Wednesday, 31 October 2012

There and back again - Part 3

Back to Kathmandu
After the peace and bliss of Bhutan it was a complete culture shock to arrive back in Kathmandu.

Apparently all flights that morning had been delayed due to fog at the Kathmandu end, so from the calm of Paro airport we arrived in the afternoon to absolute chaos at Tribhuvan, where pretty much every flight arrived at as much as the same time is possible for aircraft. It took almost 2 hours to get through immigration alone and then finding our luggage was one of those experiences where you know it's a brilliant idea that you bought the one and only band for your grey suitcase that you think is so hideous that no-one else in the world would buy it. Mine just happens to be pink and yellow and is truly awful, but stands out a treat, so I was able to locate my case relatively easily amongst what awaited us in the luggage hall. They don't do leaving luggage on the conveyer belt at Tribhuvan, oh no, much better to take it all off and leave it in one mountain of luggage! MM of course travels with a backpack and he has this special metal cage to secure it with and so his too stands out just fine. I felt really sorry for most of the travellers.

We were met by Harka Lama, another of MM's Nepali friends, who bundled us into his car and we were off... well kind of! The traffic in Kathmandu was completely gridlocked. It turned out that one person on one road we were on had a flat tyre. The ensuing traffic jam that one problem caused was unbelievable. So, hot and tired and a teeny tiny bit irritable, we arrived back at Hotel Annapurna.

As we unpacked we found our container with Nell's ashes, which we'd completely forgotten to take to the The Tiger's Nest. Oh dear!

After an hour in the sun, we made the decision to have a meal at the Arniko Chinese restaurant in the hotel, which is another of our Kathmandu favourites. We both acknowledged that having to choose our food again after 10 days of not having to do so felt a trifle weird, but the meal certainly cheered us up after our rather trying day.

The next day we got up early and, armed with Nell's ashes, headed out to The Boudhanath, where we spent a wonderful couple of hours doing a Kora and spending time amongst the Tibetan's and other tourists.

At Boudhanath
They'd closed the top, so we made the decision that it wouldn't be appropriate to spread our Nell around the pavements. We did, however, have a heartwarming experience with a very elderly Tibetan nun who gave us both a blessing and I bought a trinket from one of the shops, better known now as a 'bull in a bag', just...well... because I have a bit of a thing about cattle, is my only explanation.

Getting blessed

My 'bull in a bag'

After a momo lunch we headed off for Pashupatinath. Monkeys, cows in the river and bodies burning as per usual. If you've never been, it's a little hard to explain, but it's where the Hindu's take their dead loved ones to burn and then throw the ashes in the river. It's all public and with many burnings going on at one time and is very moving.

Beautiful coloured dyes at Pashupatinath

By the river

Monkey at looking out over the Bagmati River

A body being blessed

The end of a burning

A cow wandering in the river

We found a quiet spot by the river and decided this was one of the places for Nell's ashes. It was an emotional moment for us both and it certainly felt like the right place.

Later that afternoon we went back into Thamel to spend a little time in Pilgrim's Book House, which is always one of our highlights. You can get the most amazing books at the most amazing prices and it's just one of those places I could spend a lifetime in. Then a quick visit (only 3 cups of tea) with our friend, Binod, in The Mountain Tea Shop. I met him when I first went to Kathmandu in 2005, when he was about 18 and flirted outrageously with me. But over the years we've struck an odd friendship, which always picks up where it left off. It was quite lovely to sit and sip tea and catch up.

Binod in the Mountain Tea Shop - this was actually taken 3 years ago as I didn't get one this time, but thought you might like to see what he looks like. And the shop never changes!
 Next day we went to Kurtipur, mainly because we've never been there before, but it felt a bit strange as we were the only Western people there and it seemed to cause quite a stir. Interesting place though. One of the few that doesn't allow cars (the streets are too narrow) in Kathmandu and has fab views of the city.

Kathmandu from Kirtipur

Me watching a woman weaving

Kids who seemed to be fascinated by us

Gambling Kirtipur style

From there we went to Swayambhunath (better known as The Monkey Temple for very obvious reasons). Bizarrely we saw Binod there, so another opportunity to chat for a while - he was doing a guiding job for some Dutch people, but left them to wander about so he could spend some time with us.

Flags at Swayambunath

Then it was back to the hotel for a bit of R and R before having an early rise so we would make the bus to Chitwan, which was to leave at 7.30 the next morning.

Tomorrow is Part 4: To Chitwan and Lumbini

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

There and back again - Part 2

The Tiger's Nest, Paro
Our travels in Bhutan took us from Paro to Thimpu, from Thimpu to Chimmu Lhakhang and on to Punakha, from Punakha across Pele La to Trongsa, from Trongsa to Jakar in Bumthang and from there to Phobjikha and then back to Paro. It was an incredible journey for me in most senses of the word, but if I were to write it all here I'd be writing all day, so you'll just have to trust me on that one. Of course I'm not blind to the fact that I was a tourist and being given the tourist 'treatment', so was it really Bhutan or the Tourist Version of Bhutan? Probably a bit of both in my view. There were moments, such as when Kinley went out of his way to buy me a bottle of Ara (the local rice wine), so that I'd have something to take back with me. This was one of those genuine Bhutanese moments that I hold very dearly. I found this particularly touching because 1) he doesn't drink; 2) I could well afford to buy myself a bottle and I'm not sure he could; and 3) he sourced it specially for me. I didn't ask for this, he just did it because he's a kind person and wanted me to experience something of his country.

So on to the final full day of our visit and the requisite trek to Paro Taktsang, better known as The Tiger's Nest. This amazing structure is built onto the edge of a cliff, 3,000 ft above Paro, over 10,000 ft above sea level and is about 3.5 miles from the car park to the top and takes approximately 2-3 hours to reach, depending on how fast you are.

As you know I have a knee problem and we'd decided to hire a pony to help both up and down, but the day before we were due to go, there was a day of rain and the track was slippy and muddy so we were unsure if a pony would be able to negotiate the track at all. However, on the day itself we awoke to a beautiful, cold, sunny Paro day and got to the car park at the base of the track by 7.30 am. We were supposed to be met by our pony, but nothing was there (in fact we were the first people in the car park at that point). By 8 the car park was filling up and still no sign of a pony, so after Thandin phoned the pony person, we decided to head on up the path, with the hope that the pony would catch us up.
Me at the very start
After about 30 minutes of walking pony man and 3 ponies arrived and an Australian woman (who, along with her husband and their guide had joined our merry band by then) and I were allotted our mounts and off we went, with her on a grey, being led by the pony man and me on a brown, being led by Thandin, while the 3rd pony just walked along behind us.

And off we go
After about 15 minutes we stopped and I was changed onto the 3rd pony, but the pony man was so impressed with my ability to get on and off (I've been riding since I was 5 so this wasn't all that impressive) that after another 15 minutes he changed us over and I was put on the grey with him and in the lead and the Aussie woman was relegated.

And another change
And off we go again
Thandin kept telling me how great a rider the pony man thought I was - which, given we're talking trekking ponies here, who were plodding along the slippy path to the very best of their ability, but I would hardly call it riding in the true sense, made me wonder at what these poor ponies had to put up with usually!

15 minutes later, as we glimpsed The Tiger's Nest through the clouds and gazed down over Paro, it was time to dismount and the ponies, released from duty as it was far too slippery to be able to carry a human down the track, went back to base camp with their man and we headed on up the path. I was trying hard at this point not to think of the journey back, as going down is far harder for me than going up, but I have to admit it was playing on my mind some.

And there it is!
A rather nice pic of pony, Pony Man and Thandin just before we started the last slog

The view of Paro valley from part way up
'Old Man's Beard' on the trees

Unbelievably beautiful ferns, which actually grow on the tree trunks
About 45 minutes later, after slogging up track and 700 steps (yes, 700!) and past a waterfall, we finally arrived at the monastery and what an incredible sight it was, literally hanging there on the edge of the cliff! Cameras aren't allowed inside so I have no photos from the top, but the views were just amazing.

Thandin and I on the steps

Looking up at The Tiger's Nest

More steps!

Looking back over all those steps!

And then it was time to turn around and go down. I was just beginning to feel daunted at the prospect when I looked down and to my astonishment there, in the ground at my feet, was an Indian 1 Rupee coin and the only thing showing on it's face was a thumb's up sign. I didn't need any further encouragement and off we went.

We had a few funny moments when several groups of Indian Army guys, who were running the whole path (!) asked us if they could take photos with us. Apparently they like to look like they've got European friends.... I wish I could have been there when they got back and told each other about their new holiday chums from Scotland and then find out that each group took the same photos. The worst bit is that, as it was hot on the way down and I was wearing a pink vest, was very red in the face, and what with my hair colour to add to the ghastly image, I can't think they'll have been too pleased with the actual photos - and no, I'm not including any for you to laugh at, I'll leave that to your imaginations.

Looking back up at The Tiger's Nest from way down the path
It took us just a couple of hours to get down and, although sore, my knee had held out rather well. A hot bath and some Ibuprofen gel and a couple of painkillers and I was right as anything to get on with our day, which included a visit to another monastery in Paro, a walk around town and a delicious meal out with Tenzin, our Tour Operator and MM's friend, who very sweetly bought us a piece of hand woven cloth to grace our table at home as a gift.

A perfect end to a perfect trip.

More Bhutanese facts
  • Dzongkha is the official Bhutanese language and English is the second language.
  • You're always given a guide who speaks your language pretty fluently.
  • The guides are incredibly knowledgeable, so be prepared to be flooded with facts about all the places you visit.
  • From all the trinkets you can buy, you'd think the Bhutanese are obsessed with penises (penii?). This is because the Divine Madman, who apparently went around naked, subdued many local demons with his magic penis. I'm saying nothing!
  • There are several local beers, but I was advised to drink Drukh 1100 over Red Panda. It was pretty good.
  • Ara is the local wine. It's rice wine with a bit of wheat added, so a bit like Japanese Sake, but a bit stronger in flavour.
  • The currency is the Ngultrum and, at the time of our travel, there were 86.84 Ngultrum to the £1.
  • The national game is archery. Not exactly a spectator sport as the arrows are shot over quite a distance (430 ft) and it's not that easy to see the target, but they do a dance and sing whenever someone hits the target, so is very colourful and upbeat.
  • The national dress is the Gho for men and the Kira for women - though many women wear a half Kira. The Bhutanese have to wear the national costume if they're visiting Dzong or monastery and, although they do wear western clothes too, most wear national costume most of the time.

Oh yes, and before I finish the Bhutanese part of our trip... our favourite place? Phobjikha, a valley out beyond. We stayed at a farmhouse, where it was freezing so we were given a room with a wood burning stove, which was wonderfully warm and toasty. We had no shower, but were given hot buckets of water to wash ourselves with. Somehow this rustic simplicity completely won us over and we just wished we'd been able to stay there longer.

Tomorrow - Part 3 - back to Nepal and the delights of Chitwan, Lumbini and a stay with the Mother Bush.

Monday, 29 October 2012

There and back again - Part 1

We arrive in Kathmandu
Damon Galgut, in his novel A Strange Room, says 'There is a moment when any real journey begins', and for us it was breaking the seal on Nell's ashes to take some with us in a Tupperware container to scatter at The Tiger's Nest in Paro and under the Mother Bush in Pokhara. We're nothing if not completely sentimental!

After an easy flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow we were hit with a bit of a nightmare when our plane from Heathrow to Delhi with Jet Airways was cancelled. In order to meet our plane in Delhi for the onward flight to Kathmandu we were herded onto a Virgin Atlantic flight, but not before queuing for almost 2 hours and travelling several times on the Heathrow Express to get from Terminal 5 to Terminal 4 to Terminal 3. I'm going to leave that bit of the journey there. Suffice it to say it wasn't pleasant, but we did get to Kathmandu on time and with all our luggage intact. Can't really ask for more.

It's been 3 years since I was in Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu. I remember it as quite an overwhelming experience. But there have been changes. Instead of being met by hordes of people determined to grab your bags and take you to the nearest taxi as soon as you hit the concourse, they've all now been put outside the airport, so there's a touch of respite before being truly hit with what it means to arrive in Nepal's capital city. Luckily Rabi, Mountain Man's friend and ally in all things travelling in Nepal, met us at the airport and with a swift hug and kiss we were escorted to the waiting car, while firmly brushing aside any offers of help from obliging Nepali's.

The powers that be in Kathmandu have recently seen the light and decided on complete road overhaul, in the sense that they are widening every available road they can. The only problem is they're doing it all at once by tearing down buildings and digging up the roads so that Kathmandu, normally unbelievably dusty with all the traffic at the best of times, is now indescribable. I could feel the layer of dust that just sits on the city permeating my throat as soon as we started driving.

We arrived at the rather swanky Annapurna Hotel on Durba Marg, which, compared to the rest of the city, was relatively dust free. This is our usual Kathmandu residence and we get very nice rooms at rather a cheap price, which is great. We took a quick sunbathe by the pool and then off to Thamel to reacquaint ourselves with various friends and then a delicious fresh mint lemonade and combo platter at Or2K, one of our favourite restaurants, before heading for bed for a reasonably early night as we were flying to Bhutan the next day.

The pool at The Annapurna

Next stop Bhutan
Luckily our flight to Bhutan wasn't too early and gave us time to have breakfast before another trip to Tribhuvan. You have to get there at least 3 hours early as security is an 'interesting' experience. Drukh Air, which is the only airline allowed to fly into Bhutan, was as pleasant a flight as I can remember. With a fab Everest flypast, we left the dry, aridness of Nepal for the green and extremely verdant Bhutan.

Paro was unbelievable compared to Kathmandu. Even the airport was... well... hard to describe, so judge for yourselves.

Yes, this really is 'Arrivals' at Paro
We were met by Thandin, our guide, and the wonderful Kinley (my absolute favouritist person in Bhutan), our driver and whisked off from Paro to Thimpu.

The lovely Kinley
As dusty and loud and in-your-face as Nepal and the Nepalis are, Bhutan and the Bhutanese are the complete opposite. The country is as green as green, with the cleanest rivers I've ever seen and the people are reserved and polite. Not a single beggar on any street (all those who might beg, as well as the elderly are looked after in the monasteries) and in spite of dogs running around in packs I only ever saw one peeing on one car wheel and one tiny bit of dog shit the whole time I was there - though to be fair I didn't see any evidence of dog shit in Nepal either, which is more than can be said for Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders.

To give you a flavour of how the Bhutanese see dogs: In Phobjhika there was a puppy about 10 weeks old and very cute it was too. An Australian woman asked the guy what it's name was. He looked at her astonished and said, 'Name? It's a dog'.

I'm not going to say too much about our travels in Bhutan, but let the pictures do the talking. I just thought the place was completely magical and would move there tomorrow, but sadly they don't let foreigners settle unless you marry someone from Bhutan (I think MM might have something to say) or have something to offer the country (mmm a 60+ semi-retired clinical psychologist... nope, I don't see it myself).

Thandin on the 15th C iron bridge between Paro and Thimpu

At the confluence of Paro Chu and Thimpu Chu

The view of Thimpu from our hotel

Downtown Thimpu
The Buddha on the hill above Thimpu

You can really see the size of the Buddha here (169 feet high)
The extraordinary Takin - Bhutan's national animal

Buying fresh roasted corn at the side of the road - notice the cow at the back enjoying the corn leaves
The view from Chimmu Lhakhang (Temple of the Divine Madman)


Looking out over the paddy fields at lunch
The Dzong at Punakha

Knitted flowers at lunch

Trongsa Dzong and watchtower


Archery at Trongsa

On the way to Bumthang

Thandin and Mountain Man on a trek at Bumthang
A wild yak on the road to Pele La

The monastery at Pobjikha

Some facts about Bhutan:
Being a Buddhist country it's non-smoking. Tourists are allowed to bring in about 6 packs of cigarettes at a whopping $200 to pay at immigration. Tourists are only allowed to smoke in their hotel rooms (where allowed), locals caught smoking get an immediate fine and caught selling incurs a 3 year jail term.

The national animal is the Takin, an unusual animal that looks like a cross between a cow and a goat, with the wiriest, toughest hair I've felt.

The national dish is Chilli and Cheese. Many people who've been to Bhutan had said to me how bored they were with this and never wanted another dish of it again, however, I thought it was wonderful. I could actually taste the difference between the chillies and cheeses of the different regions. After leaving Bhutan I positively missed my chillies at every meal, so watch out if you come a-visiting!

Here's a recipe for Green chilli with cheese if you want to try it for yourself:
Ingredients: 50 gms of green chilli; 2 tbs of oil; salt for taste; half a cup of water and 30 gms of cheese.
Preparation: Cut your green chilli, add the oil, salt and cheese, cover with a lid and cool for 5 minutes or until the water is dry. Mix it well and eat.

Tourism is a completely different concept than we're used to in the West. Every tourist operator is Government approved as are all the hotels and restaurants. Your operator chooses the hotels, restaurants and food you eat. Whilst in Bhutan your tourist operator and guide are totally responsible for what happens to you and if you're ill they don't get paid. You have to pay for your trip up front, but your tour operator only gets paid 2 days after you leave the country. Although it seems very expensive to visit ($250 per day) - and in a lot of ways it is - this is what you get for your money:
  • you get a guide
  • you get a driver
  • you get a car
  • you're provided with as much water as you want during your travel
  • all hotels and food throughout your stay are paid for. The only thing you pay is your bar bill.
The government take $65 per day out of the $250 and there is free health care and schooling for all. They also have craft schools to enable young people who've left school to learn how to keep the Bhutanese crafts alive and the potential for work.

The food, for the most part, is fresh and wonderful. We only had one poorish meal while we were there and this was because they were trying to be too Western. In fact Tesco have been trying to get into Bhutan for years, but so far the Bhutanese have resolutely refused them permission... long may that remain!

Well that's it for today. Tomorrow is Part 2 - the required visit to The Tiger's Nest at Paro.