The massive network that is India's railway system doesn't run much further north than Amritsar so our next onward journey was our first government run bus, travelling into Himachal Pradesh (literally the Himalayan Province) to Dharamsala. The rattly bus took us out of Punjab and gave us our first sights of Indian mountains, which was quite an exciting moment. We wound our way along the Kangra Valley before heading up towards the snow capped peaks on the horizon. The major downside of bus travel is that seemingly short distances take a long time to cover, so our arrival in Dharamsala was under cover of darkness, as we made our way from the bus stand to Macleod Ganj, Dharamsala's upper town, where the centre of Tibet's government in exile is based.
Shortly after the Chinese invasion in 1959 many Tibetans headed over the Himalayas into Nepal and India, including the Dalai Lama, Tibet's political and spiritual leader. The Indian government granted them refuge and gave them the town of Dharamsala as a base, and the majority of Tibetan community in India still live here, with many continuing to make the dangerous border crossing from their homeland to escape intimidation and to seek a better life. This gave the town a greatly different atmosphere to everywhere else we had been, with the heat, dirt and chaos of the plains replaced by (relative) quiet and relaxed people going about their business under the cool gaze of the towering Dhauladhar mountain range.
In keeping with the spirit of the area we decided to take our time over seeing what was on offer and experiencing the Tibetan culture available to sample. On our first day we went to the Dalai Lama's monastery and temple complex, circumambulating the central area in traditional Buddhist fashion and spinning the golden prayer wheels to 'send out' prayers in all directions. We then walked to the nearby village of Bhagsu, taking in the dramatic scenery looking up into the high mountains and down towards the valley below. From the road we could see the cricket stadium in Dharamsala, one of the most picturesque venues in the world, although unfortunately there was no live sport on while we were there. In Bhagsu we found an unusual temple, which seemed more like someone's barn than the home of a god, certainly in comparison to the ornate and sometimes garish temples in previous cities. The centre of the temple was a bare courtyard and around the edges were a few small, dark rooms. Inside one was a small deity decorated with red cloth and next to it a fire pit. Bizarrely for such a cool area we found a large open air swimming pool just next to the temple which we think belonged to a nearby hotel.
The following morning we went to the Tibetan Museum, located in the main monastery complex. The museum was small but densely packed with information about the Tibetan experience at the hands of the Chinese and the struggles that they find in leaving their homes to come to India. Some of the examples of human rights abuses and policies pursued by the Chinese government are atrocious and genuinely shocking, and the lengths to which Tibetans will go to to escape speak of how terrible life can become in Tibet. We read first hand accounts from refugees who had been placed under surveillance by the Chinese government simply for handing out leaflets about Budhism and others who had been forced to have their legs amputated after catching frostbite on their long journeys over the Himalays. In the afternoon we went for another walk in the direction of Bhagsu, this time continuing through the village and up to a waterfall tucked away in a steep valley a couple of kilometres beyond the temple. The stiff uphill climb was worth it both for the feeling of the fresh mountain air and the views back down the valley.
On our third day we went for another short walk round to the church of St John in the Wilderness, around a kilometre out of Macleod Ganj in the opposite direction to Bhagsu. The church was well hidden in the forest and when we got to the locked doors we could see that the church had probably not been in use for some time. Next to it we found a large monument to a colonial administrator who had died in Macleod Ganj and a few graves for the children of British government and army officials. That evening we went for a cookery lesson, specifically in the art of making momos, traditional Tibetan dumplings. Our teacher Sangye was very clear with his instructions and we learned by observing and copying, eventually coming out with a pretty accurate and tasty likeness of mixed veg, spinach and cheese, potato, and chocolate momos. He told us that the first three were traditional Tibetan recipes but that his family would turn their noses up at his new invention of momos filled with cocoa powder and sugar. Tibetans prefer to make sweet momos from tsampa, a ground roast barley flour that is used in many of their dishes.
Many of the other travellers we met in Dharamsala were spending an extended time there to assist the Tibetan community in some volunteering capacity or other. We decided to contribute to this a little in the short time we spent there by spending a morning helping at an English speaking class for Tibetan refugees. Rather than the conversational setting we had expected it turned out to be at a much higher standard, with the participants debating whether factories were good or bad. The philosophical approach that many of the Tibetans took was very interesting, many thinking along the lines of 'what would the Buddha think / how would the Buddha react to factories?'. The number of these projects and the number of volunteers willing to help is certainly giving the Tibetans assistance in building a life in Dharamsala.
Buddhism is a central part of the Tibetan community and on our final morning we walked down the hill to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives to sit in on a lecture given by one of the monks from the Buddhist monastery. We were under the impression that the talks would be suitable for visitors coming for a one off introductory experience, but after an hour of in depth analysis of the life of an eighth century Buddhist devotee we realised that the class was part of a series of talks given to those who had a greater understanding than we did.
We spent an amount of the rest of our time simply admiring the stunning views and enjoying some homemade cakes from our hostel, whose portions were enough to make a full meal! After 5 highly enjoyable days, our onward journey began again at 5am as we got on our second state bus to make a twelve hour journey to Manali.