At the last minute, we chose to fly from Delhi to Dharamsala instead of hiring a car with a driver.
It takes eight to nine hours to drive there and many travelers described the drive as hair raising and very religious…. That is they spent most of the ride praying that the driver will slow down, stay in his lane and not get into a deadly accident….
Before we made arrangements to hire a car, we had wanted to fly there.
Flying is the most expensive way to get to Dharamsala, but it is painless and it takes only one and a half hours.
Only one air carrier flies into Dharamsala, and it is the bankrupt Kingfisher airline.
When I looked into booking, their pilots just had gone on strike and flights were canceled and backed up for days on all of their routes.
A short time later, the pilots went back to work and since it was closer to the departure date, the price of the flight to Dharamsala was reduced, so we decided to fly instead of hiring a car after all.
We landed at the tiny airport outside of Dharamsala, collected our bags and went outside to meet our driver who was holding a sign with our names on it.
A narrow road in terrible disrepair meandered into the wooded hills.
There were many more huge potholes than asphalt lining the road.
The place had a very lively feeling.
The surrounding mountains are tall and steep.
There are many evergreen trees, but the feeling of serenity and beauty is interrupted by the huge piles of trash that were thrown on the sloping hills and made the place smell and feel disharmonious.
There is a regular trash collection, as well as a few rubbish cans around town, but a lack of awareness or concern about littering is prevalent.
There are also mischievous monkeys going through the rubbish and spreading trash around.
The tiny villages that we passed along the way, had small stores with a smattering of basic provisions.
Many of the local villagers walked barefoot.
We passed by a store that had only three walls and a huge pile of raw unhusked grain in the middle of it and nothing else.
If you wanted to buy rice, you had to bring your own sack and later clean and husk the grains at home.
I imagined that a three wall store might have mice and roaches running through the huge pile of grain…. And then I realized that it is not much different than the grains standing in the fields before harvest, where rats and bugs climb all over the plants.
Dharamsala is composted of two villages, lower Dharamsala and upper Dharamsala which is called McLeod Ganj.
McLeod Ganj is where the Dalai Lama’s residence and temple are located.
It is currently the seat of the Tibetan Government while in exile.
India was kind enough to give the escaped Dalai Lama permission to settle in the hills of Dharamsala, and in effect, allowed him to continue his spiritual guiding of the Tibetan people.
We chose to stay at the Chonor House, which is affiliated with the Tibetan Norbulinka Insitute.
The Norbulingka Institute is located near lower Dharamsala and has another guest house on the premises, but we wanted to stay in McLeod Ganj, where all the best places to eat and drink are, as well as being the Tibetan hub where all the action takes place.
We passed through lower Dharamsala which has a central overcrowded street with small shops selling Indian spices, clothing, shoes, inexpensive electronics, jewelry and many other household metal or plastic things.
The traffic was horrendous, with cars driving both ways on the impossibly narrow road, but our driver remained smiling, and I noticed that many of the other drivers were nodding in friendliness to one another.
After all, what’s the use of getting upset, when there is nothing you can do to move ahead… The drivers simply shut the engine and wait for the road to clear.
The Chonor house is located on a steep hill off the main Temple Road in McLeod Ganj.
We were given a large rooftop room with a Tibetan tiger rug and beautiful paintings depicting the Tibetan landscape and tribal people, all over the walls of the room.
The bed’s mattress was rock hard and the room was worn by many years of use, but it had a lot of charm and I felt very comfortable in it.
Dinner at Chonor house was delicious vegetarian Momos (steamed dumplings) and light and tasty cheese Momos, handmade Tibetan Thukpa (veg soup) with flat hand made pasta, and a hot honey lemon ginger drink.
When I inquired about a Tibetan massage that I saw advertise at the front desk, Karma, the friendly man who attended the front desk, said that I can have one in an hour.
He called the Tibetan lady who came over to our room and on the bed she placed a towel and gave me a fabulous massage.
At the Chonor House, there is a nice rhythm to the mornings.
At 5:30AM, the dogs start barking and many of the other dogs of McLeod Ganj join in, adding their voices to the concert.
They quiet down after about half an hour.
At exactly six in the morning, the air is filled with the voices of hundreds of chanting monks carried over from the nearby Dalai Lama Thekchen Choling Temple.
Their rich throaty voices feel very soothing to my soul.
Breakfast is served in many places around the village and it is cheap and generally delicious, but we chose to eat at the Chonor House.
We ordered a home made yogurt which reminded me of how I used to love yogurt in my youth, when I lived in Israel and visited the Mediterranean often.
Yogurt was always thick and sour.
When I moved to the US, I stopped eating yogurt because it was always sold sweet with sugar and fruit in it, which tasted just wrong to me.
Even in later years when “Greek yogurt” took the American market by storm, it still tasted bland and unappealing.
Real yogurt has to be really sour to be delicious.
The other breakfast item that I enjoyed was the Tibetan bread.
It looked like a thick pita bread, but it tasted different and was very yummy.
On the narrow streets of McLeod Ganj, you cannot really call it “walking.”
The more accurate expression is that you have to WEAVE yourself between the cars, motorcycles, street vendors, potholes, dogs, Tuktuks and large cows. (many of them are bulls with large horns)
You have to be aware of the sewer lines that run like irrigation ditches on the sides of each road and are occasionally covered with a metal grid that is often shaky or missing altogether.
On the streets of McLeod Ganj, you will see an eclectic mix of people from all over the world.
Among the languages I heard spoken, were Dutch, German, Korean, Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, English and the most popular of them all…. Hebrew, which was spoken at every corner, in every cafe and in every restaurant around town.
Later as we walked around town, we also noticed that many signs were written in all of those languages, advertising cooking classes, meditation classes, restaurants and shops where you can learn how to paint the traditional Thangkas (Tibetan scroll paintings) or make your own jewelry with precious stones made to fit your birth year and month, or with stones that are believed to promote good health, good fortune, spiritual awareness, protection, wealth and good blessings.
To our GREAT fortune, the Dalai Lama is currently in Dharamsala.
Even more fortunate was that on the request of a large delegation of Buddhist Taiwanese, he was going to give a teaching that will last four days, which we can attend. (along with many thousands of other people.)
I made a mental note to make sure that we would attend the teachings.
There are strict rules about attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamsala.
You have to bring two passport photos along with your passport and register at the Tibetan Security office.
There you fill out a form and get a badge with your photo and name on it.
A day before the teaching you are allowed to bring your floor sitting pillow and to place it among thousands of other pillows on the temple grounds, to reserve your own space.
We had no problem getting our passes.
Luckily we went there a day before all the thousand of foreigners, and we obtained our badges in twenty minutes.
The next day as we walked through the same streets, we noticed a VERY long line of people waiting to get in and obtain their passes.
When we went to the temple to reserve our seat, we noticed that most of the top floor near the seat of the Dalai Lama, was lined with thick mattresses and floor mats, each bearing a group name or the individual’s name on it.
Some people laid cardboards on the floor and simply wrote their names on it.
Many spread a scarf or a sarong on the floor to mark their territory.
We did not bring anything we could leave behind, and we did not want to go out to town to buy something, because to get into the temple grounds you have to go through a security search, so I spread the Katag (thin silk scarves given in gratitude and as a blessing that we got at the Tibetan Guesthouse.)
I had no means of securing them to the floor and preventing them from flying overnight, so I went into the kitchen and took brown bricks and put on them on the Katags.
I hope they will still be there tomorrow when the teaching starts.
There are a few big screen TV’s for those who will not be able to see the Dalai Lama (or DL as Jules affectionately calls him.)
Since DL will speak only in Tibetan, there will be translations broadcast over an FM radio.
You also have to bring earphones and a cup, since tea will be served to the public.
No cellphones or cameras are allowed into the temple grounds on the days of the teaching.
We had no problem getting an FM radio in town.
Many small shops sell them under a cardboard sign saying: “FM radio for Teaching.”
We had to switch from Chonor House which was fully booked for the rest of the week.
Our new guest house, the Glenmoor Cottages, is on the other end of town, located in the midst of a lovely forest, just twenty minutes walk from the village.
Our new place is listed as the most luxurious place to stay in McLeod Ganj, which tells me that there are really only simple and humble guesthouses around the village.
Our cottage is large and specious, but with little attention to details and it’s very spartan decor leaves a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness.
Still, it is comfortable enough and if you do not linger long in the shower, you have plenty of hot water.
The next person has to wait another hour before taking his or her shower, to allow the heater to heat the tiny water tank.
As we walked the streets, I saw a card that grabbed my attention.
It is better to be aware of one single shortcoming of your own,
Than to be aware of a thousand shortcomings
In the people around you….”