You may not have heard of Himachal Pradesh, a state in northern India, but you certainly have heard of Dharamsala which is now the residence of the Dalai Lama and the headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. Actually, the Tibetan Buddhist temple and the home of the Dalai Lama are in an adjacent town named McLoudganj (which is about a half mile further up the hill). Even further up and the site of an ancient Shiva temple and a lovely waterfall is the town of Bhagsu.

Dharamsala/McLoudganj/Bhagsu is one (or three) of many hill stations developed by the British, mostly in the 19th Century, as retreats from the hot and unhealthy summer weather in the plains. It's a laid back place, there are many sites to visit, and the people are friendly, making for a very pleasant stay. Getting through the two lower towns is a challenge, especially at rush times, because the lanes weren't designed for more than one car at a time and also have storefronts encroaching on what little breadth remains. There are a lot of smiles, though, especially on the faces of foreigners, attesting either to the comfortable life style or to the naturalized ganja growing on the edges of every street in and out of town.

Other important hill stations in Himachal are Shimla in the south central area, Manali to the north of Shimla, and Dalhousie in the northwest of the state. Shimla is the capital of Himachal and has a population of about 150,000. It felt to me like a city: "strolling with intention" seems like an apt description of an evening walk on the Mall road. Despite its altitude of 7000 feet and its sheer siting on the face of a hill everyone seems to be going somewhere -- in notable contrast to Dharamsala. Shimla is, however, continually fascinating.

Manali is a small, pleasant town in the Himalayan foothills about eight hours drive (including a lot of photo stops) north of Shimla up the Kullu valley. As in Dharamsala, marijuana grows naturally in all places, most accessibly on the edges of roads. It's a very attractive plant with a pleasant fragrance not at all like the acrid smell -- that we may be familiar with -- of the dried and smoked sample. Manali is a wonderful place to see on foot: 15 minutes can take you from the main street of new Manali, through lovely upper areas where elegant homes and upscale hotels are located, down hill and across the river to old Manali where you can find lovely old houses and very casual restaurants with wonderful food.

The hill stations of Himachal are easily accessible by car or bus. Not so easy to get to are Lahaul and Spiti, two "remote" valleys in northeastern Himachal where the weather is "treacherous". The accessible season in the fall is a narrow window which in this season was shrunk by early storms which closed the high passes for about a week. After dawdling in the hill stations for those days I set off with my driver (more like my driver set off with me) and negotiated Rohtang and Kunzum passes and on to the Spiti valley. Kipling described this section of India in this way: Surely the gods live here, This place is no place for man.

Mostly above the tree line, and well scoured by geological forces, the mountainsides are barren. Perhaps because of this, though, you live in the midst of a palpable clarity. Even the cold nights and a respiratory problem and altitude sickness couldn't overshadow the subtle purity of the atmosphere that I experienced for the entire time I was there. The tourist infrastructure (minimal as it is) would close up a week or so after I left and all but the natives would have gone home to a reasonable climate. The natives stay all winter and hunker down in their homes with the stores they've accumulated through the short growing season and knit or think or meditate.

As do the monks -- who also paint and sculpt and write. There are many monasteries and temples in the Spiti and adjacent valleys, some engineered as forts for protection and sited spectacularly on an isolated peak. In Spiti are some of the oldest and most treasured monasteries in the Buddhist world which protect antique and precious murals and thankgas and manuscripts and carvings and in turn are protected by the spiritual ambiance.