Mcleodganj: Hanging with the hippies

Full set of Mcleodganj photos here

From Amritsar we switched from ordeal by train to taxi. There are not as many train options to head into the mountains and a car taking us to Mcleodganj was reasonably priced – but where the train at least glides smoothly through the landscape, the roads in India take chaos to a new level. Our driver, a kid barely out of his teens, had a compulsive twitch which caused him to honk the horn at least every ten seconds. He honked if there was a cow standing next to the road, he honked when he was passing a car, he honked going around a corner in the road, he honked when there was oncoming traffic, he honked if there was a Sikh on a motorcycle with their long beard parted in two by the wind, he honked when there were pedestrians and he honked if 10 seconds had passed since his last honk. To be fair a lot of these honks were good practice but most weren’t and in a five hour journey filled with enough distractions already, this became aggravating. It didn’t help that as soon as we got to some small hills he turned the air-con off under the pretence of giving more power to the car but really to save petrol. As the temperature climbed faster than the incline, Sarah asked a few times for the AC to be put on, but he assured her this wasn’t possible. His grumpiness extended when we drove through the winding hills of Dharamshala to the town of Mcleodganj above and hit a huge traffic jam on the narrow roads on the outskirts of town, which was incongruous for such a small place known mainly for housing the Dalai Lama. It transpired that we had inadvertently timed our visit to arrive not only in peak tourist season for the cooler mountain area but on a long weekend on which the Indian Premier League T20 cricket was in town for a match between the Delhi Daredevils and the Kings XI Punjab. The town ground to a halt as the tiny roundabout in the centre became almost permanently clogged and the tiny mountain roads which could only just fit two cars had traffic snaked back for five kilometres. Sarah briefly entertained getting tickets for the match but there was a snowflakes chance in hell. Instead she used her limited knowledge of cricket gleaned from eight years with me to enjoy the goodwill of the locals who were pleased to know we were Australian, especially with Adam Gilchrist playing for the Kings.

In the jam we abandoned our current taxi for an even smaller local one and sat in the traffic for a while longer, watching the trendy hippies and local monks trying to look peaceful walking through the crammed traffic, before eventually getting through the bottle neck and up to our destination in Upper Bhagsu, the small village above Mcleodganj (which you will remember is above Dharamshala). Strictly speaking we were in a little village above Upper Bhagsu which is about as upper as you can get without camping. It would have been a blissfully quiet spot if not for the Israeli backpackers preparing their Shabat feast in the kitchen adjoining our room and then being told off by management for the noise and grumblingly doing the washing up after midnight. Still, the views are amazing and the goats and ponies jangling by the window in the morning gave the place a nice feeling.

Upper Bhagsu and nearby Dharamkot retain the rural charm and pockets of Tibetan Buddhist community that Dharamsala and Macleodganj must have had originally. Sarah enjoyed walking the winding stone paths through small farms and pine trees to go to her daily meditation class. She met a British girl whose father is highly ranked in the UK Buddhist scene and had been meditating since she was 12. Her psychology thesis looked at the effect of regular meditation on anxiety, depression and other negative mental states and found, as many scientific studies have done, a positive impact. Sarah also spent an afternoon with some other tourists and a group of Tibetan political refugees in an open conversation class to practice English. She found this interesting, as the politics around Tibetan independence and people’s stories of escape were discussed, and people-to-people connections formed, but wondered at the shallowness of tourists’ understanding of the political situation – including her own.

I think if Mcleodganj was ever a peaceful escape, all that has long gone. It is now jam-packed with hippies, or trendy people pretending to be hippies, or ferals with little feral children. Shops sell all the accoutrements you could ever need to look the part and the tourists wear the worst clothes you could imagine. I’m not sure if they think they’re fitting in but the conservatively dressed locals are not impressed by their shoddy appearance. Wading through this swill can be a depressing experience so after an intriguing quick look at the main Buddhist temple in town, where the birthday party for the Dalai Lama is held, we headed for the hills on a long walk up.

Joining us for the hike, although uninvited, was a German Shephard cross called Tiger or Rocky, depending who we asked on the trail. Whatever his name he was obviously well known on the walk and accompanied us the whole way for an omelette Sarah bought him for lunch at the top. Unfortunately Tiger was a complete coward so when we encountered groups of dogs walking down the hill Tiger would hide behind us for protection as the other dogs surrounded him (and therefore us) to growl and bark menacingly at him. It made for some awkward situations with Sarah yelling at me to give her a water bottle to spray them with and me yelling at her to just abandon Tiger and move away (I didn’t know that she got pinned into a bush by some loose thread from her backpack – sorry honey!). Tiger obviously knew the path well as when we made a couple of wrong turns he gave us a funny look. Sarah was impressed with this, but I think a bark and running in the correct direction would have been more useful.

The hike was fantastic, going steeply uphill into the Himalayas until we had an amazing view of the mountains.

At the end of the climb, back in Dharamkot village, Tiger flopped down on a pile of gravel in someone’s yard. We weren’t trespassing. The way you get to the guesthouse is along these little dirt goat tracks through people’s front and backyards, delicately avoiding the shit from the animals that they keep, including cows. On our arrival, the guesthouse owner stood on his roof and directed us through his neighbours’ yards by hand gestures. So when Tiger flopped down on someone’s gravel we gave him a scolding and insisted that he follow us. Little did we know that Tiger lived at this house. His owner gave us a smile, if a little bemused, and called him into the house while we gave an embarrassed smile and moved on.

We inspected a fair trade clothing factory while in town. It’s a strange link. Sarah went to primary school with Ben Cubby, now an environment reporter with the Sydney Morning Herald. Ben’s older brother, Rory, moved to India about a decade ago and worked with his now-wife Francis who was starting a fair trade clothing company called Eternal Creation. They have a small factory in Dharmshala staffed by Tibetan refugees and Indian and Bangladeshi tailors. They buy the cloth locally and it’s cut and made into the finished product in the factory, all at a fair wage for the workers. We picked up a couple of nice items and recommend their clothing range.

On our last night we headed to a little Tibetan restaurant for dinner and had momos, thukpa and Tibetan bread. Sarah had learned that most Tibetans are not vegetarian in her conversation class with Tibetan refugees, despite being Buddhist, mainly due to the extreme cold in Tibet. But we continued our experiment with vegetarianism in India, finding the variety and flavour a pleasant surprise.

Full set of Mcleodganj photos here

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