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.

Tuesday 23rd March

Set off for the toughest day - not much "rested" really. Climbed to the higher valley and two glacial lakes we could see yesterday. Spectacular views in all directions. Also saw ruddy duck and a wildcat. We crested the pass to arrive in an even higher pasture still covered with snow. Climbing was getting tough now at nearly 5000m. We plod on Ranulph Fiennes-esque. Eventually we reach the pass (Bhonte La) and rest gasping beside the prayer flags and cairns. The view down the other side is bleaker with slate cliffs and vast scree slopes. We descend along a grassy ridge with precipice sides down to the river and our camp at a lowly 3800m. My mind is telling me it should be warmer, but my body is not convinced. Fire tonight though! We saw a little alpine iris as well on the descent - only an inch above the ground.

2.5 days to go until shower! Yey!

Monday 22nd March

Good luck to the Grandma! Looking forward to seeing her bionic.

Rest day in camp with a lazy breakfast and much washing of self in the freezing cold stream. We hiked (self-imposed) up to the peak facing Jhomolhari - amazing views both down into the valley and over passes between neighbouring peaks which we will cross tomorrow. Lots of close-up yak encounters - Caroline now has a tail - also saw golden eagles, blue mountain sheep, ravens and himalayan modals (like high-altitude turkeys). Continued to climb along the ridge although going was tough due to steep scree and rocky outcrops. Learning point on a descent: don't go down if you can't see the exits! The climb back up isn't great for the blood pressure.

Return to camp about 3pm to find loads of locals gathered there for a shindig. Somehow Caroline managed to scare the children so much that they ran screaming to their mothers - she maintains she was just smiling...

Later that evening the men galloped in on their ponies, whooping like warriors of Shabdrung. Apparently they had won a local archery competition. This was followed by an impromptu traditional dance - circular, with lots of stamping, and then it looked like they were settling in for a long night with the alcohol and tales of their archery prowess. Don't think our trekking party got much sleep.

Sunday 21st March

Today we set off from the forest camp to climb above the tree line following the river up into the mountains. We passed through the winter pasture grounds for yaks and the winter homes of the herders, complete with huge piles of yak dung fuel. We also had to stop at an Indian army check point (the Indian army has certain rights within Bhutan in exchange for protection from China). The men were very hospitable but the camp looked like Shackleton's last outpost. The huts were made of any scrap of wood available and the walls were soot blackened. Crates and sacks of provisions were strewn around the place and several of the inhabitants appeared comatose. All of them spoke great English and wanted to know about our favorite Bollywood film (??? arrgh ???). Having stroked the lucky Yak's tail, we were packed off with tea and sugar offerings for good luck.

We reached the last habitation in the valley complete with a new health clinic which we were shown around by the proud health worker. The government commitment to rural health is pretty impressive. The clinic hands out all drugs / treatment for free - assuming that you need one of the ten medicines on offer. We leave with a small handful of paracetamol. We also weighed ourselves and think we've lost between half and one stone (each). Olly fears he will become a wraith. Before leaving we were forceably invited to watch the village TV, showing Bhutan pop idol - THERE IS NO ESCAPE! The entire village was packed into one room around a single solar-powered set. Luckily the battery was only good for a couple of hours. The show involved traditional religious chanting - remarkably similar to wildebeest in pain. First prize is a 500,000 Nu car which is prompting some excitement, particularly since Tenzin's brother's girlfriend is in the last 8.

We set up camp at Jhomolhari base camp (4200m).

Saturday 20th March

A cold night; we woke to frost on the tent and a brilliant view of the mountains. We continued walking up the valley through beautiful birch and pine forests and caught our first sight of a yak. This was very disappointing and just looked like a slightly fiercer cow - I think I was expecting a huge bison / yeti monster! We reached the next camp at Thangthakha (3600m) after 20km of walking.

Friday 19th March

Suffering from a slight relapse of Vietnamese food poisoning, we pack up to start our 8-day trek. Nothing like taking it easy to recuperate? Headed up the valley from Paro; first on a dirt track and then on an old drove road linking Tibet and Bhutan (now only used by smugglers of Chinese luxury goods - and tourists). As we become more remote, we see some amazing sights - a man ploughing a field with a single furrow ox-drawn plough, spirit catchers (remains of traditional animist religion), stupas and prayer flags everywhere and the army resupply donkey train heading up to the border.

Further up the valley the path becomes steeper and more twisted and we eventually set up camp a few miles past the army base at Shana. Wait for it... We have 8 mules, 4 tents (dining, cooking, toilet and sleeping), 4 attendents, including cook and guide, and 2 hot water bottles - this is trekking luxury. It's weird being waited on hand and foot - but quite frankly my dear I don't give a damn. We also saw the remains of an old defensive fortress, Drukgyal Dzong (burnt down again - if you haven't picked up that butter lamps aren't safe yet, take note) built as an early warning against Tibetan attack. The structure was massive and must have been sustained by heavy tithes from the Paro valley farmers. Prior to its 13th century Buddhist conversion and unification Bhutan was your good old oppressive feudal realm.

Thursday 18th March

Up early (again) to trek to the Tiger's Lair Monastery (Taktsang) at the head of Paro valley. The pine forest smells lovely in the cold morning air. A few rhodedendrons are coming out, but at this alititude we're too early for most. The majority of the climb is occupied in theological discussion (where's John when you need him?). Tenzin is very curious about others' history, culture and religion. How do you explain the exact nature and role of the Holy Ghost - answers on a post card?!?!?

Bhutan seems to be a remarkably sane place; its key metric being Gross National Happiness (GNH) which is measured by census annually. Equality and equal opportunities for all seem to be enshrined in their constitution and the king has just abdicated in favour of a democratic parliament. With only 600,000 people it is more like an extended family than a country.

Trek to the monastery really was worth the view, particularly since we were the first up there! The monastery clings (literally) to the cliff face; it originated in the 17th century but has repeatedly burnt down and has been rebuilt most recently in 2002. This is due to an unfortunate Buddhist love of butter lamps.

On the way down we visited an archery field where the local blokes unwind after work. Not sure how they can even see, let alone hit, the target. Even with high-tech compound bows it's pretty impressive.

Wednesday 17th March

Up very early for flight to Bhutan; check-in was just about the last desk in the airport. Everyone else in the plane appears to be a) old, and b) wealthy. We saw Kangchenjunga and Everest on the approach to Paro - they were so tall they looked like they were floating on the sky. Landing in Paro was different... airport was tiny and the buildings were cute (wooden frames painted with brightly coloured dragons, tigers and geometric patterns). Bhutanese officials were in national dress (men wear a wooly dressing gown (Gho) with long socks and black shoes and women wear floor-length brightly coloured wrap-around skirts (Kira)).

We were picked up by Tenzin, our guide: young, nervous and painfully polite, who gave us white welcome scarves. Paro lies in a lovely wide valley surrounded by snow-dusted forested peaks, apparently "just local mountains" at 4 - 5,000m. Bhutan is stunningly beautiful; the houses are lovely - white painted walls with wooden tri-partate windows, all external woodwork is patterned in pale blues, reds and yellows. Some houses also have good luck symbols (phallic) and animals painted on the walls. There is very little traffic - the roads are all single lane - and the rivers are beautifully clear. Spring has only just started, most of the trees don't have leaves but the peaches are in blossom and the willows are budding.

After checking into the hotel (only guests again) we visited a museum in a 16th century lookout tower (Ta Dzong). The building was amazing, painted inside and out, with ridiculously thick walls and big wooden beams. Bhutan has a healthy national paranoia of Tibetan / Chinese invasion. Tensin turned out to be an expert on Buddhism and proceeded to confuse us with the seven human Buddhas; past, present and future Buddhas; thousand Buddhas; four guardians; sixteen elders an an indeterminate number of bodhisattvas. Alarmingly there is a test at the end of the trip! N.B. Bhutan is one of the few countries that maintains its traditional 13th century Buddhist practices.
Next stop Kichu Lhakhang - a 7th century monastery where we whirled the prayer wheels (clockwise only) for good weather. Unlike other countries we have visited, Bhutanese temples have retained an aura of sanctity; glorious wall paintings, gloomy interiors, the glint of gold figures and the smell of incense is quite atmospheric.