Monday, October 4, 2010

One last lesson before saying "Goodbye India"!

Today was my last day in India and while I was sad my trip was coming to an end, I was very much looking forward to spending my last few hours here with Jyoti Agarwal. I had a full day with Jyoti which not only included cooking but also a shopping/dining outing.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Gurudwaras of Amritsar.

H
armandir Sahib (Golden Temple) may be the most well known of the gurudwaras in Amritsar and is what draws most Sikh pilgrims and tourists like me to the town, there are other gurudwaras that should no be missed.

I saw three others on my visit to Amritsar - Tarn Taran, Khadur and Goindwal.  Each has its own unique features and characteristics. 

The Golden Temple of Amritsar. Harmandir Sahib.


I
magine a building that is constructed of white marble overlaid with gold leaf and which stands in the center of pool of fresh water fed by the Ganges River. Well, imagine no more because that building exists and it is the Harmandir Sahib, otherwise known as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Wagah Border Ceremony.

Ever find yourself in a situation where everyone around you knew what was going but you had no clue? Or have you ever been in an outdoor place that was so crowded that you were literally shoulder to shoulder and front to back with people all around you? If you want to have both experiences at the same time, then the Wagah Border ceremony is for you :-) In a nutshell, the Wagah Border ceremony is a 45 minute choreographed flag lowering ceremony, which officially closes the border each evening between India and Pakistan.  Troops of each country put on a show in their uniforms with their colorful turbans.  To witness the ceremony, you just have to get to Amritsar and from town, it's about 30-40 minute ride to border area where the ceremony takes place at 6:00pm every night. 

In memory of martyrs. Jallianwala Bagh.

Jallianwala Bagh is a national memorial commemorating the massacre of hundreds of unknown men, women and children that took place on April 13, 1919. The Hindi word *bagh* means *garden* in English.

In 1919, India was still fighting for its independence from Britain. Just days before the massacre took place, violent protests had broken out in the streets of Amritsar. Angry Indians were demanding the release of two popular leaders of the Indian Independence Movement. The protesters were fired on by the British military, killing several demonstrators. The firing set off a chain of violence that eventually culminated in the deaths of at least five Europeans, including government employees and civilians.

On the train. The Shatabdi Express.

When I booked my trip to Amritsar, I had two travel options on how I wanted to get there - either by private car or by train. Both journeys would have taken about the same amount of travel time - 7 hours each way. Car would have been a comfortable option. So, obviously I took the train :-)

Actually, I took the train not because I wanted to have a miserable, uncomfortable trip but I thought it would make for a good adventure. I wasn't wrong.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Of penises and cheese.

Yes, this posting is about penises and cheese. How are they related? Well, they're both iconic symbols of Bhutan.

Let's start with the penis first. *wink*

The last one. Kyichu Lhakhang.

Ithink this is my shortest blog posting....ever! Why? Because of all things, my camera battery died after two photos and for whatever reason, my spare battery was not charged AND I didn't bring my camcorder, which serves as a backup camera.  Unbelievable!  I'm usually so well prepared, I couldn't believe I was in this predicament.  I was kicking myself the whole time I was inside the temple *slightly pissed off at myself*.

Clinging to the edge. Taktsang Dzong.



U
ndoubtedly, today's hike to Taktsang Monastery was the highlight of my trip to Bhutan! Taktsang Dzong is commonly known as Tiger's Nest and it is only accessible by foot.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Indomitable Merle Ellis.


Up until this trip, I had been telling all my friends that I won't let up on travelling to remote countries until I'm 75 years old because I had set that as the bar for when I will have to retire my adventurous spirit.  I had even been joking with my friend Lei that that's when we'll go on a cruise together and that will be my first cruise....ever!

Rinpung Dzong.

I'm officially dzonged out and as beautiful as Rinpung Dzong is, I'm saving my last bit of interest in the monasteries for Tiger's Nest which we get to visit tomorrow.  At least that's what I thought before I visited Rinpung Dzong.

From the National Museum of Bhutan, we took a very short ride down the hill to Rinpung Dzong. 

Far more modest in size and decoration than the Punakha Dzong, Rinpung Dzong is still quite impressive.

A tour through time. The National Museum of Bhutan.

 
The National Museum of Bhutan is housed in a circular building that was once the watchtower for Rinpung Dzong. The museum was started in 1968 with a modest collection of Bhutanese heritage treasures.  Over the years and after several renovations, the museum has accumulated objects from different parts of the country and is today a storehouse of Bhutan's cultural and traditional treasures. The gallery has over thirteen galleries located on 5 floors.

Paro!

We arrived into Paro just before lunch time today. Paro is another quiet little town nestled in the mountains.  We will be spending one night here.  This afternoon, we went to see the National Museum of Bhutan and the Rinpung Dzong, otherwise known simply as the Paro Dzong.  Tomorrow will be the highlight of our visit to Paro as we will be hiking up to the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery!! 

Road trippin' through Bhutan.

Considering there's only one aiport in the entire country and there's no railsystem, it's not surprising that we spent a lot of time on the road going places.

Bhutan is a mountain kingdom so I wasn't surprised to see hilly landscapes dotted with small villages. What was a surprise, especially when we first drove through the countryside, were how all the buildings were decorated in traditional Bhutanese style.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gho, baby, gho!

I live in a country that is truly a cultural melting pot.  We have people from all over the world living in the US.  I even work for a multinational, multicultural instititution.  But, when in the US, do as the Americans do so even though we're all from different heritage backgrounds, everyone pretty much dresses "American" and that would be jeans, t-shirts, sweat pants, shorts, etc.  A common uniform that can now be found in other parts of the world - part of the spread of the Western world.

How do you say......?

My morning started with breakfast under the gazebo and a lesson in basic Dzongkha from Tenzing.

Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan. The word "dzongkha" means the language (kha) spoken in the dzong....dzong being the fortress-like monasteries that are found throughout Bhutan.

Wangdue Phodrang Dzong.


We ended our day of sightseeing in Punakha with a visit to the Wangdue Phodrang dzong.

From the road below, I could see the the dramatic structure of the dzong which is actually three separate narrow structures that follow the contours of the ridge that it's perched on.  At the base of the hill, a river snakes through the landscape.

To the Temple of the Divine Madman.

Our morning in Punakha continued with a visit to Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenley who is affectionately known, in this part of the world, as the Divine Madman.  I love that moniker!

Lama Drukpa Kuenley was an acclaimed Buddhist master and in some sense, a cultural icon, who lived in Bhutan in the 15th century who is mostly remembered for his unconventional and at times outrageous methods of teachings....usually with strong sexual overtones and inclinations that were in complete disregard of the social norms of his time.

The spectacular Punakha Dzong.


The highlight of my day today was visiting the Punakha Dzong ("zong") which is undoubtedly the most spectacular of all the Bhuddist monasteris in Bhutan.  I was excited to finally be able to see this magnificent landmark that I had seen countless images of when I was doing the pre-trip research for this trip.  By the way, it's the rooftops of the Punakha Dzong that I used as the background image for the banner for this blog.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bull's eye!

Archery is Bhutan's national sport. While the rest of us were at the bank, in Thimphu, exchanging money or at the post office maiing off postcards, Paul had made is way down to a nearby field to watch a group of men having a friendly archery competition. The rest of us eventually met up with Paul and we found ourselves completely entertained on the field in front of us.

In memoriam. Dochula Pass.

W
e made a brief stop at Dochula Pass on our way from Thimphu to Punakha. Situated at an elevation of about 3100m, Dochula pass is high enough where on a clear day you can see a beautiful panoramic view of the mighty Himalayas.

Today was not our day for a view of the majestic mountains as it was cloudy and dreary.

Off to the nunnery.

No, I didn't join a nunnery while I was in Bhutan but I did get to visit one!

After our time at the Motithang Takin Preserve, it seemed like the van was heading back towards town center. I think I must have been half asleep this morning because, again, I had no idea where we were going except that we would be seeing some nuns.  So I asked Tenzing and he told that we would be visiting a nunnery but before we got there, we would have one more view to take in.

Taking in the takin.

I guess every country has a national animal and for Bhutan, it's the takin ("tah-kin"). In my pre-trip research, I had come across mention of an animal named the takin but I knew absolutely nothing about it other than that.

From the Gagyel Lhendup Weaving Center, we headed somewhere into the outskirts of Thimphu. I had no idea where were going except that we would be seeing takin.

The art of weaving.

A
fter we left the National Memorial Chorten, we headed over to the Gagyel Lhendup Weaving Center. After having seen weavers in Darjeeling and Gangtok, I have to admit that I was not too keen to visit yet another weaving factory. But my attitude is always to keep an open mind and I was so glad that I did because Bhutanese weaving is truly a work of skill and art.

There were about 8 women weavers, sitting on the floor,  in a small room that was dimly lit by natural light.  I don't remember seeing any overhead lights.

Thimphu. The National Memorial Chorten.


Oh no, I got up a bit late this morning. I scurried down to breakfast and quickly gulped down breakfast. By the time I finished, I only a couple of minutes to get back to my room and grab my bags to meet up with the gang. I hate being late but damn, I would have been on time had this sight of chilies drying on a building rooftop had not distracted me. I'm blaming it all on the chilies :-)

Today was our only day in Thimphu. By nightfall, we'd be in Punakha but until then, we had a long day of touring ahead of us starting with a visit to the National Memorial Chorten which is located not even a 10 minute drive away from the hotel.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

First experience in Thimpu. The central market.

Go figure :-) The first sight I get to see in Thimphu is the city's central market. But just so you know, I did not deliberately plan to do this.

We arrived into Thimphu at around 4pm today.  Though Thimphu is located only 170km from Phuentsholing, it pretty much took us all day to get here as the mountain roads are very narrow and winding.

A quick pit stop. Rinchending Goenpa.

Sunshine! I woke up to the sight of the bright shining sun! After days of being in dreary India, it was nice to finally see some blue sky.

No breakfast for me as I thoroughly stuffed my face at dinner last night and I've done nothing since then but sleep.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bhutan at last! Phuentsholing.

Standing on the Bhutan side of the gate.  India is on the other side!
We finally arrived into Bhutan today!


Phuentsholing is a border town in southern Bhutan that is just a stone's throw away from Jaigaon.  After we *exited* India, we drove thte short distance to the Bhutan checkpost.  There, Sanjeev had to get our entry permits stamped in our passports so we could cross under the border gate!

Through the Dooars.

Another long road trip today.

Destination?  Bhutan!!

We woke up bright and early in Kalimpong. Sanjeev had told us that although the driving distance to Phuentsholing, Bhutan is only 185 km, the roads were really bad and so it would take us more time than we would expect it to under *ordinary* road conditions.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The market....Kalimpong style.

When everyone had emerged from Mangal Dham temple, Sanjeev suggested that we walk back to the hotel which was just a short distance away. The drivers would take us to the center of town and from there, our walking route would take us through the market.

The temple that South Beach Barbie built. Mangal Dham.

The next stop on our Kalimpong tour itinerary was a Hindu temple - Mangal Dham.

To reach the temple, we had to drive to the chaotic streets of town. Ugh.



For the children. Lucia King Orphanage.

After we left Dr. Graham's school, we headed for an orphanage which turned out to be one of the *homes* in Dr. Graham's homes. I can't remember exactly but I think the orphanage was named after its largest donor, Lucia King.

A woman named Janet came out to greet us with white scarves. We entered into the orphanage and she gave us a tour of the place which provides food, shelter and education to both orphaned as well as underprivileged children. This particular home houses about 20 children and most are under the age of 10. The children are segregated into groups identified by color. We entered the Blue room and were greeted by multiple sets of inquisitive eyes all peering at us from above their crib railings. It was nap time but having visitors around gave the children an excuse to stay awake just a bit longer :-)

For the children. Dr. Graham's Homes.

T
he first destination on our Kalimpong tour agenda was a visit to a place known as Dr. Graham's Homes.

Dr Graham's Homes is a co-educational institution providing education and support, for impoverished and deprived children in Kalimpong. 

Kalimpong!


Our journey today took us from Gangtok to Kalimpong. Our trusty drivers and their cars were already waiting for us as we finished up breakfast this morning.  Rhonda, Mike and I only had a few minutes to gulp down our breakfast as we had just returned from our early morning trip to Tashi View Point to catch a sunrise view of Mt. Kanchenjunga. After breakfast, I quickly headed up to my room and brought my luggage down.

The majestic Kanchenjunga.


I woke up to a knock on the door this morning. It was Rhonda and it was barely 5:30a. She had looked out the window and seen clear skies so it was a thumbs up to try and get an early morning view of Mt. Kanchenjunga.  Standing at 8586 m  (28,169 ft ), Kanchenjunga is the third tallest mountain in the world!

Five minutes I was down in the lobby. Rhonda had already scoped out the taxi situation and apparently, none of the ones at the taxi stand that we had been to yesterday morning were willing to take us. Still not quite understanding what all the traffic rules are in Sikkim but they are quite strict and everyone obeys them.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gangtok: Weavers, tea, tea, statue & dinner.

The last destination on our tour agenda of Gangtok - was a visit to the so-called *cottage industries*. Of course, the driver knew exactly where to drop us off. We followed his directions and found ourselves standing in front of some buildings. Signs above the doors indicated what was inside. First stop was the store. I should have taken a clue from the items that were being sold. (nothing impressive as far as I was concerned) as to what types of *industries* i.e., handicrafts we would see.

Gangtok: Flower Exhibition Hall.

Next stop on our Gangtok sightseeing hall was the Flower Exhibition Hall.  The name should have been a clue to me of what we were in for but my brain was just not engaged at that moment.

We arrived at the exhibition hall and it looked like a conservatory of sorts.

Gangtok Ropeway. Cruisin' above the street.

On our way to Ganesh Tok, Merle had spotted a cable car and when we found out that we could actually ride it, we all agreed to add that to our agenda. We asked the driver to take us there and so he did.

For 60 rupees each, we would get a roundtrip ride on the cable car which is officially known as the Gangtok Ropeway. There are three cable car stations. One at the top of the hill, one in the middle and one at the bottom. We got on at the middle section. When the car arrived, there were already quite a few people on board. We wanted to wait for another car to come along but we got waved to board and so we squished in with crowd of Indian tourists. Merle and Mike made their way to the front of the car and I stayed at the back.

Gangtok: Enchey Monastery.

More driving on the windy roads of Gangtok - downhill, uphill, around hill. We were on our way to Enchey Monastery.  Again, another long driveway separated us from the main monastery complex. This one was a gentle uphill slope so we strolled.

Along the way, I came across two young monks with small pieces of paper. They were leaning against a concrete wall, facing each other. Curious about what they were doing, I walked up to them and asked. One replied that they were wrestling.

Gangtok: Ganesh Tok.

Ganesh Tok is a very small Hindu temple located high up on a hill that offers a great bird's eye view of Gangtok.    On a cloud free day, which unfortnately today is not, you're suppose to be able to see Mt. Kanchenjunga.

Going to Ganesh Tok was the cab driver's idea so as we drove towards it, I was hoping it would be worth our while.

Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology.

I
t's our first full day in Gangtok and it promises to be an activity filled one!
I woke up well before the alarm went off and the first thing that I did when I got out of bed was to throw open the curtains.  I gasped at the sight.  A sunny day showcasing beautiful green mountains of the lower part of the Himalayan range and and the far, far distance,  snow capped mountains.  I wondered if one of those snow covered peaks was the famed Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world.  It's suppose to be visible from Gangtok on a clear day. Oh I do hope we do get to see it on this trip.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Roadtrip to Sikkim.

Today's road trip destination was Gangtok, Sikkim. It was going to be a long travel day so Sanjeev got us all up and out early. Sanjeev loves to have us woken up at least two hours before departure time. Of course, I only need a few minutes to get ready, repack and bag and gulp down a bite so I set my alarm for just under an hour before departure time. Hey, I'm on vacation and every now and again I want to enjoy my sleep :-)

We headed out after breakfast, back down the road that we had driven into Darjeeling on just a few days ago.  The landscape was shrouded in fog.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A monastery, a garden, and a cup of tea.

From Tiger Hill Station, we drove to the Yiga Chongling Monastery which is a Tibetan monastery for monks of the Yellow Hat sect.

I have to admit that after having seen Bhuddist monasteries in Tibet as well as in Mongolia, the thought of seeing yet another monastery is well, ho hum. They all start to look and feel the same after a while - even the crimson robed monks begin to all look the same.

One thing for certain though. Tibetan monasteries in India are no where as grand or as well kept as the ones inside Tibet. Yiga Chongling is a pretty modest monastery in both scale and decoration.

You know you're in India when.

You walk into your hotel bathroom (which is not in 5 star hotel) and you find mothballs in the sink. The first time I saw this was in my hotel in Delhi and my first reaction was *WTF*??

It didn't take me but a second to figure out that they were there to remove unpleasant odors.

But I'm not a person who likes artificial scents wafting through the air....I can't even stand the smell of air fresheners or potpourri so you can imagine how unbearable the strong scent of naphthalene which is the primary chemical ingredient in mothballs.

I grew up with  mother who loved to store all our woolen sweaters in drawers where she had thrown in a mothball or two for added protection against moths.  While it was nice to not have holes in my sweaters, I never like the stench of the naphthalene.

So, when I saw and smelt the little mothballs at the bottom of the sink, all I wanted to do was flush them down the toilet but so far I have managed to resist the urge. I thought it was just a Delhi thing until I arrived into my hotel room in Darjeeling and found mothballs here as well. There's no escaping them :-( Please let there not be mothballs in any other bathroom on this trip.

Chug-a-chug, toot, toot! Darjeeling Toy Train.

After breakfast, we had about an hour to kill before we had to meet up again at 9:30a to catch our ride to the train station where we were scheduled to catch the 10:50a Darjeeling Himalayan Railway train which is better known by its nickname, the Darjeeling Toy Train.  I love riding the rails!!

Before heading out, I decided to catch a few minutes of sleep and woke up after everyone else had already gotten into their cars for the ride to the station! I must have been more tired than I thought :-)

The plan was to do a roundtrip ride on the Toy Train to the neighboring town of Ghum and back. It's a 7km ride each way and the total round trip would take just under 2 hours. It's a slow train :-)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Darjeeling at last.

Ican't believe I've only been in India for 4 days.....seems much longer as every day has been filled with a variety of activities. Today was no different.

I skipped breakfast this morning, opting instead to enjoy a bit more sleep. The cool night temperature in Darjeeling makes for a really enjoyable night of snoozing :-)

The first thing on our agenda this morning was to go on a tour of the Happy Valley Tea factory. Darjeeling is, of course, world famous for its tea and it happens to be my favorite black tea! 

We all got out and started walking down a hill that wound its way through hills of tea plants. There was a small group of women picking tea.   Each woman had an umbrella tucked into their basket.  I have a feeling it rains a lot here!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The trip begins!

T

oday is travel day and our destination is Darjeeling, the famed Indian hill station known for tea and the Toy Train.  Can't wait to get there!

The group gathered in the hotel lobby at 7:30a. I was so stuffed from the night before that I skipped breakfast so I was able to enjoy a bit more sleep.

Sanjeev had arranged for a 25 seater van to take us and our luggage to the domestic airport for our short hour and half long flight to Bagdogra. From there, we would transfer into three 4x4 vehicles for the remainder of the overland journey to Darjeeling and then eventually to Bhutan via Sikkim. Though located only about 100km from Bagdogra, the drive to Darjeeling would take us upwards of 3 hours depending on road conditions. I love road trips so long rides don't bother me at all.