Its a few weeks since we have gotten back from Afghanistan, and I shared most of my photos in earlier posts. However, regular readers will know my hubby is a much better photographer than I am, and here is a guest post of his favourite faces of Afghanistan….
Coming back to our lovely guesthouse was like coming home! We went out for a stunningly good local iftar dinner – lamb, lamb and more lamb! It was delicious!!!! Unsurprisingly the streets were deserted at 8.30 when we headed back to the guesthouse, I guess Kabul doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife. Some more tea and another quiet nights sleep.
In the morning, after another enormous breakfast, Kausar offered to take us to the bird market, provided we followed his instructions about how fast we had to move – as we didn’t want to attract too much attention. The market is an extraordinary set of lanes in old Kabul where you can buy racing pigeons, fighting birds, song birds, and just about any bird you might want . We were quick in and out for security reasons, but every time we stopped to take a photo, others would clamour to get in the photo. For some professional photos check these out
We stopped to see the Shah e de shamshira mosque -it was built by someone who had been to europe and wanted mimic the design of a church.
We then visited the Shrine to the murdered girl – Shaheed Farkhunda – on 19/3/2015 she was tortured and burnt to death ostensibly for disrespecting the quran. The monument expresses disgust at the “barbaric ignoramuses” who murdered her. That it happened in Afghanistan didn’t surprise people, but that it happened in Kabul, and was not perpetuated by Isis or the taliban but by everyday citizens, and in 2015! that was the surprise! More here
The traffic was appalling, and we were basically liquifying in the back seat of the van, moving about 10 metres every five minutes so we retreated to the Bookseller of Kabul (as written about in two books of the same name). They have an excellent selection of new and old books, and it was gloriously cool. I didn’t actually buy any physical books (too heavy) but did use the inspiration to buy some good local titles on my kindle.
So far the first book has made for mostly depressing reading about how grim life is as an afghan woman with a life expectancy of 44, (WFP 2014), daughters are a form of currency for their fathers, if they are raped they get arrested for pre-marital sex and/or have to marry the rapist, most women still wear burqas and are illiterate (not having had access to education), and women routinely burn themselves to death with cooking oil to escape domestic violence (The Underground Girls of Kabul, Jenny Nordberg). I don’t expect the other books to be any happier.
As we were leaving the shop we heard reports of a bombing and gunfire at new interior ministry, Originally we thought it was old ministry which we were right next to. The policy of isis and the taliban is to destabilise the government, which they do by attacking government offices and the public. As a result, lots of monuments are closed – multiple shrines, the intercontinental hotel, the land mine museum, and chicken street were all off limits following attacks – but then Isis and the taliban just find other targets.
We popped into to see the last jew in Afghanistan – Zablon Simintov – he has a synagogue on Flower St above a juice bar, and has lived here all his life. His family fled to tel Aviv years ago but he refuses to go. He sounds like he is quite a character (check out his wikipedia entry which details his feud with the other jew who lived in Kabul for a time).
We met a foreign affairs diplomat who had been visiting him, and got into an extended debate about Isis, Iran and eu intervention into the affairs of the region. We lounged around on the matts for a while, ostensibly having a chat, but largely to stay off the street while the gun battle was ongoing at the ministry. Details of the battle here
We headed back to the airport for our flight to Mazar. I was recognised by every security lady – you get patted down at five different checkpoints before you get to the domestic terminal. We are off to Mazar for three nights, back to Kabul for part 3 on saturday morning.
May 30, 2018
Part 3 – returning from Mazar…..
Back to Kabul for the third time after a very early flight from mazar…. it really does feel like home. We had some bread cheese honey and coffee and then went to check out the mini mobile circus for children (afghanmmcc.org). This was the two hours that made me the happiest the whole time I was in Afghanistan, as it was the first time I had seen confident young girls (mostly from refugee/IDP camps) laughing and playing, and more importantly learning to read. The school teaches (for free) circus skills (including acrobatics, pop and parkour), but girls are limited to what they are allowed to do, which is pretty much juggling and acting – well they were some damn good jugglers. Once the families are ok with them coming to circus school, they get persuaded to let them to go real school also, and so they learn how to read
One particular young girl had beautiful green eyes and was full of energy, but apparently had been woefully malnourished when she arrived. She taught me how to swing on the hoops hanging from the ceiling (am not sure they are used to grown ups doing that). Another was playfully punching the male director, behaviour that would never have been allowed outside of the circus walls, so I gave her a few tips (thanks Jenny Garbutt) for hitting harder and getting your hip behind the punch :-). If you are in Kabul, go visit them, it’s a remarkable organisation, and give a generous donation while you are there.
We then popped by to see one more fort on a hill in Kabul – there are many, and the different Mujahideen groups did a great job levelling Kabul from their hilltops as they battled over Kabul when the soviets left. Most of the buildings have bullet holes and bomb damage.
And then finally, for the first time ever in my travelling career, I went to a carpet shop. I never go to carpet shops, as I am sure I would feel obliged to buy something after drinking tea and chatting. This time, both Rob and Hubby wanted to buy a carpet. Hubby wanted a war rug! These are quite famous in Afghanistan – rugs with kalishnakovs and bombs. We had seen one once at a friends house in rural England. Apparently his neighbours had seen it also through his window, as the police turned up to check out they weren’t terrorists (worth noting that my friend was Sri Lankan and it was a very pale English town)…. Anyway, our carpet seller was a former mujahideen commander from Mazaar, so in between tea and carpets we got to hear some of his fascinating history. And yes, we left with two carpets
And then we went for one final wander down Chicken street (so named as it was where you could once buy chickens, but there are no chickens anymore).. It is as famous as Freak street in Nepal and Khao sahn rd in Bangkok as part of the legendary hippy trail. I can imagine the hippies having a fabulous time in Kabul in the 70s before the soviets and the Taliban. There were fabulous souvenir shops – with fur hats, great carpets, wonderful jewellery, but not so much in the way of customers. I found out afterwards most aid and govt organisations have banned their employees from shopping there after a spate of recent bombings As is often the case, this has made it safer for the few of us still going, as isis and the Taliban have gone looking for other targets.
To round out our wonderful 9 days we went for dinner at Bukhara. The family room was deserted and a bit sterile so we went downstairs and ate with the men. We were joined by Gull and his lovely daughter Mohadesa, and as usual ate far too much!! After tea and baklava, time for bed, as an early wake up call to head home the next day.
We had an amazing time in Afghanistan, and I will definitely be back to visit Bamian. Gull has agreed to run the Bamian marathon with me when I come back! Until then, I hope that security improves for our Afghan friends!
3 June 2018, Kabul
Additional notes if you are visiting
– women’s dress – in Kabul, skinny jeans or leggings with a dress that reaches to close to knee length is appropriate, with a headscarf. Sleeves must go to the wrist and obviously necklines must be high. Outside of Kabul I felt most comfortable on the street in an abbaya (long black ankle length zip tunic) and a headscarf which was still less than most people wore.
– men’s dress – go local! it costs less than $15 for an outfit including the waist coat, and you look great in it. The benefit being you only need to come in the clothes you are wearing…. but two sets of local, wash as require, and then put your original clothes on the day you leave
– guides/tours – I recommend Kausar at untamed borders without hesitation – he was amazing! I will be coming back and would only go with Kausar!
– hotels – am not sharing where we stayed for security reasons as best not to publicise where the foreigners hang out. Suffice to say, they aren’t five star!!!
– drinks – coffee – lots of places either didn’t have it, or had the weird three-in-one packets with sugar added. If you want sugar free black coffee, carry some instant with you. Most places also had a water filter which saved on plastic bottles.
– communications – WiFi is available lots of places but isn’t great. For $14 you can buy a SIM card with 4gb of data which is more than enough for a week or two.
We arrived in Mazar as the sun was going down, checked into our hotel (which could have won awards for the pungentness of the smell of pee and cigarettes), and headed out for dinner as iftar was approaching. Our destination – the king – was closed, so we went to the ‘chife’ burger ( ie chief) across the road. I walked in first and got shouted something in Arabic, and the only word I understood was ‘family’, as the man ushered me out of the room. Result! This means I get to eat dinner with women tonight!!!! I took my four husbands (actual husband, Rob, Kausar the guide and Nowruz the driver) upstairs for dinner. It was pretty noisy as there were kids, which turns out to be an unexpected upside in segregation – no screaming kids over dinner. Dinner was various fried things with a token salads. And after dinner we went to the ice creamery where three strong men literally churn the icecream in big vats in a block of ice in front of you. It was delicious – milk and cardamom and sugar.
We got up at 5.30 to see the famous shrine of Hazrat Ali in the Dawn light. It is extraordinary, and is the most famous shrine in Afghanistan. However, it is unfortunate that they have taken a few modernisation liberties and there are a few too many air conditioners, power lines and down pipes in evidence, as well as some neon signs on the dome. However, it was amazing. The shrine is a little contentious as most Muslims agree Ali is buried in Najaf, however everyone agrees it is a holy place. I enjoyed practising wearing my burqa – it’s bloody difficult, but given we aren’t supposed to photograph women, I figured I could charge rob and hubby baksheesh for walking atmospherically in front of the mosque. It turns out I have the wrong gait for a burqa, and the local kids were in fits when I tried running to get the burqa to flow behind me.
Yes that’s me and hubby in the photo above….
We came back for a wee nap and then had a very weird afghan breakfast of bread, jam and what seemed like clotted cream….. served in a dusty conference room which was last used by the Norwegian refugee counsel. It was delicious but probably not nutritious.
We headed to Balkh – once the most famous city in the world and birthplace of Rumi the poet and Zoroastrianism. We went to see the largely ruined Noh gonbad mosque – oldest mosque in Afghanistan, which had nine domes. They are restoring it, but slowly. In the garden we met a Sufi mystic who lost his family 20 years ago in the war, renounced his life and moved here to care for the shrines and the mosque. He reputedly smokes 250g of hash per day, and I can’t comment, but it smelled impressively strong, so not sure how he remained upright
We then went to see the citadel walls. Alexander the Great conquered Bactria/balkh and married Roxana the former kings daughter – apparently the best looking woman in Central Asia – she decided it was a practical way of staying alive
We went to conservative downtown Balkh (Kausar made us ditch our sunglasses so we didn’t look too foreign) and checked out the Mosque and shrine of Hoja Pasha, which was lovely.
More interesting was the shrine to Rabia Balhi, a female poet. She fell in love with her slave so her husband and brothers tied her to the walls and she wrote poems in her own blood until she died. Now it is a pilgrimage site for romantics
We then had to make a stop at the Shrine and tomb to Baba Ku Mastan, who converted marijuana to hash for the first time ever. Hashish is a big deal here as the Sufi mystics smoke it all day long. Who knew you could be a religious stoner? Sufis come from all over country to celebrate and sing poetry for him.
We headed back to Mazar – passing the ruins of the German consulate, which was bombed out by the taliban last year – there is nothing left and the windows in all the neighbouring buildings were blown out
We stopped at am unassuming mud building which turns out to be the main Cock, quail and dog fighting ring. Not really a sport I understand or support but these men are very proud of their birds and they are apparently very valuable
After that we went for a quick tour around the bazaar. Usual Kausar security rules applied – keep moving and don’t stop too long – but it was tricky to obey when everyone wants their photo taken and to say hi! It was different here than Herat as there were women working on some of the stalls and plenty of women out a shopping, though most in burqas
After another nap and a sneaky non Ramadan snack of fried afghan pizza we went back to the shrine for the early evening. It was an entirely different place. Bustling with people and lots of groups sitting round relaxing. We sat for a while to give Kausar time to go pray and were a source of great amusement to the locals around us who were amused by my burqa, which I was wearing in a style that some local ladies do, with the veil flipped back so you can see and breathe. They had a good laugh when I decided to retreat under my veil entirely. They came over to befriend us and I ended up with some new Facebook friends as Steph had taken some nice photos of them.
We hung out in the setting sun enjoying the amazing sounds of two Sufi singers chanting to god – these were ‘real’ sufis as opposed to the hash smoking ones. And we watched the mosque set up for iftar, where they feed everyone for free, rich and poor together (though women last of course, and in a separate place). There really isn’t much like Ramadan to see the best of Islam, it was a lovely evening.
Another iftar dinner, with more lamb. Lamb cutlets, lamb rack, lamb shanks, lamb casserole and lamb pilau – Kausar likes lamb, and it was all delicious
We are quite close to the border with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, so mazar I sharif is an important cross roads (and has been for thousands of years). As we were driving out of town we saw evidence of that, both in the trucks, shipping containers, shiny Petrol stations and the newly built rail line from Uzbekistan to bring in oil, but also in the numerous camel trains that we passed.
We stopped at Bagh I jahan, the amazing kings hunting lodge. Fascinating architecture designed to keep them cool in the heat. What was more stunning was our first glimpses of the Hindu Kush in the background. The pictures aren’t great as there is a lot of haze, but the colours and the ridge lines are stunning.
Our guide is also a journalist and photographer, so he got us to stop and take some burqa tank photos, which were corny but hilarious. Note to self, next time climb up on the tank and then out the burqa on…. it’s quite hard to climb while wearing one (it’s quite hard to do anything while wearing one – which I guess is part of the design, to keep women partially handicapped).
We went through the tashkurgan gorge – a small break in the line of the Hindu Kush…. stunning! The valley runs for a long way, and after the barren desert, it is lovely to drive through a lush valley full of almond and pistachio trees, herds of goats and mud houses that look they have been here for a millennium, with the mountains rising up on both sides
It was a lovely drive. Nowruz had the afghan beats playing, and in spite of it being 40 degrees it was pleasant in the moving van with the wind blowing through.
The purpose of the drive was to see Takht-e roshtam! Buddhism was the reigning religion for a long time here and since the Taliban destroyed the standing buddhas at Bamian, Takht-e roshtam is the most important and impressive preislamic sure in Afghanistan. It’s a stunning stupa which is dug into the ground like the churches of Lalibela. Part of the stupa has been blown up as one of the local warlords thought there might be gold inside
Close by the stupa is a monastery complex with an amazing dug out temple where the standing buddhas were until the warlords looted them, and an amazing ancient bazaar. The photos don’t really do it justice but it was lovely
By the time we got back to mazar it was 42 degrees so time for another nap! After that, we decided to head back to the shrine to enjoy the ambience of Friday night prayers. And then another iftar dinner – more delicious food, lentils, chicken, kofta, aubergine, spinach dumplings, bread and spinach dumplings. Our delightful driver Nowruz took us out to another ice cream shop as he reckons he knew a nicer place than we had the first night – we tried three flavours – cardamom, mango and cherry. Amazing. Then we needed to get to bed for an early flight. I had found out earlier that night that our driver Nowruz had only ever seen one woman drive a car, so I offered to drive us home, and he said yes. The boys weren’t too keen, especially given it was dark, roads in Afghanistan are pants, and the van was a right hand drive (ie steering wheel near the footpath), but I couldn’t refuse!!!!!!! Well we are now safely home so all good!!!! Back to Kabul tomorrow :-).
The landscape from the plane between Kabul and Herat is like a long rolling wave of rock! It was extraordinary! The people on the plane were amazed to see foreigners , several of the women actually asked me (while I was on the plane or the bus on the way to the plane) if I was going to Herat – well I hope so! I am guessing it isn’t a tourist hotspot these days.
Apparently the dress code in Herat is a little more conservative than normal, and I was approached by a lady in the loo at Herat airport who told me I wasn’t wearing enough clothes – oh well, just as well I bought an abbaya.
We checked into a glorious hotel which is painted in a riot of pastel colours, and then headed out for iftar dinner. The restaurant was in a delightful courtyard with lounging areas. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with the place until I realised I was the only woman in sight. Odd!!!! Apparently women have to sit in a different room or in the family room, but I get an exemption as a foreigner. Many quips were made by the hubby and rob about the women’s room – which was obviously the kitchen! Dinner was an amazing feast of grilled meat and bread, preceded by wonderful iftar pastries – glorious combinations of sugar and fat. We were joined by a kiwi guy off my nutters group of Facebook travellers who was coincidentally in Herat staying with a taxi driver and his family, and having quite an experience!
Back to the hotel for a good nights sleep where I discovered I had been eaten by something, I am covered in huge bites!!! Oh well! I scratched most of the night and then we were up early to start sightseeing before it got to hot.
The lovely Mahboob picked us up in his beat up van with the cracked windscreen and drove us round to the mosque. The street near the entry was lined with scholars who write letters and applications for those who are illiterate- which is apparently quite common here.
There is a lovely tile factory adjacent to the mosque entry where craftsmen make beautiful mosaics in the same way they have for thousands of years, it’s extraordinary work, and was lovely to visit.
The main mosque was delightful….. huge and very much still in use. There was a cadre of wizened old men who were busy cleaning up after morning prayers with brooms whose design probably hadn’t changed for centuries. It is easy to see why the locals often come and rest and meet their friends in the mosque as it is a wonderful place to lie down and chat, far from the cacophony of the busy Herat streets.
We wandered back to the van, passing a famous souvenir shop as we went. While I thought I was fitting in with the locals, it is obvious I stand out, as quite a few women stopped and stared at me – it’s probably a combination of my sunglasses and kiwi walk!
Next up the Herat fort. A stunning piece of architecture! We paid the curator some baksheesh and he let us into the royal palace, the highlight of which was the queens bath!
Driving around the streets is fantastic – there isn’t a spare piece of space which isn’t being productively used for retail – from trucks of watermelons to wheelbarrows of soap. The vendors are all men, and for some weird reason many of them are in cowboy hats. The driving in Afghanistan is generally chaotic, it is the first place I have ever seen anyone go the wrong way round a roundabout! No one seems that bothered as the traffic moves so slowly everyone has time to react.
We headed up the hill to the jihad museum – a tribute to the mujahaddin who had died fighting the ten year occupation of the Russians. The gardens are full of old helicopters and anti aircraft guns. It also had lots of wonderful fruit trees, so we were surreptitiously stuffing our faces with apricots and mulberries while the guard wasn’t looking (naughty given everyone is fasting). The museum had a wonderful diorama showing Afghans bearing Russian tanks with stones and sticks…. if it wasn’t so serious it would have been hilarious
Next up the wonderful shrine to Ansari. It is the first time I have seen a mosque type building filled with graves. Women were allowed on one side and men on the other. There was a woman at the shrine wailing and banging her head against the concrete. The women around her were giving me hostile stares and ignoring her. Eventually one intervened and held her to stop her doing it. I have no idea why – but have to assume she is in mourning. You do see quite a few female beggars here, they have lost their husbands in the war and apparently their families often won’t have the means to take them back. I saw very few women working in public in Herat, so I imagine it is difficult for these women to look after themselves. Kausar is terrific at sharing around donations to different people in need, in keeping with good Muslim tradition.
We picked up some snacks and retreated to the hotel for a break. It is hot here! There is a wind that blows 120 days a year, and it drives the locals bonkers, but I love it for the respite from the heat. My abbaya is a big black sweat sack – I bought it for £12 from amazon – it’s made from polyester and isn’t very breathable. I took a shower, turned up the AC and lay down in my underpants for two hours to cool down!
Refreshed, we went off to see the shahzada abdull qasim mausoleum- two shines with wonderful Sufi scholars, one of whom interrogated us about Jesus and encouraged us to convert.
We drove by a bread shop, and had to stop for our fix of fresh bread. The guys invited us in to see it made – it’s an extraordinarily efficient process with no labour waste – and the bread cooks in 30 seconds. We hurriedly stuffed our faces in the van (we aren’t supposed to be eating in public, so we were hiding) before arriving at the Gauwar Shawd mausoleum.
She was the legendary daughter in law of Timurlane who lived to 79, and was responsible for much of the early development of Herat.
Next to her mausoleum are 5 lovely ancient minarets. There were originally 21 but the British bombed the rest in the 80s as they thought they were Russian watch towers.
Next some more shrines. The tomb of Molana Abdul Rahman Jami which had some stunning gravestones. And then finally we headed to the Khaltan shrine – famous in Herat for having a female Sufi. It is also at this shrine that you can get your wishes granted if you roll along the gravel with your eyes closed – i did it, but the boys weren’t keen.
By this time I was starving, so I have no idea how Mahboob and Kausar were still functioning. Another lovely restaurant with an amazing feast of mantoo dumplings, local samosa, shashlik, lamb shank, pilau, beans, salad, bread and watermelon. The food here is amazing. Fully iftar stuffed we headed home! I got an ok nights sleep punctuated by waking up to scratch my huge bites.
Our hotel are delightful, and make us breakfast every morning even though they don’t get to eat. This mornings feast was a random but sumptuous assortment of eggs, soup, sour yogurt, bread, jam, cheese and pudding, together with the local mahmood instant coffee which is brutally strong!
A slower start this morning. We went to see the lovely shrine near the fort which has a unique arch made of silver. The kids from the madrasah were hard at work studying the Quran under the watchful eye of an old man.
We then had an amazing few hours wandering around old Herat. Kausar knows where all the ancient and hidden caravanserai can be found, and he showed us all of them. The local men were all eager to chat. They see few tourists here, and all were willing to have their photo taken. If you took a photo of one guy, his friends would want one too. They were all genuinely delightful and most would summon up their best ‘how are you’. While we are still dressed as locals, we do stand out….
We stopped off at one more shrine – the tomb of sultan agha. It had more security than usual as it was a Shia shrine and is apparently an Isis target. They also had an imprint of Ali the prophets foot!
Mahboob the driver had arranged some amazing musicians to play for us for an hour before we went to the airport. They were extraordinary! Two men, two hand drums and a harmonium, and amazing voices. What a way to end our visit, eating melon and drinking tea!
Herat wasn’t originally on our itinerary, we were only here as couldn’t get to Bamian, but it was lovely and am so glad we came!!!!
I have been wanting to come to Afghanistan for the longest time, and had finally booked. Hubby had even agreed to come with me, though he was quite sceptical about security and had even packed our emergency locator beacon. We had planned a 9 day trip with the highlight being a trip to Bamian to see the ancient buddhas and the lakes at Band almir. Unfortunately that part of the trip was not to be. The bombing at the intercontinental hotel in January had killed many of the Ukrainian pilots who fly the domestic flights, and others had decided to leave, deciding that even earning five times the Ukrainian wage it wasn’t worth it. As a result there aren’t enough pilots to man the Bamian flights, so we are heading to Herat instead, as well as checking out Mazar I sharif.
Our flight companions from Istanbul to Kabul were what I had expected – mostly men, mostly locals, with a smattering of politicians, aid workers, military and mercenaries. There were very few woman! We arrived without incident, and the plane was greeted by a couple of generals, several posh cars and an armoured van for the US embassy staff. Apparently the embassy staff aren’t allowed to travel by road, so after they have cleared private immigration they get picked up by helicopter and flown to the Kabul embassy – which we realised later is the size of a small town!!!!
We cleared immigration – the service was silent but efficient – and queued up for our registration cards, and then wandered out of the airport to find Kausar our guide, who was with our long time friend Rob, who had decided to join us a few weeks ago when he realised we were coming.
Kausar is a cofounder of untamed borders, and is one of the few people I would trust to help navigate the region. Other agencies offer guides and guns, but Kausar has a strict policy of keeping a low profile and avoiding guns. In his view, and I agree, having an armed guard makes you look like a target. More importantly, the main problem here are subside bombers and if you shoot them, you are in effect triggering the bomb. So we are staying in guest houses with no names that aren’t on websites, travelling in a low profile beat up van and are wearing local clothing! This has its upsides – rob and hubby look pretty fetching in the local waistcoats!
We checked in to our low key guesthouse – a marvel of architecture – it was clearly built and then extended over the years using whatever materials were available at the time. It’s a mish mash. We had our briefing and some breakfast and then headed out to see what Kabul had to offer. Ideally we wouldn’t have spent any time in Kabul, but given the vagaries of flight schedules we would end up spending three nights in town – fingers crossed there was good stuff to see!
Ironically our first stop was the British cemetery. It was a lovely peaceful cool enclave in the city. But somewhat disturbing to see all the graves of soldiers, tourists and kidnap victims. Apart from war the most common way to die here appears to be road accidents – as Kausar says, you might be able to dodge the taliban but it is hard to dodge the traffic.
From there we drove through the drug lord district. Their houses are called poppy palaces, or ‘narcitecture’ – what happens when you blend money and narcotics and architecture together – a lurid mass of corrugated iron and bad taste. Kausar pointed out the home of one of the notorious warlords who was responsible for 500,000 people being murdered in the war – and yes he is still in parliament.
The politics here are beyond complicated. For thousands of years the afghan people have been at the crossroads of the world and a pawn in bigger global disputes, and they have the scars to prove it. I won’t bother trying to explain the current politics or the history as could never do it justice – but Kausar is a scholar on the history and has at least managed to get my understanding to novice level.
We then headed up swimming pool hill, which is a surreal place. It is famous as being one of the preferred execution locations for the taliban. However the site is incongruous in any case as it is a diving pool on the top of an amazing hill looking out over the sprawl of Kabul. The town goes on forever and you can tell the rich areas by the trees. The population is estimated at about 6 million but noone really knows. We hung out for a while chatting to some of the young boys and photographers hanging around waiting for tourists and playing expert games of Karoom to pass the time.
We drove past the US embassy. Phones don’t work as they jam the signal and we have been advised to take no photos as American soldiers shoot first and ask questions later. It is probably fair to say the locals aren’t wildly enamoured with the ‘American occupation’. Official figures have US military presence at 15,000, but the locals reckon it is more than 100,000. It is not a surprise that the Americans aren’t popular, given most of the military only interact with the local population down the barrel of a gun.
Next up, the old Kabul Fortress with an old cemetery. We stopped at the sheep market and chatted to some locals and some school kids. Most of the locals are fascinated to find out we are tourists and impressed with our clothes.
By this time we were tired and thirsty so we snuck into the Ramadan equivalent of a ‘food brothel’ – somewhere pagans and naughty Muslims can go for food. There were a few of them. We fortified ourselves with banana juice and green tea and chilled out for a while.
A quick drive by of the kings palace which was destroyed in the war and is undergoing restoration, and then we ended the day with sakhi tomb, which is a lovely mosque and tomb. There was an attack recently where 150 people were killed by a suicide bomber, but it was quiet the day we were there.
We stopped on the way back to the guesthouse for fresh bread. The bread is amazing but is at its best in the first 20 minutes out of the oven. Given everyone else was still fasting we hid in the van stuffing guilty fistfuls in our faces – it was excellent
Back to the hotel for a nap and then an excellent iftar (dinner at the breaking of the fast), and the end of an excellent first day in Afghanistan.
I had ten 10 hours sleep, and slept like a baby, in spite of the 3am prayer noise. Our guide who is fasting would have been up at 2am for food and prayers, and gone back to sleep at 3am with no food allowed until 7pm in the evening. Fortunately for us, the Afghans are hospitable and let us eat (discreetly) during fasting hours. We had packed a big stash of protein bars to keep us going making the assumption we wouldn’t get to eat much…. I should have had more faith! Breakfast was a feast of bread, honey and wonderful soft cheese with a delicious omelette.
We headed to the National museum, passing the busy street markets and floods of school kids en route. There is not much left in the museum, the contents were looted by various warlords, or destroyed in the war with the Russians, and then the taliban destroyed everything they didn’t like the look of out of what was left. It must be pretty challenging being a guide in a country where you end up spending most of your time explaining who destroyed what. The museum was lovely and was heavily focussed on the Buddhist history – Afghanistan (or the Kushan empire) was one of the first Buddhist empire states. The exhibits were lovely. We caused quite a stir in the museum, as we met a group of local university students who are studying Chinese. They were mightily impressed to meet rob who speaks impeccable mandarin (which looks incongruous coming from an Aussie body) after ten years in Beijing. We also saw terrific photos of the gold exhibition which is currently touring the globe, which I will definitely try and go see.
Driving back up the main road we past the ‘shooting galleries’, which are where the local addicts congregate on the median strip on the highway and shoot up. We also passed the lovely Hazara mosque.
Although our van doesn’t have opening windows, it does have a sunroof, so Kausar let’s us pop up quickly and take photos through the roof so we don’t get the reflection from the glass. I feel like I am driving in the pope mobile. )
Then a lovely couple of hours of respite at the Babur garden. It is a lovely retreat climbing up the hillside of Kabul with stunning views and lovely gardens. It is named for Babur, who was initially buried in Agra but wanted to be buried in Kabul, so he was reinterred here with his son and grandson. Shah Jahan also built a lovely pavilion, and we got to check out the paintings in the restored caravanserai.
Then it was off to the airport. You get body searched four times before getting to the terminal building so we arrived early. But the security staff here were without question the friendliest I have ever met, and the ladies were highly complimentary about rob and hubby’s local attire.
After the sweltering heat of town and being in the back of the van with no windows or AC it was actually quite nice to hang in the airport in the AC. We amused ourselves by looking at Afghanistan’s first vending machine, which had a guy full time sitting next to it to help you use it and give you change. Being Ramadan we couldn’t politely eat in front of Muslims who are fasting, and my plan to have a quick sneaky snack in the loo was thwarted when I realised how bad the loos smelt. Oh well, I guess we are fasting by accident.
We got on the bus to the plane, and I was amused as no one would sit down until I did, as all the other ‘old ladies’ had a seat. If only the good folks commuting on the Piccadilly line had such good manners. Bye bye Kabul for a few days.
Now I am getting close to completing visiting all of my list of 197 countries, I have started a nice geeky spreadsheet with all the dates of entry for the different countries and noting which of my various passports has the entry stamp. In the process I realised that I had misplaced my very first kiwi passport. Most of the countries I had visited in that era (ages 14-23) I have already been back to more than once, but not Nepal. Twenty years ago I spent a few weeks hiking in Nepal and loved it, and I am sure I have some photos somewhere but I could only find one photo of someone who looked vaguely like me in front of a stupa in Kathmandu. But, as I was in Delhi for work, I decided I may as well pop up to Kathmandu for the weekend – it’s not far! I could get in at 9am and leave the following evening around 6 – allowing two full days for sightseeing …..(and fulfil my OCD need for some ‘proof’ I went there :-))…..
I had forgotten about the fog in Kathmandu. I was at the airport at 5.40 am, but our flight ended up being delayed for six hours due to the airport being closed in Kathmandu. Hmmm! Not ideal. Looking around the gate, it is obvious that things have moved on in Nepal. While there were a few happy hippies in flimsy embroidered tops and grubby trousers, (two with guitars,) there were also impeccable equipped japanese and American hikers with shiny new boots and even some business men. I was excited to see how different Kathmandu would be after 20 years.
We eventually got on the flight and landed in a wonderful sunny day in the kathmandu valley, which is surrounded by stunning mountains. Obviously air india don’t have great relationships at the airport as they have their own dedicated beaten up bus, and the door wouldn’t even close. I did my usual power walk through to immigration, paid the fee, smiled nicely at the immigration dude (apparently i was supposed to have two copies of something and I didn’t) and was first out of the airport.
I found a driver and negotiated a fee for the afternoon (the guy I had booked had given up hours before) and headed out to Bhaktapur. When you think of Kathmandu, the gateway to the mountains comes to mind, but I had also forgotten that Kathmandu has worse air pollution than Delhi! . it was vile, and i wasn’t surprised to see one young girl violently throwing up out the bus window next door given how bad the fumes were.
Bhaktapur was lovely. I had clearly come late enough in the day to miss most of the tourists, and the afternoon light was perfect. Nepal has a clever policy of charging special prices to tourists – not a bad idea given they need to get foreign currency from somewhere – so it was $15 to enter, but worth it. I wandered around the four main squares (Durbar, Taumadhi, Pottery and Dattatraya).
Dattatraya was my favourite, largely because there was an enigmatic goat who kept posing for me in front of the main temple. The streets of Bhaktapur are wonderful and although as over-run with scooters as most of Nepal, they are car free and pretty walkable.
We then headed to Patan. I left the driver in the carpark and wandered up the street. Before long I ran into three lines of what looked like riot police, and behind them a crazy loud crowd. I was mildly worried I had accidentally run into some demonstration,but there were a lot of women around so I decided to follow one of them and we squished past the police and forced our way along the sides of the crowd – quite tough in a narrow street. There were hundred of locals out celebrating some festival – honestly no clue what it was about, and i couldnt’t understand the name of the festival from the guy who started telling me about it (his accent was incomprehensible), but it seemed to be a challenge to haul what looked like 50 metre christmas trees down to the square.
Patan was badly damaged during the 2015 earthquakes, and many of the temples are still being rebuilt. However I loved it more than Bhaktapur purely because I timed it when the locals were in full celebration. After wandering around and chatting to some of the local ladies, I made my way to the hotel for a much needed shower to get the Kathmandu grit out of my hair
I am staying in Thamel, the backpacker haunt of the 70s (and for me in the 90s). It hasn’t changed a bit but is also totally different. Its still grubby, full of touts, blessed with unlimited momo shops and lots of counterfeit outdoor brands. And it is still over-run with tourists. But the tourists are much better dressed, everyone has a smartphone and every cafe has wifi (we didn’t even have internet last time the first time I came here). Its kinda odd. I wandered round and stopped for a crackingly good pizza at Fire and Ice and retired to bed in my small but perfectly formed room at the Oasis guesthouse
I managed to sleep in spite of all night construction works next door including concrete laying at 4am. The Australians next to me at breakfast were complaining vociferously about the noise, but in a country with limited regulation, construction entrepreneurs will use all the hours available.
Thamel and durbar square
After an amazing breakfast of masala omelettes and chapatis I wandered through Tamel down to Durbar square. Much of the complex was badly damaged by the earthquake. It is still worth a visit as it is lovely and very much still in public use with crowds of people performing their morning puja to Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god). This is clearly a tourist hot spot as the beggars are orderly and organised. I was amused by an aged wrinkly hippy with his dog who has likely been here since the seventies, who made his rounds giving alms to equally wizened beggars. The sadhus (holy men) are equally out in force to profit from the western photographers who get uncomfortably close to their faces.
Arjun picked me up and we headed out to Swayambhunath temple – monkey temple (so named for the many aggressive monkeys :-)). The traffic was not so bad as it is Saturday but the air quality really is awful! I saw quite a few tourists walking the route from Thamel, but while I love walking, I wouldn’t willingly do it here with all the fumes. Arjun took quite some persuading that I wanted to walk up the famous steps to the stupa rather than be driven up. It was a lovely shady stroll on the hill with lots of devout locals making puja. The monkeys provide tonnes of entertainment and you have to hold on tightly to anything shiny! The stupa is lovely!!!!!!!!
We then headed across town to Boudhanath. A lovely stupa surrounded by coffee shops. Kathmandu is third world but wonderfully organised for tourists, you are never far away from a flat white, WiFi and a clean loo! It is certainly much nicer than it was 20 years ago. After circumnambulating twice I restored myself with an excellent flat white and a banana muffin :-).
After that we headed to Pashupatinath – one of the largest complexes in Nepal and definitely the most important….it is where local Hindus are cremated and is said to represent Shiva’s head (his other main body parts are in India). The three most beautiful temples are off limits to non Hindus but it is a lovely place to wander around. The more ghoulish tourists spend ages watching burning bodies and trying to get close to take photos….I learnt years ago in Varanasi that I didn’t want to smell bodies cremating as it put me off food for a long time. I also wonder how we would feel if someone put an enormous lens in our faces while were burying our loved ones in the cemetery. I wandered around and got invited to join a family for a picnic. I sat in the shade and chatted to some kids for a while, but my Hindu is limited to two words :-).
After that back to the airport to head home the long way, via Delhi and Dubai. It was lovely to be back, but reminded me that there are amazing mountains in Nepal so am contemplating signing up to the mustang trail race in 2020. Let me know if you fancy coming
April 21, Kathmandu, Nepal
* stayed at oasis guesthouse. Clean, great location, very good management and excellent breakfast
* can negotiate taxis from place to place but I am lazy and found it easier to get a driver. Rate was $45 for a full day
* all the cafes are excellent, I tried several java Nepalese, the local Starbucks and they were good
Given my travel history, I regularly get asked which is my favourite country in the world….. Honestly, that’s easy. New Zealand every time!
However, I do have a list of places that I highly recommend, many of which I would go back to (or have gone back to) over and over again. Here it is:
I totally lost my heart to Mali. Hiking in the Dogon was one of the highlights of my life. No hot water or showers, few cold drinks, filtering my drinking water from the wells, sleeping on grubby sheetless mattresses in the dusty wind on the roof of the chiefs house in every village, and dinner of gritty couscous and mystery meat most nights. I went in summer and sweltered doing 30k hiking days in 40 degree heat for six days (we had to lie down on the shade from 11-3 every day). I would recommend going in December when it’s cooler. But I loved it!!!! The scenery in the Dogon is amazing, the welcome incredibly warm and the history was fascinating. (Djenne was lovely too) I can’t recommend it highly enough
I am torn on Ethiopia. Addis is a crap hole full of touts. And there are more and more busloads of Italian tourists. And whenever you stop to pee, anywhere in the country, you will be surrounded by kids while your pants are down asking for a pen or a sweet. However, there is nothing like going to Bet Giorgis in Lalibela at dawn for the services, or climbing up to the ancient monasteries in the Gheralta (although some are men only, like Debre Damo). I loved it, and have developed a real love for Injera. I have been back, and am planning to go again to Harar to see the hyenas at some point, as well as see the Danakil depression (which was closed to tourists last time I went)
Sossusvlei alone merits a visit to Namibia. Big red dunes, amazing old trees, and stunning sunrises – if you have extra cash take a balloon ride at dawn. With more time, you can fly up the skeleton coast, cruise around Windhoek (which wins my vote for the most zen capital in Africa), and go on safari in Etosha. Originally colonised by the Germans, the efficiency and organisation remains!
We went before it got touristy (luckily we did the same in Cambodia). I hope it still retains its charm. Getting up early to see the monks collect alms, watching the sun set over what seems like hundreds of miles of temples, and spending time with very friendly locals. You do need to offset that against a truly oppressive political regime.
The first off the beaten track place I went in South America 20 years ago, I am sure it has changed so we are going back this year to take a look. It was a lifetime highlight, cycling from La Paz down the death road to Coroico, seeing a black jaguar swimming across the amazon while I was in the rainforest, freezing my butt off at 4,800m while being amazed by the salt plains in Uyuni, and horse riding in the footsteps of the Sundance kid in Tupiza. Often overlooked for neighbouring Peru, I would take Bolivia every time, even when I remember the 24 hours I spent lying on the bathroom floor in La Paz with altitude sickness barfing into a less than clean loo. (No photos as I went in the olden times when we had Kodak film and printed them out)
UPDATE – I HAVE SINCE REVISITED, ITS STILL FAB http://www.onlymyfootprints.com/2018/12/31/revisiting-the-bolivian-altiplano/
Tbilisi is a trip, great food (Khinkhali and kachapuri) and some terrific architecture. But the joys of Georgia can be found out of town. Apparently it has changed since I went and there are now some posh hotels, but I have amazing memories of hiking in the Kazbeg and loving the locals in their skodas. I also enjoyed David gareji – the ancient monastery. It’s safe, friendly and stunning.
Ok it has a totalitarian dictatorship and the food isn’t amazing (plov!). However, the Silk Road architecture is incredible – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. I have been three times and will go again. The first time I went there, ten years ago, there were no tourists to be seen. Last time there were busloads. Try to go off season but pack warm clothes
For a splurge
For eye watering sums of money, in my view, there is no better place to see big game. You might find leopards more easily in Kenya, but within ten minutes you will be surrounded by other vans bursting with camera toting tourists. Find a leopard in Botswana and chances are you will have it all to yourself. We went top end and stayed at Mombo, and I don’t want to remember what we paid but it was worth it. Flying in the tiny planes between camps, and scanning the runway for elephants before you land also created memories for a lifetime.
Expensive but worth it! I saved Bhutan for country 182. I spent more in one day in Bhutan than I did in a month of over-landing on a truck in west Africa the year before. I tried not to think about the cost too much and just enjoyed every minute. A highlight of my travels – the most astoundingly friendly people, a culture which is cherished and preserved, and obsession with improving gross national happiness rather than GDP. Add that to outstanding landscapes and stunning monasteries with great hiking and it is my perfect travel destination. And for my husband – the five star hotels with world class food were a big draw! Save up and go!
Off the beaten track countries I wouldn’t go back to, but are definitely worth a visit
10. North Korea
Ok this is a controversial one as the oppression is horrendous. However, I can think of few other places as unusual and where you are so tightly scrutinised! The questions the guide asked me made it obvious they had investigated me before arrival. So, the sights aren’t great shakes, you will get heartily sick of the propoganda and bullshit, and you will struggle not to pee your pants laughing when you hear about how the ‘great leader’ solved all the worlds problems. Recommended if you want to see what life without freedom looks like, it’ll make you thankful for whatever your political system is at home.
Very hard to get into, and hard to get around without lots of paperwork, but worth it. For any Art Deco fan, the architecture in Asmara is worth making the trip. The coffee is good, the donuts better! Tourists are so rare that you will be warmly welcomed by everyone you meet, and I found it difficult to pay for my coffee at any cafe.
12. Yap, Micronesia
Ok it’s blimmen hard to get to (and united just made it harder by cancelling the weekly flight) and you aren’t allowed on any of the beaches without the local chiefs permission. And yes you have to carry a leaf when you wander around the island to demonstrate you are not a threat. And women aren’t allowed to wear shorts. And if you want to go to the national festival you have to go in local costume (that means topless!). But Yap has a charm that I rarely found elsewhere, largely because of its isolation. The stone money and paths are amazing. If you are a diver, apparently the manta rays are extraordinary. And I also suspect the excellent Oceania hotel I stayed in in Colonia made all the difference. However the Chinese government had just started big net fishing on their reefs, so I hope their idyllic lifestyle survives.
Far more interesting than its Egyptian neighbour, Sudan has the stunning pyramids at Meroe, the nile, the lion temple at Naqa and the whirling dervishes at Omdurman. It’s hard to get into, completely corrupt and you can’t get cash when you are there. But the entrepreneurial Greek brothers at the acropole hotel (a Khartoum legend) can sort you out.
a terrific place to see gorillas, and support the conservation of them. its cheaper and less touristy than Rwanda, so you might well have the whole family of gorillas to yourself. And while you are there you can climb Nyiragongo. Its easy to get to Goma through Rwanda and you can book everything direct with virunga.org
For first time travelers
yes this may seem an odd choice, but Thailand is fantastic for first time travellers. It’s pretty safe, travel is easy and the food is excellent. I have been more times than I can count (largely as it was a great place to stopover on the way home from London to Nz and spend a week on the beach). If you haven’t travelled a lot, and want to get started – go here
16. South Africa
An ideal first time safari destination, amazing food, great wine and very very good value. You can go on safari in Kruger or any number of the neighbouring parks and drive the garden route from cape town to plett. Another country I have been to more times than I can count. If you haven’t been to southern Africa this is the very best place to start
It’s hard not to keep adding countries, as I have had wonderful experiences at most places in the world (largely as a result of the people I meet), so just because I didn’t put it on this list, doesn’t mean I didnt love it. Honestly, I love France so much, I made it my second home, and everyone should go there, but I reckon most people will go there without my recommendation. I also love a tonne of other places, too numerous to list.
At this point, I also still have 13 more countries to visit, so one of them might get added to the list UPDATE – I WOULD DEFINITELY ADD AFGHANISTAN TO THE LIST AFTER VISITING
I also don’t think my list is for everyone, it’s entirely subjective and solely my opinion. No gripes if you don’t agree, just write your own list!
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.