McLeod Ganj - Dharamshala, India

McLeod Ganj - Dharamshala, India - 20th September - 26th October 2016

McLeod Ganj has always been in my heart to visit after spending time amongst the Tibetan community in Nepal.  I knew one day i would get there.

McLeod Ganj is at the foothills of the Himalayas with beautiful mountain scenery, Tibetan culture is alive and well, maroon-robed monks wander the streets alongside the sacred cows, momo's (steamed dumplings) are sold as street food and it feels like a different world from the India of "Rajasthan" where we had just been (a gentler pace and the people are more friendly).  It is where the Tibetan government HQ resides in exile led by their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. There are thousands of Tibetans here and it is known as "Little Lhasa". The Tibetan spiritual energy here draws in many foreigners along with Buddhist devotes from around the world, its hard to put a finger on it but its an amazing place.

My friend Jan had been here the previous year on her family sabbatical, and so from initial conversations with her, I knew this was the place for us.  So she hooked us up with the house owner they had used and a local school run by a Swiss woman which we enrolled the kids in for a month.

We arrived late in the afternoon and were guided up a steep walking trail to the house. The house is nestled in deep forest with only footpaths to access it. The nearest "road" is 40 min walk away so there would be no popping out for a pint of milk and bikkies! With all our gear, the walk up into the mist to 2000m, not really knowing what to expect, was an adventure and we were excited !

The house is a beautiful mud earth, wooden structure that has a mix of Asian and Bavarian architecture influences, it is the masterpiece of the lovely owners Felizitas and Jacob from Bavaria, Germany who came to live on this ridge 30+ years ago to raise their family. The design was conceived in their minds with no plans and literally scratched out on the dusty ground as they worked with a local carpenter to bring their guest house dream to reality. As a past interior designer i appreciated the task - huge respect to them! We loved living there. The kids absolutely loved the top room accessed by trapdoor and surrounded by windows on all sides, and this was where Rory & Skye slept.

There are 5 or 6 houses on the ridge - homes for some really intrepid people - electricity can be sketchy, there is no water supply and all rain water is collected (similar to Waiheke, but if we run out we can get a truckload delivery!). The caretaker brought us local spring water every other day for use in cooking and drinking. We arrived at the end of monsoon and so had the mist and daily afternoon downpour for the first week or so then the air cleared and was almost like a second spring with trees blooming even thought it was officially Autumn.

The Rhododendron forest is home to leopards, monkeys , huge eagles and occasional bears. We heard stories of family pets sadly taken by leopards and even a bear in the kitchen many years ago! This obviously added to the excitement for the kids ! I will never forget the sound of the huge eagles soaring overheard.

Each day we walked down the mountain (it was 4km each way to school and 400m below us and took about 1 hour) to do the school drop in the village of Dharmakot.  David and I then got to either hang out as a couple (wahoo!) or do our own things and meet up for lunch. We went to see the Dalai Lama do his public teachings, did meditation sessions at a local Buddhist centre for 2 weeks and learnt so much that we are trying to put to use.

I also volunteered and taught a basic photography class at the Tibetan refugee centre. This led onto me being able to photograph Tibetan portraits for a magazine story - I was totally in my element here dreaming i was a National Geographic photographer on assignment :) . David went running (like he wasn't getting enough excercise !:) and mountain biking exploring the hills.  Then we would do the school pickup and go for afternoon tea - yep cake most days :) and walk back uphill home to cook dinner.  

It was a wonderfully simple life and the walk each way, everyday made us really slow down, stop and smell the roses. We walked past monkeys, monks, stunning mountain vistas and prayer flags that stopped us in our tracks every time.  The kids talked to us about their day and future dreams. It was nice not to be distracted by racing around with after school activities, work and normal life stuff. We soaked it up.

David was chief cook and used all the skills of the Indian cooking class we had done in Pushkar - he nailed Dhal, chapatis and Rajma (kidney) bean dishes. He did amazingly well considering we had no fridge and only a 2 burner gas stove - it was like camping :) We felt like the "Swiss family Robinson"!

There were many highlights, one being that David and Rory got to see the NZ cricket team play against India at the majestic Dharamshala stadium.

Another was walking up to Triund and then onto the snow line at 3200m, a total of 6 hours hiking where we got to gaze at the gentle giants above between 4000-5000m high.  We still wonder how Skye did it without a complaint - perhaps it was the daily hill training!

We also as a family decided to sponsor a Tibetan orphan - a 5 year old boy whose parents had abandoned him and his elderly grandad could no longer care for him. The Tibetan children's school and orphanage was set up by the Dalai Lama to continue the teachings of Tibetan culture along with being universally educated.

When you are travelling for an extended period of time you welcome the chance to have a base for longer than a few days, you can unpack the bags and truly get to know the local area and people in the community, to get a taste of what life is like here and that's what we did for 5 weeks.

The kids got to make friends from around the world at their school and make a movie which we cant wait to see, we got to know the local cafe guys, the chai shop on the corner, (oh the yummy masala spiced chai !) the taxi drivers, the laundry dude and felt like part of the community for our stay.

If we could sum up what we were looking for from this whole trip, this was it, and we will return one day to this magical spot!

India by David Hepburn 

The journey begins in the soul of a place of many contradictions:

Worrisome, confusing and aspiring. 

A breathtaking, naked underbelly decaying yet bionically building, 

As gravity grips life's garbage, openly transiting to a mystery place,

A smiling beggar shamelessly tugs.

Hygiene antenna twitch feverishly while digesting a mouthwatering menu,

Computing the probability of intestinal destruction.

Women and men live in parallel with rarely intersecting paths,

Seemingly clear in their role and uncomplaining of injustice

While wearing responsibility beautifully.

The potholes and highway maniacs intersperse the medieval majesty:

Views that conjure powerful and heady pasts.

Monkeys and humans jointly explore the jewels buried in a reeking heap

As the Himalayas rise to the sky

And studious maroon clad monks glide past clutching iPhones

Answering a noble but dying call.

Meanwhile luxury and privilege coast by unseeing. 

Here are some photo highlights, and a link to our Lightroom album MacLeod Ganj photos if you wanted to see more. 

The view from along the ridge we lived on at 2000m, with views of these beauties 4000-5000m.

Our home for 5 weeks.

Walking past these daily - so beautiful. Fluttering prayers out onto the breeze.

Chai - the drink that unites India !

Prayer wheels at the main temple - these are spun by Buddhist devotees as they walk around the temple.

Macleod Ganj street scenes

Tibetan woman with prayer beads, buddhist followers rotate the beads between their fingers, one by one around the loop of 108 beads reciting prayers. The traditional apron she is wearing is made of either silk or wool and is worn by married women. (i brought some to make into cushion covers as love the stripes !).

Momo's ! Which are like vegetable steamed dumplings and come with a spicy dipping sauce.

A Tibetan woman who works for local NGOs in a traditional dress.

A monk I photographed in the hills near our house, we often passed them to and from school always smiling :)

Tushita meditation centre where David and I attended some mediation sessions. Beautiful decorative painting.

Temple decorations at Norbulinka cultural centre.

Weekend wanderings up the hills exploring the area. The great thing about walking here is there's plenty of chai and snack shops serving omlettes & pancakes along the routes. Wish NZ walks had that !

Maroon clad monks aplenty in the streets of Macleod.

Shop keeper meditating.

Thali's - a mixture of curries served with rice and popadum or chapati, so good !

The kids school teacher and friends at "Shanti Om" school. They all made lovely friends in their time here and enjoyed the home cooked Dahl & rice served for lunch each day ! Looking forward to seeing a movie they made too.

In the magical woods on our route to and from school.

Tanzin Rabgyal whom we are sponsoring at the Tibetan Childrens orphanage in his bedroom where he lives with 15 other kids and a "house mothers".

Refreshment stop on the walk to Triund 2800m where we stopped for the night.

Mountain stupa.

Dahl and rice on the rocks for dinner.

Our digs for the night and a magical sunset. Rory is whittling away here with found wood and his trusty Swiss army knife.

Warming up with early morning hot chocolate ready for their next part of the walk to 3200m.

Ringing the temple bell.

With Felizitas and Jacob outside their lovely home we rented.