Sunday, March 20, 2011

Life on the Dali Lamas Doorstep

I am still in the town of McLeod Ganj and am really enjoying my time here. The atmosphere is friendly, the place is very small, the weather has been good (other than one night) and the culture and scenery is fantastic.

In the morning, I went with Elmar (again, someone I met the previous day at my guest house) to breakfast at a rooftop restaurant with a great view, and chatted for a long time. Elmar has worked as a wooden boat builder, in outdoor education, teaching skiing and snow boarding, sailing a ship across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean for 8 months with students, before heading out for this trip was the principal of a boarding school and a number of other equally interesting things I'm forgetting. Cool guy. As it usually does, the subject of Seattle came up which involved me drawing a of maps of the United States and of Washington state and Seattle. When it was all done, he asked me if I really did tree work, or if I really work for Seattle tourism with the way I talk about how great Seattle is, haha.

After breakfast we set out to do a little exploring and shopping. This is one sight I found particularly amusing, this guy rides around with a bike making and selling knives. When he stops, he uses the stand to lift the back wheel off the ground, and then using a belt and grinding wheel he has attached to the bike can sharpen blades by peddling the bike!

The town of McLeod Ganj is a very small and unique place. As a result of China occupying and claiming Tibet in 1949, in 1960 the Dali Lama sought Asylum in India, landing in the town of McLeod Ganj. It is his official residence, home to the Tibetan government in exile and home to a large Tibetan population. Because of this, it doesn't really feel like India, I guess I would say, but is an awesome little town. These are Buddhist prayer wheels along the main part of town.

Besides being a 'Tibetan town in India' and serving a critical religious and political purpose (as well as a place for refugees to go) it is very much a tourist town. It is full of shops selling Tibetan souvenirs, many which are handmade on old fashion sewing machines like the one pictured, as well as the usual metal trinkets, jewelery, tons of travel agencies, restaurants of all types, and guest houses are everywhere. One thing I noticed, is that this is only the second place in my entire time in India where you can get free wifi at cafes! All of these things aside, it doesn't feel like a nasty tourist town like the beaches of Goa, and has a really friendly atmosphere. Must have something to do with all the Tibetan Buddhists, to be totally honest they are much nicer than many of the Indians in the tourist industry...

This is also one of the centers of trekking in India, and since I am headed to Nepal I need some gear I simply don't have. Spending the last four months in the hot sunny lowlands of the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and everywhere I've been in India up to this point I haven't needed any warm cloths or even shoes. It all changes now that I'm in the mountains. I had to buy some hiking boots, which cost way too much (3000 rupees) for what they are, but I had no other choice. I also picked up some wool/rabbit socks, and found the Nepal Lonely Planet for only 150 rupees, which I was pumped about! (it's the 2006 edition, but not much has changed) Having that book has really allowed me to start thinking about Nepal and what I can do there.

Something else that is in ready supply here is bootleg North Face gear, and other brands. Shops are full of pants, coats, backpacks, sleeping bags and other bits, all for pretty cheap prices. Copies of fancy North Face jackets that cost $150 or $200 go for about $50 here. Sure it's not as good as the real thing, but it is more than enough to get by, and some are very good copies using real Goretex and all that. I will need to buy some of this stuff soon, but I'll do it in Nepal once I actually know what I need.

In the afternoon, Elmar and I went for a little walk around the area, heading out through Dharamkot which is so close it hardly deserves a different name, and up the hill through the trees. It is the first proper forest I've seen in here in India, and it felt great to be surrounded in big trees again. It was a nice easy walk with some good views of the valleys around us and the mountains above, and it was some much needed movement after my days on the train.

In the evening, we were in a shop buying some water and snacks, and I heard a voice from the TV that made me turn around and look. It was the unmistakable sound of an NBA announcer calling a basketball game between Dallas and Portland! I had to laugh, it was the first time since the Philippines I've seen American basketball (they love b-ball in the Philippines) and I think only the second time on my trip I've seen American professional sports on TV my entire trip! For dinner we actually went to a Korean restaurant then called it a night.

In the morning, the two of us set off on a day hike up to the snow above with a guide from our guest house, but we had a new friend along, Noa. Noe is from Israel and she had approached us the previous day asking about hiking, to which I told her I knew nothing but she was welcome to join us the next day on the hike we were doing. Luckily she did, and we set off up the steep hills above town.

This marks the first day I have worn shoes (other than rock climbing shoes, but that doesn't really count) since I left Seattle over four months ago. It really felt strange to put socks and hiking boots on, but I guess I will have to start getting used to these things again!

This is the view from part way up. We really are where the flat lands run into the edge of the mountains, an amazing place to be. In the top of the photo, the biggest town is Dharamsala, the tiny bit behind the trees is the town of McLeod Ganj and the buildings in the front are Dharamkot.

The trail up was a large and well used one, so here is a tip: Don't bother with a guide. There is really no possible way to get lost, and nothing difficult about it, you just follow the road up basically. Our 'guide' didn't really do anything other than walk with us, and it was not worth the money (400 rupees each) for his company. Maybe others are more knowledgeable and talkative which would be nice, but it's just not needed in any way.

The scenery was great. Hiking on the trail cut into steep hillsides, through boulders and forests of rhododendrons was very enjoyable. The rhodies in particular were amazing, some with trunks that must have been 4 feet around and with beautiful branch structures. They are unlike any of the rhodies I prune back in Seattle, that's for sure!

After three hours of very slow and relaxed hiking, we reached snow! The town of McLeod Ganj is at 5,800 feet, and we reached snow at maybe 8,500 feet. This was my first time touching snow since last winter back home! Since I'm used to skiing and being in the mountains back home, it's been crazy not to have snow in my life this winter, but that problem has finally been solved!

Shortly afterward we reached the top of our hike for the day, a spot called Triund at nearly 9,500 feet. Up here the views are even better, and there is a small guest house (500 rupees a night) and three tiny shacks selling snacks and basic food. We ate lunch and hung out for around an hour before turning back.

Noa and I at the top. I wish we could have gone on farther, and this would have been an awesome place to watch the sunset from.... but our 'guide' was ready to take is back down. A bit farther for example, is a glacier Laka Got which sits at nearly 11,000 feet and I wish we got to go there as well.

A small rhodie in full bloom on the way back down. Oh, another thing about this 'hike' is that there are three shops you pass on the way up where you can buy tea, snacks, food and souvenirs, before arriving at the top which has more little stands. It's not exactly roughing it!

This is one of those scenes that us westerners think is hilarious and Indians don't think twice about. This is a garbage dumpster, which they simply light on fire to burn the garbage. Yes, despite appearances not all garbage here is just thrown on the hillsides! These monkeys were picking through the trash, kind of like a monkey garbage-bbq.

The other day, I watched two monkeys climb in someones second or third story window, steal a bag of cookies, come back out, open the bag, and sit on the ledge below the window to eat their new found treats. I've said it before, but I'm sure glad we don't have monkeys in Seattle!

The next day I didn't have much on the agenda, but I wanted to go to a talk on Buddhism to learn more about it. After a lazy breakfast and long chat with Elmar and Noe I wandered off to explore town some more since I hadn't seen much of it, despite the fact it is so small.

I ended up in the Tsuglagkhang Complex which is where the main temple is, a museum on Tibet, the Dali Lamas official residence and so on. The Tsuglagkhang isn't particularly spectacular to look at with it's square cinder block construction, but of course is a very interesting and important place.

Inside, hundreds of monks were sitting on the ground facing the central temple chanting and praying. In the very center, sat a number of monks with microphones leading, and doing those low voiced chants that are unlike any other sound I can think of.

Inside the temple. 

A painting on the wall commemorating the resistance movement of the Tibetan people.

After seeing the temple I set off for this talk I had heard about, for the last day or two, but couldn't figure out where it was. It's amazing how hard simple information can be to come by out here... After talking to a few people and wandering around for half an hour or so I gave up because it had already begun and I was a little frustrated (very un-Buddhist, I know).

Instead, I sat on another of the many rooftop decks with Elmar again. It was a very cool place to sit actually, because not only did we have a good view we were just a few hundred feet away from the temple, and for three hours we listened to the chanting while Elmar worked on his tattoo design and I DID MY TAXES, haha!! (score another point for bringing a netbook and wireless internet!)

At 5pm, our soundtrack of chanting ended, and monks streamed out of the temple into the streets below.

That evening, we met up with two other Israeli girls who Noa had met earlier and who Elmar and I had met the previous day on our hike. We ate at a Tibetan restaurant which was completely disorganized, but the food was good. They are traveling together and are actually headed to Nepal two days after I get in, so I'll probably meet them there.

We all woke up at 5:30 in the morning, because today we were going to see the Dali Lama speaking here in his adopted home town! (cameras are not allowed so I couldn't take pictures, this is one I found on the internet)

In case you hadn't seen it in the news, the Dali lama is stepping down from his role as the leader of Tibetan politics. When I was on the train 'going north' with no real plan of what I was going to do when I got 'north', I happened to read that in the news paper, and that he would be here in a few days. It's one of those things that happens all the time with me, set out with no real direction and something amazing happens. This is a very important moment in Tibetan history, and I knew I had to be there.

Finding out information on this talk was VERY difficult. Tibetans are as bad as Indians as far as providing clear details and organization, haha! The Dali Lamas website said he was doing a teaching on the 19th, so as I got into town I went to the office where you have to register for the talk. The website said you have to register with a passport, two photos, all that jazz. We got there and the said there was no teaching! Instead, there would be a short prayer ceremony that we could go to and did not have to register for. I asked some monks who I bought my hiking boots from, and they had a little booklet that has the Dali Lamas schedule, and according to their book there WAS a teaching. Some people said maybe he was not going to be there at all I think. It was all very confusing and it was impossible to find out what the real story was. I went to the temple the day before and asked, and the security guard told me one thing, the help desk told me something different. Ugh!

Anyways, we woke up at 5:30am to get to the temple and get a seat on the ground before 6am. I'd been told that the Dali Lama would be there doing a prayer ceremony from 6am to 8am, then a teaching from 8am to 10am and we decided to plan our day around that 'information.' We got in and got seats before 6am, and there were very few people there that early. It slowly began to fill, but never to anything near capacity which surprised me. Around 7:30 or something, he arrived with this entourage and went to the temple a level above where all the audience was sitting. The monks all went up for that ceremony, and all we could see was the backs of a few monks above us and hear a bit of chanting. Eventually he came down and the teaching began.

When here in McLeod Ganj the Dali Lama teaches in Tibetan, and there is an English translation broadcast on the radio. I bought one of these little radios for 220 rupees so I could actually understand, but it was a bit hard to hear because one of the big speakers was right next to me, and I shared with Noe so we both only had one earphone. He told a few stories that were hard to follow due to the difficulty hearing and a rather rough translation, talked about some of the tenants of Buddhism and how to be a 21st century Buddhist, then got to the part I wanted to hear. He talked about his decision to step down from political leadership. This was all part of the plan to do this, but the move is intended to be a pro-democratic reform where the Tibetan people will be able to elect leadership and have a greater stake in their politics. He then told more stories, led some prayers and then it ended. He spoke for maybe two or two and a half hours, I'm not sure, but despite the difficulty hearing and understanding, it was all very interesting and I really feel honored to have gotten a chance to see him speak here and now.

Elmar had to leave part way through the talk to head off to another town, but the rest of us went out for breakfast (at noon or something!) and then planned on taking naps because we were all very tired. I ended up writing up most of this blog post instead, getting a shave (30 rupees), doing a little shopping, and had a lunch of street food. I ate from 4 different stands, having an egg, some momos, a samasoa and a been/onion dish you eat using a leaf as a spoon, it was great!

The next thing I did was go to the Tibetan history museum (5 rupees). It is small, but powerful little museum detailing the history of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the resistance movement, the Dali Lamas escapee to here in McLeod Ganj India, and the status of Tibet today. It is a must see for anyone who comes here.

In the evening, I met up with the girls for dinner, and we went to a rooftop Indian restaurant that was very good. This had been the first day of real clouds here, and all evening they were gathering in strength. By 7:30, the sky seemed to explode in thunder and lightening. I spent quite a while trying to photograph it, but naturally it was hopeless with my little camera, the best I could get was shots like this with the sky lit up by the huge bolts. We were planning on going out for drinks, but that ended up not happening, instead we just bought two beers and went back to the girls deck to watch the lightening. As we were walking back to the room the rain began, suddenly the power to the whole town went out and it was almost pitch black. As we bumbled our way through he dark streets it came back on, but went on and off a few times that evening. As we sat on the deck chatting and watching the lightening storm, the rain really started coming hard, and we even got some pea-size hail. When I went back to my room, the power was out again and I stumbled through the dark muddy roads that had turned into rivers, slipping and sliding around on my way back to my room and going to bed.

That's it for now, another great few days out here. Next is the festival of Holi, then I take a bus to the town of Manli further into the mountains. It is a center of trekking and 'extreme sports' I guess, but I'm looking forward to a few mellow days in the mountains before I have to go back to Delhi to fly out of India on the 29th.