We left our rude hotel owners at 9am and luckily checked out the same time as an Italian woman (Martina). We asked if she wanted to share a ride to the bus station and she said she was getting the toy train towards Dharmasla (McLeod Ganj). We had read a lot about the toy train but found it impossible to get any reliable information about it from tourist information and the internet. After some confusion of where the train stops we managed to buy tickets and left the station at 9:50. The train took four hours and was a really scenic ride. We could feel the air cool and the landscape transform as we gradually increased in altitude. The train track only ran to a certain village, in the middle of nowhere but Martina was on a very different budget to us and had her taxi from her hotel come and collect us. She was a nice lady very excited about everything as she arrived in India only the day before, she hadn't even had a ride in an auto yet so at least we convinced her to try something very Indiany! The toy train was such a bargain costing 40 Rupees between us the equivalent of 20p each, I still can't get over it.. a four hour train journey!
We got dropped off at Mount View Hostel (recommended by Flo) and we got another bargain, only £2.50 each a night. With a name 'Mount View' you are expecting some good views and it didn't disappoint. James was delighted to be back in the mountains and the cooler air made walking around much more bearable. McLeod Ganj is the centre of Tibetan Buddhism since their exile from Tibet. It is where the Dalai Lama lives and is an important holy place for Tibetan Buddhists to visit on a pilgrimage. Consequently it has become a popular tourist destination with lots of hostels and plenty of great restaurants. It also has Yoga retreats in abundance with varying degrees of levels and seriousness; some ashrams involved being silent the whole time you are there.
McLeod Ganj town is small with only two main streets. We went to the Buddhist temple on two occasions and saw it in very different lights. The first time we went it was late in the afternoon and there weren't many people about. We went into the main temple room and despite the simplicity and relatively dull temple, by India standards I found it very moving and quite emotional. Anyone who knows me will know I don't have a spiritual bone in my body, I am fascinated and interested in all Religions but I am an atheist. However, seeing the seat of the Dalai Lama (His Holiness) in the serenity of the temple, with just a few Tibetans quietly praying it felt like an extremely special place and somewhere you could find complete peace. Perhaps it was simply because everywhere else in India is so manic and noisy. Or maybe it was because there is no electronic equipment allowed so we weren't permitted to take pictures which made you feel more 'in touch' with the temple. It could have been His Holiness is that spiritual you can sense him when he's not there. Who knows what it was, but it was a surreal feeling that I haven't experienced before, oh apart from the time I met Colin Farrell's friend in London, he was Holy in a different way!
The second visit wasn't as spiritual but more entertaining. We went at about 1:30pm and they were giving out free food. We would have joined in but we had just eaten at Nick's (more about food later). The temple was buzzing with Buddhist monks, nuns and tourists. We think the Dalai Lama is due back from his teachings soon and the monks are setting up in preparation. There were people praying, relaxing, enjoying the free food and soaking up the views and atmosphere.
Just outside the temple there is a free museum about how the Tibetan population were forced out of their country by the Chinese. James and I weren't that educated on exactly what happened but the museum has enlightened us on the tragedy and the plight of the Tibetan people. It had some harrowing pictures and video footage of the way the Tibetans were treated and stories of the survivors who took the arduous journey across the Himalayas to find refuge in India and Nepal. It is so sad for a country to be affectively wiped out. Their culture, beliefs, religious monuments and even language have been nearly destroyed by the Chinese. If it wasn't for towns such as McLeod Ganj where Tibetans can live freely there wouldn't be anything left for Tibet. People in Tibet are going to extreme lengths when protesting of self-immolation. We had heard about this happening in some parts of the world, the more famous being in Vietnam. This is an all too regular occurrence (with over 30 people in 2012) in Tibet with people from various backgrounds and ages setting themselves alight in protest against the Chinese. It is terrible that the world news isn't publicising this more and unfortunately it doesn't look as though Tibet will be freed in the near future.
Our other outings in the mountains were good for preparing us for the Everest Base Camp trek. We walked up the hill to another small settlement called Bhagsu. Bhagsu consists of more hotels, restaurants, a Hindu temple, an outside pool for men only and a pathway leading to Shiva waterfalls. We walked all the way to the bottom of the falls stopping only to take photos and pet some friendly mountain goats. On the way back we picked up a dog friend who followed us and sat with us while we enjoyed the view with a drink. It then became an animal entourage with a kid (the goat kind) also joining us! We thought we hadn't done enough training so walked up to the other small settlement, the yoga retreat area of Dharmakot. It was a steeper climb with some good views and we were able to walk back to McLead Ganj via a different route where we passed a lot of local children returning home from school.
Now a visit to McLeod Ganj should involve a lot of walking as we partook in a lot of eating. Due to the volume of visitors restaurants really have to up their game to compete. The variety of food on offer in this small town is brilliant. We had delicious North Indian curry on our first night. Amazing Tibetan food on our second night, James had momo and I tried the Thunkap, a thick noodle soup that was delicious. For lunch and breakfast we were pulled back to Nick's Italian. Now in the Himalayans you are probably thinking Italian food is going to be rubbish, Nick's is actually run by Timyo a Tibetan chef who makes his own gnocchi, pasta, pizza dough as well as an array of scrumptious desserts. You can also get more traditional Tibetan food and a great breakfast. To top it off it is situated on the side of the mountain with an unobstructed view across the valley, we loved it! If we had stayed much longer I think the weight would have easily piled on.
The area is a wonderful spot and it is easy to see how visitors could stay here longer than they planned. In fact we would have done if it wasn't for time and a bus and train booked bound for Varanasi.