McLeod Ganj: Through the eyes of a tourist

Set in the foothills of the Himalayas, McLeod Ganj is a curious little town that forms its own microcosm, apart from the rest of Himachal Pradesh and India itself.  Home to the holy Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetan government, it is a place of refuge for many displaced Tibetans, who still arrive after the treacherous, month-long journey over mountains and the Tibet-India border to this day.  The Tibetan presence is immediately apparent and a decided difference can be noticed passing from Dharamshala, the Indian lower town, to McLeod Ganj just 5km above.  Litter strewn and heavily polluted streets recede as incomers pass outposts guarded by Tibetan soldiers.  Signs line the road, politely asking all inhabitants to consider water usage, dispose of waste safely, live peacefully, and respect nature.  “Ooh, conscientious living,” I thought “this looks exciting!”

Valley lined with prayer flags

Brightly coloured prayer flags decorate the length and breadth of McLeod

In the main square, a cluttered but calm scene awaits, with red-robed Tibetan monks mingling alongside dready backpackers and Indian holidaymakers escaping the heat for cooler climes.

Dog in disused market stall

Dog in a vacant market stall as dusk falls

After some time, I got the feeling that there are many faces to McLeod Ganj and, if you scratched beneath the surface, an incomprehensible number of difficulties, complications and subtle politics might emerge.  Apparent peace is by no means continuous or absolute.  Although there is much less traffic, drivers still race around the town aggressively beeping their horns at other pedestrians, animals and motorists.   Dogs curl up into neat little sleeping balls in the day but become crazed packs, howling and picking fights with rivals throughout the night.

Crowded street in McLeod Ganj

Kunga's Hostel, Bhagsu Road - underneath the white sign in the distance by the car.

Even our abode, Kunga’s Guesthouse, demonstrated the town’s somewhat schizophrenic identity with one side opening on to a busy, dirty street and the other a terraced veranda, overlooking a valley surrounded by mountain peaks.  Although the two sides were just metres apart, it could have been a galaxy.  The street noise was totally lost on the terrace, leaving a calm, natural, sunny spot, teaming with wildlife and breathtaking panoramic views of the mountains in all their glory.  Within this  setting, we enjoyed many a meal at Kunga’s, where wholesome vegetarian goodness is the dish of the day and staff don’t bother if you forget to pay your tab until hours after breakfast.  There is a sign asking customers not to smoke or drink because it’s bad for the body, but, in true Buddhist style, they provide ashtrays and don’t pass judgment on those who do.  Behind the boisterous street and unimpressive hostel façade, Kunga’s is a sanctuary where I felt at home and able to relax.

Green leafy trees lining the valley sides

A view from near the Dalai Lama's monastery

Reading the Rough Guide and travel forums, I came prepared for a place that gets under the skin and takes hold on many people.  Whatever the reaction to McLeod, it seemed it was always a strong one.  Indeed my feelings towards the town varied strongly; sometimes it felt like a peaceful haven of spiritual discovery, at other times electric and full of possibilities, and then also oppressive and intimidating at times too.

From what I can gather, it has undergone dramatic change over the last ten years or so.  As with any influx of tourists, it is often followed by the arrival of people looking for a new opportunity to make a living.  This is no different in McLeod; most streets are lined with craftsmen and gift vendors, musicians and reiki masters, yoga teachers and Ayurvedic healers.  Whether you want to buy pictures of the Dalai Lama or learn how to meditate, there will always be someone willing to relieve you of a few rupees.

Tom & I sat drinking an afternoon lassi on the terrace at Kunga's

Sat drinking a banana lassi on the terrace at Kunga's

The change has lead to a disgruntled vibe emanating from some backpackers and repeat visitors to McLeod.  It is a kind of disgust that the town has become commercial, which is said to contaminate life’s simplicity and the potential for spiritual attainment.  However, and a massive one at that, the bigger picture is that there is less famine and poverty, and more employment.  On the whole, life for McLeod’s residents has improved vastly over the last ten years and who is more important, backpacker or resident?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so they say.  Maybe it’s easier for us, we didn’t see the town before it was touched by tourism. Collecting my thoughts in writing, and sitting in Jaipur, I miss McLeod Ganj and sincerely hope that I return one day.

Advertisements

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Matthew Withey on November 6, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    So cool to be able to read about what’s going on. Hope you’re having fun and taking care x

    Reply

  2. Posted by mona perdue on November 7, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Enjoyed your post on McLeod Ganj. Thank you.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Mooma on November 8, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    Tor,
    As with previous posts, this is very well written and (even though I am reading it at work where the associated pictures do not download) I feel that I have a full understanding of how McLeod Ganj touched your life! Well done and thank you babe. XXXXXXX

    Reply

  4. Posted by Peter Johnson on November 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Must be catching I’ve read your latest at work, will read to the boys later, you & Tom may as well be on a different planet, it seems it with sun streaming through my windows in sleepy Henley, dealing with the same old, same old . The pictures look great & for some reason I started to think about the air quality at Mcleod Ganj and where did the place get its name, don’t tell me; a Scottish explorer! And do they need a bus service, back to work me thinks.
    Keep writing, Love Dad

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: