(The short story is that the Dalai Lama visited India in the lead-up to Chinese invasion of Tibet to discuss growing security concerns, and India offered him and the Tibetans a safe place to live, if it should come to that. After military takeover of Tibet—an independent nation that was never part of China and has separation treaties from the past—people disguised themselves as Chinese soldiers and fled through the mountains to India, including hiding the Dalai Lama in their group. They were offered to set up their government-in-exile and new lives around Dharamsala and the former British for station of McLeod Ganj)
From the afternoon bus in Amritsar, we took a rather harrowing trip through the mountains, but the bus itself was quite comfortable. From starting to get sick and the fast turns around the mountain, I actually thought I was going to throw up on the bus a few times and was evaluating how quickly I could unscrew the cap on my water bottle and puke into that, if the need arose.
The German guy from my border tour, J, was on my bus, also, and we had no real plans or any lodging booked. L, the Austrian girl at our hostel in Amritsar, said she’d stayed at a great guest house in McLeod Ganj (the next town north of Dharamsala, and where most of the Tibetans/most of the stuff to do are) near the bus stop, so we planned to just show up there and ask for a room.
Arriving after 10pm, we had a hard time finding the 7 Hills Guest House, because their sign isn’t lit. After a few missteps, we finally found it. They only had a shared room available, which we took. $4.50 each per night is a good deal. We dropped our stuff, got a quick dinner, and then passed out in bed.
The next morning, I took some pictures from the balcony outside the rooms on our floor.
We set off down the main street to have some breakfast en route to the main temple and museum. The views along the way can’t be beat.
After breakfast, we went to the temple, which has a museum out front about the Tibetan situation and exiles. Out front, there’s a community bulletin board. They were advertising an upcoming free talk by the Dalai Lama, but it’s after my visa ended. I would’ve loved to hear him speak in front of his own people.
The community bulletin board also had notices about recent deaths in Tibet, recent struggles against the Chinese occupation, and notices about the still-missing Panchen Lama, kidnapped by the Chinese government.
The museum also had a monument to the Tibetan martyrs outside. We decided to visit the museum before the temple, since J has never been to Tibet and didn’t know much about the situation there.
I took a lot of pictures at the museum, including plaques with information for the displays, because my own words cannot match what others have said, and I think they’re all really important.
There’s a display on those who have self-immolated to protest the Chinese occupation (set yourself on fire) in recent years. In the past 10 years, 138 people have killed themselves this way. Tragic. There’s a board showing their names, faces & dates.
Evidence of discrimination against the Tibetans in their own homeland shows signs like this “job availability” sign offering one pay rate for Chinese and a lower one for Tibetans—in Tibet!
The Chinese government now also controls the monasteries (the ones they didn’t tear down) and force the monks to memorize party propaganda, alongside learning their religion, which is silly.
The 13th Dalai Lama made a sad prediction before his death, and the current (14th) has seen it come true.
The Tibetans have tried to protest in whatever ways they can, but there’s little help from the outside, and they get brutally crushed by the Chinese army every time.
After exiting the museum, we went through the communal courtyard and then into the temple.
The secluded area for the leaders of the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama.
I also had the “pee with the best view” of my life at the temple. Look at the view from these urinals!
It was pouring rain, so we escaped to a nearby cafe. We tried 2 different places, which both told us they didn’t have momos at that time—a traditional Tibetan dumpling that we laughed at them having on the menu but not having available at the time. We wound up eating soup and appreciating the view.
After the rain let up, we grabbed our rain jackets from the guest house (just in case) and set off down to Dharamsala itself, to see the government-in-exile buildings.
After this great path through the woods and the temple it passed, we wound up at some of the government buildings. Here, they give guidance for exiles on how to try to maintain their culture, identity, and meaning in exile from their ancient homeland.
We also overheard cheering and stopped to observe this kids’ basketball game for a few minutes.
Moving along, we came across this shrine and the Parliament building.
Nearby is the library, where they’ve preserved as many books as they could save from the purges of the “cultural revolution” in China.
We walked back up to McLeod Ganj, I had a bit of a heart attack with some monkeys near the path, and we got turned around before finding the Seeds Cafe.
We’d been told (and had seen lots of signs around town) to check out the Lion Man show on Saturdays and Wednesdays. This guy fled Tibet with his family, when he was 15, and crossed the mountains on foot, to arrive in northern India. His performance starts with some traditional Tibetan dancing and singing, then turns into a free-for-all of things I’m not sure if they’re planned or made up on the spot, but it became hilarious and scary at different points. It was really fun, though.
That night, I didn’t sleep well at all. I woke up around 3am and couldn’t fall back asleep. When the alarm went off at 6 for our planned hike, I tried to back out. J said he wasn’t going to do it by himself, so I got up and went. I don’t regret it; I went solely so he wouldn’t have to cancel, but the hike to Triund Hill turned out to be amazing. We left at 6:30 with the sunrise.
Given that the beginning of the hike is actually a rode, people were driving up it. This group of Israelis we encountered at the beginning actually flagged down a taxi and took it to the spot where cars can’t go any further. We laughed at them, because we still passed them later on. From where they caught the taxi, they only got to ride about 4 minutes, because you couldn’t tell that the parking spot for cars was just around the bend.
Around 7:30, at the “no cars past here” spot, we came across some guest houses and stopped at one for breakfast. What a view!
I can honestly say that the way Indians hike is totally appalling to me. It’s not how I enjoy nature. In a group, someone will carry a boombox and play really loud techno, over which the group members have to shout to talk to one another. You’re scaring away the animals, can’t hear the birds, and aren’t really “enjoying nature” at all like this. Whenever we came across these groups, we sped up to pass them as fast as possible.
The views along the way are great. It’s hiking in the Himalayas, so that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
At the top, it turns out you can rent tents and sleeping bags to stay the night. You don’t really have to bring anything at all. How easy! However, seeing how many people were there from the previous night and how many boomboxes would probably be there, we were glad this wasn’t in our plan.
I’d like to point out that the 2 signs at the top have drastically different heights listed on them. How high are we??
We got there in time to take in the views before some clouds moved in and blocked everything. We thought rain might come with them, so we started down.
Hiking down through the clouds was pretty intense at times.
Back at the guest house, we changed clothes and got some lunch before going to a documentary showing at the museum. They show 2 documentaries per day on various topics related to the Tibetan struggle. This one had interviews with people who had spent time in Chinese prisons for supporting Tibetan independence. There is definitely no free speech there. It’s sad.
When we woke up the next morning, I needed to do some work, and J wanted to do another hike before setting off to another town. He told me later that I didn’t miss much, and we checked out of our room, so he could go onwards on his journey, and I moved into a single room ($3.75 per night). I worked most of the day and meandered through the town that night, just soaking up the cleaner, cooler air and the more relaxed atmosphere that I’d be losing the next day.
I went to bed early and rose earlier, in order to get to the bus station for the 6am bus back to Amritsar.
My time in McLeod Ganj and Dharamsala has impacted me a lot. There aren’t words to truly express the impact, the change, the profound sadness and disbelief this time has imparted into me. The only thing I can say is: FREE TIBET.
Next up: back to Amritsar for a day.