In the Indian town of McLeod Ganj, above Dharamsala, you sense that you’re at the very edge of high drama. The mighty Himalayas rise beyond, and so many of its residents are here to escape persecution in Tibet. Tourists come for many reasons. Curiosity. Spirituality. A break in the eye of the travel storm that is India. A chance glimpse of the Dalai Lama at his home-in exile. A few, like me, come to hike.
For five days I wandered through the mountains behind McLeod Ganj. In my mind I was headed for Indrahar Pass, a 4350-metre notch in the Dhaula Dhar Range, but the season was wrong and the high slopes unwilling. Instead, I wandered beside swollen rivers, over high alpine meadows and looked longingly up at Indrahar Pass as I hiked to the edge of the ice-coated scree field that covered its slopes.
Those days and nights in the mountains, I slept on concrete floors and in the stables of a lakeside Hindu temple. In one tiny village my porter stopped, pointed at a pistachio-coloured house – ‘My home’ – and we ate our lunchtime dahl on the porch as his sister spun wool beside us. A tiny boy drank milk straight from the udders of his father’s goat herd. The walk was ascetic and it was a joy, and by the time I returned to McLeod Ganj I was in the right frame of mind to enjoy the town’s pop version of Buddhism.
In this town, backpackers wander about in ‘Free Tibet’ T-shirts, often with copies of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in hand. Former political prisoners give talks about Tibet in restaurants, and there are courses on offer on the likes of ocean massage, Tibetan astrology massage and Tibetan cooking. Monkeys scuttle about the rooftops, and monks stroll the thread-thin lanes. People come for days and stay for months, savouring the Tibet you can have without travelling to Tibet. It’s all very likeable, but it’s also DisneyTibet.
On my first morning back in McLeod Ganj I wandered down the steep hill to Namgyal Monastery, the seat of the Dalai Lama. As I sat in the monastery’s courtyard, a monk approached and sat beside me. Jigmey was fairly typical as McLeod Ganj monks go: brand-name running shoes, mobile phone, an email address and a gentle, inquisitive nature.
As we talked, Jigmey’s story emerged. In 2000 he’d fled Tibet, walking for two months across Himalayan passes through the depths of winter to reach Kathmandu. And here I was, sheepish now, having retreated from a single pass because of a little ice and poor weather.
Still, when I talked of my recent days in the mountains, Jigmey blushed. On my hike I’d passed through Triund, a beautiful alpine meadow less than 10 kilometres from McLeod Ganj, staring out onto the iced slopes of the Dhaula Dhar Range. In his years in McLeod Ganj, Jigmey had never been to Triund.
“I’m very lazy,” he said. “I don’t walk far.” Only to freedom, apparently.