It was raining icy daggers at five in the morning when I left Manali. I had asked the elderly owner of the guesthouse to call me a rickshaw but no one wanted to come up the mountain so early in the morning in such bad weather. He grudgingly agreed to take me in his own car, saving me from getting soaked and chilled.
Half an hour down the hill the bus driver (public bus, by the way!!) stopped for a cup of chai and to huddle around a fire for a few minutes in a place that resembled an exaggerated Glencoe — steep olive green and brown slopes and shafts of golden light glancing through the rain. After Kullu the landscape changed again, narrowing into a tight deep gorge with an impossibly green river at the bottom, white temples perched on its walls and swingy rope bridges every mile or two. I tried taking pictures, but photographing out the window of a moving bus always ends in heartbreak: you’re on the wrong side, there’s a tree in the way, etc.
Around two I changed buses in Palampur, a regional hub that has little to recommend it in terms of town but everything in setting: green high meadows with tall white mountains behind. The men hanging around at the station (and there are always lots of them — not sure if they’re actually employed or if they’re just there for fun) tried to shunt me onto the Dharamsala bus immediately, but my back and stomach rebelled. I thought I would leave the station and find somewhere safer to eat, but the only place I could find was arguably worse: full of flies, due to the obvious policy of sweeping table scraps onto the floor then never cleaning it. After a plate of greasy noodles I anxiously checked my watch for a few hours, but nothing happened.
Another two hours to Dharamsala — local bus just as school let out, so loads of children — then onto a share jeep for the last leg. A share jeep sits in the bus station waiting for enough people to fill it, in this case twelve (and so crowded in the front that I wasn’t actually sure who was driving). Some hanger-on threw my backpack onto the roof but didn’t tie it down, so I spent the whole trip up the mountain obsessively craning my neck out the back window stressing about seeing my bag hurtle off – or worse, not seeing it.
Finally: McLeod Ganj, home of the Dalai Lama and his refugee followers, perched on steep foothills overlooking the Punjabi plains with a black and white wall of mountains backing it. The streets are filled with monks and nuns in burgandy robes and shaved heads and a whole lot of blissed-out-looking westerners. Haven’t seen this many dreadlocks since Goa.
That night I dreamt I was in a palace, all white marble, and looking for the toilet. When I found it, it was reachable only through an archway six inches off the floor; in order to get in you would have to scoot through on your back or stomach. Deep-seated emotional analysis? Or just related to how awful the bogs are here? At breakfast I sat next to an elderly German lady who was haranging her young aquaintances volubly: “Aren’t you cold? Where will you be able to wear those thick socks – they’re too big!” When she started in on her version of the world economy I tuned out. There doesn’t seem to be much point in my paying attention other than to know that it’s not the right time to go home.
My mother wrote to say that the Dalai Lama was in Berkely that same day. We must have gotten our wires crossed for him to be looking for me in my home town just as I had come to see him. I went to his temple anyway. There were fewer people than I had expected perambulating about the complex, prostrating themselves in front of the huge jeweled gold statues and turning the prayer wheels. There was a moving museum with photographs of Llasa before the Chinese invasion and some of the streams of refugees trudging over the mountains. There were thank-yous everywhere to the Indian government for having received them, especially at a time when it was not easy for it to do so. There was a huge bookshop filled with literature about Tibet and Buddhism and biographies of His Holiness (then, oddly, a shelf of Danielle Steels and Harry Potters). Posted everywhere around town were quotes from the Dalai Lama, the most conspicous of which being about his policy of forgiveness. I’ve been thinking about going to Tibet, though my back screams at the idea of traveling overland. Hopefully the Chinese government won’t find out that I’ve been to McLeod Gaj when it comes to issuing a visa…