Pics from my second visit to Mcleod Ganj

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Momos for sale; prayer wheels

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The stray dogs in Mcleod Ganj are healthier and happier than others I have seen in India so far. Apparently there is a program in place here to spay/neuter and feed them.

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People leaving through the temple’s gates after the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

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Prayer wheels at the temple

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Dumpster monkey!

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Dumpster monkey having lunch

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Thunderstorm approaching over the mountaints

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Waiting out the rain at a small roadside shop

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The shop’s innovative dishwasher

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Monks drinking chai during the hailstorm

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After the storm

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Monks washing clothes in the river

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Highlights from my second visit to Mcleod Ganj

Now that I’ve finally caught up on posting about the group trip, I’ll try to get up to speed with what Roman and I have been up to. 🙂

I loved being back in Mcleod Ganj. We ended up staying for a total of seven nights. It was a pretty leisurely stay; we didn’t end up doing half the things we talked about, but it was really lovely nonetheless. Here are some of the highlights from my second visit there:

The Dalai Lama’s teachings

Even though it made for a more hectic atmosphere during my last stay, it was cool that the Dalai Lama was in residence. We did manage to get the required documentation to attend his teachings in the end.

The teachings were held at the Tsuglagkhang Temple. We showed up after they had already begun on the first day. The temple is in a larger complex. At the main building, the actual temple is on the second floor, with a large space around it. Last time I visited, the monks were within the temple praying, and the space outside the temple had a good amount of Tibetans sitting to join the prayers.

This time, that whole space upstairs was reserved for special groups. We could walk around after the teachings and by the looks of things, the area was packed to the gills. We, along with hundreds of others (mostly Tibetans and Westerners) were able to hear the talks from the courtyard below the temple, via loudspeakers and one large screen television. His Holiness and the other monks who were giving instruction were speaking in Tibetan, but we’d been advised to pick up a small radio, on which we could pick up the English translation. Unfortunately the reception was really poor, so we weren’t able to catch much at all of what was being said. Still, it was really great to be there and to take in the atmosphere.

Seeing the Dalai Lama

Even better was my second time attending. Some of you will know, Roman is not exactly an early riser, and everyone had said for a chance to get a good seat and maybe see the Dalai Lama, you had to get there early. I’d been hearing the monks early-morning chanting from our hotel every day, and if nothing else, I wanted to be there for that, so on the last day of His Holiness’ teaching, I went by myself down to the temple at around 7am. It was lovely to be up and about that early, while the streets were still quiet and peaceful and there was still a chill in the air.

The courtyard was also comparatively empty when I arrived. After wandering around a bit, I settled on the ground, sitting comfortably against a tree, enjoying the people watching. A nun approached me; she was British and was explaining the morning’s ceremony to the English speakers who were there.

She was in the midst of talking about the blessing the Dalai Lama was going to perform when mid-sentence she gasped and said “His Holiness is coming”. In an instant, all talk in the courtyard ceased, and everyone bowed down as the Dalai Lama approached. It was still relatively empty, so I was actually quite close – probably 3 or 4 yards away from him. What was best about it though was seeing the impact his arrival had on the Tibetans there, how much it meant to them to see him, and the way he would casually stop for a quick chat with a person in the audience here or there as he made his way to the temple.

Making a friend at the temple

The ultimate highlight of the teachings though was meeting Tsering, a young Tibetan. After the Dalai Lama had come through the courtyard, Tsering came up to me to ask about the document the nun had given me, and we ended up having a long conversation. He’s a student, 19 years old. He and his family walked from Tibet to India nearly ten years ago. He was motivated to leave because when he met the Dalai Lama as a child, His Holiness told him to study hard, and there were no opportunities for him to get a proper education in Tibet. He is determined to eventually get his PhD and become a specialist in English, at which point he wants to put his skills to work for the cause of Tibet. He is already working on a book about Tibet in his free time, on top of all his studies.

What struck me the most was just how genuinely friendly and generous he was. He invited me to share the blanket he and his mother were sitting on; they shared their food with me (some sort of fried, crunchy, lightly sweet pastry); when the monks came round passing out steaming Tibetan butter tea (more like a creamy broth than tea) from huge metal kettles, he made sure I got served right away and got seconds.

Sitting with Tsering and his mother, I was in the middle of a larger group of Tibetans. What I loved most of all was the merging between the spiritual and every day life, which I had seen during my first visit to the temple during the group trip as well. As revered as the Dalai Lama is, among the Tibetans the atmosphere was more like a big group picnic than some religious event. Some of them were praying with malas or prayer wheels or listening to the speakers intently, but just as many were chatting and laughing together, eating and drinking, nursing babies, watching after their children – just normal every day stuff. I just loved how relaxed it all was, and how intermingled the spiritual and the “mundane” seem to be for the Tibetan Buddhists.

Tibetan “traditional” dance provides unexpected gifts

We’d received a flyer for a “Traditional Tibetan dance performance”; for 100 Rupee entrance we thought we would show up and take in some culture. The performance was at Tennor Restaurant – apparently it had only opened a week or so prior. There to meet us at the door was the same guy who had handed out the flyer – a young Tibetan named Dorjee with hair like a lion’s mane. Apparently this was a one-man gig – not only did he do the marketing and manage the finances, but he was the act as well!

The place was filling up, so we ended up sharing a table with some other tourists who ended up being just lovely. Ben, a young guy from Wales who had just completed some sort of autorickshaw race through India, Rob, a fun and talkative Aussie Buddhist who was on his way to Rishikesh for some sort of meditation course and Liz and Ben, an awesome Scottish mother who was taking her 11 year old son on a tour of India (husband was home in New Zealand with their younger daughter). It was great to have such good company for the show – which ended up being pretty amazing, nothing at all what we expected and a good laugh.

I don’t know what traditional Tibetan dance is really like, but I suspect that Dorjee was doing some sort of interpretive version of it. The guy had tons of passion, enthusiasm and energy and danced like no one I’ve ever seen before.  He’s definitely got strength, talent and guts, but when he started rubbing his sweaty brow on Robs shoulder, or grabbed a hapless tourist from another table, lifted him up till the guy was straddling him and started jumping around the restaurant, we just lost it. Really, words can’t do the performance justice!

The double gift was: Number one, the lovely folks we met because of it – ran into them again a few times around town and that was so nice. We were reliving our experiences with Liz, Ben and Rob the next day at the Green Hotel café, where we also met a family from America (never caught the parents’ names, but the sons were Miles and Ellis) who were also really nice. It was totally inspiring to me to see Liz and the parents from Vermont – I just think it is so cool that they were traveling for multiple weeks with their kids in some place like India.  I hope if and when I have a family that I will be such a cool parent. 🙂 Number two was discovering Tennor restaurant, which has a very sweet waitress and brings me to my next highlight…

Food

🙂 Have I mentioned, I love food? So, highlights in Mcleod Ganj were:

•The aforementioned Tennor restaurant. Their Indian food is not the best I have had since in India, but it is solidly good, and the garlic nan is the best I have ever had! 🙂 Their steamed vegetable momos are also the best that I had in Mcleod Ganj.

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•The chocolate cheesecake and Tibetan porridge with bananas at Green Hotel Café were the bomb! 🙂

• The food was basic, but eating breakfast in the sun every morning on the rooftop terrace at the Annex hotel was so nice. Was great to just sit there and take in the incredible landscape all around us.

Retail therapy

Knowing that everything I am traveling with has to fit into the limited space of my luggage, I have been totally restrained in my shopping during this trip. The last day in Mcleod Ganj though, I went a bit nuts and splurged on some bigger purchases. 🙂

First a sort of tunic top for myself and a super cute hoodie jacket for my nephew from a shop called Tamana. (They have a limited blog: http://tamana.over-blog.com/) Their tag is “A combination of Indian materials and spirit with a French touch” – a French woman created the designs and the high quality material is from a special Indian supplier; the company employs eight Indian and Tibetan seamstresses to make all their clothes. 🙂

Second was a painting by a Tibetan artist. We happened upon a small but awesome gallery called Peak Art, and I fell in love with the paintings by Ngawang Dorjee (http://www.peakartgallery.com/Ngawang.html). I ended up buying one called “Break time” of young Buddhist monks hanging out outside a temple; so sweet. The guy, Tashi, at the gallery was really nice and helpful. The painting is now (hopefully!) en route to the States; my sister will hold on to it for me until I have a home of my own again to put it in. 🙂

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Weather

It was also really cool to experience the change in weather while we were there. The first half of our stay we had nothing but sun, but gradually afternoon thunderstorms brought cooler temperatures. By the end, it felt like the night was coming earlier and darker. Our last day there were two great storms – the first was just thunder and heavy rains as we were making our way up to the waterfall outside of Bhagsu; the second was much bigger and longer, with about five minutes of hail in the middle – luckily we were indoors for that one! 🙂

Photo impressions from the group trip: Part 3/5 (journey to Mcleod Ganj)

From Amritsar, we drove north. It was fantastic to see the landscape change over the hours as we moved into the foothills of the Himalayas. Our next destination was Mcleod Ganj, seat of the exiled Tibetan government and Dalai Lama.

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Along the way we stopped at a random hotel restaurant in seemingly the middle of nowhere. Jyoti’s claim to fame: Food that is not only delicious but also hygienic! 😉

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Intriguing road-side advertisment

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We stopped at a roadside shop along the way to pick up drinks and snacks. I tried this ‘Millk Shaake’ – a sweet drink with bits of almonds in it. Interesting having to chew a beverage. It was actually really good! 🙂

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Along the road to Mcleod Ganj

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In and around town

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Switching gears: Accommodation

The group trip that started my journey in India was a fully organized package, with most expenses paid. It was extremely well organized and it cost a pretty penny. We stayed at a range of hotels but most of them were pretty darn nice and a couple of them were even seriously awesome luxury hotels. In my life I have done some short term travel before, but nothing at all like this. It’s the first time that I am really experiencing living out of a backpack, figuring out where to stay on the fly and budget accommodation. I’m also still trying to get my head around the value of the Rupee in India, so I’m curious to compare cost against value/experience/etc.

The first two nights here in Mcleod Ganj we stayed at the Green Hotel. It’s in Lonely Planet as a budget hotel. We were paying R800 (approximately USD17.50) a night, plus extra for WiFi. The room was simple but relatively clean, on the second story with a nice balcony with a lovely view, plenty of light. Budget apparently means ,bring your own…’ because there were no towels, toilet paper or soap. What I guess is a pretty standard bathroom around these parts – sink, western toilet and a shower fixture but nothing to seperate the shower from the rest of the room – practical although so far I seem to tend to get water absoultely everywhere when I shower; I wonder if there is some sort of technique to keep the splashing to a minimum. There were the remnants of some bugs squished onto the walls but very few actual bugs which was nice. 🙂 Over all it was a really nice room, and the biggest plus was that it was right next door to the Green Hotel Cafe, which has become our favorite hang out as it’s cozy, great for people watching and has got a small library of books to enjoy while you’re there, WiFi and the best honey lemon ginger tea and cakes that I have found in town so far.

The place was fully booked out for the duration of the Dalai Lama’s stay however, so we visited nearly all the budget places and even some of the higher end ones listed in Lonely Planet but without luck. We had just left another hotel when someone called out to us from the side of the road asking if we were looking for a room, which is how we ended up here at the Annex Hotel (up the road from the Surya Hotel where we stayed during the group trip).

We’re paying R1,000 (approximately USD22) a night (which includes decent but not consistent WiFi). It’s a ground floor room but the hotel is constructed into the side of a hill so we still get a nice balcony and lovely views. The room isn’t as clean as at Green, and we are sharing the space with more six- and eight-legged friends. But there is more furniture, including a fan (although it’s been cool so we haven’t needed it) and a non-working TV, and this place has got toilet paper, soap and towels (although I will admit here that I am a bit of a wimp – I cand handle dirt and smells and stuff, but I do like „home“ to feel clean and I am pretty particular about smell. The hotel towels smell like mildew and I’m happily opting to use my travel towels instead. 🙂 I’m also really happy to have my silk sleeping bag liner! So, big thanks to everyone at Man for those things! 🙂 ).

The bathroom is a bit grim – no window and somehow it reminds me a bit of a jail cell, and there is this bizarre, coffin shaped mirror just outside the bathroom door. The floor is also amusing – wood colored, wavy linoleum. 🙂 But the decor is all right and the amount of light, the view and the balcony are just great. Upstairs there is a simple but lovely rooftop cafe with even more spectacular views. And the neighborhood is also more quiet – there was a pack of dogs living outside Green who kicked off a nightly party around 11. It’s closer to the temple here – this morning I woke to hear the monks chanting prior to the Dalai Lama’s talks which was lovely.

Another plus is that the staff is friendly and helpful – they were great in capturing and removing a particularly large spider from the room (we needed their help because the thing was too big to fit in the glass we had. I’m happy to report that as helpful as the guys were, they were just about as freaked out as I was by the thing! 😉 ).

So this is what the lower end of midrange looks like in Mcleod Ganj. I know it’s possible to pay much less (R150 – R500 for a room); I think it could be good to find out what true budget is like but at the same time, I’m not complaining that all the budget hotels were booked out. 😉

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The coffin mirror

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Budget bathroom

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Small spider friend – big spider’s baby brother

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Lovely light room though

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Rooftop cafe

Back in Dalai Lama country

Just to assure any concerned  readers right away, my mood is significantly better than when I last posted! 🙂  I’ve managed to get some perspective since then and could chill out and enjoy the rest of the time in Delhi (and the food – have I mentioned the food?? 🙂 ). I’ve also had the wonderfully exciting news that I’ve become an aunt! My sister had her first child, my nephew and godchild Martin (who is a large part of the inspiration for this whole trip), on the 30th! 😀

The last full day in the city was relatively quiet. We’d had it in mind to go see a couple of tourist spots around the old town, but when we went to the local market to run a few errands, our guy at the kiosk told us to be careful – a controversial court decision was coming out that day about a disputed holy site in Ayodhya in India that both Hindus and Muslims lay claim to (for more info: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11435240 and for some pictures: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11444353 ). We’d seen lots of security preparations in place all over Delhi for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, but this was nothing compared to the police and army force that was on duty that day. As a precaution we decided to keep it local, but even in our quiet neighborhood, we had our bags searched when we went inside a McDonalds to buy some water, and there were military personal ready with machine guns in front of any larger commercial and public locations.  Thankfully, things remained calm and there was no violence.

The next day we left early (by our standards 😉 ) for the airport – it was time to head back north! We flew in to Dharamsala and hired a cab to take us up to Mcleod Ganj. Right away it felt great to be there. I just love this landscape so much. The sun was beating down at the airport in the valley. We had the windows rolled down for the twisting cab ride up the narrow mountain roads – you could feel the seasons start change during the assent. The weather remained sunny and bright, but the quality of the heat changed – somehow the power had been knocked out of it and now it was the residual warmth of early autumn – and every once in a while there would be a gust of fresh cool air as we would turn a corner.  The light is different too, taking on that metalic quality that I love, melting from gold into silver as the summer passes and winter approaches. Knowing that it is full on fall back home (my favorite season!), it’s feeling great to experience at least a bit of autumnal weather. 😀

It’s great to be back in Mcleod Ganj as well, although it’s somewhat different from the last time I was here. The town is not as quiet and peaceful. There is a significant increase in traffic – we’ve had occasional problems walking around because of numerous traffic jams. While the honking in the street isn’t up to Varanasi levels, it’s much louder and more frequent and less benign (everywhere else I’ve been, the non-stop honking isn’t due to aggression; as far as I can tell it is just a means of communication with your fellow driver. Here, drivers seem exasperated and pushy) and when the traffic isn’t too thick, the drivers are barrelling down the narrow roads at recklessly high speeds. There is an increase in the number of tourists too (Western and Asian), and although we got lucky with a place to stay on the first night, it took a whole afternoon of getting turned away from hotel after hotel until we found a free room for the rest of the week: The Dalai Lama is coming. In fact, if rumor is correct, he is due to arrive today. He’ll be giving a series of talks over the next three days. I have to imagine that getting in to the talks at this point will be next to impossible, but we’ll still try our luck at the Tibetan Welfare Office if and when it ever opens (closed yesterday due to Gandhi’s birthday, and I heard it was closed today too). 🙂 So, I am keeping my expectations low, but do keep your fingers crossed for us! 😉

On another note, I keep trying to post more photos from the group trip, but so far it’s been a pretty slow and frustrating process doing so on WordPress with the sort of internet access we’ve had. I will make it happen eventually though (I hope!).