Om Mani Padme Hum

by Gabriella Sonabend

In 2009, when I backpacked around India, after leaving Rajasthan I travelled to the foothills of the Himalayas to McLeod Ganj; the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile. Here I fell in love with a people, their culture and their way of life. My friends and I ended up extending out stay in McLeod Ganj as we found it hard to tear ourselves away from the wonderful Tibetans. I became involved with the volunteering centre where I taught English, spent time watching documentaries and listening to the incredible stories of survival of those who had come to McLeod Ganj from Tibet.

The Tibetans in McLeod Ganj are political refugees who had to flee their own country in order to preserve their culture and save their own lives. The oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese is a painful and little known story, which persists today for the survivors and those who still live in Tibet and in exile. Unfortunately for Tibetans they have little to offer the world politically or economically and consequently their cause is ignored, dismissed and belittled. But as we speak, today in the former Tibet, Tibetans are living in concentration camps in the most shocking conditions. Despite this terrible truth the Tibetans living in McLeod Ganj manage to maintain a spirit of optimism, compassion and joy. They are filled with warmth and they are thankful for the beauty of nature and the silver linings in their lives. This is what makes the Tibetan people so entrancing; they are ceaselessly kind and optimistic.

After visiting McLeod Ganj a few years ago, I decided to study Tibetan Buddhism for a year at SOAS in order to better understand their culture. The course was not exactly what I expected. I was hoping to learn about the Cultural Revolution in China and its impact on contemporary Tibetans, instead I learnt about the establishment of the religion and the traditional history of the county. This was fascinating nonetheless. My interest in Tibet continued and I have since tried to educate myself further. When I booked my ticket to India I knew that I would be rooted in Varanasi but that at some point I would have to travel to the mountains.

The thought of being in India and not visiting the Tibetans was an impossible one, so I was thrilled when Kathrin told me that she needed a holiday and agreed to travel with me to the Himalayas. Today we take a 20+ hour train journey to the mountains and tomorrow evening I will be in the heart of McLeod Ganj eating traditional Tibetan noodles and staring out into the misty valleys. Last night I could barely sleep. This morning I am anxious; packing and repacking constantly in nervous excitement.