McLeod Ganj is on a steep hillside. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

It was a spiritual experience, just not the kind typically associated with the home of the Dalai Lama. This one was of my own making.

I had bypassed rafts of meditation centres, yoga retreats and Buddhism schools while hiking steadily upwards along rocky paths high above McLeod Ganj, the base of the Tibetan Government-in-exile in northern India.

Exhaustion from four hours of labour, together with a paucity of oxygen at an altitude of well over 3000m, had triggered a mental metamorphosis.

Gazing from this lofty perch across the green hills of Dharamkot towards Dharamsala, a euphoric sensation surged.

The agreeable after-effects of strenuous physical activity had combined with the beguiling vista to lull me into a trance-like state of harmony.

Even the elements appeared to be in concert. The temperature dropped, or so it seemed, counterbalancing my blazing core temperature.

The wind lifted and helped dry my sweat-laden skin. For an hour I absorbed the serenity, basked in my pleasant mood and convinced myself I had achieved an enlightened condition.

Perhaps it was this sort of transcendent experience they had been spruiking at the many spirituality-based businesses in the communities below.

McLeod Ganj lives off hippy tourism. It is a place where the open-minded come to see if their consciousness can be expanded further.

It doesn't hurt that it is on a forested ridge facing the Himalayan mountains. On the steep, winding streets of this tiny town, the influence of Buddhism and the Tibetan faith are ever present.

Tibetan prayer wheels spin slowly from the breeze in the shadows of vibrantly coloured religious flags.

Maroon robes adorn monks paused in contemplation within the silent grounds of the Tsuglagkhang complex.

This large compound on the edge of the town houses the Namgyal Gompa monastery, the Tibet museum and the Tsuglagkhang temple.

Most significantly, it also features the Photrang, the Tibetan name for the official residence of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Along with about 80,000 other Tibetans, he claimed asylum here in the State of Himachal Pradesh after China invaded Tibet in 1959.

The 79-year-old spiritual leader has become so highly valued in Himachal Pradesh that there was widespread concern last year at news he had set up a second residence in the southern Indian State of Karnataka.

The Dalai Lama's presence in McLeod Ganj has turned the former British hill station into a hub for the study of Buddhism and Tibetan culture.

It is a spiritual haven lined with schools, nunneries, monasteries, holistic centres and meditation venues.

Naturally, some of these elements of religion and spirituality have been monetised to take advantage of the influx of tourists.

The town makes a profit from travellers, but not in an objectionable manner. There are few pushy vendors, or touts trying to leverage visitors into their travel agencies.

That is because, for the most part, it is spiritual experiences which are for sale here. Those interested in such an ethereal product are not likely to respond well to pressure tactics.

While McLeod Ganj would be more charming and authentic without its tourist economy, it is far from ruined.

Its streets are quiet at all hours and visitors are reserved and respectful while patronising its many Western- influenced restaurants, cafes and budget hotels.

McLeod Ganj does not attract the type of obnoxious tourists who can blight a peaceful destination. Most travellers gravitate towards this isolated town in search of tranquillity and insight.

In the wooded hamlet of Dharamkot, a short hike up the hill from the town centre, there are clusters of spiritual retreats.

Westerners spanning a wide spectrum of age spend days, weeks or even months embracing the simplicity of life in these camps.

Not for a want of offers from polite staff, I decided to forego such an adventure to instead test my aerobic capacity on the many steep trails beyond Dharamkot.

Travel companies in McLeod Ganj offer two-day treks up to Triund Hill, which is about 11km away along taxing stony inclines.

Preferring the comfort of a bed and hot shower at day's end, I opted to blaze my own path on solo day hikes.

Dharamkot is about 2km uphill from McLeod Ganj and provides a pleasant spot to pause and refresh yourself at one of its quaint shops.

Quaint farms punctuated by green terraces and wandering livestock quickly gave way to solitude on the narrow paths which led upwards beyond this village.

As McLeod Ganj is not renowned for trekking, most of these trails are all but empty, which only makes them even more enjoyably secluded.

Curiously, they were populated by almost as many animals as people. Amid striding and deep breaths I came across several herds of adventurous cows who appeared neither lost nor perturbed by their dramatic, high- altitude surroundings.

After almost three hours of climbing steadily towards a cloudless blue sky I earned my first fresh peek at the Himalayas, which had been obscured since leaving Dharamkot.

At 5639m high, Hanuman Ka Tibba is an imposing and spectacular sight. This snow-smothered mountain is the highest peak in the Dhauladhar Range and is the key feature of the striking view owned by McLeod Ganj.

It was so mesmerising that from my vantage point I almost overlooked a small group of homes clinging to the edge of the ridge between me and Hanuman Ka Tibba.

Then a dreadlocked young man, completing the rocky hike barefooted, emerged from around the next bend. He told me two things - that his lack of shoes was a mental test and that there was little to see at those abodes.

The latter piece of news was particularly welcome. Reaching those faraway structures had been my own challenge. With energy levels now mired in the red zone and my weary feet pleading for a reprieve, I turned my back on the homes and sat on a rocky outcrop with a powerful vista.

A mix of positive emotions surfaced - first relief, then satisfaction, followed by calm and, finally, wonder.

Becoming increasingly distant, the hippy man tread carefully towards McLeod Ganj. Without the protection of footwear, his only shield was his faith.

By nightfall he would be in familiar company, back in the peaceful environs of one of India's most spiritual towns.

FACT FILE

The Dalai Lama holds public teachings in McLeod Ganj several times a year. The next three are from September 24-26, October 6-9 and November 11-13. These talks are free but you need to register in person at the Tibetan Branch Security Office in McLeod Ganj.

Several Indian airlines fly into Dharamsala from Delhi. From the airport it is about a one-hour taxi ride up to McLeod Ganj.

Those seeking a stronger taste of the Himalayan range after visiting McLeod Ganj can continue on to Manali, a small alpine town deep in the mountains. The 240km bus trip takes between nine and 11 hours.

McLeod Ganj is best visited between March and June, when the daytime temperatures are mild. From July to September is monsoon season and the area gets hammered by rain - it is one of the wettest places in India.

The West Australian

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