Longitude: 77.40 E Latitude: 34.10 N Altitude: 11,550 feet Today's audio update
The pretty Ladakhi girls in the back of the jeep play peekaboo. They sit in their open back seat, rolling along ahead of us, and turn, look back, and tease us with their shawls. They cover their faces right up to their giggling eyes—and then, for one second, they show us their lovely smiles.
Our jeeps are just two in what seems to be an endless procession of cars. We stretch out along the curve of this highway forever. A few of the jeeps behind us get impatient and duck off the pavement. They carve new shortcuts into the sloping sand.
Eventually, we all inch off the highway, one by one, and enter a maze of makeshift parking lots. The lots are near full already. But we find a space, stop our jeep, climb out with our gear, and are instantly drowned in a teeming river of Buddhists.
We find ourselves channeled between two eye-high stone walls, 10 feet apart. Flowing along, we are bumped from behind by a pack of pushy monks. We hear chanting in the distance—deep, throaty rumbles, like didgeridoos. As we reach the crest of the hill, we glimpse what we came for.
Spread out before us are vast acres of kneeling worshippers. Twenty thousand people, maybe more. They are shaded by the faded fabric of thousands and thousands of parasols. The wide, flat field they kneel on is wet and muddy, and there are big bald spots in the crowd where the water's too deep. Everyone faces east, toward a small stage, which is silhouetted by the still-rising sun.
We are ushered down a thread of a pathway—a fault line through the chaos. Halfway along, a team of security monks halts us. They pat us down and check our bags for weapons. As we get near the stage, there's a sorting process, by race: We are funneled into a fenced-in pen for white people and their guides.
Here we find canvas tarps spread over the mud. We are close to the action. Right before our eyes, in unobstructed view, sits His Holiness the Dalai Lama, cross-legged on a raised throne. We lay down our bags and kneel quietly on our damp canvas.
Gathered here in our holding pen, transfixed by the sight of his holiness, there are hippies with eyebrow rings and knit ski-hats that say "FREE TIBET." There are older hippies, too, with beaded bracelets. But above all there are middle-aged German women, in packs of 10, dressed in some sort of Euro-cabana-wear. They fussily open up parasols and plastic-wrapped foodstuffs.
As the chanting continues, a line forms—full of people holding sacks. Phunsook, our guide, explains that these are offerings. Apricots and rice and maybe rare books. Interspersed among the Ladakhis in line—and carrying sacks of their own—we see the big tour group of Russians who are staying at our hotel.
When the chanting stops, his holiness prepares to start his sermon. The huge crowd behind us grows silent in a heartbeat. Do you know what it feels like to sit in complete silence with 20,000 people all in rapt expectation? Many of whom have traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles, leaving behind untended livestock and children? Or have flown in from far-off continents just to catch sight of a single man? Neither did I, yesterday.