McLeod Ganj

McLeod Ganj is a town, 1700m above sea level in Dharamsala. Named after the British Lieutenant Governor of Punjab (Sir Donald McLeod), it's best known as the official residence of the His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and this is very much at the root of this place's popularity. 

 

Photos by Ben Journee

 

View of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh

View of McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh

A view from our room

A view from our room

McLeod Ganj hides high in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Himachal Pradesh state of northern India, and the dense pine forest of Dharamsala's mountains came into our view rather abruptly as we inclined. A small break in the thick cloud revealed mountains like I've never seen before. A gasp escaped from both of us as we saw the monumental mountains for the first time.

 

View from our room on a clear day

View from our room on a clear day

The monsoon weather did eventually come - the view from our room after the clouds had rolled in

The monsoon weather did eventually come - the view from our room after the clouds had rolled in

Arriving in McLeod Ganj made us instantly relax. The challenges of the previous few days, a long (10 hour) train journey, and bizarre night's stay in Pathankot, was all worth it. It felt very much like the 'Little Lhasa' we'd been expecting.

A monk walks on the path outside the temple complex

A monk walks on the path outside the temple complex

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Buddhist prayer flags

Buddhist prayer flags

Walking around the town at a wonderfully relaxed pace, slowed the tempo of our trip, which we were grateful for. The weather was perfect - a comfortable temperature and far from the 'monsoon' rains we'd been expecting.

 

A monk walking on the streets of McLeod Ganj

A monk walking on the streets of McLeod Ganj

Woman selling jewellery in her roadside stall

Woman selling jewellery in her roadside stall

When visiting the temple, we, truthfully, were pretty underwhelmed. While it was enjoyable to watch the Tibetan monks engage in their debate battles, where a point of argument was finished with a flourishing stamp and clap in the direction of the opponent, the space was quite confused, the temple far from awe inspiring and the complex generally lacked a feeling of peaceful spirituality that we'd been expecting. (Cameras weren't allowed into the complex so we don't have photos here.)

Man selling chargrilled corn in front of prayer wheels

Man selling chargrilled corn in front of prayer wheels

View through a shop

View through a shop

And thus began the conflict between our expectations and reality.  By our second day, the illusion of Little Lhasa was somewhat broken. The entire city seems essentially built around tourism, with merchants flocking here in more recent years to take advantage of the tourist numbers, which have grown as international attention and interest in the Tibetan exile has increased.

By night, the town turns on its neon, and restaurants showcase their selection of crass 90s pop music. The monks buying cakes, and using their iphones similarly deflated our expectations. Coupled with the fact that most eateries sell pizza and pasta on the menu alongside traditional Tibetan momos, made everything seem a little, well, vapid, at least in comparison to our expectations.

Jogibara Road, McLeod Ganj

Jogibara Road, McLeod Ganj

And yet, despite this somewhat confusing experience, we've found real treasures here as well. 

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Walking through the neighbouring town called Bhagsu, which is even busier with tourists, we walked a quiet and relatively untrodden track to a beautiful waterfall, with prayer flags strung across the ravine. 

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Women carrying loads of grass along the path that lead to the waterfall

Women carrying loads of grass along the path that lead to the waterfall

Somehow we managed to choose the path used by farmers rather than tourists, a wonderful way to experience a part of these mountains. 

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Near the top of Bhagsu waterfall

Near the top of Bhagsu waterfall

Mikayla crouching at the waterfall's edge. Below you can see the main tourist path that we fortunately missed.

Mikayla crouching at the waterfall's edge. Below you can see the main tourist path that we fortunately missed.

A family guiding their cow across the waterfall 

A family guiding their cow across the waterfall 

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And we found the spiritual India that we'd been imagining in Meena, a gorgeous Hindu woman of Nepalese ancestry, who taught us how to make macramé necklaces. We sat in her shop, knotting and twisting with her assistant, Pooja, and watched as she made her daily puja and filled the space with thick incense, which encouraged the curiosity of the local, and sacred, cows.

L-R: Pooja, Mikayla and Meena choosing beads

L-R: Pooja, Mikayla and Meena choosing beads

Pooja checking the size of Mikayla's web that houses her stone

Pooja checking the size of Mikayla's web that houses her stone

The stones in our necklaces: Indian jade for hope, crystal quartz for stability, and moss agate for connection to nature, will also carry Meena and Pooja with them.

Pooja and Mikayla working on the final knots

Pooja and Mikayla working on the final knots

Meena gently trying to coax the cow out of her shop

Meena gently trying to coax the cow out of her shop

Ben, Mikayla, Pooja and Meena in her shop

Ben, Mikayla, Pooja and Meena in her shop

And Altaf, a local shop owner we came to know and spend time with. He has a bad case of lovesickness and pines for his love who has had to return to her home country. He shared his deeply romantic story, openly talked about his experiences of Kashmir (where he's from) and reminded us that people are all the same, no matter where we're from, and reminded us of the power and importance of love.

Altaf in his jewellery and pashmina shop

Altaf in his jewellery and pashmina shop

Ben and Mikayla on top of the waterfall in Bhagsu

Ben and Mikayla on top of the waterfall in Bhagsu

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