McLeod Ganj, the little Tibet

We left the land of the Sikhs to enter the land of Tibetan Buddhists. The most flexible option to go from Amritsar to McLeod Ganj is by bus first to Pathankot, then change bus to Dharamsala, and finally get on a shared taxi to McLeod Ganj, 7 hours in all.

McLeod Ganj, also known as Upper Dharamsala, became Dalai Lama’s residence in exile in 1959 after Tibet’s failed uprise in the same year. Since then, and due to the issues in Tibet and the oppression of the Chinese government, this little hill village has become the home of many Tibetan refugees and Buddhist monasteries and it’s where the Tibetan Government in exile has been set.

Tibetans, Hindus and many tourists coexist here in McLeod Ganj. Most of the tourists come here to do some meditation courses or just to escape from the busy India. There are plenty of things to do in Upper Dharamsala, specially if what you want is to learn a little bit about Tibet, their culture and their current situation. We attended a couple of talks, visited the Tibetan Children’s village and the Tibetan museum, attended cooking course,…

The talk that impress us the most was given at LIT (Learning and Ideas for Tibet) by a man (former monk) who was sent to prison after just taking part in a pacific protest. He was then tortured and sentenced to 3 years in prison. He described how after finishing their dreadful time in prison all political prisoners are neither allowed to go back to the monasteries or to study and how it’s very difficult to make a decent living, so he had no choice but to exile to India. One could see in his eyes the kind of suffering he had gone through.

We read about the Tibetan Children’s village (TCV), which is an association that was created by Dalai Lama’s himself to help the children of both the Tibetan’s who had died during the conflict with China and the Tibetan’s who where living in exile and had almost no money. TCV has schools and residences in different places around India where children receive free education, food and a place to live and also where they learn how to make Tibetan handicrafts. We visited TCV’s installations outside McLeodGanj on our way to the sacred Dal Lake (really disappointing, it should be called pond rather than lake) and after seeing the beautiful handcrafts they make we had no choice but to buy a few things! The money goes to the non profit association to continue helping the children in need.

Tibetan’s medicine is completely different to our modern medicine. As we were curious, one of the days we went to visit a Tibetan doctor for a health check. On arrival, he just checked the pulse from both wrists and listened for any kind of irregularities. After a few seconds, and a couple of questions he said we were both healthy and we needed no medicines. A pity because I was really hoping to try some of the strange looking herbal pills he had.

Every evening there are many activities in town: concerts, movies, parties… We were recommended to attend one of the free concerts of an award winning Tibetan group, Culture Brothers. I don’t know why, but maybe because of the name of the group, or the looks of the singer, we thought we were just about to listen traditional Tibetan music…. imagine our faces when the guy starts rapping! Rapping stories about the situation in Tibet and how he felt about it at the sound of an electronic keyboard. Everyone in the room was astonished! After a few minutes of “acclimatization” we really enjoyed the concert, different but good fun.

Food was the missing ingredient to complete our Tibetanization, so we attended a 3 evenings cooking course at Sangye’s Kitchen. Each evening had a different theme: Day 1 – Breads, Day 2 – Soups, Day 3 – Momos. Sangye had been giving this courses for the last 13 years and he still enjoys every class and so did we! After the completion of the course we even got a certificate which recognizes our ability to cook great momos! ;)

We knew little about the past and present of Tibet before arriving in McLeod Ganj. And after what we learned during our 6 days stay, we really hope the situation in Tibet improves and that the thousands of Tibetans living in exile can one day return to their homeland.

In case you want to know more about TCV and LIT here are a couple of links, along with a good movie, Kundun, about the Dalai Lama:

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Our pilgrimage to holy Varanasi

After doing a little bit of research we thought that going from Pokhara to Varanasi would be relatively straight forward, but of course the trip had a few “surprises” for us.

The trip commences with us leaving Pokhara. We take the “tourist bus”, which in reality was a local bus stopping at the tourist bus stand, that will take us from Pokhara to Sonauli (7 hours). Leaving aside the state of the roads, the crazy overtakes (they don’t care if there is another car coming, they just push the horn and hope for the best) and the precipices, the journey was more or less pleasant. We were lucky enough not to have any accidents or punctures but on the way we were forced to stop for more than 20 mins by a bus crash that happened between the bus ahead of us and another bus driving in opposite direction. I should probably better say touch rather than crash, as apart from a minor scratch there was no other sign of the collision between the two buses. Everybody from the two buses involved, from our bus and people from several other cars went close to try to see what happened while the two drivers argued about the “crash”. Crazy that given how old and bumped the bus was they could argue for minutes about the tinny little scratch.

Finally we reached Sonauli, the town where the India – Nepal crossing is. As we preferred to continue our journey to Varanasi by day, we decided to sleep there. Our last night in Nepal eating momos.

Early in the morning we got ready to enter India again. Half Sonauli is Nepal and the other half is India and the crossing between the two it is just a long street that you can cross from one side to the other without having to show your passport or any kind of documentation to anybody. While nobody will tell you anything if you don’t do the required diligences then and there, we could be traveling without an India visa now, you could get into trouble if you don’t get the exit stamp in Nepal’s immigration stand and the entry stamp in India’s one (both are just about 500m apart).

In Sonauli India we looked for the bus to Gorakhpur. First we passed by all the taxi drivers who will take you if you pay a small fortune, but we just said no thanks with a smile. We found our bus and took our sits. The 3 hours that takes going from Sonauli to Gorakhpur went fast thanks to the entertaining Bollywood movies!

We arrived in Gorakhpur around midday. We were back in deep India, the chaos, the traffic, the thousands of people… Now we just had to complete the last leg of our journey, get a train from Gorakhpur to Varanasi. One will think that this was the easy part, it’s just a matter of going to one of the desks in the train station and get a ticket from Gorakhpur to Varanasi, ha! First we learned that reserved seats tickets can not be bought at the train station and that we had to go to the Computerized Reservation Office. Luckily it was only 5 mins away, but walking 5 mins with our heavy backpacks, between the cows, the rickshaws and tuk-tuks, the heat and the Indians I tell you it is not easy!

In the Computerized Reservation Office we were shocked by the amount of people queuing for a ticket at the different desks. As we had no idea of the train schedules, we were advised to buy a book which has information of the main train routes in India. Once we found which trains could take us to Varanasi and queuing for over 45 mins we learned that trains in India have to be booked well in advanced! They were all sold out! But fortunately and after lots of questions we found out there was another train leaving that night, not in the book, that had still beds available in First Class. 2h after we finally had our tickets.

The 6h wait in Gorakhpur went quite fast reading and talking to a little boy in the train station. The train arrived and after a few minutes looking for our coach we realized that there was no First Class coach as we were told… in the middle of the confusion and disbelieve we were told that they were going to attach an FC coach in a few minutes. One hour later, our coach was there and we could finally relax and sleep for a few hours. Night night Gorakhpur, by the morning we will be in Varanasi!

Eating in Nepal

During our stay in Nepal we have been trying different types of local dishes from the different regions (Newari, Thakali, Tibetan, common Nepali). Throughout the history, Nepali food has been influenced by the cuisines of their neighbor countries: India, Tibet, China

These are some of the dishes we have tasted!!

Dal Bhat
The National Nepali dish which they usually eat day and night. It consists of plain rice, dal soup (lentils soup), potatoes, vegetables and pickles. All the ingredients are served on a plate separated and Nepalis mix them all before eating.

The good thing about Dal Bhat is that one can repeat as many times as wanted! But believe us when we say that repeating one or two times it is more than enough. It’s definitely a solid meal, as they say it gives you 24 hours power!

Unfortunately we don’t have any pictures of Dal Bhat, every time we ordered one we were so hungry that we forgot to take one!

Momos
Momos are the Nepali Dumplings. Stuffed with vegetables, meat and/or cheese they can be eaten steamed, fried or in a soup. This is the dish that we have liked the most.
We even tried them stuffed with apple and covered with warm custard… yummy!!

Tibetan Bread
Tibetan Bread is made of wheat flour and water. After making the dough they shape it as a round pancake and they normally make 3 cuts in the middle before frying it in soy bean oil. It can be eaten plain, with honey, butter or jam. This was definitely our favorite breakfast when served with honey! It’s like a fresh made giant flat donut!

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Bhaktapur

En nuestro último día en Kathmandu, antes de irnos a Pokhara, nos aventuramos a hacer una visita a la ciudad de Bhaktapur viajando en autobus local. La verdad es que es toda una experiencia encontrar el autobus una vez en la estación de autobuses, porque no hay ni taquillas ni ningún mostrador de información, solo un escampado con un montón de autobuses donde el revisor grita el nombre del destino una vez el autobus arranca. Lo mejor es preguntar y tener fe en que estás montando en el autobús correcto.

Bhaktapur también tiene una Durbar Square, que es la plaza donde se ubica el antiguo palacio real y los templos más importantes, y un par de plazas con más templos muy bonitos. Además todavía guarda el encanto medieval de los edificios de ladrillo y las ventanas y puertas de madera talladas por las calles de la vieja ciudad. Está bastante bien conservado y merece la pena ir a visitarlo un día desde Kathmandu, a nosotros nos gustó más que las Durbar Square de Kathmandu o Patan. Lo único malo es que la entrada para turistas es bastante cara, unos 11 euros, aunque ese dinero lo destinan a seguir restaruando Bhaktapur que es patrimonio de la UNESCO.

Después de comer en un restaurante local un par de platos típicos Newari (que es de la zona del valle de Kathmandu donde está Bhaktapur) nos atrevimos a probar un king curd en un puesto de la calle. El curd es un yogurt típico Newari, y parece que donde mejor los hacen es en Bhaktapur, por eso lo llaman el rey de los curd, así que no nos pudimos resistir y la verdad es que estaba muy bueno, arriesgandonos a ponernos malos (lo que no sucedió).

Luego volvimos a Kathmandu también en autobus local, y al llegar reservamos nuestros billetes a Pokhara en una agencia de viajes. Al final resultó ser más fácil de lo esperado y hasta barato reservar de un día para otro, solo nos costó unos 4 euros cada billete. Nuestra siguiente parada es Pokhara, y un trekking por los Annarpurnas!