13 April 2011

and next . . . . .

I've now booked my next two trips, again with Explore to :
I've booked the 'land only' option for Ethiopia to allow me a cheaper flight out of Birmingham.  This is with THY and allows me a couple of days in Istanbul on the way out.

Watch out on my main blog for words and snaps from these trips.

I booked both the trips and the Ethiopia flights via the Flight Centre - purely by luck I found that they offered a 5% discount off all Explore trips in addition to the discount Explore gives me as a 'frequent' client.

20 March 2011

Kolkata - Colours & Bonfires

On arrival in Kolkata - formerly Calcutta - we immediately set off on our guided tour of the city and were surprised at the seeming lack of the usual frenetic traffic.  We were told that it was the eve of a major festival and a bank holiday and, thus, people weren't at work - more about the festival later.

Jain Temple
A hot day combined with travelling for three weeks and an early start meant that we were probably not the most attentive group as we were introduced to some of the City's highlights : a Pareshnath Jain temple, the clay idol workshops, the colonial/Raj buildings and the CoE cathedral.

It was exiting the temple and walking the streets where idols were constructed on a base of wire netting & straw, that we were introduced to the festival of Holi.  This is an ancient festival which goes back to at least the 7th century - it was originally a spring festival of fertility and harvest. However, it also marks some Hindu legends, which provide some of the ingredients for the celebrations.

Street Colours
It is a Hindu festival that welcomes the Spring and celebrates the new life and energy of the season - although it may have religious roots, not much religious activity is involved in its celebration : although we did see, mainly elder ladies making sacrifices at the bonfires.  It is certainly an energetic affair celebratted  with fun and good humour; even the strict rules of separation between castes are said to be abandoned.

Holi is also called 'The Festival of Colours', and people celebrate the festival by smearing each other with paint, and throwing coloured powder and dye around in an atmosphere of great good humour.  Holi is seen by some as the Hindu festival that is nearest in spirit to St. Valentine's Day.

After reaching the cool confines, a couple of us - perversley - headed back into the streets to explore the area.  Like the rest of the City it was very quiet - even the large indoor market was almost silent.  However, there were still people about intent on spreading their colours everywhere.  Many of the roadside stalls were selling various coulourful concoctions and many of the road intersections already had wood piled in the middle in preparation for the evening's celebrations.

Once it became dark, a couple of us again hit the streets and followed the noise of drums.  We came across half-a-dozen drummers parading through the streets and, dutifullly followed them to the large orange glow in the distance.  Here , with no regard for the road surface and passing traffic, a large bonfire blazed and flared.  Mainly elderly ladies made offerings to the fire as a big crowd of locals stood around getting singed by the blaze.  As we walked the streets there were more and more bonfires - every couple of hundred yards - each with attendant drummers as offerings were made before they headed off to the next.

It was a loud, warm and colourful ending to a great three weeks in three contrasting countries.

However, it had a sting in the tale !  Almost back at the hotel and at the last bonfire, I let my guard down and was 'coloured by a local who smeared one of the oil-based green colours on my forehead.  Attempting to rub it off had no effect - except to spread it : so it ended up all across and down into my beard.  How would the airline and the people of the UK react to a green faced monster ?  After liberal application of nail polish remover, tooth paste and soap and after about 40 minutes, I managed to ruin a couple of hotel towels but most of the colour was gone.  I was just left with a slight green shade and skin almost rubbed raw.


19 March 2011

Flying out of Bhutan

Flying out of Bhutan from Paro was an interesting twisty journey through the mountains.

The airport is located in a deep valley on the bank of Paro river with surrounding peaks as high as 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Allegedly, it is considered to be "one of the world's most challenging airports" and only eight pilots in the world are certified to land there.

It is also alleged that it took 7 months for Airbus Industries re-programming of the Airbus 319 cockpit computers in order to allow them to cope with the special challenges posed by this unique airport & its surrounding terrain.

To protect the 'innocent', no mention will be made of the seasoned traveller who sat  next me who quivered during the rapid & twisty departure with their head in their hands - jumping at every noise.

As a bonus - we at last saw Mount Everest in the distance as we headed South for Kolkata.

18 March 2011

To the Dancing and Hills

Two Rivers Join
On the way to Paro we went to Punakha Dzong built in 1637 on a sand bank at the confluence of the Mochu (Mother) and Phochu (Father) Rivers. This sacred dzong was the seat of Bhutanese government until 1960 and is a fine example of Bhutanese monastic architecture with squat rectangular buildings made up of tiered levels crowned by a tower and small golden spire above. 

We crossed the river on a wooden covered bridge and climbed up to the impossing Dzong - the final part was up steep stairs to the massive front doors. Wandering around we climbed stairs to the shady interior of the Buddist temple and found a balcony overlooking one of the prayer halls . Down below there were two rows of monks, sitting crossed-legged facing each other, chanting verses to the ocassional drumming and fanfares. They were overseen by an 'enforcer' who patrolled the rows listening to the monk's efforts - where they didn't reach his standard, they were flicked with his prayer beads.

Just outside Paro (about a 15 minute walk), high above the town stands Ta Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most imposing fortresses. The Dzong commands inspiring views across the plain and is a treasure house of sacred scrolls, religious icons and manuscripts of all sizes with fabulous thankas and vivid colourful murals hanging on the walls. 

This was the venue for the highlight of our journey - the Paro Tsechu.  A Tsechu is a Buddhist religious festivals where masked dances depicting events from the life of Padmasambhava, the eighth century Nyingmapa Buddhist teacher (second to Buddha), and stories of other saints are staged. In Bhutan, Padmasambhava is known as 'Guru Rimpoche'. The  dances  are performed  by  trained monks  and laymen wearing costumes some that depict the creatures that you may  expect to meet after death. 

Laura, our tour leader, had been able to readjust the planned itinerary to allow us longer at the festival than the half-day originally proposed.  Why hadn't Explore thought of this in advance ?  

A ‘Tsechu’ is a religious festival held annually by most Dzongs and monasteries. The festival is homage to the great deeds of the Buddhist Saint Padmasambhava, popularly known as ‘Guru Rinpoche’ who was responsible for introducing Buddhism to Bhutan. The dances (most of which are performed enthusiastically by monks) are said to bring blessings to the onlookers, as well as instructing them about the Buddhist Dharma.

The ceremony is held over five days - the first is held inside the Dzong and in the past the rest of the day's performances were also held there.  However, nowdays with so many people attending (locals and visitors) they are held on a paved area nearby with stone seats on a bank one side, a massive building on another and on the third what looked like covered seating & balconies for VIPs and the 'band'.  The fourth side was open for everybody to stand and watch.

They are not 'common' entertainment events and are not held as tourist attractions.  They are still genuine manifestations of religious traditions hundreds if not thousands of years old. Today, we, as outsiders, are given the privilege of witnessing these sacred rites. 

The grounds where they are held are consecrated by Lamas and the dancers, whether monks or laymen, are in a state of meditation. They transform themselves into the deities whom they embody on the dance ground. They generate a spiritual power which cleanses, purifi es, enlightens and blesses the spectators.

We were able to make three visits to the Tsechu : soon after we arrived, following our walk towards Tiger's Nest and very early on the morning of our departure.

Although it had a religious basis, the locals seemed to treat it more of a picnic with entertainment.  They sat on the tiered stone seating and on the grass on the slope above eating, talking and laughing at the antics of the clowns.  Although the clowns had a role in some of the dances, they also seemed to fulfill two other roles : entertaining the crowds between dances and crowd control - stopping people encroaching on the dance area. 

All the proceedings were being recorded by local TV - a newish innovation in Bhutan - and were, I think, being  broadcast live to those who couldn't be there in person.  TV first came to Bhutan in 1999 and it was the last country to secumb to its thrall.  Four years later there was a report in the UK Guardian newspaper that stated that the population was " . . . . beginning to accuse television of smothering their unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible with their own, and of threatening to destroy an idyll where time has stood still for half a millennium".

In addition to a number of folk dances and choirs which filled in the gaps between the main events, I was lucky enough to see the following principal dances :

Noblemen and the Ladies (Phole Mole)
This is a very long dance and in the later part I saw it seemed to have the feel of a pantomime.  The actors play two princes, two princesses, an old couple and the clowns. The two princes are going to war and are leaving the two princesses in the care of the old couple.

As soon as they depart, the clowns try to 'frolic' with the princesses and corrupt the old woman who is also behaving quite badly.  The clowns and the old woman roll around in a manner that left very little to the imagination.  There was also quite a lot of dialogue, especially from the clowns which, judging by the reaction from the crowds was quite funny / risque.

Clowns and Doctor
When they return they return the princes are scandalized by the behaviour of the princesses and cut off their noses as a punishment - the old woman too : red handkerchiefs were held to the faces to represent the copious amounts of blood that had been spilt.

Then a doctor is called to put the nose back but the old woman stinks so much that the doctor has to use a stick because he does not want to approach her. Finally the prices marry the princesses and everybody is reconciled and the all live happily ever after ! 

The Judgement of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham)
This is again more of a play than a dance and lasts approximately two hours.  Shinje - the Lord of Death - appears, symbolized by a huge puppet which holds a mirror. The white god and the Black Demon enter the courtyard with him.  Shinje sits and all his helpers follow taking up their places in two rows in front of him. 

Then the judgment begins. The sinner, who is dressed in black (why are the baddies always in Black ?) and wearing a red hat, arrives. He is very frightened and tries to escape by running into the crowd but is recaptured by the helpers.  From his basket, a freshly severed cow’s head is taken, implying that the sinner was responsible for killing it. The judge then weighs his actions. Afterwards the White God sings of the merits of the man, followed by the Black Demon who expounds the sins of the man. Finally, a black strip of cloth symbolizing the rod to hell, is spread and then the sinner is sent to Hell.

Another man arrives - he is clad in white (must be the goodie) and holds a prayer flag and a ceremonial scarf, implying his virtues. The same scene as before is re-enacted and at the conclusion a white strip of cloth symbolizing the road to heaven is roll out. Fairies elaborately dressed in brocade and bone-ornament come to fetch him.  At the last moment, the Black Demon, furious at having lost a being, tries to grab the virtuous man but the White God protects him.

All the main players and their helpers then processed around escorting the massive 'puppet' back into the building that forms the backdrop to the festivities. 

One morning there was an opportunity to climb up for views of the amazing Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Monastery. The remains of the monastery cling precariously to a cliff face, and local legend recounts that Guru Rinpoche, who founded the Drukpa Sect and brought Buddhism to Bhutan, flew here on the back of a tiger to start the first monastery.

The temple complex, located high on a precipitous the cliff side and was first built in 1692, around the where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three months in the 8th century after flying from Tibet on the back of a tigress - it was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon .  He is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan  Today it is the best known of the thirteen taktsang or "tiger lair" caves in which he meditated.

We drove to the starting point of the walk and were one of the first to start up the steep dirt track.  It wound through the trees passing ladies sat on the side selling souviniers and nic-nacs.  It was tough going not helped by the altitude robbing us of oxygen.  After a while we were overtaken by other visitors who had hired skeletal ponies to take them upwards - their riders often looked terrified as they clung on to their saddles.  We were warned not to stand between a passing pony and the drop at the side of the path and I saw why when one pony took a deliberate side-step to bump into a walker - almost launching him over the edge !

After about 45 minutes, we came to a small cafe selling refreshing tea and offering a view of the Tiger's Nest across the chasam.  After a brief rest, most continued the slog up the mountain to actually visit the Nest.  I was amongst the minority that decided it wasn't worth the effort to visit yet another monastry and returned to town in favour of a once in a life time opportunity to visit the festivities.
The Thangka
There was a really early start on our last day in Bhutan - not just to get to the airport on time but also to see the unfolding of the silk Thangka.  This is so large that it covers the face of the building and is considered one of the most sacred blessings in the whole of Bhutan.   The 'Thangka' is a religious picture scroll known as a Thongdroel and it is exhibited for a few hours, at day break of the final day of the festival, enabling the people to obtain its blessing. This holy scroll 'confers liberation by the mere sight of it' (the meaning of the word 'thongdroel' in Bhutanese). 

It was a bleary eyed bunch that dragged their bags down to the bus for the drive down to town where we joined throngs of locals climbing in the dark up with the Dzong lit by a bright Moon.

Incense and Candles
The Paro Guru Thongdrol is the oldest in the country and in the Region as its over 300 years old and very sacred too cause it has been blessed by many enlightened masters.  It weighs more than 1000 Kg and is usually  kept in a large iron box in one corner of the Dzong.  On the last day of the Tshechu, the monks wake up at midnight and start preparing for the procession and perform prayers to take out the Thongdrol at 3 am.  After the prayers, the Thongdrol is carried on the shoulders of the monks, the administrative staff of the Paro District, and people from the local community towards the Deyankha Temple, which is the courtyard where it is unfurled.

Amidst religious music, songs, and dances, it unfurled at the Deyankha Temple. and, being 85 feet wide and 55 feet tall, it requires the entire 5 story Deyankha temple to fully unfurl. Even though we had risen very early, it was already on display when we arrived and there was a steady queue of locals, passing the dark yhrough the smoke from incense burners, passing the Thongdrol to gain a powerful blessing.

From here we took our departure from Paro and headed off to the airport and our flight back to India.  It was a nice little but efficient airport marred only my a minor altercation with a group of French tourists who, with usual Gallic disregard for queues, pushed to the front of the line for the X-ray machine.  Once airside we were able to watch more of the ceremonies back at the Dzong as it was still being broadcast live on local TV.

14 March 2011

Bhutan - Gross National Happiness

Most countries measure Gross National Product - ie the market value of all goods and services produced within a country in a given period : it is often considered an indicator of a country's standard of living.

Rather than measure cold economics, Bhutan seeks to measure quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms. It measures GNH : Gross National Happiness.

Land of the Thunder Dragon

Departing for the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing we drove for almost 6 hours through the vast tea estates of the Gangetic plains of Bengal - approximately one quarter of India’s tea is grown in West Bengal state.

The Indian border town of Jaigaon is the conduit through which the majority of goods are traded into Bhutan, and as it hosts the most accessible Indian marketplace to Bhutan It is bustling and loud, similar to many other West Bengal centres of commerce, albeit with many conspicuous Bhutanese shoppers.

The Thunder Dragon
We went through the exit process at an office in the middle of town some way from the border but the actual crossing ws marked by a very impressive Tibetan-style gate manned by Bhutanese Army guards. With little formality, we passed through it into the Indian town of Jaigaon and crossed into Bhutan and the town of Phuentsholing. There was a stark contrast in the culture as we crossed the border - it clearly separates two very different peoples and cultures. Phuntsholing is distinctly far more quiet and orderly than its neighbour.

It's a very small place and soon explored. There was a crocodile farm which I didn't attempt to find and an archery ground (it's the country's national sport) which I searched for without any luck. I did walk down the side of the largely dry river, which smelt more like a sewer, and ended up in an area of town which was devoted to heavy haulage and army camps : not the most beautiful of areas. Threading my way back towards the centre, I came across a metal fence with pedestrian doors through small towers every so often in the bars. Life looked much more interesting on the other side, so without any real thought or problem, I went through one to continue exploring.

Then I realised i was back in India !    Swiftly retracing my steps, I was refused re-entry at my crossing point by what I now noticed were emigration staff snoozing on seats. Evidently, this was only a Bhutan to India crossing point and I would have to go to the next one to get back into Bhutan. At the next crossing point the staff were much more lively and it took ten minutes of talking to gain entry. The process wasn't helped by the fact that I couldn't produce my passport (the hotel reception had demanded it) but my credit card sized laminated colour copy seemed to help.

From here we proceeded to Thimpu along serpentine roads, passing paddy fields, apple orchards, pine forests and small hamlets, ‘protected’ by sculptures of the eight auspicious signs of the Tashi Tagye. This is the capitol and largest city with a population of over 80,000, some of Bhutan's only dual carriageway and its only flyover.

The city spreads in a north-south direction on the west bank of the valley formed by the Wang Chuu River at an altitude of between 7,300 ft and 8,700 ft. Unusually for a capital city, Thimphu is not served by an airport, but relies on the airport at Paro some 34 miles away. The town / city contains most of the important political buildings in Bhutan, including the National Assembly of the newly formed parliamentary democracy and Dechencholing Palace, the official residence of the King, located to the north of the city.

Tourism, though the major contributor to the economy, is strictly regulated as the country seeks to maintain a balance between the traditional and development & modernisation. TV only arrived in 1996 and all tourists have to pay a hefty daily levy to visit, no independent (backpacker) travel is allowed - everybody must have a local guide. Having said that, the country has recognised the importance of tourism and aims to increase it many fold in the near future.

The culture of Bhutan is fully reflected in Thimphu in respect of literature, religion, customs, and national dress code, the monastic practices of the monasteries, music, dance, literature and in the media.

We visited the Tashichhoedzong - a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of the city. This impressive edifice has traditionally been the seat of the Druk Desi (or "Dharma Raja"), the head of Bhutan's civil government, an office which has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907, and summer capital of the country.

The main structure of the white-washed building is two-storied with three-storied towers at each of the four corners topped by triple-tiered golden roofs. There is also a large central tower or utse. It has been the seat of Bhutan's government since 1952 and presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. Other government departments are housed in buildings nearby. As the un set we wandered around the courtyard of Bhutan's equivalent of a combination of the UK's Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The large courtyard was only open to us visitors once the civil servants had finished for the day leaving only a few red robed monks and swirling flocks of pigeons.

In 1953 the royal family took up residence in the nearby newly built Dechencholing Palace. The royal palace was definitely very modest - not large and imposing but of a domestic scale : perhaps a clear indication of the current King's approach to his role & responsibilities. Some of the party - who shall be nameless - seemed to think that it was a waste that such an elligible bachelor was still officially unattached.

National Chorten
We also made brief visit to the National Memorial Chorten - a large white structure with a golden spire crowning it and a smaller golden spire above the front porch. It is approached through a small garden and a gate decorated with three slate carvings. On the exterior of the gate are representations of the three protective Bodhisattvas – Avalokiteshvara (the symbol of compassion), Manjushri (the symbol of knowledge) and Vajrapani, the symbol of power. We were there early in the morning and there were icicles on the fountain and people combining devotion with daily exercise by jogging around the main chorten. Just in side there were three large red prayer wheels as usual being propelled in a clockwise direction by a succession of locals - each complete circle automatically ringing a bell. Here there were also a couple of elderly ladies who seemed to be camped there - complete complete with a little stove for making tea - whose aim seemed to be to ensure their wheel never ceased moving.

On the interior are slates engraved with the image of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the historical Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. The chorten, built in 1974 by the King’s mother to honour her son, the 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972) - in 2008 it underwent extensive renovation. It is popularly known as "the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan". It is unlike other chortens in that it does not enshrine the mortal remains of the late King. Only the King’s photo in a ceremonial dress adorns a hall in the ground floor.

The Takin is a Goat/Antelope - found in the Eastern Himalayas - is the national animal of Bhutan. We made a brief visit to these unusual creatures – standing 39” to 51” at the shoulder and weighing up to 770 lb. - they have been likened to a "bee-stung moose", because of the swollen appearance of the face. They are covered in a thick golden wool which turns black on the under-belly. Both sexes have small horns which run parallel to the skull and then turn upwards in a short point, these are around 12 in long. Takin are found in bamboo forests at altitudes of 3,300 to 15,000 ft, where they eat grass, buds and leaves but today, although hunting (including fishing) is banned, most are now confined to the small fenced reserve on the edge of town.

Handicraft School
We were also taken to visit the School of the Thirteen Crafts (aka National Handicraft / Craft School) were young people are instructed by masters in various skills - we sat in on classes in drawing, sculpture and needlework. This is another reflection of the county's keen connection with its traditions - however, with the projected great increase in tourism, graduates will no doubt be kept busy making 'genuine' high quality souvenirs.

I spent some time wandering around the small town centre - it must have taken all of about twenty minutes from one end to the other - there was an excellent small cafe with succulent cake : it appeared to be a focus for ex-pats.

Just outside the centre was the archery field - I saw it on the drive into town, so this time I had no problem finding it. There was a little pavilion belonging to the National Archery Association and two 'lanes' - about the length of a football pitch - on which competitions were held. Whilst I was there only one of the 'lanes' was in use. There were about a dozen contestants who each seemed to put money into the 'pot' as an entry fee - the more money the more arrows they were allowed. The bows they were using weren't the expected traditional ones but hi-tech ones comprising of carbon fibre and a series of pulleys. The target was about the size of The Times newspaper - it looked very small from the other end - most got close putting up a little puff of sand or skittering into the rear mud wall but once in a while an arrow thuds home.