Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  ,
Thursday, May 3, 2007

We had decided to take a detour to McLoed Ganj in Himachal Pradesh, home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile, on our way to Amritsar. McLoed Ganj is at 1750m above sea level, so this detour would involve my first serious sustained climb. From our woodland camp near Gangret, we had to descend almost all the way back to sea level, before beginning the climb proper. I was amazed and overjoyed by the changes that took place as we headed into the hills. The impossibility of cultivating steep slopes meant that there were far more wild plants and trees in evidence; every 100m climbed brought at least one degree Celsius reduction in temperature; the road was not an unremitting climb, but included some fantastic highspeed freewheeling descents, which never fail to put a broad, childish grin on my face and occasionally inspire me to 'weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee' like a kid on a slide. Overall it was harder work and slower, of course, than the flat plains, but so much more fun.  

After many ups and downs, we finally camped at about 700m, 50km from McLoed Ganj, in a field near Kangla. We were near some houses, since while houses are more sparsely placed in the mountains, they tend to occupy the available flat ground. I was being paranoid and trying to find the exact spot where I could not be seen from the north, south or the road. This was a waste of time, since if they looked they'd see us, but most likely they wouldn't; and they didn't. I entertained myself becoming more adventurous with camp cookery, adding fresh tomato and boiled egg to my foil packed curried rice. There is talk of trying to make chowmein with supernoodles.

The last 50km to McLoed Ganj were an unremitting climb, and the cooler weather meant that the previously unrecognised luxury of instantly evaporating sweat could no longer be enjoyed. I was sticky, smelly and exhausted within five minutes of setting off, and remained that way pretty much for the duration of the 1200m climb to McLoed Ganj. 

Very close to McLoed was the church of St. John In The Wilderness. Built in the 1850s, it looks like any British rural parish church of that era, including some beautiful stained glass windows. We had to knock on the door to see inside. We were let in by a man we thought initially was a caretaker, but later transpired to be the vicar. As we were leaving, he handed me a sealed envelope, saying, this is my testimony. The envelope contained an extract from a book published by an American journalist, who had interviewed him a few years ago. While the testimony itself has not inspired me to renounce my heathen ways, I did appreciate the unobtrusive and gentle way it was presented. Proselytizers take note!
McLoed Ganj is a small town, over half it's population are Tibetan refugees, and a good number of them are monks, so it has a far less hectic, demanding atmosphere than much of India. The Dalai Lama was not in, when we arrived, so there were not too many tourists, international Buddhist pilgrims or hippies to spoil the calm. We found a hotel room with a view of the valley and the snowcapped Himalayan peak behind the next ridge. I was delighted with view, the fresh mountain air, the novelty of needing a hot water shower and not needing a ceiling fan, and the prevalence of Tibetan cuisine. The routine of dal fry for lunch and alu ghobi for dinner had begun to wax tedious. Tibetan cuisine, as interpreted in McLoed Ganj, consists of 'momo', which are basically dim sum steamed parcels of veg or meat, either on their own or in a clear soup. Alternatives are soup with flat noodles or soup with spaghetti-esque noodles, all improved with generous helpings of soy sauce and chili oil.
The Dalai Lama's temple is surprisingly plain, given that Lhasa's famous Potala Palace was only his winter residence in his former life. There are two halls, with murals of Buddhist mythology, offerings, lamps, and in one a sand mandala, both within a larger complex which feels a little like a multi-storey car-park covered in yellow plaster. We watched the monks perform various rituals, involving reciting mantras and wearing impractical headgear. It is often said that Buddhism is not a religion, it's a philosophy. You don't have to spend long in McLoed Ganj to realise that, in the case of Tibetan Buddhism at least, this is bollocks. 
While having dinner one day, Peter and I were joined (as is the custom if a restaurant has run out of tables) by a French/American/Danish hybrid named Emmanuelle, who, due to Yolana-inspired changes of plan, became my only companion for the next week. There isn't much to do in McLoed Ganj, apart from enjoy the natural beauty and watch pirate movies in the various video halls. So the three of us arranged a mini-trek through some of the surrounding villages to a nearby waterfall. Fortunately, there's plenty of natural beauty to enjoy. The walk combined invigorating exercise with stunning scenery and monkeys, what more could you ask for? When we got back we'd already resolved to do another, longer walk to the top of the next ridge, from which one can see the mountains proper.

It was a week before Emmanuelle and I summoned the energy to actually make the trek, and Peter had already moved on, but it was well worth it. Five hours climbing to get to the top of the ridge made us really appreciate the view, even though it was partially restricted by clouds. On the way up we ran into Marty, who, with his fiance Ellonie, I have accidentally met on four separate occasions. It has become clear that fate won't let us part, so they've invited me to their wedding if I make it to Oz in time. 

Emmanuelle, being a proactive and community minded soul, lost no time in befriending several monks and agreeing to help them improve their English. Since there's not much you can do in a week, I hadn't responded to any of the advertisements requesting english teachers and conversation partners. However, I'm not mean by nature, and I'm easily led, so I did join Emmanuelle and 'help' with a couple of her lessons. Getting in with the 'Monks Masseeve' led in turn to us being invited to learn momo making. While none of it's constituent parts are complicated- pastry made from flour and water, filling of mashed potato, onion and coriander- putting a momo together is a highly skilled operation. I was shit at it.
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