Part 2: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

Thankfully I’d asked for an alarm call for my first morning in Thimphu as the bed was so comfortable and everything was so quiet that I could easily have gone on sleeping. The contrast with Nepal is striking. I’m so used to waking up in Kathmandu at about 5am to the dawn chorus of motorbikes revving, taxis honking, dogs barking, pigeons cooing, people chattering away, shutters going up, bells ringing for puja etc etc. Thimphu was the total opposite. The only sound was the chirping of the birds who had made their nest above my window. At breakfast I shocked the staff with my prodigious English tea-drinking ability. In the end they just gave up and brought the whole pot over 🙂 By 7.45 there was still nobody around, the clouds had begun to lift and the sun was streaming down onto the square.

After breakfast our first stop was the memorial chorten built in honour of the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. The nice thing here was that it wasn’t just a sight, it was also obviously well used by local Bhutanese people, including those doing their prostrations first thing in the morning. I had seen this in Lhasa too. Some people do it for miles and miles, and in fact when we were on the road from Thimphu to Paro later in the trip I did actually see a man on the main road lying flat out, getting up again, moving slightly forward, and repeating the whole thing. It must take months to get anywhere.

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Morning prostrations at the chorten

Most people here were spinning the prayer wheels on the way to work or school, and it was a peaceful place to start the day.

From here we drove up, up, up the windy road to visit the Buddha Dordenma, an absolutely enormous (51 metre tall) statue of the Buddha, which overlooks the Thimphu valley (and has great views). Many people from around the world have donated money to help finish the Buddha, which is still being constructed. Once finished it will contain thousands of smaller Buddha statues. An amazing thing to see standing guard over the valley.

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View over Thimphu from the Buddha

View over Thimphu from the Buddha

Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

Buddha Dordenma, Thimphu

As I’m interested in crafts my tour included a lot of visits to craft workers. Our next stop was the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre at Changzamtog, just outside Thimphu. I was lucky enough to see some of the women weaving beautiful fabrics, which are for sale upstairs in the shop. I managed to restrict myself to just one silk scarf that has the most amazing colours. Many Bhutanese women have looms at home and spend time every day weaving; in fact I saw this myself on the drives through the country. The houses have wide verandahs that can accomodate a back-strap loom and a pile of fabric ready for sale.

Weaving at Changzamtog

Weaving at Changzamtog

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If you’ve been following the blog for a while you’ll know how keen I was to see takins, the national animal of Bhutan. You’re unlikely to see them in the wild unless you’re super-lucky, so I tromped off to the Motithang takin preserve which houses a few of these amazing animals. The fourth king was not happy that animals were being kept in an enclosure (I guess it’s not good for their gross national happiness!) so they were released into the wild. However, as they were so tame they ended up strolling round Thimphu in search of a meal, so they were put back into captivity. I was lucky to see them close up, as one of the takins was unwell and was being treated, so they were all close up to the fence. They are rather odd-looking but I have a soft spot for anything like that, so I really enjoyed visiting them.

Takins

Takins

Well hello there

Well hello there

The Bhutanese have 13 traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum), including carving, painting, weaving, embroidery and paper making. I was excited at being able to visit the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu and watch some of the students learning their trades. I felt slightly uncomfortable at first, as I was worried about disturbing the hard work going on, but none of the students batted an eyelid. They must be used to tourists sticking zoom lenses into their faces and just got on with what they were doing. They have a shop onsite where you can buy pieces that the students have made. Touchingly the students write their names on the back of whatever it is that they’ve made so I now have a beautiful piece of embroidery made by a student called Dawa Choden (thank you Dawa!).

Embroidery class

Embroidery class

Painting a thangka

Painting a thangka

A paper factory was my next stop. Making paper is a laborious process – first the plants are stripped and boiled in a huge vat. The pulp is washed, pressed and dried, and then the paper is made. The smell is something you have to experience to believe. The end product is worth it though. I found the way they dry the paper on huge electric heaters interesting, as I’ve only seen it dried in the sun in Kathmandu (think of a big washing line).

Preparing the lokta

Preparing the lokta

Drying the sheets of paper

Drying the sheets of paper

The lokta bush

The lokta bush

The National Textile Museum was a lovely place to see. In the first toom I watched a DVD which explained the different types of weaving and how different ethnic groups in Bhutan make different types of cloth. There are then two main rooms of exhibits: one contains clothes that the royal family have worn, for example at weddings, along with some of the history, and the other was a more general display of traditional clothes and jewellery. This was all beautifully presented and if you have even a vague interest in textiles, I would recommend a visit.

The last stop on my full itinerary today was the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which contains the government offices and also houses some monks. It is only open for an hour or so in the evening, once the civil servants have gone home, but it’s worth the wait. The buildings are atmospheric, with monks wandering around, and the sound of horns and chanting coming from the rooms on the first floor. The rooms are painted with lovely murals and one of them is lined with small golden statues of the Buddha.

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Prayer wheels at Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

Prayer wheels at Trashi Chhoe Dzong Thimphu

By the time I got back to the hotel I was more than ready for a sit down, dinner and a beer. I had had a great day, and was looking forward to the next. But first another massive dinner to get through 🙂

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂

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Part 1: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

If you’ve been reading the blog/are my friend/husband and have had to listen to me rabbiting on, you’ll know that on my recent trip to Nepal I managed to squeeze in a 4-night trip to Bhutan as well. Bhutan is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go and it’s an hour away from Kathmandu by plane, so it seemed rude not to!

As landing and taking off from Paro airport is highly dependent on the weather [visual rules, so the pilot actually has to be able to see. Useful I’d think] I made sure I was at Kathmandu airport at stupid o’clock and was rewarded by the 50-seater twin prop plane taking off 10 minutes early. I had a seat on the left-hand side of the plane but unfortunately the clouds were obliterating the mountains so no Everest for me. Luckily I’ve seen the whole range from Tibet so I didn’t feel too disappointed, although seeing mountains is always a good thing. Drukair was impressive. It was a titchy plane but there were two stewardesses and even lunch (maybe not traditional Bhutanese fare: mayonnaise sandwiches, peanuts, biscuits and a mango juice). The sign above my head stated: ‘Meal plates must be stowed in a sofa drawer during take-off and landing’. I loved it.

Plane on the tarmac at Kathmandu airport

Plane on the tarmac at Kathmandu airport

Plane on the tarmac at Paro airport

Plane on the tarmac at Paro airport

The King and Queen keeping an eye on us all

The King and Queen keeping an eye on us all

We arrived safely at Paro, where immigration and baggage control was a breeze. My guide and driver, Tshering and Pema, were waiting for me outside [Anna, UK, 1 pax – just the way I like it] and they whisked me off to my hotel in Thimphu. Along the way I picked my jaw up off the well-upholstered floor of the car numerous times. The scenery was superb and Tshering filled me in on various things we were seeing along the way. Lush green paddy fields, densely wooded mountainsides (apparently nobody is allowed to cut the trees down), plenty of signs exhorting people to drive carefully [my personal favourite: ‘This is highway, not runway’]. Women selling fruit (mainly apples) and veg by the side of the road, small temples and houses dotted around, cows and calves strolling down the middle of the road.

The hotel in Thimphu was new and comfortable (Hotel Thimphu Towers) and central, in fact on the main Clocktower Square. A perfect place for me to take sneaky photos of people walking around, not realising that there was a tourist on the third floor observing their every move. So I’m nosy, I can’t help it 🙂

DSCF8841 DSCF8842 DSCF8844Bhutan is unusual in that most people wear traditional Bhutanese dress, as in the photos above. Some younger people are now wearing jeans and t-shirts, but people in offices and businesses, and school children, are all dressed like this. Personally I think Bhutanese women are the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen (particularly the current queen, who makes even my knees go wobbly). And it seems effortless. I felt clumsy and red-haired in comparison. And while we’re on the subject of knees, if you go I hope you don’t get too excited by male knees, because you’re going to see a lot of them!

Before I went to bed I watched people in the square while drinking tea. According to Tshering 98% of Bhutanese are Buddhist, and there were certainly plenty of people spinning the prayer wheels in Clocktower Square. It was a very peaceful place and just right for a good night’s sleep.

Travel arranged by the lovely Thinley at Sakten Tours and Treks (thinley@sakten.com).

All photos by me 🙂

Nepal – Be Here Now

I was lying awake on my first night in Nepal on this particular trip, and my mind was going round and round as it has a habit of doing, when I realised something. I had seen photos of the intrepid tourists who had braved their friends’ worries, their governments’ advice and maybe even their own fears, and had defiantly travelled to Nepal anyway after the earthquake in April and taken photos of themselves holding placards stating something like ‘I’m in Nepal and it’s safe’. This is great, and I don’t want to diminish the power of these photos – ultimately travelling to Nepal or not is an entirely personal decision, but seeing other people there, enjoying the sights, activities, food, drink and culture is surely encouraging.

I wanted to do something a bit different. I wanted to take photos of my friends in Nepal holding a similar sign. These people work in hotels, restaurants, shops and other service industries related to tourism, and have all been affected directly by the earthquake. Some of them have lost friends and relatives, some of them have lost houses, some of them are worried about losing their livelihoods – a result of the fact that far fewer tourists are coming to Nepal than would usually be expected.

That’s enough from me – these photos say everything I want to say as far as I’m concerned. This is an amazing country that has been badly wounded by recent events, but it is far from moribund. I want everyone who reads this blog (and the fact that you’re reading it probably means you love travelling as much as I do) to seriously consider visiting Nepal – whether you’ve been ten times or you’re a Nepal virgin. And if you need any help, get in contact with me or any of the people in these photos. They will all be more than happy to welcome you to their beautiful country.

http://www.hotelmanang.com

http://www.abcadventures.com

https://www.facebook.com/womensdonepal

http://www.lsrpokhara.com/

Yakka, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Yakka, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Ramesh, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Ramesh, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Bhim, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Bhim, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Narottam, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Narottam, of ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Meena, office assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Meena, office assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Surya, senior teacher at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Surya, senior teacher at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Apsara, top waitress at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Apsara, top waitress at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Bijay, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Bijay, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Sunita, shop assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Sunita, shop assistant at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Rustam, managing director of the best travel agency in Nepal, ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Rustam, managing director of the best travel agency in Nepal, ABC Adventures, Kathmandu

Nanda, computer operator at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Nanda, computer operator at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

The absolutely wonderful Ram Kali, founder of Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

The absolutely wonderful Ram Kali, founder of Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Anup, International Manager at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Anup, International Manager at Wsdo Nepal, Pokhara

Friendly snake, Pokhara

Friendly snake, Pokhara

Tej, owner of LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Tej, owner of LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Pradeep and Prem, Kathmandu

Pradeep and Prem, Kathmandu

Parmeshwor, laundry owner, Kathmandu

Parmeshwor, laundry owner, Kathmandu

Kuber, maintenance man who can fix anything at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Kuber, maintenance man who can fix anything at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Ganesh, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Ganesh, waiter at LakesideRetreat Pokhara, Pokhara

Friendly elephant, Pokhara

Friendly elephant, Pokhara

Prem, world's best tea maker, Kathmandu

Prem, world’s best tea maker, Kathmandu

Sunil, at Pilgrim's Book House, Kathmandu

Sunil, at Pilgrim’s Book House, Kathmandu

Raju and Prajen, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Raju and Prajen, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Raju, senior receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Raju, senior receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Krishna, shop owner, Kathmandu

Krishna, shop owner, Kathmandu

Mukesh, the yak shawl man, Kathmandu

Mukesh, the yak shawl man, Kathmandu

Krishna, best waiter ever, at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Krishna, best waiter ever, at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Mahesh, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Mahesh, bell captain at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Friendly dragon, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Friendly dragon, Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Pradeep, world's best driver, Kathmandu

Pradeep, world’s best driver, Kathmandu

Mukund, scarf and shawl expert, Kathmandu

Mukund, scarf and shawl expert, Kathmandu

Deepika, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Deepika, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Prajen, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Prajen, receptionist at Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Henary, internet cafe owner, Kathmandu

Henary, internet cafe owner, Kathmandu

Delicious veg thukpa at Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Delicious veg thukpa at Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Dipika, receptionist at Hotel Manang Kathmandu

Dipika, receptionist at Hotel Manang Kathmandu

Shatrudhan and his daughter Neha, from Mithaila Women Craft, Kathmandu

Shatrudhan and his daughter Neha, from Mithaila Women Craft, Kathmandu

Archana, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, the best thakali food in the world, Kathmandu

Archana, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, the best thakali food in the world, Kathmandu

Milan from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Milan from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Sanjiv, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Sanjiv, from Mustang Thakali Chulo, Kathmandu

Subarana from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Subarana from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Kedar the wonderful mask maker, Kathmandu

Kedar the wonderful mask maker, Kathmandu

Ramesh, world's best F&B manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Ramesh, world’s best F&B manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Suresh, world's best Operations manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Suresh, world’s best Operations manager, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Gyanu, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Gyanu, from Hotel Manang, Kathmandu

Nirmal, Saroj and Adarsh from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Nirmal, Saroj and Adarsh from Unique Cargo, Kathmandu

Ananta from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Ananta from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Kiran from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Kiran from Amrita Crafts, Kathmandu

Dibya from Paper Park, Kathmandu

Dibya from Paper Park, Kathmandu

Mum with Deven, actor, model, lyricist, the owner of the Manang Hotel, Kathmandu and, most importantly, our very good friend

Mum with Deven, actor, model, lyricist, the owner of the Manang Hotel, Kathmandu and, most importantly, our very good friend

People who make a difference – Craft Aid UK

Here in the UK, we’re all used to reading about the great work charities do, and many of us also donate money every month to various organisations so that they can continue to help people all over the world. Recently I’ve read reports and heard conversations about charity fatigue. We’ve probably all felt it – I for one try and avoid those people on the streets who just want a moment of your time so they can convince you to support the charity they’re working for. There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, but I already give money to as many charities as I feel able to, and I feel guilty when I talk to these people and I can’t do anything more. Sometimes you just need to meet someone who can make it all seem real again.

A few years ago I met an inspirational woman who is doing something really positive to help street children in Uganda, among other projects. Lara has so much energy it’s unbelievable. She has a more-than-full time job and, with her husband David, runs Craft Aid UK in her ‘spare’ time (www.craftaiduk.com). I first met Lara at Ruislip Duck Pond market (www.duckpondmarket.com), where she sells lovely necklaces, baskets, animals and various other craft items made in Uganda to help finance the charity. Needless to say, quite a few of these items now grace my flat 🙂

Lara (on the left) with me at my wedding reception

Lara (left) with me at my wedding reception

Craft Aid works in tandem with a project that runs a home for street children in Kampala, supplying vital materials (mosquito nets, mattresses and clothing), and also providing grants. Paying the children’s school fees is also a hugely important part of the work they do, and others can get involved by sponsoring a child. Some sponsors have actually travelled over and met the child they sponsor – making it all real and personal. Surely an amazingly worthwhile trip.

Handcrafted animals

In addition to their work in Kampala, Craft Aid also work in a village with the amazing name of Kammengo-Ffunvu (THAT confused the spellcheck!), about 90 minutes’ drive from Kampala. In 2011 the charity installed a water supply in the village and, following their fundraising climb of Kilimanjaro in 2013, a multipurpose building has now been erected.

Please go to the website and read all about the charity and projects, and come and visit Lara and her products at one of the events that they attend!

Beautiful birds

Beautiful birds

The elusive Takin

I’m going to Bhutan for 4 nights at the end of August while I’m in Nepal. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go and it makes sense to do it now instead of as a special trip; it’s just an hour’s flight from Kathmandu to Paro. Unless you’re an Indian citizen you’re not able to travel independently in Bhutan, so I’ve been in touch with a travel agent who is busily sorting out flights, visa and hotels for me. I am really looking forward to my trip!

The takin is the national animal of Bhutan, and I really hope I get to see one, although that is highly unlikely. According to Wikipedia, the takin, also known as the cattle chamois or gnu goat, is a goat-antelope (sounds like nobody is quite sure WHAT it is!). But one thing I know is that it’s cute, and if I had a garden, if it wasn’t an endangered species, and if Franco probably wouldn’t get annoyed, I would bring a couple back. Not sure I quite like this bit so much though ‘Rather than localised scent glands, the takin has an oily, strong-smelling substance secreted over the whole body’ (Wikipedia). Hmmm, maybe I’ll take a bottle of shower gel with me, just in case I bump into one (literally). Apparently they’re rather tasty, but I couldn’t eat anything that I wanted to hug. Just a photo of the elusive beast would be good…

Golden_Takin

The Golden Takin (courtesy of Wikipedia)

What I’m reading: ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ Haruki Murakami

I am an avid fan of military history (I am fascinated by Napoleon but at least I don’t think I AM him…) but as I haven’t read any fiction for a while I decided to treat myself to the most recent Murakami novel. I am a big fan of his writing (both the fiction and also his book about the sarin attack, ‘Underground’) but I was disappointed by the last, pedestrian novel (IQ84) so I’ve been eagerly awaiting Tsukuru Tazaki. I started reading it on Wednesday night and got two-thirds of the way through – going to work the next day was not easy because I just wanted to stay at home with a lot of cups of tea and finish it. It’s not ‘Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, which has got to be one of his best novels (in my opinion, the best), but it’s entertaining. The book has the usual cast of odd characters, with strange events (and, of course, beautifully shaped ears…), weird sexual encounters, music and cooking. Tsukuru and his five friends were super close until he left to go to university in Tokyo. When he returned home during the holidays they collectively ignored him; after many phone calls, one of them finally told him to leave them alone. He spends the rest of the book finding out why, in part so that he can lay the past to rest and reassure his new girlfriend that he is no longer haunted by it. It certainly does keep you turning the pages. I know some people have been disappointed by the denouement; the loose ends aren’t all tied up neatly, but I personally think that’s a good thing. All in all it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

Meet my little furry friend

We adopted Elvis the degu (octodon degus if you’re a Latin aficionado…) just after we bought our flat in July 2013. Degus normally live in pairs, but according to the man in the pet shop Elvis has to live alone. I’m not quite sure why, but we think he was probably the runt of his litter, as he is smaller than most degus I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and also has a nip out of one of his ears, so no doubt he had a traumatic upbringing! He came to live with us and right away it became apparent that we had one issue – books. Now, we read a lot, and we have a lot of books (I’m not a fan of those new-fangled kindle things. I spend all day at work staring at a screen – why would I want to do that in my own time?!?! Apart from when I’m writing blogs obviously…) Elvis has a thing about old books in particular. I think he must love the smell and, more importantly, taste of these particular books. He has munched my old and decrepit Penguin copy of Anna Karenina (it wasn’t in great condition BEFORE Elvis, but that isn’t quite the point).

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Elvis also has the strange habit of attacking feet when the owner of the feet is on the phone. I wonder if he is able to hear the other person’s voice and so gets confused and feels threatened. He dashes toward one of the feet and goes in for a quick nip, before running away as quickly as possible. If it wasn’t quite so painful it would be funny. He does seem to have a mild foot fetish in general actually. It’s the first thing he visits if you’re sitting on the floor. Maybe they’re the most fragrant bit of the body in his opinion…! Elvis, the little happy chap, loves snoozing in his hammock (yes, hammock). I thought it was a bit odd at first too but he absolutely loves it. So much so in fact that we have two hammocks, so that while one is being washed the other one can be snoozed in. Unfortunately I can’t get a photo of him in the hammock though, because as soon as he sees the camera coming toward him, he jumps out. Another photo of him will have to do!