Dharmashala: Eclectic Encounters With Friendly People
The Korea Times[Thursday, March 24, 2005 23:44]
By Matt Reeck

A view from the top of a hill at Dharmashala, India / Courtesy of Incredible India Office
A view from the top of a hill at Dharmashala, India / Courtesy of Incredible India Office
DHARMASHALA, India - Travel in India can fill me with a strange type of euphoric dread. My trip from Delhi to Dharmashala, then, had the theoretic advantage of taking place at night. Except, of course, if you don’t medicate yourself, the chances of sleep are similar to the chances of winning big on your next lotto ticket.

Nonetheless, there was a jostling and festive atmosphere at the Tibetan Colony when the bus loaded for the last time in Delhi. Pema Rinzin, my new seatmate, pointed out how the man in uniform and cap supervising the boarding was actually no official but had created this job for himself. Some of the passengers were giving him money, and Pema explained that this was both for his help in creating the semblance of order in a naturally chaotic situation but also for the unwitting comic relief his marshalling provided.

I felt as though I was on a pilgrimage, or participating in a trip home for the holidays. It was in fact a trip home for many, including Pema and one girl working nowhere else than in Korea. Pema, a thangka painter, that is, a painter of traditional Tibetan Buddhist iconography, was returning to see two of his children. He turned out to be a perfect traveling companion. His broad smile, his interest in culture, and his commandeering a bottle of beer at an otherwise ``dry’’ roadside restaurant made the trip much more interesting than it otherwise would have been.

We arrived in Dharmashala the next morning at daybreak. I followed Pema to the Paljor Guest House, whose two most notable features were Ballu, its yippidy guard-dog busy warding off the monkeys, and the terrace’s excellent view over the Kangra Valley.

Dharmashala has two parts, the lower city, whose residents are predominantly Indian, and McLeod Gunj, nine kilometers up the hill, which is the city’s main Tibetan area. Dharmashala became the home of the exiled Tibetan government in May 1960, and as I knew that the Dalai Lama gives public audiences, I had vague plans about attending one of these. It turned out, however, that His Holiness was off in Europe, and even the monks of the Namgyal Monastery were fewer than usual, as they had just gone on winter break.

For the three days I was there my schedule was routine. It began with rising just before dawn to go to the main temple, the Tsuglag Khang. In Tibetan fashion, I circumambulated in the morning’s first light, making sure to follow protocol by walking in a clockwise direction. I spun the mani chakra, traditionally done to wash away sins. And I performed 108 bows in front of the large statue of the Buddha inside the prayer hall.

My trips to India always reward me by introducing me to interesting people both from India and from all over the world. In Dharmashala, I spoke to Tibetans, Punjabis, Himachalis, Kashmiris, as well as to an energetic elderly couple from Switzerland there to meet the two teenage Tibetan students they were sponsoring. I even met a young Korean woman living within 15 minutes of me in Seoul.

At one point, perhaps because of the setting, my thoughts turned toward the spiritual. I found myself wondering about how strange it is that people come together to share parts of their lives while traveling when during our normal day-to-day we seem more inclined to retreat into our privacy. And, of course, this includes me.


How to get there:

By Delhi, either train or bus. By train, from New Delhi Railway Station to Pathankot. The train leaves at eight p.m. and arrives in Pathankot the following morning. A four-hour bus trip from Pathankot to Dharmashala follows. Buses from Delhi board around Connaught Place and stop in the Tibetan Colony before leaving the city. Buses cost around 500 rupees and leave around five in the evening. They arrive in Dharmashala the next day in the early morning. To book railway tickets, contact a travel agent, or if you are up to waiting in lines, try the Reservation Office just south of the New Delhi Railway Station, or, my preferred method, go to the smaller Reservation Office near the Sarojini Nagar Market.

Where to stay:

There are countless hotels and guesthouses in McLeod Gunj, with additional ones in the nearby village of Bhagsunath. I stayed at the Paljor Gakyil Guest House and would recommend it to anyone. Prices run from next-to-nothing for a dormitory bed to 275 rupees (around $6) for a very comfortable room on a terrace with an excellent view.

What to do:

You should check out the Dalai Lama’s temple, the Tsuglag Khang. McLeod Gunj is the place in India to get involved with Tibetan culture and politics, as well as the best place to buy Tibetan handicrafts. It’s also a great place just to relax.

More information: http://www.tibet.com/dasaguide.html