A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Andrea R

The Next Chapter

Heading for the Hills

overcast 12 °C

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The next chapter in my Asian Adventures is going to be a bit different, as I'm heading for the hills! Actually, the mountains, to be precise.

Starting off in Bangladesh, I'm excited to be going from one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, to the most densely populated. There I'll be enjoying taking a look at life on the rivers, ancient cities, lots of temples and clearly - lots of people. I'm also expecting to be blown away by the food.

Crossing into India, and straight up into the hills of West Bengal, I might be lucky enough to catch my first glimpses of the Himalayan peaks if the weather is clear enough. This region, and the Sikkim area, have long captured my imagination from various books I've read. From that point of view I guess it's fitting that they will be my introduction to this vast country. Even just the names of the towns/cities I'll be visiting - Darjeeling, Pelling, Kalimpong and Gangtok - sound so foreign and yet so familiar.

Finally I arrive in Bhutan for the highlight of the itinerary, and the reason for choosing this trip, the annual Thimphu Festival. I'll actually be spending 2 days at the festival, which gives an indication of how important it is to Bhutan and its culture.

I'm not really sure what the internet access will be like, so I will try to post in real-time but can't make any promises. It might end up being a deluge at the end!

But for now, I'm enjoying my last night at home in Melbourne. I leave tomorrow night.

Posted by Andrea R 02:35 Archived in Australia Tagged melbourne itinerary Comments (0)

Dhaka

An Authentic Experience

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Our local guide told us straight up, there are two things you need to know about Dhaka:
1. the weather can be challenging
2. the traffic is terrible

No arguments on the first point. This year the monsoon has lingered, so Dhaka is still quite humid and prone to short downpours.

Let me tell you what I know about point 2! In summary – it’s true.

Within half an hour of leaving the hotel on day 1 we were stuck in a jam. There were two possible reasons. With the Prime Minister’s office literally just a few hundred metres ahead, and it being somewhere between 8:30 and 9:00, it could simply be that she was on her way to work and her security people had shut down the streets between her residence and her office. Plausible. The other, more sinister possibility was that it could be to do with some student protests that had begun a little earlier in the morning, where students were apparently throwing stones at vehicles and causing pandemonium, leading to some significant road closures.

Judging by the armed military personnel on the streets, it seemed likely to be the first one. Here are a couple of pics I took while waiting it out.

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Then at the end of the day, we had about 3.5km to drive back to the hotel. The estimate, based on the time of day, was that it should take about 45 minutes. Well, it took just over 3 hours. Two particular roads – both the normal route and the sneaky shortcut – took an hour each to inch along. This time we were fairly certain the situation was exacerbated by the student protests, but having an explanation was cold comfort.

After enjoying a wonderful cruise along the Buriganga River that afternoon, and seeing people do their afternoon commute by rowboat, I know which one I would prefer.

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Posted by Andrea R 17:35 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged traffic weather bangladesh dhaka Comments (1)

Northern Bangladesh (mainly)

For the love of topiary

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Something that has taken me by surprise in Bangladesh is the proliferation of public formal gardens. Practically every significant ancient/cultural site has been prefaced by a stroll through one of these delights. They love them! And they seem to especially adore their topiary!

Let me show you:

Exhibit 1
Lalbagh Fort, Dhaka, where the photo speaks for itself.

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Exhibit 2
Somapuri Vihara, Parharpur, an ancient Buddhist monastery and university. You can see the grass-covered stupa in the background, behind all the decorative foliage. There was also a large animal topiary, but I couldn’t tell whether it was a dinosaur or a giraffe with poor posture. Plenty of people were happy to pose for photos with it though.

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Exhibit 3
Mahastangarh, the most ancient city in Bangladesh, has a lovely entrance garden leading to the main access to the city ramparts – the only part of the ancient site that you can really see (across the top of the hill in the photo). I must say this was a bit of a disappointment, although the walk around the ramparts was lovely just in itself.

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Exhibit 4
The Tajhat Palace, Rajpur, which used to be a courthouse and is now a museum. Visiting the palace on a Sunday, the actual building was closed, but we were allowed to view it from the outside and wander around in the beautiful gardens.

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So there you have it. There were others, such as in Puthia, but they were probably not as fastidiously groomed as the gardens I’ve shown you.

Posted by Andrea R 21:41 Archived in Bangladesh Tagged nature garden bangladesh Comments (2)

Darjeeling

Railway above the clouds

semi-overcast 22 °C

Darjeeling has been full of highlights, but one of the funnest things I’ve done is to ride the Toy Train from Darjeeling to Ghum on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, up there with Angkor Wat and the Great Wall.

We were lucky enough to be booked on the 10:40am departure with a steam engine – a bit of a rarity in this day of diesel. So that we could spend some time watching the people and the shunting of carriages and engines, we arrived early.

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Our departure was delayed slightly, but when you’re prepared to spend 40 minutes travelling 8km, what does a few more minutes matter?

Then we were underway!

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Although it was loads of fun to be a passenger, I spared more than just the one thought for the locals who live along the railway. Four times each day this must be such a pain; blocking traffic, blocking driveways and having lunatic tourists waving manically at them…

Just over halfway the train stopped on Batasia Loop, a feature of the track designed to allow the train to gain height, much the same as a freeway loop. We were allowed off the train for about 10 minutes.

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The journey ended at Ghum Station, which was like stepping back in time.

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Posted by Andrea R 17:45 Archived in India Tagged trains india Comments (0)

Around Pelling

In the shadow of Kanchenjunga

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A lazy guidebook might say that the only reason to visit Pelling in West Sikkim is for its views of Mt Kanchenjunga. In fact, one of the top-sellers does say exactly that. Granted, the views are stunning, but I was surprised to spend a thoroughly enjoyable day taking in the other sights around Pelling.

First there is Sanga Choling Monastery, founded in 1649. Upon arrival we took a peek into the monastic school, at the boys doing their lessons. They were not perturbed to see us at all. The actual monastery was damaged in the 2011(?) earthquake and is being restored, but even from the outside it was worth seeing for its simplicity and its commanding views across the valley.

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Then there is Kecheopalri, or the Wishing Lake, a holy place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists. The lake was about a ten minute walk along a paved path that became increasingly festooned with prayer flags the closer we got to the lake. Then we walked out onto this kind of covered jetty with prayer wheels along both sides. At the end, on the edge of the lake, a Hindu priest was waiting to bless people.

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Pemayangtse is a stunning monastery, devoted to a form of Tantric Buddhism. No photos of the inside are allowed, so I have only my memories of the breathtaking seven-tiered, 3D wooden sculpture of Buddhist heaven, which is tucked away at the very top of the building.

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Quite close by is Rabdentse, the ancient, former capital of Sikkim. Its days were numbered when it was realised that the capital was too close to the border with Nepal, to defend adequately.

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But even after all that, I would say that the views of Mt Kanchenjunga are enough of a reason to visit Pelling, on their own. This shot was taken after hours of rain, when suddenly the sky cleared, and there it was in all its glory.

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Posted by Andrea R 17:42 Archived in India Tagged mountains lakes religion india monastery sikkim Comments (0)

Gangtok

Just a quickie

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It rained for most of the time we were in Gangtok (or seemed to), so here is a quick rundown of the highlight, which was a dry but very misty visit to Rumtek Monastery, about an hour out of the city.

Rumtek is reputed to be perhaps the wealthiest monastery in the world – can’t remember the numbers – and there has been trouble at Rumtek in the past. Therefore, before you can step over the threshold, you have to go through full-on metal detectors, bag check and pat-down. Forget it if you’re Chinese.

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Luckily when we first went into the main grounds we climbed up to the vantage point for photos and a briefing, because while we were there, we were literally watching the mist roll in, obscuring the higher part of the complex.

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As we listened, the novices were industriously carting around books and boxes and whatnot. It looked like chores, but the younger ones were clearly making a game of it as well.

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And suddenly it was time for lunch.

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Posted by Andrea R 20:12 Archived in India Tagged religion weather monastery Comments (0)

Thimphu

Love a festival

sunny 18 °C

In Bhutan, each region has its own annual festival, tied in with the lunar calendar. My trip to Bhutan was designed to have a couple of days at the country’s largest – the Thimphu Tshechu.

I couldn’t hope to do the dances justice by trying to explain what they were about, so this post is just a visual one. Dance scenes and crowd scenes. Go into my gallery if you want to see the photos in larger format (link on the right).

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Posted by Andrea R 06:10 Archived in Bhutan Tagged people dance festival bhutan Comments (0)

Paro

The Tiger's Nest

sunny 22 °C

At the top of any Bhutan bucketlist would have to be a visit to, or at least a viewing of, Taktshang Monastery – the cliffside Tiger’s Nest not far from Paro. I think I’d always just assumed I would go all the way until the actual day of the climb, when I realised how challenging it could be, and that it would be an achievement just to see it at eye level. I set off not really knowing what the outcome was going to be.

Even the view from the carpark at the bottom of the climb was pretty awesome (literally). The monastery is the group of buildings on the right of the chasm.

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The first section started off at a gentle incline, meandering through the forest, then began to get a little steeper. The main hazard here was the horses coming down from the mountain.

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The reward for finishing this section of the climb was a closer view and a cup of tea from the cafeteria (bottom left).

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Setting off on the second section of the climb, it was clear that things were getting a bit more serious. I didn’t think I took any photos during this part, but here’s one where I must have been trying to catch my breath. You can see it’s getting closer.

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Then – thank heavens – the top of the climb! Sitting slightly higher than the monastery, this was my goal. Me, red-faced and breathless with my chief motivator. And one of the monastery itself.

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The final section was all steps; down into the chasm and up the other side to the monastery.

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By this time I was thinking – what the hell – and pushed on. It was just steps after all…

And here’s the prize! I did enter the Tiger’s Nest, in the end.

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PS next day, legs are still working normally.

Posted by Andrea R 17:49 Archived in Bhutan Tagged mountains walk monastery Comments (1)

Wrap Up

Things that made me think

Back at home now, I was giving a friend a sadly un-curated viewing of my photos (sorry Alex!) and it occurred to me that there were a lot of things that didn’t make it into my blog or into my Facebook albums. So here are a few final things that either made an impression, or made me think.

Liberation War Museum, Dhaka
I don’t even have a photo of this, but it was an image I saw in the museum that triggered memories from my very early childhood and left me feeling ashamed of my ignorance. You’ll know it if you Google it – it was the poster for George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, with that iconic image of a malnourished infant. Even at that tender age I knew children were starving in Bangladesh, but of course I didn’t know why. And I never really did know why, until now. Everyone knows about what happened in Cambodia just a few years later, but Bangladesh was worse (I know it’s not a contest) and I get the impression this is not widely known or acknowledged or remembered in the West.

Kantanagar Temple, near Dinajpur
My favourite site in Bangladesh. Kantanagar is a Hindu terracotta temple, and although it’s currently undergoing significant restoration, the richly detailed sculpted panels are still really easy to see and understand, provided you are willing to stick your head in under the bamboo scaffolding and look.

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Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling
Tenzing Norgay is a local hero around here, not only for his personal climbing achievements but also for the legacy he has left behind in training and developing trekking-tourism in the area. A visit to the Everest Museum at HMI had me reflecting deeply on the burden of passion for mountain-climbing; not only for the climber but for their families, friends and colleagues. I don’t begin to understand it, but I kind of admire it.

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All the Dzongs, Bhutan
A very small country with a very small population, Bhutan has managed to protect its sovereignty through the ages, no doubt in part due to the system of regional fortresses it has in place. These fortresses, or Dzongs, were the centre of monastic and political life. We visited a few, and each was beautiful and unique although bearing basic similarities to the others.

Thimphu

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Punakha

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Paro

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Chelela Pass, Bhutan
The highest pass in Bhutan and reputed to be a sky burial site. Desolate but beautiful, it doesn’t take much imagination to see it being used for that purpose.

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Posted by Andrea R 18:00 Tagged mountains india monastery bhutan bangladesh Comments (0)

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