Posts Tagged ‘Himalayas’

McLeod Ganj: Tibetans in exile

“The systematic eradication of Tibetan culture and religion saw the destruction of 6000 monasteries and temples.  The handful still standing today are used as tourist attractions, army barracks, or public toilets.  Precious scriptures and sculptures were destroyed or sold in international art markets.  The Chinese use scriptures as shoe soles, and monks and nuns were forced to desecrate religious objects.”  

Hatsang Jigme, Norbulingka Institute and the Tibetan Museum, McLeod Ganj

 

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a distant awareness of a situation with China and Tibet.  Regrettably, however, I knew little more than two facts about it all; the Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile and China claimed Tibet as its own.  

In McLeod Ganj, every other interaction was with a friendly, polite Tibetan.  The hostel, our cafes of choice, friends we made in the street and places we visited, all were mostly Tibetan.  As tourists, we were made to feel relaxed and at home, totally comfortable.  We didn’t pick up on signs of current pain or suffering from them.  Looking back, I never really talked to a Tibetan about the situation with China, how long they’d been in McLeod Ganj or what circumstances they arrived in.  As generally timid, reserved and modest people, maybe it’s not surprising?

Gate at the entrance to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts

Gate at the entrance to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) - One of three main buildings set up to preserve Tibetan culture, there is also a library and cultural centre called the Norbulingka Institute

It took a chance meeting of a Canadian woman, called Mati, to open my eyes, followed by a visit to the Tibetan museum to supply some facts.  Suddenly I realised that China’s occupation of Tibet wasn’t a remote saga in a history book long since concluded.  The elderly red-robed lady that I’d been sharing smiles with on the walk home from the monastery was actually a well-known and respected torture survivor, currently taking care of newly rescued orphans.  In all probability, every Tibetan over 50 years old that we’d met had made the perilous month-long trek over the mountainous border.  Certainly many of the younger guys, people who we’d chatted to about football or rock music, had never seen their homeland.  And those who were born in Tibet grew up under the Chinese regime and can have only ended up in McLeod Ganj after becoming refugees themselves.  From what we were told, many Tibetans still have to flee their country in exile every day, and do so without being able to let their families know what they’re doing or that they’re even alive.

Struggles for land, power and resources have been in existence since humans began walking on the earth.  In an evolutionary sense, it’s understandable.  However, I think there is a stark difference between exploitation of an advantage and attempted racial destruction.  From what I can gather, the past fifty years have not only seen murder, torture and imprisonment, but a systematic attack on the Tibetan identity; targeting religion, destroying literature, banning native clothing, demoting the language, preventing the attainment of wealth or education and making Tibetan people a minority race in their own country. 

Red flag that reads "Boycott 'Made in China'"The Tibetan strength of character and astounding Buddhist approach, which has enabled them to continue in such a dignified and positive manner, touched my heart very deeply.  Staring at preciously displayed coins, stamps and flags of a people desperately clinging on to their heritage, I made a pledge to shout about this and try to raise awareness.  If there’s anything I can do to help prevent Tibet and its culture from becoming a forgotten land, only existing in history books, show me the way! 

 

Don’t just take it from me…

Books

  • The Voice that Remembers by Ama Adhe, the elderly torture survivor I mentioned.
  • Freedom in Exile, the 14th Dalai Lama’s autobiography
  • Tibetan Foothold by Dervla Murphy, the lady who cycled from Ireland to India in 1960’s.  This is her encounter with McLeod Ganj when she ended up volunteering there.

Facebook Group

  •  ‘High Peaks Pure Earth’ run by a London-based action group

Blog 

Mati, the Canadian lady, was leading a teaching exchange project with Canadian students working in McLeod’s Tibetan schools.  This is what they have to say about it all:

Texts from the Tibetan Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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