In Tibet’s Backyard

Home to the Dalai Lama, McLeod Gunj is a small town nestled on a mountainside, just north of Dharamshala. The town is made up of just three streets radiating from a central square, and easy enough for even me to navigate. The higher peaks of the Himalayas seem to be in arms reach. This is the closest we have been to them. The first day we arrive a sudden thunderstorm erupts with heavy rain and lightening. The sound of thunder in the mountains is something you’ve never heard before. It bounces off the mountains and echoes down the valley. It’s wonderfully refreshing – it’s not only the first cloudy, rainy day we’ve had in three months but it also clears the air. In the afternoon, the sun comes back out and the snow covered peaks are crystal clear,

Tibetans make up at least 80% of the town’s population, smiling faced people with mellow dispositions. Many of the women, young and old, still wear the traditional dress with striped apron. But the struggle for a Free Tibet is very evident. Across the street from our hotel is the Tibetan Youth Council; there’s volunteer organizations throughout the town, and many other groups aimed at integrating the refugee community and struggling to promote the Free Tibet movement in various ways.

McLeod Gunj is a backpackers destination but their presence doesn’t overwhelm. They come for the fresh air, yoga, and the Dalai Lama – and hang out in the many cafes eating Tibetan momos and veggie burgers. There are more Indian tourists in town than usual, due to the national cricket play-offs happening in Dharamshala at a brand new stadium. The Dalai Lama is attending the opening ceremonies! Cricketers in India are superstars and everyone in town turns out in the evening to see them arrive at eat at McLlo, the most expensive restaurant in town. A bevy of policemen supposedly monitor the crowd, but are more distracted by the cricketers themselves than to be of much help if any disturbance broke out.

The Buddhist monks wander around town in their red robes, seeming almost like tourists themselves; the younger ones often hanging out on the street and in the cafes with westerners, or talking on their cell phones. Their lively vigor doesn’t fit with our concept of a monk. Then, when we visit the local monastery, a loud disturbance disrupts the otherwise peaceful surroundings. A group of monks are taking part in a ritual debate centered on religious concepts. In turn, one monk presents his view in a loud and boisterous manner. Each point he makes is concluded with slapping of hands and stomping of feet in unison right in the opponents face! It’s very theatrical. In another area of the monastery, a large group of young monks are chanting. The monastery felt vibrant and full of activity and the presence of tourists seemed to be unnoticed.

In the evening we watch the TibetTV channel. The Dalai Lama converses with a contingent of westerners who have come to Dharamshala to try and work out a solution to free Tibet. They suggest sanctions against China, but the Dalai Lama says he doesn’t believe in this approach because it will be adverse for the Chinese people and he doesn’t want to inconvenience anyone. But then he follows up this statement with “..but since the government has been so unresponsive, maybe they need a little nudge.” And he breaks into his deep joyous laugh.

The Dalai Lama’s presence is everywhere, even though he is often traveling and not in residence. Wherever you go there are pictures of the Dalai Lama, posters are sold on the street, his books are everywhere. We talk to Moslems from Kashmir, Hindus from around India – they all have respect for the Dalai Lama.

McLeod Kunj is a shoppers paradise….or hell. Tibetan jewelry, clothes and knickknack stores are a bait for women like me. We meet a young Kashmiri shopkeeper. While he seduces me with beautiful embroidered skirts I’d never wear, Gerard discusses politics and religion with the young Moslem. Eventually, feeling I have to buy something; I opt for a simple suede bag. I’ve already bough three other bags so Gerard has to remonstrate, “There are other things to buy than bags and scarves in India!” (I’ve also bought a fair number of the latter.) It’s true I have a bag fetish, but he fails to understand a woman needs bags (and scarves) of every size, shape and design for different occasions and needs. I go back to the hotel and then realize the bag is so small my sunglasses don’t fit in it. So we go back and barter for another bag – which is of course more expensive. I agonize over two different designs and finally select one that is very pretty. It takes a few hours for me to realize that the second bag is totally inappropriate for my wardrobe, lifestyle etc. So back I go again, to Gerard’s horror, and politely persuade the shopkeeper to change yet again – of course spending yet more money…When Gerard suggested naming my blog “A Small Case” – he was not only referring to my physical baggage – it also embraces the mental load…!

After five or six days of rest and relaxation the thought of getting on yet another bus of eight hours through the mountains is too much. We’ve got soft and opt for a car and driver to take us in relative comfort to our last mountain destination, Chamba.

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