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.


  1. Fabulous photos Vee! I'm looking forward to Part 2.

  2. Glad to start reading your journey. I was worried that you might have not come back! What kind of cheese do they use for their chili cheese? I was intrigued by the recipe! Do you have a photo? What is added hot that it needs to cool for 5 minutes? See, intrigued!

    1. sorry Lizzie, I completely missed this. If you want a recipe I can email you one