January 21, 2013

McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh, India - A Love Story

Remember when we fell in love with Hampi? (read here) Something similar happened in McLeod Ganj. From the moment we arrived, I was in love. Maybe even in more love (does that make sense? in loverer? in lovest?) with McLeod Ganj.
This is me, in love with McLeod Ganj
Before we came to India, we hadn't planned on going to McLeod Ganj or the region at all but, while talking with a long-term traveller in Hampi, we told him our plans to go to Darjeeling. He said that Darjeeling is great, but it's difficult to get to and the weather is cold this time of year. With those things in mind, we realized we really only wanted to head that direction if we were planning on spending a good chunk of time there. He suggested, instead, that we head to Dharamsala if we wanted the feel of the Indian mountain town. We were familiar with the Dharamsala area and the small town of Dharamkot because the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre is based there, which is the organization we studied yoga with, but in Goa (read here). (Unfortunately, that location closes for the winter, so we knew we wouldn't be able to take any Iyengar yoga courses while we were there.) After a bit of research, we chose McLeod Ganj as the village in the area we most wanted to visit. And, while our immediate plans after Delhi was to head to Varanasi, we knew we needed a break from the city after our chaotic visit (read here) so, instead decided to change our route entirely and head straight to McLeod Ganj from Delhi. So the 3 of us boarded a semi-sleeper "deluxe" bus for the 12 hour ride from Delhi to McLeod Ganj, in the Dharamsala region of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

For our first few nights, we booked rooms at Jagatram Niwas ($20/night, including breakfast) in the nearby village of Bhagsu. The guest house was great and the view from the hillside location was fantastic. However, most of Bhagsu closes down for the winter, so we were far from anywhere to eat and anything to do, a 20 minute walk from McLeod Ganj and, worst of all, about a 15 minute hike up a hill each time we wanted to get back to our guest house. This isn't inherently bad, but it was pretty cold, and walking back in the pitch black and the cold COLD temperatures was not a very end to good days. So, after a few days, we moved into McLeod Ganj and stayed at the M Hotel ($24/night). We stayed there for another 3 nights and, after Maria left, Tom and I moved to the cheaper (but still comfortable) Mount View Hotel ($14/night).

Breakfast at Jagatram Niwas in Bhagsu
Leaving Jagatram Niwas to move to McLeod Ganj
I loved McLeod Ganj and so did Tom. And, while Maria didn't love India, I think she enjoyed McLeod Ganj as well. It's a great place. It's where the Dalai Lama lives and the Tibetan government-in-exile resides, as well as somewhere between 80-100,000 Tibetan refugees. While there are still a lot of Indians and Hindus, the town is full of Tibetans and Buddhists, including many maroon robe-clad monks. In general, we found the town full of devout, kind and friendly people. There are NGOs everywhere, and finding a place (or two) where your help is needed is easy. I'll share more about Tibet and the Tibetans in the next post. For now, I'll focus on McLeod Ganj.

Buddhist prayer wheels - Read about them here

Wearing every item of clothing I have!
McLeod Ganj sits high in the mountains and it was cold….very cold. We rushed in the first few days to buy hats, sweaters, leggings and warm socks and, even then, we shivered any time we were exposed to the elements. For a few nights, we rented a heater for our room for about $3/night, but found it did absolutely nothing to warm us, so we managed to find a hot water bottle at a roadside shop and cuddled around it each night. A few days, we woke up to find snow falling and, though it never stuck down in the town, we could see the snow line getting closer and closer to McLeod Ganj. 

Freezing in bed!

Each day, we would rise late and get breakfast (at somewhere with heat) and then walk around McLeod Ganj, head to Tibet World (an organization we worked with), or to a cafe to get some writing done. Some afternoons, I'd settle down with the laptop to do some web-writing for Tibet World and Tom would head off to teach an English class, and then we'd meet up with 2 new Tibetan friends around 4pm to help them practice their English conversation skills. Then we'd head to dinner and slurp up delicious thenthuk, thukpa (each are noodle soups), momos (dumplings), and hot ginger/lemon/honey. 

A note about momos: You can find them at nearly every restaurant in McLeod Ganj but, by far, the best momos in town are from the Momo Ladies on the side of the road with their gas-powered steamers and fryers. They are the perfect snack - filled with vegetables or potatoes, steamed and/or fried, and then smothered in homemade chili sauce. The momo ladies served up trays of 6 momos for about Rs10…that's less than 20 cents!!! While we all loved the momos, Tom had an obsession with them and couldn't pass up the opportunity to make a buy when we walked on the road. He had his favorite momo ladies where he usually went, and then he would feel bad, get an urge to spread the wealth, socialists that we are, and buy momos from all the ladies. This was an obsession I happily and hungrily supported.
Street momos in McLeod Ganj
Photo from Am I Nearly There Yet?
In the evenings, we would either head to a local spot for some live music, enjoy a movie at the "theatre" (boot-legged current releases), or go back to our room to eat chocolate cake, watch Indian TV and sip local Indian whiskey. (Don't judge…it helped keep us warm!) Life was good in McLeod Ganj. Unfortunately, while Maria enjoyed McLeod Ganj, it was quickly obvious to all of us that India was not her "cup of tea." This isn't unusual with visitors. About 50% of people who come here seem to really not enjoy it so, while we were sad that she wasn't enjoying it, we understood when she decided to head off earlier than planned and, after a quick tour of India's Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur), go to Australia to visit her sister. So, one evening, we loaded her back onto a 12-hour night bus to Delhi and waved good-bye as she left McLeod Ganj. 
A quick note: Most people are surprised when I say how much I love my mother-in-law and that it was my idea for her to join us on our trip, but it's true. Not only is she the mother of the person I love most in the world (which automatically makes her one of the most important people in my life), but she and I have forged a relationship on our own and I really enjoy spending time with her. Traveling with anyone is obviously a little difficult, so our trio wasn't without its imperfections while she was here, though neither is the duo of Tom and me when it's just us. I'm so glad that she joined us for a short while on this adventure.

My mother-in-law, Maria, in McLeod Ganj's main square
McLeod Ganj was a nice break from India. It's obviously still in India, but it has a completely different feel and some travelers refer to it as "Little Tibet." The vendors are less aggressive. Fewer people asked us invasive questions. There are fewer honking cars. The community (mostly) took care of their poor and the spirit of Buddhism settles over everything in the town, giving it a peaceful and welcoming vibe.

When we arrived in McLeod Ganj, we planned to spend 3 or 4 nights, but that quickly turned into two weeks and, when we left, we did so regrettably and only because we knew our time in north India was dwindling and we still had a long list of places we wanted to visit. McLeod Ganj is a place we would love to visit at another time in our lives, hopefully for long-term. 

Check out all of our pics from McLeod Ganj here. A few more favorites are below. And stay tuned for a post about Tibetans and the community in McLeod Ganj.

Maria, hopping on a bus out of McLeod Ganj

Turning the prayer wheels

Walking the streets in abandoned Bhagsu

Prayer flags

Ramesh, roadside shoe maker...and a super nice guy

Lunch in one of our favorite places - JJI Exile Brothers

Main square of McLeod Ganj

Check out all of our pics from McLeod Ganj here.

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