Many a traveler receives her first introduction to Tibetan people and culture in Dharamsala, the Northern Indian hill station where His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a large community of Tibetans make their homes in exile.
I went there in an attempt to escape the heat and hassle of the Indian flatlands. Lonesome and exhausted after seeing my six-weeks’ travel buddy Tony off from Delhi, I holed up in a cheap room near slummy Pahar Ganj for a day, surrounded by maps and wanting to be anywhere but there.
Traveling around India had been beautiful and rich and full of everything that travel should be, but I was worn out. Badly needing a break from the in-your-face-twenty-four-hours-a-day Indian cities, I decided to head for the more peaceful hills.
I’d been living in Japan for five years, and this trip was supposed to be part of a final loop through Asia before heading to Eastern Europe. But on the night bus from Delhi to Dharamsala I spent a nauseous thirteen hours questioning why I travel in bizarre and difficult places. As we jolted over potholes in the pitch black night, I was beginning to think that five years in Asia was more than plenty.
Maybe, I thought, I should bail on the Trans-Mongolian, which I was planning to take to Eastern Europe, and just fly to Prague. Anything but this exhausting, wretched hassle of India. A cafe sounded nice. I’d still feel imbalanced, but at least I’d be clean and not reach the fevered pitch of desperate irritation that happened all too often in India, and would be worse, I suspected, now that I was traveling alone again.
The bus, meanwhile, was whining it’s way up the western edge of the Himalaya in the darkness, and the air became brighter and cleaner with each steep hairpin curve. When we finally jolted to a halt among the ramshackle buildings and huts that make up the town of McLeod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, I stepped off into the crisp radiance of a quiet Himalayan dawn, and smiled for the first time in days. It was love at first sight, and I knew instantly that this was a place I would stay a while.
Trying to find the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives later on the first morning, I stumbled onto the popular prayer path that encircles the Dalai Lama’s hill residence, and found it busy with ancient Tibetan men and women whose hair hung in long scraggly pigtails down their backs and whose mild faces crinkled in snaggle-toothed grins.
We all hustled together past whitewashed stones carved with Sanskrit-looking letters I couldn’t understand, under strings of colored prayer flags weaving through their melodious drone of prayers in the fresh, bright air.
I had no idea what was going on, but the spot was almost ridiculously picturesque and their mild faces and gentle piety were intoxicating. I felt myself in the presence of a living religion, quiet, free, and beautiful. And like so many before me, I wanted to know more.
Almost a year passed before I could tear myself away from Dharamsala and its gentle and charming people. I spent the year studying the Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy, volunteer teaching English to monks, reading piles of Tibetan history books, and interviewing refugees.
It was immediately obvious that all streams of thought about Tibet eventually empty into the “ocean of wisdom,” His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So I requested an interview from His Holiness’ Private Office, and was granted one in February of 1996.
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By Lobsang Wangdu