I left Rishikesh in a state of bitter-sweet happiness. While it was sad to say goodbye to the place and people that had been my home-on-the-road for six weeks and where I’d learned so much about myself, yoga and life, I was overflowing with gratitude for the experience. And I was excited to get on the road again. Riding in a rickshaw to the bus station with my backpack at my feet felt like reconnecting with an old friend.
The ‘bus station’ turned out to be an abandoned travel agency. Amber and I loitered around outside for a while, drinking chai and waiting — the hallmark of travel in India. Eventually, a man came to tell us that we were in the right place, and then disappeared back to wherever he came from. This bus journey was what people were warning me about when they told me not to take the bus in India: it was an absolutely filthy vehicle, probably one of the first buses to ever have been built, with no shock absorbing system to speak of. We spent fourteen abysmal hours enduring the biting cold that seeped in through windows that wouldn’t close, and being tossed out of the seat each time the driver took a hairpin corner at top speed. We arrived in McLeod Ganj (town close to Dharamsala) in the early, still dark morning, groggy and stiff with cold. Hotel touts and taxi drivers swarmed us like a cloud of gnats.
The temperature of our hotel room was the same as outside; there is no central heating anywhere here. It was so cold, I could see my breath. We went to sleep wearing most of our clothes, under a heaping pile of blankets. A few hours later, the sun poured in through grimy windows, and I woke to stunning scenery — McLeod Ganj is perched high on the ridge of a mountain, and looks down on a nebulous valley carpeted in coniferous trees. Multi-coloured buildings sit in amongst the trees, as though they grow there naturally. Hawks circled in the frigid alpine air, roosters crowed, and a stream tinkled nearby.
McLeod Ganj is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government and the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. Walking around the narrow lanes that wind steeply up the mountain, it’s almost as if we’ve left India completely and stumbled into Tibet. Everywhere I look, there are monks wearing red robes and red woollen sweaters, Tibetan children in school uniforms, prayer flags, free Tibet merchandise, Tibetan food, services for refugees and more dentists than I’ve seen in one place in India thus far. Pictures of the Dalai Lama are tacked up in a place of honour in every shop and restaurant. The air is brisk even though the sun shines brightly in the wide azure sky. There is an overwhelming sense of peace in these mountains. I could stay here forever.
A Tibetan ‘Folk’ Show
We accepted a flyer advertising a Tibetan folk show from a guy with psychedelic sunglasses and a man-bun. Little did we know, the sunglasses were a mild harbinger of what was to come. The show was later that evening at the school, and so we thought that it would be put on by school kids, thereby breaking the first rule of India: Assume nothing.
We entered into a modest room with candles and incense burning, and the guy with the man-bun stood at centre stage, carefully tying himself into a black robe. It was a one-man show. The first part was really good. He told us his story: a Tibetan refugee who escaped the Chinese at fifteen years old, how they trekked across the Himalayas only at night, with no torches, so as not to draw any attention, his debt of gratitude to India for taking in refugees and giving him a second chance at life. He sang, sweetly, played the dramyin (Tibetan guitar) and danced. It was all quite lovely.
And then the second act began.
He let his long, curly hair out its knot and whirled around like a dervish for a good ten minutes. Then he progressed to what I can only describe as performance art with forced audience participation. Two at a time, he took audience members bodily from their seats and tossed them around on stage, holding them in awkward positions and dragging them around until shoving them back onto the cushions, as a film crew captured it on tape. It was all very awkward. For some unfathomable reason, we stayed until it our turn, and he hauled me up onto his shoulders, while dragging Amber around by her ankles. When he dumped us back at our seats, we gathered up our stuff and watched the rest of the show from outside.
The show got only got weirder from there. It culminated in him covering his body in toilet paper and lighting it on fire, and then putting a lit candle down the front of his pants. This is, apparently, the ‘Tibetan Freedom Dance’. Credit where credit is due, though: his flyers were accurate. “Unforgettable” is one word for it.