The Big Trip

Dateline: McCleod Ganj minus the Dalai Lama

Having spent a short period of time in Upper Dharamsala (also called McLeod Ganj), I have begun to appreciate the feelings of some first time visitors to Provincetown. They get off the ferry or emerge from their cars and are greeted by all manner of craziness. Drag queens, designer pups dressed in designer doggie outfits, clowns on unicycles, street musicians both great and terrible, to name a very few of the sights. In McLeod Ganj it’s monkeys, cows (holding up traffic in the center of town and/or eating out of dumpsters). It’s hippies from all places on the age and nationality spectrum, many with dreds bumping to their waists. It’s monks (both male and female) with shaved heads wearing hiking boots. It’s gorgeous Tibetan children and their equally gorgeous mothers and fathers. It’s got yoga and reiki classes, places to learn Hindi and locate your chakras. It’s got both fast and slow food. You can ommmm along with both private chanting coaches or go to the temple and join in the chanting with others.

It’s also the exceedingly alarming and appalling attitude toward garbage and trash – cascades of it flowing downhill, piling up along the street and tossed onto the roadsides and hiking paths. One would think the Dalai Lama would use his influence to remind people that cleanliness (at least in many places on earth) is close to Godliness. By the way, we will have to wait until the Dalai Lama returns to the US to actually see him. Even though David dropped him a note inviting him to lunch we didn’t get a sighting, or a reply.

This is a village basically stuck with glue and prayers (and typically questionable Indian building practices: “We don’t need no stinkin’ blueprints”) onto the sides of impossibly steep mountains. Construction goes on around the clock, with women carrying enormous loads of building materials in baskets on their heads and men mixing cement by hand. in 1905 there was a catastrophic earthquake that basically leveled the town and killed many thousands.
1905 earthquake

Perhaps conventional wisdom here has the earth getting it out of its system once and for all – or that the afterlife is a fine destination. Myself, I looked for an escape route in every building we entered, not that it would be any help at all.

When we first arrived in McLeod Ganj all we could see was the trash, but by the 2nd day, except for the most egregious instances, we found ourselves overlooking it – thus becoming part of the problem. But not that we ever tossed anything out on the street.

When we set off from Amritsar across the plains (flat as well-starched bed sheets), toward the distant Himalayas, David advised me that we were entering a very different India. He described when, during his month-long trip with Sam 6 years before, the relief of leaving the intolerable heat and chaos of Delhi and Agra to arrive at the heavenly peace and tranquility of Buddhist Darjeeling. He was absolutely right – it was exactly like arriving in another country. That first glimpse of the Himalayas, viewed from afar, is jaw dropping. I would guess that even the most jaded world traveler is overcome with awe at the sight of those soaring snow capped peaks. As we began the narrow, contorted upward climb, we once again (for the thousandth time) told the our skillful, patient driver Gurjeet, how thankful we were to have him behind the wheel. Sharing the road (vying for space, more like it) and navigating hairpin turn after hairpin turn with barreling buses, motor cycles, farm equipment, and overloaded trucks (not to mention meandering cows, stray dogs and a goat or two) takes a skill set that only someone with unlimited patience and years of experience on these roads would have. David acknowledged that the sheer drop-offs to the valley a thousand feet below equaled those he and Sam had seen in Sikkim.

This is an exceedingly friendly place with very little hustle to buy stuff. Before the Dalai Lama took up residence here, the place had been a tiny, quiet, and forgotten village. Now, monks and backpackers constitute the largest part of the population. The monks exude an aura of quiet tranquility. The backpackers exude an aura of the 1970s. It’s a small enough town that after the first few days we would pass people we knew. We frequented the same small restaurant for breakfast and lunch (and to use their speedy wifi). We were in fine mellow moods. Perhaps that’s one reason why it was here that we offloaded many rupees to buy a fine piece of silver jewelry for me and a very handsome suede jacket for the Maharaja.

The simple act of walking up and down the steep village streets gave us quite a workout. (Actually, we thought the streets in McLeod Ganj were steep only until we reached Shimla, where the streets are STEEP! But that’s a topic for a later day.) I was surprised that neither of us seemed to be affected by the altitude which was close to 7,000 feet above sea level. We considered doing a day-long hike to the snow line because one of the websites about trekking in the area described the most popular long walk as one that “even your fifty year old parents can do.” But we opted for a less challenging walk up to a much overhyped waterfall. Seems the waterfall has falling water only when the mountain snow melts or during the monsoon. We decided to put off trekking until we reached Manali where the hiking is supposed to be excellent even for those pushing way past 50.

Here are some McLeod Ganj photos;20130324-193456.jpg20130324-193614.jpg20130324-193627.jpg




The next photo shows part of the McLeod Ganj water distribution system. Does the Dalai Lama’s influence keep the pipes from bursting winter. Or do all the pipes get replaced every spring?


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