There are lots of things that I haven’t written about so a post script seems a good idea.
You cannot talk/write about Bhutan without mentioning the monarchy.
Although Bhutan has recently become a democracy the royal family are front and centre in everyday life and of course in the country’s history.
So here is a snapshot: the current King (the 5th) is young & handsome, the Queen is beautiful. The only downside seems to be that they have not yet produced any children.
The former King (the current King’s father) abdicated, seemingly to allow his subjects the enjoyment and spectacle of a coronation, and to enjoy a quieter life. Although he had 4 wives so that gave rise to loads of questions. Not only does he have 4 wives but they are sisters! According to Chimi he couldn’t choose between 5 beautiful unmarried sisters so decided to take them all. However the youngest declined deciding that a life with body guards, pomp and ceremony etc wasn’t for her. So he married 4 and built 4 bungalows somewhere in the forest and lives there happily ever after! It was this King that instituted the Gross Happiness Index and began the roading projects across the country (among other good works).
The 3rd King, who unfortunately died in his 40’s, is revered as the father of modern Bhutan. He abolished the caste system, encouraged intermarriage between the different former castes by offering a monetary incentive, gave land to landless families, abolished ‘tax in kind’ to the governors, opened the door to the outside world, united Bhutan and made it a country of peace.
Some of us did ponder on the voyeurism of being a tourist. Wondering what Bhutan would look like in the coming years; whether the young people would want to continue farming as their forefathers have done; and whether the locals would still be as generous to tourists. After all how would we all react if a bus load of foreigners pulled up and poked cameras at us when we were mowing the lawn or something? Cameras were forbidden in Dharavi slum city on the basis of it being voyeuristic but in actual fact just being a tourist turns you into a voyeur.
Ok and to finish here is some less serious stuff:
Bathroom anecdotes; the bathrooms seemed to almost take on a persona of their own. There was:
*The one that had a cute claw foot bath that was so tiny even at 5’2” I had my knees bent.
*The one where the water leaked from the shower, ran right past the drain and headed for the door.
*The one that had plenty of boiling hot water and no cold.
*The one that the expel air fan worked in reverse so that you filled the room with the smell of drains.
*The one that you didn’t get any water from the shower at all unless you kept your finger (or toe) on the button that moved the water from the tap to the shower head.
*The one that had a bar of soap down the loo. No, I have no idea why.
*The one that inadequate protection so that you completely flooded the floor.
*The one that had a mat outside the door so that when you stepped onto it from the bathroom (which was a step higher) you went for a serious skid.
*The one that had a 1.5ft x 6" high gap through the wall to the bathroom next door enabling you to share sounds …and smells.
*The one that had a polite little notice about not using too much toilet tissue so as not to block the drain. (I’d like to see how the Japanese cope with that!).
And then there were the phalluses in Bhutan.
Yes, you did just read that right. There were many many pictures of phalluses on buildings & houses; statuettes (for want of a better word) in restaurants etc.
To cut a long story short the "Divine Madman" of Bhutan subdued and killed a demon with his phallus. So the symbolism is all about protection, warding off the evil eye. And while westerners find that amusing the Bhutanese are deadly serious about it. To be fair there were also pictures of dragons, tigers, deer, flowers etc so I guess you have to put it into context. I heard the story twice and they did differ a bit so I'm not entirely sure which version is the correct one. But I guess that doesn't really matter.
I had a fantastic trip and made some wonderful friends that I hope I can catch up with some day soon.
pps: I had loaded up a couple of photos, but received an email from a friend to advise that my site was blocked because of pornography! Have to say these pictures were cartoon like and completely inoffensive. Anyway I've had to withdraw them.
We had a fantastic last day.
First we stopped at the open air laundry the Dhobi Ghats. Usually the people that work here are farmers who come into the city for a period of time earning money before returning home. Each concrete wash cubicle costs R300 to rent for a month; there are 730 cubicles, 10,000 workers and the laundry covers 4 acres. I have been here before and find the scene absolutely fascinating. The washing is all hung out according to type and colour. Although it was rather disconcerting to be told that the green items we could see were hospital scrubs.
Next we got caught in a typical Indian motoring standoff: 4 cars nose to nose and no one prepared to give way. I shot this pic through the front window from the back seat just to prove it happened. Hilarious.
The main trip of the day was to visit Dharavi, the famous Mumbai slum city, and it was an eye opener. The last photos we could take were from the railway footbridge and beyond that point cameras were not allowed. We had been warned about this – it was the same in the temples so fair enough. The company running the tours does so in an ethical manner and puts 85% of the profit back into Dharavi projects (like the schooling and self-esteem programmes for youth). If you provide the tour company with your email they’ll send you some photos.
Our guide for Dharavi was Jitu who used to work in one of the factories in a different slum, he had heard what they were doing at Dharavi & decided to better himself & become a guide. He learned to speak English by watching Hollywood movies and was frankly a bit of an inspiration with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. The main thing he wanted us to take away is that the slum is a place of hope rather than the reverse.
Initially the streets looked like the back streets in the poorer part of Mumbai but then we went deeper and things got grimmer. It’s rather hard to put into meaningful words; the experience was better than I had expected, much more positive, did not smell as bad as I had expected, there was a very surprising amount of industry but frankly the conditions are appalling. There are many slums within Mumbai but Dharavi is a 5 star slum according to Jitu.
Here are some facts and figures: There are 570,000 people per square kilometre; 1 million overall. There is only 1 toilet seat per 1400 people. There are schools within Dharavi and 85% of children go to school. The main industries are leather processing (the most profitable); aluminium recycling, plastic recycling, clay pottery, garment making, several bakeries, and the women typically might do some sewing within the home or make poppadum’s.
Jitu told us that when younger his Mum wanted to work but his grandparents forbade it on the basis that it would shame on the family. Apparently women working is a red flag that the family are in financial crisis. Jitu’s family have lived within the slum for 40 years. He said the sense of community is huge & enveloping and I was reminded of the description of life in District 9 in Cape Town (before it was razed).
We were shown the factories and a few of the accommodation areas. Often the workers slept in the factories as they couldn’t afford the rent for a “house”. This is free as it benefits the employer in terms of security on the premises and no lateness travelling to work.
Jitu also took us up onto the roof to see from above; it was simply amazing and vast! We also went into the narrow alleys which were only wide enough for 1 person and often even I had to duck my head. It would be hellishly easy to get lost. You’d see a pair of sandals and beside them a ladder – that was the entrance to living quarters above. The family accommodation was 1 room with a platform for sleeping and a gas element for cooking and a tv… that was it. And yet there were satellite dishes everywhere. As Jitu said young children only need food & shelter but youth want food, shelter, tv and cell phones. And they have them.
In retrospect every privileged kid in NZ should visit if not Dharavi certainly India to see just how good they have it.
The tour took 3 hours and we were melting in the 30+ heat by the time we had finished.
We had a quick lunch and then walked down to the fishing village close to the hotel.
I have really enjoyed this marvellous bunch of people and look forward to catching up with them sometime in the future. As nothing had been arranged to celebrate the end of the tour, four of us had a farewell dinner at a Chinese restaurant that I went to when I was here with Sarah in 2008. The food is still plentiful and good.
I am ready to go home now although I'm dreading the long flight home. Allan kept reminding me that "NZ is such a long way from anywhere" and he is right.
Had a brilliant sleep and didn’t wake until 8.45 yay!
I felt a bit sorry for the others having to leave at 6.15am – I’m taking a day off.
For those of you who are checking out what there is to eat in India – the food in these big hotels is just like any big hotel anywhere. Breakfast offerings run from western toast/marmalade, cereals, juices/yoghurts, fresh fruit, pastries, eggs of any description, cold platters (cheese etc) and more traditional Indian dishes. This is one of the Taj group (but not the original famous one) and there are I think, 5 restaurants within the hotel.
I have to say it’s very very nice to be finishing the trip in a better quality hotel.
I know I was dead on my feet last night and my brain wasn’t working too well – but even so, I failed the idiot test to locate a light switch & turn it off. In the end I just took my door key out of the master switch doohickey and everything mercifully went dark. This morning I located it in the guise of a dimmer switch – hah good one! Another little light trick I discovered in Bhutan was to disguise the bathroom mirror light switch as a 3 point plug switch. If you plugged your shaver or hairdryer in no doubt you would discover the trick but the staff had to tell me that one J
I had a great day going solo while the others went to Matheran. Went shopping, had afternoon tea at the Taj… again, went for a swim, went out on a wee photo jaunt.
Sadly the black & yellow fiats are all but gone in Mumbai, replaced by Hondas. I guess it had to happen at some stage but while the Hondas are certainly more comfortable they don’t have that unique evocative appeal. And there is competition... air conditioned blue & white cabs.
I was woken at 4.10am this morning by a muezzin calling the faithful to prayers at the mosque across the road. I had to be up at 4.45am anyway so I just got up and got sorted ready to be at breakfast by 5.15am.
We arrived in Mumbai just before lunch although it took about an hour to get from the airport to the hotel. On the way I saw a temperature gauge reading 41 degrees. It was stinking hot but it didn’t really feel THAT hot.
After lunch we took cabs to Victoria Station and had a wander round. This was the first time I had seen any rats and they were very brazen running about down on the tracks in full view. I wish I had been filming them because when a train came in (it didn’t go right to the end of the buffer) and released its brakes with a whoosh, all the rats jumped/flinched at the noise. So did I, but it made me laugh to see them do it too.
We had to be a bit surreptitious as the Indians are a bit sensitive about you taking photos in railway stations. We saw a wonderful photograph opportunity... a manky door leading to an equally manky room with a sign above that announcing it was the office of the Food Inspector. Unfortunately there was a security guard right opposite so we couldn't do anything about that one.
The cacophony outside the station was unbelievable; it's an extremely busy intersection so the tooting is at fever pitch and the hawkers were doing their best to deafen anyone within a 200 metre radius.
The Victorian architecture in Mumbai is just lovely (where it has been renovated/maintained). Unfortunately a lot of the Raj era architecture has been allowed to deteriorate as Indians don’t seem to get the concept of maintenance. Then we went along to the Gateway to India, which was built to commemorate the King’s George's visit in 1911.
Adrian gave us an interesting historical snippet; Bombay’s prime hotel back in the day was Watson’s and it was “whites only”. So a forebear of the Tata family decided to build a plush hotel for the Indians - the Taj. Of course the irony is that while Watson’s is no longer around, the Taj is a famous icon and is now well over 100 years old.
Janet wanted to have tea at the Taj. It was on the itinerary and is THE thing to do in Mumbai. But we were advised that it wasn’t possible as we would need to book and couldn’t simply walk in. After the group split up 6 of us decided to give it a go and despite what we had been lead to believe, we were allowed in with no problem at all. Guess who was there, having tea... and not best pleased to see us walk in!
Security is considerably heightened since the 2008 bombing but that is a fact of life in many places now. In India women are always vetted by female security personnel and it amused me to see these two security guards engrossed in their text messages and completely ignoring the women entering the Gateway.
Something I have remembered later, there was music playing at the Gateway... a Viennese Waltz... with Bollywood singing. So incongruous and so Indian. It made me laugh.
We had a fantastic Thai meal for dinner, it is really nice to have something other than curry or Bhutanese food for a change.
We drove to the border this morning and did the expected formalities. As when we left for Bhutan and coming back again, the change was immediately apparent. Almost like a switch had been flipped. The volume of traffic was greater, far more unruly and aggressive. Bhutan looks tidier & cleaner. It is the sort of instant flip that you wouldn’t believe unless you saw it for yourself. Then it was an hour or so drive to Guwahati.
On the way we were driving on a double lane expressway and couldn’t believe it when we saw traffic coming head on in the second lane of our side of the road. Even a tractor! Parthu (our Indian guide) made me laugh, someone tried to do a U turn where he shouldn’t and Parthu commented that these are uncivilised people.
Then we saw an elephant. Our driver pulled over and undid the window and offered it an apple. This shot was very hastily taken from the middle of the back seat.
Guwahati is the capital of Assam and surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning. It just got more frenetic as the day went on but it turns out that a festival is starting here (either tomorrow or the next day) and the place is packed and going nuts already. The streets are jam packed and everyone is honking their horns as hard as they can.
We had lunch in the hotel and people let loose after the monotony of Bhutanese food; this is an amalgam of what individuals ordered; fish & chips, the biggest hamburger I have ever seen, ice cream, spaghetti, delicious paneer curry, Vietnamese like spring rolls, club sandwich with fries.
After lunch a few of us wandered out to have a look about. We ended up at a railway level crossing and it was fascinating watching life go by; including several trains and the people who live and work here.
Later on we went for a sunset cruise on the Brahmaputra river. It was lovely, peaceful and relaxing and we all enjoyed it. Unfortunately the sun disappeared behind a cloud/smog bank and we didn’t see it set. But we are getting used to being thwarted by the elements.
We have to get up very early tomorrow and catch a flight to Mumbai.
This was our last day in Bhutan. And unfortunately it was another long one on the road, in flat grey cloudy weather. We didn’t even see any sun until 3.45pm and that was only briefly.
It rained last night and once again we found ourselves inching along in thick mud with only about 2 feet to a sheer drop. Karma (usually referred to as Cutie or Captain Karma) got us through again. It was a distinct disadvantage being up the front of the bus and being able to see what was coming because it was scary.
We stopped a few times for refreshments or to stretch our legs but not a lot of photography was done.
Most of us are sorry to leave Bhutan, although we are looking forward to a more varied diet. And I will be pleased to travel on roads that do not require travel sick pills every day.
We are also very sorry to say goodbye to our guide, Chimi and our driver, Karma. Both have been absolutely superb. Tomorrow we re-enter India at the Assamese border.
I have learned my lesson and didn't try to go back to sleep this morning (I slept through the alarm other days I tried that) so I thought I'd do a quick wee update.
We are all bone weary now. Long days of travelling take their toll. Although I can't understand why its soooo tiring sitting on your butt being driven about – can someone explain that?
This hotel looks quite posh and the rooms are lovely. I think I have discovered why Bhutanese builders put a sill in every door way… it’s to stop the water that leaks from your shower running right past the drain in the floor and off out the door. Just kidding, I’m sure it has a deeply religious and/or cultural significance coz all the houses, temples, monasteries, even dzong bridges, everywhere has a big sill (often a foot high) in the doorway. The little ones in hotel bathrooms can catch unwary travellers though. I tried breaking my toe on one 2 nights back. Still can’t put a proper shoe on!
There is also a 3 point plug and switch very high up on the wall only 1 inch from the ceiling… wonder why??
While we still have 2 nights to go in Bhutan I’m pretty sure it will be the hotel in Trongsa that turns out to be the best. The room was great, the bathroom enormous, the food was superb, I was even able to have a soak in the bath without having my knees up round my ears. The worst was Jakar, Bumthang. The shower was good, unfortunately nothing else matched up, but we have been lucky, so not moaning.
I'm sitting in bed writing this and can hear doves cooing outside the window and also the bell on the prayer wheel chiming as villagers do their devotions.
Ok I best get on with the day as I have to pack my bag and have it ready to go before breakfast.
Fortunately today was a short one in the bus; it is just how the road versus suitable accommodation worked out for those doing the organising. We drove down another mountain through lovely pine forest with about a million switchbacks. Chimi told us the reason for the switchbacks is that when the road was proposed, the village on the opposite side of the valley bribed the roading authority as they didn’t want the road through their village or to lose any land. So instead of going down across the face of the hill and looping around the other side, the road had to go down one side in a series of tight switch backs. However, once the villagers could see what an advantage the road was, they approached the local authorities who promptly said no, you didn’t want the road initially and we’ve spent a lot of money on it and there are no funds left. It is not a great photo and only a small portion of the road is visible but you’ll get the idea. If you hold up your hand and extend the thumb the angle of the V between thumb and index finger is how steep these mountains & valleys are.
The roading network across the country was only begun in the 1970s. Having blacktop is a huge improvement and it only being 1 lane wide just doesn’t come into the equation. Drivers accept inching past oncoming vehicles as a fact of life & are patient and courteous. Occasionally a driver will come around a bend too fast or hog the middle but it’s nothing like the driving behaviour across the border. We stopped at a railway crossing in India; cars patiently queued up until someone came right up the right hand side and stopped at the barrier (and the same thing happened on the other side). So when the barrier lifted there were 4 lanes of traffic directly opposite each other with no room to move.
The countryside has been very different every day and after we reached the valley floor it changed again to a dry, rocky semi barren landscape. We have stopped in Trashigang for the night, which is a charming little town. Very picturesque. We had a wander around and visited the dzong which is undergoing renovations. As Allan said, the first rule of renovation is to preserve as much as you can. Unfortunately the adobe brick walls have been completely torn down and will be replaced by concrete. The character, history, charm and patina of old age will be wiped out ruining the dzong completely. We were allowed inside but again, the no shoe: no photo rule applied. The young monks were learning their scriptures which involves reading and chanting them aloud. To keep themselves awake they rock while seated. It seems a rather hard life to our eyes. And while they have the ability to withdraw before they are 18 to so would be a disgrace on the family and they also have to pay a fine/fee to withdraw which may not be an option.
Tonight’s hotel has been great. Nice rooms, fantastic shower and really good food. I discovered the Bhutanese equivalent of the bible in the bedside drawer this evening. A copy of “The path to Dharma”. Dharma being the various teachings of Buddha. Might have a look!
Today was a long long drive with multiple passes to get to Mongar. Unfortunately the weather has not been kind and we saw only glimpses of the Himalayas through the clouds. It was rather galling to be travelling in brilliant sunshine and still not be able to see the mountains.
The forests we passed through changed with the elevation and at 3610 metres we came across a national rhododendron garden and even patches of snow.
We stopped for tea/coffee and were all huddling around a wood stove because it was freezing.
The weather closed in and it began raining; then sleeting. The road got a bit treacherous as the black top had been lifted, then the rain got considerably worse and before you could blink the ride got rather hairy. Our driver was brilliant, negotiating mud that was deep enough for us to get stuck and coping with the slippery slurry that was washing across the road. I must admit that I had visions of us skidding & going over the drop as there was precious little room to manoeuvre. I couldn’t actually look out of the window for a while.
But as soon as we crossed from Bumthang region to Mongar we hit blacktop again and all was well. Which was fortunate because we still had to come through are really narrow section… imagine the Buller Gorge where it is only 1 lane wide, at an elevation of 2500 metres with a sheer drop on the cliff side. Actually that’s a bit generous the Buller Gorge has crash barriers J
By the time we stopped for a late lunch around 2pm we were down to 985 metres, the sun was out and it was hot.
Let me begin by stating the obvious… every day we drive over at least one pass of differing elevation but usually over 3,000 metres.
Today I’m tired so I’ll just do some bullet points.
*I have been asked about the food, which is why I mention it from time to time. The range available depends on the accommodation but western breakfasts are usually provided. There is cereal and toast (the jam can be a bit dodgy; just food colouring & sugar), often there are baked beans, sometimes sausages and always eggs. I had the best ever omelette for breakfast this morning – cheese, tomato and chilli. It was a masterful omelette.
*Yesterday we passed a villager dressing wood by the side of the road. Big logs of 6x6” timber all beautifully smoothed and straightened, probably 8-10 feet long – all done by hand.
*You frequently see stupas in the middle of the road. Those at the top of a pass Karma (our brilliant driver) will go round in a circle. Clockwise of course!
*This has been a very cold spring. In a week or two the forests and hillsides will be a riot of colour as the wild rhododendrons bloom properly. The villages will also be full of blossom with apple, peach and pear trees.
*I am amazed at the size of rhododendrons – they are not the shrubs you find back home, but trees, many being very large trees.
*Before we left Trongsa this morning we visited the watch tower which has been turned into a museum. It was fantastic and is a must see for anyone coming here. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photographs which is a shame but totally understandable.
*We have reached Jakar, Bumthang (pronounced Boomtang) which is said to be the most spiritual place in Bhutan as it has so many temples and monasteries.
*We visited a temple dating back to the 5th century this afternoon. And also a monastery dating back to the 15th century which has never been renovated. Both of which have the patina of age and the reverence you would expect. There were several young monks learning scriptures at the monastery and we were able to engage and take some photographs. I try to be very sensitive when photographing people and am quite relaxed if people refuse permission.
*I was very amused to see that I have one of those mini bars of soap that you get in hotels down my loo. Not sure if it’s there to clean the loo…. One of those funny mysteries you can get in a foreign country.
*These dogs were sitting at the door of the bus asking if I had any biscuits to give them. I decided that a doggie bag of dinner left overs might come in handy.
*This is Karma and Chimmie wearing Bhutanese Nomad hats.
Punakha is pronounced: pooh-nah-kah.
Tourism in Bhutan is highly regulated and tour operators have no control over where their groups will be accommodated, which is very frustrating for organisers having plans changed without notice. Having said that we have been extremely fortunate in the places we have stayed.
I learned today that Bhutan does not accept any immigration. There are some Tibetan families here that migrated in the 1950-60s that have been granted citizenship, but that’s it.
There is a temporary exception to this rule for Indian road workers who are granted temporary entry permits to carry out the extensive roading improvements being undertaken. It is very sad to see the shanties in which but despite the most abject poverty I saw several satellite dishes on these wooden/corrugated iron/bamboo shacks and they are probably better off than in their home country.
We drove off this morning with a high degree of expectation. We were to travel over the Dochula Pass (3050m) and hoped to see a stunning panoramic view of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and we only caught glimpses of the mountains through the clouds. At the top of the pass there are 108 Chorten in memorial to fallen soldiers. There is also a beautiful monastery.
We stopped at one point to have a look at some lovely rice terraces and a cute little dog came out to visit followed by 3 puppies about 4-5 weeks old. That was it – instant adoration. I would have smuggled this one home if I could. I try not to pat dogs here as quite often they have mange or some other undesirable condition but these puppies were irresistible. I think I have said before there is a huge number of stray dogs in Bhutan. Stray, but not feral. They are not housed or specifically cared for but they are fed by locals (and the occasional tourist!) and are amenable and friendly. I can personally attest that dogs do in fact, eat chilli. You see dogs lying anywhere as if dead during the day… they sleep all day so they can bark all night. And they do.
I heard a nice story today from an American I got chatting to: he said when he went up to Taktshang Monastery there were 2 dogs walking up the trail and when he had finished at the monastery he saw those same 2 dogs returning down the mountain. One of the monks told him that the dogs do that every day.
Our other big visit for the day was to the Punakha Dzong, said to be the most beautiful and possibly the largest in Bhutan. It certainly is beautiful and while unable to take photos inside we were able to walk all around and photograph as we pleased almost anywhere except the temple.
And from Chimmie’s bottomless fact file: Bhutan has 10,000+ monks; 4,000+ nuns and only 6,000 army. Monks study at the Dzong for 9 years and then go through a meditation period of 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days before going to university (for monks). During the meditation phase they only have 1 meal per day and do not cut their hair or nails.
Our accommodation for tonight is the Kichu Resort, Wangdue. It’s a beautiful rustic little lodge beside a roaring river. It is exactly like the sort of river we have at home torrent pouring through gullies of lovely big boulders. I've just been down and put my feet in it - freezing. I shall be soothed to sleep by the sound of the water which is probably only 10 feet or so from my little balcony. Unfortunately the mozzies like it here too!
Another day driving over a pass, another day driving on tortuous 1 lane mountain roads at an average speed of 30-50kph. I had no idea Bhutan was as mountainous as it is. I’m not complaining just explaining. If you want to see the country… you have to drive! We left early again today because of the road closures for road works. There was a large line up of vehicles waiting for the road to open and it was amusing to see all these women climbing up the bank like colourful butterflies or edging over the drop side in search of a suitable bush or tree.
Today we crossed the Pele La Pass (3422m) which divides west and east Bhutan. We also went to Phobjikha which is main one of 4 valleys the black necked cranes migrate to from Tibet for the winter. There is a visitor centre with an observation lounge and we watched a documentary about the efforts to keep a suitable habitat for these amazing endangered birds that fly over the Himalayas. The final count on January 18th this year recorded 396 birds in Phobjikha which is more than treble that of 2006 when the documentary was made. As I’m never likely to see one of these birds I took a picture of this photograph for posterity. This was a very pretty valley and the farmers here use dry stone walls. The main crop is potato as it’s too cold for much else.
You know what is like when you travel, the first time you see something you get all excited. After a week you are still interested in that something… but no longer excited. The first time we saw a monastery up on a hill we got excited. Yesterday when we saw a yak, we got excited. Today we saw many, many yaks. We even saw one so close I could almost have touched it out the window of the bus. It didn’t even blink when we stopped right beside it – how lucky was that! We also saw a yak herders hut on the way out of the Phobjikha Valley. The black part is made of yak hair and is completely waterproof. We are probably quite lucky that it’s been a cool spring and the yak herders have not yet moved their herds up the mountains. The yak herder was way up the hill above us and we could hear him laughing at the crazy chilips photographing his hut.
We are now in Trongsa, the geographical centre of Bhutan. The villages/towns in this part of Bhutan are perched on the side of the hill rather than being down in the valley. We are staying at the Yangkhil Resort & I can see the Trongsa Dzong from my room tonight. (Unfortunately the lights were not turned on until it was fully dark.). Dinner was wonderful. The food in Bhutan has been very bland (except for chilli cheese) as it is toned down for chilips (foreigners), but it is too bland. Not tonight; we had ginger rice, roti, roast pork, a variety of vegetables and a potato curry.
OMG the Ester Bunny came to Bhutan. When we arrived at breakfast there were Belgian chocolate eggs for everyone. A very lovely gesture from Barbara J
The Thunder Dragon spoke last night. We had quite a bit of fresh snow this morning. Some oik was stomping about at 5am this morning so in the end I got up and took photos. I walked along the road for quite a bit and could see the very last village in the valley which is actually an army barracks. The soldiers from there are rostered on border security which must be a hell of a job.
We reached Thimpu today - the tiniest capital city. The motorway has a speed limit of 50kph and has speed humps!! Apparently a traffic light was installed in 1998 but it caused such havoc that it was removed after only 3 days. There is a cute little bandstand thing in the middle of the road and the traffic is directed by a policeman with white gloves.
The Bhutanese have been building a giant statute of Buddha above Thimpu since 2008. It is 169ft high and together with the building its sited on (which will be a sort of Buddha museum and meditation centre) plus the roading the overall cost is expected to exceed USD10,000,000 with financial assistance coming from Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand & HongKong.
I had to smile, I saw a monk at the side of the road as we came into Thimpu. I thought he was praying or something but it turned out he was just shielding the screen on his cell phone so he could read it.
Tonight's hotel is the most modern we have seen in Bhutan so far and there are even scales in the bathroom - I'm too scared to get on them though.
As we left Paro we could see the Tanka unfurled at the Dzong. This is a huge & beautiful tapestry that covers the side of a building and only comes out for a few hours once a year. It is a big thing in the Buddhist community and it was unfurled at 3am this morning – we didn’t attend!
Today we drove from Paro over the Chelela Pass (3988m/13,084ft) to the Haa Valley. The road sort of goes up almost on top of itself. I could not count how many hair pins/switch backs there were… all I can say is thank god for travel pills. In fact, every day that we drive in Bhutan I have to swallow them. We passed up through pine, spruce, hemlock, larch, juniper and fir forests and could see where bears, yup bears, had used the trees as scratching posts. There were wild rhododendrons but they are not yet in full bloom and there were also lovely little purple primulas everywhere. The top of the pass had masses of prayer flags and we also saw a couple of yaks. They can get a bit aggressive so we weren't allowed too close.
Tourists have only gained access to the Haa Valley since 2008. This is a remote farming community and we are staying at a guest house which is a reasonably recent venture of a local entrepreneur. The Soednam Zingkha guest lodge has been adapted for western tourists and is an amalgamation of tourist needs and the traditional ways. It has typical Bhutanese architecture but the inside has been ramped up for tourists. No shoes are worn inside and the wooden floors are beautifully smooth and polished. The rooms are basic but lovely. The one downside is that the bathrooms are shared but it’s worth visiting for the experience. We are at the top end of the valley at the base of the mountains and the road only goes on for about another 2km. This area is very very close to the Tibetan border so the Indian Army maintain a presence here to assist the Bhutanese in resisting any take overs.
There was a local archery match on when we arrived so we popped over to check it out. It was a match between two villages and the prize was a case of beer. The bows are very modern things and hugely expensive at an average of NZD10,000 each. The men were shooting from one side of the river to the other (and over the road) approx 300-400 metres away. When one scored a point they all danced about and chanted. It was brilliant. Each side has a target (not very big) and a split log fence that you shelter behind when it’s the other sides turn to shoot. We learned later that the dance emulates that of the black necked crane.
I took up the offer of a hot stone bath. Our host escorted me down to the river side about 50 metres from the house where a fire had been heating up the stones for about 2 hours. We sat by the fire and chatted while watching my bath being made ready. The bath is a wooden trough like structure with a divider about 2/3rds along full of holes. There is another smaller wooden trough at right angles next to the smaller 1/3rd. The main part of the bigger trough is screened off in a lean to type structure & curtained for privacy. The stones were picked out of the fire, briefly dipped the small trough to clean them and then dropped them into the 1/3rd portion of the main bath. Where the benefit comes in, apart from the heat, is that the stones release lime and minerals into the water. This is a rural Bhutanese cure for aches and pains. Needless to say it was a great experience. I was lying in a hot bath watching the sky go dark and listening to the sound of the river. The only thing that would have improved it would have been if I could see the mountains at the same time... and maybe a wine!
The food at the guest house is absolutely superb and beautifully fresh. The variety tonight was amazing as food is generally pretty much all the same in Bhutan. Bhutan is the only place I have come across that serves chilli as a vegetable in its own right. But other than the chilli cheese (emadachi), which is toned down for chilips, none of the dishes had any chilli.
It has started thundering again outside. Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon.
I was really looking forward to photographing the festival dancers but when we got there we were cut loose and told to do our own thing. The crowd was massive and I was sort of pushed and directed up the hill but there was nowhere to sit and after perching there for a wee while, miles from the dancers I gave up. A long lens can only do so much & it wasn't enough.
We had been told that the grass was reserved for locals to sit and that as this was a religious event rather than a cultural show, is it inappropriate to stand in front of them to take photos. I tried to take photos from the back but was moved on. Apparently most of the others had the same problem.
The festival itself was actually held in the grounds of the dzong (the fort). Everyone was decked out in their finest traditional costumes. The men’s outfit is called a ‘gho’ and the women’s a ‘kira’. It was a lovely sight with the beautifully woven & colourful costumes and flags everywhere. Bhutanese women excel at traditional loom weaving and typically do it during the long dark winter nights.
I had a look around the dzong which was quiet and peaceful as most people were up at the dancing.
It is a beautiful building and you are allowed to photograph anywhere except the temple. (A useful rule of thumb is no shoes, no photographs.)
In the evening we visited a local farmhouse for dinner. The family were lovely, fed us and showed us around the house. I don’t know whether the food was amended for foreigners (chilips) but there was no hint of chilli anywhere. We had red rice, mashed potato, asparagus, spinach, chicken, beef with noodles & scrambled egg.
Potatoes in Bhutan are just superb, fabulous flavour. I gather it has something to do with the altitude. We also had a local brew made from rice & wheat. Very like saki and absolutely lethal. Declined to try salt butter tea…
Five of us left the hotel at 7am and began our trek at 7.30. I felt pretty good going up & made sure I kept it slow. You breathe heavily but my heart was not racing. The prep work I did paid off. I kept stopping for photos so was the last to reach the top. The monastery is very beautiful. You have to surrender your cameras, bags, tripod, shoes, everything. The downside of being here for the festival is that the place was heaving with people and some tourists were extremely irreverent in the temples. (Well you wouldn’t talk loudly in a cathedral would you?) There are actually 10 temples within the monastery but foreigners are only allowed in 5 of them.
The hardest bit is that once you reach the top you have to descend into the ravine and up the other side to enter the monastery. And once you have been in the monastery you of course have to repeat the process. That is the killer. Coming down was as difficult & as painful as I had expected. The trip took us approx 7 hours and that is very very slow.
We all feel pretty pleased with ourselves, I have a massive amount of painkillers on board and feel perfectly good at the moment. We were supposed to be visiting a local farmhouse for dinner tonight, which was a nice idea but involved sitting on the floor Bhutanese style. Bit daft when 5 of the party probably wouldn’t be able to get off the floor :-) Anyway sense has prevailed and we will be visiting a restaurant instead.
Tomorrow we will spend the day at the festival.
The climb up out of Phuntsholing was shrouded in mist and cloud. The others all thought it was boring but I loved it and could see photos everywhere. We are travelling by small bus so stopping at will was not an option. All day we travelled on winding mountainous roads that were only one lane wide. There is an unsealed shoulder and the road widens at corners. Given that there is a lot of traffic, much being buses and trucks, passing becomes an art. Often I opened my window and watched a truck inch past with only 2-3 inches to spare.
We came around one hairpin corner and found a man sitting in the middle of the road eating his morning tea. I have no idea what he was doing but there was another one about 10 metres away.
Bhutanese people are welcoming, friendly & very patriotic. The kingdom has only recently become a democracy and the people don’t really know what to make of that yet. The weather cleared and by the time we reached Paro, around 3pm it was sunny. We walked around the town for a bit in case the weather packed in tomorrow. The place is heaving with people, locals and foreigners arriving for the festival. Five of us will attempt the hike to Taktshang Monastery tomorrow.
Everywhere you go in India and Bhutan there are lots of dogs. At first you think they are dead, but in actual fact they just lie sleeping any and everywhere. The problem in Bhutan, is that they sleep all day and bark all night. Sitting in bed typing this there is an absolute cacophony going on outside. No one seems to shut them up. Paro in particular has a huge dog problem. So much so, that every Tuesday the locals are asked to take a dog, any dog, to the vets to be neutered. It wasn’t clear who pays but I suspect it’s the state.
The previous King (the current Kings father) instituted the happiness index. So instead of a GDP Bhutan has a GHI. Essentially it’s about good governance; if the people are well fed, housed, have occupations and health care they are happy. This is a very small country of about 700,000 and the health scheme is such that all costs are covered, even for visiting tourists.
Yes, this is me.
Most photogs prefer to be behind the camera and I'm no exception.
So this pic is rather old having been taken at a Ceroc ball in 2012.