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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
And yet, despite this somewhat confusing experience, we've found real treasures here as well.
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.
Somehow we managed to choose the path used by farmers rather than tourists, a wonderful way to experience a part of these mountains.
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.
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.
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.