At certain times of year, half the population of the tiny Indian hill station of Dharamsala is Israeli. A special section of the menu at the Ashoka restaurant is devoted to Israeli specialities and the clocks in the ubiquitous overseas phone parlours show the time in Tel Aviv. Solicitations in Hebrew script entice customers into shops selling statues of Tibetan Buddhist deities while a celebrated rabbi from New York tries to save those customers’ souls.

Young Israelis who have recently completed their mandatory service in the army take off around the world to enjoy as prolonged a holiday as their budgets will allow, and they have long since found that those with more time than money will find a heaven of sorts in India. The Israeli circuit now leads from the beach in Goa to Rishikesh in the hills, to the Kundalini Cosmic Souvenir shops and Lost Horizon restaurants of Dharamsala.

It is not, however, just the prospect of kosher samosas that lures the travellers to Dharamsala. When they get there, they are likely to bump into a friendly long-haired Dane called Christmas who promises to bless them as they stand in the street, a former editor of Women’s Wear Daily, a head of state or two, or a chirpy blonde temptress standing on the icy road whom last you saw playing a groupie in The Banger Sisters.

The word Dharamsala means a rest house for pilgrims, and the settlement was built by the British in 1849 as a summer escape for government officials from the heat of Delhi. But now it is the spiritual focus for fugitives, pilgrims and all kinds of souls who want to visit the world’s new centre for Tibetan Buddhism.

This is a curious thing because the centre of Dharamsala – or rather the little encampment set up on a ridge in Upper Dharamsala – is based around the Dalai Lama who speaks for the folly of desire and the importance of real action. But ever since the spiritual leader of Tibet became something of a global icon, his otherwise unprepossessing home in exile has become a swirl of dreams both sublime and unexpected. Roughly 10,000 Tibetans congregate around him, hoping that one day they can return to Tibet. Almost as many foreigners – psychologists from London, advertising types from Frankfurt, lawyers from Los Angeles – gather around the Tibetans to help them and to learn from them. And around 10,000 Indians watch the interplay of dreams from their shops while selling chocolate digestives and Tibetan thangka scrolls with their crackly sound-systems playing “Lying Eyes” by the Eagles.

I wonder sometimes why I keep returning to Dharamsala, the highly unglamorous spot to which I’ve been travelling since I was 17 in 1974. If you want Himalayan vistas, Darjeeling is the place to go or the villages around Kathmandu. The two little roads at the heart of McLeod Ganj, as the place is called by some, are cluttered with rubbish, animals, mini-vans, phone centres, beer bars, video dens and, when I last counted, 81 guesthouses offering rooms for less than £4 a night. Most of the streets are just unpaved steep slopes or muddy paths between the trees. In winter the place is dark and icy, in summer it has worse monsoons than most places in India.

Just to get there is a lesson from the wrong kind of fairy tale. Though only 300 miles north of Delhi, Dharamsala is at least a 10-hour drive away, through streets so congested in many places that one feels one is nosing through a riot. You can travel up by overnight train to Pathankot but then you still have to take a three-hour drive after 15 hours on a train. You can fly to Amritsar or Jammu but both cities have seen instability and, in any case, you still have to drive five hours to Dharamsala. You would probably be guided by a taxi-wallah who has decided he can emulate Michael Schumacher with his eyes, quite literally, shut. A plane is said to fly directly from Delhi to Dharamsala but for months on end it never seems to take off. When it does, the former local maharajah tells me, it often has no room for luggage and, as in a Buddhist fairy tale, leaves the passengers at the other end having to live without any possessions.

And yet for all of this, Dharamsala is a place that grows on you the way a lotus begins to rise out of the mud. The first impression is of filth, disorder, a sad, ramshackle exile home set up when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959. A year later, his government in exile was offered a new, seemingly temporary place by India in the largely abandoned British hill station above Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley.

But as your eyes grow accustomed to it, as to one of the dark and curious-smelling chapels you find all over Tibet, you begin to make out a kind of order, even a vision, within the chaos. Monks chant, dancers sing, children learn Tibetan here as they never could do in Tibet itself. At the same time there is a rough warmth, a charismatic calm in the Tibetan-flavoured community that can be a relief after the cacophonous intensity of India.

I go there in the spring months – April, May – or in October and November when the days dawn radiant under the nearby snow caps of the Himalayas. In spring, the slopes are covered in rhododendron and apple blossom with marigolds everywhere. I stay in Chonor House, an 11-room Tibetan-style cottage of sorts set up by the Tibetan government-in-exile, where each room is decorated with the fiery murals and props of Tibet and most of the staff are recent refugees. Across the road is the Dalai Lama’s house, and next to it a temple for 175 monks who debate under the trees of their courtyard overlooking the valley. From the quiet garden of Chonor House, or from the sunlit terrace of my room, I can hear the low muttering of chants through the pines and temple bells being sounded in the dark, I can see red-robed novices scampering along the whitewashed terraces of their monastery or drying their clothes.

If you scramble across the hill – slithering over industrial piping on a muddy path above a nunnery – you come to another mountain road where a Japanese restaurant sits near a new Thai one, a Korean jazz café a few yards away, and an open-mic Current Event café even closer, where once I heard a Canadian singer deliver a heart-rending version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. If you take a taxi down into the valley, you come to the Norbulingka Institute whose Japanese-designed walkways and pools with apple-
blossom against sharp snow caps and blue skies really do look like Shangri-La.

It may not be everyone’s idea of a perfect holiday, especially when set against the more aromatic hill stations of India, the funky energy of Kathmandu or the intensity of Tibet itself, but sometimes I find one travels not to move but to stay put. And sometimes the very best holidays involve stepping out of the world of headlines altogether.

Wake up before dawn and walk in the pitch-dark quiet broken only by the barking of wild dogs around the hill on which the Dalai Lama’s house is built, with clusters of old Tibetans spinning their prayer-wheels and muttering their Om Mani Padme Hums. Go to breakfast at the new Moonpeak Café down the road, with its strong Earl Grey tea and world-class apple pies. Browse among the large selection of paperbacks at the Bookworm shop run by a fiery former guerrilla or ride up to the Tibetan Children’s Village, most of whose students have left Tibet and their parents perhaps forever to grow up near their beloved exiled leader.

Indians usher you into little movie parlours where you can see Diary of a Mad Black Woman on a pirated DVD in a space smaller than your bedroom and redolent of a Stone Age cave. A Kyoto beauty sings Japanese lullabies in a Monday-night musical celebration at the Khana Nirvana Café, a cosy, vegan burrito joint established by two idealistic young people from California. Teachers offer training in Buddhism and all the spiritual practices known to mankind, from traditional Tibetan full-body massage to Zen Shiatsu therapy. Or walk to the picturesque village of Dharamkot and enter your parents’ psychedelic youth in one of the cafés where the Israelis are sitting on cushions on the floor, not listening to their rabbi.

For those of a nostalgic caste, Dharamsala is, like many parts of south Asia, a savoury, compacted museum of the Raj. An Anglican church – St John in the Wilderness – sits among the pines, with the grave of Lord Elgin (he of the marbles) in its tiny churchyard. Nowrojee General Merchants stands at the centre of the clamour in the settlement, as it has done for six generations, still offering Andrews Liver Salts and Pears soap. Cottages reminiscent of the English Home Counties sit beside their gardens, their names recalling the times when Kent and Surrey were recreated in the midst of what was otherwise tropical confusion.

Many people go to Dharamsala to hear the Dalai Lama give his annual new year’s teachings in late winter or to see him come out from his house offering public audiences or rallying his people. The guests you meet in a place such as Chonor House are diplomats, philosophers, religious leaders, Hollywood directors and brand-name photographers, all sharing tables in the garden at breakfast. And on certain days when the sun shows up above the ragged teeth of snow caps, burning the windows of the new Indian hotels gold and then easing into a quiet day of sitting in one of the temples, or watching monks play flashy games of basketball against a New York-worthy mural that calls for peace, you might feel as if you have stumbled into a parallel world that lives by different values to your own.

I went to Dharamsala in April 2003, just as the US was invading Iraq, and all my friends and neighbours in America – regardless of their political positions – were talking and thinking about war. In Dharamsala all the talk was of peace and, as it is often the case among exiled Tibetans, it was more than talk. Two prayer halls were filled with monks assembling before dawn every morning and retired ambassadors from Washington, former associates of Martin Luther King, even young Mexicans concerned about the uprising in Chiapas were in every other pizza restaurant, talking about new forms of conflict resolution. Even the Israelis had much to offer on the subject – Jewish leaders often come to Dharamsala to talk to the Dalai Lama about the possibility of keeping a culture and philosophy alive in exile.

As the sign at a meditation centre summed it up listing the day’s activities, here life is about “Breakfast /Impermanence and Death/ Suffering/Selflessness/Dinner/Serenity”.

Pico Iyer writes at greater length about Dharamsala and Tibet in his most recent book, ‘Sun After Dark’ (Bloomsbury, £7.99)

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