We left for Mcleod Ganj early in the morning. The countryside was beautiful and green. I spotted the hills in the distance and immediately got excited (back home the landscape is pretty flat) The roads began to get narrower and more twisting as we headed higher into the mountains. I was crossing my fingers hoping to at least get a glimpse of some snow-capped Himalayan peaks. I know some parts of the Himalayas have had some recent snowfall and some of the mountain passes were still not open.
Our driver, Pradeep, is originally from Dharamshala and was looking forward to seeing his family again. McLeod Ganj is situated up a very steep path up the mountain from Dharmashala. As the roads are incredibly narrow, walking is the best option to explore the town so we agreed that he spend the next 3 days enjoying some time with his family. As we twisted our way up the mountains I was feeling a bit headachy, but figured it was probably just tiredness. I was too excited about spending 3 days in McLeod Ganj to let a slight headache bother me.
We followed a very narrow road up an incredibly steep mountain to the town of McLeod Ganj. We managed to stop the car and get our luggage out in the very narrow street without blocking traffic. We were staying at the 8 Auspicious Him View Hotel. Our room was located up a steep (everything here is steep) flight of stairs but had the best feature ever, a balcony looking out over the Himalayan hills and the spectacular Dhauladhar Range.
The hotel is run by a Tibetan family. The temperature was notably much cooler up here, so much so that I had to put on a warm jersey. Shortly after we plopped ourselves down on the chair on the balcony a knock came from the door. One of the friendly staff members brought us some deliciously hot chai to enjoy. It was just what we needed after the drive here. It was bliss just sitting on the balcony sipping hot chai while gazing over the mountains.
McLeod Ganj is located about 2082m above sea level. It’s the home to the Tibetan Government in Exile, so the town has all these monks strolling around. I pulled my only scarf out of my bag and rugged up a bit. I had a slight headache, but figured it was the death defying drive up narrow twisting passes on our way here that was to blame.
We took a short stroll up the steepest path I’ve ever walked on, dodging the tiny taxis and tuk-tuks as the roads are too narrow for conventional vehicles. The town is quite laid back and is a great place to volunteer your English skills to newly arrived Tibetan exiles if you’re staying for a bit. Monks were enjoying the sunshine and you could hear laughter coming from the Tibetan school. Small kids were playing, chasing each other around with the spectacular Dhauladhar Range as the backdrop. While we were used to seeing some Buddhist monks in South Africa, we’ve never seen so many in one place. The funniest was watching them checking their email on their iPhones, wearing trendy Adidas sneakers or sandals strolling around town listening to music on their iPods.
We decided to have lunch at a restaurant solely because it had a rooftop terrace. The sun was nice and warm but the breeze icy, hinting that there might be snow nearby. Unfortunately we couldn’t see anything other than cloud cover but all of a sudden some of the clouds lifted revealing steep mountain peaks covered in snow. Himalayan snow-capped mountain peaks! It was beautiful!
My headache started to get worse during lunch, so we headed back down the hill to our room since we had three days to explore the small town. We enjoyed a bit of the afternoon sun sitting on our balcony. The lush forest are home to thousands of butterflies that feed on the rhododendron flowers, majestic eagles swooping through the Deodar forests and of course, the occasional buffalo grazing.
The Dhauladhar Range is the outer rim of the Himalayan Mountains. Covered in clouds most of the time, every now and then they peek through showing off their almost vertical sides. The peak right in front of us covered in snow was the Dhauladhar Peak, also known as the Dhauladhar Matterhorn. It’s 4946m high! Because of these mountains McLeod Ganj and the surrounding areas receive two monsoons. It rains quite a bit, almost daily.
It started to rain and with it the temperature dropped significantly. I also started to feel worse for wear and my headache was pounding away. I decided to head for bed and watched an old James Bond movie on TV. Most bathrooms in India come with a bucket as bucket showers are the norm. They’re a great way for saving water and much needed for travellers to do their washing in. Unfortunately for the first time our bathroom was bucket-less and my headache and now nausea wasn’t going away. Luckily we had a bin which ended up being much needed. Freezing I climbed into bed with the blankets pulled over my head only able to utter ‘hmmm’ noises to respond to Hubby’s questions.
Things got worse quite quickly and before I knew it Hubby was helping me and the bin down the steep staircase to a waiting taxi which our amazing Tibetan hotel manager organised. It was raining and since Pradeep was down the valley in Dharamshala, getting up the mountain in the dark with the big car would have been quite dangerous but would also have taken forever. The taxi was tiny and I filled the whole back seat as I tried to find some sort of lying down position.
This was the strangest ride of my life. A Bollywood hit was blasting over the radio. Funny enough I watched the movie on the airplane a few years back coming or going from South Africa so I immediately recognised it. (for the song you can watch it on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAlBw_RTEZw)
Now imagine this song playing and you’re hurtling down a mountain with sheer drops on the side twisting and turning, bouncing over potholes and then coming to an abrupt stop at what is supposed to be the hospital. We went to McLeod Ganj hospital as it was the closest. Initially we thought the hospital was closed as there weren’t any lights on. Big open windows allowed the icy wind to turn the hospital into an ice cavern. We finally found someone working and Hubby explained the situation. The nurse listened politely before informing us she was going off duty soon, so he would have to wait for the new nurse to arrive and then explain it all to her. I think I wasn’t looking too good because they moved me to the emergency room…which wasn’t exactly the picture of hygiene.
I remember thinking as I lay there freezing and wishing I was already dead that the emergency room is ok, as long as you don’t have an emergency. After what seemed like forever the new nurse on duty arrived and Hubby patiently explained to her how I was feeling (except he left out the part where I wished I was dead). After mumbling a few answers to her questions we got told that they would have to phone the doctor to come down, so more waiting in the icy room.
The doctor finally arrived and she turned out to be a very nice, Tibetan doctor with excellent English. She mentioned injections so I gave Hubby the job of ensuring they were new needles. We were told that the meds the pharmacist gave us in Delhi were antibiotics, something he must have forgotten to mention! No wonder there are so many drug resistant bugs going around, most of the tourists are unaware they’re taking antibiotics and never finish the course. I was given the option to get rehydrated at the hospital but as it was freezing and I still felt really bad I wasn’t particularly keen to be lying there in the cold attached to a drip for the next few hours.
They gave me some rehydrate and pills and charged us so little. Hubby didn’t have any small notes so told them they could keep the change but they refused. After a few moments searching around they found some change and threw in some meds to make up for the amount outstanding. I have to say after the initial lack of interest from the first nurse, the doctor and other nurse were incredibly friendly and I am so grateful to them. Not to mention I have the best husband in the whole world!
Our taxi driver was still waiting for us and we hurtled back up the mountain at breakneck speed with music blaring. Once we reached our hotel where I got straight into bed and finally got some much needed sleep. I think poor Hubby didn’t sleep very much, because every time I moved during the night he would check up on me to make sure I was ok.
I felt much better the next morning but could only manage some strawberry tea and a slice of the best Tibetan bread for breakfast. For the South Africans reading, the bread tastes a lot like Stok Brood but minus the stok.
Armed with a bottle of rehydrate (I can no longer drink anything orange tasting thanks to the amount of rehydrate I had to drink) we decided to explore McLeod Ganj. I shuffled up the incredibly steep path to the town centre where we got to spin the prayer wheels. We had a nice lunch. I had something boring and simple while Hubby enjoyed a delicious smelling briyani. We slowly made our way back down the steep hill where we decided we’d relax for the rest of the afternoon to let me recover. By this time I was fast growing sick of the taste of the rehydrate but what can you do?
Below our hotel they’re busy building a new home or hotel. It was fascinating watching them as most of the work is done manually. The men dig the foundations and place the dirt in baskets which women then place on their heads and carry away.
On our final day we decided to visit Tsuglagkhang, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence. Unfortunately he was away until November travelling overseas. But I was incredibly fortunate to have met him before in the strangest of places. My family moved to the USA many years ago for a year and a bit. It was the first time I ever went on an airplane and the first time I left South Africa. At the airport I was sad to say goodbye to friends and family and incredibly nervous about flying and the idea of living in a strange country. My mom and I noticed some Buddhist monks sitting a bit away, but didn’t take much notice.
I decided to go and buy a magazine to take my mind off things and visited the small shop (this was before Cape Town Airport’s massive revamp). On my way back from the shop I was wiping some tears away when this tiny man smiled at me and told me it was going to be ok. I think I smiled back, I can’t remember, but it was only until we were about to board the plane that my mom and I realised that he was the Dalai Lama! But he was right, it was ok and I had an amazing, unforgettable experience and met some amazing people I’m still friends with.
Hubby and I walked up yet another incredibly steep hill to the entrance of the temple. Most motorbike and car drivers keep their engines off as they free wheel down the hill so you have to be alert and ready to jump out of the way of any silent oncoming traffic. We decided to walk along The Kora, a path around the temple which pilgrims walk. It’s supposed to represent the ancient Lingkhor path which circles the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Kora is a miniature version of the Lingkhor path. On the one side of the path is the Himalayan Ceder and Oak forest filled with prayer flags and occasional views down the valley. The other side has stacked white painted stones and mani stones. The mani stones are painted in bright colours and have Om Mani Padme Hum engraved in them. It’s the mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara. The Dalai Lama is the current incarnation of Avalokitesvara.
Pilgrims repeat mantras as they finger their prayer beads or spin small prayer wheels. It’s quite peaceful, a rare find in India.
After our walk we entered the temple. We visited the museum which has amazing photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s crossing from Tibet into India back in 1959 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There are stories of some of the Tibetans who fled into India, most of them incredibly heartbreaking. People were killed, monasteries burnt down and families risked everything and lost so much crossing over the icy snow-capped mountains as they fled into India.
We visited the small temple where statues of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitesvara and Padmasambhava are housed. Hubby remained outside and took a photo of the Sakyamuni Buddha as cameras aren’t allowed within the temple. I left my shoes with him and went inside. Monks were busy chanting and it really was quite a magical.
This marked our last day in Mcleod Ganj and for the next three days we would basically just be driving and staying overnight at places as we make our way down the mountains to Rishikesh. Yes, the city where The Beatles allegedly wrote part of The White Album. Our journey was fast coming to an end but there were still a few adventures in store for us.