After a fantastic time in Manali we decided to see a little more of the Himalayan region towards the west of the country in McLeod Ganj - the home of the Dali Lama and residency of the Tibetan government. After spending months in the south east Asian Buddhist countries we were looking forward to seeing some more robe clad monks as well as the entertaining western hippies who have embraced the religion and now sport all manor of ethnic clobber and feathers in their hair to fit in. For this reason we have stuck out like sore thumbs since coming to India in all the cold weather hiking gear we bought in NZ.
Our journey to Mcleod Ganj didn't go as planned all day long - starting with the driver trying to charge 'luggage tax' for storing our bags on the roof - having paid the tourist price for the bus ticket we told him where to go and strapped our bags on the roof rack ourselves - this made the driver angry and he didn't stop looking annoyed for the entire 8 hour journey - this frustration didn't stop with the passengers as we also had a tyre blowout on the road - we were all fine but it happened in a military area so there were lots of rifle wielding nervous soldiers hanging about. The view of the snow capped mountains and lush valley below was spectacular so the time taken replacing the tyre was a pleasant break from the windy roads. We eventually got to McLeod Ganj and were dropped off in a disorientating multi storey car park away from the centre meaning we had to battle through the crowds, cars and cows on the roads until we found a room. After a quick unpack and shower we headed out for some food and a much deserved drink. As the area is mainly Buddhist which is a clean living vegetarian culture, our favourite pastime of eating meat with a beer in hand was a little hard to come by - bring on Megs roast dinners!! Nonetheless with our bellies satisfied by a japanese vegetable and noodle concoction we felt rejuvenated from our long trip and spent the rest of the evening wandering the many streets which mainly involved Gwenno eyeing up lots of tat to buy.
The following morning we though we better check out the Buddhist temple and living complex which was fairly interesting but as it has only been built since the Tibetan government moved here in the 1950's it didn't have the same character as much as what we saw in say Cambodia. It was still interesting seeing the red robe clad bald headed monks - many of which were female unlike the orange clad monks of South East Asia who were all male and very young, but equally bald. Unfortunately much of the complex was closed as it was the weekend - how inconsiderate of the Dali Lama! This meant we spent much of the afternoon sitting in a coffee shop eating carrot cake and more vegetarian food (we will be hallucinating about rump steak soon) which wasn't a bad option as it was hailing outside - strange weather; one minute you can get burnt from the sun, the next you need a fleece and wooly hat! After a break in the weather we happened across a Tibetan massage centre - next thing we knew we were booked in for an hour long body cleansing massage - next thing we knew after that we were stripped down to our underwear, sitting on a plastic seat and experiencing an Indian head massage - I don't think either of us have had our head slapped, poked, hit or manipulated so vigorously before but it kind of felt good afterwards. The rest of the massage was a little more conventional but also included a lot of slapping, Gwenno remarking that her bum was 'played like a bongo' in our post massage evaluation on our walk back to the room! Having experienced a number of weird and wonderful massages over the travels this was one of the better ones which was a relief as we both still shudder at the excruciating thought of the hour long blind massage we endured in Cambodia which made us both feel like we had been on the losing end of a Mike Tyson fight.
After showering off the massage oil we decided to go out to the snazziest restaurant in town next to the Dali Lamas residence for a posh curry - this was something - mutton in a spiced apricot gravy and a mix of chicken and lentil curries - we were in heaven - amazingly this beautiful meal with drinks cost us about as much as a single cheap weatherspoons curry in the uk. We went home happy customers.
The following morning we got up early to trek through the local pine and rhododendron forests toward the village of Thanum which is just before the glacier line at about 3500 metres - a pretty steep climb of 1500 metres over around 15km. After getting some deceiving advise from a taxi driver half way up the walk who said the town was about three times further away than it actually was we changed our route and instead headed to a local waterfall. What appeared to be a short 10 minute walk turned into a 45 minute scramble meaning we were pretty knakered when we found the fall. After a quick rest some serious thunder and lightning took place so we thought it was best to leave the large waterfall and adjacent glacier for safer ground. The thunderstorm didn't actually occur but it encouraged us to bomb down the mountain which was handy as we were both starving. A spot of lunch later and we found ourselves with a few hours to spare - having not done a cooking course in a while we enrolled on a afternoon course on Tibetan cooking - the focus of this day being Momo - small diced meat and veg steamed dumplings a little like a tiny Cornish pasty. Ben has been eating a lot of these every chance he got so it seemed a good idea to find out how they were made. The making was enjoyable but the tasting was more so. The highlight of the day was the Tibetan chefs account of his 29 day walk from his homeland via Nepal to seek refuge from the Chinese oppression in India. This was very sad and graphic but important to hear and made us both feel fortunate to be from the UK. We both knew of the struggles of the Tibetan people but hearing it first hand from a refugee that had made the journey was very moving and made us want to contribute something to these people.
The next morning we browsed the various Tibetan co-op shops and bought a few bits and pieces made by the refugees and then volunteered for a English class for Tibetans. This involved helping the students answer some questions on paper. The students were different ages and some were monks and they were all very keen to learn! It was a nice way to spend the afternoon and we wished that we had got involved earlier. That night we returned to the language centre to watch a film about an incident in 2006 when a number of hikers witnessed the brutal murder of some Tibetans trying to cross the Himalayas on foot to Nepal. Some of the footage was of the actual event and it was quite upsetting to see and to watch with people that had made the journey themselves.
The next morning was our final one in McLeod so we managed to make it to the Tibetan museum and have a last lunch at the nice curry house before going to the bus station for our bus to Chandigargh.