Buddhist prayer wheels

Buddhist prayer wheels at the base of Mcleod Ganj’s temple

From Chandigarh I boarded another state-run bus for the long and winding route through the hills up to Dharamsala, the hopping-off point for the popular backpacker destination of Mcleod Ganj. The route seemed particularly chunder-inducing, and I was glad I was dosed up on travel sickness tablets for its duration.

I arrived into Dharamsala late at night, and the only choice of transportation up to Mcleod Ganj was taxi. The “taxi mafia” awaiting the arrival of the bus knew this only too well, and wouldn’t budge when I tried to barter the fare up the hill. It was a fixed price of 120 rupees for the journey or stay in Dharamsala until the next bus in the morning. I caved in, wanting to get up into the action, and jumped in the taxi which burned up the steep slope to deposit me in Mcleod Ganj’s main square, jam-packed even at 10pm at night.

Mcleod Ganj is India’s “Little Tibet”. After the Tibetan Uprising in 1959 in response to the Chinese Invasion of their country earlier in the decade, its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled for the border, fearing the Chinese were going to kill him. He trekked the treacherous Himalayas with a trusted group of allies, eventually crossing into India, where he was granted political asylum by the government. Initially settling in Mussoorie, he eventually established the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile in Mcleod Ganj. As a result, over the years a substantial community of Tibetan refugees and expats has gathered there. The chance to experience “Tibet-lite” is a real draw for backpackers, as is the opportunity to see the Dalai Lama – one of my personal heroes – speak in person. I was disappointed to learn he was away in Europe (these jet-setting monks, eh?) for the duration of my visit, but nevertheless I was looking forward to exploring the place.

I made my base the centrally-located Green Hotel, a favourite backpacker haunt. I had a comfy room with only one other occupant who I hastily kicked out, and had wifi internet connectivity for an extra 100 rupees per day. It seemed a perfect place to chill out and recover.

Alas no. My Delhi Belly returned the next day with a vengeance. The Imodium had only temporarily put a cork in it, which suggested the root of the problem was a bacterial infection. For the next four days or so I was largely confined to my room, only popping out for tiny, bland meals or for a brief walk around town, all the while knocking back plenty of water mixed with rehydration salts to keep the electrolytic balance up in an attempt to flush through the little blighters that had invaded my body. With no luck in doing so, as a last resort I swung by a pharmacy to pick up some antibiotics to napalm my ravaged gut. Within a day or two I was on the mend.

I can think of many worse places in which to be holed up recovering from an illness than Mcleod Ganj. The town was a vibrant place, with an electic mix of Tibetan locals, orange-robed Buddhist monks, local Indians, dishevelled backpackers, Buddhist pilgrims (including a strong Western contingent, especially from America) and package tourists. However, the narrow streets were bursting at the seams with the vehicle traffic, and frequently caused traffic jams both of cars and pedestrians whilst two cars inched by each other. Despite this annoyance, I liked the place, and once I had recovered, I took a looping walk down the hill to enjoy the hillside views, then back up for a stroll around the Dalai Lama’s functional temple known as the Tsuglagkhang complex, as well as the Buddhist temple situated by the main square. I cautiously tried some Tibetan cuisine, and thoroughly enjoyed the momos (dumplings) and the Tibetan noodle soup, but avoided anything too spicy, not wanting to inflame my gut again.

My nine days or so confined to bathrooms had put me behind – so to speak – on my schedule, and so however much I liked Mcleod Ganj and was keen to check out its satellite villages, I needed to press on further northwards, increasing steadily in altitude in a bid to prepare myself for the journey I had planned: crossing the Himalayas by the highest paved road in the world.