A week in Dharamsala – teaching English to Tibetan refugees

A monk in McLeod Ganj

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.

Jogiwra Road, McLeod Ganj


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. 

Prayer wheels,McLeod Ganj

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. 

Photos of some Tibetans who have self-immolated

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. 

St. John in the Wilderness

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.

View from Triund

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.

Street art, McLeod Ganj

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A journey round the perilous mountain roads and passes of the Spiti loop

The Spiti river seen from Gete near Kibber

The reputation of the Spiti Loop road in the state of Himachal Pradesh precedes it. It’s one of the most dramatic, most terrifying, most scenically stunning, most remote trips you can do in India, if not the world. It’s also, for the most part, in a shocking condition. Yet many people travel here, quite a lot on motorbikes, some brave souls on bicycles, others with money hire private jeeps and then there’s people like me, risking their lives on the local buses. 

Local bus

The state-run buses are little more than sheets of rusted old metal with some wheels of dubious quality attached and suspension a distant memory. For much of its length the road is unpaved and is quite often just a single dirt track cut high into the mountainside with huge overhanging rocks. Then it descends into a valley, passing through isolated villages before climbing yet again. 

Kibber village

Waterfalls tumble into the road itself. Drivers negotiate hairpin bends with barely a drop in speed or change of gears. If any vehicle is coming the other way, there is usually a stand-off before one driver agrees to reverse, while the other inches past, the wheels grazing the edge causing pebbles and dust to plummet into the chasm below. 

Kalpa village

Journeys are arduous with average speeds rarely exceeding 20km per hour. You have to obtain a special permit, since the route passes several times close to the Tibetan border. Yet, it’s all worth it, because the scenery is awe-inspiring and several villages contain incredible monasteries with religious painting and murals over a thousand years old. 

Harvest time in Kibber

Many places feel little changed for centuries. There might be electricity, but it’s sporadic and unreliable. It was harvest time when I went through and everything is still done by hand. For children Playstations and the like are unknown and a twelve-year old is content to ride down a slope in a plastic toy car. The roads are hot, dusty and pot-holed and huge lizards play dare in front of oncoming trucks. 

Storage barns in Chitkul

You can travel the loop in either direction, but I went from Manali to Shimla. The road goes north over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul, then heads east, but I’d already trekked across the Hampta Pass, so I picked up the road at Chatru where I managed to get a lift to Kaza. It’s here that you can get your permit, but otherwise it’s not particularly attractive, so I headed up to the village of Kibber which is at 4200m above sea level. I spent a day walking to the even higher hamlet of Gete from where an outcrop adorned with prayer flags has incredible views into the valley below and of the Ki monastery.

Entrance to the village of Tabo

I then headed to Tabo, the last village in Spiti, which contains a stunning monastery. From the outside it’s  just a collection of mud brick buildings, but they house beautiful Tibetan style murals wonderfully preserved from AD 996, pre dating the Renaissance by hundreds of years. After Tabo the road soon turns south into Kinnaur skirting close to the Tibetan border. I stayed two nights in Nako, from where you can walk to the village of Tashigang. It’s a long tiring trek, but you can gaze straight onto the snowy peaks of Tibet and I saw nobody else for the entire day.

Hiking to Tashigang

As the road heads west, the landscape changes, becoming lusher and greener again. I visited the traditional Kinnauri village of Kalpa and was struck by how many people still wear traditional costume, in particular the green hat. Then I caught another bus along a very scary and stomach-churning road along the Baspa valley to Chitkul. Halfway up there was a Hindu temple right in the middle of the road. The driver stopped to allow a priest to come onboard and offer blessings to everyone. 

The Chitkul-Sangla road

I explored the village and saw the timber barns which house crops and wood. Villagers were busy storing up for the winter and bright-red buckwheat lay already cut in the fields waiting to be carried into the village. I was surprised to see even old women bent double with  vast quantities of wood and crops on their backs. I spent a morning climbing a side valley, following a local man taking his donkeys up above the treeline to graze near a glacier-fed stream.

View from Chitkul

My final stop before Shimla was Sarahan to visit the Bhimakali temple. I stayed in the temple guesthouse which had great views down into the entrance courtyard. The road was better, even paved for much of its length, but the remoteness of Buddhist Spiti was by now far away. Hinduism dominates, the weather is hotter and the buses far more over-crowded than any in Spiti. I’d finally left behind the Tibetan-influenced north and entered the real India.

You have to wear a cap to enter the temple at Sarahan

Four day trek across the Hampta Pass to Lahaul – Spiti

View of Indrasan from the Hampta Pass

After spending 18 hours in a bus getting to Manali from Ladakh, I was in no hurry to leave. Manali is the main travellers’ hub in northern Himachal Pradesh, the kind of place where the restaurants try and cover all bases, from Indian to Tibetan, and Israeli to Italian. And you can also feast on apple pie. But after two days I was ready to move on. Just not by bus. So, I joined a group who were trekking across the Hampta Pass north to Spiti. It proved to be one of the best treks I’ve done.

En route to Chikha

I started in the village of Prini, close to Manali, and spent the first morning on a steep ascent to the dam, where I was due to meet the rest of the group, a mixture of locals and a party from Singapore. After lunch we continued to our first camp site at Chikha on a rather muddy patch of meadow. 

Camp site at Chikha

This part of the Himalayas receives monsoon rains in the summer, unlike Ladakh, but consequently the landscape is lush and verdant. For the following two days’ ascent up the valley, the river flowed rapidly, fed by numerous high waterfalls coming from the glaciers. We camped the second night at Balu Ka Ghera, an idyllic spot by the river, surrounded by mountains. 

The ascent to Balu Ka Ghera

The next day proved the toughest and longest, as we walked for about seven hours over the Hampta Pass at an altitude of 4270m and into Lahaul, where the monsoons don’t reach. It’s similar to Ladakh, the stark, arid and brown mountains offset by the brilliant blue sky. I sat and had lunch at the top of the pass and watched the clouds scurry in from the south and disperse as they hit the high mountains of Lahaul and Spiti. 

At the top of Hampta Pass

Finally though, it was time to descend to camp for the third night at Siliguri. Some clouds had come in to obscure the view, but the next crisp cold morning, they had cleared to reveal jagged peaks with snow on top. The final day’s walk began with a bit of a shock, fording the icy river. 

Siliguri camp site

It was an easy but scenic descent to Chatru, where we were to spend the final night, but first we had a long and bumpy jeep ride to Chandratal Lake, quite similar to Pangong and Tso Moriri in Ladakh. I’m not sure, however, whether it was worth the seven hour round trip, but it did give me a taste of the Spiti road, one of the worst roads I’ve ever experienced. And it was where I was heading next…

Chandratal Lake

An epic bus journey from Leh to Manali via Tso Moriri

Prayer flags over Tso Moriri

I hate travelling by night, especially on precarious mountain roads, but darkness had already fallen by the time we reached the Rohtang La, the final pass into Manali in Himachal Pradesh. We’d been on the minibus for 15 hours already and I was exhausted, but I was more concerned about the driver’s state of mind. Heavy monsoon rains had turned the dirt track into rivers of mud. Vehicles slithered, whined and groaned as they tried to gain traction on the ascent. Brightly-painted lorries were abandoned in the middle of the road. And as we climbed higher up the switchbacks, I knew, but couldn’t see, that there was a huge drop off the side of the road into the valley below.

Tso Moriri

There are several ways of reaching Manali from Leh, none of which appealed to me. The state buses leave at 5am and take 2 days, overnighting en route. There are private buses which travel mostly at night and you miss the scenery. So, I jumped at the chance of joining a group of travellers who were chartering a bus to Manali which would also include a night at Tso Moriri, a high-altitude lake to the south-east of Leh. It involved quite a detour off the main highway, but it was well worth it.

Korzok

We left at 9am and followed the Indus River for much of the way as it narrowed through a spectacular canyon. Close to the lake, we had our passports and permits checked at the  Indo Tibetan border control. This is another sensitive area as the Tibetan border lies close. When we reached the small settlement of Korzok, the light was already fading, so I rushed down to the lake to take some photos. The water was a deep blue and, on the other side of the lake, rose snow-capped mountains.

Korzok monastery

As the sun set, I heard the distant sound of a drum and wandered up to the monastery to investigate. I found a lone monk in the main temple building, bashing a drum and clashing some cymbals. I sat cross-legged on the floor, hypnotised by the sound. Or maybe I was just numb with cold. After a while, I decided to explore the village and watched a woman tether goats together for the night, while her kids played in the dirt street.


The next morning at the brutal hour of 5.45am, after a chilly night in the homestay, we boarded the bus for the long journey to Manali. The first few hours took us across wild, dramatic terrain with little habitation, except some families of goat herders who come up to these highland pastures for the summer. As our bus bounced by, toddlers ran down to wave, goggle-eyed at the sight of tourists. 

Kid in Korzok

Once we were on the main highway to Manali, we had four passes to negotiate. The most hair-raising and photogenic was the descent from the Nakila La (4915m) through the Gata Loops, an astonishing series of switchbacks and loops with a mesmerising view down onto the river valley below. But the poor quality of the roads meant we were well behind schedule and had to complete the final pass in the dark. 


We arrived in Manali after midnight, a journey of 18 hours, just as a torrential downpour began. I was relieved to get off the bus, but realised the adventure wasn’t over yet. I still had to find a place to stay in the dark, in the rain, in a strange place I didn’t know. The joys of travelling ….

Hiking solo in the Sham valley, Ladakh

Hiking the Sham valley

After a guided hike with a porter through the Markha valley and two organised jeep tours, I decided it was time to strike out on my own. The Sham valley sits above the Indus Valley to the west of Leh and is considered an easy trek. That may be so, but there are still several passes of over 3500m to negotiate which isn’t easy when you’re carrying a rucksack, but the biggest adventure was getting there.

Finding your right bus in India is never less than challenging. Especially so when the so called bus station is in reality a huge parking lot of every conceivable type of public transport, buses big and small, minibuses, vans and jeeps. There was, according to the tourist office in Leh, a bus to Likkir at 4pm, so I arrived at 3 to give myself plenty of time. Unfortunately, there is no booking office and nowhere to get information. A few buses seemed to be filling up, but none of them had a destination written at the front, at least not in English. In addition, it’s also impossible to distinguish between passengers and bus company employees and any potential driver.

Harvest time in Likkir

Eventually, by asking around, I tracked down the small minibus I was looking for and hauled my rucksack inside, only to discover that all the seats were either already occupied or reserved by someone who’d left clothes and possessions in a vacant place. I finally spotted a place at the front and staked my claim. In fact, it involved perching on part of the gearbox with no backrest and would only be considered a “seat” in India. 

But incredibly, I was one of the lucky ones. Others had to stand for the two and a half journey, while the really brave (crazy?) ones hung to the doorway, one foot balancing on the steps, most of their body hanging out the side. I arrived as dusk was falling and was concerned that most of the guesthouses were full with volunteers who’d arrived to help with the harvest. As darkness set in, I started to panic, but eventually found a nice homestay which was officially closed for repairs, but the kindly owner took pity on me and opened up especially.

Yangthang

The next morning I set out past Likkir Monastery to the village of Yangthang. There were two passes to cross with magnificent views, but the trail was occasionally hard to find when leaving a village, especially as there was no one around to ask directions since all the villagers were out in the fields preoccupied with the harvest. 

It was a five hour walk to Yangthang and it was a relief to sit in the kitchen, warmed by a wood-burning stove and tuck into some hearty Ladakhi food, usually rice, daal and vegetables. All the homestays along the route offer great value. They are generally quite basic, but clean, and for just less than £10 you get a bed, dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch. 

High pass to Temisgang

The following day I headed over another pass to the village of Hemis Sukpachen, a surprisingly large village. The atmospheric centre consists of narrow lanes built on hills and steps beneath the gompa (monastery) and a recently erected Buddha statue. Coming round yet another chorten you’re likely to run into a startled cow rather than any other traffic.

The final day involved ascending a steep slightly scary pass to the village of Temisgang. Ponies and horses have no problem, but for anyone with a fear of heights it was pretty nerve-wracking. However, the views from the top were astounding.

Lamayuru monastery

From Temisgang I managed to get a ride in a truck to Lamayuru, where there is a beautiful old monastery perched up high on a hill overlooking the village. The main temple creaks with old age and atmosphere and is stuffed with wall hangings and vividly painted murals. In the early evening I encountered a group of novice monks being drilled in their mantra recitals. It was another perfect end to a great trek.

Lamayuru monastery