A Weekend in McLeod Ganj

India 2013

Saturday, March 16, 2013:

Penpa finally calls me from The Tibet Institute for Performing Arts. I can meet with singer/musician Norbu Samplel at 1:00. Yippee! When first imagining my trip to India, I pictured myself spending days in some room practicing sitar or tabla. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, but dranyen and piwang are not out of the question. Norbu can help me pick the best of the litter, and I hope give me a basic lesson in how to operate them.

Meantime I'll walk down to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which houses the Photang (Dalai Lama's residence), Tibet Museum, Tsuglagkhang Temple, Namgyal Gompa, and a small bookstore. The Gompa is a large courtyard between the temple and the Photang where one can see the monks debating in the afternoon, or devotees doing prostrating using long boards to assist the aerobic side of it and mala beads to assist in the counting to 108.

Monks dispersing after meditation in the Gompa.

An unflattering shot of the beautiful Photang in the rain. A couple of Dalai Lama fans hoping for a glimpse.

On the second floor deck that surrounds the Tsuglagkhang Complex.

Seems as soon as you get one person to take your photo, a lineup occurs of other tourists wanting to get in the picture with you.

There is no lack of benches around the Complex, and the old Tibetans love to come here to congregate, thumb their beads, and just be near their beloved Dalai Lama.

No particular place to go...

…and no hurry to get there.

"Your mala might be bigger, but mine's prettier."

Buddha Shakyamuni inside the temple.

Avalokitshvara (also in the Temple) and the explanatory sign nearby.

The fierce Phadmasambhava sits right next to Avalokitshvara. The word in the glare is "SUBDUING."

The Tibet Museum is incredibly well done. It's small enough (about a couple hundred high quality, well-anotated photos on two small floors) for a non-museum type like myself, and large enough to impact one with a full sense of the tragedy begun by Chairman Mao and his so-called Cultural Revolution. Cultural Devolution would be more accurate.

Tibet Martyrs Memorial is just outside the Tibet Museum.

A closer view of this moving sculpture.

The museum also has a series of 7 movies they play, one for each day of the week. The titles are things like "Compassion in Exile," "What Remains of Us," "The Burning Question," etc. You get the idea. I will not get to see one today, as they are shown at 3:00. I must grab some lunch and get up to see Norbu at TIPA.


Today, my lunch at the Peace Café is too rushed to enjoy. The place is run by a Tibetan family. Mom and Dad (late 30s) with their son (2) and daughter (9), plus an Uncle and Grandfather. It's Tibetan comfort food: momos (dumplings), thick soup and hearty Tibetan rolls. Not something you can just wolf down. But that's what I have to do. I'm going to be late for a very important date.

Even after rushing the meal, I still have to grab a rickshaw, which is maybe not a bad idea, since I've been on my feet all morning, and my left leg is still on the mend. It's been 5 days now since my collision with Warren the Buff.

Arriving 5 minutes late is no big deal. Norbu shows up 20 minutes after me. Apparently Tibetans are on Indian time, too.

Meeting Norbu Samphel is a treat. He is (surprise, surprise) a very welcoming, open and generous man. Extremely knowledgeable too when it comes to Tibetan music, culture and crafts. Here he is showing me how to play the piwang. He is the only one not out touring because he is expecting his first child any day now, yet he kindly has taken the time to meet with me and test out dranyen after dranyen, to make sure I get the best one. After I pick out my instruments, buy extra strings, wooden picks, bow rosin and a strap, he takes me upstairs to his editing suite. Norbu is also an editor, working on promos for TIPA as well as his own and other's music videos.

These are our primitive notes on how the dranyen (left) and piwang (right) are tuned and fingered. We spend about an hour in his studio, and he shows me the basics of how to hold the instruments and play a major scale. They use the western solfège names of do, re, mi, etc.

After finding out I am a composer and seeing a bit of my website, Norbu asks me if I'd like to collaborate sometime. I hadn't dared to think that this might be an outcome of my trip, but I thought it anyway. And here it is. Long story short, he will email me a track of him singing and playing dranyen, and I will sweeten it with overdubs - guitar, piano, percussion or whatever feels appropriate - and send it back. He'll re-do his vocals, add harmonies, or whatever, and then I'll get the final back to mix. Or something like that. I think. It will be an adventure, for sure.

We exchange emails, promise Facebook friending and I set off down the hill, piwang poking out of my red backpack and a dranyen slung over my shoulder.*


I spend the afternoon looking for coral and turquoise earrings. I wish Sharon were here to pick them out. Next best thing? Take some pics and send them to her.

The next noteworthy event of the day is the 7:00 open mic session at the café attached to the Hope Education Centre. Unlike the TIPA experience this is not all that I hoped for. The house guitar is a real beater and no one can really sing or play more than 3 chords, so I become the reluctant go-to guy who can't really think of any songs and the ones I do think of are too old for the crowd. Beatles? Never heard of 'em. And these are European kids! Hardly a Tibetan or Indian in the room. I meet one young woman who can carry a tune quite nicely. Irene is from Holland. We enjoy a good conversation, but don't know any tunes in common, so after a couple of false starts, we call it quits. I hand the guitar off to Thom, the Russian I had met in the hat store.


Sunday, March 17:

This morning I'm up at 6 to catch the sunrise from my India House balcony, and I don't finish til after 8. I get about two yoga stretches in and something catches my eye and I have to grab the camera. Meditating out there is even more impossible.

This kitty has found her place in the sun.

These soaring predators are called Kites by some. I find their glide irresistible.

A perched kite with friend.

Taking pictures out there is addictive. I have to go into the room and close the curtains. Breakfast is a banana and some oranges from the street vendors plus good ol' McVities Digestives. It is followed by a trip over to Nick's for a coffee and to plan my Sunday.

Sitting out on the patio at Nick's, I run into Irene from last night. We sit and talk for half an hour and I learn that she is in a quandary similar to my own regarding how long to stay in McLeod vs. seeing other places like Rishikesh. It's nice for both of us lone travellers to have someone else to kick it around with.

As we're talking, I notice an older gent in a Tibetan cowboy hat sitting off to one side of the patio with a pre-teen Tibetan girl. They're both holding dranyens and it's pretty evident that he's teaching a lesson. I finish up with Irene and quickly walk over to the pair. Trying to curb my enthusiasm, I interrupt as gently as possible, introduce myself and ask about lessons. He tells me his rates and we make a date for an hour-long lesson tomorrow at 1:00. His name is Chung Den. I think I just decided to stay in McLeod Ganj.


My leg is feeling good enough for the relatively short hike up to the little village of Bhagsu and the waterfall beyond.

The walk holds all sorts of interesting views.

Friendly little goatsies also wander this not-too-steep path.

The falls tumble into an icy pool which drains down the valley. The red blotches on the rocks are monks' robes drying in the sun.

Bhagsu Falls. This is what all the fuss is about.

People, mostly tourists, come here to cavort in the icy water.

This young man keeps motioning for me to wade over to him so he can have a pic taken with me. He is a government worker on vacation.

His friend wants to be next. Turns out he is the young man's boss. We continue to exchange snaps in various combinations.

The walk back down as the sun is getting low affords some gasp-inducing vistas.


Karma and the Tibet Music Trust

The Tibetan Music Trust gets a small mention in the Lonely Planet Guide. I had noticed a little advertisement posted on a wall for a show tonight at the upstairs bar of the Hotel Mount View. I arrange to meet up there with some people I met up at the Bhagsu Falls.

Karma is the front man. He chants and plays a little djembe, but Chung Den is the talent, playing his dranyen, singing and doing traditional dance steps. It's a great show and a nice venue but unfortunately poorly attended. The four of us are over half the audience.

Here's Karma introducing and performing a song for his beloved parents back in Tibet. (Sorry, no actual video)

That's Karma in the middle. On the left is Juliana from Kazakhstan. In back are Don (L) and Dave (R), both from Vancouver. I had met them at the waterfall and we walked back to town together.

Here is Chung Den - soon to be my teacher - playing dranyen and singing Shiveh Khang Seng, a song about his beautiful homeland and the Dalai Lama.


Serendipity seems to have been following me this weekend. What a great friend to have when one is travelling alone. Chance meetings with such interesting fellow travellers, the search for traditional Tibetan instruments turns up a producing gig AND a teacher. I think serendipity is a spider, weaving long threads that crisscross, shoot off and leave drifting trails, sticky and catching on to things even serendipity never planned. It's been with me the whole trip, really. Not that it's all been good, but from my very first phone call to Darrol, to the water buffalo, and to my walk home after the concert tonight it feels like one grand, random, rousing adventure of a plan.

As I walk up the hill from the Mount View to my room at Hotel India House, these fellows nod a greeting from the steps of the grocery store.

And this trio enjoys a midnight snack.

Happy Reading!

*Four months later Norbu and I did work on a track together. It was for a TIPA competition. He won.

BONUS: More Chung Den la. This is a swinging little 12/8 number called Ri Di Karag Ri. His pleading raspy voice sounds like I imagine Tibet to look. Click here. Song will play in a new widow.

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