I board a rickshaw outside the bus station in Kushalnagar, a dusty and hot town in Karnataka’s Kodagu district. Around 10 minutes later it whizzes into Camp 1 and would have passed straight through in the blink of an eye if I hadn’t shouted out “illi stop maadi!” in broken Kannada.
Suddenly I’m in an entirely different world as I step out into the tiny settlement consisting of a few blocks of shops, and try to blend in among the maroon-robed monks. Lhasa is 2,500 kilometres away and 3,500 metres higher up but on the horizon, I spy a gilded roof with upswept eaves belonging to a majestic monastery.
Generally referred to as Bylakuppe, after the nearby South Indian village, this camp for Tibetan refugees established in 1961 is actually named Lugszungbsamgrubgling. Since few can pronounce that, it is better known as Camp 1. It lies within walking distance of four or five other camps that were established later including the more popular Camp 4 with its Namdroling Monastery, which in popular parlance is called the Golden Temple.
I instantly notice that there are plenty of eateries and, thankfully, not a single one advertises tandoori. Many of the stalls specialise in momos, the classic dumplings that have become popular street food all over India. But the first place I try is the somewhat fancy Potala Kitchen. The waiter who greets me proudly states that this is the most famous eatery in town. The family-run restaurant was founded in 2012. Unlike the older food joints it has, apart from waiting staff, a spacious dining hall, comfy sofas arranged into American diner-style booths around clothed tables, spic and span restrooms, and an unexpectedly exhaustive seven-page menu.
It is a typically meaty bill of fare (and there’s one fish item on offer). Since vegetables are difficult to grow in Tibet, locals tend to eat lots of chicken, pork and beef. But as this version of Tibet lies surrounded by fertile fields, here a strict vegetarian will find about two dozen dishes to choose from. In fact, just across the road Tibetan farmers’ wives sell fresh agricultural produce.
The fact that the dining hall is crowded with Buddhist monks who talk in hushed tones as they softly slurp their soupy noodles makes me feel that I’m in the right place. After the monks leave, a group of Tibetan ladies sit down for a lunch of mixed veg soup and mixed veg noodles, so Potala Kitchen seems not to be a tourist destination as much as the local in-place. However, when I try to order a beer to beat the heat, it turns out there’s no alcohol available in the refugee settlement, not even the fresh Tibetan beer, chhang, so I make do with a so-called fruit beer (`30) that is non-alcoholic and contains no fruit.
Notwithstanding the lack of intoxicating beverage, the food on my table is superb Himalayan fare. Ignoring the touristy concessions of American chopsuey, gobi manchurian and Indianised paneer momos, I focus on food from Buddhist countries such as Thailand’s green pork curry (`160) and Bhutanese emadatsi (`70), which is essentially chillies boiled with yak cheese and usually impossible to find outside Bhutan. I top it off with a delicately flavoured Tibetan spinach and meat patsel stir-fry with fluffy steamed bread or tingmo (`80). It is one of my best meals of this year.
Unlike in the Tibetan settlement at Dharamsala to which foreigners flock, here I’m the only tourist and there’s no Pink Floyd droning on discreet surround sound systems. The walls are instead covered with uplifting slogans like “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up” and “Live for nothing or die for something.” I’m not sure if the slogans relate to the Tibetan cause or restaurant management.
After the exotic meal, I inspect the bazaar. Shopkeepers are all very cordial, but no bargaining is allowed due to a certain Tibetan code of business honesty. As a rule of thumb, everything is cheaper here than in the shopping complex opposite the Golden Temple. Instead of wasting time on haggling, I chat with the store owners. One tells me she was born here and doesn’t really think she will know any other place.“But what about Tibet?” She smiles without any obvious bitterness. “We are refugees.”
The old lady who runs the adjoining shop, which has a large selection of handheld prayer wheels and cool T-shirts with Tibetan lettering, looks like she could be one of the original settlers. It turns out she was two years old when her parents fled Tibet. She says, “I have never seen Tibet.” Hers is the oldest shop, started in 1985 at a time when there was no bazaar here.
“Was it like a jungle with elephants?”
“No, no, there were houses. But no other shops.”
In the convenience stores I buy locally made high-quality noodles, a fiery looking Kollegal meat pickle that turns out to be excellent, and an interesting cooking paste which is sold in blocks—the shopkeeper instructs me to crumble a thumbnail sized bit in the pot as a way of seasoning.
After shopping, I walk along a quiet country road through the lush landscape—between fields where Tibetan farmers grow corn, sorghum and rice—towards Namdroling Monastery in Camp 4 and bump into an old-timer with a portable prayer wheel that he swings in his hand. He doesn’t speak English, but a student comes along and translates. The old man walked all the way from Tibet to India when he was 12, together with a group of 10 refugees. Only seven made it alive through the mountains, he says and smiles as he tells me how he loves the taste of masala dosa.
The 660 Tibetans who arrived at Camp 1 in December 1960 had to adapt to a different altitude and climate. But over the decades, adapt they did, and turned their leased land into a repository of culture. The monasteries are based on such institutions that once existed in old Tibet and surrounded by an array of handicrafts centres and restaurants. The cluster of camps nowadays probably counts as Asia’s largest Tibetan exile settlements, with many shrines and some of the world’s premier institutions for studying Buddhist philosophy.
I reach Namdroling Monastery which was established by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche as a 9×9 feet bamboo structure in 1963. At that time there were only 10 monks here. Today it is home to over 8,000 monks and a gigantic gilded Buddha, which was consecrated in 1999. Outside it, I do more souvenir shopping (a solar-powered prayer wheel and a set of prayer flags). All profit from the monastic enterprises—souvenir sales, canteens and guesthouses—goes towards welfare of the monks and also to fund medical clinics. A couple of hundred metres from the temple I find Rigo Restaurant that attracts patrons with its offers of free Wifi and “devil momo.” Their menu is even fancier than the one at Potala Kitchen—printed on thick glossy paper, with the text printed in both Tibetan script as well as in English—and apart from the many Tibetan delicacies there’s a range of Bhutanese, Chinese, Singaporean and Thai, including mouth-watering items like stir-fried pork with peanuts and honey-chilli spare ribs. Upon enquiry, I learn that the devil momos are deep-fried and too spicy, so instead I go for mokthuk (`100) with konjee (`140). I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but in exotic restaurants I tend to optimistically order whatever is previously unknown to me. Mokthuk turns out to be a delicious momo soup with spinach and tomatoes, while konjee is a crispy fried beef dish, and I especially appreciate the fact that the food is served with chopsticks rather than knife and fork.
Again, I am the sole tourist here, the rest of the dinner guests being a merry gang of buddhist monks.
Getting There Bylakuppe is 230 km/4.5 hr southwest of Bengaluru and 85 km/1.5 hr west of Mysore. The closest town is Kushalnagar (10 km/ 10 min). KSRTC and other travel companies run buses from Bengaluru to Kushalnagar. From Kushalnagar, one can take an auto to Bylakuppe.
Eat Potala Kitchen is in the market area of Camp 1 (meal for two approx `400, fruit beer `30). Rigo Restaurant is close to the Namdroling Monastery (meal for two approx `500). In Camp 1, a must try are beef momos served with hot chilli sauce and a mild broth at Tenzing Fast Food Shop (`60). Between Camp 1 and Camp 2, stop at Big Momo for a snack. A cluster of homely canteens at Camp 3 are ideal for restaurant- hopping—try Khangchen Restaurant or Kongpo Kitchen. Olive, also in Camp 3, is a popular spot offering both Indian and Tibetan fare.
For breakfast, order tawa-baked Tibetan flat breads with sambar and egg bhurji (`60). Don’t miss the butter tea, a slightly salty drink boiled with Amul butter, served in the more nondescript eateries.
More than Meat On Wednesdays, only vegetarian food is served at Tibetan restaurants. For strict vegetarians, the pure veg monk-run Malaya in PDL Guesthouse opposite the Golden Temple serves thukpa and momos.
Closing time Most Tibetan restaurants shut early. Don’t expect to find food after 8 p.m. as dinner time here is around 6 p.m.
Stay To stay overnight anywhere in the Tibetan camps, foreigners require a PAP (Protected Area Permit), valid for 12 months. Apply 3-6 months in advance. Indians don’t need permits. (PAP Enquiry: Bureau Office of His Holiness, Dalai Lama; 011-2647-4798/26218548; Settlement Office, Camp 1, Bylakuppe; 08223-253476/253633).
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).