In Search of Shambala

With a new battery fitted the bike seemed to start more frequently. K’s shoulder had improved marginally – enough for us to travel back to the main road, it seemed. Once again we packed the bags in a weary routine and tied them to the bike, ready to ride to the highway at Bhuntar. I was still torn; part of me still wanted to try reaching Kinnaur. But the previous night as we had sat on the balcony we had both given voice to our private thoughts. Neither of us are particularly superstitious, but with one problem after another on this trip the signs did not look particularly good. The leopard that the bus ran over, the wobbling bike, the unreliable starter, her shoulder, the crash… I felt like I was stretching my luck to breaking point. It’s normal to have a few nerves before a big trip into a remote and rugged place, and in the past I might have dismissed them and pressed on regardless. But when she confided: “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I had to admit that I didn’t either. She had had bad dreams – she wouldn’t tell me the specifics, but my own had been alarming enough: missing a bend, losing traction, going over the edge. So we had an emergency council, and decided that to continue without paying heed to these inner voices would be unwise.

There was an alternative, however. The bike had come from Naggar, which was described as a pleasant mountain village on the opposite side of the river to the main Kullu-Manali highway. Although on this trip it seemed as if I kept revisiting places, I’d never been to Naggar. We decided to head there and rest up, then see how we felt. I was also, in the back of my mind, contemplating getting rid of the bike altogether, as by now it felt like a liability. But we needed it to get there. I tried to do a balanced assessment of what exactly these ominous premonitions were telling me. Was it that I shouldn’t ride into Kinnaur? Or was it that I shouldn’t get on the bike at all? Was it cursed? Had someone died on it? I drew on my reserves: of extensive experience, of all that training that I had, and of a fair amount of luck, and thought it would hold as far as Naggar. After that I’d never get on it again.

Five minutes out of Kasol we encountered the first oncoming traffic. The road was a potholed strip of asphalt just wide enough to accommodate a car, with sand and loose stones on each side. Heavily laden, I needed to keep my tyres on that asphalt. But the Indian road rule of ‘size matters’ meant that cars and minibuses claimed the entirety of the road, coming barrelling towards us hooting furiously, refusing to give way an inch. A people-carrier driven by a wispy man, horn blaring, forced me to move left onto the sand. As soon as the tyres hit it the bike began to tip. We slewed wildly from side to side, tilting 45 degrees this way and that. “We’re going over!” I thought to myself with incredulity. “Again!” I gave it a burst of accelerator and somehow the tyres bit; the Machismo did about the only thing it was good at, powering through. Somehow we stayed upright.

The road took all of my concentration. Off to the right the cliff plummeted away down to the tumbling waters of the Parvati River. To my left was a wall of sheer rock, chunks of which had broken off in places, depositing boulders on the road. Lacking a functioning horn, on the blind hairpins I gunned the accelerator, the resultant snarl echoing off the cliff-face as a warning to oncoming vehicles. Loud pipes save lives, as the Harley crew claim. We passed through the small village of Jari, and the same men were sitting on the bridge, dressed in white homespun cloth, with scarlet Kullu caps and enormous moustaches waxed into points. They looked like they had sat there forever, and this stream of traffic that now passed them by all day was just a temporary blip in history; they were here before the cars and would be here long after they had gone.

After an hour or so the road improved, and we arrived at a junction on the outskirts of Bhuntar, and a signpost in Hindi. कुल्लू was to the right. Kullu. On the bridge a group of Sikh pilgrims in white kurta pyjamas and orange turbans prayed facing the river. As we passed them the window of the car ahead of us came down and a bangled arm languidly extended from it to fling a handful of litter into the river. The Sikhs prayed on as small, colourful wrappers and discarded fruit rind fluttered about them, coming to land on the rocks below.

There were no signposts to Naggar. I knew we needed to be on the eastern bank of the river, but how to get there? We were passing a line of small workshops and I spotted a man standing by the side of the road. Pulling up alongside I greeted him, and asked: “Naggar?” He looked confused.

I tried again: “Naggar kidhar hai?” Which way is Naggar? He still couldn’t understand me.

At that moment K leaned forward and said: “Nuggrrh.”

Ah, Nuggrrh! He pointed straight on. In my Anglicised accent he heard Nagg-ah, and somehow failed to make the connection.

We rode on. Channelling my inner Taggart, over my shoulder I informed K in pure Glaswegian: “Thurr’s been a murrdurr in Nuggrrh”.

“Huh?”

“Never mind. Tell you later.”

Naggar appeared perhaps half an hour later, with the usual dusty, traffic-snarled street, chaotic with people and noise. This was far from the idyllic village I had pictured, “like Switzerland!”, the Croat had said in Kasol. But as we rode upwards, round hairpin after hairpin, the signs of development fell away and we entered a more timeless and tranquil environment. Cows grazed in the front gardens of small houses, and women trudged uphill with enormous baskets on their backs. The narrow lanes were improbably steep, like ascending a staircase, and with the bike fully laden and two of us on it the 500cc engine was labouring even in first gear. For the last part I had to slip the clutch to prevent it from stalling, and the front wheel kept lifting off the ground – it was like walking a tightrope that bounded up and down beneath you. Finally we saw the sign to the lodge we were booked at, and I roared up to the gate in a cloud of dust and switched off. No sooner had I done so than a smiling Himachali face appeared at the door and said: “You can park the bike just there, on the grass opposite.” Sighing I fired it up once more and did a tricky three point turn on a 45 degree slope, bringing the Machismo to rest on a small patch of lawn that was occupied by three grazing goats. Climbing off the bike wearily I patted the fuel tank – it hadn’t let us down in the end. It was the last time I ever rode it.

The room we were shown to was wood-panelled throughout like a mountain chalet. We fixed a price for 700rs a night – a great improvement on the exorbitant prices in Kasol – and retired to the garden for chai. Just next door was a small stone temple covered in scaffolding, and opposite were wooden houses with ornately carved balconies that looked almost Balkan. In the distance loomed the peaks of the Pin Parvati Range, their summits dusted with fresh snow, and all around us conifer-covered hillsides climbed steeply to the mountains behind the village. Through the heart of them a trail led over the Chandrkhani Pass at 3,666 metres, leading to the holy village of Malana, famed for its hashish, then on down to Kasol. The wind sighed through the trees, and colourful butterflies chased each other around the garden in the sunshine.

That evening we walked up the lane past the temple to a small rooftop restaurant that advertised itself as a pizzeria. A large Indian family had arrived shortly before us – perhaps a dozen of them – and the patriarch occupied himself by issuing a series of orders to all and sundry: “Here, you – sit over there. Waiter! Move that table closer to this one. Now, children, what do you want to eat? No no no you don’t want that – it’s non-veg. Have this instead.” It was obvious that he liked to be in charge. He kept jumping up out of his seat and rearranging things. Small, balding and with a bristling moustache, he reminded me of the character Zebedee in the children’s programme Magic Roundabout, who had a large spring in place of his legs. The wives all sat on one side of the table and looked at us disapprovingly as we entered, and even more so when K spoke Hindi to the waiter. What was an Indian girl doing with a foreigner twice her age? They were those sort of people – snobbish, suspicious, judgmental and afraid. The children – all girls – chased each other around the terrace and shrieked excitedly.

The smallest one, who was perhaps six – a curious, frog-like child with spindly arms and legs and a perpetually snotty nose – kept trying to join in. But she was terribly clumsy. She bumped off our table, and then managed to run into a pillar. At one point she somehow missed her footing and went down with a great clonk, followed by a plaintive wail. Gathered up by her father she eventually subsided a little, before escaping again and making her way across to the steep concrete steps to where the other kids were watching the chef take the pizzas out of the oven. This coincided with me heading down the stairs to find the bathroom. The minute I got up the family became sharply attentive. I followed the child to the top of the stairs, where she halted uncertainly. “Come on,” I encouraged her. “Slowly slowly.” She looked around for reassurance, found none,  then decided to trust me, and took the first step carefully. I shadowed her every move, ready to catch her if she fell. As we descended, I looked up to see that her father had come over to the railing and was looking down at us, keeping a watchful eye out. She reached the third step, where the stairs turned sharply to the left, and halted nervously. “Sit down, na?” I told her. “Go down that way.” She looked up at me trustingly – showing far more trust than any of the adults in her family – and did so. Slowly together we descended the stairs, and when we reached the pizza oven the entire family exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

When you travel a lot sometimes other people with more settled and sedentary lives comment on it and say things like: “Oh I wish I could do that! I’d love to travel all the time”. But it can be utterly exhausting. After months on the road a sort of long-term sense of demoralisation can creep in; you live out of a backpack and endlessly recycle the same clothes, which progressively fall apart. You are never really, properly clean: there’s no hot water, or the bathroom is filthy and every surface adhesive with grime. Each night a different bed in a different room in a different town. Each night different problems to deal with, or different species of vermin. In Goa it was ants that invaded the apartment each day. In Old Manali it was swarms of flies – 30 or 40 of them in the room, all the time. In Kasol it had been giant spiders. In Naggar it was both flies and spiders. And in Vashisht it was silverfish – small wiggling creatures that appeared in the bed, every night. It’s exhausting, disconcerting and debilitating. Bad food, hideously uncomfortable transport, endless problems. You get tired of being ill – a sort of continual low-grade sense of unwellness. And repeatedly you recall Rimbaud’s metaphysical enquiry writing home from Ethiopia, and echoed by countless other travellers over the years as a nomadic refrain: “What am I doing here?”

And yet somehow these tribulations make you more accepting of things in the long run. Everything becomes relative. Your train home is delayed by half an hour? Then you laugh at the time it was delayed for nine hours when you were in India, and you sat at the station in infernal temperatures because you had nowhere else to go, trying not to fall asleep because there were thieves about. The restaurant brought you the wrong order? You remember the time that a restaurant had no food whatsoever and you went to bed hungry because it was the only place in town. You’re fretting about driving through a small country town in Europe because it’s five o’clock and rush hour? Then you think about the time it took you five hours to travel 50 kilometers on a bus which was standing room only and the man next to you had obviously waded through sewage to get on board because he stank so badly you wanted to retch. What am I doing here?  

In Naggar there was a simple answer. Resting up. Recovering. We made light of it, with a sort of robust humour. One morning K came out of the bathroom with a wry smile and said: “Just check when you use the towel.”

“Kya?”

“You’re not going to like it. There’s a damn big spider hiding behind it.”

“Oh god. Here too?”

“Yaar.”

I went into the bathroom. There it was, on the geyser, impressively large. It appeared to have a marshmallow stuck to its body in a sort of white foamy ring. Eggs. I was becoming exasperated with all these enormous arachnids – or more accurately, exasperated with myself for being so freaked out by them all the time. I seized the plastic jug that furnishes every Indian bathroom in place of toilet paper and clapped it over the spider, then slid a piece of card over the top – actually the front cover torn off the Rough Guide. The book had proved worthwhile in the end: it was smeared with deceased Manali flies. “Get the door!” I called, and carefully carried the jug and its contents out into the lane. I marched over to the few steps that led down to the street, upended the jug and the spider fell out onto the step. It crawled a couple of feet and then stopped. At that moment a mynah bird which had been perched on the wire overhead swooped down and landed just in front of me. It looked at the spider, then cocked its head on one side and looked at me, emitting a low whistle, as if to say: “Do you not want that?” Clearly I didn’t. The mynah hopped up to the spider, pecked a hole in it, then flew off with it in its beak, the legs sticking out either side like whiskers. Shrugging I went back inside. Wheel of life.

Insect life aside, Naggar was tranquil. The air had a mountain freshness, and there was little traffic this high up in the village. The sounds were older, more timeless: birdsong, the sighing wind in the trees, the lowing of cattle, the ringing of bells from the temple… and the drumming. Every evening there was a procession from the temple, and the sound of the drums echoed around the narrow valleys. On and on it went, until you fell almost into a trance with it – a rumbustious thumping exuberance of percussion. I clenched my pipe between my teeth and adopted a clipped, pre-war accent: “When the drums stop, that’s when they’ll attack”. I thought of the town band at home in Suffolk – boys and girls in red uniform jackets like guardsmen, marching along like clockwork soldiers in time to the snare drum and glockenspiel. Naggar was altogether more chaotic. The drums were syncopated and had a wonderful barbaric wildness to them. Nobody marched in step here – they ambled along, each at their own pace. There were no uniforms either, other than the ubiquitous Kullu caps on the men, made of grey felt with a colourful band of embroidery round the front of the forehead. What must the British have made of it all when they were here?

One foreigner who documented an answer of sorts was the Russian artist and mystic Nikolai Roerich. Initially a stage designer for Borodin’s Prince Igor and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as a member of Diaghilev’s World of Art society, he became interested in Eastern religions under the influence of his wife Helena, and began to explore Theosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism. In the 1920s he mounted a five-year-long Asian expedition, “from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet”, with the aim of establishing a spiritual utopia that he called The Sacred Union of the East and discovering the lost kingdom of Shambala. As Colin Thubron describes in his book To a Mountain in Tibet:

The precise location of this kingdom of Shambala is uncertain, but it is said to lie encircled by impassable snow peaks somewhere north of Mount Kailas. Yogis have thought it a three-month journey beyond the mountain, but the path is so elusive that pilgrims find themselves wandering hopelessly. Some even have a notion that Shambala floats in another dimension of time, as if through a galactic wormhole, and can be accessed only through ice doors in the Himalaya. Patterned like an eight-petalled lotus, radiating tributary kingdoms, it has been ruled for two and a half millennia by a dynasty of godly kings who reside in a jewel-built palace, as at the heart of a gorgeous mandala. No word for ‘enemy’ or ‘war’ is known here. Its founding king was taught by the Buddha himself, and as his subjects grew more selfless, so their country faded from human sight. Yet its rulers continue to watch over the human world, and after 400 years, as that world falls deeper into ruin, the last redeemer king will ride out from his sanctum to institute a golden age.

For almost a year the Roerich expedition was feared to be lost as nothing was heard from them. They had in fact been detained by the Tibetan authorities and forced to live in tents through the harsh winter – leading to the deaths of five members of the party. Eventually released, they travelled south to India and settled in Naggar, where Roerich founded the Himalayan Research Institute.

It still exists today. A museum now, it sits high above the village overlooking the Kullu Valley. A gallery displays many of Roerich’s paintings, mostly of mountain scenes in Tibet, Ladakh and Spiti, the palette consisting almost exclusively of shades of blue and white, snow and shadow. There’s a purity to them – the boldness of the colours appearing almost psychedelic, surreal peaks looming over unearthly landscapes. I recognised the style at once – I had seen it before, decorating the cover of Robert Byron’s book First Russia, Then Tibet. That one was titled Tibetan Monastery 1944. Next to it on the gallery wall there was a self-portrait of Roerich in silk gown and skullcap, like a Central Asian merchant, and next to that a photograph of the family, attired in the fashions of the time – Norfolk jackets and plus fours. In the dining room the table was set for dinner, European crockery somehow at odds with the Indian furnishings throughout the room and the Buddhist thangkas around the walls. In the garage outside a large vintage car was parked – a Dodge. The badge on the bonnet said “Royal Automobile Association of North India”, and in the background was a photograph of the car being towed out of sand by three Bactrian camels. Down below the main house, along a narrow path that winds along the hillside, lies the memorial samadhi, or cremation site, marked by a large stone with Hindi script around it: “The body of Maharishi, Nicholas Roerich, a great friend of India, was cremated at this place on 30 Magh 2004 of the Vikram’s era, corresponding to December 15th, 1947. Om Ram.” (Let there be peace.) Lilies grow at its base, and the site is overlooked by a huge tree, a deodar cedar, whose gnarled branches creak and sway gently in the ceaseless Himalayan wind.

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Nikolai Roerich – Tibetan Monastery, 1944.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “In Search of Shambala

  1. Good that I know you were home just in time to see what your premonitions were truly about. Also, I had to remind me that you travel this way because you like it, that is to say: consensually. See, I’m in Tuscany for a reason. 😀

    • Well Tuscany is wonderful of course. But I do like the wilder parts of the world too – although there are times when it seems almost masochistic 🙂

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