Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama

I climbed to Dharamsala too
I did
I met the highest lama
His accent sounded fine
To me, to me

Oxford comma, Vampire Weekend

After travelling first class (for only fifteen pounds and being fed regularly every half hour of a five hour journey) on our way to Amritsar – we were in for a bit of a public transport culture shock taking the train to Pathamkot first and then a bus to Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas.

We travelled ‘general class’ which means you’re in with the great and good of the masses of Indians who use India’s sluggish but extensive rail network to get around. For two of us, a three hour train journey cots 70 rupees – the equivalent of 50p each.

But like all general class carriages, there were only bench seats that you all squash together on, no windows and no doors. The train made all kinds of random stops where people leapt off with massive bundled up packages of who-knows-what into the fields villages and towns we passed.

At Pathankot, we walked from the station to the bus station along  a busy main road lined with makeshift shacks with corrugated iron roofs, open onto the road, selling everything you can imaine. The air was thick with dust from the traffic – cycles, motorbikes, lorries, cars, taxis, donkeys, carts…

We got our bags onto the roof of a bus that would have probably failed its MOT about 15 years or more ago and hoped for the best.,

Slowly we climbed, up out of the swelter of the plains and into the hills, and all thoughts of traffic and buses and comfort were forgotten as we got further and further into the hills.

At Dharamsala we piled into a taxi and headed up to the tiny hill station of McLeodganj, home of the Tibetan government in exile, and the Dalai Lama. It’s also a proper hub for travellers, so the shops were playing Bob Dylan and the many westerners there were all dreaded and hareem panted up, and good to go. We looked positively smart.

The Tibetans have really made their mark on the place and so we were able to eat Tibetan food – noodles like gyenthuk and thenthuk, and lovely momos – giving our guts a rest from the spices.

We stayed right opposite the local school, and the next morning we were woken by the sound of the children singing. It sounded to me like they sang all day. FF went to do some yoga and then in the afternoon we wandered down to the large Buddhist temple.

The Dalai Lama is very rarely there since his work to Free Tibet takes him all over the world. However, he was not only in residence while we were staying, but also delivering teaching at the temple. We didn’t really realise this, so wandered down to the temple for a nosey. At the gate we were frisked and had to leave our cameras, and then made our way into the large leafy courtyard in front of the temple, where a crowd of people were sitting listening to miniature radios. Five minutes later the man himself walked down the steps, smiled and waved at us all, got into his car, and was driven off through us all, with a bespectacled beam.

That was my 31st birthday, and I’m not sure I could have planned to mark it in a cooler way than that!


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