It was getting on for quarter past two, but at the bus stand in McLeod Ganj everything had ground to a halt. A dozen or so local travellers stood around the ticket office, waiting patiently for it to re-open. We joined them, doing our best to find the back of the queue then, realising that there was no queue, slotting ourselves into the crowd as best we could.
The ticket office was closed. No sign had been put up and no blinds had been drawn, but still, there was no doubt about it: the ticket office was definitely closed. On a hard wooden table behind the counter, in full view of the waiting customers, lay the sleeping figure of the ticket wallah. His features were strangely peaceful, the only sign of movement being the occasional twitch of his moustache. Although well over fifty, his hair was bright henna red, in stark contrast to the muted greys and browns of his tiny workplace.
At two fifteen he awoke, sat up and, brushing the creases out of his uniform, began to move unhurriedly back to his post. On the other side of the window the crowd, until now somewhat listless, became suddenly animated and started to push forward.
“Now, who’s next?”
Of course, he didn’t say that at all. This being India, a queue of any kind was out of the question. When there are tickets to be bought there’s no “This lady was before me”, no “No, no, after you”, just a scrum of determined individuals surging forward, each shouting and waving a handfuls of rupees.
We were in McLeod Ganj on the first stage of our trip into the Himalayas. The Ganj, as probably no-one calls it, perches on a series of high ridges above the town of Dharamsala. It was founded as a British hill station in 1848 but today is noted more for being the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile than it is for its colonial past.
The view from our hotel room was easily the best hotel room view I’ve ever had. From our balcony we watched eagles circling over the valley below while, in the near-distance, huge Himalayan peaks revealed then hid themselves again in an ever-shifting, shrouding fog. But then again, a good view isn’t hard to find in McLeod Ganj.
Nor is Tibetan culture hard to find. Émigré Tibetans now outnumber Indians in the town, and their religion, art and food can be found everywhere. Strings of colourful prayer flags flutter on hillsides, prayer wheels spin outside temples and crispy momo dumplings are cooked in tiny roadside dhabas all over The Ganj.
On our first night in town we tried some Tibetan cuisine in one of the town’s many vegetarian restaurants. Compared with Indian food, Tibetan food is a little on the bland side; a result I suppose of having to work with the limited ingredients available on a cold, dry plateau. The momos were nice enough (think Chinese dim sum) but the thantuk – thick, dry noodles – were a bit of an under-flavoured disappointment. I’m also told that Tibetans drink a tea made from rancid yak butter but unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to try that (and I was so looking forward to it too…).
At the northern end of town is the Tsug Lakhang Temple, the focal point for Tibetan Buddhism in McLeod Ganj. A monastery forms part of the temple complex, as does the Dalai Lama’s residence. Inside are statues of various figures including Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Amongst the offerings that had been left for the latter was a packet of Hob-Nobs.
Outside the temple, as we were examining the prayer wheels, I was stopped by a group of five Sikh tourists who each wanted their photo taken with me. Maybe they thought I was Richard Gere…
In fact, we were asked to pose for photos rather a lot in India. For all of its diversity, and despite the huge number of tourists who visit the country, it seems that there are still plenty of parts of India where the locals never see a white face (or a black one for that matter). When these locals go on holiday – to McLeod Ganj for example – and run into foreigners like us, they’re genuinely interested, and not a little star-struck.
Also within the walls of the monastery is the Tibetan Museum. Here, a series of simple, yet eloquent displays is used to make some powerful points about the destruction of Tibetan culture under Chinese occupation. Most of the Tibetans in Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj fled their home country by crossing the Himalayas on foot, risking the twin perils of Chinese border patrols and a harsh, unpredictable climate. The lucky ones arrived with frostbite; many more have died attempting the journey. Some of the refugees’ stories are told here.
As you leave the museum, you can read the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on the future of Tibet. Despite decades of Chinese intransigence, he is clear that the only way forward lies in trying to find a peaceful compromise with Beijing: an admirable and courageous stance. They don’t hand out those Nobel Peace Prizes for nothing, you know.
On our third day in town, we heard that the Dalai Lama was due to be teaching at the temple. Tickets for the session had already been allocated to local monks and nuns and a few interested foreigners, but we were told that if we waited in the courtyard below the temple we might be able to catch a glimpse of the great man. Accordingly, we braved the understandably tight security (a metal detector and a vigorous frisk at the temple gate) and arrived outside Tsug Lakhang twenty minutes before the meeting was due to start.
Two sets of steps led up from the courtyard to the temple. Both were guarded by security personnel, but one had a cordon across it and a group of elderly Tibetans sitting cross-legged nearby, fingering their prayer beads. ‘A-ha,’ we thought. ‘Exclamation mark,’ we thought. ‘That must be where His Holiness is a-fixing on doing his walking-past.’ And so we settled down with the elderly Tibetans and waited.
At the forefront of my mind was what I would say to the Dalai Lama if, by chance, I came face-to-face with him and he decided to stop for a chat. I’d been thinking about this for several days now. Should I attempt to pose an important question – “What should I do to be a better person?”; “Who would win in a fight between you and the yeti?” – or should I just say how glad I was to meet him and try not to make a tit of myself?
I was still pondering this when I became aware of a commotion outside the building opposite. The Dalai Lama appeared, smiling and clasping his hands together, and made straight for the other side of the courtyard and the other set of steps. Those elderly Tibetans had got it all wrong!
The faithful rushed forward, all the while bowing and trying to keep on their knees. His Holiness bowed back, grinning and stopping to chat with a few lucky well-wishers.
Following the lead of the elderly Tibetans we made our way hurriedly but respectfully (a difficult combination to carry off) to the far side of the courtyard, all the while keeping our hands pressed together and our heads slightly bowed. But it was too late. The distant red-and-yellow robed figure of the 14th Dalai Lama had already passed up the staircase and into the temple.
A minute or so later, the familiar bass rumble of his voice, serious now, signalled the start of the prayer meeting, and it was time for us to leave.