I knew that I would like Mcleod Ganj from the moment I stepped off of the bus. I remember thinking to myself oh here we go as I noticed two rickshaw drivers parked directly outside the bus, but not one batted an eye lid. In fact it took quite a lot of convincing to get one of them to take us up to Bhagsu where we would be staying. He seemed much more interested in going to bed.
But it was not just the rickshaw drivers who were relaxed, the whole area was. Admittedly it is not a very Indian place considering that it is home to the Tibetan government in exile but it was all very refreshing.
The chilled atmosphere seemed to rub off on me. For the first few days I largely spent playing cards, reading books and drinking a lot of milk tea and coffee. The downside to staying in a superb guest house with a great communal outdoors area is that it is sometimes hard to find an incentive to do anything active! But in many ways it provided a much needed time to relax and enjoy a slower pace to life.
The principle reason to visit Mcleod Ganj is because it is home to the Dali Lama. Although he himself was off giving talks in America I visited his residency a couple of times. The first time there was, what I understood to be, a major speaker talking to a gathering of monks and a large assembled audience. He seemed to have the audience in the palm of his hand as laughter filled the complex. Other than gathering that they were mostly jokes about yoga my Tibetan let me down.
On the second visit the complex was much quieter allowing me to roam freely throughout the temple and monks ‘barracks’. On leaving a number of the monks had gathered for their daily ‘discussions’. In pairs one would sit and listen, whilst the other, who was far more animated, argued their points. Normally debating can be noisy but this was a little over the top as every time they wanted to seal a point they either stamped their feet or slapped their hands. The crescendo of noise echoed around the surrounding buildings. On my way out I noticed a couple of westerners giving it a go. For some reason it just didn’t look quite the same.
One of the many highlights to Mcleod Ganj was far off the lonely planets radar. Directly outside our guest house stood a tiny temple. It had first aroused interest from the continuous bell ringing and singing that would make its way through into the room at 7am. The exterior of it reminded us of something from Alice in Wonderland. Little did we know that the inside would be just as eccentric. With psychedelic Buddhist statues on the interior walls and model snakes crawling from the ceiling it was quite a sight. The real treat though was going through a snakes mouth and into a cave the winded it’s way up, past more statues and masks, until you reached the top of the temple, which looked out over the valley. Both Mark and I were taken aback by the whole design of the place. It was a religious playground, not least illustrated by the smiles of the children running back and forth through the cave. I am seriously starting to doubt that I will ever visit a better temple!
On a couple of days the lure of the snowy peaks that showed themselves on clear days was a little to much. It seems to be a developing habit of mine that when I see mountains I want to climb them! The first attempt largely failed however I did end up at a picturesque waterfall with glacier pools a plenty. Several hours with a book, in the sun, was time well spent! The second attempt was better, in that I got higher, but the clouds came in and ruined any good views, which was disappointing.
Something that I really wanted from Mcleod Ganj was an opportunity to listen to Tibetan Monks share their experiences. Fortunately I got the chance on my final day when I took part in a conversation class. This is something that is run by voluntary groups and you essentially turn up, are given a group to work with and discuss a pre-arranged topic. The main aim of the sessions is to help the locals with their English. The theme for the day was:
What would you change in the world?
What is bad in the world?
I joined in with a group of teenagers and supported them along with a New Yorker. The kids language was basic but it was a joy working with them. At times I almost felt like a teacher again! At the end of the session all the groups had to speak three sentences in answer to the questions. There were the obvious answers from the older groups. STOP WARS, Poverty more charity etc and then my group stood up. The first sentence they spoke was poignant:
1) There should be no evenings only daytime.
This brought a round of applause from the classroom. Ah the group are selecting the good ones from our discussions or so I thought. The second proved to be quite controversial:
2) Everyone should be allowed to wear different types of clothes
A protest against robes! The elder monks seemed not so impressed by this change to the world. Why couldn’t they just stick to the obvious answers I thought rather than our meaningless chatter. Oh well there is always time for the third:
3) You should not thrown stones at ducks
Too true! The mind of young Tibetan monks, truly they are in touch with the key issues in the world today.
The session was good fun but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little disappointed at not getting to speak in more detail than simple hello’s to some of older monks. Luckily though that time came when walking out of the guest house and towards the bus station. I was greeted by a monk keen on a bit of company. It was fascinating listening to him as he talked about making the journey over the Himalayas on foot to reach Mcleod Ganj. They walked every day and most nights, some for up to three months, in nothing more than their robes. It put my efforts to shame. The exchange was truly a superb experience.
After half an hour or so we parted company and I clambered onto the Government bus which would take me overnight to Manali. It seemed like a good idea at the time but looking back on it now I am not so sure.