Where: Bir, Himachal Pradesh, India. Bir is located about two hours drive from Dharamsala, on the road to Minali.
When: September 2011
Why: I visited Bir as this was the base for our Himalayan Charity Challenge. We spent two nights here before setting off on our Himalayan trek, and one night after.
Bir is a village located in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, on the edge of the Himalaya.
Bir was our base for our Dalai Lama Charity Challenge Trek.
For such a small, isolated place, Bir was quite a hotbed of action. There were a number of very important temples, a village for Tibetan exiles, good shopping, cafes, meditation centres and great paragliding. Bir is said to be the second best paragliding site in the world, after Lake Como in Italy, and it is host to the annual World Paragliding Championships.
I really liked Bir. Surrounded by tea plantations, on the edge of a huge mountain range, hidden away from the rest of India, Bir seemed to be an isolated, chilled out escape from the rest of the world. I loved the Tibetan village community, which had all the services you could need – such as internet, cafés, lots of shops, a health centre – whilst also being a tiny village.
Everyone seemed to be very relaxed in Bir. At sunset, we walked through the village and lots of locals were sat on their doorsteps, having a chat with each other in the last sunlight of the day. And it was so peaceful and serene.
Unless you are paragliding or going on a charity trek, you probably won’t have any reason to go to Bir – but that is partly why it is so magical. It’s a beautiful gem of a place, hidden away in the foothills of the Himalayas, and a very magical place.
Getting there and getting around
We travelled from Dharamsala to Bir in two 4WD cars. It took us about two hours to drive to Bir from Dharamsala. Most of the roads were okay, but if one of us sat in the back of the car for too long we did get car sick from the bumpiness.
There is a toy train which runs along the Kangra Valley, with a stop at Ahju which is the village next to Bir. This train runs from Pathnakot to Joginder Nagar.
You can find out more about the Kangra Railway, including train times, on Wikipedia.
You can also get buses or taxis to Bir. The Bir HP website has comprehensive information about how to get to Bir.
For getting around, most of the area is walkable though you do need a car to get to the Sherab Ling monastery. Again, if you visit the Birhp website, they have comprehensive information about getting about too.
What we did on our holiday
Explored the Tibetan village
The Dream and Activity Centre, where we were based, is located on the road between Bir’s Tibetan village and Ahju. On our first afternoon at the centre, we took a walk up to the Tibetan village to go explore.
The village is a wonderful community of houses, hotels, monasteries and shops. For quite a small, isolated place, there seemed to be loads going on there and we all had a lot of fun pottering around the clothes shops, buying supplies, drinking in cafes and generally wandering around.
With the group, we visited the bright red Gyurme Ling Monastery, which is located in the centre of the village. This is a gorgeous scarlet and golden monastery, covered in wonderful pictures and statues.
The red-robed novice monks, sat relaxing on the steps or playing football in the grounds, were friendly and smiley and they very kindly let us visit the inside of the monastery where we saw some great Buddha statues and fabulous artwork. Some of the Buddhas in the temple had 100 heads and millions of arms. There were also great yak butter candles and offerings, drums and general Buddhist paraphernalia etc.
After visiting the monastery we had some times to ourselves to go shop etc, and I went to use the internet in the Hotel Surya.
Walked up to Ahju Fort
On our second day in Bir, to stretch our legs ready for the trek, we walked up to Ahju Fort. The walk was lovely. We started off on a level path, winding over streams and waterfalls and through some woods, up to the high plateau on top of the hill. On the plateau there were some communication towers, some small shepherd huts and Ahju Fort.
Ahju fort is a cute little fort, with a bell and walls and stuff – and fabulous views: north over the Kangra Valley, Bir, the Tibetan monasteries and the foothills of the Himalaya; south, out over the wide Punjab plains that lead to Delhi. It’s possibly the best view point in the area, which is obviously why the Maharaja built the fort here in the 17th century. From above, we watched the little toy train chug its way down the Kangra Valley.
I can’t remember why, but for some reason the walk up here was super, super slippy, even though it was gorgeously sunny. I think it was wet and mossy on the paths – and we had to be really careful not to fall.
The walk up to the fort took us about an hour and a half, and it took about an hour to get back down.
Sherab Ling Monastery
After climbing up to Ahju Fort, we were driven along the valley to the Sherab Ling monastery – which is on the other side of Bir. The Sherab Ling monastery (also known as the Palpung Sherabling Monastery) is linked to the Palpung (Babang) Monastery in Sichuan, China. The monastery is the home of the successive incarnations of the Tai Situ Rinpoches.
The Sherab Ling Monastery has a beautiful location, up in pine woods on a promontory on the edge of the valley. Hidden amongst the trees are stupas, prayer flags, and a giant, bright orange monastery.
We were allowed to visit the monastery, although this is a place of meditation and education for the young monks. The monastery is based around a layered central courtyard, with a high, marquee-like roof. There are two huge, gold lions who guard the way up the staircase and to the main temple.
On the first floor, the walls are covered in wonderful artwork, which I spent about half an hour looking at, and there was a huge, three-story high, golden statue of the Buddha. He was very cool.
Incidentally, the monks of the Sherabling Monastery are Grammy Award winning monks. They won a Grammy Award in 2003 for a record of their chanting.
Choling Monastery /Nigmapa Temple
After we had been to the Sherabling Monastery we were driven down some scary back roads, back into the Tibetan centre of Bir, where we were lucky enough to go to see a puja ceremony at the Choling Monastery.
I have never seen anything like it, and this will remain one of the most mystical, special moments of my life.
We were allowed to sneak quietly into the monastery and to sit by a wall to watch the long ceremony that the monks had already been performing for a few hours. The monks were sat at long tables, with their prayer books and other instruments, such as conch shells, horns or tambourines. They were producing the most beautiful, deep bass, mystical chanting – that didn’t seem to have any tune or rhythm, but which was completely hypnotic.
Every now and then, a bell would be rung or the chanting would change, and a young, novice monk would walk past, in a bright yellow centurion’s helmet, carrying something on a tray, such as another hat, or a bell or a shell or something.
I have absolutely no idea what was going on, but it was one of the strangest, most mystical and special ceremonies that I have ever seen – and I feel very privileged to have been allowed to watch. It was so strangely beautiful and other-worldly.
I can’t really remember what the temple looked like, because I was so distracted by the ceremony. I seem to remember it was a dark, deep red, cosy, open temple – with fabulous paintings on the wall. Outside the temple was the main courtyard, around which the monks lived, and then the gateway to the centre of the village.
We spent about half an hour watching the ceremony. I could have stayed there all day.
You can see footage of all of the monasteries we visited on the Charity Challenge film which is on the Himalayan Trek page. I made this!
Baijnath Temple is not actually in Bir, it’s in Baijnath, but we stopped here on our way back from Bir to the station, so I have included it on this page.
Baijnath Temple is a Shiva temple, which was built in 1204 (or possibly 804 – I’ve seen sources which say both dates). It is an ancient and important pilgrimage site, famed for its intricate stone carvings.
It is a stunningly beautiful temple, that is really interesting to see. It is covered in intricate statues and carvings of the Hindu deities. When we were there, there were lizards playing around the heads of the avatars.
In the main courtyard there is a huge statue of Nandi, the bull who carries Lord Shiva. It is said that if you have a wish you should whisper it into his ear and he will pass a message onto the gods for you.
There was also a really interesting channel at the temple which we weren’t allowed to walk over. It carried the milk of the gods, and so was sacred.
Whilst at the temple, we took an offering (puja) to say thank you for our successful trek. We gave the priest some sugar candy and flowers, and he anointed us with tamarind paste on our foreheads.
Visiting the temple was really interesting. It was great having an English speaking guide with us who could explain all about the temple and the ceremonies. Visiting a Hindu temple is something that I have no familiarity with, and so it was a very foreign experience, one that I really enjoyed.
Where we stayed
Dream and Activity Centre, Bir
The Dream and Adventure Centre was our base for the charity trek, and is a base for paragliders in Bir. The centre is run by a lovely English lady called Sian, and her crew of wonderful helpers, who joined us on the charity trek.
The centre is actually like someone’s home, rather than a hotel or hostel (they even have a dog), and in fact I think a few people do live there – but it had all the facilities we needed, such as hot showers, washing machine etc.
The centre is based in two buildings, with a lovely garden area outside, where you can chill. We would eat breakfast in the garden, and the evening meal in the dining room of the second building. The food was gorgeous and the ingredients came straight from the garden.
We were accommodated in rooms of two beds each, and we had a number of bathrooms. The beds were quite uncomfy, but we were so tired from trekking that it didn’t matter too much. The rooms were kind of open and flowed into each other, but I liked this. It was a lovely, relaxed place to be based.
The centre is on the edge of the village (ironically) and it takes about ten minutes to walk into the village of Bir, past the tea plantations. It’s in a gorgeous location and a lovely place to stay.
To be honest, if you need any information about Bir don’t look at my website, just go straight to birhp.com, which has all the information you could possibly need, including comprehensive information on how to get there, how to get around, shops, cafes, hotels etc.
For information on the Tibetan colony visit Wikipedia.
Find out all about the trek on the Charity Challenge website.
Other useful sites include:
Please note, some of this information may not be correct or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to sites which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.