Paro, Bhutan

April 20, 2019

Well we couldn’t have planned a better last day in Bhutan. We started our day at 7:30 and drove to the base for our hike to Taksang Monastery, commonly known as the Tiger’s Nest. This is one of Bhutan’s best known sites and it the most important temple in the country. It is built on vertical cliffs just outside Paro.  It was first built in 1692. The altitude is 10,240 feet, about 300o feet above the level of Paro.

Both Tashi and Kinley accompanied us on this strenuous hike.  Our fitness trackers said it was 6.7 miles and 153 stories.  The uphill climb is estimated to take 3 hours.  It took us 2 1/2.  Our guides didn’t know until today how old we are, and they said it was quite an accomplishment for people of “our age”.  They thought we were younger. Of course, they are both 32!

The only way to get there is to hike, there is no road and the trail is very rough most of the way.  You can take a horse half way to where there is a cafeteria, there is a separate trail for the horses.  But no horse for us!  The rest of the trail is not accessible for horses. You can’t take the horses down from that area though. Here are Norm and Tashi starting out.

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IMG_7618And here is our goal!

These prayer wheels are made of recycled water bottles.

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Tashi is very good about taking pictures along the way.

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Our guide and driver.  They both made the hike with us!

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The paths through the forest are beautiful and actually serene in spite of other hikers.  There are the beautiful red rhododendrons and this waterfall along the way.  The trees with the “old man’s beards” signify that the air is pure enough for them to grow. There are prayer flags everywhere and the views of the valley and the mountains beyond are simply spectacular.  As we hiked to higher altitudes, the difference in the trees that grow there was also interesting.

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When we got to the top, we were tired but happy.  Again, no pictures in the actual temples but Tashi took us through all of them, explained the beautiful statues and paintings and all of the history of this amazing place.  For us, it was hard to imagine how it was even built back in the 17th century. It is built into the vertical mountain face. It has suffered two fires, one in 1998 when a monk dies trying to save the priceless artifacts here. 20 monks live here now. The monastery buildings consist of four main temples and residential shelters ideally designed by adapting to the rock (granite) ledges, the caves and the rocky terrain.

All the buildings are interconnected through steps and stairways made in rocks. There are a few rickety wooden bridges along the paths and stairways also to cross over. The temple at the highest level has a statue of Buddha and there are other symbolic statues and paintings too. I won’t describe them all here but you probably can get some history on line.  Each building has a balcony, which provides lovely views of the scenic Paro valley down below.

All along the way, we got amazing pictures.

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But, like in all the temples, no cameras were allowed.  Kinley stayed with our things while we toured all of the temples with Tashi, who, as always, provided so much information!

On the way down, we were glad to have our trekking poles! It took about 2 hours to go down.  Norm was feeling it in his thighs, but mine were OK, guess they got strengthened by all of the “squatty potties”, some here, some in China and some in Nepal.

Here we are at the bottom, no worse for wear!

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We went back to Paro for lunch and it was delicious as they have all been. The cabbage dumplings they call momo are outstanding and all of the vegetables great.  Asparagus is in season here and it is served at almost every meal.  They slice it and usually roast or saute it.  Yum.

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Then we went to a farmhouse that provides hot stone baths which Tashi highly recommended after the hike.  Here is the owner explaining the process. Tashi had to book the time because it takes about 5 hours to heat the stones on the wooden fire. The hot stone baths can be found in farmhouses and hotels and are much less expensive in the farmhouses. At this particular hot stone bath, there were several rooms in a wooden shed out in the courtyard. Our room had two wooden tubs, and looked a little bit like open coffins!  Essentially they boil herbs for 12 hours and put them in cold water. They then drop the heated stones into the water and it sizzles as it heats up.  If you want more heat, all you have to do is call out for hot stones and they will drop more into the water which is at the end outside the baths.

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We had a 45 minute soak which was absolutely marvelous. The owner was going to serve us butter tea, but we declined, and headed back to the main street of Paro to do some last minute shopping before heading back to our hotel for dinner and packing.

Here’s our total fitness tracking for the day!

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Our flight to Bangkok where we will rejoin our Around the World cruise, leaves Paro at 10 and we need to be at the airport at 7.  Tashi and Finley will pick us up.  The hotel is just outside the airport.

Norm got this shot of the airport runway.  It should be an exciting take off if it is anything like the landing!

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This whole trip was wonderful in every way!  Hope the posts reflect our joy in being able to experience it.

Posted in April, Asia, Excursions, World Cruise 3 | 3 Comments

Punakha- Paro, Bhutan

April 19, 2019

Last night’s full moon was beautiful as was today’s sunrise in Punakha.  We stayed at the Drubchu Resort, which I wouldn’t particularly recommend.  The gardens were beautiful but the hotel wasn’t the best.

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They did have a safe, but Norm could have carried it out without any problem at all!

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Here are some pictures from our breakfast table window and from around the grounds.  The banana and lime trees were cool.

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When we checked in yesterday, I got a call from the spa to see if I wanted to book anything.  I didn’t because it was already late in the day.  But look at these prices..

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The most expensive is a 90 minute massage for 2350, which is about $34 US.  Wow, on the ship that would be 10 times as much.

We set out on our way to Paro. It is the same road that we took already and it will be about a 4 hour trip.  But first we are stopping at the Royal Botanical Gardens for the Rhododendron Festival.

This is a monastery for nuns high up on the hills.  It is under renovation now, and we didn’t visit, but it looked like it would be interesting.

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More cows in the road.

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We got to the Botanical Garden before the festivities started, Tashi said the sense of time in Bhutan is a bit off! So first we explored the small museum they have here and saw the many school children who were part of the festival as well as some of the families who came to enjoy it.

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This was an interesting exhibit.  When you went in, there was a black curtain and when you pulled it back, you saw yourself in a mirror!  True, that. 

While in the museum, the Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Dorji Dhradhul, approached us to get feedback about our experience and our guide. We had glowing remarks and got his business card so we can send him an email when we finish the trip. He told us that they are continuously trying to improve although most of their feedback is positive.

On his card, the motto says “Taking Tourism to the Top” and on the back were these 5 items under the topic
“Welcome to Bhutan” 

  • Birthplace of the Gross National Happiness
  • Only carbon-negative economy in the world
  • Young democracy gifted to the people by peerless Kings
  • Mysterious (talking and flying statue, the snowman – yeti)
  • Use of tobacco and plastic in public banned

Tashi said that plastic will be banned entirely very soon.

The Agriculture Minister of Bhutan was the distinguished visitor and he gave his speech in their language and also in English.  Everyone here is very proficient in English. There were ritual dances and performances and we were fascinated by the whole thing. By happy co-coincidence, I sat next to two women from the local village.  The one sitting next to me was educated in France and speaks many languages.  She worked at the World Bank for 3 years.  The other woman was her sister. They were so informative about the customs, the country and we had so much in common in our beliefs.  It was a wonderful part of the day. And it turned out that the woman sitting next to me was the aunt of the leader of the village and a classmate of the Director of Tourism! She had a great sense of humor.  She said that with the men’s national dress, it is a good thing that they need to wear the shawls for rituals because it covers them up.  She said “if they had something to show, it would be all right!” The second photo shows what she means. The white shawls are worn by the men in all fortresses, and for all festivals and rituals.

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They are very proud of this 12th grader who is developing sustainable farming techniques.

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Here are some of the festivities.

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We were ushered into one of the tents when we arrived and so had a very good view of everything. We were served their butter tea (ugh) and some rice.

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We walked to the pond and saw some weaving and other crafts and games on the way – even archery. Sadly, this is the only rhododendron we saw, it is too early for the rest. The women I was talking to want to try to get the festival date moved until all are in bloom. There are 29 different varieties here, and we did see lots of red ones along the road.

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Then we continued on our way to Paro.  This time I did get some shots of the horses.

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We stopped at the pass and got a few more of the Himalayas, I never get tired of looking at those spectacular mountains.

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As we came into Paro, I got some pictures of those roadside signs I posted about before.

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When we passed between Thimphu and Paro going both directions, Tashi had to show our papers to immigration.

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The mountain views in Paro are also beautiful.

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After our lunch in Paro, we went to the museum.  We had to wait a while because they had a power outage.  The actual museum was damaged in the 2011 earthquake and is being renovated, so the contents were moved to a nearby building.  They actually make you put your cameras and phones in a locker here, no photos inside.  It was really interesting, with walls of all the masks used in the dances and lots of information about the birds and animals in Bhutan.

This is the museum that is being renovated – it was the old watchtower.

We continued on to the fortress.  It is smaller than the other two we saw in Thimphu and Punakha but equally impressive. Here’s the admission prices – all of ours are included in the daily charge we paid.

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One of the young monks invited us to light one of the lamps and make our wishes.

We walked back across the bridge in the picture.

IMG_7580IMG_7585IMG_7589The flag of Bhutan.

Our room at the Tashi Namgay.  Very beautiful place.

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Resting up after a great dinner.  Tomorrow we climb to the Tiger’s Nest (Taksang Monastery).

Posted in April, Asia, Excursions, World Cruise 3 | Leave a comment

Thimphu to Punakha, Bhutan

April 18, 2019

The morning started wonderfully since it is our older son, Adam’s birthday!  Well, it is April 18 in Bhutan, but this was a good time to Facetime with him – he was in California –  to wish him the happiest of birthdays.  He is also my web guru and was the one who initially set up my blog, and now my website.  Happy 36th, Adam!

Here is a picture of the sitting Buddha site we visited yesterday.  It shows how it was cut into the mountain and the area still under construction.

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After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel (and look at our view from the hotel this morning)

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and began the 3 hour, 71 kilometer drive to Punakha.  This was the first capital of Bhutan before it was moved to Thimphu.  The road we were taking is the only road to Punakha and was the first road in the country and only built in 1961.  It is a very winding road over the mountain. We saw cows in the road, yaks on the side of the road, and I wish I had been quicker with the camera because about 5 small horses ran right next to my car window.  Maybe I will catch them on the way back tomorrow.

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We reached the Dochula Pass in about 45 minutes.  This is the highest point of the road and definitely closes in the winter.  There was a wonderful view of the Himalayas from this viewpoint.  We were invited in to the small restaurant for tea and a snack.  There are 108 stupas built here in memory of the soldiers who were killed defending Bhutan from invaders in 2003. This was by order of the 4th King w who personally helped to build them.

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After this visit, we continued to Punakha. Tashi told us that the hotel we are staying at has limited beds for guides and asked if we would mind if we stopped there for him to put his bag on a bed so that he would have one for the night.  Interesting.. and OF COURSE we didn’t mind.  In fact, we probably would have paid for a bed!

The hotel is the Drubchuku Resort.  We were not checking in until later but we did get to see the beautiful gardens. This pictures are especially for you, Chris and Sandy!

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As we reached the town, Tashi led us on a hike through the rice and wheat fields.  This is the area of the Chime Lhakhang or the “Temple of Fertility” which we visited after our hike.  On the way, we started to see the many phalluses that are painted on many buildings, and replicas are in most shops.

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This symbol is called the “Magical Thunderbolt” based on Lama Drukpa Kuenley.  He is called the Divine Madman because when he first came to spread Buddhism, he went around the town naked and did a lot of things that made people wonder if he was really a holy man.  The legend says that he subdued a demon with his phallus – the Magical Thunderbolt – chained the demon and turned him into a black dog.  So there is the only black stupa on the grounds of this temple. We are sitting under the Bodhi tree.

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Women who have difficulty getting pregnant come to this temple to pray and there is even a book with pictures of babies who were born after the mother’s visit to the temple.

We had lunch at the Babee Restaurant.  Here is the can of Diet Coke I had!

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From the restaurant, we visited the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. It is 180 meters long and spans the Po Chhu river. Tashi said Norm directed him to make this heart below the bridge, but of course he was joking!

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From here we walked to the Punakha Dzong or Fortress.  Like the one in Thimphu, this is the center of the government here. It is one of the most beautiful and ornate, but we again are only able to take pictures from the outside.

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There are 3 courtyards and the building dates back to the 1600’s.  There were no nails at all used in the construction.IMG_7409

When we got to the third courtyard and were ready to enter the temple, we found that there was a ceremony going on inside, so we waited in the courtyard. When it was over, the monks all filed out and we entered. Boys can choose school or becoming monks as early as age 6!

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When we left the temple, we crossed this bridge to the other side of the river.

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There are lots of dogs everywhere, Tashi says they are all vaccinated for rabies.  They seem to sleep all day and bark all night.  Loved this little puppy!

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Also, there is a strict building code so that all buildings look very similar.

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This guy let me take a picture of his t-shirt.

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The King and his family are well loved here.  Tashi said that the top three students (by the tests done in school) get to visit the King and get a full scholarship to study abroad. People can also visit the King at specific times to discuss issues.

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Tomorrow we will travel to Paro.  We need to take the same road over the mountains and through Thimphu.  Lucky for us, this is the time of the 3 day rhododendron festival, so we will stop at the botanical garden on the way to attend the festival before going on to Paro and seeing the sights there.


Posted in April, Asia, Excursions, World Cruise 3 | 3 Comments

Thimphu, Bhutan

April 17, 2019

Yesterday I mentioned the old iron bridge and the new bridge – here is a picture Norm took of me on the new bridge!

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And here are some pictures of our hotel room. 

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We dinner at the hotel and there was no alcohol – Tuesday is a dry day here! This is an all inclusive trip so everything including all of our meals are covered, but not drinks.

In the lobby, there are some small booklets and they describe a lot of classes that are offered in the area, everything from painting, basketry, weaving, etc..

I found this one – Not one I would be interested in, but hey, I guess they get enrollees!

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As I mentioned in my previous post, this is a very clean town and most of the buildings are pretty modern. But this one is right behind the hotel.

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Tashi and Kinley picked us up at 9:30 after we had our breakfast at the hotel. 

Our first visit was to the National Memorial Chorten, which is what they call the stupa in Bhutan. It honors the third king of Bhutan who is credited with unifying the country.  When he died, his wife had this temple built in his honor. When visiting these temples, women must have arms and legs covered, and for reasons we don’t understand, men must either have their arms and legs covered, or if wearing a short sleeved shirt, it must have a collar.

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The second picture is of the giant prayer wheels.  There were a lot of elderly people sitting in this area.  Tashi told us that working people drop their elderly parents off at these temples where they spend the day in the company of others!

Next we visited the giant sitting Buddha.  This temple is still unfinished inside and even around the grounds.  It was completed in 2015 and Tashi said it is the highest sitting Buddha in the world.  It sits high up on a hill and is visible from most of the town. The platform is gold tiles. You can also see the views of the town and the many steps to climb up. Now people can drive around to the top, as we did, but when it is all complete, everyone will walk both ways. We walked down the stairs.

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The third place we visited was Changangkha Lhakhang, which was built in the 12th century, but had two different fires and was rebuilt each time.  It honors the monk who spread Buddhism to Bhutan. Here there is a 360 degree view of town.  This is also the temple known for blessing babies and we saw several of them during our visit. You can see the mud and stone construction.  You can’t take pictures inside any of these temples.

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Bhutan is a democracy since 2008 and is  a constitutional monarchy with a king.  There are two equal positions under the king, one is the Prime Minister and the other is the head monk. The king is highly respected but the government is run by the council of ministers headed by the Prime Minister. This is the King’s palace.  You are not allowed to take pictures close to the palace nor are you allowed to point at the palace or really at anything or anyone in and around the temples.

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The national animal here is quite unusual and also rare. It is called the takin and is native to Bhutan.  It has the head of a goat and the body of a cow.  It is very muscular.

We visited the mini zoo to see the takin.  There are also some deer there, and it is really a large wooded area surrounded by fencing with plenty of places  for these animals to roam.

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Next we visited the Folk Heritage Museum.  Tashi is showing us how they made the mud walls and the next picture shows how thick they are.  Many wonderful examples of saddles, baskets, clothing, etc., are inside the museum, but we could only take pictures on the outside.  The kitchens were always on the top floor of the homes so if there was a fire, hopefully it could be put out before the lower floors were involved.

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IMG_7159This was an outside bath which was kind of like the hot stone massages of today, the hot stones both heated the water and massaged the bather!

Lunch at a local restaurant was next.  Tashi and Kinley do not eat with us. And Kinley jumps out of the car to open the door for me every time, while Tashi insists on holding any bags when we make purchases.  They are just great.

After lunch we visited the school for the arts, where we saw students doing clay sculpting, woodworking, sewing and weaving. There is a celebration at the school tomorrow so many students were cleaning up the school and the grounds. They have the sewing machines with the foot pedals.

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The next stop was the textile museum – and it was so impressive. These cloths take 7 months to weave.

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We did some shopping at an area with small shops in wooden structures that lined the street.

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The last stop of the day was at the Tashi Cho Dzong, or the fortress that holds the most important temple here in the capital and also all the government buildings.  Tashi had to wear a special shawl there and we couldn’t enter until 5:30 after all of the workers had gone for the day.  All of the important ceremonies are held here.  Again, no pictures inside, but it is huge and we could take these in the courtyard.

IMG_7226IMG_7227This is the Parliament building which is just across from the fortress.

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A very full, fun and educational day. In some places, Tashi had to show the papers that we were visitors that had paid the daily fee, in others, he paid which also comes out of the daily fee.

Tomorrow we leave Thimphu and travel to Punakha.



Posted in April, Asia, Excursions, World Cruise 3 | 3 Comments

Paro and Thimphu, Bhutan

April 16, 2019

We left the Hyatt Regency in Kathmandu this morning after an early breakfast.  Here’s the view from our room. The red and yellow building is a monastery.

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We were traveling business class to Paro Bhutan and so we had access to the executive lounge, a good place to wait for our flight. The check in and immigration was relatively quick and we had a couple of hours before the flight.

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Once we started on the flight, we realized that the Himalaya mountain range was visible from the other side of the plane, so Norm kept getting up to get these shots. Just spectacular.  An additional shot of Mount Everest is the last one, taken by someone on that side of the plane and shared with us.

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Paro airport is known to be the most dangerous landing in the world. It is in a valley surrounded by mountains that are 18,000 feet high. There are only a few select pilots that are certified to land here and the flights are only allowed under visual meteorological conditions and only from sunrise to sunset.  It was thrilling to be sure!

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Our Bhutan visa papers were checked in Nepal so there was a typical immigration check here which was very quick.  It is a pretty small airport with only two airlines.  Ours was Druk Air which is owned by the Bhutan government. There are 3 other airports in Bhutan but this is the only international airport.

We were met by our guide, Tashi and our driver Kinley. Here is what the airport looks like.

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We set out for the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu.  The trip was about 90 minutes and we made several stops. On the way, Tashi gave us lots of information about Bhutan.  He also welcomed us with the traditional white scarf (Tashi Khada) and said what a privilege it is to have us visit.

Paro is 7200 feet above sea level and the capital city is 7550 feet above sea level. Bhutan has a population of 800,000 of which 180,000 live in the capital city, Thimphu. There is no pollution here and in many ways is the exact opposite of Kathmandu, Nepal.  You can see for miles and to the bottom of the rivers!

Bhutan has only been open to outsiders since 1974 and only got television and phones in 1999. Now the country is quite modern in this infrastructure.

70 % of the country is covered by forests.

Their only exports are fruits, wood and electricity.  Hydropower is the main source of income and tourism is second.

All tourists must pay US$250 per person per day ($200 in the off season)  with a US $40/30 surcharge per person for us since we are in a group of one/two. This covers accommodation, transport in Bhutan, a guide, food and entry fees. Their motto is high value, low impact (on the country). 30% of this money goes to free health care, free education, poverty relief, and infrastructure for Bhutan’s people. And it shows!

I read about the happiness index and asked Tashi about it.  They are known as the happiest country in the world and in fact measure the  Gross National Happiness Index. The phrase ‘gross national happiness’ was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 when he declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” If people are happy, GDP will increase too.

There is no immigration at all here. Many people from India (they have a good relationship with India and those visitors do not pay tax) come to work on projects here but must return to their home when the work is complete.

Smoking is not allowed and there is a huge fine if you are caught. There are small signs everywhere about health and safety.  I told Norm they kind of reminded me of the old Burma Shave signs which he said he never saw in person since he grew up in NY and they never had a car!

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This is an earthquake area and no buildings are more than 6 stories high.  They are mostly built of wood and mud to withstand any shaking. Here is an example of a small one.  In the cities they do use different construction for the bigger apartments and businesses.

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We stopped at an ancient temple with an iron bridge that has been there since the 15th century.  It was built by a Tibetan saint and engineer who supposedly built 108 (the holy number) of iron bridges throughout Tibet and Bhutan.  Here it is with the stone entrance – no one can walk on it now but up until a few years ago you could. They have build another suspension bridge to get you over to the temple.

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The prayer wheels, which we also saw in Nepal, contain 1 million of the prayer that is written on the outside, so if you spin it once it is like you prayed 1 million times.  The small white stupas (Tsa-Tsa, pronounced with a silent T– yes, Tashi spells everything for me) are seen everywhere, in the rocks along the road, and near prayer wheels like these. They represent prayers for another person, living or dead.  Sometimes ashes are incorporated.

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Both Tashi and Kinley are wearing the traditional dress for men, the gho. It is also the school uniform for boys.  The dress for women is the kira, also the girls school uniform.

Here are Norm and Tashi and you can see the traditional dress. and here we are in front of the temple.IMG_6999

70% of the people here are Buddhists, the rest Christian and Hindu.

The national language is Dzongkha but everyone learns English starting in primary school.  Tashi and Kinley speak
English perfectly.

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When we arrived in Thimphu, we drove down the main street and went for lunch to the Peace and Harmony restaurant.  I am going to love the food.

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It is the first time I tasted fiddlehead fern.  Delicious.

You will see that a symbol widely used in Bhutan is the penis.  They say you never forget your first one!! Here are two in the restaurant.  I will see what Tashi says about it – but apparently the symbol dates back to a 15th century lama.  I will try not to overdo it with this in the posts but it does present a certain fascination!

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Archery is the most popular sport here, and after lunch we went to an archery match.  This was like nothing I have ever seen before – the distance to the target is 150 yards – 1 and a half times the length of our football field – incredible!  They use bamboo bows. When an arrow hits the target they gather and do a kind of chant and dance!

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After the archery we had a walk through town.  There are no traffic lights and everyone must cross the street at the crosswalk – they call it the zebra crossing because of the stripes! The car traffic is directed by an officer in a booth. The clock tower in the center of town and all of the buildings are just beautifully painted in Bhutanese style.

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Norm went to a money changer and when he asked Tashi to be sure  he got the right amount (about 69 Nigultrum to 1 US dollar), Tashi said that no one counts money here, everyone is so honest!

We are staying at the Ramada hotel and will be sightseeing in this area tomorrow.  Stay tuned!

 

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Kathmandu, Nepal

April 15, 2019

It is our last day in Nepal, hard to believe it went so fast, and we had so many experiences.

Today, Sagar and Zyanu picked us up just before 9 for our day.  As usual, Sagar was prepared with the weather, the sunrise and sunset information and the plan for the day.  He is so very organized – a really wonderful man and guide.  He has enriched our visit for sure.

Our first visit today was to the Pashupatinath Temple.  Dedicated to Lord Shiva, Pashupatinath is one of the four most important religious sites in Asia for devotees of Shiva and it is the most important in Nepal. It is the largest temple complex in Nepal and  it stretches on both sides of the Bagmati River which is considered holy by Hindus. Monday is the day that is dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva and so there were lines of people to get into the temple for worship. They believe that if you worship on the deity’s special day, all your dreams will be fulfilled. As in most Hindu temples, only Hindus are allowed in, but the outsides of the temples are so interesting in and of themselves.

You must be born into Hinduism, there are no actual converts although some may choose to practice the religion.

This Temple and the entire grounds is a World Heritage site.  It is the site of cremation for Hindus.  We witnessed the entire process of cremation from across the river.  In Nepal you are allowed to take photos and videotape the cremation so we did both. To the Hindus, death is an important part of the journey of life so they do not object to people viewing the cremation. You are not allowed to film in India and also no women can attend in India at the Ganges river site, but they can attend in Nepal.

There are three places that people are cremated here.  On the 24th of January 2016, Pashupati Area Development Trust inaugurated the first functioning modern electric crematorium in Nepal at the traditional cremation site near the Pashupatinath temple. It is cheaper and less time consuming.  There is a non Hindu site and then the Hindu site which you can only access through the temple itself.

Sagar explained the process to us. Cremation is done 24 hours after the death. The body is wrapped and brought by bamboo stretcher to the site. Most Hindu people choose to die at home.  If the person dies in the hospital, a metal stretcher is used, and if they die outside of the jurisdiction a casket is used but the body is removed from the casket at the site.

The oldest son is the one that lights the flame, after the feet are washed and a ritual water or milk is put on the lips.  This represents the last act. If there are no sons, a worker at the site performs this ritual. Women are not allowed to light the funeral pyre.

After the cremation, the ashes are put into the river.  Some Hindus put some ashes in a small urn and do a separate ceremony one year after death.

Here are some photos of this unique experience.

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Many families then meet with Brahmins and prepare offerings,  Men shave their heads.  Here are some of those families.

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The temple grounds have monkeys who are always looking for food.

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There are men dressed as Brahmin priests and we gave them a donation for these pictures.

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The lines to get into the temple were very long.

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Sagar told us that if a woman has her sari over her head, she is from India.  They don’t do that in Nepal.   After any rituals, people apply red powder in the forehead as symbol of good luck and mark of celebration. As guests are regarded god in Nepal, visitors are often welcomed in the house putting red dot in the forehead. Married women have the powder extending up into the hair and widows use yellow powder.

Here are some other pictures from the temple area.

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These colors are used for the forehead during festivals.

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Any time  you see a statue of a bull, it is a Shiva temple.

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Sagar told us that Hindus and Buddhists think of life as a piano – the white keys represent what is good in life and the black ones represent our mistakes or what is not so good, and that life is a balance of both. An interesting way to look at things. 

We went on to the Boudhanath Stupa, where we were last night for dinner. This time Sagar led us through the complex and then we had some free time in the area that surrounds the Stupa – a mixture of cafes, shops and restaurants.

Last night’s dinner place.  And these are our food preference instructions with a thank you that Sagar gave us to take to the restaurant.  Most people speak English, but just in case!   Yes, he is that detailed.

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The Stupa is the largest in the world and one of the most flourishing centers of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. There is nothing inside the Stupa itself, it is solid.

IMG_6806IMG_6810IMG_6811This is a type of stick used for incense.

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After this visit, we said goodbye to Sagar. Zyanu will pick us up for transport to the airport tomorrow morning for our trip to Bhutan.

Sagar drew a detailed map for us of the Thamel  area.  He thought we would enjoy going there for shopping, visiting the Dreams Garden and perhaps dinner.  He also reminded us that the scarf we were given on our arrival to Nepal was to wish us good travel, good luck and good health.  We thanked him so much for all he did for us. We will never forget him or our wonderful trip in Nepal.

After a short rest, we  took a taxi to Thamel and yes, the taxi driver was continuously dodging potholes and other traffic.

Here are some pictures of the beautiful Dreams Garden.

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We really enjoyed walking around this area.  There were all kinds of shops including those for people who will be doing a lot of trekking or mountain climbing.

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Lots of beads everywhere.  These rough type ones are the Hindu beads. 

The smooth ones are used by Buddhists.

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Every time we left the hotel, I meant to get a picture of this – the OTHER KFC.  Kathmandu Food Café!

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On to Bhutan tomorrow!  More adventures await.



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Nagarkot-Kathmandu, Nepal

April 14, 2019

After our NY eve dinner at the Mystic Mountain hotel, we had the NY day brunch before Sagar and Zyanu picked us up for the day.   Here is the menu for the dinner last night.

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The lobby was decorated for New Year.

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We didn’t see a sunset or a sunrise because of the cloud cover, but we did get glimpses of the Himalayas when the clouds momentarily cleared.

Here are some shots of the hotel and some of the views. Beautiful place.

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And I realized that I never posted a picture of Zyanu.

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The plan for the day was to go trekking. We left the hotel close to 10 AM.  Sagar is a trekking guide, a mountain guide and a city guide and is certified in all of them.  He came equipped with trekking poles for us as we were doing a 7 K trek on a pretty rocky road downhill from the beautiful hotel.  Zyanu was going to be somewhere behind us in case we got tired part way through.  The dirt road had some traffic but not too bad, buses, cars and motorbikes were all traveling on the same road, and there were other people walking as well.  It took us through farmland on magnificent terraces.  All of the planting and harvesting is done by hand of course, these are hard working people.  Sagar says they start the children very young in having them carry large loads and building up their stamina to the extreme.  This is why the people from this area make great Gorka soldiers.

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This is what the road and the terraces look like. There were markers at every kilometer. The photos don’t really show how immense and beautiful the terraces are.

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Of course we spotted lots of animals on our way.  I loved this friendly goat.

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So did Sagar.

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And he wanted to follow Norm!

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Many of the houses are plastered with cow dung on the outside.  This keeps the flies out of the house!

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We did see the marijuana plants on the side of the road.

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Beer bottles are turned in for 5 rupees each, we saw several piles of them.

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This is a house with a corn drying kind of tree like structure next to it. They then grind the corn to make a roti bread.

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We finished the trek by about noon and headed back to Kathmandu.  Lots of traffic again with people standing in the back of trucks and on the tops of buses.  This is apparently not allowed in Kathmandu city but in the outer areas you see it all the time. The buses are packed with people. And with the holiday today, the amusement park was busy and there were many people walking too.

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And, of course, there were the cows in the road. This one had the traffic policeman lead him off.

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You see families of 4 on motorbikes, and Norm was able to capture this picture of the dog.

We had the rest of the afternoon free, and I had booked a spa appointment – they had a “wonderful woman” special – scrub, massage, facial and steam and sauna.  I was indulged for over 2 hours and the cost with tax and tip was only $93.  Wonderful way to spend the afternoon.  Norm went to the pool until a small rain shower when he returned to the room.

Everyone is so friendly here.  The greeting is Namaste, and today people wished US a happy new year!

Sagar gave us the name of a restaurant nearby for dinner.  It is overlooking the Boudha Stupa.  We walked there, back roads that were very muddy and slippery, but an adventure for sure.  This area is on our schedule for a visit with Sagar tomorrow, so we just walked around the square and then went to the restaurant.

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The walk back in the dark was interesting, should have brought the flashlight they provide in the room with us!

Tomorrow we will see some more sights in Kathmandu, including this temple.



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Kathmandu-Nagarkot, Nepal

April 13, 2019

I have to say that I never get tired of noodles for breakfast!

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After breakfast, Sagar and our intrepid driver Zyanu picked us up at the Hyatt.  We checked out as we are going to Nagarkot for one night and returning to the Hyatt tomorrow.  As he did yesterday, Sagar had a paper prepared and told us the temperature expectations, the sunrise and sunset time and the plan for the day.

Here are some pictures from our trip there.

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In case you think this country isn’t tech savvy – look at what they have in some of their buses.  Others are very primitive.

A few things we have learned from Sagar – there are 3 types of temples here.

Pagodas, shikharas and stupas.  I will highlight each one.

IMG_6311This one is a stupa

IMG_6474-copyThis one is a shikhara

IMG_6457-copyThis one is a pagoda

There are 3 important Hindu gods:

Brahma, the creator, Bhisnu/Bishnu, (or Vishnu), the protector and Shiva, the destructor (of bad people)

There are 5 elements of importance in Buddhism – air, water, fire, land and sky (space).

The dorje is the symbol of power. We are standing in front of one in this picture.

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The Buddhist chant in Nepal (and we hear it playing in many places) is om ma ne pad me hum which means “I wish, no one has suffering in their life”.

Our first stop was at Bhaktapur. This is the former capital of the valley and was an important city on the trade route to Tibet.  It has preserved its character better than the other two cities in the Kathmandu Valley due to its more isolated location.  It is about 14 km east of Kathmandu.

We really hit a great time to be here.  It is Nepal’s New Year!

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We passed through the city gates and the first thing we saw was a goat.  Sagar told us that due to the festival that was taking place, this goat was about to be sacrificed.  Many activists want animal sacrifice to be banned but that hasn’t happened so far.  108 is considered a sacred number in Hinduism and Buddhism, so for festivals, 54 goats and 54 bulls might be sacrificed.  Others sacrifice chickens or ducks. For those who don’t believe in animal sacrifice, they use the coconut water and sometimes eggs for the sacrifice. This woman has that type of sacrifice prepared.

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Participants believe that animal sacrifices to the Hindu goddess Gadhimai will end evil and bring prosperity.

Warning:  we did take some pictures of this, and I might want to become a vegetarian now (almost there anyway).  I was very sad to see it but recognize that it is part of their culture.

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We later saw a chicken and a boy holding a duck that was to be sacrificed.  Sagar did become a vegetarian after witnessing animal sacrifice.

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I cannot imagine that these two boys want their duck to be killed.

Anyway, on a brighter note, this area is known for its yogurt, which is called King Curd.  Kids here say it should be called President Curd now since they don’t have a king any more!

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There are three main squares here and we visited them all. Durbar Square is the main square of the city and with the festival going on, Sagar took us quickly through to the other two first. We will return later.

At Taumadhi Square, the second most important, there are many stone spouts, and fabulous wood and stone carvings like the ones we saw in Kathmandu yesterday. These are made of solid pieces of stone or wood. This area was hit hard by the 1934 earthquake and the 2015 one.  Sagar says that it is predicted that earthquakes come every 80 years here.  Most of the destruction in 1934 wasn’t reconstructed since historical significance wasn’t well understood then. Now, tourist entrance fees are collected for preservation of the culture, cleaning the city, and making it one of the best tourist destinations in Nepal.

Today was the festival of Biska Jatra (New Year) and they raise a long pole with tree leaves attached – 90 degrees. This is done with ropes and logs – so amazing to see how they do it. It remains up for three days to a week and when it falls, it symbolizes the destruction of evil. We stayed in this area for almost 2 hours to watch this event.  The place was packed with families, and there was a constant drum and cymbal serenade during the raising of the pole. It was like NY Eve in Times Square with the crowds!

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When the pole was all the way up, there was a huge cheer from the crowd, including the ones on the building in the distance!

Some of the people and families we saw:

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This chariot will be driven around the squares during the festival.

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Other sights in the squares included the shops and many temples, some reconstructed, some still in pieces and some that withstood the earthquakes. The history here is just amazing.

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We asked about the 6 sided star that looks like the symbol or Judaism, but here it stands for education – 6 stages of wisdom.

The other ones are the om, and the backward swastika, which in Buddhism symbolizes the footprints of the Buddha and nothing to do with Hitler’s use.

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IMG_6363This is the traditional dress of the Newari (one of the ethnic groups) women, the red and black sari.  People are now wearing them a bit shorter, so this woman has tattoos on her legs below where the sari ends.  It is hard to see in this picture, Sagar says it is now common to see.

IMG_6360This is the offering you see in front of homes and shops.  First, cow dung is spread, then flowers, fruits, etc., are placed on the lotus stones.

This temple is guarded by many animals, each one is said to be 10 times stronger than the former.

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This young girl was having photos taken. We think she is in contention to be the next living goddess.

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The water area was surrounded by cobras, very common to see them as they are valued by Hindus as protective.

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This is a lingum, it symbolizes the phallus and vagina as no life would be possible without both.  It is a common sight in the temple areas.

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This is the gate to the royal palace.  The king wanted to have 108 windows but had to settle for 54 as the building wasn’t big enough for 108.

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We saw lots of  houses that you could see had been divided, not physically but with a different look.  Sagar described how sons live with their parents but reach a point where they don’t want to live so close, so parents divide the house to provide a separate space for each son.

Markets are always interesting.

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They use mostly mustard oil here for cooking and even for skin (never knew there was such a thing). Before electricity, they used it for oil in their lamps.  It is still used at some temples.

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The last picture is beaten or flattened rice.

Rice leaves are also used to make these mats.

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This is the famous peacock window.

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IMG_6562-copyThis is pottery square, because of the festival no one was making pottery but this woman was lining up some of the small bowls.

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Sagar is vigilant about buying us water and also gives us hand sanitizer all the time. He has amazing energy and it is good that we are in good shape because we are on the go all day.  So much to see and learn.

We headed out of Bhaktapur to our next hotel in Nagarkot. They have different license plates here.  The green ones are for tourist vehicles which Sagar says have top priority for everything because tourism is such an important part of their economy.

He warned us that the roads would be very bumpy on the way to Nagarkot. That was an understatement to be sure.  If we thought they were bad, wow, these were terrible.  We went from 3000 feet above sea level to 6886 feet and the roads were dirt, pot holed, windy and dusty.  When motorbikes or buses came the other direction, there were times we just avoided a collision.  Very exciting to say the least and Zyanu is a great driver.

The pollution is quite bad  here, dust is part of that. We couldn’t really see the scenery well. There are lots of wheat fields, and both Bhaktapur and Nagarkot are farming areas.

We saw marijuana plants growing along the road and lots of goats. Bet they are happy!

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Every so often there would be a small store, bar, guest house or restaurant.

After about an hour we arrived at our hotel, the Mystic Mountain Hotel in Nagarkot.  The hotel is positioned so that you have views of the Himalaya Mountains and Mount Everest.

We were greeted with drinks and made comfortable for about 30 minutes as our room was not yet ready.

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When we got to our room, wow, how we wish it was clearer because supposedly the sunrise and sunsets here are quite spectacular. You can see how hazy it is, so no spotting of the Himalaya vista right now. And how this hotel is built right into the hills.

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Sagar said if it rains, the air will be clearer and we might have a better view.  Well, shortly after we arrived, we had a storm – with lots of hail! 

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But it didn’t clear enough to see a sunset or much of the mountains.  We will hope for a clear morning, when we will go back to the Hyatt in Kathmandu for our final days in Nepal. We had the special New Year’s dinner in the hotel and it was delicious. We were told that there are leopards in this area and the people do not go out at night.  So we won’t either.  

 

 

 

 

 

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Kathmandu, Nepal

April 12, 2019

We left the ship in Shanghai yesterday morning at 4:30 AM and the port agent was there to escort us off the ship and to the waiting taxi.  The ship was leaving at 6 AM. Our flight was at 8:15 and we were a little delayed but not long.  I was hoping that I might buy from the Pandora shop but they didn’t open until 8 and we were on the plane by then.  We had a change of planes in Kumming, which is in the center of China and had to go through immigration then before boarding the flight to Kathmandu.  Both of the flights were fine, interesting Asian meals on both.  I saw this little sweetie at the airport and the flowers were beautiful.

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As I mentioned, China is all on one time zone so there was no change in time there, but Nepal is 2 hours and 15 minutes behind China time.

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The travel agency sent a representative, Ashish, and a driver to pick us up.  Ashish said that we were very quick to leave the airport, sometimes it takes people 3  hours!  I guess that is because we applied for our Nepal visa online instead of waiting till we got there, which is apparently the choice most people make.  There were long lines for that while it took only about 10 minutes for us to get the visa in our passports and for me to get local currency. Ashish greeted us with these scarves which is a typical welcome here.

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Then we were on our way to the Hyatt Regency and a nice dinner and rest.  The hotel is huge and beautiful.  We were greeted with beverages and there was traditional music being played in the lobby. Here are some evening pictures and some from this morning when we had a walk all around the property.

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There is even a casino in one part of the hotel!

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Ashish and our guide, Sagar (Sagar is on the right) greeted us for the 9 AM start to our tour.  The weather is beautiful and we were ready to go.

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First of all, the traffic is CRAZY here. The roads are in terrible shape since the earthquake in 2015.  In some areas they are putting in water pipes and are going to also bury the electric wires.  I don’t know how they can figure out what they are all for! They drive on the opposite side and people cross just everywhere, there are motorbikes weaving in and out and goats along the side of the roads. I really admire our driver.

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Sagar is a great guide. We will have him for all of the days we are in Nepal and he is a wealth of information.  He talked about the earthquake in 2015 that destroyed many temples and homes.  9000 people died and 22,000 were injured.

Nepal is a Federal Democratic Republic and has a population of 28 million – 4.8 million live in the Kathmandu valley.  There are 101 different ethnic groups and 92 languages spoken in this country! The official language is Nepali and everyone learns English.  Most speak it incredibly well.

There are three cities inside the Kathmandu Valley – Kathmandu (Kantipur – the city of Glory), Patan (Lalitpur – the city of Art) and Bhadgau (Bhaktapur – The city of Devotees)

The currency is the rupee and right now the exchange rate is 111 rupees to $1 US.

This is the flag of Nepal.  It is unusual in that most flags are rectangular.

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Sagar took us to “Freak Street” which was a drug and hippie haven in the 70’s.  It is just near Durbar Square.  There were many people selling their merchandise near this street and Sagar told us to just say no thank you and not to say, “later” because they will wait and hold you to it! The knife is a Gorkha knife – used by the Gorkha soldiers.  They are called to serve in many capacities around the world, and provided the security for the Trump – Kim summit in Singapore.

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The house with the orange areas is where Jimi Hendrix stayed!

Next we went to Kathmandu Durbar Square.  It is famous for its exquisite architecture and artistic embellishment.  The complex of palaces, courtyards and temples that were built in 1200 to 1768 AD used to be the seat of the ancient kings of Kathmandu. There are 2300 temples in the Kathmandu valley.

Here are some pictures of this amazing site.

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The old and the more modern are right next to each other. The white neoclassical building is the eastern side of the palace.  It is an imported European style building built as part of the palace in 1908.

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You can see that the temple in the middle picture was totally destroyed and is being rebuilt.  Many are in that state of rebuilding and they are often funded by other countries – China, Japan and the US are three of the countries that are helping.

Here are some pictures of the work.

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We went into the Kumari-ghar courtyard and waited for about 40 minutes hoping to get a glimpse of the Kumari, or living goddess who is considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Taleju.  She appears from time to time in the middle window in the company of her guardian priestess to see and be seen by her admirers.  You are definitely not allowed to take any photos of her and we were reminded many times.  Sagar says she doesn’t always appear.  She is selected for her physical attributes at age 5!  And she is sequestered in this building, only allowed out 13 times in a year. Once she begins to menstruate, a new living goddess is selected and the former one can go back to “real life”!  We did get to see her. Here is her picture.

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Some other sights we saw around this square:

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Yes, those are chickens in the basket.  It was so dusty on these roads that Sagar went into a drug store and bought us masks to wear.

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Next we went to the Swayambhunath Stupa which is also known as the monkey temple.  You will see why!  This temple is up a windy road on a hilltop west of Kathmandu.  It is considered to be over 2500 years old.  It marks the point where the lotus of the ancient valley lake was discovered. 

Sagar gave us coins to throw into this peace area.  You need to get it into a specific container.  He got 2/2 in and Norm and I didn’t get any in!

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There are both types of Buddhist prayer flags here.  The 5 colors are meaningful.

Red – knowledge

White – purification

Blue – peace

Yellow – compassion

Green – prosperity

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There are many monkeys and dogs here. The monkeys swim in this pool!

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Some of the stupas as well as a beautiful view of the city. There is a temple dedicated to the health of boys.  There was a service going on there and an area nearby where people were eating.

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Our last visit of the day was to the Patan Durbar Square. It  has been acclaimed as one of the finest urban streetscapes in the world.  Most of the monuments were built between the 16-18th centuries.  It is known as the center of fine arts and for the wonderful craftsmanship of the artisans.  It is a Buddhist city and some inscriptions indicate the town may have been founded by Emperor Askoka in the 3rd century BC.

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We bought one of the thanka art pieces – they are painted on cloth and we chose the mandala. You can see these artists at work on the intricate paintings.  Ours is wrapped for travel or I would have a picture here.

There is so much more to cover – Buddhists and Hindus co-exist very peacefully here.  The discussion of the gods, the elements, postures of Buddha, etc., will wait for another post.

We saw many markets and also bike markets on the way back to the hotel – they are mostly people from India.

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We were tired but thrilled with our first full day here and can’t wait till tomorrow.

Our day ended with dinner by candlelight on the terrace area of the hotel.

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Posted in April, Asia, Excursions, World Cruise 3 | 2 Comments

Shanghai, China

April 10, 2011

We were scheduled to arrive at 5 PM yesterday in Shanghai.  Well, at 10 AM the captain came on the intercom to tell us that the port in Shanghai was closed due to dense fog.  No surprise, we couldn’t even see out the windows!  He had to drop anchor and wait for the port agent to notify him that the port was open again.  Fog lifted a little, we could see other cargo ships all waiting too. Then, more fog.  Our ship is small enough to get up the Huangpu river to the very convenient port in the city, and it is a long trip (50 miles), so we pretty much knew we were not going to get in anytime before the morning.  Leslie and the staff put together a new Currents newsletter with all new activities for the day and evening.

For me it was an issue because I was scheduled to do a program in Shanghai for China Enrichment at 7:30 PM.  So, we were communicating via email all afternoon about what to do.  We agreed to move the program to tomorrow night.  So they needed to call each one of the participants to make that change and we had our fingers crossed that we would make it in.  About 100 people were off the ship for an overland tour in Beijing and Xian, so Oceania  had to find hotels for them as they were scheduled to get back on.

Amy did a cabaret in Horizons (normally the “room with a view”, Leslie called it “the room with no view” tonight! And my contact had let me know that our ship would be in the next morning.  Shortly after that, the captain made the same announcement, and we did get in early today.

Here is Amy doing her show…

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and some of our fine dining room staff.

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Our first glimpse of the city (we spent time here 7 years ago, so it wasn’t new to us, but we love it here.

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In colonial days, Shanghai was called the Paris of the East.  There are still some colonial buildings but much of the city is huge high rise buildings.  The flowers are beautiful and yes, there are blossoms here too.

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The Pudon New Area has developed in just 5 years so it wasn’t even created when we were last here.  Shanghai has the most modern stock exchange in the world and is the symbol of China’s rise to economic powerhouse status.  I am not sure if I mentioned that all of China is on the same time zone!

The city population is 8 million.  It is China’s largest city, its largest port and its largest industrial base.  It has the best shops and restaurants in the country and the most fashionable people.  It is called the “dragon head” of East China, the leading force driving the economy forward.

Due to the rescheduling of my program, I had to cancel the tour we had scheduled for the afternoon.  Norm went by himself, and I met a colleague, Connie, for some shopping and lunch and Marilyn joined us.  We had a great time and here we are with our shopping bags.  Connie helped us to find the shops and treated us to lunch at a restaurant she was familiar with. Marilyn and I shopped at the jade and pearl factory before Connie met us. We didn’t buy anything in these pictures, but they had some wonderful jade pieces.  Marilyn bought one and I got a necklace from the pearl side and bracelet from the jade side.

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Norm’s tour took him to the Shanghai Museum, which we both loved on our last visit.  He said it didn’t disappoint this time either.  This museum is 5 stories high and has a round top and a square base, symbolizing the ancient Chinese perception of the world as “round sky, square earth.” Here are some of the beautiful items in the museum.

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Mickey in the museum shop. Very expensive.

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His second stop was the Yu yuan Garden located in the center of the Old City.  It is the largest of Shanghai’s ancient gardens.  The gardens were commissioned in 1559 , built over the course of 19 years, destroyed by the French during the first Opium War and later rebuilt.  The Grand Rockery in the center of the garden is the most renowned sight. The gardens are surrounded by the dragon wall.

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His last stop was the silk shop – and he bought me a beautiful scarf there.

In the meantime, Marilyn and I returned from our outing with Connie and I showered and dressed for my presentation.  Sarah picked me up and we had a delicious dinner with many of the people from the company.

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I have to say, they were very organized – and I was amazed that the attendees all came (about 75 people) even with the change in date.  They also live streamed the program and more than 100 attended.  They did a professional photo shoot, a live streamed interview and had Eric (who is a trainer with Nestle) do translation after each segment of the program.  They had copies of my book, which I signed, and many of the participants wanted pictures with me.  I felt like a rock star!  A really fun experience.

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I got back to the ship by midnight, and will need to leave the ship at 4:30 AM to go to the airport for our trip to Nepal and Bhutan – the ship leaves Shanghai at 6 AM.

Norm got these great shots of Shanghai by night.

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Next – Nepal!


Posted in April, Asia, World Cruise 3 | 2 Comments