Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Tuesday 30th March

This morning we took a tour around one of the floating markets near Bangkok. Fascinating to see the way it's all assembled - if you go all the way through the shops on either side of the canals you find yourself in the middle of a palm tree swamp! The majority of the stalls were selling solely to tourists - the usual bits of tat, fakes and forgeries (Rolex anyone?), swords, pickled snakes and scorpions. There were some real traders though, going about their business between the others. The long-tailed boats were great fun - each with a different incarnation of 4 cylinder car engine, many turbo charged or with twin-carb modifications.

In the afternoon we decided to be utterly decadent and went to the Oriental Hotel for high tea. :-) Much cake was consumed. Our final treat before the flight home just after midnight.

Monday 29th March

Flight back to Bangkok from Paro. It's been a fantastic experience visiting Bhutan and we're very sad to leave! It's fairly late by the time we reach Bangkok and we only have time to get a dress fitting for Caroline before searching out some food.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Sunday 28th March

Woke up early and pretty excited for the Paro festival. From the hotel window we could see the locals heading up to the dzong in their finery. By the time we arrived at 8:30 the courtyard was absolutely packed and the dancing was already underway! Even looking at the crowd was great fun - everyone dressed in really bright colours and sitting anywhere there was even the faintest chance of a view. The local police were trying (fairly ineffectually) to get everyone surrounding the area to sit down to allow others to see. Luckily, being somewhat above the height of the average Bhutanese, we had some good views!

Most of the dances involve lavish costumes and masks. The first one was a demonstration of how to subdue demons (just in case you ever came across one). This seems to be a lengthy task involving much whirling, stamping, and slow motion movement. The next was a slightly more comprehensible parable on adultery with much slapstick humping and thwacking. Locals seemed to find it hilarious. It was nearly as funny watching their rapt expressions.

Apparently watching the dances counts as time towards your religious observances as a good Buddhist, so everyone was clocking up the reincarnation points.

We moved through the crowd seeking better vantage and ended up on the hill above the courtyard, surrounded by elderly Bhutanese all of whom were chewing betel nut. One old man insisted on trying on Olly's and Caroline's glasses in an effort to see the action better. No joy there then... They were very grateful for the close-ups afforded by the camera. We came to the conclusion that they couldn't actually see a thing!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Saturday 27th March

After breakfast we visited the Bhutanese Post Office - like something out of the 1920s. There didn't seem much point in posting cards with three days to go. Loads of tourists now in Thimpu and Paro for the Tsechu Festival. It seems strange after not seeing anyone for the preceeding week. Brief visit to a lookout above Thimpu which was surrounded by millions of prayer flags. This was followed by a trip to an odd zoo which is now used as a nature reserve to protect Bhutan's national animal: the Takim. A freaky cross between a sloth, a cow and a goat. This is clearly an evolutionary dead end as it manages to make even cows look athletic. I think the Bhutanese have their work cut out preserving it.

Went to a handicraft school where teenagers are taught traditional vocational skills. Bhutan seems to be slightly backwards looking in its attempts to preserve its heritage. Everything has to be copied exactly with no room for novelty or experimentation. Next a visit to a Shabdrung-era dzong. We are now starting to know our way around Bhutanese Buddhist iconography. Special lectures can be arranged on request...! Having mopped up the sights of Thimpu we drove back to Paro, ready to attend the festival tomorrow.

Friday 26th March

Everyone packed up early for the last 10km back to civilisation. Arrived at the trail head well in advance of our ponies who trotted in lazily an hour later. Have definitely got more relaxed over the last four months and now think nothing of waiting for an hour or two in the sun.

Drove from Paro to Thimpu. The road is cut through a gorge and clearly suffers constantly from landslides. All road repair seems to be done by hand - and mostly by women. The countryside around Thimpu is dry, the hills are brown rock, sparsely tree'd and not as attractive as Paro. Thimpu itself has larger more modern buildings as befits the capital.

Checked into the hotel - SHOWER!

In the afternoon we visited a traditional paper factory. This was an amazing process using Daphne bark to provide the pulp. We also saw Thanka painting; religious and secular motifs using natural and mineral pigments. There were lovely soft colours from lapis lazuli, ochre and malachite, mixed with cow skin glue. The workshop was busy with large commissions from various governments - Thanka seems to be all the rage. Also there were impressive woven kira, with each skirt taking up to 6 months to make.

Next stop fruit and veg market where they sell chillis like potatoes - by the kilo. Also incense powder, yak cheese, fern fronds and lots of lovely asparagus. Hoping for another feast when we get home. Also checked out the local flea market with a great selection of "genuine antiquities", yak tail dusters, fish padlocks and cheap Indian imported clothing. Even in the markets there's no hustling which is very pleasant.

We enjoyed not squatting on the ground for dinner and having a bed to sleep in!

Thursday 25th March

Waited until the sun was well up before exiting the tent. Everything was covered in a thick layer of frost. Straight after breakfast a swift 400m climb to the pass (REALLY would not recommend that on a full stomach) however this was the last climb of the hike - yey! Walked along the ridge and started the descent on the other side. Three hours later we're still descending... Only another 1000m to go. We traverse through Alpine pasture, low level rhodedendron scrub, blue pine forest and dry spruce before reaching the river and the army check point. Even in the days we've been walking spring flowers have started to appear... luckily no leeches yet. A pretty brisk pace for the next 20km back to camp - everyone is taking advantage of the breathable air and the warmth. Blissful. Should only be a 2 hour stroll to the car tomorrow... and shower time!

Wednesday 24th March

Sunny again! Frost on the tent though. Luckily it froze the mud so we weren't sinking in up to our knees. Beautiful scenery through rhodedendron and birch forest along a ridge at about 4000m. In the valley opposite you could see yak herders' farms and pasture. We lunched at the base of a ridge, enjoying the sunshine - although the ground was quite porous and resulted in wet bottoms. We finally saw just HOW MUCH rice a Bhutanese can eat - answer: lots. They seem to consume nothing else for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We plodded up the 600m ridge, a bit of a slog but nowhere near as bad as yesterday. The clouds were dropping as we summited the ridge at Thombu La and looked down on what had to be the most godforsaken, desolate Alpine plateau ever. Unfortunately this was where we camped with the wind howling like wolves around the tents. In desperation we gathered piles of yak dung and lit a fire. It burnt surprisingly well although the acrid smoke was highly unpleasant. Unable to sleep very well due to the altitude and being absolutely frozen.

Discovered Olly's car is worth less than half of an average mule - no smiles there.