Sitting at the base of the Himalayas in northern India, far from the crowded streets of New Delhi and the border ballet in Wagah, is the city of Dharamsala. Home to a fluctuating population of approximately 19,000, Dharamsala is often the first stop for Tibetan refugees escaping Chinese occupation. Numbers are unclear but by some estimates, up to 1,000 Tibetans annually make the dangerous 6-12 month trek through rugged Himalayan terrain.

The lucky who survive the elements and Chinese troop patrols make their way to McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala, looking for assistance from the Central Tibetan Administration. The CTA helps relocate Tibetan refugees to other parts of India and the various nations around the world that accept a quota of Tibetans per year. Despite the chaos and uncertainty that inevitably hangs around the political and personal situations of many people in Dharamsala, it is absolutely one of the most peaceful, relaxing places I have ever visited.

dharamsala monks praying meditating

Dharamsala’s most famous resident however is undoubtedly the Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. Living in McLeod Ganj since 1959, the Dalai Lama is only here for about 4 months each year due to his nearly continuous travel schedule.

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mcleod ganj clouds

The presence of Tibetan Buddhism is felt everywhere in McLeod Ganj from its epicenter – the small temple in front of the Dalai Lama’s gated home. These prayer wheels are filled with sacred scrolls which are believed to be amplified when spun.

dharamsala mcleod ganj prayer wheels

Prayers in Dharamsala come in many forms…

dharamsala candles

and hope, as it should, in child-sizes.

tibetan child dharamsala

Contrasting India’s typical tongue charring chilies, Tibetan cuisine is shy on spice, not on noodle. Not that I would ever argue with Gakyi’s recipe, whose owner treats every dish like a favorite child.

tibetan nooodles tofu

The kind of winter comfort food you can feel giving you an insulating belly of love as you sip in its heat. For the right amount of black pepper to break into a cold sweat, I recommend Norling.

tibetan noodles norling

To bring the flavors back home with you, the secret is somewhere in these bags.

tibetan spices

Secrets you can uncover with a 1 hour cooking lesson at Recommended Lhamo’s Kitchen, which is literally, his kitchen. You’ll learn to turn this:

momo ingrediants

Into momos.

tibetan momos

Aside from traditional cuisine, efforts are made to retain many aspects of Tibetan culture.

Norbulingka Institute

At the Norbulingka Institute, a 20 minute car ride from McLeod Ganj, various crafts are taught and cultivated to slow the dilution of Tibetan traditions.

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norbulingka institute

These prayer flags are strung up throughout the mountain paths of Dharamsala to bless those who walk them – especially in a strong wind.

tibetan prayer flags

The sound of Tibetan monks chanting and the tourists watching them chatting.

Whether in groups or alone however, none of the worshipers seemed to notice.

tibetan monk praying

Dharamsala is almost as refreshing as the cool mountain winds that chill bones and beers perfectly in the evening hours – especially for travelers needing a break from India’s crowded festivals and cities. In a deceptive way, Dharamsala can also make you think Tibetans in McLeod Ganj are content without Tibet or within their current predicament. Until the shops close down for a few days in honor of several more who’ve died of self-immolation to protest occupation, it feels as though peace that was never lost, has been achieved.

You can see all of my pictures from Dharamsala in my gallery here.