Dharamsala is a small town in western Himachal Pradesh. The hill town a few kilometres above it, McLeod Ganj, nestles in the foothills of the Himalayas and is approached through twisting roads lined with pine trees. In this tranquil idyllic spot yet another of the world’s tragedies, virtually ignored now by the Western media and governments, is being played out. It’s the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government-in-exile, and thousands of Tibetan refugees, monks and political activists have fled here to escape the atrocities which are still being perpetrated by the Chinese.
There are also many tourists here, both Indian and foreigners, hippies, backpackers, tour groups, Western Buddhists and NGO workers. Yet it remains a pretty laid back village and it was the perfect place for me to stay put for a week after the rigours of two weeks travelling along the Spiti Loop.
Sometimes it’s important not to just arrive somewhere, tick off the sights and move on. McLeod Ganj seemed the right place to settle for a week and do something different, so I leapt at the chance to volunteer at one of the many centres set up to support Tibetan refugees. Every afternoon for the past week I’ve been participating in English conversation classes at the LIT (Learning and Ideas for Tibet) and it’s been a revealing experience.
I’ve also been to the cultural show which Tibet World puts on every Thursday at 6.30pm and visited the library museum at the Secretariat which houses precious statues and other artefacts smuggled out of Tibet by refugees. The main Tibet museum at the Tsuglagkhang complex, home to the Dalai Lama, shows, amongst other things, the fate of countless other priceless and historical objects all destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. But it’s the testimonies of people who have made the perilous journey to India that really move.
However, photos recently taken in Lhasa show that buildings are still being razed to the ground. People are still being oppressed, people are still self-immolating in protest. I’m angry not just that this is still happening, but that the Western world is so financially dependent on China, that Beijing is allowed to get away with it.
But on a lighter note, there’s also a lot more to do here. Buildings from the British Raj can be seen, notably the Church of St John in the Wilderness, which stands isolated in some pine forests a kilometre outside town. A curious plaque inside notes that one British citizen “met with his death from an attack by a bear”! Two other villages, Dharamkot and Bhagsu, higher up the hills, are even more laid back and Bhagsu has a small waterfall.
I also spent two days climbing up to the campsite of Triund which offers great views of the Himalayas. But the most memorable and humbling experience has been the interaction with my students, of talking to people who have been forced to leave their homeland and are unlikely ever to return. It’s been the perfect antidote to Europe where the Western media have succeeded recently in making “refugees” and “immigrants” dirty words.
In one class on stereotypes, we were discussing the different ethnic regions of Tibet and I asked the students in my group which area they were from. The first few students told me a little of their background and laughed as they explained what other Tibetans think of people from that region. Then I moved onto a young woman, who, up to that point, had seemed pretty lively. I asked which region in Tibet she was from. She looked me in the eyes and said sadly, “I don’t know”. She offered no further explanation and I didn’t want to pry. But with those few words she had told me everything I needed to know about what it feels like to be a refugee.