Getting to McLeod Ganj wasn’t the easiest task. The plan was to take a 90 minute flight here. Unfortunately due to stormy conditions the flight had to be cancelled. Consequently we ended up taking a maxi taxi with 3 other tourists (2 American girls and 1 Indian guy). It ended up being a 10 hour ride, smooth for the most part, except for the final 2 hours where Jason in particular was on the verge of throwing up. Arrived at our hotel in McLeod Ganj at 2am, and because we couldn’t contact the hotel earlier, they gave our room away. Our only option was to sleep on the balcony/stairwell which was good enough for us purely cause we were so exhausted!
The next morning we woke up to incredible views of the hills of Dharmasala, very comparable to Cinque Terre in Italy if anyone’s ever been. The town itself isn’t very big, you could probably walk around the central area in about 30 minutes, but it is built on quite a steep slope, so you would be puffing quite a bit. There is a very Indie/hippie vibe here with all the foreigners easily identifiable by their dreadlocks and parachute genie pants. The great thing about this place, was there are Tibetans and monks everywhere all able to roam around freely practicing their faith (Buddhism) and decorating their shopfronts with the Tibetan flag and pictures of the Dalai Lama. Such practices are actually ILLEGAL in Tibet and could land someone in jail.
Coming here wasn’t part of our original plan, in fact we were supposed to be on the opposite side of India in Kolkata, but after the oppression we saw in Tibet, we just had to come to the place where the Tibetan refugees escaped to. For those who don’t know about the Tibet situation, I would highly recommend you google ‘Free Tibet’, because there’s far too much about this topic that I could say but wouldn’t even know where to begin.
We decided to volunteer for a grassroots organization called Tibet World. It was founded by a man named Yeshi Lhundup . He originally started up teaching English in his room to 2 Tibetan refugees in early 2013. This eventually grew bigger and bigger until last month they received enough funds to rent out a 4 storey building and now have over 450 registered students. They now teach Tibetan, English, French, German and Chinese classes and are soon to be opening their hostel and cafe. We were able to help out with their English conversation classes and reading classes. I was amazed at the dedication of these refugees. The reading class was attended by monks and Tibetan adults varying between the ages of 35yrs – 50yrs. We were literally teaching them to read a Grade Prep level book with sentences such as ‘I saw a dog’ and ‘She is pretty’. It was incredible to be amongst such enthusiastic adults who, despite their age, were willing to do anything they could to learn English in order to help out the Free Tibet cause.
The conversation class was attended by a slightly younger crowd, between 20-35yrs. They were a bit more advanced and able to hold more complex conversations, they were able to tell us THEIR story. I met a 23 year old girl who walked for 25 days across the Himalayas. As she reached the border of Tibet and Nepal she was sighted by Chinese soldiers who shot at her. Luckily they only caught her coat and she was quick enough to run across the border into the safety of Nepal. Most of the other young adults told me they had to walk for about 3 weeks, very often leaving their family behind in Tibet. When calling their family, they still have to make sure not to mention where they are currently located and to avoid any talks about the Dalai Lama or politics as all phone calls, especially of Tibetan households, are very closely monitored by the Chinese government. These students asked me to tell all my friends in Australia about their situation because the more people that know about it, the more likely that one day they will be able to return to a free Tibet.
We spent the rest of the week helping Yeshi out with setting up the business from an online perspective. Linking them up with Tripadvisor, Hostelbookers and Paypal was a start. Next came taking photos of the rooms and the building and also creating flyers to promote their weekly Folk Show.
Unfortunately I caught the infamous Delhi Belly and Jason somehow got the (man) flu. This did slow us down for a few days, it also meant we lost a few extra kilos (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me). Good thing antibiotics come over-the-counter here!
The annual Miss Tibet 2014 pageant was also on whilst we were here and we definitely couldn’t miss that. The pageant was set at the top of a hill at the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA). There were roughly 150 in the outdoor audience. Oh yeah did I mention there was only one contestant? The other 4 pulled out in the last minute with speculations that a spiteful ex-contestant encouraged them to do so. The show was scheduled to commence at 7pm, but we are of course in India and an announcement of “Everybody just chill out for a little while, we are ready but we’re just waiting for it to get a little bit darker”. It eventually started at 8pm with the flamboyant organizer jumping on stage in a fluorescent green suit and with fireworks that were obviously set off by accident (cause it took about 15 minutes for them to finish). The night was predominantly taken up by local bands, a visit from Miss Tibet 2011 and a few walks from the current contestant. In reality the pageant isn’t about beauty, it is about empowering Tibetan women to have a voice and gain international coverage of the Tibetan cause. Every event in McLeod Ganj is political, no matter what it is. But I suppose if we were in their situation, we would want to raise as much awareness as possible too.
If we had an infinite amount of time we would definitely have stayed here for longer. This is the first place that we’ve ever been to that we’ve actually felt a connection to the community. We were genuinely sad to leave and already have it in our plans to head back next year but for a little bit longer next time.
For more information on Tibet World, please visit http://www.tibetworld.org and LIKE their Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/tibetworld . They really are in need of volunteers for their English conversational and reading classes (no qualification required).
Until next time
Ann & Jason