If anyone tells you they are travelling to Dharamsala to see the Dalai Lama, they will be heading up to McLeod Ganj, (via a very steep and winding road!) Home to thousands of Tibetan refugees who have escaped the Chinese occupancy, it is the centre of the Tibetan exile world in India. The town’s colourful culture and long-standing passion for peace welcomes tourists with open arms, inviting them to embrace the kind and compassionate community spirit.
A popular backpacking spot in Himachal Pradesh, McLeod Ganj’s spiritual vibe attracts people from all over the world, who come for courses in mediation, Buddhism, yoga, reiki or just to trek in the Himalayan mountains. There is also an abundance of volunteers helping with Tibetan organisations and teaching English to newly arrived monks or nuns from Tibet. Even though the town is a popular tourist destination, I am rarely treated like a tourist, as the town openly accepts everyone and anyone into the fabric of everyday life. After just 4 weeks I already feel like a local, finding a familiar face wherever I go. Coffee always comes with captivating conversation because there are so many fascinating people in town, happy to open-up and share their unimaginable tales of exile. Yet, whilst the community welcomes it doesn’t overwhelm: I usually find myself losing track of time, reading or writing for hours at a time without distraction (something I find near impossible in London!) It’s also a foodie’s paradise, offering a variety of cuisine and a fusion of flavours!
My favourite coffee shops and restaurants (although you really are spoilt for choice!):
-Black Tent Café- The cafe offers excellent wifi and a huge selection of teas. (My usual was the ‘Black Tent Tea’, a mixture of tealeaves and dried fruit!) The cosy cushioned floor seating makes it the perfect spot to chill out and read a good book. You will also always be greeted by big smiles from the friendly staff.
Where: Jogiwara Road (Next to Annex Hotel), McLeod Ganj
-Crepe Pancake Hut- Offers fresh, healthy vegetarian food including buckwheat crepe with applesauce, green vegetables juice with flax seed, kombucha tea and veggie tortilla wraps (and there's the odd decadent dessert too!)
Where: Opposite Mt View Hotel | Inside Gates of Geden Choeling Buddhist Educational Society, McLeod Ganj
-Café Budan- Best lemon tarts ever. Also has a dessert of the day option that is wheat-free, dairy-free and sugar free! Benny the owner is incredibly friendly and will always go above and beyond to help you out.
Where: Jogiwara Rd, Opposite Mt View Hotel (Inside Gates of Geden Choeling Buddhist Educational Society), McLeod Ganj
-Carpe Diem- Go to the top floor for stunning views of the Himalayas from this rooftop restaurant. The menu is absolutely huge (Italian, Chinese, India, Tibetan- you name it, they cook it!) and yet there's no compromise on quality. Good value and good service. (I don’t eat wheat but I’ve heard that the vegetable momos are to die for!)
Where: Jogiwara Road (Close to Lane Off the Tourist Information Center Opp Tcv Shop), McLeod Ganj
-Lung Ta- A cute little Japanese restaurant offering sushi, noodles and tempura (and don’t underestimate the omelettes, they are sensational!). There is a special everyday but I’d recommend visiting on a Monday or Friday for their sushi special set-menu. For 200 rupees (roughly £2) you get a plate of vegetable sushi, miso soup, kimchi, potatoes and stir-fried veg.
Where: Jogibara Rd, McLeod Ganj
Seven hills of Dokkaebi- A friend who has lived in Korea claimed that this was the best Korean food she had ever tried! They also serve homemade chocolates for dessert!
Where: it can be quite difficult to find so do ask for directions. (You need to go down Jogibara Rd, past Lung Ta restaurant, then take a narrow staircase to the left past the Hope Gallery.)
Illiterarti: A quaint little bohemian cafe offering delicious Italian food and a library of books to indulge in. There are also balcony seats overlooking the mountains for when the weather's nice. You won't want to leave.
Where: Lower Jogibara Rd (White building next to the motorcycle repair shop, above the Asho Spiritual Institute), McLeod Ganj
McLeod Ganj is a great place to pick up unique souvenirs, as it offers a wealth of hand-made Indian and Tibetan goods, ranging from wall hangings to chakra healing wands. Whilst there are several jewellery shops in the town offering a variety of crystals and precious stones I would recommend going to the 'Happy Heart Shop.’ Javaid the owner is very knowledgeable and incredibly generous with his time (and even offered to teach my macramé one afternoon!) and never pressured me to buy anything. In the end I purchased a small Larimar crystal that I had made into a necklace, as it is supposed to promote serenity and relaxation (let’s see how it fares when I return to London!). The cost is decided by the weight of the stone, but is incredibly reasonable when compared to equivalent Western prices.
There are many shops selling Tibetan singing bowls, which are used worldwide for meditation, music, relaxation, and personal well-being. However they can vary hugely in quality, so it is important you try before you buy to see how well the bowl 'sings'!
Katy trying out the Tibetan singing bowls
Ticket to the Moon- A lovely little shop dealing in leather goods, jewellery, paper mashie, shawls and hanidcrafts.
Where: Jogiwara Road, McLeod Ganj
Happy Heart Shop- Owner Javaid Ahmad Mir (Shara) deals with stones and silver jewllery.
Where: Hotel Pinewood, Jogiwara Road, McLeod Ganj
McLeod Ganj isn’t a peaceful place in the serene sense, because there is always a symphony of car horns demanding you move right over into the market stalls that line the sides of the road. This can get a bit stressful at times, particularly on a crowded Saturday, so traffic-free Dharamkot can provide a welcome escape (click here for my blog). Nevertheless, the home of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama manages to embody peace in its harmony sense, because despite the chaotic congestion, there is a real sense of collaboration and community spirit within the town.
The Dalai Lama is at very heart of the town, whose sentiments seem to resonate throughout. The Dalai Lama temple is the Tibetan exile community's main temple (Tsuglag Khang) and is well worth a visit, alive with the sounds of the Tibetan monk’s clap debates. Clap debates are unique tradition of Tibetan Monks with claps being used to emphasise their points during philosophical and Buddhist discussions. It’s essentially their way of revising for exams and throughout the open-air courtyard groups of monks were taking part in these playful debates, always with big smiles on their faces.
Just outside the temple you will find the Tibetan Museum, a small exhibition highlighting the struggles of the Tibetan people over the past century. I was shocked to find out that Tibet is still experiencing so much repression and violence from the Chinese government, but unfortunately we don’t hear about a lot of this due to media censorship. As a form of protest, many Tibetans have become ‘burning martyrs’: setting themselves on fire to protest against the repressive Chinese occupation. Since March 2009, more than 140 people are known to have self-immolated and whilst this number includes several monks and nuns, most self-immolation protesters have not been from religious institutions. The majority are just ordinary Tibetan people- teachers, students, mothers and fathers- the youngest of which was 15 years old. The most recent was Sonam Tso, a mother of 5, who self-immolated on 23 March 2016. ‘Free Tibet’ is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation fighting for “a free Tibet, in which Tibetans are able to determine their own future and human rights are respected of all.” They are campaigning for an end to China’s occupancy in Tibet and for the international recognition of Tibetan’s rights to freedom. For more information please take a look at ‘Free Tibet’s’ campaign website: http://www.freetibet.org/about/self-immolation-protests
Tibet Museum: The Tibet Museum is located near the Main Temple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. Opening hours: Summer: 9.00 – 17.00 (Tuesday to Sunday), winter: 10.00 – 18.00 (Tuesday to Sunday). Admission is free.
The self-immolation wall at the Tibet Museum
Nicknamed “Little Lhasa”, McLeod Ganj is a shining example of cultures co-existing together and working in partnership towards a peaceful and harmonious world.
Thank you McLeod Ganj! I've had an amazing month and I'm really going to miss this magical mountain town...
...although I don't think I'm going to miss all the stairs!!
-A guide to Dharamsala: http://www.worldbridges.com/Tibet/Dharamsala/guide/
-Lonely Planet’s guide to McLeod Ganj: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/himachal-pradesh/mcleod-ganj/introduction
-‘Tripadvisor’s’ best of McLeod Ganj: https://www.tripadvisor.in/Tourism-g1092107-McLeod_Ganj_Dharamsala_Himachal_Pradesh-Vacations.html
-‘Tripadvisors’ top 10 cafes/restaurants in McLeod Ganj: https://www.tripadvisor.in/Restaurants-g1092107-c8-McLeod_Ganj_Dharamsala_Himachal_Pradesh.html
-China's media restrictions within Tibet: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/china0708/5.htm