Mr Toad’s Wild Ride

Not even a pedicab ride through Hanoi’s old town could prepare me for the rickshaw tour of Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu.  There is no way these photos can capture the experience–the bumpy roads, the breakneck speed, the sounds and smells.  It was quite a ride!  

My view
Eugenia and Karl in front, Peter and Marie close behind
Marilynn and our guide Binoy
My driver–i survived, and am still smiling!

Heavenly Himalayas

It’s a 17 minute flight from Kathmandu to Pokara if the planes are able to take off.  Otherwise, it is a 5 hour drive on bumpy mountain roads.  We were in luck.  After a 45 minute delay, it was clear enough to fly.

We stopped at the Pokhara office to load what we would need for the next three days into the OAT supplied duffels, leaving our big bags behind.  After lunch atop a mountain, we drove for about an hour, then hit the trail, to walk the last three miles to our lodge.

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Could this be what the OAT description means by “uneven steps”?

As I was walking up and down the mountain trail, I was thinking about my gym buddies at Somerset Hills Y.  Knowing that they would all be in class was the extra motivation that got me to Zumba, AOA, Yoga and Barre— and boy oh boy, were those classes necessary.  Our treks were far more enjoyable because I’d been “training” for the past 6 months.   It also helped that the heavy lifting was done by village women, who carried our bags in baskets on their backs, attached to a strap across their foreheads.

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That’s our luggage inside those baskets!

After the chaos of Kathmandu, we were so very ready for the beautiful and peacefully remote Gurung Lodge in Annapurna.  And what a fantastic lodge it was.  Our clean, comfortable rooms were stocked with umbrellas, warm hats and gloves, a north face parka, flashlight, and crocs.   The lounge chairs on our front porches were perfect for naps after our hikes through the villages, to the school, the mother’s cooperative, the museum  and the two room health center.

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Okay, no comments about the white legs.  In some parts of the world, pasty white skin is considered quite beautiful.  So there, Sue and Sandy.

During our stay, smoke from wildfires in India caused the sky to cloud up, so we only occasionally got a glimpse of the Annapurna Mountains.  Despite the clouds and mist, the view was still jaw dropping.   It was impossible to capture the magnificence of this mountain range in a photo, although we all tried. As with so much in life, you just had to be there.

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The view from our cabins

Our lodge had electricity for a few hours every day, just long enough to charge our camera batteries.  Solar power heated the water, so we took our showers in the afternoon.  As for our hair, the only blow dryer in the camp comes courtesy of the afternoon breeze.
Despite a complete lack of so many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted, we had tasty and healthy meals.  I so appreciated how hard the villagers and the lodge staff had to work to ensure that we were well fed and comfortable.

We got a little surprise on our village trek.  When we arrived, we were greeted by this group of women.  It took us a while to realize that ONE of them looked VERY familiar.

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Can you identify the nurse from San Francisco?

 

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Here’s a clue

Marilynn, our power walker, had arrived far in advance of the rest of our group, so the village ladies decided to dress her up and make her part of the welcoming committee.

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A flower garland and “Namaste”

It made me feel good to see how our contributions to the OAT Foundation are making life easier forthe communities we visit.   Before OAT donated the machinery, grain was ground by hand.  Not an easy task, as Marie is demonstrating.

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If my iPhone counted  accurately, the walk to the village is the equivalent of 103 flights of stairs ONE WAY!  And we couldn’t get the ladies to carry us in their baskets for the return trip.

But it was worth it, because the scenery was spectacular!

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Three Days in Kathmandu

Kathmandu assaults your senses.  It is dusty, dirty, noisy, chaotic, crowded.  Take a deep breath and you will get a lungful of incense, enough to keep you coughing for a few minutes.

We toured the three major cities of the ancient Malla kingdom: Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur.  (That’s what happened when you had three sons–you split up your kingdom so they could each have a place to rule. )

We saw the impact of the earthquake everywhere.  It is heartbreaking  to see that one year later, people are still living in makeshift shelters.

Home for a family
Home for a family
Boudhanath Stupa
Boudhanath Stupa
Timber supporting Kathmandu buildings
Timber supporting Kathmandu buildings
Bhaktapur
Bhaktapur
Rebuilding by hand
Rebuilding by hand

Still, there are parts of the cities that were not damaged, allowing you to experience their grandeur and the beauty.

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Plaza in Bhaktapur as seen from the balcony of the New Cafe Nuatapola, where we had a delicious lunch
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The Five Level Temple
The royal family's bathtub
The royal family’s bathtub
Complete with snake sculptures
Complete with snake sculptures

While preparing for this trip, I read about the living goddesses, known as the Kumari.  (The post  “Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Part Two has more information about the goddess.)

After our visit, all of the women in our group felt so sorry for this sad looking little girl, who was chosen when she was three years old.  I couldn’t help but compare her to my happy, active nieces.  Of course, we don’t know what other options were available to her.  Maybe sitting on a “throne” placing tikkas on the foreheads of gawkers was the better alternative.

The Kumari is not allowed to walk
The Kumari is not allowed to walk
Peter is receiving her blessing.
Peter is receiving her blessing.

Despite the hardships they have endured, the Nepali people’s beautiful spirit shines through.

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The hawkers are everywhere.  The problem is if you buy from one, you are mobbed by many others.  Still, I couldn’t resist this woman’s sweet  smile, especially after she told me if  I wanted to buy more than one, there would be no problem.

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Okay, so I bought more than one.  Sisters, cousins, nieces, friends…you know the drill…gifts are coming your way, but you may have to earn them.  There may be a quiz!

This next one was more of a hard sell.  “Madam, blessings for you, blessings for me”, chanted continuously while she walked beside me for the equivalent of five city blocks.

imageOkay, so I got blessed.  I now own the necklace the lady on the right is holding.  I expect those blessings to be coming my way!

Six Days In Happy Land

We are now in Nepal; quirky Internet connectivity made it difficult to do justice to beautiful Bhutan, so this post will be a quick collection of photos and memories of Happy Land.

THIMPHU

A few years ago, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer was chosen as one of the seven new wonders of the world.  Thimphu’s gigantic Buddha didn’t exist at that time.  If it had, I’m convinced Buddha would be giving Rio’s statue some serious competition.

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Buddha sits atop a mountain overlooking Thimphu

The base of the statue contains a temple, filled with hundreds of thousands of smaller Buddhas, butter lamps and butter sculptures. Yes, you read that right–sculptures are made of colored butter!

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Just the artwork on the base would get MY vote

Dedicated to teaching Bhutanese arts and crafts, this school focuses on 18 traditional crafts including painting, woodcarving, metal work and embroidery.

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Whenever I visit a country, particularly one whose economy is dependent on the tourist trade, I like to drop some dollars by buying gifts, so a stop in the school’s small shop was a definite requirement.

Handmade paper is another traditional Bhutanese craft.  We watched the entire process: the raw materials being delivered, heated, compressed, made into sheets and dried.

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Notice how hard these young women are working?  They were all smiling as they were lifting those heavy bundles!  And yes, I most certainly did make a purchase at their tiny gift shop.

The modern world is rapidly creeping into Bhutan.  Construction is everywhere.  But it isn’t just new buildings and new technology.  Since the introduction of television in 1999, the western world has slowly been influencing Bhutan’s youth.

Thimphu’s clock tower plaza, right beside our hotel was the site of what looked like an  auto exhibit, but it was a whole lot more.image

Young Bhutanese shed their traditional clothes, donning jeans and tee shirts to dance to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face”.   Unfortunately, my camera’s software is incompatible with my iPad, so you won’t be able to see the beautiful young girls I videoed dancing, but with any luck, I’ll be able to link a YouTube video of the boys doing their hip hop routine when I get back home.
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You may be wondering what kind of audience the entertainment drew. Well, wonder no more, because when my personal paparazzi used his long lens to capture me unawares, he also photographed the crowd.

A bit sparse, no?

PUNAKHA

Much of the road between Thimphu and Punakha is under construction, making travel slooooow and very dusty.  We stopped at the Dochula Pass on the way to and from Punakha.

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108 Stupas of the Dochula Pass

The Dochula Pass memorial honors the 15 Bhutanese that were killed fighting the Indian separatists from Assam.  The separatists were creeping across the Bhutanese border, creating training camps.  The fourth king actually led his troops into battle and was victorious.  No wonder he is so beloved!

The pass is 10,000 feet above sea level, so Tashi thought it would be good practice for the Tiger’s Nest if we took a hike in the Royal Botanical Park that adjoins the memorial.

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The rhododendron were in bloom–they weren’t bushes, they were trees.

The jacaranda were also in bloom, outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

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Notice the covered wooden bridge in the distance.

This is the entrance to the Palace’s temple.  Inside Tashi gave us a fantastic lecture about Buddhism, using the artwork that covered the temple walls as an ancient Power Point Presentation.image

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I was so glad to see these monks, enjoying themselves by the river bank outside the Palace of Great Happiness.

We also visited a nunnery located atop a mountain, where I purchased some bracelets from this sweet 21 year old nun, who spoke perfect English.

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Marilynn from San Francisco on the right, bracelets on the window sill on the left.

No visit to Punakha would be complete without a stop at the Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery.  To get there you need to hike through rice fields, a village and up a hill.

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The shingles on roofs are held down with stones instead of nails.
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These sweet villagers were happy to pose for me
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Christmas presents for everyone!

imageThis monastery was founded by Drupka Kinley, the Divine Madman, whose “Thunderbolt of Wisdom”, also known as his “Flaming Thunderbolt” , brought his own special form of enlightenment to local women.  Infertile couples visit the monastery where the woman is doinked on the head with a huge wooden “thunderbolt”.  Could that be the Bhutanese version of IVF?

The Divine Madman is the inspiration behind the artwork that festoons the area’s houses.

Although not part of the “official” itinerary, our wonderful guide thought we might enjoy a visit to the 17th century village of Rinchen Gong.  These villagers are definitely not used to having visitors!  Our arrival was quite an occasion, especially for the children, who chased our van up the steep dirt road.

Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
Like me, Jim enjoys photographing the locals
These boys loved seeing their pictures
These boys loved seeing their pictures
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.
Shy at first, they warmed up when they saw the shots.

Our last stop was in Paro, where we climbed to the Tiger’s Nest and visited Bhutan’s  very first temple.  It was built in the 7th century by Tibet’s great ruler, Songtsen Gampo, and it is where he pinned the left foot of an ogress who once covered all of Bhutan and part of Tibet.

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Jim, spinning the prayer wheel outside the sacred Kyichu Lakhang

 

 

The Tiger’s Nest

What a great way to end our stay in Bhutan–by hiking to Taktshang Monastery, more popularly known as The Tiger’s Nest.

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The Tiger’s Nest

If you were following Kate’s and William’s recent visit or happened to catch Bill Weir’s CNN show about Bhutan on The Wonder List, this will be a familiar sight.

What  you HAVEN’T seen is THIS shot.

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We range in age from 64 to 80, and the 80 year old could walk circles around the rest of us!

Peter’s watch has a cool feature.  It records the altitude, so these were our starting and high points.

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Our version of base camp

 

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The high point

So what’s the back story?  Whenever Tashi, our guide, relates a local legend to us, he starts it off by saying “It is believed”, so I will too.

It is believed that in the eighth century, the king of Bhutan was possessed by a demon. Padmasambhava, the great Indian Guru, who was visiting the king of Tibet at that time, heard about the demon. He turned his consort into a flaming tigress, flew to the mountain on her back, and converted the demon to Buddhism. After his exorcism, the king converted all of his subjects to Buddhism.

His work done, Guru Rimpoche, (Padmasambhava’s more easily pronounced name) meditated in a cave for either three years, or three months, or three years, three months, three weeks, and three days, depending on who is telling the story. He prophesied that a magnificent temple would be built on the site of the cave.

It took until the 17th century for the prophesy to be fulfilled, but it was well worth the wait.  In 1998, the temple complex was destroyed by fire, and was subsequently rebuilt.

The Tiger’s nest is Bhutan’s version of Mecca.  Most Bhutanese try to make a pilgrimage to the Tiger’s nest at least once in a lifetime.  It is believed that you shed your sins along the way.  Let me tell you, you shed SOMETHING as you make that climb.

Although there is an alternate mode of transportation,

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You could ride one of these guys to the top–BUT they tend to favor the edge of the road.

we chose the path most taken. It starts out wide, and then gets progressively narrower.

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There is a cafe located part way up the mountain, a good resting spot, or the end of the journey for those that find the altitude or the climb too strenuous.

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The view of the cafe from the Top

Was it a spiritual experience?  You bet!

Prayer flags
Prayer flags
I have no idea what these are
I have no idea what these are
Peter crossing the bridge
Peter crossing the bridge
Our departing view
Our departing view