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Into the foothills of the Himalayas; exploring India’s hill stations, from relaxed Dalhousie to a once-in-a-lifetime teaching with the Dalai Lama in McLeod Ganj

When the heat and bustle of India’s cities get too much, it’s refreshing to head up into the mountains and experience a different side of Indian life. The hill station towns situated throughout the country have been popular holiday destinations since the beginning of time, with places like Manali and Shimla drawing honeymooners, families and nature lovers from all over the country.

mountains snow capped peaks india
The view from beautiful Dalhousie

I took three different government buses from Amritsar (home to one of the most beautiful temples in India), winding up into the hills of Northern India and arrived in Dalhousie, six hours later. This ex-colonial hill station is quiet and super relaxed and to be totally honest there’s not much to do but appreciate the good views and head out into the hills. Away from the oppressive heat and humidity, it’s a good place to reset before the backpacking madness begins once again. The town is pretty small with a big bronze-looking Gandhi statue in the centre, surrounded by a few simple restaurants selling curry and rice dishes that are perfect on a cool evening.

religious rock paintings
Rock paintings spotted on a walk through the town

After three nights winding down in Dalhousie I took another bus to McLeod Ganj, a refugee town and home to the Tibetan Government in exile and Dalai Lama. Tibetan’s flocked to this Indian hill station, walking for weeks at a time, over the freezing Himalaya’s, to escape Chinese suppression in 1959. Six decades later, the town remains hugely populated by Tibetans, with many tourists making a stop in the hopes of seeing a teaching by the Dalai Lama. I planned my trip to McLeod Ganj to coincide with a time I knew the Dalai Lama would be in residance so arrived a few days early to register and find a hostel for a few nights.

In order to see one of the Dalai Lama’s teaching, you first need to check when he’s in McLeod Ganj, which you can do on his official website here. Then you simply arrive in the town, find a place to stay and register to apply for a security pass, which you can do at the Tibetan Branch Security Office. You’ll need to take your passport, two passport photographs and ten rupees, plus fill in a form on arrival. The queues can be long but the whole process only took about an hour for me, I was presented with a small blue stamped pass that allowed me access to the Dalai Lama's four-day teaching, starting the very next day. 

gold prayer wheels dalai lama hall mcleod ganj
Prayer wheels in McLeod Ganj

The day before the teaching began I visited the hall where it was all taking place to tape my name to the floor, reserving a small seating spot. The hall gets so busy and cramped so it’s good to have a small space saved, but once you're sat down, next to monks in maroon robes and tourists in their harem pants, it’s pretty packed with everyone excited to get a glimpse of His Holiness. People share butter tea, (take your own cup if you want to taste it) and Tibetan bread and the excitement and energy throughout the place is amazing.

I managed to see the Dalai Lama as he entered the hall, surrounded by guards and the many monks in his entourage. Once settled into his spot, the teaching began, all in Tibetan. Listening through a small transistor radio (which you can buy in town), a man translates the Dalia Lama's words into English in a steady, meditative stream. The experience for me was so beautiful and exciting with the subject for the day I attended on the path to enlightenment, a pretty perfect topic for my first Dalai Lama experience.

green rolling hills of McLeod Ganj
The stunning mountain views surrounding McLeod Ganj

After a spiritual and calming few days in the hill stations of Dalhousie and McLeod Ganj I was ready to head back to the big Indian cities, refreshed and relaxed and kind of high from the excitement of it all.

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