A Travellerspoint blog

AHMEDABAD

A city of sweet food and vibrant fabrics

Ahmedabad as a city was introduced to me in a classroom as I read in history textbooks of it being the epicentre of the non-violent movement for India's independence. But a quick visit to the city introduced me to the multitude of charms this 600 year old walled city has to offer. From being an important hub of the textile industry to the incredible architecture of its forts and mosques, from the bustle of the narrow lanes in busy chowks to the vibrancy of Navratri festivities.

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Listed are a few snapshots from my hurried yet lovely visit:

SABARMATI ASHRAM

If on your trip to Ahmedabad you wish to visit a place where you can find a complete peace and steeped in history, the Sabarmati Ashram would make for a perfect pit stop. Situated approximately 5km from Ahmadabad city center and located on the banks of the river Sabarmathi, the ambiance of whole ashram can be described in one word – serene. At the home of Mahatma Gandhi where he resided between 1917 and 1930 which has its own place in history as being the place the Dandi March, one can find complete details of this historical man known as the Father of the Nation.

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Apart from a spectacular collection of photographs and memorabilia from Gandhiji's life, the ashram evokes memories of times gone by. The simple room with a spinning wheel and a floor cushion where discussions were held giving birth to the Indian freedom movement is a must see. A peaceful reminder of non-violence in a violent world.

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ADALAJ VAV - The favourite part about my visit to Ahmedabad.

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Step wells or vav in Gujrati are an amazing display of ancient engineering that has narrow steps built on three sides of the wall in perfect symmetery that lead down to the well. Step-wells are usually a part of a complex that include a temple and rest-stop. The entry to this almost 500 year old historical site is surprisingly free. The moment you enter it, you feel the reduced temperature. The well is a 5 storied structure with stone carvings adorning it's base and arched alcoves fashioned to last centuries. We visited fairly early in the morning, around 10 AM. Most of the people there seemed to be art students who were sketching the well. The entry structure has sculpted motifs and is very pretty to look at.

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I found it to be a unique place. The site does not seem to have any timings or even security nor is there any artificial source of light. If it is raining outside, the steps could be slippery. The steps are not disabled friendly by any stretch of the imagination and will pose a challenge to couch potatoes. Going down and then coming up the flight of stairs will mean that many unused leg muscles will be announcing themselves very loudly. Well worth a visit.

Manek Chowk

Budget shoppers paradise. By day a jewellery square situated between the tombs of the Shah and the Queen (visit both, since they are extraordinary examples of Gujarati Islamic architecture), the place is teeming with dry fruit vendors, silver jewellery and merchants selling reams of bandhani and block print cotton material that can be fashioned into kurtas, bedspreads and myraid of other options. After sunset, the entire space is transformed to a vegetarian outdoor eatery with a variety of Chinese/Indian/Gujarati food served in the various stalls.
Do not fear the crowd and enjoy the experience. Finish diner with the best kulfis in town from Asharfilal and go for a stroll in the nearby streets. Ahmedabadis truly deserve the fame of being foodies.

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Amdavad ma aapnu swaagat che.

Until next time.

Posted by Ceej 04:10 Archived in India Tagged ahmedabad adalaj_stepwell vav vaav sabarmati_ashram Comments (0)

BERLIN

A chapter right off a high school world history textbook

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There are many reminders small and large that continue to stand all across Berlin serving as a silent yet valuable reminder of a once-divided country and city. But Berlin as I came to recognise lives the term "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" - which literally translates to "the struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past". The city is brimming with art, music, history, culture and so much more.

It feeds off its history while adapting itself to today. I saw graffiti on the walls, plush cars straight out of the Auto Expo, sidewalks wider than roads, buildings that are not too tall that it blocks the contrast this glistening city creates against the beautiful blue sky.

Yes. Berlin is a very special part of the world indeed.

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A few snippets from a brief trip to this fascinating city.

BRANDENBURG GATE

All roads in Berlin literally lead to the Brandenburg Gate. Interiors of metro trains, marks on pathways, ... all point towards this beautiful vicory gate. (Observation: It resembles the Archway on the grounds of the Louvre Museum). 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 arrived in Berlin, I hadn’t pay much thought as to the scale of it. Berlin is massive and extremely developed that is 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.

But I truly believe Berlin has a few lessons to teach the world and considering the divisive climate taking over the world in the present day. We all have to re-look at history and could 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)

THE GRANDEUR THAT WAS ROME

A weekend exploring remnants of a glorious empire on the city's 2770th birthday

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A mound on top of a hill close to the Roman Forum is said to be place where the small non-descript village on the banks of the Tiber once stood and the brothers Romulus and Remus, twin brothers abandoned after birth and raised by a she-wolf grew up. It is said that when a fierce argument erupted between them, Romulus killed Remus and gave his own name to the tiny settlement that would grow into a great empire on the 21st of April in the year 753 BC.

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COLOSSEUM

A must see attraction in Rome is the Colosseum. You can visit the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill in one tour panning 4-5 hours. Which includes quite a bit of walking along uneven surfaces and steep stairs. The front area is usually packed with ticket sellers, tour guides and hawkers, and since the lines for tickets to the Colosseum are long and people end up waiting an average of 90 minutes, the entire space resembles running a gauntlet.

Just being inside this architectural wonder with its amphitheatrical structure and understanding the reserved seating system which corresponded with on of the 76 gates was such a fascinating experience. Just the sheer scale of the Colosseum and the realisation of how much of Rome's history is packed into this space and that more than 2000 years later, it still stands is enough to make it a surreal place to visit.

TIP: Buy tickets online for the skip the line tours with a good company. The tour takes approximately 4 hours and concludes on the summit of the Palantine Hill. It includes 10-20 people and a knowledgeable and patient guide.

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ROMAN FORUM

Apart from the Trevi fountain, the Roman Forum qualifies as my favourite place in Rome. This is the heart of Ancient Rome and in my opinion should be where the Ancient Rome tour should start - at the Palantine Hill. Since Rome was founded here, and grew through the era of Ceasar's and the Colosseum was the highest point. But since getting into the Colosseum is a feat in itself, most tours are conducted in the reverse order.

Entering the forum through the ceremonial arch and strolling along the Via Sacra brings back to mind images of chariots being driven through those stone pathways. The Via Sacra was a very important road during the Roman Empire since it was along this road that armies returned to Rome, and Emperors travelled to their coronations. The sheer number of sights to visit in this space is mind numbing. The fascinating temple of the vestal virgins, the funeral pyre of Julius Cesar, the little gardens, the ruins of Saturn's temple and even a gateway to hell!

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FOUNTAINS AND SQUARES

Rome is estimated to have more than 2000 fountains and almost every square in Rome is adorned with a beautiful fountain at its center. Like so many other elements of Rome, these fountains are pure works of art. Some are small, large, famous, hidden, built by great artists, some with origins unknown in every possible shape and size. I happened upon most of the fountains in Rome after traipsing through narrow twisting streets and housed in a picturesque square. Each square that hosts these fountains are great places to just sit and people watch over a coffee/wine and soak up the ambiance. Plus the fountains themselves are exquisite examples of baroque carving.

TREVI FOUNTAIN - an aquatic dream and my favourite place to visit in the Eternal City.
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PIAZZA NAVONA
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FONTANA DEL PANTHEON
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PANTHEON

Situated in its own little square surrounded by narrow lanes is the only fully standing monument of the Ancient Rome. Originally commissioned by Julius Agrippa and built in the honour of all the Roman Gods 2000 years ago, this ancient temple is today a Christian church. Entry is free and I hear that it gets very crowded through the day as most tourist attractions in Rome do. I visited at 8:30 in the morning and had the entire place all to myself which turned out to be a glorious experience. The occulus in the ceiling is extraordinary and made me want to return to see the pillar of light at noon and when it is rains, especially after I saw the system to drain the water on the floor.

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FOOD!! GLORIOUS FOOD!!!

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IMPORTANT POINTS TO REMEMBER WHILE PLANNING A TRIP TO ROME:
• You do not have to buy a Rome Pass. The public transportation is quite extensive and services most of the places to visit. A bus/metro ticket is
valid for 100 minutes and costs 1.50 euros. There are also 24-hour and 3-day tickets which are not expensive.
• Everyone who visits Rome seems to have a scary story about aggressive pickpockets or con artists. So I would advice a good degree of
awareness of your surroundings and some quick thinking. You definetely see a lot of them hanging out by the metro ticket machines and try to
fleece you by by of helping you with ticket issuance.
• Italians linger a long time over a meal. Unless you call for their attention, the waiters usually let you be to enjoy your wine. The tip is generally
included in the price of the meal. You can choose to round the bill up and leave a bit extra.
• The famous touristy squares are stunning backdrops for a drink and to linger in the evenings, but the food in the restaurants is often is
disappointing and expensive.

Rome is so much more than what lies in ruins today. But I guess I will have to visit again to explore that side.

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Arrivederci Roma!!
Sowmya

Posted by Ceej 23:53 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

A QUIET MORNING AT THE VATICAN

MADE FOR A PERFECT POST IN PICTURES

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6:45 AM : Outside the Vatican walls.

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The Vatican Museum entrance.

The Vatican Museums, one of the largest museums in the world, consists of 54 galleries including the Sistine Chapel, and contain some 70,000 works of art yet only about 20,000 are on display. Numerous scholars and art conservationists maintain this large body of work. We were told there are 3 1/2 miles of museums inside the Vatican complex. On the last Sunday of each month, the Vatican Museum is open to the public for free to one of the world's most extensive collections of art.

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First view of the Vatican.

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Gallery of Tapestries.
This is the usual place where a tour of the Vatican is begun. We began our tour in the . Four hundred years ago, tapestries were among the most prized objects in palace collections. Beautiful and portable, they also helped to keep the stone castles warm by hanging on the chilly walls. Tapestries are made of silk, wool and silver that flickered in candlelight dazzling the early view with sparkling light. Barberini’s Life of Christ tapestries are among the many tapestries hanging in the 75 meter long Gallery of Tapestries in the Vatican. Our guide pointed out the bees in the corner of the his tapestries as a signature of Barberini. In fact these bees are seen throughout Rome on everything from properties to frescoes. I thought of the industrious Mormon Beehive and wondered if there was any similarity in the symbolism. Not to be forgotten in this gallery are the amazing fresco-ed ceilings that hover above, but one really needs a recliner or a neck brace to view them for any length of time.

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Resurrection of Christ at the tapestry gallery of the Vatican museums

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The Gallery of Maps.
This is the longest tunnel of the Vatican Museums measuring 120 meters, paintings, frescoes and statues light up and adorn the arched ceiling as if blanketed with gold. The rich ceiling frescoes illustrate stories from the lands depicted on the maps on the walls. The brilliant blue painted topographical maps of Italy based on drawings by friar and geographer Ignazio Danti, cover the walls of this beautiful gallery and stunningly contrast with the vibrant golden ceiling covered in absolutely marvellous works of art.

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Marble statutes

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A hastily and sneakily taken grainy picture of Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Photography is not permitted within the confines of the Sistine chapel and there are guards stationed all over who yell (quite loudly) if they see you whipping out a camera to take a picture of the famed ceiling.

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Seeing the exit of the Sistine Chapel when it was completely void of tourists!!!

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Entrance of St. Peters Basilica

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Inside St. Peters Basilica

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The Pieta by Michelangelo - a brilliant sculpture that is a representation of Mary holding Jesus's body once it was brought down from the cross post the crucification.

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The dome above the Pieta.

Vatican Square
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The famed Pontiffical Swiss Guards who have been guarding the Pope for more than five centuries in their colourful medieval uniforms.

Until next time,
CJ

Posted by Ceej 08:51 Archived in Vatican City Comments (0)

A SUNNY DAY IN LUXEMBOURG

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A 2 hour train ride aboard the Eurorail from Paris brings you to the small but incredibly picturesque country called Luxembourg City. Luxembourg City shares the title of 'Capital of Europe' with Brussels and Strasbourg. The population is incredible diverse with the foreigner population making up 70%.

A must visit part of this small city/country is the Grund. A 15 minute walk from the Centrale and a swift 65 meters elevator ride down, brings you to an area that is quieter, beautiful and much more charming than the city. The Grund offers breathtaking views of picturesque stone cottages, a small church, a peaceful little river bordered by the outer fortifications of the castle and loads of eye-catching patches of green. A local in fact told me "Dont worry dearie, you're never going to get lost here. Just follow the Azlette".

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The best way to explore the OLD TOWN was by the Wenzel Walk, which leads you around a walking trail through the oldest foundations of Luxembourg-City and encompassing almost all the best sights in the Old Town. The tour covers approximately 5 kilometers weaving up and down through different levels of the city. The Old Town exhibits the perfect example of military architecture and there are layers of walls built for defense of the city. Each level according to the guide was built by a different empire and at different times in Luxembourg’s history. As a result, the levels of fortification are not an even level but it makes for brilliant views from different vantage points. The casemates which are passageways carved into the mountainside are quite eerie to walk through especially if you are alone. I even saw part of the old aqueduct.

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The City Centre of Luxembourg is a shoppers delight considering it is in fact, it is the richest country in Europe! With shopping streets filled with upscale designers, charming boutiques and street side cafes.

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Once you're done seeing the sights, a nice place to spend time is the PLACE d’ARMES. A pretty tree-lined and music-filled square at the edge of the Old Town bordered with open air restaurants and space for exhibitions and concerts. During my visit on the eve of Easter, the place was filled with Easter markets and chocolatiers.
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The Luxembourg Centrale which is the central train station is an architectural treat by itself. You can for a price of 4 Euros buy a day ticket that allows you to navigate through the length and breadth of this small charming country making use of its extensive public transport system comprising of metro trains, trams and buses.

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Until next time

Posted by Ceej 08:45 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged spring luxembourg easter Comments (1)

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)

LANDOUR

a place over-run with simple and pure joys.

sunny 6 °C

Landor is a perfect getaway for anyone seeking solitude from the heat and hustle of the cities. This gorgeous part of the world offers breathtaking views of the mighty Himalayas and allows endless opportunities to experience all the virtues of a hill town – gorgeous views, rambling walks, happy people, hot chai, delicious food teemed together with a constant urge to literally stop and smell the flowers.

Situated about 5 kilometres away from the chaos of Mussoorie is its twin - the quaint hilltop town of Landour which was a British cantonment during the days of colonial rule in India and as such came under the Cantonment Act of 1924 which has had a far-reaching ecological impact on the region. This law in particular has prevented deforestation and as a result, Landour remains green in comparison to Mussoorie. Another clause in the act, which terms all non-governmental and non-military buildings post-1924 as “illegal” has saved the town from rampant construction. Only repairs of the existing old houses are allowed.

Just passing through both these towns could very well be considered a study of contrasts - in terms of tourists, carbon footprint, real-estate development and noise levels. Landour, named after Llanddowror a small village in the southwest of Wales calms and relaxes you and nourishes creativity. Just being here amidst the tall deodars and the hills, surrounded with the air thick with the sounds of the naughty whistling schoolboy makes you feel like you have somehow slipped into the world between the pages of a Ruskin Bond novel.

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A beautiful trail called the Chakkar winds through these hills and if find yourself here in early April as I was, it offers the opportunity to walk along a path dotted with rhododendron trees bursting in crimson bloom welcoming spring and cutting through the dense pinewood cover. The walk allows for some brilliant birding opportunities with beautiful sights along the way. Some of the highlights of this walk are:

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Catching the sight of the Himalayan range from Lal Tibba: On a clear day the walk through the chakkar trail is broken by glimpses of silver peaks glistening at a distance, which is a preview of the uninterrupted sight that can be viewed from Lal Tibba. The view point itself is an unadorned two-storeyed commercial structure with no character and fitted with a telescope for viewing the peaks. There is a helpful mural on the wall identifying the various peaks in the part of the Himalayan range visible from this viewpoint.

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St. Paul's Church is a beautiful pause on one end of the Chakkar trail. It was commissioned as the house of worship for the serving officers who came up for recuperation to the hills and for the missionaries who were posted here. Built in 1839 high up in the mountains, this church has seen its share of history. I heard a local say that the Jim Corbett’s parents Christopher and Mary Corbett were married at this very church in 1859. The largely wooden frame of the church also houses tall arched windows framed with beautiful stained Belgian glass windows.
With the backdrop of the setting sun, the beauty of church revealed itself with breathtaking contrast bringing into sharp focus all the details of the dark wood and the altar bathed in gorgeous light only made the contrast of the deep shadows along the pews seem conspicuous.

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Landour Language School is yet another lovely stop on the Chakkar trail. It is an almost-100 year old institution housed in the Kellogg Memorial Church complex established with the idea of teaching the Hindi language to the missionaries who cared for the sick soldiers who would come to the hills for recuperation. Even today the language school admits large number of foreigners who visit the school in order to learn Hindi and it is not an uncommon sight to see a person of foreign origin having a conversation in halting Hindi with the locals.

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One evening I went down the hill to the heart of Mussorie and dove straight into the chaos of Mall road, I found the entire experience over-rated and exhausting. The whole space is filled with shops hawking everything from woolen wear to Tibetian artifacts and is packed with tourists and honeymooners. I admit it offers a great opportunity for people watching while sampling the many food offerings, but honestly the only reason I undertook this exercise was to meet my childhood hero and one of the best authors of all times. The Cambridge Book Depot on Mussoorie's Mall Road hosts a meet and greet session with Ruskin Bond most Saturday evenings. My ultimate fan moment came when Mr.Bond signed my battered 20 year old copy of Rusty and proceeded to engage me in a conversation about Coorg and anthuriums.

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Stepped out of the bookstore to find the Mall road bathed in twilight and the brisk weather prompting me to wrap my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The evening atmosphere of the entire area was such a clash to the tranquility I had experienced for 3 days that I found myself rushing back to the serene twin town. The more distance I put between myself and the hustle and bustle of Mussorie, I came back to the presence of fantastic views of the cloud covered Doon Valley broken by picturesque little houses and the sight of locals going about their business — kids climbing uphill with school backpacks on their wiry frames, teenage sweethearts stealing glaces of each other from balconies, housewives returning with vegetables from the local farmers market and men gathered around small shops that sell tea discussing the days events - all while birds filled their air with their last songs for the day.

I stayed at the beautiful 175 year old heritage property - Rokeby Manor with its stone and wood architecture, balconies, tea gardens, rooms with views overlooking the Doon valley and its very English aura. Spent the stormy evening exploring a charming private library named "Wilson's Chamber" sipping a cup of brilliant masala chai to the sound of rolling thunder.
The walls of this property are decorated with ample sayings oozing with classic British tongue in cheek humor. The walls of Emily's houses some of the best, I particularly loved one that read "Harassing the cook will definitely result in smaller portions" and another that asks you to sleep in the kitchen if you want breakfast in bed.

Char Dukaan a group of 4 shops is a landmark at Landour. You'll find the shops selling different varieties of pancakes, omelettes, Tibetan food and cheese maggi. On that note, the more I've travelled I've come to realise that a hot bowl of maggi and a cup of chai at one of the mountain highway stops is all the refreshment you need to make a hill station experience in India complete. I still remember wolfing down a bowl full of steaming maggi at Rohtang pass and feeling blissfully satiated.

Landour has got to be one of the best birding destinations in the world as it offers a perfect setting for the migratory birds travelling across continents to break their flight. The air is rife with the sound of grosbeaks, finches, tits, sunbirds and flycatchers. In my opinion, birding on the Chakkar trail in the morning is a must do not just for enthusiastic birders.

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Life up in the cloud bank is shrouded in mist and rain, broken by beautiful spells of sunshine peeking from in between the tall ancient deodars. If you are the kind of traveller who is travelling with an agenda of visiting a ton of places on a 3-4 day getaway, Landour is definitely not for you.
Landour is where you go to when you just simply want to “be” — be amidst the sparkling air and the towering deodars all in the constant presence of the Himalayas that spring into view on a clear, bright day.

I would go back in a heartbeat, to views of pure majesty and trails lined with fallen pine cones.

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Till next time,
Sowmya

Posted by Ceej 04:36 Archived in India Tagged bond landour mussorie paul's_church kellogs_church ruskin chakkar Comments (2)

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