Free Tibet! Some Rainy Days in McLeod Ganj
Mar 1, 2007
We pass many fields of blooming yellow canola on the bus trip out of Amritsar and the long straight road is only broken up by short stops at railway crossings. We arrive in Pathankot much quicker than I expect and I have hopes for this 7-hour long bus ride. Those hopes are dashed during the second half of our trip as we stop and start much more frequently to pick up passengers who squeeze into seats that don't fit more people and aisles already filled with luggage. The ticket checker screeches his whistle in my ear each time we stop and start and my desire to "just be there" is overwhelming. The only thing saving this trip are the glimpses of snow-capped peaks in the distance as our old bus climbs up steeper and steeper sections of road. I cannot believe I am looking at the Himalayas.
I am a mountain girl at heart and Matt is my ocean boy. Not to say that we don't both love oceans and mountains, but certain places speak louder to us. My father grew up in the mountains of BC and he brought my mother to see them who then also fell in love with them. Perhaps a love for the great hills can be genetic? I am not a religious person in the traditional sense, but for a mountain girl, coming to the Himalayas, to see the biggest mountains of all, is like visiting the most holy of all temples. After so many days of stifling exhaust, burning dung smoke and general foul air, seeing the looming peaks reaching for the sky, it is as if the earth is taking its first deep breath in a very long time. I too, do the same.
We arrive after dark, breaking one of our preferred travel rules of always arriving with either a reservation or while the sun is still shining. I had tried calling a few places but nowhere took reservations. So, we are winging it. This is a touristy place so all should be fine, and it is. We find a room in the Green Hotel, run by a friendly Tibetan man. He has set up a place suited to travelers with a phone booth, Internet stations and the only smoke-free restaurant in town. We love the price of our $9 room although it is cold with no heater and a serious draft under the door. Welcome to the mountain air!
After our first night, we awake to a spectacularly sunny day and we meet our friends Dan and Emily, who we explored Delhi with a few days before, in the lobby. They are off to a Tibetan cooking class and we decide to explore town. This place is home to many Tibetan refugees who escaped over the 5,000+ metre mountain passes when China invaded Tibet over 50 years ago. People today are still escaping and communities of Tibetans are found in all the surrounding countries as well as far away as Canada. The escape route is done in winter to avoid the Chinese army troops, but the result is often death by exposure or severe frostbite. We see a few elderly people on the street begging, holding out the remainders of fingers likely lost to the severe cold. Strangely enough, these are the only Tibetans we see begging. The rest appear to be running businesses (guest houses, restaurants, laundry services, handicraft stores). We visit a craft cooperative where women work on looms weaving carpets or kneel on the floor trimming completed works. The desire to keep their culture alive is evident although time is running out as there are now more Chinese people living in Tibet than Tibetans. The use of the land for military installations, forestry and nuclear energy is destroying what was there when the refugees here escaped. Thankfully India and Nepal have enabled these people to set up communities while they wait for the chance to be able to return home. Their options are severely limited though as without passports, and technically without a country, they are caught in limbo. The Dalai Lama escaped many years ago and now resides here when he is not traveling the world speaking on Buddhism, peace and a Free Tibet.
We visit the museum and read the harrowing tales of invasion, imprisonment and escape. The Chinese government has destroyed over 6,000 Tibetan monasteries in an attempt to squash out Buddhism. The building of a Buddhist monastery here in McLeod Ganj that houses 50 monks is a testament to the faith and endurance of these most dedicated and religious people..
During our stay here, we take a few cooking lessons with a Tibetan man named Lhamo in his small kitchen. We learn how to make soup and breads and learn about what it used to be like when he lived in Tibet. It was certainly cold as Tibetans make their home on the highest inhabited plateau in the world. Soups and a homemade liquor kept the chill away.
Our second day begins with the sound of rain on our roof. Matt and I are very excited as it sounds like home. We look out to see a grey day with mist enshrouded peaks and a light rain falling. I get chills, not from the cold, but from how much it feels like home. People think we are crazy, especially our Californian friends, but we are loving it. However, as the days continue, I realize these mountains are in a whole other league from our small ones at home. The weather is extreme - the rain falls harder, the lightning streaks the sky and the thunder rumbles. This is an intense place with an intense history that hopefully finds its rightful place back home.
I have been returned to my native climate after so many months in the heat and humidity. The sound of rain falling covers us like a blanket. My pillow is cold against my cheek when I awake; the simple sensation is like coming home.
A rain-chilled breeze blows under our door, chilling the marble floor. The shower is as uncontrollably hot as the air is cold. The drain is mostly clogged and I stifle a gag as I reach down the grimy drain past my wrist to pull out handfulls of half-decomposed hair. The tepid water pools on the bathroom floor, draining slowly. Such is the beginning of each day in McLeod Ganj.
We drink ridiculous quantities of chai to keep us warm, Emily, Dan, Laura and myself. The rain outside gathers strength. We had tossed our rain ponchos in Chiang Mai after months of sunshine. My hat is soaked, my fleece almost equally so. We hide in restaurants where the cooking appliances emit some heat and the cups of chai are as much for warming our hands as our insides. It is now colder ande wetter than home ever is.
Cooking classes are a respite from the rain. On our first day, we learn how to make Tibetan soup with homemade noodles and filled dumplings. I spoon chili powder into my helping for warmth as we shiver in the little kitchen. The classes are held in a Tibetan man's kitchen. We gather around his table and take notes, occassionally helping roll dough or twist it into complicated shapes. Tibetan food is both simple and complex: in a basic soup float handfolded delicate dumplings.
We run to our second class through sheets of rain and arrive wet and shivering. We remove our shoes to allow our body heat to dry our socks a little; the 100 metre walk has soaked our shoes as well. We make three types of bread, each folded and rolled and filled in complex, beautiful ways. They are cooked in a dry pot over the stove, as the oven was broken. He explains how they are cooked over an open fire by the hill people in Tibet. I imagine doing the same on a camping trip. The food is tasty, hot, and filling; it is perfect for this cold.
We venture outside less than we would have liked. There are hikes that offer beautiful views of the Himalayas, walks through nearby villages. The rain keeps us inside most of the time.
We walk the pilgrimmage route around the Dalai Lama's residence -- a hilltop dwellling hidden behind prayer flags. Crimson-robed monks walk the streets, filling it with colour and a feeling of peaceful reverence. McLeod Ganj has a completely different feeling than other places we've been to in India. It feels more like Laos or maybe Thailand. I cannot help but think it is the influence of Buddhism. Only the most maimed Tibetan people -- from severe frostbite while escaping Tibet presumably -- are asking for money. Indian women tug at our sleeves, asking 'milk milk milk', pointing at the little baby in their arms as we are followed by a cluster of older children cajoling hopefully. It is puzzling that the Tibetan refugees appear to be working, whether at street stalls or restaurants or shops, and we see almost none begging on the street. They are discriminated against, we learn, by the police, their Indian landlords, just about anyone who can take advantage of them. So why is it almost entirely Indian people begging aggressively in the street? Two cultures lay side by side in this place. So many questions that are impossible to answer with our limited knowledge of what is really going on.
For me, McLeod Ganj is cold rain and mist, cups of hot chai clasped between cold palms, games of dominoes with Emily and Dan, cold feet and wet shoes and the green-blue shawl I bought to keep warm. It is the sensation off spinning the prayer wheels at a Buddhist temple and remembering my 101 year old grandmother who just passed away. Thinking, too, of my mother who has always wanted to spin the prayer wheels herself, and asked me to do so on her behalf.
The weather clears for our departure from McLeod Ganj. Ironic, but we are thankful that our bags, which I position as well as I can on the roof of the bus, will not be soaked. Emily and Dan see us off, waving as the bus pulls away. We will miss them. I look forward to taking them hiking in BC sometime, or visiting them in San Francisco.
The bus winds its way along snaking roads where lanes come and go as the geography provides space for two cars or one. It is the usual honking, whistling, braking chaos of bus travel, sustained for five and a half hours. We ask a Tibetan man sitting in the seat in front of us whether he knows a good restaurant in Pathenkot and he nods. A Tibetan restaurant, he says. Come with me.
At the train station, the Tibetan man motions for us to follow him as he quickly departs. I duck beneath electrical wires atop the bus to remove our bags (still there!) and we hurry behind him. We wind along dirty traffic filled streets, turn into an alley, and watch him disappear up a narrow, dark staircase. Is this a restaurant? There are no signs, no indications. I venture up, leaving Laura with our bags below. If I disappear forever, well, she'll at least have luggage.
It turns out to be a guesthouse for Tibetan people. I carry our bags up and soon we are eating momos (filled dumplings), a thick tasty soup, and chow mein (not exactly Tibetan but tasty). The Tibetan man leaves before we get our food; he has a train to catch, he explains. He says something to the guesthouse owner about us, our train, and the station we're going to. They seem to want to assist us. The food is good. We thought we had left Tibetan food behind; this expression of hospitatlity is, we think, a more apt way to do so.
We hire a bicycle rickshaw to the train station. He labours under the weight of our luggage and us, but we're happy to avoid the exhaust of the motorized ones. Before long, we are waiting on the platform for our train, watching fighter jets roar into the sky from the nearby military base, blue-orange fire burning bright from their tails against the night sky. Around us, people clasp their ears against the roar as they shoot over our heads. Patrollling the nearby border with Pakistan, I suppose.
The train trip is comfortable but long. We arrive in Delhi at about 5AM, then the train slows to what feels like a crawl. We stop everywhere, and slow when we are not stopping. The trip to Jaipur takes a long time, longer than scheduled certainly. We arrive nearly 24 hours after we left McLeod Ganj at 1PM. I feel vaguely motion sick, an almost drunken dizziness, as we step into Jaipur train station.