We rolled into Thimpu after coming back over the Dochu La pass. The guides weren’t flattering about Thimphu as it has been significantly developed in the past few years. While much of the new architecture isn’t lovely, it isn’t anywhere near as bad as most capital cities. We checked in to the glamorous Taj Tashi, and hubby headed to bed for the afternoon (he had been ill on some dodgy fish for 20 hours), and I had a sandwich and went for a long walk around town.
Thimphu is quite adorable! They had installed Bhutan’s only set of traffic lights on the Main Street a few years ago. So many people complained, that they took them out and went back to the original model of a man with a white glove directing traffic. I wandered past a few sights, and the highlight of the afternoon was watching worshipers circumambulate the National Chorten Memorial…., it was super calming sitting in the sun listening to the prayer wheels spin and the monks hum their mantras.
I wandered past the archery stadium, where the archers were using the modern carbon bows (apparently they cost $3000, and bhutanese men are as likely to buy a bow as a car). Today’s competition appeared more serious (and definitely more sober) than the one we watched in Paro.
Wandering along the river I chatted to some locals. Everyone here smiles, and they smile even more if you give them a hearty Guzuzamphola (Dzongkha for ‘hello’). I stumbled across the Zangto Pelri Lhakhang Temple, which appeared to be in the middle of a some sewerage pipes. I did three tours of spinning the prayer wheels for extra good karma.
I headed to the market for a quick wander around, though I planned to come back tomorrow as the weekend is when it all happens at the Thimphu market. The sun drops behind the mountains early in Bhutan, and it gets chilly, so at 4pm I headed back to the hotel for a long bath and a light dinner.
The next morning, hubby was somewhat recovered, and we headed up the valley to visit two important monasteries. First stop, a quick stop to see the fantastic Tashi Dzong – another fantastic fortress housing the administration of the government.
Then we headed up the river valley, pausing again to check out the gold rock painting of Guru RImpoche with his crazy moustache.
Then off to Tango Goemba – hiking up a nice steep hill (300m of climb) to visit this monastery is named for a natural rock formation which looks like a horses head (ta = horse, ngo = head).
The monastery was built by the Divine Madman in the 15th century. It is a beautiful curved building, and is undergoing renovation. I wanted a good photo so we clambered up a precarious ramp built for the building materials, to get a picture of the outside of the building, and ended up having to come down on all fours so I wouldn’t fall off. We had tonnes of fun with the cheeky monkeys on the site, who were helping themselves liberally to the fruit offerings that the monks had left. Most of the visitors to the monastery were locals (we only saw two other foreigners), so it was an entirely different atmosphere than the Tigers nest.
After Tango, we crossed the valley and then headed up to Cheri Goemba – which was the very first monastery built in Bhutan to educate the monks. Cheri was also under renovation, but was a total delight.
We spotted some adorable wild mountain goats (goral) in amongst the villas where the monks go to meditate for three months, three weeks and three days – inconceivable.
The trail up to the monastery was lovely, so I couldn’t resist jogging back down instead of hiking – 9 minutes to come down :-), and quite a few raised eyebrows from the pilgrims coming up who can’t fathom why anyone would jog. We met some lovely friendly locals at the bottom, as we were spinning the prayer wheels, and we had a chat about how lovely Bhutan is. The Bhutanese are incredibly proud of their country, and rightly so. Everyone we met was lovely!!!
The Bhutanese are immensely proud of their approach to gross national happiness, rather than gross domestic product. The government priorities are all anchored around sustainable development, protecting the environment, providing free healthy care and schooling and preserving the culture. It seems to be working. While there are downsides to GNH in terms of personal freedom (i.e you can’t buy tobacco in Bhutan, meat is allowed but only if it is imported, you must wear national dress inside any government office or temple and western advertising is banned), the upsides in terms of quality of life are worth it. I wish NZ had a similar approach.
We headed back down into Thimphu town for lunch and then went down to the weekend market. They had amazing dried cheese, a great assortment of vegetables and some truly unique dried pork. Modernisation has clearly taken hold as almost everyone in the market under the age of 40 was glued to their smart phone. Young girls shelling peas whilst simultaneously looking at snapchat was amusing……, but I preferred the two old ladies we photographed who were having a long afternoon gossip.
It was our last evening in Thimphu, so we were good tourists and went to the dancing demonstration at the hotel accompanied by some of the prized local butter tea (its as vile as it was when I tried it in Kathmandu years go). The dancing was lovely, but thirty minutes is probably all the Bhutanese dancing I need to see in my life. Another huge dinner and then off to bed.
We were really sad heading back to the airport. Bhutan is expensive, as the government has adopted a wise policy of high value low impact tourists. It costs a minimum of $200 per day per person, but this does include food, a guide, hotel and transportation. However, this will only cover a basic level of accommodation, so if you want luxury, expect to pay more. Honestly for us, it was worth it, as one of those few holidays in our lives where we really went luxurious. Bhutan is delightful, and I cannot wait to come back.
Our next stop was the lovely Punakha valley…..The weather was wonderful for our drive from Paro to Punakha. While it is only 120km, it would take 4 hours on the ‘main highway’ of Bhutan which was built by Indian workers 40 years ago, and is still managed by them to this day. I was looking forward to the drive, as we were heading over the pass at Dochu La – at 3000 metres, this pass has stunning views to the Himalayan range on a clear day. And it was a stunning clear day, and it seems every day in Bhutan in December is like this!
From the pass, we headed down to the Punakha valley. At 1200m in altitude, it is a lush green valley in comparison to Paro and Thimpu, where they grow great fruit and vegetables. The first thing you see is Punakha dzong, situated at the confluence of the Mama and Papa rivers in the Punakha valley. Apparently the Mama river is calm and zen and the Papa river is a bit violent. This fits nicely with what I have been learning about buddhism from our guide – women apparently stand for wisdom and compassion, and men stand for power and energy. We didn’t stop at the Dzong, but headed on to the Uma Punakha, further up the valley. It is a stunning tiny resort with 10 rooms and an amazing view up the green river valley.
We had another huge lunch (chicken wings, a club sandwich and ice-cream), and then summoned up the courage to go for a stroll. We headed up the hill to Chorten Nibu which is famous for when Drukpa Kunley (the ‘divine madman’ – more on him later) observed a witches coven plotting to hurt some villagers so he threw a stick at them from a distant hilltop. The stick eventually turned into a beautiful tree where they built the monastery Chorten Nibu. We then strolled down through the rice fields back to the hotel for more food and a big nights sleep.
The next morning, it was another glorious day and we took a stroll along the Mama river in the Punakha valley. We started from the ‘Aman bridge’, so named as it is near the Aman hotel, which doesn’t have a road, the guests get shuttled up from the bridge in golf buggies. We were met by a gorgeous fat dog who lives at the Aman (apparently he used to live at the Uma Punakha, but he upgraded a few months ago to the Aman, where he appears remarkably well fed). He guided us across the rice fields and through a little village full of friendly Bhutanese, including some cute kids who showed us their bows. They couldn’t have been more than about 6 years old but they were pretty good shots.
The dog then took us up the hill to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. It is a lovely temple dedicated to the current king and built by his mum, who lives just behind, and it was consecrated in 1999. The paintings were some of the nicest we saw in Bhutan. From the Chorten we wandered down the hill and through some more fields, helping ourselves to some delicious tomatillos and guavas from the trees on the hillside farms. I did ask our guide whether this constituted theft, and in true buddhist style, he responded that it was fine as the farmers had an abundance.
We wandered along the glacial Mama Chu river, which reminded me of the rivers in NZ, and found some illegal fishing nets in the river. It is technically against the law to kill any animals in Bhutan (all meat is imported from India or Bangladesh), and fishing in the national park is completely outlawed. We took the nets out of the river and shredded them, popping them in the backpack to dispose of later.
Heading up from the river to the hotel we met some cool young boys playing cowboys. They told us how many cows they each had. Like most young bhutanese boys they had knives tied around their waists and were ready for anything. Within a minute or two they had denied all knowledge of the fishing nets but one of them scurried off to the village to find the culprits, two entrepreneurial teenagers who had been selling fish to some of the locals and who were very upset that we had ruined their fishing nets. But like most bhutanese, there wasn’t an ounce of aggression. After a chat about the fishing rules we were back to the hotel for another enormous lunch…., beef skewers, amazing Caesar salad and more cake and ice-cream.
In the afternoon we headed down to Punakha to see the fortress. – Punakha Dzong. Its winter, so the fortress is home to all the monks who decamp from Thimpu during the winter. As a result, opening hours were really curtailed and we had to wrestle a scrum of Indian tourists to get in the door. Punakha Dzong was the second fortress built in Bhutan and it is definitely the loveliest.
The light was magical, and husband and I were forced to pose in front of the famous window in the Dzong where the king and queen had their photo taken.
After a strenuous day of sightseeing, we had a fabulous massage overlooking the river, followed by another enormous meal. At this rate I will be rolling home.
The next morning, fortified by a breakfast of French toast and bacon, it was time to head back to Thimphu. Our last stop in Punakha was at Chimi Lakhang (no dog temple), built in 1499 to honour Drukpa Kunley – the divine madman.
Drukpa Kunley apparently had a creative way of practising buddhism through sex and alcohol – the rock n roll buddhist! He apparently slept with over 5000 women, but it was all honourable as his outrageous behaviour encouraged people to think about things differently. He is still very honoured today, and there are souvenir phalluses galore for the tourists. Apparently it is a great place to go for a fertility blessing.
After that we headed back to Thimphu….to be continued
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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……
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 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!
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
I have felt for the Kurdish people for a long time – one of the largest groups of people in the world without their own homeland. The Kurds in Iraq have managed to carve out a relatively autonomous ‘country’ with clear borders with Iraq and Turkey. However, none of their neighbours want them to be independent – the Iraqis want the Kurd’s oil reserves, and the Turks and Iranians don’t want the numerous Kurds within their borders seeking independence. It felt like an interesting time to visit – a week before a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Independence the Kurds believe they are entitled to, not least for their recent efforts in battling IS, and for providing shelter to 850,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees who were fleeing IS (a huge number of refugees for a country of 4 million people). I wasn’t sure what to expect!
I flew via Vienna, and was unsurprised to find the plane filled with aid workers and military personnel. My plane neighbour (Lars from Norway) has lived in Erbil on and off for over a decade. At the beginning he says he was more hopeful and he worked in humanitarian work with living humans. Over recent years, he has found it more challenging to be hopeful and has shifted his emphasis to working with the deceased – specifically identifying the DNA of bones in mass graves. Horrible work, but one that gives family members relief as they can finally know if their loved ones are dead or alive, even if it isn’t the outcome they hoped for.
Erbil airport was a surprise. Aircon, plentiful cash machines, and a nice cafe. Only the VIPs 4WDs were allowed to approach the main terminal, the rest of us were herded on to an old bus to the pick up area about half a km away – I am assuming for security reasons.
I stayed at a great hotel in town – the Erbil View. They picked me up from the airport, and I dropped my stuff off and headed out for a long walk around town. It is fair to say there aren’t many jaw dropping sites in Erbil. In the 40 degree heat, I strolled slowly through the streets (not much in the way of paths) and tried not to melt, and visited the Citadel and the Muzzafariya Minaret and the Hot air balloon in Minaret park.
I noticed hordes of people with Kurdish flags heading in one direction and an overwhelming number of soldiers with guns. This is normally a good signal to high tail it in the opposite direction. Today I decided to trust my instincts and follow them – there were plenty of women in the crowd, every body was drinking sprite or Fanta, and I felt really safe when someone gave me a flag and the next person gave me a hat with the Kurdish flag on it. It turns out I had accidentally happened upon the big Independence rally in Shanidar park. I don’t like crowds at the best of times, and I like political crowds even less. But these were some of the friendliest people I had ever met.
People kept inviting me to dance with them and offering me food! It was like going to a super friendly wedding. I stayed for a couple of hours until the music stopped and the speeches started, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.
The next morning, I got up early to try and see a bit more before the heat got overwhelmingly oppressive. A long walk out to Sami Abdul Rahman Park to see the park and the monument to the the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack. It is aptly inscribed with the phrase ‘freedom is not free’.
From there I strolled back to town, and wandered around Shar Garden Square and the Qayssarria Bazaars, endeavouring to resist the huge array of fluorescent coloured sweets. It was hot as all hell, and I retreated into a shady tea shop full of old men (you never see women in these places, they are too busy working), where I had tea so sweet it almost hurt my teeth.
From there I wandered up to the Kurdish Textile Museum – probably not a global museum highlight – and then strolled around the citadel. And then I kept walking until I ran out of steam. If I had more time I would have gone to Lalesh, which was recommended to me on the plane. Next time! And then, after an all too brief visit, it was back to work. I would happily recommend a visit to Erbil for an offbeat weekend – it really isn’t that far away. People are extremely friendly , democratic, non secular and they deserve their own democratic leadership just like the rest of us.
Erbil, 17 September 2017
Note a week later – the referendum was held. Nine out of ten people voted for independence. Turkey threatened to cut the pipeline that allows Iraqi Kurdistan to export oil to the world. Iran and Iraq banned flights to Erbil, and most Western airlines have ceased flights (a challenge for the western military troops who are deployed against IS, as their base is near Erbil). The ban continues two weeks later when I am writing this, and rumours continue that Baghdad will try and retake Kirkuk
From the Observer – While all this may sound rather complicated, in truth, the current problem is straightforward. The Kurds of northern Iraq have proved loyal allies of the western powers since the era of Saddam Hussein. Unusually in a region riven by bigotry and hate, they share the secular, democratic, gender-inclusive and humanitarian values espoused by western society. Whatever the view of Britain and its partners on the wisdom of holding the independence vote, they now have an urgent duty, moral and practical, to robustly support and defend the Kurds as the dark forces of regression and reaction gather.
Baku – the best and worst of Dubai and Moscow….it made for fascinating weekend.
I’d been to Azerbaijan before but hadn’t formally entered the country….hmmmmm, so I thought I better make a return visit.
After a 4.5 hour Friday overnight flight on Azerbaijan Airlines with not much sleep, I arrived in Baku at 6am local (3am London time) on a bright Saturday morning. The airport is stunning and modern. I hitched a ride to town to the cheap but central Bristol hotel. Too cheap to spring for the early check -in, I hit the streets for a six hour 18km stroll around the sites.
First up the old city with Maidens Tower, the Palace of Shirvanshahs and the old city walls. It was wonderfully deserted at 7am. The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site which is extremely clean and tidy, almost like it has been recreated by Disney! Punctuating the views of the old town walls and houses, were glimpses of the huge ‘flame towers’ through the gaps- these are the colossal skyscrapers which overlook Baku from the hill.
I wandered up to get a closer view! I hadn’t realised there were so many steps in Baku, and was amused to see a free funicular and some escalators for the less fit visitors. The more energetic locals were doing Rocky-like stair runs and push ups at the top. It was a stunning view!
After checking out the towers, I strolled along the poignant Martyrs Lane. The memorials are for those who died when the Red Army attacked in 1990. I sat in the shade for a few moments and made a new friend – Abdullah – a retired colonel from the army. He sat down and chatted to me for half an hour, extolling the virtues of the openness of the Azeris. I hope his word choice was an english error, versus an intentional choice, as he was describing how jews and christians were ‘tolerated’ in Azerbaijan. The graves were sombre, but I couldn’t resist admiring the array of moustaches on the headstones.
I kept strolling along the ridge line to check out the huge Nariman Narimanov statue overlooking town and then strolled down the hill back to town in search of coffee. I re-caffeinated at one of the fine establishments on Fountain Square and rested my weary feet.
After that, more strolling along the waterfront Bulvar park. I strategically stayed in the shade as it got hotter and hotter on the 4km stretch to the modern art museum. I did opportunistically pop into two nicely air conditioned malls on the way to cool down. There are lots and lots of posh shops in Baku, staffed by very thin unhappy looking women, catering largely to Arab and Russian tourists. I didn’t get much more than a passing glance from them as I wandered through in old shorts and flip-flops.
I eventually sweated my way to the Modern Art Museum. It was fabulous – lots of great Azeri art and a few Picassos. And they had some lovely beanbags to lie in and look at the art….
I wandered back to town, and finally checked into the hotel and had a wee nap for an hour. After that more strolling and an icecream. Fountain square was quite lovely to watch the people walking by.
I managed to stay awake for an early dinner at Firuze – excellent kebabs and Qutar (bread like pancakes stuffed with meat and vegetables), and then passed out to the sounds of revelling in the streets outside.
Dragging myself out of bed for Sunday morning, and after an uninspiring breakfast I headed out the extraordinary Heyday Aliyev Cultural Centre. I spent a couple of hours walking around the site. The police blew a whistle at me more than once, I guess because I was walking on the grass. Unfortunately the interior was closed for a private event, but the outside is amazing. The grounds have a weird collection of rabbit and snail sculptures and some wonderful fountains.
I wandered back to the old town for another stroll and stopped off for a few coffees. Having seen all the main sites, it was just nice to wander around and people watch. Some of the buildings were lovely – I really liked the Nizami Literature Museum. After just one more kebab, I headed back to the airport- another extraordinary building.
Baku was fun! Highlights were the modern architectural monuments financed by oil money! It was a lovely town to wander around, good food, reasonably friendly people and good icecream. Whats not to like!
Stayed at the Bristol Hotel, ate at Firuze and Kafe Araz plus a random kebab shop. Flew direct with Azerbaijan Airlines from London. Easy to get a visa online for $25, but remember to keep the paperwork for your exit – as they asked me for it at the airport on the way out.
I love being on the subcontinent…. , everything smells pungently of incense, curry spices and sweat! Traffic lanes don’t exist in Bangladesh and every journey is a crazy game of chicken between gutsy rickshaw wallahs, dented buses, aggressive tuktuks and the pristine cars of the wealthy. It’s a constant cacophony of horns. Crossing the street on foot here takes nerve. It’s a team sport, best undertaken with an expert between you and the oncoming homicidal traffic. But its fun!
I met up with a local guide and for our first few stops much of the discussion was on the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 and the 3 million Bangladeshis murdered during that war. There is still ongoing anger towards Pakistan for their historical oppression of the Bengali language. Yet another sharp reminder that my history knowledge is dire. I had made the naive assumption that being Muslim, Bangladesh would be friends with Pakistan. As it turns out they prefer their Indian neighbours, though they reckon the Indians are unfriendlier and cheaper than Bangladeshis.
After seeing Dhakaswari, the National Assembly, Shaheed Minaar, and the Sculptures Terrace (none of which were remarkable apart from the history) we headed out to Sonargaon to see the the lost city of Panam. Fortuitously we were half an hour early so we took a wander around a local village to kill some time. That ended up being my favourite part of the day –
Every house we walked by, we were invited in by the stunningly beautiful women who lived in them. We stopped at a few places for a drink and then some fruit as it seemed rude not to when everyone was trying to force us to sit down and visit
Most of these ladies’ husbands are off working in Saudi, according to these ladies it is good money but a horrendous lifestyle…..which doesn’t surprise me having seen how many immigrant workers are treated in the Arab states. It was a lovely way to pass some time, sitting having a gossip with the gorgeous local ladies. We also wandered by a local school. We wandered in to say hi – it was a Saturday so there were no formal lessons going on. The headmistress came to say hello and had the students practice their English on me.
Eventually Badal the guide got me moving and we went to see Panam. It is quite lovely, and we enjoyed a peaceful twenty minutes before five bus loads of schoolboys arrived. Panam City is part of the 15th century city of Isa Khan’s Sonaragaon. The buildings that remain are lovely but falling down at a rapid pace and it was disappointing to see the schoolboys rampaging all over the site, climbing up the walls and dumping rubbish everywhere.
One the bright side, unlike India, the hassle factor is manageable. The locals are delighted to see you, western tourists are rare, and I had many new ‘friends’ ask for photos of me with their offspring.
From Sonargaon, we headed back into town to check out the madness at Sadarghat – Dhaka’s river port. Getting to river port requires navigating the seething mass of humanity and road traffic in the old market to find another seething mass of humanity down at the port. The river is a major form of transport and there are about 50 large ferries docked at Sadarghat with all forms of accommodation available from lying on the floor of the open air decks, paying for a japanese style coffin box with a fan, all the way up to an aircon room with tv.
We were there early afternoon before the ferries started to fill up properly but families were already there staking out their claims to the upper deck. There were only 2 toilets for the open decks, which apparently can fit several hundred, I can imagine that class of travel may not be for the fainthearted or those with a good sense of smell. I loved the noise, the colours and the friendly people, and the sulphurous smell rising from the pitch black Buriganga river definitely left an impression on my nostrils!
I also visited the other main sites in town – the Lalbag Fort, the Star Mosque, and the Armenian church. Honestly, none of these is remarkable. More interesting is enjoying navigating around the old town getting stuck in the traffic and watching the passers by.
I had a wonderful time in Dhaka, probably because I had no expectations having read all the reviews. The very best thing about Dhaka is the people, who were all incredibly friendly, even when I was wandering down the street. I felt very safe everywhere, though I have no doubt there were a few pickpockets about.
The food was pretty fabulous also, and I would recommend eating as much Dal as you can! It is the best Dal I have ever eaten. I am looking forward to visiting again
Note that getting a visa on arrival is pretty straightforward at the airport. Also Uber works well in Dhaka and is much cheaper and easier as a foreigner negotiating with a taxi!
When I told people I was going to North Korea, everyone said I was nuts, but it is one of the safest places to visit in the world and profoundly fascinating to see an entirely different culture unblemished by western values. While it was tricky to keep a straight face when hearing about the evil imperialist US and the divine acts of Kim Il Song, it was interesting how committed the North Koreans are to their country and the Juche ideology. And the food was pretty good too! Definitely worth a visit!
Before we were allowed on the plane we had to sign on the dotted line that we were not journalists and promise that we didn’t have any bibles and were not going to on a mission to convert any North Koreans to Christianity. That done, we then got a detailed briefing on what we weren’t allowed to do in the country, though in fairness it was largely a request to not take the piss out of the great leader (including only taking full and flattering photos of pictures or monuments of him) and being sensible (don’t take photos of the military or make dumb comments about the government)
Arriving in Pyongyang was an efficiency dream putting European and American airports to shame. There were more staff than passengers and while we were asked a bunch of questions and Lenas books were inspected we were through in five minutes. Our lovely guides took our passports and visas for the duration of the tour and then drove us in to town.
Our first stop was the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum. We had an extremely earnest young female military guide who spent two hours explaining in great detail how the imperialist and dishonourable US army had started the Korean War with their ‘puppets’ (South Korea) and without a note of cynicism went on to celebrate how ‘the supreme great leader’ Kim Sung Il had ‘liberated’ the whole of Korea before eventually being victorious in ‘liberating’ the DPRK (North Korea) when the Americans ‘surrendered’ (signed the armistice).
It was an endurance test for Lena and I not to burst out laughing at the exhibits and the fervent explanations which were delivered without a single note of cynicism. Highlights were the USS pueblo ship captured from the enemy who were committing evil espionage against the great people of the DPRK, the b grade propaganda films showing the US apologising for their cowardly acts and the extraordinarily 15 minute sound and light show in the revolving tower showing the beginning of the war. I have no doubt their were several elements of truth in the ‘facts presented’, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the US had dropped 410000 bombs on Pyongyang which at that time had a population of 400000 but it would be fair to say it was a one sided view.
By the time we finished it was dark and freezing so we went for dinner and a warmup ‘lecture’ from our guides on why North Korea should be allowed missiles and nuclear weapons. The bibimbap and kimchi were outstanding. And to be honest, while I would prefer no country had missiles I can’t see any sound logic for allowing Trump to have missile control and not Kim Jong Un. They also assured us that given the racial homogeneity of Korea it was much safer than Europe where they know we have ‘problems with refugees and immigrants’. It is frighteningly aryan how often the concept of racial homogeneity came up and it is apparently a core principle behind the design of the flag.
We then checked into the Yanggakdo hotel which was a 50 story monstrosity which only appeared to have two floors in use. Fortunately we were on the tourist floor and the hallway lights worked, the Chinese tourists had to stumble around the tenth floor in the dark to get to their rooms. The hot water and power worked and their was toilet paper, so no complaints.
After breakfast we headed out for the day. The highlights included Kim Il Song Square where the great esteemed leader watches the troop marches, the Mansudae Grand Monument where we had to buy flowers to leave underneath and were required to bow appropriately out of respect. Wandering around the town to get there was amusing as it is truly bizarre to see no brands or advertising….. only the ever present communist propaganda posters and pictures of the great leaders.
We were then treated to a ride on the Pyongyang metro which was fabulous. The stations were aptly named Prosperity, Glory, Torch, Victory and Reunification. The investments in mosaics and paintings are impressive, though it is a shame all of that creative talent is limited to depicting the great leaders and the communist struggles.
Then a visit to the Arc de triumph, which like many monuments in Pyongyang was built for the 70th birthday of the leader.
Then it was off to Okryugan for the Pyongyang specialty of Goksue – cold vermicelli noodles. While it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, but it was fun watching the slurping techniques of the locals.
Highlights of the afternoon were the Kwangbok department store which was heaving as it was a public holiday for international women’s day (kudos to North Korea for that!). We were amused by the fights that were breaking out in the cafeteria queue which was not really equipped for the demand. Then we were off to see the Presidents House where we saw where Kim il Song’s grandparents lived in humble poverty.
Next the Tower of Juche. Juche is the Kim Il Song’s philosophy of ‘self determination’ which essentially says that man creates the world he lives in, and this is why religion is irrelevant. Worth a google for those of you with an interest in communism and philosophy. And finally the Party Foundation Monument.
By this time Lena and I had both lost feeling in our fingers (it was below zero) so after a quick beer we headed off for Jongol (the Korean version of shabu shabu) which was accompanied by another fervent and friendly lecture on why the DPRK should be allowed nuclear power and why there should be more foreign investment given the stability of the economy.
Our guides were lovely and we had lots of fun with them. They were surprisingly flexible when they could be and let us flex different elements of the tour. However they did ask us more questions than we asked them and surprisingly knew more about is than they should have given what we put on our visa forms. Lena and I both noticed that they would ask us the same questions about each other to cross check our answers. We also got the standard questions of ‘why don’t you have husbands with you?’ and for me ‘why no kids’ and for Lena ‘why are you not married?’ And ‘how long did you breastfeed for’. We were apparently unusual in turning up as friends and we are pretty sure they thought we were having a lesbian fling. Nonetheless they were pretty amusing and we even got them singing in the bus one day. They were also constantly amused by how much food we could eat and how fast we could do it – I was nicknamed ‘pally pally’, Korean for fast, given how quickly I inhaled my meals.
Honestly it was a fun couple of days and I would recommend it for a novel holiday. I probably wouldn’t stay too long as it is a bit suffocating having to be accompanied everywhere, and it is weird having no phone or Internet. It was a quirky destination, people were largely friendly, the food was great and the sights were pretty unique. Lena summed it up beautifully as ‘fascinating, disturbing and hilarious’!
Notes on the tour
– You cannot travel independently to North Korea – you must book with a tour company, although you do not have to join a group tour if you are prepared to pay for your own tour. We went with Koryo, who came recommended by good friends and were excellent
– Your itinerary is restricted to open sites. We were happy with what we saw but if we had had one more day we would have gone to the DMZ at the border with South Korea which is apparently fascinating
– none of the toilet doors had locks on them, mostly you had to hold them closed while precariously squatting. No one could explain to us why locks were not allowed. Learn to be zen with strangers watching you pee or hold on all day
– Be respectful to your guides, don’t try and ditch them, as they are normal people with jobs not state security police and they get in a lot of trouble if you do anything bad. You will probably also be detained
One day I plan to come and do a long extended tour of the Mongolian steppes, but I would like to do it with the hubby, and he is wildly underwhelmed with the idea of gers, hiking, no showers, and long days in rickety vehicles. Until I persuade him, I am making do with a lightening visit to the wonderful Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
I must confess that my planning has been rather poor in this case. While I am now an expert at global flight connections, currency conversions, and general travel prep, every now and then I do something inordinately dumb. In this case I forgot to take a look at the temperatures, and it turns out the weather forecast was for between minus 30 and a high of minus 8. Hmmmmmf! and I was coming from Polynesia where I have been living in shorts and singlets. Oh well, at least wearing all my clothes there was nothing left to carry in the bag.
The first introduction to Mongolia was the plane flight from Hong Kong. Check in was a heaving mass of humanity, and almost everyone was travelling in an enormous family group, grand parents, parents and lots of kids running around screaming. They all look delightfully friendly, big warm smiles on wonderfully chubby faces, however they all seem to have the evil queuing instincts of the french or the mainland chinese, seriously everyone from the 5 year old to the 80 year old tried to cut me off in the check in queue. The plane was a similar experience, but I just can’t helped but be charmed by these chubby smiley people…., especially the kids, the most amazing pinchable cheeks. I am assuming that given the temperatures everyone here wisely carries a few extra pounds to ward off the freezing blimmen cold.
Ulaanbaatar is definitely modern, packed with coffee shops and malls funded by the brits, Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. I was expecting Tashkent and I got a cleaner version of Almaty. Modernity offset by the gers/yurts clustered around town – unfathomable how they survive winters at minus 40 in a tent
Given the limited time, I had prioritised the very best there was to see in Ulaanbaatar, and recommend these sights as a minimum:
Things to see
First stop Gandan Khiid/Gandantegchinlen a.k.a. ‘the great place of complete joy’, which had unbelievably beautiful standing Buddha statue (no photos allowed – you will have to come check it out for your self). I couldn’t find anyone to buy a ticket from but the taxi driver sent me off to a few side buildings as he mimed monks chanting. I found my way through the curtain into a small incense filled room with monks chanting and drinking tea, I am assuming it was a ceremony as the room was crowded with worshippers but they could have equally been having breakfast. Oddly, given the religious nature of the event, it was more like being in a rock concert with people pushing and shoving to get in and out, I guess I am used to my buddhists being a bit less physical. After getting elbowed in the tit for the third time I beat a retreat. I sat outside enjoying the view of people spinning the prayer wheels until I lost all feeling in my fingertips (approximately 3.2 minutes) and hustled back to the cab
Next stop Chinggis Khaan square….. a desolate space surrounded by ultramodern buildings. Suspect old Chinggis would be less that impressed by his nomadic countrymen settling down in bricks and mortar
Then, i had less luck at the chojin lama palace which is incongruously set against the high rises of downtown Ulaanbaatar, as it was closed on Monday. I asked the security guard to let me in for two minutes and he said sorry, security camera and pointed to the 5 cameras surveilling him, sometimes I miss the days pre cctv when a small gift would have definitely gotten me access. Oh well, one to visit next time
The winter palace of Bogd Khan (home of the last king) was spectacular, even more so given it wasn’t over renovated. Some consultant had clearly given them pricing advice as while the tickets were $3, it cost $20 to take photos but you were still not allowed to take photos inside the buildings. I managed a couple of photos, and really enjoyed the zen atmosphere and watching the icicles drip water on the Chinese tourists
Final stop a nice climb up the Zaisan monument for stunning views over the town. I lost feeling in my fingertips and my phone died of shock from the cold after about five minutes but it was worth it. Apparently Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst smog in the world, but not today. The mountains and plains around town are a tiny taste of what the rest of enormous country looks like, and I am itching to come back and go for some long runs up and down these hills
I stayed at the Hotel Khan Palace Kempinski – recommended as the nicest hotel in Ulan Bator, and at a reasonable $100 a night that felt like a good deal for me given the gym, sauna, wifi, toto loos and free breakfast
I rented a taxi for the time I was there. At $10 an hour, it was good value and made sure I maximised the time I had to get around to see everything Taxis to and from the airport are $20.maximum. I used safety taxi. My taxi driver was adorable, and pointed out all the sights, pulled my hat on for me and even offered me his gloves as he didn’t think mine were good enough – he was right and I should have taken his. It was definitely the best way to get round town in March, as my original plan of walking everywhere would have had me hypothermic within 20 minutes.
Thank you Mongolia, I will be back
Ulaanbaatar, March 6, 2017
P.s. A random fact that I love about Mongolia – women here go to school longer than men, as the men tend to be needed to look after the animals, whereas women need to be better educated to look after the household finances. As a result 70-80% of the skilled jobs in Ulaanbaatar are held by women
Convoluted layovers used to really annoy me….. I still don’t love them but I have learnt to better exploit the opportunity to spend some time somewhere interesting. As part of my 51 hour trip to Yap in Micronesia I spent a lovely 23 hours in Seoul. Blissful!
Seoul is a fantastic town and you can get a lot in in less than a day. My top tips….
See the palaces – Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung and Deoksugung
I saw the outside of all three but only Gyeongbokgung was open (it was a Monday) to go inside. Be amused by the beautifully dressed guards and more amused by the Chinese tourists who hire traditional Korean costumes and take endless selfies. Changdeokgung looked the nicest from the outside, so if you are short of time, focus there.
Visit the museum of modern and contemporary art and the surrounding galleries
Seoul is blessed with world class art and galleries. Start with the mmca Seoul! It’s terrific (plus has free wifi, water, lockers and a great cafe). If you have time also see the smaller sister museum at Deoksugung. Then pound the pavement around Bukchon taking in some of the wonderful smaller galleries – Gallery Hyundai and PKM galleries in particular. I didn’t make it to Leeum Samsang museum as it was the other side of town, but apparently it is good too.
Walk, walk and walk some more
I covered 24k easily on foot taking in all of the above as a lazy long loop from Seoul station up to Gyeongbokgung past city hall and Gwanghwamun square.
Than I wanderEd through Bukchon traditional village to Changdeokgung and back down to do some shopping at Eujiro 1 intersection after a stroll along Cheonggyecheon stream (a stream which used to be underground and is now a delightful pedestrian thoroughfare). Then take the cut through Namdaemun market to get back to Seoul station
Go food shopping
Nothing helps you understand a culture more than going grocery shopping. Koreans are tough…. they use their trolleys like bumper carts. Watch your butt! If you time it right you can eat for free, there were over 40 women handing out free samples of dimsum, bread and noodles at the Lotte mart at Seoul station at 5pm. There was a whole aisle for dried seaweed. I played Russian roulette and bought a random assortment of stuff to try. I won some, I lost some.
Getting to and from incheon is a piece of cake on the airport train for £5, although it does take 45 minutes. I stayed at the small but perfectly formed Kpop hotel which is 30 metres from the exit of Seoul station for a bargain £42.