Bhutan – Pampered in Paro

Flying into Bhutan was a hell of an experience – better than a roller coaster….!  There aren’t many places in central Bhutan where you can put an airport…Paro is an hour from the capital of Thimphu (where there isn’t space for a runway).  They have fit a runway in the Paro valley, but the runway is shorter and higher than most in the world and only suits smaller planes.  On a clear fine day the planes bank in tightly through the mountains and turn into the valley, weaving through the hills and juddering to halt about 10 metres from the end of the runway.  On a cloudy day (or at night), no flights come in or out.
Looking down the Paro valley past the dzong
The friendliness of the Bhutanese was reinforced from the outset.  The immigration officer was very friendly.  Their sense of humour was pretty evident also – Hubby asked were the bathroom was and was told that the nearest toilet was ok for a ‘short vacation’ but if he needed a ‘longer vacation’ to try the one further away.  Hilarious!
It is rare for me to do a luxury holiday…. Camping in my one person tent or staying in a backpackers is definitely more my style.  However, every now and then it is nice to go five star, and there is honestly no better place to try out luxury than Bhutan.  Our first few nights were at the Uma Paro, a luxurious version of a traditional bhutanese building with stunning views down the paro valley.     Stunning rooms, wonderful free yoga classes, and they gave us the best ginger and lemon tea I have ever had (which I had at every meal for the eight days we were in Bhutan).  Our first night was Christmas Eve, so instead of the Bhutanese fare of momos and thukpa we were expecting, we had a nine course Christmas dinner with foie gras, scallops, turkey, bisque and mousse.
Zuri Dzong
After a horrible jetlagged nights sleep, I fortified myself with an enormous buffet breakfast and we headed out to ‘hike’ to town.  ‘Hike’ as what they call a ‘hike’ here tends to be a casual stroll for relatively short distances.  Our guide adapted our itinerary to add walking wherever possible, but I was always surprised by the short distances and he was surprised by how quickly we covered them.  Our hike that morning was the standard ‘first day’ hike that the guide took all tourists on to see how fit they were.  It was a lovely stroll up the hill and past Zuri Dzong down to the National Museum.  It took us about an hour, and we did feel the uphills in our lungs at 2500 metres.  Apparently we did pretty well, compared to some of the other tourists who took 2-4 hours to cover the same terrain.
National Museum

The real National Museum is a beautiful old round watch tower on a hill overlooking the valley.  The real museum has been closed since 2009 when much of it was damaged in an earthquake.  There is a temporary exhibit next door with some fabulous masks (my favourites are the angry blue gods with skulls adorning the top), and a documentary outlining the different types of famous bhutanese mask dances.  Honestly the dances all looked identical to me except the dancers wore a different mask – suspect that is entirely not the case, but I am a bit of a cultural heathen.

Paro Dzong
Next up, a visit to the Paro Dzong (or fortress) constructed in 1644.   It is stunning!  We wandered around admiring the stunning architecture, but I was most impressed by the private loo for the main monk.  From the fortress we wandered down to the lovely Nyamai Zam bridge which cuts across the Paro Chhu (or River), practising my Dzongkha greetings on all the people we passed by.
Interior of Paro Dzong
Monks quarters at Paro Dzong
Nyamai Zam
Strolling into town for lunch we went past the paro archery field.  It was hilarious and quite lethal.  The archers (all in traditional national dress) are at one end of the 150m field firing into the distance.  At the target end, a variety of inebriated men taunt the archers when they miss, and they stand surprisingly close to the target and no-one seemed to get hit.  When an archer hits the target he (and yes it is mostly a he, as women are only allowed to compete occasionally) gets awarded a scarf to hang of his belt and is serenaded with a victory song by his friends.
Taunting the archers while standing very close to the target
I could have sat and watched archery for hours, but we got hungry, so headed into town for a spectacularly bad buffet lunch – unrecognisable poultry, cold rice and soggy aubergine…. a good warning to always eat at the posh hotel!
Paro town
We wandered around the unremarkable town of Paro, which is over-blessed with tourist shops, and then headed up the valley to the end of the road – Drukyel Dzong an old fort which was built in 1649 to commemorate the victory of Bhutan over Tibetan invaders who had followed the river to Paro.  Its a lovely spot, and it literally is the end of the road.
Drukyel Dzong
We then went to visit the lovely Kyichu Lakhang with its magical orange tree (so called as oranges shouldn’t be able to grow at this altitude).  It is one of Bhutan’s oldest and most beautiful temples, believed to have been built by a Tibetan king in 659, as part of a network of temples built to pin down a demoness.  Kyichu is pinning down her left foot.    After watching the devotees spinning the prayer wheels in the late afternoon sun, we headed back to the hotel for candlelit yoga and an amazing Christmas dinner! We opted for the bhutanese set meal – great thukpa soup, momos, stunning cheese and green bean curry (with crazy hot green chilis) and chicken curry with red rice….
Kids racing around the prayer wheels at Kyichu Lakhang
Circumambulating at Kyichu Lakhang
The next day we were up early to hike to the most popular site in Bhutan – Taktshang Goemba – literally the Tigers Nest Monastery – which hangs from the cliffside 900metres above the valley.   The monastery is so named as Guru Rinpoche (who bought buddhism to Bhutan), flew up to the monastery on the back of a tiger to defeat the local demons.  All true buddhists apparently need to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
Mules relieved to be free of their loads at the half way point

The hike was apparently supposed to take a couple of hours, although our guide had warned us that Indians and Chinese typically took 3-4 hours to get to the top. Alexander McQueen apparently took 9 hours to get up and back, as he stopped for a cigarette after every ten minutes of hiking.   It was quite steep, and it was amusing to see the lazier tourists on the back of mules who you can hire to take you half way up.  I hiked up halfway and then jogged back down to pick up hubby and the guide.  And then I went to the top of the trail and jogged back again…. A perfect morning work out, though it did raise some eyebrows with the hikers who I kept passing going up and back down again.

hubby took a picture of me jogging down the hill

It probably took about 45 minutes to get to the monastery, and it was a great trail, with lots of fantastic views of the en route.   The monastery was worth the hike.   We only went to a handful of the temples (there are many), and we made offerings to Guru Rinpoche, and even meditated for a few minutes.

Takthsang Goemba – Tigers nest monastery

After that, we had some ginger tea and muffins in the sun, and then I ran down the trail to see how long it would take (22 minutes at a cruisy pace – even going downhill at this altitude is tiring).   I then hiked back up again to pick up the hubby.  The guides nicknamed me yaomaoyaomao which means up down up down, as apparently it is unusual for people to voluntarily hike more than they needed to.   A glorious visit!!!

prayer wheels
We had a late lunch and then spent the afternoon trying to learn how to play bhutanese darts and archery.  I was pretty rubbish at both, but did manage to hit the target once with the arrow!!!!
One last night of yoga, delicious food, and a great night sleep at the Uma Paro, we were headed for the Punakha valley in the morning.
26 December, 2017

Lovin’ it in Lahore

There have been multiple terror attacks in Lahore this year, and the week before I arrived there were clashes between anti government protestors and the police.  My first day in town it was the prophet’s birthday – Eid Milad ul-Nabi – and there were 15,000 policemen on the streets of Lahore to prevent any violence…… so, I was a little bit more reticent than usual about visiting.  It turns out I have never had such a warm welcome to a big city.   My most amusing moments were being surrounded by young girls and their teachers who wanted to ‘selfie with me’.   I was also invited home by pretty much every woman I met, including the lovely woman who sat next to me on the plane on the way over.   The pakistani/british women on my connecting flight through Karachi on the way home, also took charge of me and hustled me to the plane along with them at Karachi and made sure I was fine and safe.  I can’t imagine feeling safer or better looked after!

Jinnay Lahore nu nahi takkeya, o jammeya e nai – He who has not seen or visited Lahore, is nor born yet

Lahore is a delight, and there are lots of things to see and do.  I only saw four other tourists in the three days I was in town, so now is a great time to visit.    My favourite things from the weekend……

Badshahi Mosque

The mosque is built out of Jaipur red sandstone, which apparently is baking hot in the summer.  The locals have tried to replace the red stone in the courtyard with a cooler marble, but the heritage officers won’t let them.  Its a truly enormous space which can apparently house 100,000 worshippers.  I can’t imagine the bathroom queues!, and am glad I didn’t visit on the prophet’s birthday as it would have been crazy.

the mosque in the Lahore smog
Contemplating life
A couple enjoying the morning light
the old classrooms of the mosque glowing in the morning sun
Lahore fort

The fort was lovely and well preserved.  Unfortunately you are no longer allowed to approach the elephant gate, but you can see it from the entrance of Badshahi mosque.  There was plenty to occupy an eager history buff for an hour or so, and I thought the hall of mirrors was extraordinary!

Elephant Gate at Lahore Fort

 

School girls lining up to visit the fort
yes I look like a dork….the guide made me do it
hall of mirrors at Lahore Fort
some of the many girls who asked if they could ‘selfie with me’
having a chat on the mobile at the fort
minar pakistan

The’ tower of Pakistan’ was constructed during the 1960s on the site where the All-India Muslim League passed a resolution calling for a  separate and independent Pakistan on 23 March 1940

the Eiffel tour of Pakistan, on the site of where the document founding Pakistan was signed

 

Jahangirs tomb

Jahangir is the father of Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal).  He is buried in Lahore as this was apparently his first capital city.  The tomb is set in enormous walled gardens, and was lovely.

Gateway to the tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb
The actual tomb – decorated in the same lapis as the Taj Mahal
Asif Khan’s Tomb (brother of Noor Jahan). Next door to Jahangirs tomb its materials wer sacked by the Sikhs for use in the Golden Temple
delhi gate and old city

No visit to Lahore is complete without visiting the bonkers walled city.  I narrowly avoided getting hit by a motorbike and head butted by an ox.  There isn’t a great deal of personal space in the old city, but it was a fascinating walk.   In spite of having a substantial lunch, I couldn’t walk past the five men making buttery naan in a seamless manufacturing process, and it was delicious.

Delhi gate – to the old walled city of Lahore
the honey and spice traders hard at work in the old walled city
making naan bread
smoking ‘strong tobacco’ from the tobacco vendor’s hubbly bubbly pipe
traffic jam
Lahore styles
wazir kahn mosque

This lovely little mosque is apparently the most beautiful mosque in Lahore, and it reminded me of the ‘rose’ mosque in Shiraz, Iran.  Walking into the courtyard from the hustle and bustle of the old wall city, to find people peacefully praying in the late afternoon sun – it was delightful.  This was probably my favourite moment in Lahore

Prayer time in the late afternoon sun
Prayer time in the late afternoon sun

Atchison College

Atchison College is the ultra-posh school where fine young elite Pakistani men are educated.  The architecture is lovely, and that is why it has appeared on tripadvisor as a place to see.  The twist is the you need to email the principal of the school to ask for a visit – but lucky for me he said yes.   While the architecture was the reason for visiting, it turns out that I was most fascinated by the overwhelming British poshness of it all.  From the 200 groundsmen, to the fully kitted out stables for the equestrian lessons and polo ponies, to the three swimming pools.  They have thought of most things – they even have a Sikh temple and a hindu temple to compliment the mosque – so that everyone can worship.  I also was amused by the irony that there was no way I would have been able to visit the British equivalent of Atchison (Harrow? Eton?) so easily.

Administration building
Sikh temple for the students
Main building
Flowers arranged in a bed with military precision
trucks

I love trucks in Asia.  They are more ornately and lovingly decorated than the women, and that says something.  Truck owners invest extraordinary amounts of money (several thousand USD by all accounts) on dedicated truck artists.  I couldn’t resist asking my driver to pause at the truck stop for me to check some of these out.

the drivers requested I take their photo

Gorgeous truck

Shalimar garden

I ended one of my Lahore  days at the lovely Shalimar Garden.  While there was nothing amazing to see, it was peaceful sitting in the shade having a chai, watching the sun go down

 

additional notes
  • Many people visit the Wagah border with India (24km from Lahore) to watch the elaborate daily ceremony where the flags get lowered and the border closes.  I didn’t go, as had seen it 20 years ago from the other side of the border.  Its worth a trip
  • I stayed at the Residency Hotel which was excellent – free airport pick up, drop off and breakfast, and a great gym.  I rented a car and driver for one day to get around town – it was 30USD all in, including kms.    I also simplified my life and organised a guide for one day, as hadn’t had time to do any planning
  • Women – I would recommend long sleeves, a tunic and trousers or long skirt.  A shalwar kameez is best if you have one, but a tunic and jeans worked for me, with a loose head scarf
  • The food is fabulous…. I could have eaten my bodyweight in paratha, Dahl and chicken handi

 

Lahore, December 3, 2017