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Travel: Mcleodgan -- A home in the hills

September 2, 2008

From momos to thukpas to Thangka paintings, Tibetans have stamped
Mcleodganj with the ambience of home.
Neeta Gupta
The Hindu
August 31, 2008

We reached Pathankot station a little after eight in the morning. A
taxi was to take us up to Mcleodganj, or Little Lhasa, the hotel had
informed us. The driver greeted us outside the station. There was a
lovely hill song playing on his recorder. How long to Mcleodganj, we
asked him. Oh, it will take at least three hours, the driver said,
since the "road is not well".

And, as we hurtled along the highway at a speed of some 100 km an
hour, over dangerous potholes, we realised the road seriously needed
a doctor. Some in our party, who hailed from Gurgaon, were used to
much worse. We eventually asked the driver to slow down a bit. He
assumed we meant the music, and so he turned down the volume of the
trill Tibetan song. And it took us a while to convince him to drive
at under 80 km an hour.
Good beginning

It was pouring when we got to Mcleodganj at noon. It didn't augur
very well for our long weekend. We checked into our charming guest
house, The Chonor House, which is a part of Norbulinka Institute's
Hospitality wing. The institute has been set up by the Dalai Lama
Trust to preserve Tibetan culture in these fragile times. The rooms
were beautiful, really. Evocative of the lands these rugged mountain
people had left behind — Nomads, Voyage at Sea, Mythical Birds, and
the famous Kham Suite, which is apparently Richard Gere's favourite
room at the hostellery, probably because it overlooks the Dalai Lama
Temple. Our suite was called Central Tibet and the murals on the
walls by local artist Tashitopden were awe inspiring. The rough
terrain, the bare mountains, the sensuous cloud forms merged
beautifully with the mist and pouring rain outside our window and we
realised there was really nothing to do, but accept it stoically.

By late evening the sun had come out and we trekked it to the local
bazaar and first armed ourselves with raincoats and chhatas. Then we
let ourselves soak in the local flavour, the little silver shops,
momo hawkers, stalls selling singing bowls. We eventually wound up at
Hotel Tibet for dinner that evening. Stuffing ourselves to the gills
with mouth-watering momos, thukpa and "papper" chicken — which we
were a bit confused about — was it paper, or pepper…the spice won
ultimately, since the dish was smeared darkly with it.

We woke up to torrential rain the next morning. The only option was
to take in a Tibetan yoga class being offered at the Pema Thang Guest
House, next door. Tibetan Yoga emphasises "a continuous sequence of
movement," whereas Indian forms focus on "static positions". They
mainly work on the seven Chakras.
Cleansing the soul

By mid morning the skies cleared a bit and we walked across to the
Dalai Lama Temple. There were women prostrating in the veranda of the
main Temple. It was an interesting ritual, which they would repeat
two, three hundred times, with short breaks in between. I asked an
old woman to teach it to me. I was huffing after a couple of
repetitions. Very strenuous exercise, I told her. She gently chided
me — it was more an exercise of the spirit to cleanse the soul.

The temple had some stunning statues of Avlokiteshwara, Kaalchakra
and the Buddha. Unfortunately the Dalai Lama was away in France, but
we still walked across to his Palace and chatted with the Jat
security guards on duty. They warmed up to fellow Haryanvis in our group.

The Tibetan Museum in the Temple precincts was an eye opener. There
was a very good exhibition of photographs, facts and videos,
painstakingly put together by a dedicated group of Lamas to highlight
the plight of the Tibetan diaspora.

* * *

Bhagsu Road is dotted with picturesque little Italian and French
Bakeries. The famous Lhamo's Cooking classes are held here -- they
find mention in the honour rolls of the "Lonely Planet". You could
stop by at their bakery for some really crumbly/buttery croissants
and hot chocolate. Thus fortified, continue walking for a couple of
kilometres to Bhagsunag Temple, and onwards to the stunning
waterfall. The waterfall is a precarious one-and-a-half kilometre
trek from the Shiva Temple. The trek is worth every breath you
take…and nothing you have ever done in your life can prepare you for
the experience.

Once you reach the waterfall, an option (not for the weak-kneed) is
to take a gruelling half kilometre trek up to Shiva Café. Perched on
a hill top, Shiva Café provides a panoramic view of the waterfall and
surrounding hills. It was misty when we got there. There was a little
shack, a rain shelter really, where you can have hot tea and biscuits
and play carom, and a small courtyard outside displaying beautiful
spiritual paintings done on slate. The café also has a couple of
spare rooms for overnight guests. And most important of all, they
have toilets you can use for free. One really appreciates these basic
amenities in the hills.
Innovative idea

There are no theatres in Mcleodganj. But a vegetable vendor has
worked around this problem and opened an underground DVD Theatre. One
of the things to do in the evenings is to catch a movie at this
innovative cinema hall, replete with auditorium style seating. We
caught a show of "Monty Python: The Search for the Holy Grail",
British slapstick at its worst. Other films on offer were "Escape to
Tibet", "The Simpsons" and "Om Shanti Om".

Another good plan for a day out is to trek to Dharamkot, an Israeli
settlement, a short distance from Mcleodganj. The thing to do here is
to knock on the door of a family and play a little game. You ask for
some food while they try and convince you that you don't really want
to eat their food, that it's not that great, etc. And when you almost
give up, they will cook you one of the most authentic Israeli meals
you will ever get to eat this side of the Suez Canal. This could take
hours sometimes, but I have it from a very good source that it is worth a try.

St. John in the Wilderness is a beautiful abbey built in the late
1800s. The church is about a kilometre from the Main Bazaar. And
quite literally the standard ugly concrete of the bazaar gives way to
"wilderness" as you approach St. John's. Walking around the church
compound and attached cemetery is like a nature class for the
uninitiated. We spotted ladybirds, slugs, rattlesnakes and wild
strawberries, in that order. I couldn't help searching for a
four-leafed clover. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Flourishing business

On our last evening in Mcleod we went over to an Internet Café in
Jogiwara. While my daughter uploaded photographs and caught up with
friends on Facebook, I sat and watched a Voice Of America Tibetan
News Telecast, along with a dozen Lamas. As I sipped a freshly brewed
cup of coffee, the enterprising young owner told me what the
discussion on TV was all about and how he had tried a couple of times
to get a visa for Tibet but had always been turned down. He had grown
up at Majnu ka Tilla in Delhi and moved to Nainital in the 1990s to
set up a stall at the Tibetan Bazaar there. He came to Mcleod
sometime in 2000 and set up this very up-market café and Internet
facility. He was obviously doing very well. Yet all he wanted was a
chance to go back home.

* * * * * *
Quick facts

Things to do:

You must visit the Norbulinka Institute, about 11 km from Mcleodganj.
They have workshops in which the sacred and traditional arts of Tibet
like Thangka painting, wood carving, statue making, and appliqué work
are passed down to the new generation by masters who were trained in
Tibet. You can actually commission Thangka paintings via Internet by
writing to them at

Or get Tibetan Massage: Dr. Dolma and Kalsang -- and -- provide
services at your hotel.

How to get there:

By bus: Himachal Roadways has daily services from Majnu Ka Tilla,
Delhi (13 hrs.)

By Train: Jammu Mail to Pathankot (overnight) and then by Taxi to
Mcleodganj (3 hrs.)

By Air: Air Deccan flies once a day to Gaggal Airport, about 30
minutes away from Mcleodganj
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