The taxi driver sped at over 40mph up the narrow, winding mountain road, I kept telling myself to keep calm, the guy must drive this route every day – he must know what he’s doing.
My thoughts were broken by another swerve as the driver sped by a taxi, his hand firmly on the horn forcing the driver of the second car to pull over to barely an inch from the edge of the mountain. Next thing I know we have entered a fairly populated area and I breathe a sigh of relief, we must be nearly there now, either way the driver will have to slow down – surely?
His hand goes back on the horn and now we are swerving by cattle stood in the middle of the road, we speed round steep corners so tight I’d be impressed if a motorbike could fit round them and while I search for something to grab hold of, I also stare out of the window at the lifestyle in the lower Dharamshala area. People live in small shacks, children chase wildlife with little care for the traffic and all manner of animals wander the roadside. Then there is the sound, the constant blaring car horns and shouts from other drivers. We speed further and further up a mountain and the views are breath-taking, the lack of road safety barriers allow you take in the view. As we get higher things become calmer and quieter, just as I allow myself to relax, the breaks suddenly screech, pushing me forward in my seat, finally we have stopped. The taxi driver turns to me, “we are here”.
This was my introduction to McLeodGanj, Dharamshala, a remote ‘hill station’ in the Himachal Pradesh province of India. It is only accessible to taxis and cars, and is at an elevation of over 6,831 feet. It is also home to the Tibetan Government and the Dalai Lama following their exile from Tibet in 1959.
I have ended up in this highly remote part of the world after spending months recovering from a broken and dislocated ankle and making the decision that as soon as I could walk again I would challenge myself. Like many university graduates I have travelled a lot and I would recommend travel to everyone. I have learnt there are lessons to be learned from every culture, every market and every business and you shouldn’t be afraid to travel to distant and remote places.
So six months after a painful, drunken disagreement with a Manchester street curb I left the UK to begin working for The Tibet Post, an independent, online and print publication founded by a group of Tibetan journalists with the goal of promoting democracy through freedom of expression within Tibetan communities, both in exile and under occupation in Tibet.
The Tibetan struggle is something that we in the West hear very little about, this is due, in part, to the heavy restrictions on journalists in the Tibetan region and also, to quote Tibetan Prime Minister Dr Lobsang Sangay, “many European countries have chosen to put money over morals,” that is to say it is politically more important for western governments to maintain strong relations with China than to show support for this isolated community.
Personally I did not grow up with a big understanding or passion for the Tibetan cause, mainly because I was never taught about it. My exposure to Tibet primarily came from the fantastic Belgian comic adventure Tintin in Tibet in which the famous reporter set out on a personal mission to rescue a friend in the Himalayas. However in the days I have spent here in Dharamshala, I have learnt about many aspects of Tibetan life that would surprise and shock those in the west and I have met people with amazing stories of escape, education and family. The politics and oppression in Tibet might also help to highlight some of the reasons behind the unrest in Hong Kong and underscore the importance of an effective democracy.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting on SocialStudent a series of articles, which are published for The Tibet Post International. Hopefully it will give an idea of a place many western people will not be exposed to and a culture that an amazing community is fighting to keep alive.
You can follow me on Twitter @shaws85 and The Tibet Post International newspaper @thetibetpost