A Travellerspoint blog

BERLIN

A chapter right off a world history textbook

There are many reminders small and large that continue to stand all across Berlin, serving as a silent yet voluble reminder of a once-divided country and city. But Berlin I realised lives the term "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" that literally translates to the "struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past".

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BRANDENBURG GATE

All roads in Berlin literally lead to the Brandenburg Gate. This historic entrance built to reflect the German nations former glories has lot of space around it so the crowds are well spread.

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A block away from the Brandenburg Gate is the HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL.

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This abstract monument honestly touches a raw nerve with anyone who has any understanding of Germany's "questionable" role in one of the darkest chapters of world history. A walk between the 2711 concrete blocks of varying heights, physically provoked anxiety in me, conveying some of the terror of what happened in Germany in the 1930's and 40's. This memorial is not particularly flashy, but maybe that is the precise point. Each visitor is able to wander through the memorial with their own thoughts and seek an independent interpretation, while remembering how the Holocaust changed our world forever.

SOVIET WAR MEMORIAL

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ALEXANDER PLATZ

Alexanderplatz is a big square in the middle of Berlin with lots of stores, restaurants, cafes. I found to be a really good spot to hang out with friends and grab some lunch. Discovered to my glee that the place has such a young-hip-cool-and-animated vibe and is flanked by modernistic monuments like the TV tower, the World Clock and the Fountain of Friendship. Plus there were a ton of street artists showcasing their art all through the square.

WORLD CLOCK
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FOUNTAIN OF FRIENDSHIP BETWEEN PEOPLES
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EAST SIDE GALLERY :

Seeing the wall in its full scale was an incredible experience and the highlight of my trip to Berlin. There is a fairly long portion of the wall still intact, decorated with art and graffiti.

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Its strange that when I first planned a get-away to Berlin, I hadn’t pay much thought as to the scale of it. Berlin is a massive and extremely developed city and quite incredible when you consider that this city was until 25 years ago separated and was the setting for some of the most world changing events from the last century. Standing in front of a portion of the wall that formed the separation between East and West Germany was such a moving experience especially, when you reflect back about the past 80 years of history in this city which has found such a large amount of space in our history texbooks and makes you think of all the people who were affected.

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But Berlin has a few lessons to teach the world and I believe especially in the present day, we could all do with some lessons in Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Until next time,
Sowmya

Posted by Ceej 02:33 Archived in Germany Tagged berlin holocaust_memorial berlin_wall brandenburg_gate east_side_gallery alexander_platz Comments (0)

Happiness is a place called BHUTAN

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Shrouded amidst the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas, Bhutan feels like country preserved in a time warp. The culture, traditions and way of life are still a true reflection of past centuries even in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernisation riding on the wings of the 21st century. Bhutan fames itself for being a country where development is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness versus the capitalist measure of GDP. It is a country where Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life. Where hearts are big and the days are colourful. Where modernity meets history in simple yet unexpected ways. And I found all of this to be true during the week I spent in this gorgeous part of the globe.

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The Government of Bhutan is focused on preserving the country's cultural and religious heritage and moderates the number of tourists at any given time in the country. We witnessed testaments to the will of a country to preserve the environment when there is an adopted state policy according to which 60% of the country’s landmass will remain forested for all of eternity. What’s even more brilliant is that they currently have 72% of the landmass under forest cover which makes it the only carbon-negative country on earth.

Having experienced its beautiful people, colourful festivals, awe-inspiring location and deep-rooted beliefs, I came away from Bhutan with one very important take-away: Happiness really is the best parameter to measure the life we lead.

Everyone I have spoken with since returning seem to have so many questions regarding this elusive part on the world map. I have tried answering the most frequently addressed questions in this post.

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GETTING THERE : The only airport in Bhutan is in the Paro valley. The state-owned Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines have flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Singapore and Bangkok to Paro. To say the least, this is a flying experience that one will remember considering the sheer size of the aircraft navigating between the mighty mountains to reach this isolated kingdom.
Imagine, the small valley of Paro is at an elevation of 7382 feet and the surrounding Himalayan range roughly ranging between 18,000 to 22,000 feet in altitude is the setting for one of the tightest airplane landings on earth. Apparently there are only 8 pilots qualified to land here. TIP: Try and get a seat to the left side of the aircraft. On a clear day you might get to see the majestic Himalayas towering over the clouds and if luck favours you, you might fly over Mount Everest!!

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ATTIRE : The chic traditional dresses KIRA and GHO are the national dress and is even today the most common attire worn by the locals. Visitors are expected to wear full sleeved and full length clothes while visiting the Kingdom.

LANGUAGE : Dzonkha is the native language but almost everyone speaks basic English and a lot of them can speak Hindi.

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CUISINE : Three foundational elements act as the cornerstones of Bhutanese cuisine - chilies, rice, and cheese! In Bhutan, chilies are considered a vegetable and not just a spice. They form the main ingredient in most, if not all dishes, so much so that Bhutan’s National Dish, Ema datsi, is a preparation of just chilli peppers and fresh yak cheese, and is available in almost all restaurants. If you are afraid that the dish may be too hot to handle, you can ask the local chefs to cut down on the spice. Pair the dish with native red rice for a complete meal. The rice is mostly red rice (a variety of rice that grows in high altitudes); and other cereal include buckwheat and maize. Meat is common in most dishes and includes chicken, dry beef and pork.

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Red chillies hanging to dry on a traditional, ornate wooden window frames or rooftops of houses is a common sight in Bhutan.

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RELIGION: Bhutan is the only country in the world where Buddhism is the official religion and is endorsed by the government. It is considered one of the last bastions where Tantric Vajrayana form of Mahayana Buddhism is maintained as the state religion. However, the Bhutanese constitution guarantees freedom of religion and citizens and visitors are free to practice any form of worship so long as it does not impinge on the rights of others.

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ARCHITECTURE : As you travel through the country you notice early on that the most striking feature of a Bhutanese house (and most buildings for that matter) are the highly decorated rustic windows. Wood is largely used to build houses especially for windows and balconies. The dzongs too seem to be built with wood with stone beams for support. There seem to be three main types of building:
• The Dzongs (fortresses) which are the municipal and religious headquarters in each district.
• Houses that are predominantly 2-3 floored large rural farmhouses.
• Religious structures of various kinds (from large temples to small chortens or stupas).

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WEATHER: Bhutan is a country of mountains and valleys, and the climate varies with elevation. The mountains are extremely cold and snowy, but it is humid and subtropical in the hills, and temperate in the valleys.

ECONOMY: Bhutan’s economy is largely agrarian. There seems to be a healthy tourism industry too. I heard from our guide that there is a good mountaineering industry too. Bhutan is home to the only unclaimed mountain in the world- Gangkhar Puensum and since the Bhutanese believe that the high mountains are the abode of the Gods, scaling any mountain higher than 6,000 meters is banned by law. Unlike Nepal where mountaineering is a mega industry, Bhutan does not seem to share its enthusiasm to capitalise on its unique presence on the face of the globe. And though it may sound conservative, that belief in a nutshell explains the Bhutanese ethic.

It is a rustic, removed, remote, pure country which strives to retain its cultural heritage and has avoided becoming globalized like so many others and refuses to use money as a benchmark to compare itself with the world at large.

CURRENCY : Bhutanese Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan but Indian rupees is also accepted everywhere.

May the winds making the prayer flags across this beautiful country flutter, carry our prayers to the God’s spreading goodwill to all in the world.
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Tashidelek and safe travels!!!
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 06:51 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

PARO

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According to me, mountainous PARO is the heart of of Bhutan and the very image that a beyul conjures in my mind. The only international airport in Bhutan is located here since the valley is slightly larger than Thimpu.

Paro’s Taktsang Monastry known the world over at the Tiger’s Nest monastery has almost become the iconic symbol of Bhutan in news and print media. The world is full of buildings that are beautiful to look at, while being major feats of engineering, but the first sight of the Tiger’s Nest monastery as it precariously clings to the side of a mountain is an engineering feat that would take years of intricate planning to even begin replicating. The most peculiar feature of this monastery is its isolated location. While it makes for a breathtaking sight and beautiful pictures, it also creates a very unique problem. It is said that in 1998 when a fire started at the monastery, it was completely burnt to the ground as the temple was hard to access and emergency assistance was impossible due to its location and lack of telecommunication.

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The trail cuts through a forest of pine trees and decorated with prayer flags symbolising protection from evil forces and blessings of good luck and positive energy. Every time I stopped to catch my breath I was treated to magical views all around. I heard at a rest stop that there are two other paths that pass through a plateau called “a hundred thousand fairies” plateau.

My lungs and legs gave up as I reached the halfway point and I spent four delightful hours in the company of women from around the world (at one point we even arrived at a consensus that we could start our own UN!!)
During a quiet moment of reflection as I sat there in the shadow of the Tigers Nest, I found myself wondering what contentment drives monks to a life so high up in the clouds. And then it dawned on me as I stood there in the light drizzle and a hint of warm sunlight pouring through the dark grey sky in the presence of the majestic Himalayas while far below on the other side was a valley filled with folks who live simple lives but experience simple joys - THIS IS AS CLOSE TO DIVINITY AND GOD THAT MAN CAN COME CLOSE TO.

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My friends who trekked the rest of the way and completed the most ardorous part of the trek. Apparently there are the 700 or so steps cut out of rock that first descend to the valley, go past a gushing waterfall on the bridge and then ascend in another long staircase but they did say that the monastery is beautiful with traditional architecture, astounding views and was worth having the wind knocked out of you at times during the ascent.

I highly recommend that you book a nice massage and a traditional "hot stone bath". The tubs for the hot stone bath are constructed of wood and the stones are placed in a section of the bath water. Attendants place more heated stones to the water to bring up the temperature of the water.
Found it to be a perfect way to spend my last evening in Bhutan.

Posted by Ceej 06:27 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

PUNAKHA

The region that secures Bhutan the title of "Kingdom in the Clouds"

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The first sight of Punakha leaves you with a picture of terraced rice fields shrouded in low lying cloud cover alongside traditional architecture. It is an expansive valley with clusters of villages with a mighty river cutting through the valley floor.

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Escaped the confines of the hotel one early morning and ventured to the countryside to catch a glimpse of the village waking up and setting in motion a day in an agrarian village. As the mist lifted I noticed that every house in the village has gardens with flowers bursting in colour and fragrance in the yard along with fruit bearing plants like papaya and oranges and is surrounded by rice fields.

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THE PUNAKHA DZONG also known as "The Palace of Happiness"

Built at the confluence of Mo chhu and Pho chhu rivers - the Punakha Dzong is easily blessed in location. Add to it stunning architecture and you have the most beautiful example of Bhutanese architecture.

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The inside courtyard is decorated with beautiful Bhutanese iconographies. Through these murals, you get to understand and learn about Buddhist ways and lessons. There are three courtyards and each is connected by a series of passageways that lead you all over the Dzong. Half of the building hosts the religious order and the remaining half is occupied by the local administration. You see young monks all over the place. The boys are apparently taught a variety of subjects including math and are introduced to the monastery lifestyle in order to see if they want to join the religious order and become monks.

FUN FACT : The King of Bhutan throws a party at the palace every year and all of the people in Bhutan are invited! That would definitely be a party no one would want to miss.

IMPORTANT :

Any tourist going beyond Thimphu and Paro need to acquire a 'special area permit' from the RGoB Immigration. Especially if you intend on visiting Punakha, Bumthang or the Haa valley. The tour operators can arrange for this.

Tashi Delek

Posted by Ceej 13:39 Archived in Bhutan Tagged palace of rice mist terrace happiness rafting cloud dzong punakha Comments (0)

THIMPHU

A national capital without traffic lights!!

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The drive from Paro to Thimphu is filled with fantastic mountain scenery broken by scenes of rice terraces, soaring mountains covered by pine forests and the mighty Thimphu Chhu flowing along the route.

The sight of the city centre which is believed to be the most crowded area with all the business and establishments amazes a tourist at first sight. It actually looks like the town centre of any quaint town in Switzerland, minus the STOP sign or traffic lights. You then realise that this is the capital of a whole country. It is a common sight seeing traffic officers moderating traffic across the city due to the local belief that that this personal gesture and promotes the feeling of community.
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THE THIMPHU TSECHU : that takes place in October of every year, turned out to be a very unique and colourful celebration. Being Indian, I have witnessed my share of loud and colourful festivals but this was a different experience altogether. Tshechu’s are annual religious Bhutanese festivals held in each district of Bhutan on the tenth day of the month of the lunar Tibetan calendar. They offer the opportunity for social bonding amongst people of remote and spread out villages as they gather in the shadow of culture and celebration. Large markets also congregate at the location of the Tshechu. The Paro and Thimpu tshechu’s are said to the largest in terms of participation and audience.

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A day of formal sightseeing had us visit Painting schools, Textile museums and a few view points.

ARTS AND CRAFT SCHOOL: Housed in a two storied traditional Bhutanese house, students undergo a 6-year training course in Bhutan 13 traditional arts and crafts. They impart skills to young boys and girls after basic school, as per their individual likes and aptitude. A rigorous training of four to six years is being given to these students in traditional painting, wood carving, sculpture, leather craft, traditional dress making etc, the dedication and motivation of these youngsters is worth admiring. There are souvenir stores on the campus that sell the craft items made by the students.
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TEXTILE MUSEUM : I would highly recommend a visit to the Textile museum even though one might be tempted to brush off the experience before visiting. Housed in a modern building with spacious interiors and a glass facade, the experience starts off with a brief video introducing the various fabrics from various regions and then you can pay a visit to the 2 levels of the museum that showcase the different fabrics.
On the second floor there was a very informative video about how to wear a Kira and Gho.
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VISIT THE TAKIN MINI ZOO:
The national animal of Bhutan - Takin is an endangered animal with the head of a goat and a body of a yak. A steep trail on the side leads up to a large fenced enclosure that was originally established as a zoo, but the fourth king decided that the animals should not be kept in cages and should be allowed to be as close to their natural habitat in accordance with the kingdoms Buddhist beliefs. Apart from Takin there are mountain goats and barking deer too in this preserve.
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108 STUPAS AT DOCHULA PASS : On the way from Thimphu to Punakha are the 108 Stupas at the Dochula Pass that has been built on the highest land pass (3150m) in Bhutan. It is said to be constantly covered in cloud and mist and we heard that on a rare clear day, you can see the Himalayan range from this point. Almost everyone who breaks their journey here seemed to pay a visit to the café on the opposite side which serves hot tea, coffee, chocolate and cream crackers.
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To an observer Thimphu with its restaurants, internet cafes, iPhone toting youngsters who like "Wechat", nightclubs, snooker parlours and shopping centers might look modern in its outlook. But one only has to look around and observe the traditional architecture, the absence of traffic, the kiras and ghos to see the traditional side to the city. This juxtaposition of ancient tradition and modernity make Thimphu a truly unique destination.

Cannot wait to see more of this beautiful country.

Our permits are here and we are off to explore PUNAKHA.

Tashi Delek

Posted by Ceej 13:37 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

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