From Rishikesh to Dharamshala. A distance that looks short enough on paper, and maybe even enjoyable with windy roads that wrap around mountain sides for spectacular vistas. If only that had been the case for us. The bus ride from Rishikesh to Dharamshala was for both Amanda and I possibly the single worst foreign transportation experience ever. The large bus careened over semi-paved roads and cut around corners 15mph too fast making it nearly impossible to get any sleep, keeping us perpetually nauseous on a ride that began at 5pm and ended at 5am, dropping us off in a new place before the crack of dawn.
The bus driver didn’t even bother dropping us off in town so we had to taxi in. The taxi took us to the small town square where he said we could find accomodation. So we wandered the streets until we found a homely Tibetan guest house with a jaw dropping view of the massive Dhauladhar range, one of the steepest front ranges of the Himalayas.
We were greeted by an elderly Tibetan lady who at first gave us a harrumph of disapproval for showing up at 6am as the sun was just coming up. She was however almost immediately endearing, providing us with an attractive deal for a room, being very understanding about arrival time, and letting us play with her teddy-bear-with-legs dog. I’ve never been a small dog kind of guy, but that dog stole my heart. As did the elderly Tibetan lady, who was a lovely and gracious host for our duration in Dharamshala.
We weren’t actually staying in Dharamshala proper, but a small mountain village perched on a steep face about 1,500 ft above Dharamshala called McLeod Ganj. McLeod Ganj is popular with backpackers and most famous for being the home of the official residence of the exiled 14th Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama, oft-quoted and known for raising the profile of the Tibetan struggle, is both the political and religious leader of the Buddhist kingdom of Tibet. He is the most famous of the Dalai Lamas, having been exiled from Tibet in 1959 when not even 25 years old and choosing Dharamshala as the location for the exiled government of Tibet, and McLeod Ganj as his temporary home. He has spent the vast majority of his time as Dalai Lama traveling the world and raising awareness of Chinese treatment of Tibetans while also working towards regaining Tibetan independence.
The entirety of my motivation to go to Dharamshala and Mcleod Ganj was based on the fact that a friend I ran into in Rishikesh had told me- although then unconfirmed- that the Dalai Lama was scheduled to speak at in Dharamshala in the next few days. That was more than enough for me. I’d had, along with a few friends of mine, tickets to see the Dalai Lama speak at UCLA back in 2011 and all of us, in addition to several thousand other students, were hearbroken when he canceled abruptly due to sickness.
And now in Dharamshala in 2015 I was just that lucky. The rumor turned out to be fact, and our second day in town Amanda and I went to Gyuto Buddhist Monastery, tickets in hand to see the Dalai Lama speak. It was not an independent talk but one of several, part of his recounting of ancient Buddhist texts and traditions.
The energy at Gyuto Monastery was electric, the high school auditorium-sized building filled to capacity, with people sitting in the veranda outside peering in for a look at his holiness.. Amanda and I among them.
We listened to the talk through an FM radio, his text and readings translated into digestible English for all of the foreigners, a few hundred among the crowd. The Dalai Lama was wonderful in person, providing his usual pieces of wisdom, with hundreds jotting down isolated phrases of wisdom applicable to anything. I thought the most amazing part of the talk was the energy of the Dalai Lama himself; electric, engaging, and funny all at once, so deceptively youthful for his 79 years. Photos were ufortunately (but understandably) forbidden, otherwise I would have snuck many of his holiness.
His energy continued to impress all of the the foreigners in presence. The Dalai Lama spoke for hours, far longer than his scheduled time. Westerners, unaccustomed to sitting still or on minimal padding for hours, squirmed in their seats, their energy and enthusiasm fading to discomfort, even as the focused and charismatic Dalai Lama continued to speak. After over four and a half hours Amanda and I took the opportunity to leave, which in itself was probably the most humbling experience of the day….
As we left, the full scope of the event took fold: We had been sitting under the roof of the veranda on a small cushion within view of the Dalai Lama for well over four hours and had still hit a point where we felt we’d reached our limit. Below the monastery, under tents or in the open sat thousands of patiently focused and calm Buddhist monks. While Amanda and I left our comfortable, viewable position, thousands sat outside perfectly content to hear everything until the last word. It was a humbling and almost surreal event to witness, to be amongst Tibetan Buddhist monks in the presence of their leader. To see their humility among everything, their unity, their passion above all else… it was an incredibly heartwarming and human experience.
The following day Amanda and I enlisted the help of a Tibetan excursion agency to go on an ambitious day trek to a plateau facing one of the signature peaks of the Dhauladhar range, Mon Peak. For us both being a little out of shape it was a good challenge; a 1000+ meter hike starting at about 1700 meters and summiting at 2850 before going back down, an 18 kilometer journey in all. For those of us who aren’t metric (I’m still trying it out), that’s starting at about 6,000ft, hiking to about 9,500ft and back down, over 11-12 miles. By the end my knees and quads were finished with the idea of descending anything, trails or stairs.
The view however, was well worth the hike. The weather never fully complied, but we still had the opportunity to stand face to face with massive Himalayan peaks, their 16,000 ft peaks obscured above about 14,000 feet, disappearing into thunderheads. Thankfully the thunderheads never caught up to us. The weather slowly worsened at our summit at Triund plateau, 9,500 ft up, but we left as soon as the thunderstorm looked inevitable. The clouds chased us down the mountains, sometimes enveloping us and leaving less than fifty feet of visibility. Luckily though, the rain never came down on us and the lighting strikes remained distant.
Our time in McLeod Ganj and Dharamshala was exactly what I’d wanted… what I had hoped Rishikesh would have been. A very relaxed mountain town living at its own pace and exuding the tranquility of its surroundings. We spent another day relaxing and enjoying the merits of doing almost nothing more than enjoying the surroundings of a relaxing town before catching a bus to the town of Manali.