Neither here nor there

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2007, 12:00am

In Dharamsala, Jigmey's story is far from unusual. Seven years ago, the Buddhist monk fled Tibet, walking for two months through Himalayan passes in the depths of winter to reach Nepalese capital Kathmandu. Yet he blushes when he learns I've just walked from Triund, a mountain meadow 8km from Dharamsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

'I've never been there,' he confesses. 'I'm very lazy.

I don't walk far.' Just to freedom, it seems.

I met Jigmey in the courtyard of Namgyal Monastery, metres from the entrance to the Dalai Lama's residence. Like so many young monks, Jigmey had been drawn from Kathmandu to Dharamsala, the home in exile of his magnetic spiritual leader. We talk for a while, then Jigmey asks me to take his photograph. He writes down an e-mail address to which I can send a digital image, picks up his mobile phone and walks away in his brand-name running shoes. It seems anything but the classic monastic existence but in Dharamsala it is as common as the tale of Jigmey's flight from Tibet.

When travellers talk of Dharamsala they invariably mean McLeod Ganj, a satellite suburb wrapped around a Himalayan spur 500 metres above the city. It was named after a colonial lieutenant governor of British Punjab, David McLeod, and a divisional commander, Forsyth Ganj. It was here that the Dalai Lama settled in 1959 and it's here that monks, Tibetan refugees and waves of tourists have been coming ever since. Prayer flags flutter like hung washing on adjacent spurs and the housing is such a rich mixture of colours - ochre, yellow, red, green - it's as though the chir pine forest that engulfs the town is in perpetual bloom.

McLeod Ganj is an island of Buddhism in a nation of Hinduism and for many travellers it's also the eye in the Indian storm, one of the few calming escapes from the maelstrom that is India - short of becoming a sadhu, or holy man.

'I just love it here,' American tourist Loretta tells me. 'It's like coming to Tibet, not India.' Loretta flew into Delhi 2 1/2 months ago, jumped on a bus to McLeod Ganj and is still here. For her and many other visitors, it is a town where the culture, food and faces are from the Tibetan Plateau and where the only difficulty to overcome is a bus ride from Delhi.

Ask any visitor how long they've been in McLeod Ganj and, as with Loretta, the answer is just as likely to be weeks as days. It's a scenario that is remarkable for a place that can essentially be covered on foot in an hour.

So tight is the space atop its spur that the town consists of little more than three cotton-thin lanes. When there are more than about six cars here at a time, the traffic jams become more complex than calculus.

It's a town of high hotels with low homes sprinkled into the gaps. Its sights are few and mostly in the nearby Himalayas, yet it's on the itinerary for almost every visitor to northern India. It is McLeod Ganj's essential spirituality that draws so many wanderers. Here, you can indulge in almost any form of spiritual and physical self-improvement. Every wall in town is plastered with flyers offering courses in ocean massage, Tibetan astrology massage, Thai massage, reiki, tai-chi, Hindi and Tibetan language, and Tibetan and Indian cooking. This is the place to come if you've ever fancied learning to play the sitar.

For many people, McLeod Ganj is simply the place to dust off their inner Buddha. Dining on the balcony of a restaurant one evening, I sit between two people, one reading The Message of Buddha and the other Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. In the street below I watch a tourist pass by with a T-shirt declaring: 'Tibet belongs to Tibetans.' The following morning at breakfast, the young backpacker at the table beside me begins his meal with meditation, though it quickly slips into sleep.

But McLeod Ganj is not an ethereal, chant-for-your-supper kind of place. It's a modern town with modern ways, which extend to its monks. You see them walking hand-in-hand with locals, minding stores and dining in restaurants. Many sport the square-lensed sunglasses favoured by the Dalai Lama.

A restaurant called the Shangri-La - managed by the Gyudmed Monastery and staffed by monks - is touted as having the best pizza in town. The eatery is an initiative to provide Tibetans with vocational training and notices on its menus (next to The Far Side cartoons) request you 'bear with us for any mishaps'. Yet the food would please the most discerning of critics, featuring a list of sophisticated pizza toppings - from Roquefort and walnut to smoked cheese and spinach - and lassis as rich as those anywhere in India. Against one wall stands a library of books for loan, including a London A-Z for the truly lost.

Morning is the best time of day in McLeod Ganj. At dawn the town is at rest, with only a whisper of the car horns that become each day's soundtrack. Monkeys retreat from the town's roofs to be replaced by monks and residents performing their daily exercises. This is when McLeod Ganj belongs to its faithful. Walking down the hill to Namgyal, those beside me swing worry beads as they set out to perform their circumambulations of the monastery. Inside the compound, prayer wheels spin almost continuously, silently sending their prayer - om mani padme hum - out on the winds.

It is only ever a matter of hours, however, before that more modern god - consumerism - becomes the deity of the streets. Restaurants outnumber monks, internet cafes open their doors and travel agents offer buses back to the plains or deeper into the mountains. Jewellery stands line the lanes and Indian standards such as pashmina shawls and salwar-kameez, the traditional dress worn by men and women, flutter at the front of shops.

Coming after such a delicate dawn, it is a disappointment to watch the transformation and by most afternoons I want to leave. Often I do, to places such as Triund or, if lacking the energy for the climb, to neighbouring villages such as Bhagsu. I'm not alone: Bhagsu invariably proves as busy as McLeod Ganj, with the Bhagsu road looking like a migration route.

Here, I am greeted by the most unexpected - and the funniest - sight of my stay. At the centre of the village, a public swimming pool as blue as a spring sky overflows with Indian tourists. In the water, the men are stripped to their underwear and their more demure wives stand about in their saris. The men dive like rocks and flounder through lengths, failing in their intention to impress. As I look on, a Tibetan man in nothing but his underwear climbs from the pool. He gathers up his berry-coloured robes, slips them over his head and wanders off - a monk once again. I watch him go, waiting to see whether he'll check his text messages.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( flies from Hong Kong to Delhi. The bus journey from Delhi to Dharamsala takes about 14 hours. Most hotels are clustered in McLeod Ganj. The Pema Thang Guest House (, downhill from the bustle of the major road confluence, is an authentic, Tibetan-style option.