By Tony Lee
Since I was doing so well at the high altitudes of Northern India, I signed up for another jeep tour that took me to more alpine lakes, way above the tree line where bare mountains were topped by snowy peaks. This time, I was grouped with two couples in their 30s. They were all professionals (lawyer, graphic designer, maritime consultant) from Barcelona and we struck up a fast friendship when I told them I was in their hometown just last summer for the fourth time.
The areas we visited were quite remote and the roads were very rough—unpaved, narrow, very rocky (we were often thrown off our seats like rag dolls) and often blocked by rock slides or washed out by waterfalls that cascaded across the road. We were lucky to average over 15mph but it gave us
time to appreciate the marvelous scenery and take endless photos. We spent one night in a nomadic Tibetan village where tents were the only accommodations. Thick blankets kept us warm but going outside to pee in the middle of the freezing night was tough and on top of that, the toilet facilities were very primitive (I will spare you the gruesome details).
We interacted with nomadic families through our friendly guide and driver, Doche. He was an older Tibetan gentleman who has
six grown children. As a bonus, he took us to visit a small rural Tibetan school sponsored by the Dalai Lama. There were 45 students only, kindergarten through third grade. About 20 students were boarders and lived in the school dormitory because their families were too far away. Without this school, the kids would have no formal education at all.
Our group spent four days together and we had a great time. But we were glad when it came to an end. We ended up in the city of Manali where our hotel rooms had electrical power, wifi and most importantly, hot water showers. Also we could eat something more than the vegetable dumplings, fried eggs and instant noodles that were the only foods available the past four days. It had been like a camping trip, much simpler and basic than we had expected. The two couples continued on to Nepal where they planned to trek up to Annapurna, an altitude of around 14,000 feet. One of the couples invited me to stay with them on my next trip to Barcelona. They also promised to take me to the best places for paella. That´s an offer I won´t refuse.
Meanwhile, I took a ten hour overnight bus to Dharamshala, home to the Dalai Lama. This would be my last stop in
northern India. At only 6000-7000 feet, it was easy for me to get around after 10 days at much higher altitudes. The elevation varies because the town (its actual name is McLeod Ganj) is built into the side of a steep hill. Six lanes, too small to be called streets, run through the town and only one is a level street. The other five go up and down the hills, parts of which are as steep as San Francisco´s California Street hill running from the financial district up to Nob Hill.
McLeod Ganj is primarily inhabited by Tibetan refugees although there are some native Indians and some Punjabi Sikhs. I didn´t see any Muslims; maybe I just didn´t recognize them as such. But I was very surprised to see a Catholic nun on the street. All around town are the ever present Buddhist monks and nuns in their burgundy robes. Some nuns wore simple gray two piece outfits. I was surprised at the number of Caucasian men and women who had adopted the Buddhist religion and walked around in the robes. Some of them were in their 50s or 60s and appeared to have been at it for a long time.
I visited McLeod Ganj´s main Buddhist temple and found it to be quite small. I guess it´s hard to build any large structure when the hills are so steep and has so many folds and waves. Next door was the residence and offices of the Dalai Lama. In contrast to the huge Potala Palace in Tibet, this home in exile is a three story modern style building (from the 50s is my guess) surrounded by a eight foot high stone wall. The security people wore everyday clothing; there were no uniforms. I was fascinated to learn that the Dalai Lama has his own army but the soldiers do not tend the entrance. Except for an entry portal with a gold Chinese-style roof, there is nothing fancy about the place. It looked like a small compound, one that might serve as the consulate offices for another country´s diplomats. I found it ironic that I was able to visit Tibet and the Potala Palace some 10 years ago but the Dalai Lama himself has been unable to return for 55 years.
His Holiness, as he is often referred to, was in residence but he was not holding any public sessions until next month. I was not expecting to see him, so I didn´t come away disappointed. And even though I am not a Buddhist, I would have been honored to see him, a man who is highly respected around the world. He also won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989. As I left the premises, I stopped by the Martyrs Memorial, a monument dedicated to the over 120 Buddhist followers who have committed suicide in the past 15 years by setting themselves on fire, mainly in Lhasa, to protest the Chinese government´s takeover of Tibet. The vast majority of those who gave their lives were only in their teens and 20s.
Stepping out into the narrow street outside the temple, I was shocked to see a full grown elephant with a rider on top. Surrounding the elephant were ten handlers who sought 10 rupee notes (about 17 cents) from passersby. I was accustomed to seeing cows, donkeys, horses and dogs on India´s roads and streets but this was totally unexpected. And apparently I was not alone, as tourists, shopkeepers, local residents and even Buddhist monks pulled out their cameras and cellphones to take pictures of the lumbering giant which stood about 9 feet tall and five feet wide with tree trunk legs a foot thick. A few people ran to get a bunch of bananas from nearby fruit merchants. The elephant unceremoniously snagged the bananas with its trunk and stuffed the entire bunch into its mouth, eating the fruit and peels all at once. The elephant was paraded through three of the town´s streets, causing traffic jams everywhere it went. I followed too closely and twice, got swatted by the elephant´s tail. Fortunately it was a calm animal and mixed well with people.
Thus ends my time in north India. Tomorrow I take another overnight bus back to New Delhi where I will spend a day before flying back to Hong Kong. I am not looking forward to the heat and humidity of Delhi but it will prepare me for the same in HK. I will relax in HK for four days before heading back to SF. And then, it´s back to work.
And so goes my summer. I hope that yours was good.
Be sure to see the slide show below: