The long wait is over: Nepal has a constitution

I was staying in Pokhara, Nepal in April 2006 when King Gyanendra restored the parliament. I remember waking up in my hotel, going outside onto the lawn and looking at the newspaper headline. I couldn’t believe it. This country that I had just discovered and fallen in love with was going through some massive changes, culminating in the abolition of the monarchy in May 2008. Gyanendra became just another Nepali, his palace in Kathmandu became a museum. An amazing thing to see first hand.

Rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal

Rickshaw in Kathmandu, Nepal

The big news is that, as of yesterday, Nepal has a new constitution, something that politicians have been working on, fighting over and finally agreeing for the last seven years. Selfishly I wish it had happened two weeks ago, when I was still in Kathmandu. Having been there during the civil war, the restoration of parliament, witnessing the infighting, the king going, I would have loved to have been there at the end. Although this is most probably not the end. One thing that became clear in my visit earlier this month was that some sections of the Nepali people are not happy. Some of the diverse ethnic groups who live in Nepal want the country to be divided further, along ethnic lines, and are not content with the new seven-state system that has been agreed. The south of the country has been seriously affected by strikes for the last few months. However, other groups are ecstatic at the news, and the further good news is that the three main political parties are in agreement, suggesting that this move forward has the support of a large percentage of the ordinary Nepalis who voted for these politicians. And from what friends were telling me over there, most people just wanted it all sorted out and signed.

Sunset in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

Sunset in Chitwan National Park, Nepal

So what does this mean for ordinary Nepalis, who had to get on with their day to day lives while the politicians argued? Well, hopefully it means that, now the politicians have agreed the constitution, they can get on with other equally important discussions and start to improve the infrastructure of the country. This can only be good news for all the travel agents, hotels, restaurants and shops who have been suffering as a result of the earthquake. The country has picked itself up, dusted itself off, signed a very important piece of paper, and now can get on with the hard work of making it all mean something.

All photos by me.

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Part 4: Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon (and a lot more besides…)

And so I woke up and it was the morning of my last full day in Bhutan. My flight back to Kathmandu left at 8am the next day, so I had to be at the airport at 6am. At least I would be back in Kathmandu for breakfast!

My final day was the most enjoyable of all. I love hiking, and combine that with climbing 900 metres up a rather large hill to see an amazing building, and I’m happy. Taktshang Geomba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) graces all the travel books and publications about Bhutan. Go to any travel show and I guarantee that the Bhutan agents will have at least one picture of this iconic place, maybe a few from different angles. It certainly is incredibly photogenic, and as you can get under it, above it, next to it, and in it, there are plenty of opportunities for taking great photos.

Up we go

Up we go

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Grey langur giving us the once-over

Tiger’s Nest monastery is somehow clinging on to a cliff 900 metres above the Paro valley. Guru Rinpoche was lucky – he flew up here on the back of a tiger to do battle with a demon. I walked. Once he got here he had a nice sit down and meditated for three months. I was there for about an hour and a half and didn’t stop looking at things – it is a magical place. You leave all your technology at the door (no cameras, no phones, no video cameras) and make sure that your arms are covered (I had to borrow a jacket from one of the receptionists at the hotel. It was so lovely that I was tempted to nick it :)).

I’m pretty fit so I was bounding up the first bit, passing another couple of people who had also left their hotel sensibly early. Then I realised that we were climbing quite steadily and I slowed down. We walked through beautiful forest, saw sunbirds and disturbed some grey langurs, who leapt up, staring at us. We were passed by one group of blokes from the Indian Army who rather annoyingly had their mobile phones playing tinny Bollywood hits. We let them get far ahead of us and then continued.

The viewpoint

The viewpoint

After just over an hour we were standing looking at the monastery close up, with the waterfall at our backs. This powers the prayer wheel at the bottom so it never stops turning and prayers are constantly flying off into the sky.

Waterfall on the way up

Waterfall on the way up

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Prayer wheel turned by the waterfall

Once we got to the monastery there was a great feeling of camaraderie, as people struggled down across the bridge and then up the other side. First up was where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after he flew in on the tiger. The cave itself is hidden behind a gilded door and seldom opened. Today it was shut but the murals more than made up for that. I have a thing about these wall paintings and there were plenty of them to look at all painted in beautiful, vivid colours. There were a few Buddhist pilgrims worshipping, praying, chanting and bringing offerings for the monks (mostly bags of crisps and packets of biscuits. I hope their normal diet is healthy!).

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

Mini-stupas left by pilgrims

There it is

There it is

Despite being 100% atheist I did appreciate the spirituality of the place and I could easily have taken some of the murals home with pleasure. How on earth the monastery clings on to the side of the cliff I have no idea, but it does. It almost looks like an organic growth.

Going down the mountain was quicker, even being careful of knees and ankles. We stopped for a cup of tea and a biscuit or two at the cafeteria and carried on back down. What an absolutely amazing place. I don’t think a trip to Bhutan would be complete without a visit to the Tiger’s Nest monastery.

DSCF9038 DSCF9036

After another enormous lunch (they feed you a LOT in Bhutan) we went off to see our last sight, the Rinpung Dzong. As it was raining we had the entire place to ourselves, with the exception of one very grumpy young monk, who was manning the charm stall. You can buy a charm to protect you from most things you can think of. Rain wasn’t one of them though. The building itself was beautiful, with more of the exquisite wood carving that adorns a lot of the buildings in Bhutan.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong

The dzong was damaged by a fire in 1907, and when the ashes were investigated the massive thangka that is unfurled once a year in the courtyard was found untouched. The murals here are beautifully fresh and vibrant. Some tell the life of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint. Again, these could cheerfully have come home with me, but it wasn’t to be.

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

Mural in the dzong

On my last night in Bhutan I went to a farmhouse a short drive out of Paro, into a more rural area, for some home-cooked food. Part of this involved trying some home-brewed firewater (arra), which I think is an acquired taste! It was good with chura (beaten rice) though 🙂 After eating my fill of chillies it was back to the hotel for my final bottle of Druk 11000 and my last night’s sleep in Paro. The alarm call was booked for 5.15am…

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

All photos by me 🙂

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