Thursday, May 5, 2011

MacLeod Ganj April 7th-10th

From Jammu we took a day train to Pathankot and from there took a five hour bus ride into the lower mountain range of MacLeod Ganj. When people talk about the Dali Lama and the Tibetan exile government they often incorrectly say it is in Dharmasala-- in reality it is another 10kms further up the mountain in a town called MacLeod Ganj. Named after a Scottish member of the ruling Raj-- MacLeod, not Ganj.

MacLeod Ganj is a site of refuge for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government, and any Tibetan refugees. In the 1950s the Chinese government "liberated" Tibet because it saw it as a historical part of China. In the years that have followed the Chinese have killed over 1 million Tibetans and destroyed over 95% of the Temples and religious spaces of the Buddhist Tibetans. In recent years China has completed a fast rail system directly into the heart of Tibet. This makes the forced relocation of Chinese into Tibet much easier. They are slowly breeding out the native Tibetans and killing their culture. Currently it is against the law even to own a picture of the Dali Lama, the incarnation of Buddha.

Despite this tragic story the Tibetans are still the most loving and compassionate people around. Monks frequently express their distress about "losing compassion for the Chinese" a lesson that many of us, including myself, can learn from.

MacLeod Ganj for us was a time of rest and relaxation amongst the wonderful people of Tibet. We spent the days lounging around, talking to monks and Tibetan exiles. We even taught an English class or two with an organization that has been established to teach Tibetans English as well as to teach foreigners about the struggle that Tibet has and continues to face.

To me, the Tibetans, although Buddhist, exemplify how we are called to live as Christians or more generally just as good people. The love they show not only for their fellow man, all God's creatures, and most importantly towards their enemies is something we can all try to emulate.

Perhaps the best thing about Tibetans though is their love of laughter and the joy with which they live their lives.

From MacLeod Ganj we headed west on the train towards Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

April 3rd-6th Srinagar, Kashmir

Kashmir is an occupied state. Controlled both by India and Pakistan, it lies between the tense border of the two countries to the west and the stunning Himalayas to the East. To the north it is bordered by China. The people of Kashmir want independence but neither India nor Pakistan are willing to surrender this fertile and resource wealthy region.
The first thing you will notice upon entering into Kashmir either by car or, like us, by plane, is the large military presence everywhere. The military is there to control the militancy and the militancy is there to get rid of the military. It is a deadly game of the chicken versus the egg. Because of the military presence and the militancy activity it is not an area then many people visit while in India. This made it all the more appealing to us.
We arrived on a flight from Delhi into the Srinagar airport which is a military airport that allows a handful of commercial flights in daily. The runway is lined with barbed wire, tanks, and lots of AK-47 holding soldiers. Quite the welcome.
It was freezing cold and drizzling, a huge change from the humid sweltering climate of Kerala. We stayed at a small hotel just outside of the city center. And the first item on our agenda was getting clothes appropriate for the cold. Luckily the Sunday Used-Clothes Market was in full swing and so we headed down to escape the cold.
The area is almost entirely Muslim with very small Christian and Hindu populations. They were no where to be seen. The market was filled with brand name clothes several years out of fashion and I asked a younger shop keeper where they got the clothes from and he said, "American aid packages sent to Pakistan are sold to merchants who bring them in bulk to Srinagar to be sold in this market". Wonderful. After getting jackets and boots we headed back to the hotel to plan our next excursion.
Srinagar is known for its large numer of Mughal gardens that were built starting in the 1600s. We spent the day going around them. It was the first time I had felt cold in over seven months.
Kashmir is known for its lamb but unfortunately the lamb union was on strike and there was no lamb to be had. We had chicken and lentils instead.
The next day we woke up early to go and visit the Jammu Masjid, the biggest mosque in the city. Two days after our visit there was a deadly bombing targeting, succesfully, the Imam of the mosque because he opposed the violence of the militancy.
We spent the rest of the day viewing more sites around the city and had dinner at a small Tibetan restaurant near the hotel.
After dinner I was speaking to the hotel owner, Ruf, who expressed his grievances of the militancy because, "One grenade attack and tourist season over." To true Ruf.
The next day we got up early and took a rented car up to Gulmarg, seventh best Ski resort (supposedly) in the world. It was a winter wonderland. Eight feet of snow on the ground. I spent a few hours skiing in the Himalayas and then met up with the girls. We then had a snowball fight. It was Madison's first time seeing snow and my first time in the Himalayas. Very exciting.
The next day we took a taxi down to the southern city of Jammu. To get there you have to drive over the mountains and through a 3 miles tunnel which is cut through the mountain. Once through the tunnel you enter a vastly different environment.
After another hour of driving you are in fertile valleys fed by water from the Himalayas. It is a beautiful region.
We spent the night in Jammu which doesn't have much to see and woke up the next morning for our train ride to Dharmasala.

To be continued...