a million Tibetans killed since Chinese occupation are frequently mentioned and, by making the journey to Mcleod Ganj the refugees know they will be welcomed with open arms, and looked after by a community that has escaped persecution. With about 80,000 exiles in Dharamsala, volunteers from across the globe amass in the corner of Himachal Pradesh all looking to offer an olive branch.
An indication of the warmth of the Tibetan community and willingness of the international volunteers is that not too far from where I sit and write this, is a free school that educates 2000 young Tibetan children each day. There is a real community spirit and so if you are free next summer, or anywhere in between get yourself to Mcleod Ganj and help out, there are plenty of places that will wang a roof over your head and sort out a few momo’s daily in recognition.
The bus journey from Amritsar to Dharamsala takes about 6 – 7 hours and leaves at 12.05pm from the interstate bus station. The buses are ridiculous and a half hour journey would be 30 minutes too long, and so I decided to try and avoid such an impossibly long time on the non AC bus with seats that have an inch pitch. All buses going North from Amritsar hit a town 3 hours away called Pathankot. I couldn’t get a train there but decided to take a bus there, and then one onwards to Dharamsala, it would break the journey up. But also since the bus to Pathankot leaves every half hour it meant we could get to our destination much earlier, and importantly during daylight hours.
The kids would have rather gone all out on the 12.05 direct, but we didn’t have a hotel and getting there in light was important.
The cost was 73 Rupees each and we got scammed since I know for a fact the kids should have been charged half price. But the ticket guy was having absolutely none of it.
About an hour into the journey I was sat eating a banana, the bus had no windows and so I flung the banana skin out of the window as the bus sat messing about. A guy started shouting from outside and I looked at him. He was shouting at me, I explained everyone throws shit out of bus windows, whats his problem? He picked the banana skin up and motioned it come flying out of the window and then hit himself in the face with it whilst going mad at me, and trying to stop his bike from falling over. Turns out, that as I threw the banana skin out of the window he was bezzing past on his nifty fifty and got a banana skin to the face almost making him crash. Now, I defy anyone not to bust out laughing in a situation like that, seriously. But recognising he was in no mood for laughing I managed to almost hold it in, until I saw remnants of banana on his beard and that was that. Thankfully the bus set off as me and the kids spent the next couple of hours in hysterics.
Naturally the bus broke down and we were shimmied onto another antique on wheels.
Eventually the bus pulled into Dharamsala about 4pm (we had left at 8.50am) and we’d had enough. We had gone from the flatlands of Punjab and were now in the mountainous region of Himachal Pradesh.
Within minutes of getting on the next and final bus up the mountain to Mcleod Ganj the monsoon arrived. It was horrendous, completely unforgiving as the road became an ad hoc river. The bus was jam packed and it was a nightmarish 30 minute journey up to the 1800m altitude of Mcleod Ganj. But the scenery was immense, epic and every other chav adopted word describing how amazing something is. It might have taken us all day to reach it but it was sure beautiful. As we waded through the ankle deep streets of the Tibetan community we headed to a hotel recommended to me, managed to get a great deal and from the room looked to the huge glacier to the North and the stunning valley to the South. A Rainbow cut across the sky and I asked the kids “Is this the most beautiful place in India” to which Charlie replied “It is for me, because I can see you”
I smiled as I looked up at the mountain knowing that, that is where I wanted to be. I needed to see the glacier towering above us, I needed the kids to see it. I needed to be with them, staring at such an intimidatingly vast mountain cutting high into the sky.
Genuinely, we headed to Mcleod Ganj on the pursuit of acclimatisation and toward the greater goal of Leh and the highest road in the world. But suddenly a day that was planned to be sipping coffee and exploring Tibetan culture had been amended. We just had to see that mountain in all its naked glory, the fringes of a place we will head, it is a taste of things to come. A desolate land starved by altitude, a lunar-esque horizon of quaint silence, ancient culture and some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. What lies beyond that mountain is adventure, and with that adventure comes the unknown. And with the unknown comes excitement.
The following day we had decided to head into the mountains in search of a waterfall that was nearby above a village called Baghsu. But, due to the monsoon we were rained off pretty much all morning, with a hope for a break in the clouds we headed to the Tibetan government and museum just down the road.
It is exceptionally easy to forget you are in India, prayer flags flap in the wind, clouds creep over the mountainous landscape and the streets are filled with Monks and Tibetans. Its a really bizarre place to be. Entrance to the museum was just 5 rupees and is really a historical display of Tibet and the struggle it has endured. It’s quite a sobering place and the huge board with photographs of Tibetans that have self immolated (set them selves on fire) is a a clear cut indication of not just the struggle, but of the sacrifice in the hope that one day there will be a free Tibet.
The Temple is like no other we have ever seen and is extremely low key. If I hadn’t have known we was in a temple I probably wouldn’t have guessed. It’s also home to the exiled government and so walking around the small complex further distanced us from the Indian state in which we were in.
By early afternoon the clouds had opened up to a beautiful blue sky and off we went. After about 5 minutes we were knackered and so hopped in a tuk tuk, and we weren’t half grateful that we did. The road to Dharamkot (where we were going) is near vertical. Sitting high above Mcleod Ganj and higher than Baghsu on the adjacent mountain, the idea was to walk from Dharmakot to Baghsu. Of course we got lost and found ourselves in ‘stoners place’ a sprinkling of yoga places peppered around the mountain side. Hippies were sat getting wasted spending their collage fund on drugs and enlightenment.
Eventually we made our way across the mountain and found the waterfall and it was gorgeous. The kids had loved the afternoon of exploration, freedom and natural beauty. It’s difficult to convey, but being out on the hill side there was a complete freedom and then finding the waterfall there was a real sense of joy, particularly since the kids had led the way. Without a care in the world they had (with my help) meandered us around a mountain, through a village and then up to the waterfall. A real sense of achievement for them.
Mcleod Ganj has been a real stay of solstice for us, relaxation amongst natural beauty and really the only problem with the place is the amount of times you get asked if you want a ‘smoke’ in reference to the charas on offer here, which supposedly is a particularly potent hashish.
I have been offered drugs more times here in 2 days than in the previous 4 years of travel. I mean I have kids with me, like I am seriously going to sit and get stoned with them. I have always taken a bleak look on those who not just do drugs but even smoke around children. I’m the type of guy that believes an expectant mother who smokes when pregnant is a selfish individual, caring more about her own enjoyment than the health of her unborn child. The same goes for parents that smoke in cars with their kids present. But I guess in a place where there is no obvious presence of police, combined with a booming manufacture of marijuana there is, and always will be demand for it.
Not my thing, not most peoples thing – But prevalent nonetheless.
That said, the visit to the mountain retreat in Himachal Pradesh was well worth the hassle of getting there. If just to look out from our hotel balcony and gaze out over the valley, it’s certainly a place we will remember and a place I simply cannot recommend enough and I find myself wondering already – Is Himachal Pradesh the most beautiful state in India?
It’s looking that way so far.