Dharamsala: heaven in the Himalayas

by Michael Connellan

Home to the Dalai Lama, Dharamsala is a taste of Tibet in India. Head into the foothills of the Himalayas, and you can catch a glimpse of His Holiness himself and sample the cuisine of Tibetan exiles

'I’m sorry to say there’s no yak meat available today. But you Westerners don’t have the right teeth to chew it anyway.' I’m enjoying a Tibetan cookery lesson in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and our tutor, Sangye, is a bit of a tease. My exact location is the town of Dharamsala in the state of Himachal Pradesh – one corner of India where the curry is not king.

Dharamsala, and especially the higher end of town known as McLeod Ganj, has been a haven for exiled Tibetans for the past half-century. The area has received a steady influx of refugees since the Dalai Lama fled the Chinese occupation of his country and made McLeod Ganj his home in 1959. The resulting masala of cultures is evident from the street food as soon as you arrive - and if you’ve survived the 12-hour bus ride from Delhi, you’ll deserve a decent snack. Sellers of the Indian samosa are outnumbered roughly two to one by purveyors of the delicious Tibetan momo.

The art of making momos - little pastry parcels of meat, veg or chocolate - is the subject of my morning cookery class. Chef Sangye, a former yak herder, is presiding over the efforts of me and four German backpackers within his establishment, known as Sangye’s Kitchen. He explains the basics of his homeland’s cuisine while pulverising dough in a bowl. 'Tibet,' he tells us, 'is full of snow, so our food is made to keep us warm.'

I soon learn the magic of momos is that you can seal the filling within the pastry in different ways, perhaps crimping the edges like a Cornish pasty, or maybe entwining them like a Viennese whirl. My dumb thumbs find it an intricate challenge – if only I had rolled more joints during university.

Sangye mentions that His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who lives at the eastern edge of McLeod Ganj, gives frequent speeches at the Tibetan Children’s Village, which is just 2km uphill. Fantastic. With tomorrow’s plan sorted, it’s time for some light afternoon trekking.

I choose a route up to the nearby village of Bhagsu, which takes me along a high road adorned with fluttering, multicoloured Tibetan prayer flags (known as wind horses). The views across the foothills of the Himalayas are incredible – but I keep getting stopped along the path. Dharamsala attracts large numbers of holidaying Indian families from the nearby Punjab, and pasty Western tourists are still something of a curiosity. Turbaned Punjabi patriarchs repeatedly stop me mid-stride, waving cameras and gesticulating to their offspring, imploring me: 'One photo? One snap? Please?' Wives dump tiny children into my arms like rugby balls, and I try my utmost to crack smiles while the dismayed infants wriggle and claw at my eyes.

I arrive back in town in the early evening and decide it’s time to continue my Tibetan food odyssey. Evenings in McLeod Ganj can be spent eating gorgeous Tibetan or north Indian food on restaurant terraces that overlook the valley below. But my personal favourite is Gakyi restaurant (on Jogiwara Road), which offers no view but wonderful grub. I enter Gakyi and order a bowl of thenthuk, which is a steaming Tibetan brew of flat noodles with vegetables. It goes down well. But I soon discover my limits with Tibetan butter tea, which essentially mimics the sensation of downing an entire cup of Golden Churn.

I turn in early to my lodgings, the attractive Hotel Asian Plaza, which has a fantastic location on McLeod Ganj's main square. The Asian Plaza is perfectly clean and offers a view over across the mountains that has to be seen to be believed. The prices are top end by McLeod Ganj standards - this is a backpacker hotspot, after all - but double rooms are still available for under £25 a night. Plenty of shoestring accomodation is also available in the town. 

The following morning, I merge with a tight crowd in the main square awaiting the Dalai Lama’s arrival. Geriatric Tibetans are spinning small prayer wheels in their hands while children clutch white silk scarves – a Tibetan Buddhist sign of greeting. After a wait of 20 minutes, I see a convoy bouncing towards us. As it approaches, the crowd bows down low, giving a collective exhalation of breath. I can’t resist staying upright to get a decent look at His Holiness through his car window, and I do – what a delight to see his famously wide, wonky smile. The adoration of the crowd is palpable. His convoy surges onwards, up to the Children’s Village, and the crowd and I follow on foot.

The Children’s Village is a chaotic complex of school buildings, established to care for little Tibetans who arrive as refugees with only mountain guides by their side. Many parents in Tibet save to pay for their children to be smuggled across the Himalayas, but cannot afford to make the journey themselves.

Tourists can’t enter the actual chambers within the Village where the Dalai Lama gives his speeches. But large televisions screening his discussions are placed in the grounds outside. I sit cross-legged in front of a screen among hundreds of bald, crimson-robed nuns and monks, feeling a true part of proceedings despite not knowing a word of Tibetan. His Holiness begins his delivery in his native tongue – and, of all bizarre things, the crowd around me creases up with laughter. What on earth?

I ask a smiling young monk next to me what the joke is. He thinks for a second, and then says, 'Our humour doesn’t always translate into English.' But he adds, 'The Dalai Lama doesn’t like us to get bored while we listen to him. So he makes sure to make us laugh.' Dharamsala provides mountains, momos and a surprising amount of mirth.

Find out more

For details of the Dalai Lama's speaking schedules, see www.dalailama.com.

For details of Sangye's Kitchen Traditional Tibetan Cooking Classes, call 94180 66184 or email sangyelw@yahoo.com.


Michael Connellan

As a news journalist Michael Connellan has written for The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, and The Big Issue among other titles. This line of work has seen him infiltrating religious cults, sneaking around crack dens and getting sworn at by corrupt football bosses... so he enjoys a relaxing holiday when he gets the chance. But these foreign breaks don't always prove relaxing - Michael has had plenty of scrapes while abroad. These have included surviving a shootout between drug dealers at a Thai beach party and an attack by an over-zealous sea lion in New Zealand. He also suffered multiple fractures in 2004 after plunging into a ravine while cycling the infamous "Road of Death" in Bolivia. So be sure to wish him luck for his next adventure...