Little Tibet

The expansive Indian gentleman at the next table offers me food repeatedly – bits of some type of popadom. He is most insistent, so I nibble a bit for the sake of form. He owns a petrol station in Bolton, Lancashire. They are all from Ahmedabad. “England good!” he tells me. “Israel, America not good.” They are all very friendly in a boisterous way.

Just as I emerged bleary eyed in the morning, I was offered a smoke. A group of engineering students from Chandigarh. One was from Shimla and agreed the smoking ban was draconian. Then later again, three chillums overlooking the river. It was with the people who have been looking after the paralysed dog – a German girl and her Indian friend. It died last night. It was canine distemper. They nursed it day and night for two weeks. At least it was well cared for till the end.

Smoking has been a wonderfully social experience, a sharing amongst strangers, a way of meeting people. A girl asks to borrow my tobacco, so I sit and get stoned with two Russian poets, Sofia and Elizabeth. I spot the author of the book she’s reading and read out the Russian letters: Fridrik Nitshcha. “Russia’s problem is that we are Asiatic pretending to be European. There’s an aggression, a rudeness which is barbarian.” We discuss Akhmatova, Durer’s strangeness and the sadomasochism of Swinburne. The concept of the flawed genius and the idiosyncrasy of the creative type. Extraordinary connections.

McLeod Ganj – 9th May 2013
An Australian woman is trying to teach English to the Tibetan monk at the next table: “A miniven uses a lod of pitrol. A Suzuki Maruti is much more economical.” The miniven I took here from Bhuntar undoudtedly used a lod of pitrol, since we spent the entire night criss-crossing Himalayan foothills. I got the local bus from Kasol to Bhuntar, this time securing a seat. Bhuntar itself is unprepossessing – essentially a series of junctions, around which have sprung up the usual dhabas, or small restaurants. I went to a Punjabi one for a paratha the size and texture of a frisbee with disgusting sweet chilli sauce. Chai masala? Chai nahi hai. OK, do you have Coke? Not having. I sat down and started nibbling my frisbee, and after a few minutes a random bloke wandered in and placed a warm 600ml bottle of Coke on the table in front of me. I opened it and it erupted all over the table. They do try, bless them.

I had to wait outside the old Post Office, which turned out to be the office for Swagtam Tours. An old German hippy was also there, waiting for a bus to Chandigarh and thence Nepal – four days’ journey. After a while he departed and a small car pulled up with backpacks stacked on the roof. I knew immediately they were Israelis – they all have these very natty backpack covers, rain or shine, in some heavy duty canvas. They eventually extricated themselves from the car, and looked at the office with some misgiving. “Hi,” I said to one, and got a “Shalom” in return. The next one looked at me for a while so I said “Salaam” in a decidedly Afghan accent. He said “Shalom”, which I suppose is close enough. One of them asked me if this was the bus to Dharamsala. It was, I told him, and he stuck out a hand for me to shake, making some guttural sound a bit like “Hrrrruvvy”. Pardon? “Khruvvie,” he says. “Air, Ah, Vee, Eye.” OK, got it. Ravi. Nice to meet you. We chatted for a while, about London, Israeli cuisine, Parvati Valley. It was nice to actually make contact.

After a while the minibus pulled up and we all arranged ourselves – seven Israelis, three Tibetan monks, one Italian guy and myself, along with four Indians up front. It was the usual ordeal – a tiny seat, and the worst kind of screeching Hindi film music, which did not benefit from the singers mostly being computerised with autotune. I resigned myself to an uncomfortable nine hours; we were supposed to reach Dharamsala at 6am. I dozed for a while, and woke periodically to peer out of the window at deserted towns populated solely by dogs and the occasional policeman. The lights climbing the hillsides reminded me of Kabul. We passed through one town which seemed to be a large army camp; I made out a Hindi sign saying Yol Cantonment, and saw tank barrels poking out from beneath cammo netting. The music was relentless and became a form of torture – I plugged in my headphones, but even Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony on “full power” (a popular expression amongst the youth here) failed to drown out the screeching female vocals. I dozed again, and was woken by the driver switching on the lights. “McLeod Ganj,” he announced. Already? I checked my watch, and it was 2.30am. We climbed endless narrow lanes, doing three point turns to get round the tighter bends, roaring up the slopes in first gear. Eventually the driver swung into a square, deserted except for three policemen and a rather furtive man who was loitering with some intent. Everywhere was shut.

“Green Hotel?” I asked one of the policemen, and he inclined his head up the road. “Shut,” he said, after a minute. The furtive man sidled up. “I have hotel,” he hissed. “Green Hotel shut. Every hotel shut. I give you special discount.”
“No thank you.” I shouldered my backpack and marched off down the road, together with the Italian guy. After a short time I realised we were being followed. Which is how I came to be leading a platoon of backpacked Israelis through the streets of McLeod Ganj at three o’clock in the morning. It was rather weird. We soon found Green Hotel, and it was indeed shut. Ravi lifted a shutter and ducked underneath, wriggling in to the courtyard, but soon emerged and shook his head. Much discussion in Hebrew in low voices. I said to the Italian: “Shall we take our chances with the tout? It’s better than a rooftop.” He agreed, so we made our way back down to the square, followed by the Israelis. The tout was pleased to see us, and led us down a lane and up the stairs of a modern-looking hotel. We were shown a room which was clean and had a large double bed. “1000 rupees,” he announced.
“But that’s for a full night. It’s half gone. So half price is fair.”
“OK, I give you discount – 500 for the room.”
I looked at the Italian. “I’m fine to share if you are.”
He shrugged. “Sure. It’s OK.”
Which is how I ended up sharing a bed with an Italian guy at four o’clock in the morning in McLeod Ganj. Well, it’s better than a rooftop.

In the morning I woke early and headed out into the streets. The first people I saw were a group of three Tibetan monks in maroon robes. I wandered along Bhagsu road, past rows of small shops selling ethnic scarves, until I found a chai stall. Sitting on the step above an open drain, I watched the town come to life. Nearly everyone was Tibetan. Women wore a kind of stripey apron over a long black skirt, and often had their hair in plaits. There were a great many monks, some Indians, and a few western backpackers. But the feel of the place was entirely different to everywhere else I’ve been in India. It’s extraordinary how this tiny subtropical hillstation perched on a ridge high above the plains has become the main refuge for Tibetan exiles and home to the Dalai Lama. The entire region of Ladakh in the north looks like Tibet, is similar in climate and has hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, and yet McLeod Ganj (named after the Scot Sir David McLeod) has become their new home. The girl cleaning my room asks me where I am from. London, I tell her. And you? “Tibet,” she giggles, as if it’s obvious. How long has she been here? “Eighteen years.” Will you go back, I ask her? She laughs: “Not possible.”