Arriving in Dharamsala was like a breath of fresh air. Literally fresher air than the dusty intense heat of Dehli and Hadikhan. Warm during the day and crisp, cool mountain air at night makes this the ultimate destination for backpackers looking to escape the heat.
I took a 14 hour coach from Dehli. Not the best transport experience I’ve had. The winding bumpy mountain road leads to the phenomena of group vomiting. Usually, Indian women, out of the window if they make it in time, or just on the floor of the coach if they can’t. The lovely lady in front of me was quick enough to open the window but the wind and speed of the bus caused a catastrophic puke reversal and I was drenched with sick for the last 4 hours of the journey. Nice!
That was probably my only negative experience except perhaps the lack of water in my guest house which was always being fixed ‘tomorrow’ although ’tomorrow’ never actually materialised.
Dharamsala is actually a not so interesting trading town slightly further down the mountain. When people talk of going to Dharmsala they usually mean the towns of McLeod Gange, Bhagsu and Dharmcot. The whole conurbation is a refuge for Tibetans fleeing their Chinese occupied homeland. I do not have the knowledge to write about the ongoing conflict and annexing of Tibet by China but there are hundreds of resources out there if you want to find out more. However, things must be dire for whole families to risk life and limb crossing the Himalayas (usually on foot) into Nepal and then onto India. One girl I spoke to told me the journey had taken her and her family a month and they had to carry with them all the food and water they would need for the entire trip. Incredibly sad, incredibly inspirational and above all incredibly humbling.
(Dharamsala by night)
Dharamsala is home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. A mini Lhasa, it is jam packed with Tibetans. Shops selling Tibetan food, art, music, literature and artefacts line the streets and many of the residents still wear traditional dress. It is like nowhere else in India. I felt at home immediately and got stuck in. I was given the amazing opportunity to facilitate English conversation classes between refugees and the odd Thai monk as well as teaching yoga every morning. It was an incredible gift to see my class swell in numbers from 1 to 14 and many of the students were completely new to the practice. I volunteered for a small NGO putting my fundraising skills to good use by writing a number of funding applications. It felt good to be involved.
I arrived in the middle of a Bhuto Festival (an indescribable Japanese dance) and attended a number of performances and workshops. I made some amazing friends, many of whom I travelled on with or have met in other places in India. Friends I know I can drop in on at any time in the future. Friends for life.
(Bhuto Performance, courtesy of Sarah Cattani)
However, for me the most beautiful thing in Dharamsala is its people. They have a look in their eyes of both joy and gratitude for the lives they have but simultaneously with the haunted look of the oppressed and displaced. That look is hard to describe. It’s as though the light in their eyes is slightly dimmer and you can almost feel them carrying the weight of their conflict on their own shoulders.
I have no idea what the future holds for their nation but if they can continue to cultivate that joy I am certain that a positive outcome for everyone is possible.
Happy 80th birthday to the Dalai Lama and please read my top 10 things to do in Dharamsala.