Mission Intermission

Staying contactable around the clock, checking e-mails every hour when on vacation – it’s impossible in the Spiti valley of the Indian Himalayas. Nicole Graaf undergoes a digital detox cure.

Four-thousand-meter-high mountains surround the Spiti valley in the Indian Himalayas. Photo: Emre Caylak

A place where the silence is tangible, the digital chatter muted. Somewhere I can be by myself. A place without the buzz of a mobile phone demanding that I look at what business partners, colleagues or social media contacts have posted. A place far from the conveniences of modern life. Day in, day out, I find myself unable to escape the Internet and social media. But here, I am free of the temptations of the “always on” era for technical reasons.

An Internet-Free Zone: The Spiti Valley

In the Spiti valley, a Tibetan Buddhist area tucked between four-thousand-meter high mountains in the Indian Himalayas, there is no In-ternet, the phone signal is intermittent at best, and the electricity supply is often cut off for days at a time due to snowfall. It feels strange at first to let go of everything, of all the thoughts of business, but the awesome beauty of nature helps immensely, and I finally understand the term “hungry eyes.” To gaze on this landscape is to have an adventure in itself, and exactly what I need. Even the way there is anything but ordinary: The river that the road follows is bordered to the left and right by steep cliffs, austere and imposing in their might. Sometimes the road is so narrow that I can see directly down into a several-hundred-meter deep chasm.

I still have reception though – one bar on my display – and I send one last SMS to a friend before my ­signal vanishes for the next few days. “For the best,” I think to myself. After 15 hours of traveling, I finally reach the village of Tabo. Shortly before reaching my lodging, I discover a small shop with a “Cybercafe” sign. “So is there Internet here then?” I ask half disappointed, half hopeful. “No,” says Phuntsok ­Dhondrub, my innkeeper. The Internet doesn’t work whatsoever. “The owner just uses the space as a shop.”

Despite the questionable shop signage, Tabo seems like a remnant of a forgotten era. I encounter only an old monk, a woman carrying a water butt on her back, and a man with a weather-beaten face, lugging a stack of firewood into his home. Once again, the digital era makes itself known, even here in one of the most remote parts of the world, taking pride of place in Phuntsok’s living room is a flat-screen television. It is switched off, so I try to ignore it.

The village is host to one of Tibetan Buddhism’s three oldest institutions – the Tabo Chos Khor Monastery – which has been here for over 1,000 years. Dozens of prehistoric caves can also be found here. “Sometimes these are used by the older generations for meditation,” explains Phuntsok. I should also try it out, he says, and gives me the directions.

 In the Cave, Overthinking Gives Way to Mindfulness

A lovingly maintained cobbled path traces up the mountain behind the village. The entrance to one of the caves is through a small wooden door. It isn’t locked. Behind the door, there appears to be a black abyss. Gradually, my eyes adjust to the low light. Into the back wall of the cave, a meter-high hollow has been chiseled out. A large flat stone sits within. This must be the spot for meditation. I set myself down, close my eyes and am completely alone, listening to the sounds of my breath. In. Out. In. Out. I listen to how the wind pulls and strains at the prayer flags outside the cave.

Leaving your burdens at the door, the calm envelops your meditating body. Photo: Emre Caylak

I feel how a pleasant and immeasurable calm takes over my mind and body. Nothing seems important anymore, even that which has plagued my mind over the previous days. No more conflict, no hectic thoughts, and certainly no digital time-eaters such as smartphones and social media. I find myself briefly contemplating how good a ­selfie in this cave would look on my Face-book profile, but quickly snap out of it and chuckle to myself: “How unimportant!”

When I open the door after a good hour in the cave, a flurry of white flakes blows into my face. The heavy snowfall makes the valley look cloaked in fog, and the slopes on the other side – only discernible as silhouettes – gradually turn brilliant white. “What wonderful peace,” I think – not just out here, but within myself too. I want to take this inner calm with me, back to the hustle and bustle of “my” world. And if I do find it difficult to regain this peace, I can take solace knowing that there are places such as this.

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