Shangri-La conjures up the image of an earthly paradise; a utopia located high in the Himalayan Mountains; a mythical paradise of happiness and isolation. Tibetan scriptures describe Shangri-La as having been created as a refuge for Buddhists during times of turmoil.
Anticipation and excitement is in no short supply at the entrance to the winding uphill thoroughfare of McLeod Ganj. Laying in the shadow of its most auspicious neighbor this town of oil drums, wheel rim shops, and mechanics offers little to inspire a traveler. Glancing up though, that is where the magic happens. In the clouds, shrouded in a heavy ethereal mist is a city made famous as a refuge, the capital for Tibet’s Government in Exile; Dharamsala.
Like all roads routed through mountains the composition is that of hairpins, dead man curves, switchbacks, and steep grades. Like most Indian cities McLeod Ganj is dusty, dirty, chaotic, and noisy. It is almost as if McLeod Ganj is acting as a gauntlet through which you must pass in order to fully appreciate what awaits at the summit.
Having already traveled to Tibet in 1998 I was ready to be overwhelmed but at the same time did not want to expect too much and leave myself open for disappointment.
I shouldn’t have worried.
Dharamsala is Tibet; the way Tibet should be. Free of torture, adverse propaganda, discrimination, and oppression. Sure there are western influences and opportunities that may tempt a young Tibetan from becoming a monk however freedom comes with a price tag the world over.
Here in Dharamsala the price of freedom is temptation and opportunity. Yet still the religious doctrine is alive and well. The Dalai Lama is revered and monks young and old fill the streets with crimson and compassion.
We settled into our hostel on top of the mountain and with a hot shower under our belts we set out to explore this high altitude hamlet.
Surrounding us were pine trees and peaks. The air was crisp, the sky clear, and all appeared to be right in the world. Shops littered the main street all selling the same merchandise but every now and then you would get a surprise and find something just a little out of the ordinary.
Even if you don’t, you will still end up buying something that catches your eye, a gift for someone back home, a souvenir to enhance the memory, or more likely an exit strategy.
For me it was a 20lb brass Buddha who, even though no longer in the mountains, continues to oversee my life from above. Placed on a high shelf he garners the respect and gratitude well deserved.
As evening turns to night, sometime during those hours occupied by dusk, a light snowfall began to coat our mountain sanctuary. The peace and tranquility we had felt upon arrival became magnified as the white powder descended with ever-increasing pace and intensity.
We sought refuge in a bar and as the hours went by, beer was consumed, stories were told, the hanging paper stars were praised, flirting grew to hugs, and photos were taken to seal in the memory.
When we exited the bar with souvenirs of t-shirts, bags, and Buddha in hand we entered, with amazement, into a transformed winter wonderland. No longer were we walking on high altitude dusty streets surrounded by greenery and buildings draped in the Tibetan colors of gold, red, and blue. Now everything was covered in several feet of soft white snow. A Christmas-like blanket of purity had bound itself to Dharamsala enhancing, even more-so, the affect of divinity.
Breakfast the next morning was a competition between hunger and warmth. The heat in the hotel dining room was out so multiple layers of clothing were required.
Hoodies were up and hands parked themselves in gloves then sought further refuge under armpits. Food was eaten quickly with an eye towards vacating the premises; outside was warmer than inside…we had learned that in Solan.
The main square was not so far from where we stayed. In fact it was just at the base of the hilltop on which our little hotel was perched. As we approached we could see there was some commotion but it wasn’t until we were about to enter the arena that we realized a full on, monk versus everyone else, snowball battle was underway.
Monks on the ground, up a level, and on rooftops of buildings were systematically picking off passers-by with a barrage of tightly molded snowballs. The white blanket of purity had been recycled into projectiles unleashed with incredible accuracy from the hands of the most compassionate and peace loving young men on earth. Their crimson robes, humor, and life philosophy in stark contrast to the cries erupting out of the melee.
Dr. Cathy led the charge backed up by a well meaning but unprepared cadre of medical students. Within minutes they were hunkered down on the semi-protected steps of a local shawl shop.
Shelter came in the form of the metal stair rails that at best deflected one out of every three snowballs. Given the fact that they were all women, all white, all American, all tourists, the rate at which the snowballs were flying increased dramatically.
It was not every day the citizens of Dharamsala’s monasteries got to exact some sort of revenge on the tourist population, so with a great amount of glee and unabashed satisfaction they attacked until retreat for the doctors at large was the only option.
It was quite a sight to see the snowballs slam into the unsuspecting. Soon the out of the ordinary hilarity had infected all, even those who continued to watch from the hillside overlooking the square.
We found out shortly after that the snow had dumped up to 15 feet in some places and that it had been 38 years since the last time this had happened. Houses in outlying areas had been completely covered and the roads were now closed around Dharamsala.
Even though our group made a valiant effort to drive out the way we had arrived it became abundantly clear very fast that a continued stay in Dharamsala was on the horizon. Not a single one of us found disappointment in this news and so we stayed.
For some of us it would be our last night together, for others we would continue on to more remote villages but for all of us it was bittersweet.
To find out how this all came about; click Beckoned Skyward by an Earthquake.