Monday, November 26, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Monuments To Love And Ghost Cities

Day Twenty-Seven

We packed our bags and went down to meet our driver.  This became a running joke on this trip.  In Nepal, Bhutan, and India we would race to get out of the car before the driver could get out and open the door for us.  In India this went a step farther when we kept getting down to the lobby before our driver got there - we've always liked to get to places early.  He caught on very quickly and each day he would get there a little bit earlier to try to get there before us.

We checked out of the hotel and hit the road driving to Agra.  The drive was about four hours long and took us through the countryside.  This part of India is flat farmland.  It should have been wet farmland but the monsoon was coming late this year - good for us travelers but bad for the farmers who depended on the monsoon rains.  When it wasn't farmland it was small, dirty, poor looking towns that most people think of when they think of India.

We arrived in Agra at lunch time.  We met our new guide at the hotel where we agreed on a time after freshening up and eating lunch to resume our touring.

The Wife and I went to lunch in the hotel restaurant.  We were ordering our drinks.  The Wife had ordered a local beer and the waiter approached, removed the bottle cap, and asked:  "Would the madam like head?"  I  tried to control the smirk as I peered carefully over my menu at the Wife as she asked him to repeat the question ... which he did.  She had her beer without head.  Heh.  Some things are lost in translation.

The south entrance to the Taj Mahal.
The guide and driver picked us up early afternoon and we went to the highlight of our India portion of our trip and the main reason people travel to Agra: The Taj Majal.  People have warned us that it's not as big as you think and that it never meets expectations.  I have no idea what they are talking about.  The Taj Mahal met my expectations completely.  It wasn't smaller than I'd expected.  It was as magnificent as I thought it would be.

The first view of the Taj Mahal.
We entered through the south gate that frames the Taj Mahal beautifully.  We got our picture taken before getting closer.  The next big picture taking opportunity was the bench where Princess Diana had her, rather forlorn, picture taken.  We had to stand in a short line to get our opportunity.  As we waited we watched others sit on the bench to get their pictures taken.  The odd thing was, Indian couples who would sit there were always so dour.  The did not sit close to each other and they rarely broke even a tiny little smile.  I would notice this a lot - Indians rarely smiled when they got their pictures taken.

The Taj Mahal.
We got closer to the monument to a Mughal Emperor's love.  The whole place is a tribute to love, beauty, and symmetry.  The Taj Mahal itself is symmetric.  The four towers surrounding the main structure are symmetric and slant outward slightly so they would fall outward in the event of an earthquake toppling them.  A mosque is located on the west side.  An identical building was built on the east side to maintain the symmetry.  We entered the main structure (No photography inside) and walked around admiring the semi-precious stone in-lay and the white marble.  It was beautiful inside and out.

Intricate semi-precious in-lay work of the Taj Mahal.
Our next stop was a shopping one.  We stopped at a shop that made marble table tops.  The family who ran the business was the same family who did the original Taj Mahal.  The secret to the intricate in-lay was passed from father to son (daughters did not learn it as they would marry and take the secret outside the family).  While some of the inlay work is being taught outside the family due to increased demand, the secret composition of the glue used to secure the semi-precious stones in the in-lay is still a close family secret.  We bought a small in-laid octagonal end table which was shipped home.  The table had been made fifteen years ago so we consider it our anniversary table.

The Red Fort of Agra.
The last stop of the day was the Red Fort of Agra (There are other Red Forts, including one in Delhi, but the  one in Agra is more impressive).  The fort was controlled by both Hindu and Mughal forces at different times of its history.  The latest incarnation of the fort, over 400 years old, is mostly red sandstone.  Some of the interior spaces are white marble and were erected by the same Mughal king who built the Taj Mahal.

The Glass Palace at the Red Fort of Agra.
The fort was going to be a good but ordinary experience until we reached the glass palace.  The glass palace is an incredible place and it is closed to the public.  Our guide, though, knew someone who worked at the fort.  We were told to stand behind a column out of view of other visitors.  As soon as the coast was clear he opened a locked gate and ushered us in.  The caretaker took us into a dark chamber.  He pointed out what had once been a pool in the center of the room  and some decoration in the room.  He then told us to stand to one side and he went over to the opposite side of the room, took out two small candles which he lit, and began slowly waving the lit candles over his head.  The room lit up.  The walls and the ceiling were covered in little mirrors and pieces of glass.  As he moved the candles it was like you were standing under a twinkling star lit sky.  He moved around the room slowly waving the candles and changing the patterns of light thrown off by the walls.  I had to stop and put the camera down and just enjoy the experience.  It was one of those special moments.

The Glass Palace sparkles.
Day twenty-seven was a special day on our travels.  The Taj Mahal and the unexpected Glass Palace made for an awesome day.

Day Twenty-Eight

This morning we left Agra and headed for the ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri.  The city was built by Mughal Emperor Akbar as his capital for twelve years before deciding to move to Lahore due to political and water issues.  This left a virtually pristine example of Mughal architecture.

The Ghost City.
The buildings are beautiful and intricately decorated.  Like many of the Mughal complexes we saw in India a large section was devoted to the wives/harems of the emperors.

A pool at the Ghost City.
After exploring the complex we said goodbye to our guide and headed for our next destination, Jaipur.  The drive to Jaipur took us into a different landscape of hills and plateaus.  The flat spaces we did pass were dotted with tall, solitary chimneys which turned out to be brick kilns.  We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant where we had some delicious butter chicken, rice, and garlic naan.

The day ended with us arriving in Jaipur and checking into our hotel.  Tomorrow we would meet another guide and explore the wonders of Jaipur.

Pictures from days twenty-seven and twenty-eight (07/18- 07/19/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 India Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - New and Old Delhi

Day Twenty-Five

Leaving Paro airport was not as exciting as the approach.  The plane left the runway and the pilot pulled back on the yoke as hard as he could and for a few minutes we just laid back in our seats as the plane rapidly gained altitude.  Flight Eleven gave us our third and last view of Mount Everest.

We arrived in New Delhi. fairly early in the morning and were picked up by our driver and Delhi guide (We would have the same drive through our stay in India but our guides would change depending on the city).  Since it was too early to check into our hotel we started our sightseeing.

The first and only stop of the day was a Muslim school turned mausoleum.  The mausoleum was built by the first Muslim king to capture Delhi - a conquest that took him fourteen tries.  The location is known for two things: a 72.5 m (238 ft) tower and a 1,500 year old iron pole that does not rust.

Qutb Minar - Tallest brick minaret in the world.
We explored the site admiring the architectural and carving.  The temples and structures were constructed from parts of Hindu temples, the carvings defaced, and then plastered over.  When the British ruled India they removed the plaster and exposed the incredible carvings.  The tower, Qutb Minar, is the tallest brick minaret in the world.  It is done in the Afghan style (The Muslim conquering king was from Afghanistan).  It can be seen form all over the complex.

The Iron Pillar of Delhi which doesn't rust.
The Iron Pillar is estimated to be at least 1,500 years old and is somewhat of a scientific curiosity.  The mostly iron pillar does not rust.  I'd heard of the pillar before I came to India - I read about it when I was a kid in some "Chariots of the Gods" type book.  It was moved here when the complex was built and there is still some uncertainty of its origin ... though I really doubt it was made by UFO Aliens as some people claim.

After touring the place, and sweating completely through my shirt (something I would repeat almost daily in India), our driver dropped the guide at a subway stop and took us to a nice restaurant.  I am proud of myself - instead of ordering off the "World" menu I ordered off the "North India" menu.  I had chicken kebab and garlic naan bread (a type of flatbread that's very yummy).  We learned here that you only get what you order ... and we forgot to order the rice.  We're too used to American restaurants which often include the sides with the meal.

The rest of the day was spent in our very British feeling hotel cooling off and sleeping.

Day Twenty-Six

Our second day in India would take us around both old and new Delhi.  Our first stop was the Jama Masjid mosque, the largest mosque in India.  The mosque is built in the Persian style where the area of worship is in a large open air courtyard.  The mosques we saw in Jordan were a more of the Arab style with covered prayer spaces.  Unlike the mosque in Jordan where the Wife had to be covered head to toe, the Wife was able to wander uncovered here.  Having said that the place was predominately masculine.

Jama Masjid Mosque.
We left the mosque, downed a bottle of water - it was already hot - and we got on a rickshaw.  Like the one in China, this ride was my least favorite part of the vacation.  It just felt cheesy and touristy.

Raj Ghat - Memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
After the underwhelming rickshaw ride we visited Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.  I have to say  I was expecting more but I guess the understated but peaceful feel of the memorial fits the life of Gandhi.

Humayun's Tomb - a model for the Taj Mahal.
The highlight of the day was Humayun's tomb.  The tomb is said to be the model for the Taj Mahal.  The building is quite impressive.  Explored the grounds and walked through the cool interior.

Humayun's Tomb.
We stopped for lunch in what looked like a strip mall but the corner restaurant served good food.  It was obvious by the number of westerners that it was a tourist place.  Despite, or possible because of, this I enjoyed the meal.  I don't think I had a bad meal in India and, in general, I liked the food better here than in China.

Last stop of the day was a drive through the governmental area of New Delhi past the India Gate national war memorial and the government buildings.

Government Building in New Delhi.
On the way back to the hotel we made the mandatory shopping stops - a rug factory and a gem/jewelry store.  Everything was incredible ...  and expensive.  We didn't buy anything.

We got dropped off at our hotel mid-afternoon.  This was a short day but it felt full and I think my shirt couldn't absorb more sweat so we needed the short day.  We had two more activities scheduled this day that we either postponed or canceled   The first was a big, but new, Hindu temple which we decided to postpone.  The other was a dinner at a fancy restaurant.  I would have done it if we were in a group but neither of us were interested in going out.  We were both a bit sapped.  We swam in the pool and sent emails and relaxed before having dinner in the hotel's casual restaurant.

It was a good couple of days.  It was kind of strange - Delhi was as crowded and noisy as Kathmandu and, in areas, was just as dirty, but it didn't bother me at all.  I guess I expected India to be crowded, noisy, and dirty and had not expected that of Kathmandu.  Perceptions are often shaped by expectations.

Pictures from days twenty-five and Twenty-six (07/16- 07/17/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 India Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Am Thankfull For ...

I am thankful for spring flowers and bird song.

I am thankful for the smell of fresh cut grass.

I am thankful for the summer breeze that dries the sweat from my brow.

I am thankful for long days and lazy sunsets.

I am thankful for the crunch of the autumn leaves under my feet and the canopy of color over my head.

I am thankful for the feel of crisp air filling my lungs.

I am thankful for the still quiet after a newly fallen snow and the clear star filled sky.

I am thankful for numb noses and warm toes ... es.

I am thankful for the colors of the sunrise and the sounds of the waking day.

I am thankful for the peace I find out on the trail.

I am thankful for those who came before and broke the trail ahead of me.

But most of all I am thankful for the people in my life who accompany me and guide the way.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Ups ... Downs ... Oops!

What a weekend of ups and downs.  The up ... well, it was a big up for the Wife  on Saturday Notre Dame won its football game while Oregon and Kansas State lost theirs.  Notre Dame will now be #1 in the land.  To balance these good things the dishwasher decided to start leaking (It started leaking last week but that's just a minor detail).

This morning the Wife started cutting my hair when oops, wrong attachment and *swoosh* now I have a bald strip behind my right ear.  Not even sure what I did to deserve that.  The good thing is I can't see it and if someone points and smirks, the pointing and smirking will occur behind my back.

We went to Nebraska Furniture Mart this afternoon to buy a new dishwasher.  We ended up buying replacements for all our kitchen appliances.  This wasn't a major surprise since we'd been thinking of redoing the kitchen since we moved into the house and we even got a good deal.  We returned home to no internet service ... and no phone service ... and no cable television service.  (I had to compose this post using WordPad ... *shudder*)

I hope these aren't indications of a larger trend since Thanksgiving is just a few days away and would be fertile ground for disaster.

Looking at this list of things ... I really don't have it bad really.  The dishwasher will be replaced with a better one.  The internet, and everything else has returned to normal.  My hair will grow back.  Thanksgiving will be with family and if things happen ... well, Thanksgiving is only one day.

Everything will be O.K.

2012 Asian Adventure - Bhutan Epilogue

Bhutan was a highlight of our travels.  This tiny country had a feeling of peace, serenity, and well being.  It was full of nice people, nice scenery, and a long history.

It was a country of contrasts.  A country of traditional architecture, traditional dress, and ancient temples.  A country of cell phones, internet, and cable television.  A country of beautiful people and beautiful mountain-scapes.  A country with their own language and traditions who are moving into the twenty-first century.

Our guide was a perfect example of the modern Bhutan.  She was educated.  Like her compatriots she learned English in school - several of her classes in the math and sciences were taught solely in English.  She used her traditional language, Dzongkha, when talking to the driver and monks but she said written English is much simpler to use than her native written language and English was becoming more common.  All the signs I saw, even hand written ones, were in English.

Our guide was studying Chinese in New Delhi so that her skills as a tourist/trek guide would be more useful.  Being a tour guide made our guide a member one of Bhutan's top three industries - hydroelectric power, agriculture, and tourism.  The number of Chinese tourists was going up every year.  We helped her with some currency while we were there.  Bhutan has it's own currency but they also accept Indian Rupees.  Even so, it was hard for Bhutanese to get Indian Rupees.  When we were going to buy something we gave her our rupees and she would then pay with her Bhutanese ngultrums.  People we talked to in Nepal and Bhutan were amazed how easy it was for us to get foreign currencies - I just went to our local bank and had them within forty-eight hours.

Bhutan is changing.  A ban on television and the internets was lifted in 1999.  Since then the changes have accelerated.  The cities we visited were uncrowded, clean, quiet, and peaceful but you could see the change coming.  Our driver used his horn just like the drivers in Nepal - less frequently as there were fewer cars on the road.  As more cars and trucks appear and more drivers learn to drive some of that peaceful, quiet, cleanliness will start to go away.  A shame.  We were talking with the owners of the hotel in Paro.  They too saw the changes coming with all the tourists despite the number of tourist being limited by the government.  They lamented the change and hoped that it would me managed properly.  I hope so too.  What Bhutan has is a treasure in this modern world of ours.  It would be a shame if Bhutan became another Kathmandu or Shanghai.

I will return here some day.  There is an Himalayan trek with my name on it there.

Pictures from Bhutan can be found in my 2012-07 Bhutan Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Tiger's Nest Trek

Day Twenty-Four

We woke up early today.  Today was going to be the highlight of our Bhutan trip and I ranked it up there with the Great Wall and the Terracotta Soldiers.  We were going to see the Tiger's Nest.

We ate breakfast at the hotel and then met our guide and driver.  Before we left the hotel be picked up walking sticks that were propped up next to the door.  They would come in handy later on during out trek.  The drive from the hotel to the beginning of the trail was much shorter than I'd expected.  I didn't realize it was so close to Paro.  Then again, Bhutan is a small country and not much is very far away there.

We got out of the car and it was drizzling.  After nearly three weeks of relatively good weather, the one day that we were going to be outside the most was when the monsoons decided to reassert themselves.  You could just make out the temple through the low lying clouds.  My new rain jacket and my old trusty Tiley hat kept most of the rain off me during the hike up.

The trail  left the parking area and started to ascend almost immediately.  The Wife and I had struck an agreement - I could walk ahead but I had to keep her in sight.  I followed this agreement ... almost.

The trail was easy to follow.  It was halfway between a single path hiking trail and a dirt road.  Everything I'd read before coming to Bhutan had describe how narrow the trail was and how hard it was.  Frankly, I have no idea what trail they were on as it was not harrowing at all.  Steep ... yes ... and with the rain it was a bit slippery as the dirt became mud.  I would walk ahead stopping periodically to take pictures.  The low clouds didn't bode well for pictures of the actual temple and views of the surrounding valley were hazy at best.

Small shrine with water powered prayer wheels on the way up to the Tiger's Nest temple.
The trail passed a small shrine with large, water powered prayer wheels.  The water outlet was, of course, phallic shaped.   After the shrine the trail switchback up the side of the valley.  At the turn of each switchback I would stop and wait for the Wife and guide to come into sight (the Wife in her yellow jacket and the guide with her umbrella are visible in the center of this picture).  Once I saw them, and they saw me, I would continue up the trail.

Near the halfway point there is a cafeteria/restaurant.  As I waited here for the Wife and guide I hoped we could stop here for a rest.  Turns out we were on a schedule.  The guide said that the monks close the temple over the lunch hour and she wanted us up there before it closed.   We only had a brief stop to rest and drink a soda before we got back on the trail.

Prayer flags along the trail to the Tiger's Nest temple.
The trail was very interesting.  It went through forest draped in, what I would call, spanish moss which gave everything an ethereal feel.  In caves and crevasses along the way small mini-stupas were left.  Strings of prayer flags were everywhere.  I ran into a cow on the trail who was munching on the prayer flags.

Moss hung trees along the muddy trail.
We  were not alone on the trail.  Several other groups passed us including Europeans and Japanese.  One pair from Japanese were in spotless white clothes.  This was amazing considering the rain and mud on the trail.  We would see them later and they would still be impeccable.  Not sure how they did it as I had mud on my pant legs and my shoes were caked by the time I arrived at the temple.

The prize at the end of the trek: The Tiger's Nest temple.
I reached the top and, to my pleasant surprise, the clouds had lifted and gave me a clear view of the Tiger's Nest.  From the top of the trail you could see the temple across a canyon/valley/gorge.  To get to it we would go down 400 steps before crossing a stream and climbing 400 steps back up the other side of the valley to the temple.  It is this portion of the trek that most resembled the "harrowing" descriptions I'd read about.  The guide explained that the railing along the stairs had been added recently.  Before the railing was in place I could see why you would have called it a scary climb.  With the railing it was a much safer trek without a bit of harrow.

We rested up at the top to catch our breaths before we started down the stairs.  As we rested you could hear the banging of drums, the blowing of horns, and the chanting of monks wafting over the valley.  We'd been hearing it for a while as we'd gotten closer to the temple but now we could see them.  The sound added to the otherworldly feeling of the place.

The waterfall on at the bottom of the stairs and a small water-powered shrine.
At the bottom of the 400 steps the path crosses a stream next to a waterfall where the water turned a prayer wheel.  From the bridge it was up 400 steps to the temple proper.  Photography was not allowed and I had to leave my camera at the security office before entering.

Just before entering we noticed there were a lot of butterflies and moths everywhere.  One landed on me and rode my shoulder all the way through the temples.  The Tiger's Nest, also known as Paro Taktsang, is built around a cave where a guru, Padmasambhava, meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours.  Guru Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism to area and he is held in high regard in Bhutan.  The name, Tiger's Nest, comes from the legend that the Guru had come to the cave on the back of his Mistress whom he'd transformed into a flying tiger.

A flower and a temple.
After the tour of the temple we made our way back down which was not an easy feat.  Slippery mud is worse on the way down.  The Wife, unfortunately, did not make it down without slipping on the way.  (I laughed while the guide helped her up - not one of my finer moments. Sorry Honey!)  We stopped at the half way point cafeteria and stopped for a vegetarian lunch.  We were supposed to visit a Bhutanese family for dinner this night but, while we ate the Wife and I looked at each other and both agreed that we really weren't up to that.  We politely asked the guide if it would be rude to cancel the dinner.  I don't think our guide saw just how much this hike was taking out of the Wife and I but she said it would be no problem to cancel.

After lunch we slowly made our way carefully down the muddy trail back to the car.  We still needed some mementos of Bhutan so we drove back into Paro and our guide took us to a store run my one of her friends.  We found a few interesting pieces to take home with us, including magnets naturally.

After that it was back to the Hotel.  We showered and napped.  We settled for dinner in the hotel restaurant.    While I doubt it was as good as a home cooked Bhutanese meal, I doubt we would have enjoyed it as we were quite tired after the trek.

The hike up to the Tiger's nest was about six miles (9.7 km).  I don't have an exact distance because the GPS in my camera had a hard time keeping a satellite lock on the winding trails under the trees and valley walls.  The elevation climb was approximately 1,870 ft (570 m).  We were also at an altitude of 10,240 ft (3,120 m).  The combination of altitude, elevation climb, rain, and mud made this trek harder than it should have been and has convinced the Wife that she does not like hiking/trekking.  Part way up she said she seriously felt like clubbing someone with her walking stick (this isn't the first time she's thought violent thoughts while hiking - the first time I am aware off being during our Grand Canyon death march in 1998).  I, on the other hand, did so well, much better than I'd expected I would, that it has just reinforced my enjoyment of trekking/hiking.  I hope to return to Bhutan someday to do some real trekking ... and, unless she changes her mind, most likely without the Wife.

Pictures from day twenty-four (07/15/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 Bhutan Google Photos album.  I took a lot of pictures of the Tiger's Nest but have limited to three or four of the best.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Paro

Day Twenty-Three

We were heading back to Paro this morning but first we stopped at the center of both the Government and the Buddhist religion in Bhutan, Tashichho Dzong.  A dzong is a fortress or, more specifically, a style of fortress architecture.  The building is impressive.  We waited at the entrance during a changing of the guard (Bhutan does have an army) before entering.  We entered the temple off of the courtyard and admired the decoration.  Like in Tibet, photography is not alloyed inside temples.

A monk spins prayer wheels at Tashichho Dzong.
After visiting the dzong we left Thimphu the same way we got there.  The drive back to Paro was just as beautiful and interesting as a couple days before.

In Paro, a rather small town, location of both the main airport and the main tourist attraction (the Tiger's Nest temple), our first visit was to the national museum.  Located in a seven story lookout tower overlooking the Paro Rinphung Dzong, the museum was damaged during a 2011 earthquake.  Some of the exhibits had been moved to a modern building adjacent to the museum.  The museum was interesting but it was obvious that only a small part of the museum's collection was exhibited.

Paro Rinpung Dzong (The national museum can be seen in the upper right corner).
After exploring the exhibits we walked down hill to the Paro Rinpung Dzong.  We entered and explored the beautifully decorated Buddhist fortress.  Off of the main temple was a balcony from which you could see Paro and the surrounding valley.

View of Paro from Paro Rinpung Dzong.
We left the Dzong and wandered down the hill and across a bridge to our waiting driver.  We drove into Paro and stopped for lunch in a small restaurant that felt local though there were a few ... scruffy foreigners there as well.  I realize now that I write this that I missed this in Nepal.  In China and Bhutan our noon meals were incorporated into the touring.  In China it was a time to talk with the rest of the group and compare notes, as it were, of the trip so far.  In Nepal we were on our own for meals every day. In Bhutan we ate with our guide, not exactly like China, but I liked that interruption of the touring day.

After we left the restaurant we were crossing the street when the Wife saw a toad in the middle of the street. The guide saw it too and, while the driver was stopping traffic, she scooped the toad up on a piece of paper and carefully placed it in the grass next to the side of the street.  We all smiled as we did this - nothing like a little good Karma.

Our last stop of the day was a temple overlooking Paro.  Kyichu Lhakhang, a seventh century temple, is the oldest in Paro.  By this time I was a little templed out.  If it wasn't special like the Tiger's Nest or Potala it was just another beautiful temple.

By this time, early afternoon, we were ready to settle down so we headed to our hotel.  I think our guide thought we were ending it a little too soon but the Wife and I were quite happy with what we'd seen this day.

The lobby of our incredible Paro hotel.
We checked into our gorgeous hotel, run by an Australian couple I believe, and settled into our large room with views of the Paro river and the green hills.  We did some laundry and went out to walk the grounds of the hotel.  The hotel was outside of Paro and was spread out on a nice chunk of land.  The hotel had gardens, a spa, and a tea room.  As we walked around we soon were surrounded my the hotel dogs.  Being the unwilling dog whisperer I am I soon became the head of a small pack who escorted us around the grounds.

The rest of the evening consisted in a nice dinner in the almost empty dinning room - it was the off season and we were among the few who came here during the monsoon season.  We were excited about the next day as it would be one of the highlights of the trip - the Tiger's Nest.

Pictures from day twenty-three (07/14/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 Bhutan Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Friday, November 09, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Thimphu

Day Twenty-Two

On our first full day in Bhutan we toured the capital city of Thimphu.  First of many stops for the day was a stupa built in the Tibetan style.  The Bhutanese stupas are square pillars.  Nepalese stupas are square on top on a round base with eyes (representing Buddha) on the four sides.  Tibetan stupas are rounded.

Our car took us up the valley wall to the largest statue of Buddha I've ever seen.  Parts of it were still under construction but the Buddha itself was complete and looked out over the Thimphu valley.  The Buddha is 169 feet (51.5 m) tall an is actually the 17th tallest Buddha in the world - I have a few more to see.

A large statue of Buddha overlooking Thimphu.
As we walked around and looked at the huge statue we were followed by dogs.  Bhutan was full of wild dogs.  Every one we saw was well fed though they could have used some grooming.  Bhutan, being an Buddhist nation, does not kill animals except for food.  Dogs are not eaten.  Over the next few days we would run into too many dogs to count.

On the way down the hill we stopped at an overlook where we could see most of Thimphu.  The city looked more like a large town and I kind of liked that after the sprawl of Kathmandu.  On the sides of the valley you could see strings of prayer flags.  Colored flags are for religious purposes.  White flags are strung up in memory of a loved one who had passed on.  The prayer flags were everywhere.

The city of Thimphu from an overlook.
Back down into the city, we made our way to Changangkha Lhakhang, a twelfth century temple.  It was interesting to see our guide observe her religious tradition - every temple, including this one, she would do the ritual prostration, ask the attending monk for a blessing, and make an offering of money.  None of our other guides were practitioners of their religion while they were taking us around.

Prayer wheels at Changangkha Lhakhang. (The hand is our guide's)
Next stop was the Motithang Bhutan Takin Preserve.  The takin is the national animal of Bhutan.  It looks like a cross between a goat and a cow.  The story goes that a monk known as the Divine Madman was asked to perform a miracle.  He said he would show them one but he needed a goat and a cow.  When they brought them he ate them both.  He then gathered the bones together, gave a command, and the Takin came to life.  Normally the takin run wild but, being afraid they would be hit by vehicles if they wondered into town, they were rounded up and placed in a very large and comfortable looking pen where they are fed and taken care of.  This was my second new animal I saw this trip, the first being the Panda in China.

The Takin - the Bhutanese national animal.
The next two stops were a convent and a monastery   It was refreshing to see all the young nuns and monks. In Tibet, where becoming a monk or nun is restricted and controlled by the Chinese government, we saw very few young monks and nuns.  In Bhutan they were very common.

Young Buddhist monks.
Next on the busy schedule was a visit to the national library where we saw art and a large collection of Buddhist texts.  In the collection is the largest published book in the world (5' x 7', 133 lbs), "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom" - yes, it is listed on Amazon for a mere $249.85 for a used copy.

After the Library we went to a typical traditional Bhutanese home that had been converted into a museum.  We toured the three story house.  The first story was for animals.  The second floor was for food/grain storage.  The third story was the living area of the house and included a small Buddhist shrine.  The house was similar to some of teh rural homes we passed in Nepal.  One shocking detail that we saw at the museum, and all over Bhutan, were the phallic symbols either hanging from the corner of the eaves or painted on the corners of the house. The phallic symbol is a way of saying "keep away, this house is mine."   It was all over the place in Bhutan and was a little shocking at first.

We walked to a nearby store and did some shopping before eating lunch.  Bhutanese food was generally good.  Spices had to be toned down a bit for us and there were a lot of vegetarian dishes.  I was well fed in Bhutan.

After lunch we went to the first of two shopping stops on our itinerary - a paper factory.   We toured the little handmade paper factory learning how fibers are turned into paper.  The Wife has made paper before and much of what they did was similar to what she used to do just at a larger scale.  I bought a cool dragon hanging and a couple postcards made on the paper.

It was too early for our next stop so we took a detour and stopped at an archery range.  Archery is Bhutan's national sport.  We sat, out of the drizzle that had started to fall, with the small group of spectators and watched two teams at either end of the archery range.  Half of each team was at each end.  After an archer shot an arrow the members of his team at the other end would let him know how close his shot was.  This usually consisted of his team members doing a little dance around the target and singing after each shot.  It was fun.  While this could have been touristy, this felt like a bunch of guys shooting arrows over their lunch break.

The very clean food market in Thimphu.
From the archery range we went to a food market.  It reminded me of food markets of my youth in Guatemala except that it was very clean.  Most of the food was fruits and vegetables but there was meat as well.  Next to the food market was the spice and incense market.

Incense.  Found in every temple.  Made it hard to breath in places.
Last stop of the day was a textile museum where we learned about the national costume and the intricate woven fabrics of Bhutan.  The outfits, almost a uniform for the Bhutanese service sector, are not cheap.  This museum, like every one I've been to, exited through a store.

We were dropped off at the hotel late afternoon.  We crossed the street from the hotel to some stores to look at the Bhutanese crafts.  One thing the Wife had had her eye on all day were the Buddhist horns.  The horns, used during Buddhist ceremonies, are around six foot long.  Fortunately for us the horns collapse like a telescope down to a manageable two feet.  (The Wife was good to her word and carried all her bigger items, the horn and the terracotta soldiers, most of the way home in her carry-on.)

We had dinner in the hotel that night and watched a slightly different folkloric dance.  This day had felt more like our China tour days.  It was full of interesting things and we were tired at the end of the day, exactly what I want on a good travel day.

Pictures from day twenty-two (07/13/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 Bhutan Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Book: Lawton Grinter's "I Hike"

After reading about walking the Amazon, I decided to continue my hiking theme and read Lawton Grinter's "I Hike".  Lawton Grinter, trail name "Disco", is a long distance hiker.  He's done the triple crown of the long hikes: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide trail, and the Pacific Crest trail (twice).  By his own count he's hiked over 10,000 miles.

"I Hike" is a collection of hiking anecdotes taken from his hikes.  The stories themes range from near hypothermia to lost hikers.  One thing I noticed is that all the stories are centered around something bad happening to him or someone else.  I was waiting for some stories about good things about his hiking.  While the stories were interesting and all the bad things had happy endings I came away with the message that hiking is dangerous and sometimes luck is all you have to make it through unscathed.  I would've liked some happy stories - I'm sure there were a few.

Grinter's writing style is informal and easy to read.  The stories are not chronological and Grinter jumps from one trail to the other.  This isn't much of a problem but it gives it a slightly unorganized feel.  The book felt like it was written by a hiker and not by a writer which I imagine is the case.  That's not necessarily a bad thing.

I like the stories despite the negative slant.  It's not an awesome book but it was good enough.  His trail name, "Disco", is a nickname given to him.  You do not chose your own trail name, they are given to you.  I hope to get my own trail name some day.  I hope it's something cool.

Mildly Recommended.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Get Out There!

America isn't much of a democracy if no one votes so do your civic duty and get out and

VOTE!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

2012 Asian Adventure - Approaching The Death Star

Day Twenty-One

Getting out of Nepal was a pain.  We went through security - twice.  We were felt up - twice.  They went through our bags - twice.  They made the Wife unpack her carry-on including opening up the terracotta soldier box which had been neatly wrapped.  It's going to be hard to complain about the TSA after the Nepal airport security.

After Nepal I needed something to pick me up.  Bhutan turned out to be exactly what I needed.

It started with a morning flight (flight number ten) to Paro, Bhutan.  After our second flyby of mount Everest we approached Paro airport.  There is something you should know about the airport in Paro.  By some accounts, like this article from the Daily Mail, the Paro airport is one of the most difficult airport approaches in the world and there are only eight pilots qualified to fly into the airport.  As we flew in the plane banked left and right as it wended its way through the Paro river valley.  Looking out the window you could see just how close we were to the hills.  It felt like you could reach out the window and touch the hills.  This wasn't a small plane - this was a full size Airbus A319 passenger jet.  At one point I said to the Wife that it felt like we were getting ready to attack the Death Star - this made a few people in nearby seats chuckle.  It was probably the most exhilarating commercial jet landing I've ever experienced.

We arrived at the airport early, went through customs and grabbed our bags and went outside.  Our guide was not there since our flight was a full half hour early to the airport.  As we waited several airport employees politely asked us if they could help.  Once again we had no contact information for our guide so there really wasn't anything they or we could do.  Our guide, a twenty-something young lady and her driver showed up on time.

After apologizing profusely, and the Wife and I telling her it wasn't their fault as we were early, we left the airport and started driving to the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu.  Thimphu is about an hour drive from Paro.  The road reminded me of I-70 through Colorado.  The green mountains were beautiful.  There were rive paddies and farm fields where the valley was wide enough.

We stopped near a foot bridge that crossed the Paro river and led up to a Buddhist temple.  The temple was not open to foreigners but it allowed our guide to give us some information about Bhutan.  Bhutan is a Buddhist nation (Nepal is 80% Hindu).  She described the architectural style that is pretty much mandated by the government.  She pointed out a red/brown band around the bridge towers and the temple.  The band indicated it was a religious structure.

The red/brown band signifies a religious structure.
There were two bridges, one for people and one for horses.  The people's bridge used chain link fencing for the walkway.  The Wife who is a little squeamish on bridges, especially swaying, rickety ones which you ca see through, was a little unsure but the guide took her hand and calmly walked her across.  To make it more special, the guide did it wearing high heels!  We returned to the other side of the river over the more stable wooden walkway of the horse bridge.

The foot bridge over the Paro River as seen from the horse bridge.
We stopped at another bridge and we walked across where the Paro and Thimphu rivers merge.  On the shore north of the convergence there were three stupa - each stupa was in a different style (Nepalese, Tibetan, Bhutanese).  Back in the car we finished the drive to Thimphu and we were taken to our hotel.

Our hotel was one of the most impressive I've ever been in.  We were sharing it with a World Bank conference.  Our guide handed us over to a hotel representative you offered us tea and a cool, moist towel.  She gave us a short tour of the facilities before taking us to a small Buddhist shrine where a Monk blessed us and tied a Sungkeye (a yellow cord, usually worn around the neck) around our wrists.  The cord is knotted after it is blessed and will help protect the wearer and ward off evil spirits.  After our blessing we went to our room to freshen up.

After relaxing a bit we walked to some stalls selling Bhutanese handicrafts.  I was ready to walk the gauntlet of sales people but was pleasantly surprised when not of the shop keepers approached us unsolicited.  If we showed interest they would politely ask if we needed help.  It was like this all along the block long row of stalls.  It was a delightful shopping experience.

There were two restaurants in the hotel - a fancy one and a less fancy one.  Frankly, the less-fancy one felt a bit fancy to me.  We chose the less fancy one as it didn't require reservations like the fancy one did.  I can't remember what I ate but I do remember it was good.  After dinner we watched a nightly folkloric dance and music show in the restaurant (none of my pictures came out as they were moving a lot and it was a bit dim in the restaurant).

Bhutan was so different from Nepal.  It was quiet, clean, polite, and uncrowded.  Bhutan's population is just over 700,000 people which is less than that of Omaha and it's surrounding suburbs.  Everyone who works in the tourism and commercial businesses in Bhutan are required to wear traditional garb.  There is a strict building code that limits building to no more than five stories and they must all have traditional styling.  While this sounds a bit harsh it gives everything a cohesive, orderly feel and everyone seems happy and content.  In 2008 the King declared the first democratic elections would be held in Bhutan and then abdicated his throne to his son.  His son became the youngest king in the world at the time.  The new king  seems very down to earth and very popular.

Our first day in Bhutan, actually a half day, was wonderful. Even though we really didn't do much that day it still felt like we'd done more than any of our half days in Nepal.  I think the beauty of the place kept me mesmerized.  You could feel the difference in the air.  It's kind of hard to explain.  All I can say is the next three days would be great and on our first day I was already dreaming about coming back to Bhutan some day.

Pictures from day twenty-one (07/12/2012) can be found in my 2012-07 Bhutan Google Photos album.

Our 2012 Asian Adventure continues ...