I will never forget seeing my first bald-headed, maroon-robed Buddhist monks. It was after 5 hours on the hot bumpy bus when, nearing McLeod Ganj, we stopped in a bustling town called Gaggal, It was so exciting!!! I tried not to stare but couldn't help myself, trying to work out what they were doing. They were in fact doing their Saturday shop, just like everyone else. It took quite a while to no longer get excited at seeing monks.
The lonely planet recommended McCleod Ganj for 'chocolate cake and the Dalai Lama' and this was indeed an accurate description. We didn't actually see the Dalai Lama - we missed one of his public audiences by a week - but we did eat huge amounts of cake, the first and most cake we've had in India in fact, which was arguably just as exciting. For some reason many of the small towns and villages in the Himalayas have cake - traditional British cake and even things like apple crumble and pie. Fantastic! Any weight we lost through sweating we put back on in the mountains.
McCleod Ganj is the Dalai Lama's and Tibetan government in exile's residence. There is a big Tibetan refugee population and the small town feels much more Tibetan than Indian. There were beautiful Buddhist stupas and monasteries and prayer-wheels everywhere, and the atmosphere was very peaceful, unlike visiting Hindu temples! The only time it got more heated was when the monks in the main monastery come out to the courtyard and start debating. One monk will argue (a point of Buddhist philosophy) with another and then, with a dramatic flourish, will stamp his foot and clap his hands to seal the point. We ended up sitting and watching this for hours, before going to have cake in the monastery cafe, of course. The same cafe also did the best pizza, huge quantities of which would be delivered to the monks quarters after the debating - well it looked like hard work!!
As well as visiting different gompas (monasteries) we also visited the Norbulingka institute, set up by the Dalai Lama as a kind of training school for Tibetan arts and crafts so these do not die out. It was a beautiful, colourful complex of traditional-style buildings with tranquil (and v rainy) gardens and we had a guide show us round all the craft rooms. The room with the Thangka (traditional Buddhist) painting was most interesting.
We also did a walk to a nearby village with beautiful waterfall one day, went to a music performance in a local school where a young guy played traditional Tibetan music and sang v moving songs dedicated to the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and his mum! Another day did a Tibetan cooking class, which sounds strange but makes sense if you try traditional Tibetan food, esp momos. We tried lots of Tibetan food - mainly noodles, soup, noodles in soup, delicious breads, yak-butter tea (v hard to stomach) and of course momos. These are stuffed dumplings which can have a variety of fillings, and they can be steamed, fried or added to soup. And they are delicious. So we did a 2-hour cooking class where we learnt to make them! It was really good fun, and we were the only people there so we got to chat lots to the Tibetan chef too.
So, we left McCleod Ganj with happy hearts and bellies.