Chandigarh – Dharamsala & McLeod Ganj Friday 14 - Tuesday 18 August 2009
So finally on Friday 14 August we said a final sad goodbye to the Dhandes (after a good send off breakfast!) and set off on the road north. Before we left Andrew and Mr. Dhande went off to play dress up - as you can see in the pictures!!! Just as we set off the monsoons finally kicked in - which produced an audible sigh of relief all over Chandigarh!!
Amazingly within a few hours of this very heavy rain the roads were severely flooded out - to the extent that quite a few bikes and cyclos ended up water logged and abandoned! It brought a welcome reduction in temperature though!!
Our next destination was Dharamsala or more particularly McLeod Ganj a little town at the foot of the Himalayas best known as the home in exile of the Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama. The first half of the journey was on very good roads and we made good time. The latter part was more scenic twisting and turning as we climbed upwards and affording some lovely views and tunnels cut through solid mountains but it definitely slowed us up!!
Thus it took us longer than foreseen and it was starting to get dark when we reached Dharamsala - we had been planning to carry on to McLeod Ganj just 4km above Dharamsala but a further 10km through twisting mountain roads but we decided to leave it till the next day - which turned out to be a very good choice on a number of fronts!!
Dharamsala is far quieter than McLeod Ganj and less of a travellers' centre but the next day was the 15th of August. This is India's Independence Day which commemorates the date in 1947 when power was officially handed over from England to the first Indian Government. This meant that lots of people had headed to the hills to have a family holiday escaping the heat so the roads - which weren't the easiest for a vehicle our size at the best of times - were absolutely jam packed. We stopped to look at the map to try and suss out a good camp spot when 2 guys on a motorbike stopped to offer us help. They insisted we stay with them - so we followed them out to the leafy green area where they lived.
The Arora family were really kind and made us really welcome. They insisted on having us in for dinner - more delicious Punjabi fare as that's where they were from originally. It was a lovely peaceful spot and we both slept really well.
The next morning we drove on across the mountains. Just prior to hitting McLeod Ganj we stopped at the church of St John in the Wilderness. This is the only remaining evidence of the British rule in the area a stone church in the hills. Apparently the stain glass windows are stunning from the inside but you can only get in on Sunday morning service so we didn't see them. The graveyard was full of pioneers - many of whom died young!!!
McLeod Ganj - named after a former British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab combined with the Hindu word for market - was initially founded in the 1850s as a British garrison and got a new lease of life in 1959 when the Dalai Lama and his entourage obtained asylum here after fleeing Chinese persecution. It is now the "little Lhasa in India" home to over 300,000 Tibetan refugees and the site of the Tibetan Government in exile at nearby Gangchen Kyishong.
It is a beautiful area combining views across mist swirled mountains with tiny paved streets lined with stores selling Tibetan artifacts. This makes it a nightmare for parking - particularly on Independence Day holiday when everyone in India and their cousins seems to be there on a day trip!!!
Thankfully we managed to park the bus on the outskirts and walked in - which was hazardous enough with bikes/cars /jeeps all over the place!
It was a mixed crowd foreign and Indian tourists (most of who seemed to be from Delhi - escaping the heat and I don't blame them!!) jostling in the street alongside Tibetan ladies in their traditional clothes selling hand woven shawls and handmade jewelry. There was also a mobile knife sharpener cycling around. As a traveller's hang out McLeod has loads of good restaurants.
It being a day of celebration in India there was a fair bit of partying going on and the crazy congestion wasn't helped by car loads of guys setting up bars (though it was supposed to be a "Dry" day!!) in the back of their cars and dancing across the roads as the oncoming cars hooted at them!! We made a firm decision not to drive anywhere that night!!!
Looking across the mist covered hills there were rows of traditional Tibetan prayer flags. Mules are still a popular mode of transport here - and we saw a team being loadedwith sand for building work - maybe descendants of the ones which brought the Dalai Lama over the hills to safety !!
We walked on to Bhagsu the next little village - normally peaceful but today full of holiday traffic - which has a little temple a cold spring bathing area (a bit chilly for us but there were a good few takers!) and up the hill to a stunning waterfall - which got the deep breathing happening!!
As you rounded the corner after struggling up the hill there was a tenacious little cafe offering refreshments just clinging to the mountain side!!
The rains had hit and we got a real soaking walking back - it's actually a bit chilly here - but this is still a welcome relief after Chandigarh! On the way back we stopped at the Kalachakra Temple built in 1992 it was beautiful with prayer wheels and gorgeous murals everywhere and a peaceful candlelit prayer room.
We were really lucky that evening to find a great camping spot at the Zilnon Kagyeling Nyingma Monastery a retreat with a small guest house and café with a hill top Buddhist temple offering stunning views over the mountains. It was a bit like SE Asia again camping at the Wats - we were made very welcome - but again we got a 5am wakeup call each morning to rouse the monks for early prayers - just like the old days!!!
We made friends with the temple dog who was a real character - adept at getting clothes and towels of the line and making himself a nice little bed out of them!!! Cheeky dog!!! The food in the little café was fabulous too - a great spot to camp. The only downside is we were a bit perched on the mountain side - firstly it was a bit scary getting up the hill via a very narrow steep driveway - and then there was very little flat ground so we slept on an angle with the result we both woke up wedged to one side of the truck a bit like being on a fairground ride!
The next morning we decided to hang out in McLeod another day to wait for the holiday traffic to clear. This gave us the opportunity to see the Tibet Museum which really was un-missable. This documented the 50 years of struggle in Tibet - with horrific pictures and video clips about the persecution of the Tibet people by the Chinese Government. Many more suffered severe frostbite and other injuries on the arduous journey across the Himalayas to freedom.
Sickeningly the Chinese authorities seem to have made a concerted effort to eradicate the Tibetan culture - destroying ancient temples and torturing monks and nuns who bravely persist in continuing their faith. It was really distressing.
Talking to others back at the guest house someone made the point that the Chinese Government is only doing the same - on a much smaller scale- than the European powers did to Asia in previous centuries which is true I guess. The Tibetans we have met are such lovely peaceful people it is horrible to think of what they have suffered. Sadly it seems it'll never be resolved. The Dalai Lama suggested a compromise solution of allowing Tibet to have autonomy within Chinese territory but China have rejected this out of hand. In terms of sheer numbers Tibet have no hope in this struggle. There is an organization here in McLeod which aims to keep the Tibetan cultural arts alive as there is every chance they will be wiped out in Tibet entirely within the next 100 years at the most.
We had planned to set off the next day but Andrew woke up with a head cold - no doubt a result of the soaking he received! As the driving conditions are becoming increasingly full on as we hit the mountains we thought it wise to have a full day's rest at the monastery before continuing tomorrow (the 18th August) to follow the foothills of the Himalayas on towards Kashmir.