“Get thee to a nunnery” in Dharamsala

Dharamsala tibetan monks india

Tibetan Monks in MacLoed Ganj

During our recent trip to South Asia, we spent several days in Dharamsala in northern India–the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the focal point of Tibetan exile life.

Nestled in the steep foothills where the plains of the Punjab meet the Himalayas in northern India, Dharamsala is a former hot-weather vacation spot “hill station” from the British colonial era which has been the home of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1960.

Tibet Dharamsala Sign

Hospital Sign for "Torture Survivors" © Fred Lundahl

There are over 25,000 exiled Tibetans settled in the area, and more continue to arrive, fleeing from their Chinese-occupied homeland.

There are constant reminders of the struggle for Tibet, such as a clinic that advertises “treatment for torture victins.”

The central focus of the area is actually in the small crowded streets of the village of MacLeod Ganj, which sits further up steep roads above Dharamsala, and has shops, craft centers, temples and trekking companies; the streets are filled with foreign and Indian tourists, local Kangra people and, of course, many Tibetans.  We shopped there and bought loads of Tibetan stuff for our store.

Tibetan

Fred at the Norling Guest House © Sharon Lundahl

We stayed in the Norling Guest House at the Dalai Lama’s Norbulingka Institute, which is just outside Dharamsala and which was established to help keep Tibetan culture and values alive.  Since 1988, older Tibetan craftsmen and artists have taught young Tibetans there in a wonderful setting of gardens, classrooms and the impressive Deden Tsuglagkhang temple.  (http://www.norbulingka.org/).

One day of our stay, the tranquility

Tibetan Norbulingka Institute Filming Bollywood Movie

Filming a Bollywood Movie © Fred Lundahl

of the setting was wonderfully disrupted by a “Bollywood” film crew filming a scene for the big-budget movie, “Rock Star”, starring Ranbir Kapoor.  While hundreds of extras (Tibetan monks and students) waved Tibetan flags and “Free Tibet” signs through numerous “takes”, the movie star and his rock group played the song “Sadda Haq” which voices the Tibetans’ struggle for freedom.

We also had a task to carry out while in Dharamsala.  The sister of our friend Tenzing in Kathmandu was studying the Tibetan language, Buddhist religion and culture in the Lamsang nunnery.  Enrolled as a student rather than as a nun, his sister loved her studies, but missed food from Nepal.  We hand-carried a parcel of Nepalese goodies to her one day and were able to visit the nunnery.  The beauty of the place and the devotion of the people were amazing.

Tibetan Girl in Dharamsala

Tibetan Girl in Dharamsala © Sharon Lundahl

We also visited another nunnery near our guest house and were shown around by one of several western volunteers we met during our stay.  Shakti, a retired school teacher from Victoria BC (near our shop on Whidbey Island), has been a volunteer teacher at this nunnery for about six years during most of the year.

Visiting her was another Canadian, a retired mental health nurse from Tofino BC who was busy agitating for the release of a Tibetan film maker in prison in China.  The dedication to Buddhism and to the Tibetan cause exhibited by Shakti and other volunteers and activists was amazing to behold.

The Deden Tsuglagkhang Temple at the Norbulingka Institute © Fred Lundahl

Kathmandu 20 Years Later

Kathmandu Nepal Monastery

Monastery in Nepal © Sharon Lundahl

On our November 2010, “buying” trip to South Asia, we spent our first week in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Fred had last been in Nepal in 1990, and the intervening years had not been kind to the country nor to its wonderful, hospitable people.  The murder of the King and Royal Family by a disturbed Prince in 2001…and a nasty Maoist insurgency in the countryside…had led to a crash in the tourism industry and unhappiness (or worse) to many people, including both the Nepalese and the Tibetan refugee minority.

Now the monarchy is abolished, and the Maoists are inside the government causing trouble–rather than outside the government causing trouble.  Although political stability remains illusive, tourism has bounced back big time.  November is always the height of the tourist season (and mountain climbing/trekking season), and there was nary a free room in all of Kathmandu.

Kathmandu Nepal music store

Fred in Music Store in Kathmandu © Sharon Lundahl

Kathmandu, unlike new Delhi, did not seem vastly changed from what we remembered 20 years ago, except that numerous housing developments had been built on the outskirts of town; this was a result of the large numbers of people who had fled from the countryside to the city to escape the Maoist insurgency.

We were in Kathmandu during the Hindu festival of Diwali, the festival of lights.  The tourist district of Thamel, where our Tibetan-run Potala Guest House was located, was crowded with tourists and celebrating locals.  Nepal has Hindus and Buddhists, and both religions have so many special holidays together that the government had long ago decreed that the official work week would be six rather than five days long.

Among the events of the Diwali isthe Lakshmi Puja day when people prayto Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, for good fortune.  In Nepal there are special days to honor a wide assortment of things.

Kathmandu Nepal

Shop in Kathmandu © Sharon Lundahl

On our arrival, we noticed many of the street dogs oddly seemed to have marigold flower necklaces around their necks.  It turned out that the day before we arrived had been “Dog Puja” day when people honored and fed both pet dogs and stray dogs.

We also noticed that many vehicles, and even wheelbarrows, seemed to have a red ribbon or red string tied around some part.  This was left over from the special Puja day for mechanical things, when you pray that your mechanical things do not break down.  All of this praying and honoring is done with great energy and good humor by the Nepalese.

We toured all the usual sights, including Durbar Square and the Royal city of Bhaktapur, where dozens of wooden pagoda roofs on temples and palaces reminded us that it was a Nepalese architect who taught the Chinese the skill of making pagodas in the middle ages.  It was especially wonderful  to see the Great Buddhist Stupas of Swayambhunath and Boudhanath–the latter, especially, filled with Tibetan pilgrims circulambulating and spinning hundreds of prayer wheels.

Kaiser Mahal Garden of Dreams Kathmandu Nepal

Kaiser Mahal Garden of Dreams © Sharon Lundahl

There were a couple of interesting new sights that had been built since we had last been in Kathmandu, besides the new luxury Hyatt hotel built within sight of the big Stupa at Boudhanath.  One was a new boutique “mall” of shops and restaurants built in a remodeled old Royal stables called the Baba Mahal.

Even neater was the newly renovated Kaiser Mahal “Garden of Dreams”, a tranquil and elegant garden and palace complex adjacent to the bustle of the Thamel tourist district.  When we had last been in Kathmandu, this little Palace/Garden complex in a corner of downtown had been a derelict shambles.  Now, with a grant from the Austrian government, it has been restored to its former grandeur.  It houses both government offices and the wonderful “Garden of Dreams” restaurant.  It was a great place to escape from the noisy and crowded downtown scene.

Next blog will start to talk about some of our shopping…and finding things for our store!

High Himalayan Mountains Nepal

The High Himalayas in Nepal © Fred Lundahl

Rafting on the Ganges

India Rafting Himalayan River Runners

Sharon, Fred and Yousef

Sharon and Fred Lundahl have just returned from a month of “buying for the shop” in Nepal and northern India.  Future blogs will cover various aspects of the places we went shopping, but this first blog will tell about our R&R weekend at a wonderful vacation site up the Ganges River in the Himalaya Mountains north of the guru-rich town of Rishikesh, made famous by the Beatles and the Maharishi Yogi in the 1960’s.

In 1988, when Fred began a four-year stint at the US Embassy in New Delhi, he fell in with a young Indian adventure travel entrepreneur named Yousef Zaheer who had just started his own rafting company, “Himalayan River Runners.”   (See the site:http://www.hrrindia.com/).

India Rafting River Runners

Himalayan River Runners Rafting Camp © Fred Lundahl

Yousef had set up a rafting camp on the upper Ganges, where it rushes through high mountains with the volume of the Colorado River before spilling out onto the Indian plains and making its slow way to Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal.  Huge “Class Four” and “Class Five” rapids made a weekend stay at the HHR rafting camp a popular choice for foreigners and Indians alike back then.  We wanted to see what the intervening years had done for the rafting company.

We found the Zaheer business booming.  In the early 1990’s, Yousef had married the lovely Ganeve, an event Fred had witnessed during a return trip to India; those newlyweds attended Fred and Sharon’s wedding in Virginia in 1995 with other members of the Zaheer family.

With Ganeve’s energetic help, the business had expanded greatly and now includes both a travel company, “Nexxtop India”, whose experts made all arrangement for our entire stay in India, and a wonderful luxurious mountain cottage resort, “Himalayan Hideaway” near the original HHR rafting camp, where we stayed for our last weekend.

The travel agency was a great deal too, as we had an air-conditioned car waiting for us at every airport or train arrival to take us to a nice hotel.   The driver even came to the door of our train compartment to help us with our luggage.   We paid for all accommodations on our own designed trip before we left the states, so there was no hassle about paying for anything.  (You can contact Nexxtop through the same website.)

The stone cottage at the Hideaway where we stayed was beautifully outfitted and had an incredible view of the Ganges River roaring through numerous rapids far below our balcony.  The food at the Hideaway and at the rafting camp was fantastic, and the days ended around a big campfire with all the guests, some playing music and singing.  The guides were world-class professionals.

The rafting business in India has expanded hugely since our time in India, and there are now more than 40 camps set up above Rishikesh; HHR is still the most popular among the foreign community in New Delhi, and the weekend we were there the camp was filled with Australian businessmen and their young families, two young Swedish guys, an Austrian girl, some single Americans, and several students doing a year abroad.

Himalayan River RunnersWith lots of activities ranging from children’s play groups to yoga and meditation/shenzhen massage for adults, in addition to world-class white water rafting, it is easy to see why Yousef and Ganeve’s business is so popular.

We especially liked the fact that Youssef promotes people from within his organization as often as he can.  For example, one of his experienced river guides now was originally hired as a dishwasher many years ago.

The rafting was great fun and, in an odd turn on the usual feel that things you remember from the past often seem smaller when seen again, Fred found the rapids seemed LARGER than 20 years ago.

Floods in Hunza, Pakistan

Pakistan Flood Hunza

A girl Studying in Pakistan's Flooded Area. © srizki_flickr

As our friends and customers may know, one of the projects we support is a weaving cooperative in Hunza, in the northern mountains of Pakistan.

Now the people of this village are in crisis due to recent flooding in their area.    The girl in this picture is studying in an open field because her school has been destroyed.

I just received this email from my friend Didar Ali, who is referring people who want to help to a U.S. charity interested in re-building their schools. (more…)

See the World’s Oldest Carpet (Replica)

Replica of the Oldest Rug Pazyryk Carpet Siberia

The Oldest Carpet Known to Man

A replica of the oldest rug in the world–the famous Pazyryk carpet–is now on display at “Music for the Eyes” on Whidbey Island in Langley, Washington.  The rug was commissioned from “Magic Knots” of Baku, Azerbaijan by the owners of the Whidbey Island shop.  The replica took three weavers four months to complete.
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