Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dharmasala, McLeod Ganj

After the intensity of the heat and the spiritual (and otherwise) experiences in Varanasi, we were ready for a break. We made our way to New Delhi where we set up for our next trip northward, this time on the western side of the country in the state of Himachal Pradesh. We had our sites on a different kind of spiritual capital: the place where the Dalai Lama lives and has established his government in exile and a center of Buddhist and Tibetan culture. Its also become somewhat of a mecca for Westerners who descend upon the place to study Buddhism, yoga, meditation, tantra, reiki, rebirthing, and generally chill out and drop out. The place is called Dharmasala and its about 400 km north of Dehli, at the very beginnings of the Himalayas. To get there involves a gut-wrenching, twisty-turney, 13 hour overnight beast of a bus ride with no shocks. We arrived in the morning, bleary eyed and still somewhat nauseous, to the town where the action is, McLeod Ganj, nestled at 7000 feet and set on a hillside of pine trees, looking up at some rocky, snowy peaks, reminiscent of a Colorado landscape. The weather was pleasant, a nice break from the heat of Delhi and Varanasi, and teeming with westerners seeking bliss, Punjabis on vacation, and Tibetans who now live and work there. Every other store is an internet café and we finally found the critical mass of wireless internet we have been looking for all over India. In the past 10 years, the town has grown too quickly and the narrow streets are teeming with auto-rickshaws, taxis and jeeps ferrying the Indian tourists around. Even still, the atmosphere is 1000 times more mellow than anywhere in lowland India. We found a nice guesthouse with a balcony and a Western toilet (a joy, let me tell you) and set to reading the signs plastered on every spare building surface that, not dissimilar to a college campus, advertise all the goings-on in town: where to get dreadlocks done, where to learn to play the tabla, where to watch documentaries on Tibet, where to find the best cappuccinos.

We had heard that Dharmasala is known for being a place where you can sample some of the spiritual activities that make India famous. The town is home to 2 very well-known Buddhist meditation centers that offer 10-day intense, silent meditation retreats and it is a hub for people wanting their yoga teacher training certification. Its also surrounded by Buddhist monasteries and nunneries and, if you are lucky, you can attend free teachings by the Dalai Lama or one of the other prominent Buddhist lamas who live in the area. Unfortunately for us, His Holiness, as he is called, was on a retreat and not in town, so we didn’t get a chance to have an audience with him or get blessed by him or hear any teachings, but the classes abounded and so we signed up for a milder 2-day introduction to meditation course with the Tushita Meditation Center.

We spent 2 days sitting cross-legged on pillows, learning to quiet our minds and focus on a single point and ignore the pins and needles and frank pain in our knees and ankles and our racing thoughts. The class was led by an Aussie who was attempting to find happiness in an otherwise empty life through Buddhist philosophy and meditation and 85 people showed up for 2 days of learning the basics of meditation, drinking a lot of ginger-lemon tea, eating vegetarian food, and attempting silence during breaks from meditation. We learned that sitting for 10 hours at a time is hard, very hard, and calming the mind is even harder. About 20 people dropped out over the course of the 2 days, but we hung with it, and although I had some problems with falling asleep the first day, still recovering from the bus ride, and we both felt totally silly doing the walking meditation (picture 80 people pacing back and forth v-e-r-y slowly, focusing on each footfall), it was very interesting to get a little taste of what meditation is about and how much work it takes to maintain such a practice. It really requires being in a community where other people are doing the same thing, and Dharmasala is such a place, with streets crowded with monks and nuns with heads shaved and crimson and saffron robes, spinning meditation wheels as they walk, as well as Tibetan and westerners, lipping mantras as they thumb their prayer beads.

After 2 days of meditation, we really needed a rest, so we hung out and drank amazingly good coffee, chatted with other travelers and took a hatha yoga class with a 90-pound Indian guy named Vijay who has been teaching classes for years and did a nice mix of the yoga we are familiar with in the west and Indian-style yoga, which is more like rapid calisthenics and does not have the usual flow or narrative. Refreshed and recharged with plenty of western-style food (a nice break from thalis and chow mein), we decided to do one last hike. No guide required here (!) so we hiked 10 km up to a place called Triund where there was a small government-run guesthouse and 3 tea shops that make simple meals and rent tents to people who want to spend the night above Dharmasala, with beautiful views of the big mountains that tower over the town. We slept on mattresses on the floor of one of the back rooms of the guesthouse, had a lovely meal of veg-dal-rice, and woke up early the next morning to try to hike up to a pass at 4300 meters where the views of the valley on the other side were supposed to be stunning. Normally the trek takes several days and people hire a guide and camp at some caves higher up, but being us, we decided to shorten the trip and try for 1 day to summit and come back down.

For the first time on this 8-month adventure, and probably deservedly so, we encountered bad weather. The hike takes you pretty much straight up the mountain, covering 2000 meters in about 10 miles, and most of it is clambering over rocks and boulders to the top. We hit snowline and the rocks started to become icy and slippery, but we were getting closer and wanted to make it to the top. Every day before we hiked (and as it turned out, after as well) the weather was beautiful with sunny, clear skies until 2 or 3 in the afternoon when a mountain thunderstorm would hit and then clear again. The day we decided to attempt the pass, the skies never cleared and we were eventually walking in clouds and slipping on the snow and goat shit that riddled the path. About 50 meters from the top, I chickened out. We were wearing running shoes and I started to have feelings of impending doom. Just as we stopped and geared up to go down, the sky opened up with a huge crack of lightening right above our heads and poured down torrents of freezing rain/hail, creating little landslides of the icy balls and making everything more wet and slippery. Several hours, some tears and frozen fingers and 3 more giant rainstorms later, we were down, hiding under the plastic tarp of a tea shop, watching rain and thanking our stars that we made it down the sketchy slope without any falls. So, no view of the pass, but another adventure all the same.

The last few days in Dharmasala were spent with more yoga classes, more coffee, more eating, and plenty of chilling out. We took an Indian cooking class and learned how to make malai kofta, vegetable korma and chapatti and can’t wait to try the recipes out for you guys when we get back. We met a fun Aussie couple, a British couple who have lived in India for the past 20 years, and a ton of Israelis, many of whom get stuck in the town for weeks on end as they travel around the world. Guy found a Chabad House and went to Shabat dinner, and we both enjoyed pretty authentic falafel from an Indian guy named dudu.

We also visited the Dalai Lama’s residence and the main Buddhist temple, Tsung Lakhang that is a replica of the one that was in Tibet and houses images of different Buddhas. When you approach the temple there is a loud din of voices and we assumed it was Indian tourists, who in our experience make a lot of noise wherever they go. We were surprised to see the temple courtyard full of mostly Tibetan monks, although mixed in were some white monks and some women and men dressed in western clothes, all passionately arguing and discussing. They were broken up into pairs, with one sitting down and the other standing above, and they were punctuating their points with loud claps of the hands. We found out that Dharmasala houses a Tibetan Buddhist university that specializes in debate, and the students are given a topic daily. The clapping is done on a point that is particularly clever or intelligent. All this is done in Tibetan and is very lively. The café at the Dalai Lama residence happens to make delicious Roquefort cheese pizza as well, to our delight (and it's rumored that occasionally his holiness himself orders take-out!).

We finished up in Dharmasala with some gift shopping and clothes washing and boarded the same night bus, this time armed with Dramamine and Ambien, and landed back in the hot, dusty suburbs of Delhi to complete our last days in India with a trip to the Taj Mahal.
For more pics of Dharmasala and McLeod Ganj, click here.

1 comment:

  1. So glad you made it down safely - sounds pretty harrowing. This leg of the trip sounds awesome, though, despite the crazy hike.