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.

Nice weather for Yeti

“Sat at around 3,000 m.a.s.l. it feels like a weary end to a long day.  Thunder rumbles deeply around me and only now can I fathom the creation of unhappy mountain Gods.  Apparently there are 200 hikers at this tiny hamlet tonight and most of them are brassy school children living up a bit of parent-free time.  Despite the energy and noise of the kids, it’s strangely uncrowded.  We’re sat atop a rolling green mountain sloped with pine forests and lush grazing for goats, cows, sheep and mules.  Raven or jackdaw like birds circle in large flocks above our heads.  This spot represents the last of the Himalayan foothills, with no further civilisation in sight.  There are rugged, baron mountains covered in glaciers and early snowfall as far as the eye can see.  The passes between them reach 4,500 m.a.s.l. so I’m struggling to comprehend how big the actual peaks are.  This is the real beginnings of the formidable Himalayas.”

An excerpt from my notebook on Thursday 21st October 2010
Rugged mountain range capped in snowfall and glaciers

The view beyond Triund and the last of the grassy foothills

What I omitted from the entry above was that both Tom & I had misgivings about our guide and porter.  Both of us shared the same sense that there was some trouble or malcontent coming from them.  Maybe they’d had bad experiences with tourists before?  After all it can be a delicate relationship.  Maybe they didn’t want to be working?  Maybe they weren’t particularly nice or sociable people?  Who knows!  At times you could cut the atmosphere with a knife and the feeling we were being abused in a language we couldn’t understand was hard to ignore.  Steely looks and vacant responses to questions didn’t do much to further our confidence.  I tried to find reassurance in the knowledge that it can be hard to forge a trusty connection between tourist and local, and that, as their employers, maybe they just wanted to get the job done without an interest in friendship.  It didn’t go far though, that night Tom slept with his Leatherman in his pocket and I hardly slept at all.  The bad atmosphere was hard to ignore.

Dark skies disperse the sunshine

Storm clouds rolling in to darken the afternoon sun

Next day it was planned to ascend into the rugged mountains pictured above, with an overnight stay in some enormous caves.  From the ground this sounded amazing, a true adventure!  However, in the hands of men with questionable trustworthiness, storm clouds rolling around above, early signs of altitude sickness, and a hole in the back of my heel from badly chosen climbing shoes, it didn’t seem so wise after all.  Though there were many trekkers at the hill station, almost all were overnighters returning to base the next day.  It was completely plausible that there would only be four people sleeping in the caves the following evening; Tom, me, the guide and the porter.  With what felt like the odds stacked against us, we made a difficult decision to abandon ship and end the trek 2 days early.

Rugged mountains peaks in beautiful sunshine with Tibetan flags flying in front

Glorious mountains seen from the safety of the ground on a sunny day

Breaking the news to our guide and porter, their reaction was bizarre.  It was as if they’d expected us to decide to descend and had just been waiting for the revelation.  New information started to come out; a group on the previous day had attempted the next stage but returned after only an hour and a half due to treacherous weather and the guide admitted he was ill-equipped because he didn’t have any ice kit with him.  Everyone agreed that the weather was continuing to worsen.

Beneath sky that promised a full day of thunder storms, Tom and I set out early leaving our trekking colleagues to pack up the kit above.  The track down was well-made and, despite heavy rainfall, we both felt confident, relieved to escape bad company and determined to enjoy what was left of the adventure.  Nature did not disappoint.  Thunder and lightning were all around us – not above as usual – we were in the storm cloud!  Half an hour into the hike, fierce hail stones erupted from the sky, pelting our skin through our clothes.

Dog looks over a metal roof against an alpine mountain backdrop

Day 1 - Gorgeous pup spootted hanging out on a metal roof with the alpine covered mountains in the background

Carefully watching our step over the wet and icy stone footpath, we met a mountain herder with five terrified cows.  Tom held the farmer’s neon umbrella so that he could put on a raincoat, giving him time to explain that if one of his cows bolted she would break her leg for sure.  Winter was coming in unpredictably quickly this year and it wouldn’t be the first time he had to descend the mountain with injured animals.  He explained in clear English that he was taking the herd ‘downside’ as soon as possible to keep them safe.

Meeting the cow herder bolstered our spirits, reminding us of the comparatively easy situation we were faced with and also encouraging us that standing in a thunder cloud couldn’t be too dangerous if there was time to stop and chat.  Soaked to our underwear, passports and the last rupee, we made it down in a bit under four hours, shivering, but full of adventure and a strange pride for listening to our hearts, keeping safe and accepting that our long sought after trip would have to be postponed for another day.

The adventure happened on the way down but the beautiful snaps were caught on the way up, so here’s a few for your enjoyment!

  • Grey mountain goat perched on wood pile

    Grey mountain goat perched on wood pile

  • Lovely mountain views

    Lovely views

  • Sunlight stone path through an alpine forest

    Alpine forest path

  • Inside a mud hut drying off and eagerly awaiting a lunch of spicy chilli noodles

    Drying off in a mud hut

  • Bunch of school kids with Tor standing with them

    "Mr Thomas, take one picture!"

  • View down the whole valley with a dog in the foreground

    A view along the whole valley

Tuk tuk

Loaded up – all 6’4″ of Tom, me, his very respectably packed day sack and my hero-in-a-half-shell super sack – heading for the Old Delhi train station at dusk, as fast as three wheels, a hairdryer engine and a chubby old man with a funny mustache could carry us.  Maybe it’s not surprising that sometimes the ‘in transit’ part of being a tourist can be the most exhilarating, eye-opening and fun?

Blurry image of a tuk tuk going through dustry streets

A tuk tuk whizzes off in cleaner, safer, less crowded New Delhi. Unfortunately we were too busy holding on for dear life to take snaps riding through Old Delhi!

Beyond the gridlocked carriageway, dimly lit curbs laced with oddly placed neon lights, tea shacks, small industrial workshops and cafes passed by.  The medley roadside blurred into the traffic, made up of all sorts of moving objects, both animal and engineered.  Every single one ringing, blaring, honking or hooting.  Indicators, when present, are a weak second, where the noise emitted dictates both direction and priority.  Pot holes added to the fun; bumping us about and teetering our luggage precariously over the edge of the auto-rickshaw.  Dust, evening heat, dogs barking, thick exhaust fumes and smells that varied from stomach tantalising to wretch lobbying, left us sweatily clasping hands as we tried to navigate a strange kind of euphoric fear.

After 10 years of nurturing an interest in Indian culture, I’d often seen scenes like this on documentaries, movies and pictured in books.  There had been many times when I’d vividly imagined myself traveling in this way through iconic Indian streets.  Now actually there, I stared at it all in disbelief thinking that it couldn’t be real.

Tom & I were silent for most of the journey, totally consumed in the experience, but I have to admit that we did flippantly comment that a ride though Old Delhi in a tuk tuk beat any adrenalin-junkie amusement at a theme park.  It was awesome!  Hopefully this doesn’t belittle the hardened men and women for whom this method of transport is normal life, or should I say life and death?

To enjoy India, it strikes me that you need to abandon your sense of danger somewhat and just embrace your sense of adventure.  It made me think of my Dad, a man who takes little notice of hazards, has profound faith that everything will turn out well in the end, and with great enthusiasm for the unknown.  He’d love it out here.  It also brought back fond memories of the ‘In God We Trust’ inscriptions across the back windows of dubiously engineered and piloted long distance coaches in Tanzania.   There is also the Muslim word ‘inshallah’, loosely meaning ‘if God wills it’, which is often used in answer to all sorts of questions or tagged on the end of statements.  By placing an outcome in the hands of faith, lack of control or planning can easily be accepted.  The English are terrible for trying to foresee and cater for every eventuality, which seems to me to cause stress and take up a lot of time.  Out here, I’m pretty excited about  relaxing into an unplanned lifestyle and just seeing what happens. (Mum – Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean compromising on safety!)

Tom on the train surrounded by compartments

Safely seated on the train to Pathankot

This time, as it happened, we ended up at Old Delhi train station as planned and with plenty of time to spare before our departure.  Inside the huge hanger, a friendly young chap looked at our ticket and made up a completely incorrect platform number for us to wait at.  This was not out of malice; he wanted to help us but didn’t know the right information, so he just made it up.  Love it!  Luckily it’s quite transparent when this happens so we thanked him, wished each other safe travels and then walked off in search of someone who was genuinely informed.

The train was another experience in itself; our carriage mostly contained 3 tiered bunk-beds.  After a bit of a kerfuffle about whether our tickets were on the top or bottom, we settled down for the night.  The thing that astounded me was the level consideration for one another in this tightly packed space.  To start with it was a noisy hub of activity with people chatting, laughing and eating their packed meals.  Then suddenly, as if a boarding school matron had cried “Lights out!”, everybody simultaneously settled into silence, enabling all to get their beauty sleep.  That is, as long as you could shut out the loud ‘clackety-clack’ of the train wheels, something, that as newcomers, Tom & I found very difficult.

First impressions of Delhi

Tom described arriving in Delhi as “like being dropped into a bowl of thick soup… stirred at speed by an invisible spoon”, a great analogy of our encounter with the city.

Blurry hot Delhi night

Well-intentioned friends and guidebooks try to describe what to expect or to prepare you for landing in the middle of the ‘thick soup’ at the mercy of the ‘invisible spoon’.  However, it seems that no two pairs of eyes perceive Delhi in the same light.  A magically dynamic place, the rate of metamorphosis makes it plausible for outsiders to stand at the same site, seconds apart, and experience a different city altogether.  Just twenty four hours experience of Delhi made it clear that there is no single way to summarise the vista, people or general feel of being there.

Surprisingly, given numerous severe warnings about chaos, filth and deceit, I found it possible for newcomers to India to enjoy the city.  The reality for me was gentler and less intimidating than expected.   We struck gold with our hotel, the Grand Park Inn in Karol Bagh.  More pricey than planned for the rest of the trip, but worth every penny staying somewhere above the ‘budget’ range.  We booked in advance and would have been picked-up at the airport had it not been for a misunderstanding.  The place was sparkly clean with friendly staff that went over and above the call of duty to help us.  Room service meant that we could sample our first Thalis in the cool, quiet, safety of the room.

A disappointed Tor stands next to a billboard of the Commonwealth Games mascot

Disappointment at the Commies for 1 unhappy Brit

Aiming for a relaxed transit into Indian life, we planned one excursion in Delhi, to the Diving Finals at the Commonwealth Games.  Saying planned, I mean agreed really, we hadn’t booked tickets in advance; the empty seats all over the TV seemed like a green light to just turn up and buy tickets on the gate.  On arrival, a giggling Games official told us that all tickets sold out a week in advance and joked with us for being late.

So the afternoon passed by wandering the streets of New Delhi and eating.  This part of the city is undergoing radical development and modernisation.  The metro system is impressively efficient and only dissimilar from the acclaimed Barcelona metro by its smaller scale.  As expected, there are Levi, Adidas, McDonalds, KFC and other massive global brands dominating the shop fronts on the main square.  Sadly, in a few years time, I expect the streets of the modern part of the city will be indistinguishable from the cloned, clinical streets of Europe and the US.

My advice to a first-timer to India arriving in Delhi would be to take heed of practical advice but keep an open mind. Secure good accommodation as a retreat when things get overwhelming, it is definitely worthwhile.  We were only there for one day and returning for a flight home next year so we avoided Old Delhi for the most part and from what I can gather this was probably good judgment, although it denied us the most lively and authentic part of the city.  A short stay was also appreciated because I’m not sure we would have endured the city’s pace well, especially after a long flight.

Introduction

A Bishnoi Wife

All being well, in a few short weeks time I will wake up to find myself living with a tribe of people called the Bishnoi, in the Thar desert, India.  It will be at least a 3 month project and I’m there to tentatively try to understand Bishnoi culture and values by getting involved in daily life; be that milking buffalo, collecting seeds or fetching water.  The Bishnoi centre many of their beliefs around care for the environment.  They are a gentle people who go to great lengths to encourage animal and plant life, especially in resisting poaching and tree felling.

The Bishnoi people are not internationally well-known but have done astounding things to preserve the natural world around them since well before Shakespeare walked the streets of England.  Whilst living with a Bishnoi family, my goal will be to take on the role of a gentle and open-minded pupil, then to use the experience to encourage understanding and thoughtfulness elsewhere.

Over the next few months this blog will be populated with stories, info, links and discoveries.  Use the ‘SUBSCRIBE’ tab in the top right hand corner of this page to make sure you are kept up to date when there are new articles to read.  Don’t miss the adventure!

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