I booked my last trip to India all of 5 days before the departure date, so I only had the very roughest of itineraries. I get the feeling that backpackers often travel this way almost to make a point about fully-organised tour trips, but in this instance it couldn’t have turned out better! Firstly – and this could have been problematic – the brand new visa-on-arrival system for German citizens worked perfectly. Secondly, I arrived in Dharamsala in the Himalayan foothills completely unaware that it was the time of Losar, the Tibetan New Year.
Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh has been the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1959, when the Dalai Lama was driven from Tibet by Chinese invading troops. Since then, he has resided in McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala now known as “Little Lhasa”. Sadly His Holiness was not in residence during my stay, but I made sure to visit Tsuglag Khang, his temple and home.
With most of the town’s shops and restaurants closed during the beginning of the festivities, I busied myself exploring the gorgeous trails and paths around McLeod Ganj. The town sits at about 2,000m above sea level in the Dhauladhar Range, a part of the Outer Himalayas, engulfed by lush cedar forests. After just a few minutes, I met a group of Americans who were intrigued by my Cambridge rowing jacket. They turned out to be students who were here for a semester to study Tibetan Buddhism: talk about an excellent year out!
Alana, Ian, L and I went for a wander in the woods and watched the sun set over the lush ridges of the foothills. They were also kind enough to take me under their wing in terms of the Losar celebrations. Without their invitation, I would never have known to head to the out-of-town temple where the next morning’s festivities took place from early morning onwards.
And so I found myself joining a throng of Tibetans walking along a narrow path the next morning, marvelling at my good fortunes. Several of the people I spoke to had recently fled Tibet, a home that they loved, making the dangerous journey across the Himalayas to settle in McLeod Ganj.
The voices of monks and laypeople alike rose and fell as they chanted for what felt like hours – they got through nearly a hundred pages’ worth, and I sat and soaked it all up while drinking butter tea and eating tsampa, the Tibetan staple porridge made from barley flour. I let my brain relax and switch off, and as thought ebbed the chanting took on an almost meditative quality; precisely the idea, I imagine! Occasionally, a blast from a giant horn winded by one of the monks broke the droning soundscape and brought everyone briefly out of their reverie.
Fortunately, the town opened up more and more over the next few days so that I could satisfy my cravings for Momos, little Nepalese dough balls filled with delicious meat or vegetables. But the highlights of McLeod are not its shops or restaurants. The breathtaking forest paths and mountain scenery surrounding the town, and the little temples and stupas nestled in unassuming corners, filled me with contentment day after day.
With my new American friends, I headed out to the mountain lookout of Triund on my last day. At just over 3,000m above sea level, we would have been getting into pretty serious territory in the Alps; here, we walked through gradually thinning trees and the occasional snowfield and finally found ourselves on a ridge that afforded us a colossal view of some “real” Himalayan mountains.
After my time in Nepal a few years ago, I don’t think I will ever tire of such scenery; I could easily have spent more time in McLeod Ganj, and if you’re thinking of visiting…allow more time than you think you’ll need.