We are very relieved to have arrived in Himachal Pradesh and fresh, cool mountain air. On the bus from Amritsar to McLeod Ganj we began climbing into the Himalayas and our eyes were glued to the breathtaking view of soaring mountain peaks and green valleys filled with fields of rice or of schoolchildren playing cricket. The fresh temperatures and greenery are quite a departure from what we have been used to in India; for a few nights we didn't even use a fan (unthinkable!) and cold showers are no longer a pleasure.
McLeod Ganj is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, as well as a large community of Tibetan refugees. It is also jam-packed with tourists, and most traffic is pedestrian, which is also very strange for us. McLeod Ganj is in fact so easy to navigate and so catered to tourists that it has been likened to a Tibetan Disneyland. Western food is almost more accessible than Tibetan food. It felt difficult to have an authentic experience on the streets of McLeod Ganj, but we enjoyed the natural beauty and we took a little time to relax from the hectic pace and general frustrations that we encounter in the rest of India.
The Dalai Lama's residency is a large complex that sits above the town. While visiting we were witness to a lively debate between several monks in the main square, in which arguments were accented with loud hand claps and foot stomps directed at adversaries. The Dalai Lama's temple was beautiful, and the best part was its setting. Perched on the side of the mountain, it overlooked verdant valleys. Trees in all directions were strung up with colourful Tibetan prayer flags, and just above us were snow-capped mountains in shades of blue, with clouds caught up in their peaks. Our favourite part was being able to see glimpses of all of this from inside the peaceful temple through its open doors. What touched us most about the complex was the Tibet Museum, which movingly recounted the history of Tibet, the brutal Chinese occupation, and the plight of Tibetan refugees who face life-threatening conditions to pass through the wintery altitudes of Tibet in order to escape.
We attempted to walk a few kilometres downhill to visit the Secretariat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, but the road was so steep that it was too difficult even to stay upright, so we had to hail an autorickshaw to take us the rest of the way. The Secretariat is made up of all of the government departments and bureaucracy necessary to run any state, and they are working hard for Tibet's liberation and waiting for the moment that they are able to resume governing it. A library and cultural museum preserves the Tibetan culture that is simultaneously being wiped out by the Chinese government, where we were lucky to see some remarkable three dimensional and sand mandalas.
Nearby we also visited the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute, where degrees are granted in these ancient arts. The museum had some very interesting old medical texts and diagrams, as well as some big, sharp instruments used in bloodletting and hammering hot spikes into your diseased areas. We have both been struggling to get over colds, but we tried not to let it show in case we were led to the clinic.
Bus rides in Himachal Pradesh have been an adventure in their own right. We are currently in an area where it takes about five hours to travel ten kilometres. We wind through valleys and up mountains on narrow roads. If another bus happens to be going in the other direction, one of us probably will need to back up until we find a spot that's wider than usual. Herds of goats and cows also need to be accommodated. The terrain means that the snail's pace of the bus certainly feels fast enough.