It was a damp and soggy morning and the monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama was still shrouded in a low mist. The shrill squawk of macaques echoed through the thick air and the soporific chants of Buddhist mantras resounded across the courtyard. The heady aroma of saffron, juniper and cannabis wafted over the stupas and golden statues.
The monastery and residence of the Dalai Lama is in McLeod Ganj, a small town that clings to the rolling green foothills of the Himalayas in India. When he was forced to flee Tibet in 1959, India offered him refuge and the little settlement has been home to the Tibetan in exile ever since. Last time I was here, I’d missed the chance to catch a glimpse of the spiritual leader of Tibet, but on this journey — walking the length of the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to Bhutan — I was determined to seek an audience.
I waited on the terrace with my friend Ash, amid cross-legged devotees, while children scampered about beneath prayer flags and dogs strutted between the pilgrims. Next to us, a young monk made a call on his smartphone, his Nike trainers poking out from beneath his saffron robes. He informed us that photography was forbidden, chiefly because there were Tibetans here who’d sneaked over the mountains — travelling in disguise under the cover of darkness, desperate to meet their spiritual leader before making the perilous journey back to their occupied homeland.
So when we were hauled out of the crowd by a stern-looking armed security guard, I was convinced that our surreptitious photo taking had scuppered our chances. But, I was mistaken; we were ushered through pretty courtyards and soon found ourselves in the Dalai Lama’s living room, assured that he would join us any minute.
I racked my brains for something to ask him. What does one say to the living incarnation of Buddha? Questions buzzed around my head. ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ Too generic. ‘How do we find happiness?’ He’d tell me to read his book. ‘Do you like walking?’ Oh god, this was disastrous.
The door opened and in walked the Dalai Lama, without fuss or fanfare. He wobbled in a slightly ungainly manner, but not one that indicated frailty — more a vivacious enthusiasm to get about, in spite of his 80 years. His cheeky grin and creased eyes told of a lifetime of laughter. He grasped my hand and shook it, but he didn’t let go.
“So, you’re walking to Lhasa?” He had the voice of a 30-year-old; young and authoritative, with a clarity I could hardly believe. Before I could answer, and tell him that I was hoping to get to Bhutan because I’d been told a Chinese visa for Tibet was unlikely, he continued:
“Do you have a visa?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I told him.
He was quiet for a moment and surveyed the room.
“OK, you go to Chinese mission in Kathmandu. You tell them you go to Mount Kailash. Then you go quietly, and relax, and then get permission from authorities to go Lhasa.”
He continued to stare at me through those iconic, thick glasses.
“When we have success, you come back. We have big welcome, I would like that. Then…” He paused for effect. “Maximum publicity. Till then, silent!”
So no meaning of life then, just some travel advice. Though, I suppose if there was anything I’d learned on this journey, it was to expect the unexpected.
I asked him if he had a message for the people of Tibet.
“No,” he replied. “I don’t think you mention to Tibetans that you meet me. For time being, no mention, or you’ll risk work. Your work should be successful. Then after, we are quite free.” He winked in a conspiratorial fashion.
All the while he’d never let go of my hand. “Then, I am awaiting your own return. Thank you.” And with that, his secretary nodded, and I knew our time was up; it was our cue to leave.
I knew little about Buddhism and I’m not into hero worship, but I’ll always remember that morning. I met a truly great man, whose genius lay not in his birthright, nor his religious standing. I think his genius was in his understanding of change in the modern world — particularly in the Himalayas — and the power of people to create change.
On a journey like this, there are people you meet everyday who are story-worthy; some warrant a whole book in themselves. This little encounter didn’t happen to make it into the television series — but with some 1,700 miles to cover, it’s hardly surprising. That’s the beauty of writing a book; I was lucky enough to explore these little-known corners of the Himalayas on foot, so it seems only appropriate to share the inspirational stories of the people who call these mountains home.
Levison Wood’s latest book, Walking the Himalayas, is published by Hodder & Stoughton. RRP: £20. levisonwood.com
Published in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)