Sri Lanka: Wondrous Wildlife

As a cat lover (big and small), I was hell-bent on a leopard sighting. This solitary, secretive feline had eluded us on two different safari trips in Africa. Sri Lanka had to be the place.

Sloth bear

Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is said to be home to at least 25 of these beauties. During our February tour of the island nation, we visited that park as well as two others. Sadly, no leopard showed his spots to us. We did see elephants, rabbits, a spotted deer, one wild boar, a mongoose, turtles, lots of birds including numerous peacocks. And, a sloth bear, a rare sighting according to the guide.

Mongoose

“Most tourists don’t see the leopard,” a guide later told me. However, we did learn that the day prior to our visit to Yala and the day after, lucky tourists did spot the evasive cat. We felt cheated.

No leopard, but lots of magnificent elephants. Some 4,000 Asian elephants, an endangered species, make their home in the tiny nation. Herds of 200 or more are a common sight in August and September in Minneriya National Park. The herds we saw in that park were much smaller, 25 to 30, but fascinating. The pachyderms are obviously accustomed to tourists and come very close to the safari vehicles. Guides know many of them by name.ff.41

I was intrigued, touched, with a mini-family grouping. A crippled mother and two offspring, one four years old and the other eight years old, were alone, apart from the herd. The guide explained that the mother, about 40 years old, had been hit by a train. She was left with a bad limp, forcing her to move very slowly. She could not keep up with the herd. Her two offspring stay with her to protect her, he explained.

Elephants need about five square kilometres each to support their 200 kilograms per day appetites. Deforestation and over development in Sri Lanka have diminished their habitat. As in Africa, they encroach on farmland. As in Africa, it’s elephants vs. humans, a challenging conflict.

White birds hang around the elephants we saw. We learned that the elephants, grazing on grass, shake the stuff before eating it. Worms fall out – a tasty meal for the birds.

Painted stork (I think)
Serpent Eagle?

Sir Lanka is a paradise for birders with 400 different species, 26 of which are unique to the country. We saw many on our safaris.

On a visit to a turtle hatchery we learned about the island’s sea turtles which lay their eggs along the coast. Eggs not collected by poachers (turtle egg omelettes are popular) hatch after several weeks and hundreds of baby turtles make their perilous way to the sea. Few survive. Many are devoured by fish and birds. At turtle hatcheries, eggs are collected and hatched in an incubator. After just one day, they are released into the sea at night. Even with this method, only one in 100 survive, about the same as in nature.

The conservation benefits of the hatcheries are limited, but the tiny turtles are adorable. Adult turtles of varying sizes also swim in hatchery tanks. Many have been injured and would not survive in the sea.

The hatchery we visited had been started by the owner’s father in 2000. He died shortly thereafter and his sister took over. She, another sister, their children and his mother all perished in the devastating tsunami which ravaged Sri Lanka in 2004, killing roughly 40,000 of its citizens. The owner and his surviving brother refurbished and reopened the hatchery.

No doubt more popular than its animals and safari parks are Sri Lanka’s beaches. They are grand, but the mountainous interior was my favorite. We spent two nights in the hills above Ella, a picturesque area of tea plantations with splendid views, hiking trails and cooler temperatures…a paradise.

For more on Sri Lanka, see previous post: Wonders of Sri Lanka.

Nimal De Silva, (ndsilva67@yahoo.com and info@dsltours.com)  chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country.  He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.

More photos of Sri Lanka follow.

Unique tree in Peradeniya Botanical Garden in Kandy.
No wonder they call them street dogs,  There are not as many of these homeless dogs in Sri Lanka as in neighboring India, but still too many, and sad.
Only five percent of Asian elephants have tusks. They can live to be 65 years old.

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Sri Lankan tea is famous worldwide. Tea, first planted by the British, thrives in the hill country.

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At last, a new recipe and just in time for those summer blackberries.  Click on photo of berries, upper right, for recipe, and scroll down for more recipes.

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Prisoners in an Airbnb Apartment

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We were locked in. No way to get out. The stubborn lock would not budge. We were on floor 4 1/2 by US standards.   Jumping out of the window was out of the question. Scream for help – would anyone hear? Despite many phone calls and promises, no one came to our assistance.

One hour. Two hours. Three hours. Frustration turned to panic.  During our incarceration, Bob tried numerous times to unlock the door. He was angry. I was a nervous wreck…

I had booked an Airbnb apartment in Paris for two nights between our trips to the US and China.   On the Airbnb site this “lovely flat in the Marais” looked gorgeous: bright, roomy, gleaming. At 319 euro for two nights, it was more than we usually spend. But, we would be tired after the all-night flight from the US. We wanted to see more of the Marais. And, although this was a new listing with only two reviews, they were basically positive.

When Angela, our greeter, met us at the door to the building and led us up a narrow, shabby, dirty staircase, I was crestfallen. Could that beautiful apartment be in this rundown building?

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Section of wall in the “lovely flat”

There was no elevator. We were loaded down with clothing for five weeks and different climates. Bob made several trips up and down the 4 ½ flights, struggling to get the suitcases up the narrow passages while Angela struggled with the lock. Perhaps I have the wrong apartment; she lamented, and then went up and down to try other doors. No luck. She made several phone calls – I assume to an agent who managed the apartment. Owner Franck had told me he would not be in Paris when we arrived.

This must be it, she said at the first door she had tried, and asked Bob to try. He wiggled the key back and forth many times. He pushed and pulled, but the lock would not give. More phone calls. More tries.  Forty-five minutes had gone by, and we were still standing in this dismal hallway. We were exhausted and had longed to relax, take a short nap and then a fun walk. Bob tried the uncooperative lock one more time. Success. We were in.

Angela was elated.   We were not. We surveyed the surroundings.   Photoshop obviously works wonders. Instead of a bright and spacious apartment, the “lovely flat” was dark, crammed, depressing. The furniture was the same as in the photos, but not much else.

Before Angela left, Bob went outside to test the door. It opened. However, we insisted that someone, preferably a locksmith, come to verify that the lock was in working order. We needed to be sure that when we went out, we could get back in and not end up stranded on that dreadful staircase. She made a call and assured us that someone would show up in 20 minutes to check the lock.

We felt it best to wait before settling in and taking that nap. “We better make sure we can get out,” Bob announced at one point. OMG! Sacre Bleu! The door would not open. We were imprisoned. This can’t be true.  But, it was.  (Keep reading.  It gets worse before better.)thief-jail-illustration-theif-white-background-32201960

I called Airbnb. There were many options: press 1,.2, 3. I tried all, but  always got a recorded message and was put on hold. The relaxing Paris afternoon we had anticipated had become a frantic nightmare.

Since I had no luck with the regular channels, I tried the  English language assistance option.  Someone answered: A man in Ireland. Hope at last. I told the sorry story. He said he could help and asked various questions about our reservation: address, birth dates…and then the last four digits of the credit card used to make the booking. We have several credit cards. I gave him the numbers of the cards we had with us. No match. I must have used the French card to book. I explained that we did not have that card with us. He was adamant. Without those numbers, he could do nothing for us.

I was incredulous. This was too much. No more hope. Would we ever escape?  I blew up. I cried. I used nasty language. He hung up.

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These wires made me nervous. Fire hazard? We had no means of escape.

Now what? Call the police? The fire department? I went to the window, hoping to find a fire escape, although I doubt I would have had the skill to navigate it.  Nothing there.  So, back to the French Airbnb number and alas, after a wait, I reached Emeline, a real person who was sympathetic, patient, understanding. She said she would arrange for someone to help us get out, that we did not have to stay in the apartment, that she would email me listings of other Airbnb apartments that had availability, and that we would be reimbursed for the sum we had paid for the apartment, as well as the taxi fare to our new accommodation.

We were making progress. Surely someone would come to break the lock and rescue us soon. I was getting claustrophobic.  I needed to escape –soon.

While I looked over the listings, Bob continued trying to open the door. He is usually very patient (not like me), but he was losing it. He was infuriated. Our nerves were frazzled. I looked around, hoping to find a bottle of something potent and alcoholic  left behind by a previous guest.  We needed it desperately, but not even a tea bag to be found.

It was close to 5 p.m. We had arrived at the apartment at 1:15 pm, and we were still prisoners in this “lovely flat,” still waiting for a savior to come and free us.

Bob tried the door yet again. Eureka!  He had the magic touch.   It moved.  It opened.  We were free. We fled.

I had booked an apartment in Montmarte chez Sacha and Sydney which appeared beautiful, and cost just 233 euro for two nights, 86 euro less than Franck’s place. Although we had already given Airbnb 319 euro, we had to pay for the new booking. With too much luggage, we trekked to the corner café, got a taxi and set off to the new flat which was even better than the photos: huge, light, inviting. This time I had picked a winner.

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Chez Sacha and Sydney — truly “lovely.”

A few days later I checked our credit card details online. We had been given a refund of 3 euro. I was furious, but by this time we were in Hong Kong. I sent an email to Airbnb and learned that to obtain a refund, I needed to proceed with the resolution process and was entitled to a maximum of 275 euro, not the 319 we had paid.  Why the 3 euro?  A mini reward for all our suffering and a lost afternoon?  That remains a mystery

First step for a refund is to fill out an on-line form stating your grievance which is sent to the owner. I did, confident that he would surely grant the refund in these circumstances. Wrong. He refused.

’You insulted me and Angela instead of letting us one hour to manage this issue with the door – which is not a big issue…. It just happened to be a bit difficult to open and needed a bit of oil, nothing I could expect and nothing to be that aggressive… People are not your servants. A host is not your slave Leah, and I will refuse any refund as you were aggressive and made a scandal when there was no real reason to act as you did. You didn’t have to cancel this booking, especially not the way you did …”

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“Not a big issue” if the door won’t open???

One hour? We waited three hours. One should carry a can of oil if booking an Airbnb apartment? No real reason to be upset? It’s acceptable to be locked out — and then locked in– a rental  apartment? Cancel the booking? Emeline had done that for us.

I sent Airbnb a response, stating that I did not accept Frank’s decision and explained that I would follow up upon our return, asking them not to close the case.

After returning from China, I filled out yet another form requesting that Airbnb review both sides of the story and make the final decision. I kept receiving computer generated responses which indicated no one had ever read my response. I was getting more than fed up with Airbnb. Back to the phone. (I want a decent hourly wage for all the time I spent on hold listening to Airbnb background music.)

I was patient, and fortunately, eventually, I reached  Ellie, an Airbnb case manager. She was understanding, sympathetic – and did not demand the last four digits of the credit card. She checked into the case. Despite my instructions to wait for my rebuttal, Airbnb had closed the case.  I had to go back to square one and begin the lengthy process all over.

The entire story would not fit in the space allotted on the Airbnb online form.  Ellie said to send her an email with the details and she would forward it. But, it had to go back to Franck first. Again he refused and asked me to stop harassing him.  What planet was he on? Did he realize how much harassment his defective lock had caused us?

When you speak to an Airbnb rep/case manager, the person is not permitted to give his or her last name, nor a direct number to reach him/her, not even a personal email address. You have to reply to the general Airbnb email address. I did, but added: “Attention Ellie” to the subject line. My messages did reach her. She responded, but said she could offer no further help and sent our case on to someone else.

That someone was Danny in Dublin. Like Ellie and Emeline, a decent human who was understanding — and extremely apologetic.  He called our tragedy an episode of “miscommunication that had gotten out of hand.”  Is there such a thing as Irish understatement?   Whatever, he assured me that we would get a full refund, 319 euro, plus the taxi fare. Thank you, Danny. We did.

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Instead of an enjoyable afternoon ambling through the Marais, we were imprisoned in a non-too lovely apartment.

Meanwhile I had gone back to the Airbnb site and noted that the price for “the lovely flat in the Marais” had been slashed, from about 159 euro per night to 60 euro per night. I asked Danny about this. He explained that Airbnb does not inspect properties listed and hosts can set rental prices as they desire. Why did Franck drastically drop the price? Perhaps because he was not getting bookings, he surmised. Hmm..I suspect there is more to it.

Airbnb lesson learned: Be wary of booking a new listing. Look for listings with lots of positive reviews. Just in case, take a can of oil.

This was our second Airbnb experience. Two years ago we booked an apartment in Paris’ 16th district. It was exactly as described and ideal for us. Hostess Nathalie met us, greeted us, had a welcome gift for us, and provided all sorts of helpful information on the area – shops, restaurants, public transportation.

We expected much the same with the booking in the Marais. Franck, it appears, has more than one apartment listed with Airbnb.   The same with Sacha and Sydney, hosts at the second apartment whom we never met.

According to an article in The Guardian, the number of Airbnb hosts “has doubled in the last year with revenue up 60%.” Investors, perhaps like Franck and Sacha and Sydney, are buying up properties to rent through Airbnb. “ With that growth has come an ecosystem of support companies, typically property management firms that submit the advert for the property onto the website and then may manage guests arriving and leaving, dropping off and collecting keys, for example,” states the article.

So, don’t always expect personal contact with the owner which was originally one of the drawing cards of Airbnb.

We have not given up on Airbnb. I just booked an apartment in Ventimiglia, Italy, which has numerous glowing reviews, plus lots of kudos for the owners who are on the scene.  Nonetheless, Bob insists we not forget to take a can of oil.

Isolated oil can on white

China followed Paris, where, sadly more misadventure awaited.  Yet another crash, but far worse than the one in India I wrote about in a previous post,  “Adventure — and a CRASH –in Kashmir.”

Details on China in a coming post.  Don’t miss it. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.

I am on the mend, but slightly handicapped (broken collar bone). No new recipes until I can get back in the kitchen and cook with two hands —soon I hope.

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A real Fantasyland? (only in Italy)

toptownOnce upon a time, high in the Italian hills overlooking azure Mediterranean waters, a local gardener decided he would like to become a prince. But, he needed a kingdom – or at least a patch of land to rule. No problem. He did some research and figured a small portion of this mini paradise did not legally belong to Italy. (That is all a bit complicated.) He convinced the local population of his claim and managed to have them vote to give him the title of Prince. That was in 1963, and Giorgio Carbone, His Supreme Highness, ruled the micro nation Seborga until his death in 2009, when Prince Marcello I assumed the throne.

So, all 2,000 citizens of the fairytale-like kingdom have been living happily ever after? More or less, but with some political intrigue to muddy the waters from time to time.

I had never heard of Seborga.  When the American Club of the Riviera sponsored an event in the principality, a gala dinner following festivities for the national holiday, the feast of Saint Bernard, I signed up. And, did some Seborga research.

A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga's national festival.
A gala dinner to commemorate Seborga’s national festival.

Perhaps I exaggerated the part about Giorgio wanting to become prince. Who knows? For details on Seborga history, see Wikipedia.   In brief, from the 10th century, monks ruled the principality. They sold it to the King of Sardinia in 1729, a sale Giorgio and his followers claim was invalid. Italy, they maintained, annexed Seborga “illegitimately and unilaterally.”

The Principality of Seborga (14 square kilometers) calls itself a separate state within Italy’s borders, similar to Vatican City and San Marino.

A demonstration to show how Seborga's currency was made in days gone by.
A demonstration to show how Seborga’s currency was made in days gone by.

Italy ignores these claims and has jurisdiction over the territory.   . Nonetheless Seborga has its own army, flag, royal family and currency. The latter, as well as passport stamps, are popular with tourists.

Prince Marcello, a 38-year-old former professional speedboat racer, is protected by his eight-member, blue-bereted Corpo della Guardia who were on duty for the national day festivities. To the delight of spectators, the Prince and Princess made a ceremonial entrance to the town in a horse-drawn carriage following a parade of costumed locals and guards.

Princess Nina and Prince Marcello
Princess Nina and Prince Marcello

Marcello’s German born wife, Nina, serves as foreign minister of Seborga. The couple were formally received by Queen Elizabeth in 2011. On the world stage, Burkina Faso recognized Seborga as an independent state in 1998. According to one source, some 20 other nations also recognize the tiny nation’s  independence.  The U.S. has an ambassador to Seborga who attended the national festivities.

blog.1That is not enough, says Nicolas Mutte, described by the Wall Street Journal as “a shadowy, possibly French figure whose occupation is unknown.” He posted an online video this spring proclaiming himself “His Serene Highness Nicolas I,” Seborga’s new ruler. Mutte, who says he is a descendent of Napoleon, seeks a split from Italy and accuses Marcello of only promoting tourism and folklore.

Although the Prince, a local real-estate entrepreneur, was elected on promises to fight for independence, secession has taken a back seat as Seborga and its traditions have become a tourist magnet. Marcello does not seem threatened by Mutte. “Seborga is a free and blog.3sovereign principality that has elected me as its prince,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Mutte has no rights over Seborga.”

Even Giorgio had to fend off pretenders to his throne. In 2006, a woman calling herself “Princess Yasmine von Hohenstaufen Anjou Plantagenet” stated that she was the rightful heir to the Seborga throne. Giorgio dismissed her claims, calling her the “internet princess.”

All of this intrigue adds to the fascination of this secluded fairytale sovereignty snuggled aside a long and twisty road above the coastal city of Bordighera on the Italian Riviera. Throngs of visitors conquered the challenging journey to attend the August festivities. Flags, hundreds of the principality’s blue and white banners, set the scene for a parade, music, seborga+fone 069flag throwing demonstrations, costumes, dancing – and the dinner. ( I only hope Seborgans have better food than the definitely-not-delicious offerings we were served at this repast. At least there was no shortage of wine.)

Seborga, the eponymous capital city of the principality with a mere 337 inhabitants, is one of those ancient hilltop villages of skinny, cobbled streets that climb and descend, past old stone dwellings decorated with flower boxes.   Views of the Med and distant peaks from the town terraces are splendid. A visit to its privately owned gramophone museum is mind boggling.

So, too, is the Seborga story.  Could I overthrow Nina and become Princess Leah (think Star Wars ) ?

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We wore our finest for Seborga.

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Members of the prince’s Corpo della Guardia were happy to pose with guests for photos.

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Adventures – and a CRASH — in Kashmir

kash.34“More beautiful than the heaven.” So wrote Sanskrit poet Kalidasa of the Kashmir Valley.

It is a beauty with spectacular mountain vistas (when the clouds disappear), sparkling lakes, surging streams, gorgeous gardens and dense forests.

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Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, has several magnificent gardens.

Sadly political violence has scarred this wonderland for many years, keeping tourists away from what was once a popular destination. For the most part, calm has returned and travelers are trickling back.

(UPDATE:  Unfortunately violence has erupted in Kashmir this summer.  The calm we enjoyed is no more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/opinion/kashmir-in-crisis.html?action=click&contentCollection=Asia%20Pacific&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article )

I visited in April with a tour group from Germany. I am a mountain person and had longed to see the grandiose Himalayan peaks which are said to outclass the Alps. But,  weather was not on our side. While visiting Kashmir we had some rain and mainly very cloudy skies and not many glorious views of towering, snow capped peaks.

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Srinagar’s Dal Lake — and  clouds

What I missed in mountain scenery I gained in people experiences. We had a tight schedule on this 16-day visit to northern India with almost no time on our own – except in Kashmir where I was able to leave the group and explore.

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Friendly folks I met

A hike was scheduled on the slopes above the town of Pahalgam, a mountain resort and trekking base. The group was slow. Many decided to ride horses rather than walk. I left them behind and forged ahead. My solitary walk was not that solitary. Other hikers (Indian tourists) approached and started conversations: a 70-year old from Calcutta, a young woman who had just returned from four years in upstate New York where she pursued bio-tech research, a family with several children in tow. Many wanted their picture taken with me – not too many tall blondes in northern India. It was fun and delightful.

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Many Indian tourists, and many in our group, preferred to visit the mts. on horseback.  Men at left are horse owners who drive a hard bargain for a ride on one of their mounts.

So too was my solo hike from our hotel outside of the town – until the CRASH. We had a free afternoon. I set off down the main road, narrow and nasty, then crossed a foot bridge over the Lidder River. A gentleman kash.bapproached, Jeelani, an English-speaking Kashmiri with a group who were having a picnic nearby. He invited me to join his friends. I figured if I did, I would be obliged to eat. My stomach was not in great shape, so I politely declined.

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I was invited to join this picnic.
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Father and daughter at picnic.

Jeelani wanted to show me a tiny temple/mosque nearby where, he said, people had been worshiping for 400 years. (Kashmir is mainly Muslim.) We chatted. I took photos — of the mosque, the scenery, the picnickers — then continued back. After crossing the bridge, I tripped over a fat cable and came down hard on the pavement, my face smashing against the cement. Blood. Pain. Two men ahead heard the collision and came to my assistance. I was more worried about my precious camera than my face. Fortunately the camera still worked. Praise be Canon!. I am a klutz and have fallen too many times with this camera. (My husband calls me “Crash.”) Miraculously the trusty Canon survives.

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At the top of the path I crashed.

My face fared less well. The nice rescuers offered me a ride to my hotel, to a hospital. I opted to hike back. At the hotel, I asked for ice. I must have frightened the desk clerk who also suggested I go to the hospital… I could not imagine a hospital in the boondocks of Kashmir.

I was lucky. We had a doctor in our tour group. He said he did not think my nose was broken. My teeth were probably OK.   Best treatment: ice and pain medication.

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Selfie shorly after crash –much worse the next day.

It was not that painful, but I was a sight with a lip that turned purple and looked worse than those fat lips you can buy for Halloween.  Makeup helped cover up the marks on the battered and also swollen nose, but nothing could help the deformed lip. I got used to stares during the rest of the journey.

Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience. In Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir on Dal Lake, I took off shopping on my own. I made several purchases at the Kashmir Gift Store where I had a fascinating conversation with shop owner, Nazir.

First, a bit of background. India’s northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), is bordered by Pakistan and China. Until the early 19th century it was a collection of distinct regions under Sikh rule. The British defeated the Sikhs in 1846, and in ensuing years the region chose to join India. An India-Pakistan conflict has simmered and boiled since 1947.

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On the road to Pahalgam

Today the region is divided amongst three countries (Pakistan, China and India) and entangled in a territorial dispute. The major conflict is between India and Pakistan, each believing that it should control the entire region. A great number of Kashmiris, however, want independence.

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Kashmir is noted for its handicrafts, especially carpets.

In 1989, following rigged elections, militant groups took up arms to free Kashmir from India. Since then, some 30,000 have died in the fighting. Violence in the region has subsided and the once thriving tourist industry is on the rebound. (See above Update — violence has returned). However, during our visit security was tight following an incident in which Indian soldiers shot four Kashmiris who protested the alleged rape of a Kashmiri girl by the solders. We were stopped at road blocks. Armed soldiers were seen along the roads and in Srinagar. There was a three-day strike when all shops and businesses were closed in protest.

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Gulmarg is India’s premier ski resort.  Not many skiers in April, but lots of mt. visitors at this Kashmiri playground.

The inhabitants of J&K belong to three religions, with Kashmir being mainly Muslim, Jammu mainly Hindu, and the Ladakhis in the east divided almost equally between Buddhists and Muslims. Although Indians will tell you they are not prejudiced against Muslims or Kashmiris, I sensed the opposite. Most of the Kashmiris I spoke to want independence.

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Dal Lake with its numerous channels is often called the Venice of the East.

“We want our freedom,” said a young man working on the houseboat/hotel where we stayed in Srinagar. “We are proud of Kashmir,” Jeelani announced. “We want our independence. We have water resources. India uses our resources for its power.”

Nazir, the shop keeper, has a different, perhaps more realistic, view. “Kashmir is surrounded by three nuclear powers. It is impossible for us to be independent,” he said. “We need the protection of India… Yet people should be given the right to decide.”

As Lonely Planet states, “the issue of Kashmir remains intractable…it needs brave souls to resolve this issue.”

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“We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia.We don’t want bloodshed,” says shop owner Nazir.

Nazir told me the Muslims in Kashmir practice Sufism. They are not fundamentalists, nor violent. “This is a beautiful place. We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia. We don’t want bloodshed. No one should be killed in my land…The military should be on the borders, not in the cities.”

Almost as rewarding as my encounters with Kashmiris were the visits and sights in this place “more beautiful than the heaven.” … Fewer clouds would have made it even better.

Scroll down for more photos.

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Touring Dal Lake in style aboard a shikara, the gondola-like craft which ply the waters.

 

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Houseboats on Dal Lake. Kashmir’s rulers forbid the British to own land in this vacation paradise, so they built houseboats which now serve as hotels.
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Boats laden with souvenirs/food come by, offering convenient shopping.
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Gardeners are kept hard at work.
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On the road to Srinagar, visit to the ruins of a Hindu temple dating from the ninth century.
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Not much business for these toboggan renters on the Gulmarg slopes.

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INDIA’S “LITTLE TIBET”

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Photo at Tibet Museum in Dharamsala

They trudged, climbed over the rugged, mighty Himalayas, scrambling over rocks, through snow and ice, at night. A group of 28, including 10 children, they set out from their homeland, Tibet, to escape the severe Chinese regime which has occupied their country since 1950.

Over a million Tibetans perished in the mass genocide which followed the occupation. In 1959, the 14th Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, led his people into exile. Since then some 100,000 Tibetans, like the group mentioned above, have made this arduous journey to escape Chinese persecution.

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Kalsang escaped from Tibet over the Himalayas in 2006.

During the treacherous 36-day trek, “one of my friends died, two were lost,” Kalsang, who fled in 2006, tells me. He was lucky. “Since 2008, the borders are heavily controlled.”

Kalsang now works as a guide at the Norbulingka Institute, a trust under the chairmanship of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the Tibetan people. The Institute, which is dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture, is headquartered in Dharamsala in northern India, the center of the Tibetan government in exile.

A visit to the town, a former British hill station perched high on a steep slope under the shadow of the snow-capped Dhauladhar mountain range, is fascinating, if not heart breaking. Several thousand Tibetan exiles, including the Dali Lama, live in the town, most in McLeodGanj, the upper part of the town where the institute and the Dali Lama’s home are located. The stories of escape and hope are astonishing, tragic.

“We have hope. One day we will go back,” a young woman said.

The institute sits on a hillside surrounded by lush vegetation and

Monk at Norbulingka Institute
Monk at Norbulingka Institute

blossoms. Strings of small, colorful prayer flags add a festive note. Well-fed, friendly dogs wander about. In contrast to the dusty, dirty, noisy, rundown surroundings, it seems like a tiny paradise.

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At the Norbulingka Institute, Tibetan refugees learn traditional  crafts.

Our tour group visited the Dali Lama’s Buddhist temple. Although at the time His Holiness was in residence, he was not seeing visitors, we were told. We visited workshops where young Tibetans in exile were learning and practicing traditional Tibetan crafts, (scroll painting, embroidery, metalwork, wood carving etc.) Many of their works are for sale at the institute gift shop.

We met many younger Tibetans at the Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV). dhar.10The Dali Lama directed that a center be established for the thousands of orphans and destitute children ravaged by war. Today 1,700 Tibetan children live and study at this village. Most have been smuggled over the mountains from Tibet where the Tibetan culture and language are suppressed, where parents see no hope, no future for their children.  They pay for their children’s escape to freedom, knowing they may never see them again.

The children in the village live in small, family groups with foster parents. They are taught both the Tibetan language and English. There are four other villages for Tibetan children, as well as schools and vocational centers in India, under the umbrella of TCV.dha.4a

A visit to remote Dharamsala is an undertaking. Our group of 12 had to abandon our small bus and ride in three four-wheel drive vehicles for the climb over skinny, scary roads to the shabby town of ugly structures and tacky souvenir shops – but with a breathtaking backdrop, when visible. Having been intrigued about the fabulous Himalayas for years, I was eager for some to-die-for views and photo opps. Not to be. If and when the clouds vanished, it was only for seconds. These mountains have mastered hide and seek, excelling at hiding.

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Views of the Himalayas like this were rare and lasted only seconds.

The Tibet Museum in the town is the place to learn more about Tibet, the Chinese occupation and the present situation. Documentation and photographs detail the invasion, treacherous escapes, human rights abuses and present-day realities.

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Main street in Dharamsala

The town’s bazaar, a collection of shops and stalls along the steep main street, is the place to bargain for souvenirs: jewelry, trinkets, scarves and more.

Dharamsala is popular as a center for meditation, yoga and other esoteric retreats. It also attracts those interested in serious mountain trekking and rock climbing.

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Construction site in Dharamsala

A writer in the Guardian called the town, known as “Little Tibet,”  a “unique place with its mix of Indian hill people, Tibetan exiles and ‘spiritual’ tourists.” It is well worth the effort to visit this unique and alluring place, to experience first-hand the plight and tragedy of Tibet.

For more on the Tibetan Children’s Village, see www.tcv.org.in

Tibetan Children's Village
Tibetan Children’s Village

 

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Indian construction worker

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Cows are at home on Dharamsala’s main street.