Friday, January 22, 2010

New India Images are up

Just a few shots from our time in India, enjoy.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bhutan, land of dzongs and dongs

The land of the Thunder Dragon, how cool is that.
I have to admit that this was the place that I was most looking forward to visiting. So remote and mysterious that the prospects were irresistably thrilling. What we found was a country of unparalleled beauty with a well developed sense of itself that has so far been able to retain it's culture while fostering a realistic approach into the global future. This is due to a large deal to their beloved monarch. And boy is he beloved, I mean dude has pictures and shrines all over the place. He's a young king as well. Mid 20's not married yet, beloved leader, in other words PIMP. His father gave him the throne a few years ago so that he would be able to act as consigliere to his boy, something that he was denied when his own father died early and he was thrust onto the throne as a young boy. So maybe the country could be described as having some daddy issues? Possibly, I mean they are encouraged to wear their traditional wardrobe during working hours, so for men it's a Doh (pronounced just like Homer would) and for women it's a kira; and the buildings are supposed to be built in the traditional architectural style but overall they are embracing modernism at their own pace. Got the interwebs in 99 and everyone has a cell phone and a slick new ride so things ain't all old school.
We get to the Indian side of the border at Bagdagra to meet Katies plane and our guide for the next week Kili.
Kili is about 27 and dresses like he lives in Billyburg and fusses over his hair to a Mangina like degree, all's good.
Katie lands safely and we make our way to Phuentshuling at the border. We have a night at the border town before heading out the next morning into Bhutan. It's just the three of us on this tour so it's perfect and tailored to what we want. The drive is a mountainous magnificense that slowly reveals the beauty of this place. Of course beauty comes at a price and we had to wait on a mountain pass for about 4 hours while workers blasted the road wider. So we had a late lunch and high tailed it to Temphu. Now having come from Tibet we weren't expecting much in the way of accomodations but man were we pleasantly surprised. A beautiful néw modern hotel with, get this, heaters soft beds and a TV!!!!! Remember when u were little kids and you got to go on vacation and sleep in a hotel, how amazing that felt and all you wanted to do was jump on the bed and push every button you could find, well that was us. It's as if we'd never been anywhere before!
Well we slept like kings and queens that night and awoke ready to explore Temphu. Our first stop was the crafts school in town. Part vocational school part design program the students concentrated on wood working, drawing, weaving, sculpture, leather works and metal crafts. We got to observe the various levels of each and see their skills develop and I gotta say I was impressed. In fact the weaving was the most impressive hands down, I mean the sheer time-skill-effort that those loom mistresses demonstrated was "encore, bravo bravo" good, for real, I got the shots to prove it. But as I said before beauty comes at a price and the triple digit price tags proved a bit steep. So we moved on to our next stop which was a dzong! Dzongs are fortresses/monastaries that dot Bhutan and there are no shortages of them. They follow the general design of the other such places that we'd seen in Tibet and nepal the difference that these were impeccably clean and well maintained. Every wall painting, statue, book and corner of the places were good as new. It made us think that Tibet could have been like this if the Chinese govt would allow it but that's neither here nor there. This dzong was at the confluence of two rivers a white and a black river, male and female. This massive ediface had a lovely bridge that had been rebuilt a little while back with the help of the Germans after a flood washed the original one away. I think this dzong dated from the 1500's and didn't look a day over 350.
The next day we took a trip to the valley of the black-necked cranes a rare species that live in Bhutan, japan and siberia. We drove out of Temphu about an hour and a half through more amazing winding hills until we reached a magnificient valley that stretched several miles with a pristine river flowing through it. We of course started with a trip to a dzong before we were left to take a trek through the valley and meet our guide at a school a fee miles down the valley. Now I'm not even going to get close to describing how jaw droppingly beautiful this was but it reminded me of the hills of Scotland, not that I'd ever been there but if you have this sublime, ideal vision of what a glorious countryside should look like this surpasses it a hundred times over. Verdant greens, overwhelming smells of fresh grass and plants and the sounds! You could hear birds frogs cows cranes hooting and living you felt completely calm and whole. The peace was only broken by the laughter of kids. We walked up one side of the valley to find a gazeebo over under construction on the edge a outcropping and more laughter. I walked over to the skeleton of the gazeebo to find a group of boys playing on the hillside. They had built some sleds out of some wood and made Bhutanese tabogons to fly down the dried grass and growth. They would get a good head of steam going as they laughed-smiled their way down the hill then back up. Hey caught sight of us and shouted mister madam come come, so we came came and joined them. I grabbed the ladder looking sled and took a ride. You get going a lot faster than you think and stopping is a little more difficult but using your ass and feet help. Nicky and Kate took a spin and all you could see were two huge smiles and hear their laughter even louder than the boys'. We took some pictures of the boys and promised to mail them copies and we were off to finish our hike. We finally saw the famed cranes as they flew overhead and we descended into the valley passing pine trees sporting old man's beard, a lichen that only grows in ultra clean environments, at least that's what we were told and there's no reason not to believe it considering the sheer beauty of this place.
So we get to the valley floor and walk along a small river amongst lush grass and flowers. There are the occassional cows grazing and a few farms and us.
We spot our guide in the distance and we make our ways toward him, but not before a group of beautiful horses run
past us. I mean you couldn't make this stuff up, like the sound of music without the horrible music or Nazis.
The next day we make a visit to a small village that is home to the monastary of the Tibetan Madman. This ancient legend
tells the story of a monk that traveled from Tibet into Bhutan centuries ago with the intention of setting up a monastary on a particular spot in this countryside. Well the story goes that this rapscallion of a man as horny as a rabbit. He would have sex with just about anyone and anything given the chance.
He also had the ability to see the future and helped ensure fertility. Now in Bhutan the phalus is considered a protective symbol, so you'll see it all over the place; painted on almost every building, worked into architecture and there are a plethera of enormous wooden dongs hanging from windows and roofs evrywhere you turn
So this monastary was his chosen spot and it was also where our guide was blessed and named. He had told us stories of many westerners making pilgramiges here searching for help with fertility issues so we figured while we were here we'd get a blessing. Kili goes off to get a monk and returns with the youngest monk in the history of monks!
This kid hadn't even hit puberty yet but he went and grabbed a huge wooden dong, a bow and arrow and gently knocked us on the head for a blessing, talk about a surreal moment.
Off the Paro and the Tiger's Nest!
Legend has it that an ancient prince was flow up a cliff on the back of a white tiger and meditated in a small cave for 3 months before beginning to build this monastary
I'm not sure that I can aptly describe the sheer wonder and awe that overwhelms you as you gaze 300 meters up a sheer cliff to spot the temple built there.
It seems to defy the laws of physics to see this magnificent structure clinging to the rock
I can't even begin to imagine how to build this today let alone centuries ago.
The steep hike up would take about 2 arduous hours, but it was worth every step to see it up close. I must've taken 100 pictures of this thing and I could have done it all day
Up one hill down a gorge up another hill and then we get to walk by an amazing waterfall as we ascend the final stretch of stairs, panting and weezing as we go.
Views, sublime. Temples, check. Blessings, got 'em. I could have stayed and stared at it all day long but we had to make our way back into town, so down down down we went. And to show you what a small world it is as we were making our way down we stopped at a tea house and got to talking to an American lady about our trip. Turns out she lives in Cobble Hill! Go figure.
Now one thing that we noticed as we traveled around was that the general demographic for tourists in Bhutan is quite a bit older than us
Typically the age looks to be mid 50's and up and when we asked Kili he told us that we were the youngest people he'd had
Since we were in his hood we sakes him to show us some night life. Now bear in mind that this country closes down around 10 so we weren't expecting a raucous night
He picked us up at the hotel around 8:30 and off we went to a bar. Nice bar could have been in the east village and it was pretty empty. We asked him if it was a slow ngt and he told us that it was still early
Sneaky place had a hidden side all along. So we met up with a couple of his friends and had several Tiger beers before heading to a club
That's right clubbing in Bhutan. And it was legit. Had a high cover charge, they frisked you! and the drinks were pricey.
One huge difference is that you could order fried eggs along with your cocktail, odd
Lady Ga Ga blared and sweaty kids danced under black strobe lights till the wee hours of the morning this was by far the most surreal moment of the trip up to this point.
We flew out from Paro to Delhi and said goodbye to Katy and Kili and a beautiful country that will always bring a smile to our faces when we think about it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pictures Link!

OK, since coding this blog for images is doing my head in, I'm adding a link to my flickr account. Enjoy, and keep in mind that these are UN-edited so have mercy.
Peace and Love

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Ta-ta Tibet

 Tata Tibet
Lhasa to Kathmandu to Delhi

So now we say goodbye to the beautiful heartbreak that is tibet and fly back to Nepal.   Flying out of Lhasa provided us with great views of everest and not to put a nail in a stereotypes' coffin but every Japanese tourist on the plane jumped up, ran to the side of the plane and snapped away at every white capped peak they could see, it was brilliant so I joined the snap snap fest. So we get back to Kath and we decided to go to Chitwan national park down south and then make our way to the eastern birder with India on our way to Bhutan. However an unfortunate encounter with eggplant lasagna left my poor Nicky with Kayhmandoody for about 5 days. So I got to know Kath fairly well as I passed some hours of the day walking the city. 
Eventually nickys tummy got better and we decided to fly to the border of India and make our way via Darjeeling to join nicks friend Katy for the Bhutan leg of the journey. A quick flight a long border crossing and a twist-turny jeep ride later and we are in Darjeeling, green-valleyed Tea Mecca of the world. I wasn't sure what to expect from Darj and it surprised me on a couple of levels. First was the geography of the place. Super hilly with the city clinging right to the hillsides. I was expecting it to be situated in a lush valley but there it clung like a developed ivy grown into the hills, lots of stairs for us to negotiate. The second surprise was the Gurkaland movement afoot. Apparently there are a large number of tibetans settled in the area that want/expect autonomy for this region and they are very vocal about their cause. So much so that we awoke the next morning to find a strike had been called to the region!  This meant that eveything was shut down. Shops, food, museums, roads the whole town. Needless to say we were caught off guard by this and found ourselves not only hungry but feeling unsypathetic to the cause. I'm not sure what they hoped to gain by shutting down all facilites but it seemed to affect the locals more than the few tourists that were there. Well we made our way by foot in search of some food and found salvation at the Elgin hotel. This period hotel from the days of British colonialism and Raj days was still serving food and good food at that. We had high tea. Finger sandwiches crumpets the whole shabang served with white glove service, classy. Having eaten we proceeded to the Happy Valley tea plantation, famed suppliers to Harrod's. We took a tour and got the low down on tea grades and on the way out were greeted by the 5 second lady. This proprietress of a small tea hut invited us in for a cup of her famous 5 second tea. First grade tea the likes of which are valued in the finer houses in London town. She explained that tea usually takes 2-3 minutes to steep, however due to the high quality of happy valley's tea only 5 seconds would be needed. She's got a great pitch and serves a mean cup of tea. On that note we decided to get out of dodge while we could. There were rumors of another strike taking place and if that was the case we risked not getting to Bhutan to meet Katie for our tour and we couldn't let that happed. So we bid adieu to Darjeeling In The back of a pickup jam packed with fools that had he same idea as us.