It felt incongruous to see the passenger, Tenzin Gyatso, in such a remote spot. Smiling and laughing, conveying his spiritual and political doctrine with the bonhomie of a favourite uncle, he has become an icon of modern history. What no one watching him being driven down a dusty track in the Dhauladhar mountains knew was that the 73-year-old Gyatso, better known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, was being whisked from his home in the Indian hill station of McLeod Ganj to a hospital in New Delhi, a 90-minute flight away. Old men become older and their health inevitably deteriorates. But, with Beijing hoping the issue of extended Tibetan autonomy will die with Gyatso, seldom has one man's physical well-being received such scrutiny nor his death borne such geopolitical ramifications. On assignment with the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) - the body that oversees the political and social welfare of the Tibetan diaspora, which has grown to about 150,000 people in more than 33 countries - it was fascinating to observe the ripple effect as word of the Dalai Lama's hospitalisation spread. For most civil servants in the CTA, the news came via overnight BBC radio broadcasts, which, judging from the worried faces the next morning, caused widespread shock. Professor John Powers, author of History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles Versus the People's Republic of China, says the secrecy surrounding the health scare gives some indication of how news of the Dalai Lama's demise might be handled by the CTA. 'As a remnant of the closed, insular system of old Tibet, the government-in-exile still has significant issues with transparency,' he says. 'However, His Holiness' condition is a matter of deep concern for Tibetans and any rumours of his ill health will cause a panic among the community, which the administration naturally wants to prevent.' Powers adds wryly that the CTA would be hard pressed to outdo the precedent of 1682, when the Tibetan government contrived to keep the death of the fifth Dalai Lama a secret for 15 years, ostensibly to prevent social turmoil in the interregnum. Secrecy and security have been integral to the current Dalai Lama's life. Fifty years ago, he was spirited from Lhasa's Norbulingka Palace after an escalation in what Mao Zedong labelled the 'peaceful liberation [of Tibet] ... based on unity with the masses and patient education'. Gyatso subsequently trekked across the frozen Himalayas to seek asylum in India, where he has remained since, and where only two years ago his personal security became tighter on news his name had been found on an al-Qaeda hit list. A mere 36 hours after being hospitalised, the Dalai Lama was once again in the public eye, having flown back from Delhi. Looking rested and well he leads the way into his sun-drenched living room and gestures to the sofa with a grin and a wave of his robe. He himself sits on a yellow wool cushion placed on a small armchair at the head of the coffee table. Behind him, a pair of enormous sideboards strain under the weight of 100 bronze Buddhas. The doctor's diagnosis was a trapped nerve in an arm, the Dalai Lama explains. Enquiring whether he might have hurt himself playing too much cricket - having been in India for half a century - he erupts in that familiar laugh reminiscent of Baloo, the affable bear in Disney's Jungle Book. He talks expansively in rapid but slightly broken English about the extent of the diaspora and the happiness he derives from interacting with young Tibetans around the world. 'One young [Swiss Tibetan] appeared ... he looked ... his hairstyle ...' the Dalai Lama grasps for a word. 'It was an afro,' prompts his ever-efficient personal secretary, Tenzin Taklha. 'An afro,' repeats the Dalai Lama, laughing uproariously. 'He looked very like a Tibetan hippy; his style was very, very modern, but [his] Tibetan spirit, very, very strong.' Born in 1935 and identified as the reincarnation of the 13 previous Dalai Lamas at the age of two, one senses that the fourteenth feels a personal burden of responsibility for Tibet's former introspection and the advantages that the abbots and aristocrats enjoyed under the rule of his previous incarnations. Gyatso remains a feudal master in the eyes of Beijing - a symbol of the iniquity that Mao sought to sweep away in the name of Tibet's serf and peasant classes - despite the fact that he was scarcely a teenager when he assumed full political power, in 1950. The humour dissipates. Sharp eyes peer from behind steel-rimmed glasses as he begins to analyse the faults of Tibet's old theocratic ways. 'Our mistake was that we covered ourselves [from the outside world],' he says, pulling his claret robe over his shaved head to illustrate the point. He grimaces under the hood he has formed. 'And because of this we did not realise how the world was [evolving] until one day it was too late; the hammer struck.' The Dalai Lama, highlighting that he believes in political and cultural autonomy within China and not secession, acknowledges that Beijing has invested billions of yuan to develop the region's economy and infrastructure, including flagship projects such as the railway line to Lhasa. 'Material development we welcome, we appreciate,' he says. 'But the thing is, if these [are] used for political reasons, to sinicise Tibetans ...' He looks concerned. From his remote headquarters in Dharamsala - meaning 'rest house' in Hindi - just below the Himalaya snowline, the Dalai Lama can only dream of having the resources to drive structural developments for his people. Namgyal Tsering, deputy director of the Tibetan Medical Institute, speaks effusively about the Dalai Lama's support for his work in the field of traditional herbal remedies, revealing that as well as treatments for various cancers and asthma, a possible cure for hepatitis B is under trial. But visit Delek Hospital, Dharamsala's principal medical clinic, and it is clear from the bare wards and numerous monks suffering from tuberculosis that the community is desperately poor. Unable to throw money at problems, the Dalai Lama has concentrated on taking his people on a journey of social rejuvenation. 'Where he has seen necessary, he has given leadership issue by issue,' says Dr Tsering Yeshi, director of the Tibetan Women's Association, the oldest NGO in Dharamsala. 'His views on the role of women in society are a good example,' she says. 'People think of the Dalai Lama as a man but His Holiness caused much surprise when he said his next incarnation could be a woman. He feels it would be logical because women are more compassionate.' She laughs at the thought of the Pope suggesting his successor might be female. Asked to name the issue he is most proud of addressing during the past 50 years, the Dalai Lama does not hesitate: 'Education.' He sees schooling as a way to preserve the Tibetan identity. As becomes clear on a visit to the CTA children's village two or three miles from Dharamsala, of the 2,500 Tibetans who join the community-in-exile each year, many are youngsters sent across the mountains to receive a traditional education, including a number of babies who are left in the care of the government-in-exile, sometimes until university age. However, his effort to transfer political power from the monasteries to the masses is perhaps more significant than his endeavours in education. 'It may be that I am the last Dalai Lama,' he reflects. 'As early as 1969 I said that the institution should continue only with the agreement of the Tibetan people; that Dalai Lama as a [spiritual] institution and political leader should be separate.' In 1963, he prepared a far-reaching draft constitution and by 1990 had introduced universal suffrage for elections to the parlia- ment-in-exile. 'I always say, [mine] is a semi-retired posi-tion,' he chortles. 'As far as democratisation is concerned, I think we are more advanced than China.' While they have democratised, Tibetans have not adopted party politics so there is little of the partisanship that defines more 'mature' legislatures. And despite the parlia- ment being a democratic forum to promote debate and accountability, the Dalai Lama remains cherished even as its unelected head of state; an integral element of Tibetan cultural identity in perhaps the same way Mao is to mainlanders and King Bhumibol Adulyadej to Thais. This does not mean there is no opposition to Gyatso within the exile community. Take the Youth Congress. Reviled by Beijing, its members stridently oppose the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' policy of seeking extended Tibetan autonomy within China and instead agitate for full independence. They recently participated in street protests in Delhi and staged a hunger strike during the Beijing Olympics. 'The Dalai Lama cannot disagree with our calls for total independence because he granted us democracy,' reasons spokesman Konchok Yangphel. Nonetheless, even Yangphel speaks fondly of the Dalai Lama as head of state and is at pains to explain that the congress has no desire to see a separation of powers. And why would it? This writer is invited to return to his private residence to observe a special meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of new arrivals from Tibet. The event is a master class in how Gyatso seamlessly blends the political and spiritual elements of his role. The atmosphere is electric. The collective willpower of his people seems to draw the Dalai Lama into the meeting room. There are gasps; looks of sheer joy and amazement. Seated on the floor, about 80 Tibetans are caught between the urge to prostrate themselves and the desire to stay gazing at their leader. A tiny baby cries and his mother holds him aloft to see the man before them. Children's faces light up with smiles; an elderly man and a young nun quietly dab tear-filled eyes with a dignity that speaks of just how much this moment means to them. For the next hour and a half the Dalai Lama stands before these people who have apparently risked so much to join him and enters into a dialogue that fluctuates in tone and content from religious sermon to political rally. The Tibetan spirit will prevail is the message he gives them to take away, but it is not framed in terms of conflict with China. 'Reach out and make friends with the Chinese,' he advises. 'They are sentient beings. Pray for them. We are not opposed to them as a people.' And then a moment of some surprise for anyone schooled by a global news media that talks of the China-Tibet problem only in terms of political oppression: the Dalai Lama asks how many of those in the room will be heading back to Tibet in the coming weeks. Nineteen people raise a hand. Discussing the matter with several new arrivals afterwards, it becomes clear that a constant stream of Tibetans visit Dharamsala on pilgrimage - for that once-in-a-lifetime chance of an audience and blessing from the Dalai Lama - and are happy enough with their lives in Tibet to return. This influx of short-term visitors can provoke suspicion among Dharamsala's longer-term exiles, who worry about Chinese spies, says Powers. The former are sinicised to such a degree - for instance, slipping Putonghua into their Tibetan vernacular - that they risk being treated with considerable enmity. The journey out of Tibet is hard enough without a hostile reception in Dharamsala - and is becoming harder still. Most exiles clandestinely walk the only open route across the Himalayas to Nepal, ultimately throwing themselves on the mercy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). But, with Nepal's new Maoist government increasingly dependent on China for aid, there are suggestions Kathmandu is trying to stem the flow of Tibetans to curry favour with Beijing. 'In the Nepal parliament there are MPs who represent the Buddhist community and I think they are sympathetic [to our cause],' the Dalai Lama rationalises, hoping that if ever the Nepalese border is shut, Tibetans will be able to reach exile by alternative paths, perhaps via the Indian state of Sikkim. The UNHCR is tight-lipped about any in-creased pressure from the Nepalese and its future role managing exiles' transit to Dharamsala. It also declines to comment on whether it distinguishes between refugees and pilgrims or keeps data on the cost to the international community for a pilgrim's passage to India. Sonam, a young monk from the Rikaze area explains the desire to make the trek: 'It is worth the struggle to come here. For me it is a spiritual journey, one to undertake sooner rather than later, for who knows how much longer the Dalai Lama will live?' His Holiness, fully aware of his people's concerns, offers reassurance. 'The Tibetan spirit does not depend on one person,' he says. 'When I die I think there will be some serious setback[s]. That will naturally happen ... shock ... sadness. But the Tibetan spirit, that will [prevail] and that work which [I began] will continue. Of that I have 100 per cent confidence.' Gyatso views his death as a challenge for his people - similar to the challenge of establishing the exile community, not just in India but in the global consciousness. That this has been achieved with great success - compare the support the Tibetan cause receives with that offered to the Palestinian population, which, at about 11 million, is almost twice the size of Tibet's - under his leadership is an evident legacy. Perhaps his death will be a necessary wake up call for his people, to refocus them on their objectives, he suggests. 'When we first came to this country everyone was hard working. Some of our officers lived in cowsheds for 75 rupees a month,' he reflects. 'No one complained. Now, after 50 years, sometimes people are a little bit complacent. When things become difficult, then they will work hard. When things are easy, then people are lazy.' However, he remains circumspect about future negotiations with Beijing. 'They feel the Dalai Lama will [die] and the Tibetan cause will go away,' he says, before expressing his hope that Beijing will recognise the benefits of negotiating with him before the inevitable uncertainty of the next interregnum. That uncertainty will prevail is highlighted by the militants of the Tibetan Youth Congress. 'The Dalai Lama's age and physical condition are a [warning] sign,' says Yangphel. 'So far we have conformed to non-violent activities but I can't say about the future. For 50 years the situation has not changed so, when the Dalai Lama is no longer here, the Tibetan people might turn to violence. Without him, nationalist sentiment inside China will be difficult to contain.' Reflecting on his years in exile, the Dalai Lama's enthusiasm and joie de vivre fade for a moment. 'When I was five years old, my journey from my home in Amdo to Lhasa took two months. Sixty-eight years have passed since then,' he says. 'When people tell me [about] the train [from Beijing to Lhasa] - that they see the Tibetan plateau, rare Tibetan animals and have a very, very pleasant trip - I want to join them. If the opportunity arose to visit Lhasa on that train, I would feel very, very happy.' Instead, the next day, a little 1950s Indian police car - built around the time Gyatso went into exile - rattles out of the Dalai Lama's front gate and shepherds him back down the potholed Himalayan track to the airport. Tomorrow he will receive the keys to Venice and the next day, citizenship of Rome, no doubt smiling all the while, representing his people with good spirit and good grace after a half century's impasse - yet still no closer to home.