There’s slow, and then there is contemplative. I chose the latter frame to appreciate the scenery passing by at walking pace. I seemed to be in a state of suspended animation, possibly induced by the previous night courtesy of Indian Railways sleeper class, or it might be that hypnotic clickety-clack of the wheels of the train moving at a pace that seemed to be very much in sync with my mood. Clickety-clack, Clickety-clack, wheels turning on the track.
I assumed that this must still be one of the original narrow gauge tracks, as the carriage was small and completely filled with human cargo. It stopped at every station, but I held my precious seat, as women and children vied for a few inches of freeboard all around me. Babies are being passed around from one square inch of lap to another, as more luggage occupies the freed-up space. I daren’t get up, as I fear my valuable vacancy would quickly be filled like a Black Hole sucking in all available matter. I don’t think the British envisioned such a crush of commoners when they designed the Kangra Valley spur. I could envision memsahbs looking on horrified at the ruination of their pukka personal transit. But I expect the small cramped quarters were much the same size, and for a train to achieve walking speed in that era was probably no small miracle, as much of it is uphill.
In fact we are moving from the lush verdant plains of the Punjab – one of the richest states in India – to finish at about 3000 ft in a tiny “halt”, as they used to call such stations, of Ahju. Then it’s 3km to my final destination of Bir. In theory I should be there before dark; but when we have travelled for 9 hours everyone descends, and I am left looking at the sign of the station that definitely isn’t Ahju. I ask the final departing passenger if the train actually goes any further. No, you must get bus, he replies. My trusty Google Maps distinctly informs me that will be not a distance I want to cover in a local bus. I dismount, and realize that I am virtually paralyzed, as I have been in a state of semi rigor mortis for the better part of a day. Dazed and confused I take stock of my bearings, and decide to actually ask the driver of the train if he’s going to Ahju. Most affirmatively yes, so I remount, as there is an endless shunting back and forth for an hour – until we come to a total standstill. Just as I am assessing the potential to bed down for the night, there is a rush of people onto the train. Ahju? I ask. More affirmative nods.
The remaining hour is through tunnels and bridges along lovely rivers. Now the pace has slowed further, and it’s beginning to get dark. I am wondering, slightly nervously, whether this train will actually ever reach it’s destination. Like the exponential curve, the closer it converges to the axis, the slower goes the speed, until it’s actually infinity as the ultimate arrival. However cosmic this concept, I want to no longer be in motion.
My wish is finally granted. We are at the end of the line. It has that kind of ultimate feel – just a small shed as a railway station. But no one is getting off. There is a sign announcing Ajhu, so in theory I am where I am meant to be; but perhaps I am now in a parallel universe. I take a few lonely experimental steps towards what is very reminiscent of a rural station of my youth in the UK, before Beeching ripped up all the tracks, and privatization become the mantra of the day. Although by now it’s scarily dark, Fortunately there is a sign of human life, who is operating monstrous levers to manually change the “points” – essentially routing the train to another set of tracks. Haven’t seen those since my youth either.
I am so obviously completely lost that he takes pity on me. He does know of my destination, so I am fortunately in the right general area, but tells me the only way to get there is by cab, and points to some very distant dim light that signifies civilization and in theoretical home to taxis. Contemplating a weary trudge in complete darkness to an unknown destination to which I have no clue of it’s orientation must show on my face. Probably a sort of hopeless collapsed resignation type general arrangement of my features.
Mercifully he comes to my rescue and he is on his phone calling cabs which appear to currently be occupied in a different city. In the end he shuts down the station with one of those monster keys you see in very old wizard type movies, and I pile on his bike to be transported dizzingly through the darkness towards taxi nirvana. There is an unnerving feature of road travel at night here: drivers only use their lights when they sense oncoming traffic. Perhaps they have acess to some ESP mode that tells them where the road goes. I think it’s based on some faulty logic of conserving battery life. I am just glad he knows where I am going, as I certainly don’t. He deposits me in the throbbing metropolis of two cabs, both eager to take me the last few miles. With a flood of relief we round a corner into a lovely courtyard of my new residence for the next few days. I get out, and accost what looks like a nun, as this is a former monastery. I am expected, but the manager-abbot-head dude is at some important function, so she leads me to a dormitory to rest while they figure out my room. I am so tired I simply shut my eyes and the next thing I know it’s morning.
I wake up to the din of birdsong. And snoring. I haven’t shared a sleeping space with anyone other than Karen for some years, so it’s an odd sensation to be surrounded by prone sleeping male bodies. I decide to get up when I hear a bell ring, and thus am introduced to monastic life. Bells for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And many other tinkling bells to accompany the ruffling of the wind in the multitude of prayer flags. It’s so beautifully, tranquilly non-Indian. I love the Tibetans that I have met. In fact, I had a Tibetan girlfriend when I was staying in another Tibetan community in Dharmasella, many years ago. There is a softness to their culture, and their fundamental Buddhist philosophy that underpins much of their daily life imparts a basic gentleness. As far as I know Buddhists don’t generally blow up their fellow humans in the name of their religion. Although I see a few sporting “Free Tibet” tee-shirts, it’s commonly understood that it’s a lost cause. For all intents and purposes, Tibet is Chinese these days.
Deer Park Institute used to house 100 plus monks, but they moved to a bigger location. The core vision of the Institute is to re-create the spirit of Nalanda, a great university of ancient India in which all traditions of Buddhism were studied and practiced, alongside other schools of classical Indian philosophy, arts and sciences… or so says their website… a kind of spiritual university. They hold all kinds of retreats and courses, and although not strictly an ashram, it’s based on those lines. Through my stay there I meet all kinds of folks taking teachings on aspects of the Ayra Tara, and I am encouraged to join in a Buddhist event further down the Valley where 600 monks and several hundred others are doing a daily puja or celebration for 21 days.
Bir hasn’t really been discovered yet, other than by the paragliders up the hill at Billing. It mostly attracts those who want to immerse themselves in Buddhist teachings, or like me, to simply rest somewhere peaceful.
During the 5 days I am there, I exchange not one word with my room-mate. He is an older Japanese guy who seems to spend most of his time doing meditation sitting in the middle of the room. Me, I want to go out and explore the surrounding hills that are covered with inviting forests. I ask a young French guy, Thomas, at breakfast about how to get there, as evidently he’s traipsed all around the area. Just go out the back gate, and continue upwards. So I do, and am rewarded by a labyrinth of trails cross crossing fields and intertwining the small Tibetan villages that are spread all around. Mostly what I hear are birds and the occasional sound of human exchange. Rushing courses of water add a delightful note. Brightly painted houses, prayer flags and stupas adorn the hills. No car horns, or any of the other incessant din that’s been an unconscious soundtrack to India. The biggest hassle is being asked at the taxi stand if I need a ride. There’s even abundant hot water for a tantalizingly long shower. That’s because they have solar hot water panels covering the rooftops.
One morning I meet Gian, who serves here as property manager for 6 months of the year. A fellow Brit, he spends the rest of his time managing organic farms around the world. He tours me around their recycling and waste management program, and before long I am introduced to Tiluk, who runs the Eco-Team, educating local kids in ecological awareness. It’s interesting that I seem to continue to be meet people who share this passion. Formerly, in India, it’s been zero. But now there seem to be attempts to do some mitigation. Definitely an uphill battle, and Gian, being my age, has a somewhat world-weary attitude of “too little too late”. But he’s still doing it. I mean what else do you do ? Fold your tent and give up? Tempting, admittedly. I think we have some significant First World problems, but what the Third World has to face is daunting. At supper I meet another dedicated couple that have operated an organic farm and naturopathic clinic up the hill. They invite me to come and see their plastic-bottle-building-brick project. They are filling hard plastic bottles with all the soft plastic debris, and believe they could form building bricks. They ask me if i want to take over the project. They have been in India for 9 years, and are burnt out. For a mere $20,000 I could be a plastic recycler / natural builder in India. Maybe next lifetime. I have some problems of my own.