Home of the Dalai Lama

From Amritsar we took a seven hour bus ride to McLeod Ganj in the state of Himichal Pradesh. This town is best known for being the home of the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. The small town is dominated by the Tibetan theme, as most Tibetan refugees come here first after their perilous crossing of the Himilayas, and schools and workships dedicated to helping preserve Tibetan culture surround the town. There are also tons of shops selling Tibetan wares and crafts and many courses are offered in all aspects of Tibetan and Buddhist culture.

Once we arrived we were able to catch up with our Dutch friend Marijn, who we met whilst trekking the Annapurna Circuit and also travelled with through Varanasi and Agra. He had already been in McLeod Ganj for a week and so he gave us a guided tour of the area.

First we visited the Tsuglagkhang Complex where the Dalai Lama lives, although he was not present since he was very recently awarded the Congressional Medal by George Dubya Bush in the States. We took a pleasant walk around the complex and gazed at the prayer flags, prayer wheels, temples and thangkas (traditional Buddhist paintings). Inside the complex is a museum telling the story of the Chinese annexation of Tibet and the incredible plight the Tibetan people have suffered.

We then hopped a local bus to the Norbulingka Institute, a non-profit organisation set up by the Dalai Lama to help Tibetan refugees to find work and preserve Tibetan culture. The grounds here are very beautiful, and we were guided around to watch hundreds of refugees doing all kinds of crafts and artworks. The highlights were the incredibly detailed thangkas, which can take over a year to finish. The woodworking and decoration were also very interesting. Before we left we were treated to a Tibetan music and dance performance, which included four young men who sang, played Tibetan guitars and danced in a very polished and entertaining performance.

That evening we went to a cafe to see a screening of movies by an Austrian woman who has dedicated her life to the plight of Tibetan children refugees. Many Tibetan families send their children to India as they are persecuted in China to the point where they cannot afford basic education. We saw two amazing movies detailing the story of children as young as 8 years old who crossed a Himalayan pass over 7000 metres above sea level on foot with few provisions for several weeks to find sanctuary in India. Their story was amazing and the number of children who make the journey (and those who don't make it) is truly incredible. The subjects of the movies were present at the screening and we had a chance to speak with them about their stories. The evening was extremely inspiring and many people were moved to tears.

The next day we went for a stroll up the hill past a holy lake to take lunch at a delightful guest house with circular huts and a dining terrace overlooking a massive valley. From there we went to a school set up by the Dalai Lama's sister for Tibetan refugee children. Thousands of children are educated in the area, and as we visited on a weekend we didn't see any classes but we did see lots of kids in the playground. That evening we left for the capital of Himachal Pradesh, Shimla, on our first ever night bus.

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