We have flee Delhi by night, driving straight out into the countryside. Traffic swells all around us, as along the highway a great, trembling ocean of light forms. Diwali preparations: electricity and oil burning ten thousand tiny tea lights, each attended by busy people, each surrounded by movement and food and tension. We are barely moving and it seems for a time that we will stay in Delhi forever, or perhaps in this new makeshift nation along the roadside, which is warm and bright and bustling, a city made of diyas and coloured powders, beautiful and glowing against the encroaching nightfall.
The cars eventually clear as people break off for evening revelry amongst the lights. We drift farther from the city, and the lights launch upwards, disappear behind clouds, and suddenly reappear as we gain altitude and move away from people, from cars, from buildings. The country reclaims the sky. Homes drift further apart until they are not present at all. Night is no longer balmy, but grows chill, and quiet. Ours is the only vehicle on the road at this hour, and we begin up a steep incline.
Our bus is half-empty on this midnight run into the mountains, and I stretch across two reclining seats, pulling a complimentary blanket around my shoulders. I can’t sleep–maybe I am uncomfortable with this level of silence, with the growing still outside of my window. I’m a city boy, and I’ve been in nothing but cities for some time. Trees are everywhere, and the road is very sloped now. Several times our bus stops as the shepherds of Himchal Pradesh lead cadres of sheep and goats across the road and into wilier, more secretive passes. The road is narrow, and we must make several cautious attempts at each switchback.
We arrive before dawn, the first percolations of morning barely caressing the surface of the air. It is still dark and very cold, two sensations we have not experienced for some time. Taxis offer their services, but also offer directions happily in this tiny town. We walk one of the only four roads leading from the central square, and must gently wake the proprietors of our guesthouses to let us in for a nap. They doze in their foyers when they know a bus is incoming.
In time, in daylight, we reconvene and walk the town gently, hushedly, as it seems to demand. Monks are everywhere, sweeping past in orange and purple, in extra-long swaths of cloth wrapped around shoulders and legs as fall becomes winter. They speak and smile and amble past. We unearth clothes from the depths of our backpacks, sweaters and long pants and things with buttons and zippers, clothes we barely remember the function of, we use actual warm blankets, we crave hot soups. When the day grows late, we enter miniscule cafes with barely three tables and order the biggest, hottest bowls of anything we find, and we cradle the warm clay, and let the steam breathe into our faces.
Birds and eagles pitch and dive through the air when the sun rises in the morning, spying the wildlife in the brush below. Once or twice we spot birds and animals we have never seen, in colours that seem otherworldly, aquamarine feathers and inky black furs. People speak English here, but also a host of other languages, and we hear them all. Voices are joined by songs and prayers, by singing bowls, by the sounds of dogs. Horses. Birds of prey, and birds that are prey.
Soon we explore the town, and venture further still into the neighbouring villages along the high roads. Valleys spread out before us in an ample vista, and we can hear bells in the distance. Schools let out, and children rush to the public square that surrounds a pool banked by calmly trickling fountains. Buildings are decorated and prepared for the coming holiday.
There are waterfalls at the end of a long path outside of Bhagsu, and we climb up to the still pools of icy water wedged into the mountain. Travellers and locals sit on the rocks here, put their feet into the chilled flow, let their fingers trace the surface. The sun glints across the rolling landscape before us, slowly trails across the sky as we while away the hours. When we finally feel the need to move, we explore the valley, fording the river and befriending a few young mountain goats. We pass monks who wash their robes in the river, who hug themselves warm while the cloth dries along the rocks. On the other side of the river, far from the path, is a lonely stupa, surrounded by flowering trees, by long grasses, and by endless earth.
Those few times we are in town are marked by peace, by quiet. People smile as we pass, nod to us. Night falls early, and the power flickers on and off unpredictably. We already know these roads well, know the curve and the climb, and feel safe even at this height. Candles burn on windowsills when night falls, preparing for the presence of electricity or its absence. Sometimes we read in the evening, sitting by the window to capture the last rays of the sun, and switching to firelight as the electricity sometimes demands. When we go to eat, the power flickers off and the kitchen grows quiet. Patrons throughout the room recline, languid and patient, accustomed to the wait and with nowhere pressing to go.
It is all serenity, and yet we are still here at a time of momentousness, of tumult. We have been travelling for 2 months, my companions have been together for five years, as of our last day in Dharamsala. President Obama remains President Obama, and several young shopkeepers excitedly discuss the news with us in the narrow streets. In China, five monks set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese government, and the usually peaceful Tibetan community here erupts. A great march emerges with drums and bells and voices, and it clamours through the few streets of the town, absorbing supporters and bystanders alike. We hear the banging out of our window, the sound of raised voices jolting us to attention. The town is small, and they must make several rotations through the few streets before returning to the home of the Dalai Lama.
We read about the Tibetans here, how they escaped from China, how they took the long path through the mountains to reach this place. We learn how many did not make it, or do not make it, or lose pieces of themselves along the great, cold journey. This is a diaspora home, a place of calm and beauty, but still just a substitute, a simulated respite. These mountains are cold and quiet, much like they are somewhere else, very far away.