Up to Thimpu, the modern capital of Bhutan

This really is a different country. The bus is new & comfortable with good shock absorbers and the roads are well made up. The sun comes out after a night of torrential rai; the mists hang on for a while and then let go their last clasp on the mountains to reveal blue sky!!!!! Rural & town houses are well constructed and well painted with beautiful paintings of spirits on their gables & facades.

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The road winds up and down around valleys, ravines & peaks. Cows munch grass contentedly & pictures of alpine meadows come to mind particularly when the sound of the occasional cow bell can be heard. The mountains drop straight down to little slivers of rivers as mountains stand majestically above. I pass a Shagri-la of farmhouses, villages & small towns. Yep, really is like this. How can Bhutan be one of the poorest countries in the world? It seems they sell hydro electric power to India!!??

After a smooth drive we arrive in Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital – so surprising: modern, clean, large (600,000 people live in Bhutan, slightly bigger than Wales and 200,000 li be in Thimpu. I visit the national textile museum, the fort, the main stupa and have a wander around town.20150331114251_IMG_2915 20150331101017_IMG_2870 20150331095035_IMG_2831 20150331082754_IMG_2747 20150331081605_IMG_2705 20150331081254_IMG_2690 20150331081348_IMG_2693

 

 

 

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Bhutan at last!!

Bhutan at last!!! But before we get there I have to share these two images with you – tea pickers along the road in one of the West Bengal tea plantations & the back kitchen of a town cafe selling chai & an assorted range of sweet, deep fried snacky things. Both equally atmospheric.

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So Bhutan……..It’s like entering a different country …derrrr. Immediately there is a lot less litter, cars are bigger, it feels cleaner, most houses are well maintained. The Bhutanese smile a lot more and the traditional costume for guys in particular is soooo smart. A good Scotsman would feel right at home here. These are a cross between a kilt & a set of overalls/dressing gown, mostly in very suave plain greys but the occasional man about town will go into loud stripes to catch the eye of the girls.

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This place is just a small border town but see what you think. Have tried to catch the feel of the place from the local cinema to shops & hotels. See what you think.

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The frontier town of Kalimpong

Leaving Gangtok today, I head for the border and leave the Kingdom of Sikkim. The road winds it way up the side of the mountain, crosses the ridge & winds its way down to the next boulder strewn river. The bus follows the Ranipul valley to the border.

My last afternoon back in West Bengal is spent in the scruffy boder town of Kalimpong stuck to the side of a mountain at 1,800 metres. The town was a frontier trading post for wool merchants coming from Tibet. It is a hotch potch of little narrow streets in the shadow of tall tatty buildings with busy people trading & going about their business from small stalls or workshops. In the people’s faces there is evidence dozens of cultures & religions. A spagetti of electricity wires & telephone cables tangle their way around the roads & streets. See what you think.

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So tomorrow I enter Bhutan. I have no idea what to expect but am so excited. There may be Wi-Fi, there may not. You may hear from me. You may not  😉 😕😢.

 

Feeling very spiritual in Gangtok

It is another long day’s drive along mountain roads to reach Gangtok. The least said the better although needless to say the rear suspension on the bus found it all too tough & gave up the ghost with a loud clunk. The driver got down to making emergency repairs, squatting underneath the rear axle, while the passengers exercised their posteriors and gained a short relief from the Brocking Bronko fairground ride.

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Today is the anniversary of Rama & Sita’s wedding. The Hindu celebrations started in the streets with bells, symbols & chants. It all happens at the temple & is over by midmorning. However it did get me up on the roof for dawn. The sky was clear and, yes, I saw sunrise over the Himalaya (the correct name for the whole range without an ‘s’) and over Gamtok. It was worth the wait. This is Kanchenjunga at 8,586m.20150328032354_IMG_1928 20150328000227_IMG_1877

 

Gamtok is the present day capital of Sikkim. Here are some images of the town centre (apologies, for the two that are a bit wonky because taken out of the front window) and some of the side streets.

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Rumtek Monastery was built in the 1960s and is the headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It an awesome building, its colourful facades towering over monks & novices & visitors & tourists. This is a bit of a Where’s Wally -find the single monk and find the group down the alley & try and work out what is going on.

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Drodul Chorten is a monastery and a stupa and it has 108 prayer wheels around the central chorten. It was built to commemorate the victory of good over evil. Chants, drums & bells could be heard from the prayer hall. Visitors could only listen from outside – only the Buddhist monks were taking part including these guys from Bhutan. Check out their robe gear – their’s is very David Beckham!

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In and around Pelling in the Himalayan foothills

Today is a chance to explore, in the bus & on foot, in & around the town of Pelling. The haze lifts for a bit and the sun warms the valleys & hillsides. The first stop is a village that dots its houses, shops & barns along the winding road.

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The next stop is a chance to walk around Kecheopelri or the Wishing Lake. A small cafe, a tatty gift shed, a tiny Buddhist prayer wheel & monastry huddle at the top of the path that leads to the lake itself – considered the most holy lake in Sikkim and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists & Hindus alike.

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Pemayangtse Monastery is the second oldest and is one of the 60 still active in the kingdom. As well as the male monkss, young boys age 7 to 13 attend for up to 3 years. Its members are devotees of a mystical type of Tantric Buddhism characterised by the red caps they wear.

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Banging and bashing into the Kingdom of Sikkim

Well, it started off fine. This was a 140 km drive north from Darjeeling to Pelling in Sikkim. The bus left at 8 in the morning in warm sunshine and it arrived in Pelling at 6 o’clock in the evening in the middle of a thunder & lighting storm. You do the maths – with an hour off for stops it took 9 hours. The average speed was 14 km per hour!!! The driver never got out of third the whole way.

The first part took me through tall broad leaf forests with dappled sunlight through high foliage onto grasses, ferns, mosses, bamboos. The road snaked its way through the forest. At one point teak trees appeared. It took a fair while as the bus was old & lacked any acceleration and the road was a single & a half carriage way,which meant vehicles had to slow right down to pass each other. But the scenery was wonderful and the road relatively smooth.

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Then when the bus dropped down through the trees to the border to enter Sikkim it all went very wrong and the real problems started. I will let the images tell the story. Needless to say, it can be summed up as the ‘rocky horror journey’ along pitted, unmade up roads where dust & shakes & rolls & grinding gears & exhaust fumes & horns hit the senses at every stage of this journey from Mad Max 3. I’ll let you use your imagination!!!

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Dawn over the Himalayas

At 4am a convoy of 100 or so Jeeps race up the narrow streets and lanes to Tiger Hill at 2,590 metres (that’s over 8,000 feet!) to watch the sun rise & to see its rays illuminate the west facing peaks of the Himalayas. Sadly the haze sploit the occasion. This what we were supposed to see:

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And here we all are not seeing it.20150323233845_IMG_1106 20150324002402_IMG_1160

After breakfast I set out to explore this town of 140,000 mostly Mongol origin people. Darjeeling is so near Tibet & Nepal & China that it i easy to forget that we are very much in India. I share the first part of my walk up the main street & along an open road with the joggers & speed walkers. The haze is really disconcerting because there is never a clear view down the hills (I’m going to start calling them mountains because that’s what they are) so the views out & between houses are simply blankets of grey.

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Being so near Nepal the locals are mostly Buddhist. There is a wonderful temple hidden in a grove of trees with a huge flutter of a thousand prayer flags, a clanginging of prayer bells & a haze of smell – smoke from hundreds of incense sticks.

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Darjeeling is a really busy place. The houses are multistoried as space is such a premium. Their frontages are in need of a good sand down and a bit of exterior emulsion applied. Streets are very narrow and wind through the buildings, the deep descents and steep slopes of the mountain sides. The most amazing sight is that of a handful of porters who climb these steep slopes with enormous weights on their backs and a strap attached around their foreheads. The most amazing was one with 3 large gas containers.

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Hundreds of Jeeps scurry through the maze of streets honking constantly to no avail as parked vehicles, pedestrians, huge potholes that could swallow a small car, market stalls (I saw a market being held on the railway line!!) or one of the many water lorries cause an obstruction & everything stops for 5 mins, the problem is sorted & the traffic moves on to the next obstruction a few hundred metres further on. The streets of the old town are full of stalls & bustling traders & tributaries &streams of busy shoppers who manage to snag up the vehicles that are also sharing the flow. Great fun buy everything is on the mountain so you know if you go down and some point it is a long slope or a steep climb back up.

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At this altitude the temperature has drops to a chilly 12 or so degrees so it’s goodbye to shorts & out with the fleece. Day & night the locals go about well wrapped up in coats, blankets & heavy woollen hats.

Tea plantations were visible through the mist in the distance but it is20150323085440_IMG_1095 20150323090132_IMG_1101

still hard to believe that this place is the source of some the world’s best tea. Tomorrow I move onto Spelling in the former Kingdom of Sikkim. Am hoping Wi-Fi is available!!