Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

March is that time of the year when the bitter cold has ended but the merciless Delhi Sun is still at least a month away. Being the winter lovers that we are, we wanted to hold back a slice of the frost & this made us think of Himachal Pradesh over the 2019 Holi long weekend. Mashobra had been on our radar for ages. So, why not?

Not a marked trail. Finding our own path. Guessing which turns to take…

We took the Shatabdi to Chandigarh. After road, train is our preferred transport mode. From Delhi, places like Ajmer, Bhopal, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh, & Uttarakhand get good connectivity.

It took us barely four hours to reach Chandigarh. We had booked a MyChoize self-drive from Chandigarh. Over the last couple of years, our best discovery & adoption have been of self-drive car rentals in India.

Rather than abandoning destinations because they are too far or because they do not have proper connectivity or rather than depending on local taxis, this is a much better alternative.

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

We have tried many self-drive service providers till now but MyChoize & Revv have come up tops among all. The company guy delivered the car to us at the Chandigarh railway station, checked our papers, completed the formalities & handed over the car to us. The entire process would have taken 15 minutes at most.

We then drove from Chandigarh from Mashobra halting at HPTDC The Pinewood, Barog for lunch. The hotel was on the highway with ample parking available. It had a nice garden. The building was reminiscent of the British Raj.

It was drizzling which added to the ambience. The Chicken Masala & Mutton Biryani were delectable & adequate in portion.

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

We then continued to Mashobra. We had booked Khanabadosh for our stay; more on it later.

The First Evening

It was evening by the time we reached. As we were in a village called Purani Koti in Mashobra, there was not much to do once the Sun set. Moreover, we had had an early start to the day; so, we were happy to lounge in the cosy living room of our home-stay.

Our kind of place!

We had not expected the chill to hit us; so, we were happy to sit next to a blower & sip on warm tea. Geetika, the friendly owner of Khanabadosh had kept her home & hearth warm. Blankets, blowers & shawls strewn here & there helped us ward off the chill.

We scoured the well-stocked library to find something suitable to read. A house with books is a house we love! Geetika gave us company in the evening. We chatted away until the real owners turned up – Sultan & Gabbar. Being dog lovers, we were pleased as punch to greet the two Golden Retrievers.

The evening culminated in a dainty dinner served by the warm Kalam Singh, fondly called Pen Singh.

Fascinating bit about mountains – difference in temperature between Sun & shade

The First Full Day

The cold did not go away in the morning but became bearable. We stepped out of the warm cottage gingerly. The garden was full of colorful flowers, a Buddha statue & knickknacks. A wreath donned the front door. Christmas feels!

Geetika shared with us the concept of Khanabadosh. It is a wandering house. Every three years, she packs up her bags & moves to a new destination. Our dream life… Sigh!

Weeping Willows have been a part of our childhoods, thanks to them featuring in umpteen stories. We’d a vague image of a willow in our minds… Finally a chance to see it!

We basked in the Sun while cuddling with the two pooches but soon managed to tear ourselves away from them & stepped out for a walk. There are umpteen forest trails near Khanabadosh but be ready to huff & puff.

Those who know us know well that we’re dog people. These two gentle giants were absolutely cuddly…

We chose a trail that took us through an unforgettable pine forest. It was not really marked; more of finding our own paths & guessing which turns to take. Clearings in the forests brought spectacular vistas which made the huffing & puffing worthwhile.

We spotted a blue sky, a cat, birds, children playing cricket, lots of greenery, our first Weeping Willow, village folks at work, & wildflowers! We have heard people ask – “What’s there to do in the mountains?” We agree. The whole point of mountains is you do nothing; just surrender yourself to nature…

Happiness is… A blue sky!

On turning back, we opted for the road instead of the forest trail. Purani Koti was exactly our kind of place! Few people, more animals… But we are cognizant of the problems remote areas bring.

It is easy to get enchanted as a sightseer, but different to live there!

After the tiring walk, we recharged our batteries with an expedition to Fagu & Theog. We drove on till Theog, turned back & halted at Fagu for lunch. We were first surprised, then thrilled to see snow on the mountainsides in March – end!

Opt for roads through forests…

Charles Dickens has captured March well – “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” Anyhow, the snow transformed Fagu into a magical world.

The crisp spring air did us good. We stopped at HPTDC The Apple Blossom, Fagu for tea. It had an excellent location & ample parking. The hotel gave a ~360-degree view of the Himalayas.

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

While we waited for tea, we walked around taking in the snowy sights. The tea was good too! We chose to have lunch at a roadside kiosk & returned to Khanabadosh for more doggo love!

King of this jungle! It watched us curiously for a while & then stealthily moved away…

The Second Full Day

For a change, we woke up to see the sunrise. Purani Koti was yet to come to life but little birds were up & about. The feathered creatures were proving the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Sultan & Gabbar had stirred too & were off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

Later in the day, we headed to Chail. Kufri, as usual, was a mess. Dirty & overcrowded! We still do not understand what fun tourists derive from riding mules!

Once we crossed Kufri, we began to spot the snow-capped Himalayas. This mountain range has been our source of happiness for decades. Every time we visit the Himalayas, we understand better how people become spiritually enlightened here.

Our first stop was HPTDC The Chail Palace – a childhood favorite! The humble Palace holds its charm. The green lawn outside is a perfect spot for tea while sunbathing. The opulent interiors are full of artifacts of the bygone era. Time travel!

Time travel!

We had Hot Buttered Rum in the Royal Bar followed by lunch at the palace restaurant. The Fruit Cream & Saag Mutton were appetizing. The service was great. Lunch time is crowded as day visitors drop in. Plan your day/ time accordingly.

In the past, we have stayed in the Maharani Suite & in the log huts. The Maharani Suite, of course, was exceptional. We would love to return for another stay.

Our next stop was the Chail Cricket Ground. It is the highest cricket ground in the world, but we doubt regular matches are played here. It is inside a cantonment area; you’ve to fill in your details in a register to enter. & the moment you step inside the cantonment, smooth roads appear. The Cricket Ground, unfortunately, can be seen only from its gate.

Just so you know we’re not fibbing!
Rhododendron – synonymous with Himalayas…

On our way back to Mashobra, we spotted snowy peaks & rhododendrons. The Himalayas are our happy place! The drive to Theog & Chail had been appealing. Soulful music added to the allure!

The Last Morning

Morning scenes made our hearts grow fonder of Mashobra. Sultan came up to say a sad goodbye while Gabbar showed his anger by keeping his back towards us. I so miss these beautiful doggies… Sadly, Sultan died this February. Now, Bruce Lee gives company to Gabbar.

Wildflowers… Enid Blyton books would be full of their mention.

We drove back to Chandigarh stopping at Falcon Cafe Lounge, Panchkula for lunch. The lounge had a relaxed vibe. There was a birthday party going on but because it was a separate area, it did not trouble us.

The Arabic Hummus Chicken Sandwich, Juicy Chicken Burger, Paan Ice cream & The Great Chocolate Shake were good. The service was great too.

At the Chandigarh Railway Station, we returned our MyChoize vehicle & caught the Shatabdi to come back to Delhi NCR.

Maybe it was spring, maybe it was winter. If the weather hadn’t confused me enough already, the trees complicated the matter further…

Accommodation

When researching accommodation options for Mashobra, we were torn between Khanabadosh & Mahasu House. The latter was tried & tested by friends, & highly recommended, but the former had doggies! That clinched the deal for us.

Being frequent travelers, Khanabadosh was out of our budget, but Geetika was generous & gave us a discount; we adjusted some too. We knew then that we had made the right choice as things started falling in place.

Bird lovers, please help identify. Is it a Brown Thrasher?

All our interaction took place on email. Geetika was prompt & clear in her answers. She kept in touch with us till the day we traveled. On our actual travel day, we used Google Maps without any hassle to reach Khanabadosh.

Geetika’s home was a ground + 2 expansive yet cosy building made of stones, reminding you of the English countryside mansions you read about in childhood. A quick tour, a warm chai, & scores of conversations quickly made us feel at ease.

Of course, we were dying to meet the pooches – Gabbar & Sultan. What affectionate rascals they turned out to be! Gabbar, the naughty one, kept us regaled throughout with its antics. While Sultan taught us the meaning of love all over again.

Bird feeders! Geetika has made her home welcome not just for people, but for animals & birds too.

Over the next couple of days, Geetika gave us great ideas on where to go & what to eat.

Our post would be incomplete without a mention of Kalam Singh – the pocket-sized dynamite who fed us till we exploded, & still had a long face we did not eat enough. Isn’t that the feeling you’ve at home? Not for a moment we felt we were in a stranger’s house.

Nothing we say about Kalam Singh’s culinary skills (or managing skills) would do justice. We hogged on parathas, omelettes, chicken, fish, & myriad kinds of vegetables.

Sultan & Gabbar off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

If you like bird watching, you can keep an eye out in the garden of Khanabadosh around sunrise. We saw many little feathered creatures. The decor was outstanding. Geetika has painstakingly collected artifacts from her travels. These gave a richness to her home without ever seeming ‘too much’.

Shawls were kept here & there if you suddenly felt a chill. A bowl full of chocolates at the door ensured we gained a few pounds, as if Kalam Singh’s food were not enough.

Our room was comfortable with enough blankets & a heater. Khanabadosh is a home-stay in the truest sense. It is Geetika’s home & she has opened it to strangers. Moreover, Khanabadosh welcomes animals & birds too. Yes, it is pet-friendly!

Feathered things proving the saying – The early bird catches the worm.

We cannot wait to visit Khanabadosh again at its new location.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Chandigarh to Mashobra is 122 KMS & took us ~five hours with stopovers.
  2. Mashobra is barely 10 KMS away from Shimla yet has a completely different character. Instead of staying in the bustling Shimla city, make Mashobra your base. You can easily visit Chail, Fagu, Naldera, Shimla, Shoghi & Theog from here.
  3. Mashobra is a sleepy little town. Please do not expect ‘touristy’ activities here. Instead, expect a lot of calm & nature.
  4. If you like hiking/ walking & bird watching, then Mashobra is the place for you.
  5. Mashobra gets snowfall in winter. For the winter chill & snowy magic, go from October to March. But even during the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant.
  6. Mashobra can be reached via –
    1. Jubbarhatti airport, Shimla
    1. Kalka Railway Station
    1. Shimla bus stand
    1. Well connected by National Highway 5
  7. Please be prepared for patchy connectivity. Disconnect!
  8. Do not feed the wild animals & birds.
Linesmen at work!

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The Land of Happiness – Part III

Back again! We are sure you have read Part I & Part II, but if you’ve not, trust us you’re missing out on a virtual tour of Bhutan! Now, finally, Part III, which is the final part of our Bhutan travelogue. Let’s begin.

7.    Thimphu

heart of the city, clock tower square, nightlife, food life
The heart of the city, the Clock Tower Square. This is where the nightlife & the food life happens yo!

The drive from Paro to Thimphu is a treat for the senses – Winding roads between the lush green mountains; The peaks above & the Paro River thundering below. We are struck by the similarity between Bhutan and Scotland. On curves, we feel we are on our way to Hogwarts. We will turn around the corner & there will be the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Sigh! Every bend brings that image to mind.

We cannot stop clicking but the pictures do not justify the beauty we encounter. We want to stop next to the river & take in its roar. There does not seem anything mightier than a river in its fury thundering down the mountain.

Centenary Farmer’s Market – The Market is frequented by farmers from all over Bhutan, Friday to Sunday. They set up stalls to sell their fresh produce. You can find dairy products, grains, fish, fruits, vegetables, & spices. A few interesting items are betel nut, cordyceps, & incense.

glad, farmer's market
Glad we made our way to the Farmer’s Market!

The colors & smells tantalize. The noteworthy bit is, despite being a wet market, there is not an ounce of filth anywhere. Be sure to pick stuff – organic done right!

Changgangkha Temple – This 13th century temple is significant as the Bhutanese come here for their children’s naming. You have to climb a steep flight of stairs that will knock the wind out of you. But, once at the top, it is serene.

Bhutanese temples are unassuming structures with the focus completely on spirituality.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Folk Heritage Museum – This is a four-storied traditional Bhutanese house, showing the typical way a Bhutanese family lives. You enter the cow shed as soon as you enter the house – Surprise! The 1st floor is a storeroom, the 2nd is a kitchen and the 3rd is the living quarters.

The stairs are so steep that the only thought in our minds while climbing is ‘I shouldn’t fall.’! Each step is hardly a few centimeters wide. Where do we place our feet?

We are allowed to pluck an apple from the in-house apple orchard – Good! This is something you will find all over Bhutan – rows after rows of fruit trees and absolutely no restraint on reaching out & getting one for yourself.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Institute for Zorig Chusum – Do you know the Bhutanese train their youngsters for three-five years on handicraft? That is what we discover. Rooms of wood-carving, sculpting, embroidery etc., full of bright young ones, girls & boys alike. The sculptures are intricate & beautifully carved. But expensive!

This is a trend in Bhutan. We later go to the Handicrafts Emporium where no handicrafts are cheap. A small key chain costs Nu 300 (~Rs. 300). Exorbitant! Is it because it is hand-crafted or because of foreign tourists? The only articles that are value-for-money are pashmina shawls (which are imported from India!). Even deep into the country, the prices do not drop.

Kuensel Phodrang (Buddha Point) – The most exciting part of the day – On our first visit, the Buddha statue is still-under-construction. From this high mountain top, the view is panoramic & breathtaking. There is hardly any crowd.

Bhutan Monk-
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

We are surrounded by mountains on which clouds have descended. Below us, the capital sprawls quiet and sparse.

On our second visit, while the main structure has been completed, the surrounding structures are still being built. The 51.5-meter bronze statue is three-storied with several chapels. We visit the interior which contains another 1,25,000 Buddha statues. It has a large courtyard, used for festivals/ prayer gatherings.

The main entrance is through a flight of stairs. But, a different approach, from behind, leads you right to the statue.

Bhutan Budha-024628
Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Mini Zoo (Motithang Takin Preserve) – It houses the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It is a unique animal with the head of a goat & the body of a cow. The takins are protected in the middle of the preserve with a walking trail that goes along the periphery. We are not inclined to walk; so, we stay put.

To our delight, they start descending towards where we are as it is their feeding area & time. Without moving a muscle, we see about 30 takins. They are gentle. Though not great in the looks department, takins are unique & a matter of pride for Bhutan.

You can see a few other animals like the sambar deer & the Himalayan serow. Please don’t tease the animals or make any loud noises.

takin, national animal of bhutan, cow, goat, interesting
Takin – the national animal of Bhutan. It’s part cow, part goat. Extremely interesting!!

National Library – Rolls and rolls of manuscripts await us. The manuscripts are in Dzongkha, but books in English and Hindi are available too. It is a treasure trove for people who seek to read up on Buddhism. We browse through books and look at photographs placed within the library.

National Memorial Chorten – Believers continuously move around the central stupa, turning their hand-held prayer wheels. Construction of this landmark was the idea of the Third King of Bhutan. He wished to dedicate it to world peace and prosperity. However, the monument got completed in 1974, after the King’s death.

Good place to take portraits but click only after seeking permission!

prayer wheel
Prayer wheels… something we can never get enough of!

Semtokha Dzong – The first Dzong of Bhutan, it is small with a beautiful monastery. It houses the Institute for Language & Culture Studies. The Semtokha Dzong does not house government offices.

Trashichhoedzong – It is the governmental & religious center, the site of monarch’s throne room and the seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). This monument is built without nails or architectural plans – Fascinating! The monastery houses a giant Buddha statue.

Our Accommodation Pick – On the Thimphu River bank is a resort called Terma Linca. It is as warm as it is beautiful. We receive personal attention & peace. If you seek tranquility, you must come here. The only sound you hear is the roar of the river or the whooshing of the wind.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

The evenings are spent in front of the river, sipping our poisons. Our ecstasy knows no bounds. Amazing location, awesome amenities, brilliant service!

8.    Trongsa

In the olden times, Trongsa was the center of Bhutan. Just by closing the gates of the Trongsa Dzong, the country could be effectively bifurcated. It is little wonder then that, historically, & even today, Trongsa is considered important politically.

mankind, ultimate, doom, forest fire, approach, trongsa
Mankind, ultimately, is doomed… A forest fire as we approached Trongsa.

Before being crowned as the King, it is mandatory for the Prince to serve as the Trongsa Penlop (Governor).

Ta Dzong – It is another watchtower converted to a museum. It is accessible by a vehicle but within the museum, there is a fair of bit of climbing to be done. We love the structure of the watchtower itself – a massive circular building.

The museum houses a collection of historical artifacts of the royal family & Buddhist art. The visit starts with a short AV about the royal family of Bhutan. The displays include treasures like the 500-year-old jacket & football boots used by the teen-aged fourth king. There are two temples inside the Dzong too.

foreground, trongsa dzong, background, ta dzong museum
In the foreground, the Trongsa Dzong. In the background, the Ta Dzong museum.

Photography not allowed!

Trongsa Dzong – The Dzong looks spectacular irrespective of where you see it from. We say this because you get a view of it from everywhere in Trongsa town. Imagine a massive white fort on top of a ridge with a sheer drop on one side – Impressive!

Do not forget to look for arrows in the cypress tree outside – remnants of the Duar War. Once inside, think stones – big, beautiful stones – stone stairs, stone walls, courtyards paved with stones…

love, sunlight, filter, tree, light, dzong
We love how the sunlight filters through the trees to lighten up the dzong… ❤

Our Accommodation Pick – In this small town, you may not find too many accommodation options. Yangkhil Resort seems the best & biggest. While coming from Punakha, you will reach it before the town.

As the Yangkhil Resort is located on a mountain face opposite Trongsa, you get great views, including a view of the Dzong. It has multiple gardens inside, which provide photo ops. The rooms & bathrooms are spacious & adequately equipped.

It will be good to have a heater in the bathroom, as the temperature difference between the room & the bathroom is quite stark. The balcony is small but with a good view. The food is decent; the Resort has a bar too. There is Wi-Fi but it is patchy.

favourite, frame
Many of our favorites in one frame…

9.    Wangdue

Wangdue Dzong – It is built perilously on a cliff, looking ready to drop any moment. In collaboration with India, the Dzong is being conserved.

Our Accommodation Pick – The Punatsangchhu Cottages is next to the Punakha River. The river is silent unlike the Thimphu River. Our minds utter ‘Serenity’. Rooms are not too big but are well-equipped & have great views. River-side log seats are available for enjoying an evening by the river.

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Reaching our cottage… the name’s Punatsangchhu

Brilliant service by the courteous & warm staff. Food is delicious. WiFi works but is erratic.

With this, we end our Bhutan travelogue. Hope it is useful to you! Bhutan is one of the easiest international vacations Indians can take. So, do not delay further! An itinerary we suggest is:

Day 1: Land in Paro. Drive to Thimphu. Overnight in Thimphu.

Day 2: Go sightseeing in Thimphu. Drive to Punakha. Overnight in Punakha.

Day 3: Go sightseeing in Punakha.

Day 4: Drive to Phobjikha Valley. Overnight in Phobjikha Valley.

Day 5: Go sightseeing in Phobjikha Valley.

Day 6: Drive to Trongsa. Overnight in Trongsa.

Day 7: Go sightseeing in Trongsa. Drive to Bumthang. Overnight in Bumthang.

Day 8: Go sightseeing in Bumthang.

Day 9: Fly to Paro from the Bathpalathang Airport. Overnight in Paro.

Day 10: Go sightseeing in Paro/ go hiking to the Taktsang Palphug Monastery. Overnight in Paro.

Day 11: Fly back home.

Log Jay Gay!

The Land of Happiness – Part II

And we are back! If you are yet to read Part I, do so right away. We received feedback that it was too long. Unfortunately, we do detailed, tell-all posts. So please bear with us. On our part, we have cut this part down! By a few words 😀 So let’s get on with it.

3.    Punakha

windmill, punakha
Windmills on the way to the Punakha Valley

Punakha was the old capital of Bhutan & the government seat till 1955. It is on the way to Punakha that the King crosses us on a bicycle, His envoy following him. While cars stop & hawkers stand up in respect, the King’s simplicity touches us. A monarch riding a bicycle – Down-to-earth & Fit!

Chimi Lhakhang – Imagine a walk through a village with houses that have erect penises drawn on them. You cross terraced farms. You walk uphill with nothing but the wind to give you company (& a few pilgrims/ other tourists).

The Chimi Lhakhang is not in Punakha, but in Lobesa next door. It is on a hillock. The Lhakhang has the legend of the ‘Divine Madman’ behind it. The Divine Madman or Drukpa Kunley was a Buddhist preacher who spread enlightenment through his sex life!

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Huff & puff we go…

A phallus (called ‘Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom’) is the symbol of the Divine Madman. Couples flock to the temple when they wish to conceive. They have to undergo a ritual that may grant them the boon of a child. We are fortunate to witness such a ritual.

A couple offers prayers inside the temple under the supervision of a lama. Then, the wife circum- ambulates the temple carrying a large wooden phallus, with her husband in tow. There is an album kept inside the temple which contains photos of all the success stories! It seems not just the Bhutanese, but global citizens have benefited from the blessings of the Divine Madman.

Punakha Dzong (Pungthang Dechen Phodrang Dzong) – Dzongs are mysterious places. The beauty is in the seamless integration of religion & state. The Punakha Dzong is built at the confluence of the Po Chhu & the Mo Chhu.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

After being damaged by fire & earthquake, the Punakha Dzong has been restored by the present King. The bridge on the confluence is a scenic treasure. Standing on it, you can see the Dzong on one side, & lush green mountains on the other three.

As the Punakha Dzong serves as the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body, visiting hours may be curtailed; check before going.

Suspension Bridge – It is one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan. You have to walk a bit to get here which builds your excitement. It is impossible to not feel an adrenaline rush. The Bridge is the ‘fear-factor’ of Bhutan.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

Perched above the Po Chhu, the Suspension Bridge sways due to the wind. You will feel yourself wobbling! It was once the only way to reach a village across the river; as roads are built now, it is more for tourism.

What will amaze you is the ease with which locals cross the Suspension Bridge, as if they are walking on solid ground. Suit up, walk the Bridge, enjoy the views, and click the water & valley below!

Our Accommodation Pick – The RKPO Green Resort is a luxury resort situated in Lobesa, on Punakha outskirts. The Chimi Lhakhang is at a walking distance. Hills & terraced farms can be seen sitting inside the Resort. It looks beautiful but there is walking & climbing to be done.

picturesque, bridge
If there’s a picturesque bridge, we shall click it!

Rooms & bathrooms are spacious & well-equipped. Wi-Fi works well. A special mention of the bathroom which has a shower cubicle & a bathtub and is nothing short of luxury. Good F&B and service!

 

4.    Dochu La

When you travel east from Thimphu, you stop at Dochu La. At 3088 m, it has 108 stupas. Our four stops (since Dochu La lies on the East West Road, you have to cross it) here help us see four seasons – rainy, cloudy, sunny & snowy!

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

On our first halt, clouds descend on the road leading to Dochu La. Not fog, not mist, but clouds! One of our bucket list items gets checked! At the La, it is raining & cold? Brr!

On the second stop, we are above the clouds, rather than among them. Unbelievable or magical! Why do people associate cold/ fog/ mist/ clouds with ghosts? They are beautiful natural phenomena – you know what is ahead & still do not know, and vice versa. It makes you apprehensive but pushes you to move ahead.

On our third stop, the sky is clear. We see the snow-clad mountain peaks of the Himalayas, prominent against the sunny sky, including the highest peak, Mt. Gangkar Puensum. If you see this panoramic view and do not utter the word ‘splendid’, have you even visited the Dochu La?

Gangkhar Puensum
The highest peak, Gangkhar Puensum, visible towards the right.

Our fourth stop is the one which fills our hearts with delight. The Dochu La is sprinkled with snow! While a heavy layer will be nicer, we are grateful for what we get. Our teeth chatter and we hug ourselves to ward off the cold, but we also sigh with contentment.

Dochu La Lhakhang – It is locked but our perseverance pays off. Or maybe we annoy the monk enough! He unlocks the Lhakhang & shows us inside. It is beautiful. The temple houses the idols of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche & Guru Shabdrung (the three main figures worshiped in Bhutan).

Apart from the beauty of the idols, the Dochu La Lhakhang is covered with paintings from Buddhism. You are bound to find yourself having a conversation with the Almighty…

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Such structures dot the entire landscape of Bhutan. Initially, you want to click them all… But, soon, you give up!

Lampaneri Park – A walking trail invigorates us. It is unmarked. We feel we are lost. Maybe we should retrace our steps. We may face a wild animal but no, we are the wildest animals here!

 

5.    Flying from New Delhi

Rush to the airport to grab the port side window seats. Why? Because you fly parallel to the Himalayas & get to see the majestic Mt. Everest. So, get seats on the left side of the craft. As destiny has it, both the times we fly, the day is cloudy. We see a few snow-capped peaks, but the glorious Everest eludes us. The peaks provide some solace & remind us of chocolate brownies with vanilla ice-cream!

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

 

6.    Paro

Paro is a historic town with sacred buildings scattered throughout. You cannot escape it if coming by air as Paro has the sole international airport. Speaking of flying, the landing is exciting! The small craft swerves between the mountains and just about manages to navigate the hilly terrain. Edge of the seat moment for many!

Our drivers and guides greet us with the customary white scarf called ‘khada’. They are extremely warm, knowledgeable & speak fluent English & Hindi.

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Bhutan takes its nature extremely seriously.

Kinchu Monastery – Prayer wheels! We turn them all. Bhutan is a spiritual retreat for us. If you are looking for inner peace, Bhutan is just the place. An old monk guides us to completion along with circum- ambulation of stupas. The monk does not know English/ Hindi. We do not know Dzongkha. But then, spiritualism does not need a language.

Paro Airport Bird’s View – You have seen the approach from the aircraft. Now see it from outside. You will appreciate the dexterity pilots need to maneuver this terrain.

Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong) – Its beauty & importance can be emphasized just by mentioning that it is on the Tentative List for UNESCO inclusion. You can spot the massive walls from afar. Inside, the steps leading to the prayer room are STEEP!

glory, structure
We wish we could carry back these glorious structures.

Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) – The Paro Taktsang is perched on the edge of a cliff. It is the abode of Guru Rinpoche. Legend has it that He arrived at this cliff on a flaming flying tigress & meditated.

The Tiger’s Nest hike is the most awaited part of our trips! It is, approximately, a five-hour return climb. There are no paved roads; only an almost vertical, muddy trail through beautiful pine forests, trees decorated with Spanish Moss and fluttering prayer flags. Watch out for the mule poop though!

You walk the muddy path uphill for 90% of the distance, then approximately 1000 steps down, pass next to a waterfall, & lastly 1000 steps up to the Paro Taktsang. Within minutes of starting, you want to give up. It is the most difficult hike we have ever come across. Vaishnodevi is child’s play in front of this.

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

There are moments when you want to return to the comfort of the hotel. But, if in a group, keep egging each other on. Try telling yourself – ‘The Tiger’s Nest is just around the corner’. Deep within us, we know we do not want to surrender; we want to push ourselves.

Most people return from the cafeteria which is two-thirds of the total distance. If you are not an active person, the Paro Taktsang hike is torturous. Once there, we gaze at Guru Rinpoche’s idol. He is fierce; inner peace is not really what we can ask Him for. Instead, we ask for strength to navigate our way down.

On our way back, when we are climbing the 1000 steps up, there are moments when we feel we will collapse. Our legs tremble. There is no choice but to keep going. Downhill has its own challenges. It is slippery; our knees have to bear our weight, acting as brakes, clutch, gear etc. But downhill is still easier (like always).

cliff, beauty, forest, blue pine, rhododendron
Hangs on a cliff above a beautiful forest of blue pine & rhododendrons

All along the way, fellow hikers wish us luck or encourage us. We meet people of varied nationalities-Singaporeans, Japanese, French, Americans. All other nationalities greet us except Indians. Not to say we greet them but does this imply that Indians are less courteous or just that we keep to ourselves?

We are thrilled to see our cab in the parking lot, & ecstatic to reach our hotel. We collapse into a hot bath, soaking our dead muscles & feeling the fatigue leave our bodies. A difficult climb but the sense of achievement at the end is worth it.

Food for thought – why are the holiest places in inaccessible regions? Or do inaccessible places become holy? The chicken & egg story!

construct
How, back then, did they manage to construct something like this in a place like that?

Ta Dzong – Every Dzong had a watchtower that would be at a vantage point to notice any threat to the Dzong. Two of these watchtowers have been converted to museums which are fantastic for history & mythology lovers. Floors after floors of artifacts, idols, pictures, etc.

A floor is dedicated to Thangka paintings depicting Buddhist deities. Descriptions are provided for each. If you have neither interest nor patience, do not come here. An Indian family crossed us while we were reading the descriptions (we read all!). A woman in the group said “isko padhega kaun?” (“Who will read this?”)

We wanted to retort but let it be. Not our problem if she wishes herself/ her family to remain ignorant!

watch, museum
What used to keep a watchful eye, today serves as a museum.

Our Accommodation Pick – A little ahead of the city center, nestled next to the Paro river is a beautiful heritage hotel – Zhiwa Ling. It has a pleasing traditional architecture. Quite beautiful from the inside. There are beautiful carpets exhibited that can be purchased.

Choose from archery, meditation, spa & fitness, prayers, & souvenir shopping. The premises have fruit-laden trees; we can pluck & eat. The hotel has a kitchen garden which provides fruits & vegetables for the dishes. It has cottages a distance away from the main building. Spacious, well-lit, well equipped rooms with fantastic views.

The restaurant has a limited & expensive menu but breakfast spread is good. Room service menu is more VFM. Good service, courteous & warm staff. We spend hours exploring & clicking. You need not do much – roam around, dine & retire…

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Image courtesy Nilangshu Katriar

 

Will be back with Part III soon!

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 6

Continuing from Chapter 5, the last stop of the day beckoned – the Rumtek Monastery. This is an important shrine for Buddhists as it’s the seat-in-exile of the Kagyu Karmapa. However, as there’s controversy around the 17th Karmapa, the monastery’s currently under the Indo- Tibetan Border Police to prevent any sectarian violence. Don’t forget to carry your identity card as you’ll not be allowed in without it.

Now a funny bit happened – the monastery underwhelmed me. I’d expected more grandeur from one so famous. Back at the hotel, I looked up the monastery on Google. I found something different to what I saw. I became glum, thinking I’d not seen the actual monastery, perhaps seen the outer wing & now I can’t even go back. But then I looked at the pictures closely. I realized that the open-air courtyard that I saw in the photos was currently covered with tarpaulin for the two-month long Kangyur Oral Transmission. & that’s why it looked different. Attention to detail madam!

But what is worth gaping at here are the lifelike frescoes. Walls after walls are lined with beautiful, vivid paintings from Buddhist mythology. I wondered at the preservation effort that would have gone into this. And for someone as inartistic as I’m, the frescoes were an epitome of creativity and finesse.

Frescoes amaze me
Frescoes amaze me

A word of caution about Rumtek Monastery though – it’s a long climb to get there. Vehicles are prohibited. Therefore, ensure you really have the willingness to visit the monastery; else you may feel cheated.

I loved the monks & nuns there. They were the embodiment of happiness & contentment. Easy with their smiles & eager to pose – they were any photographer’s delight. But do ask before clicking!

By the end of this, I was exhausted & desperately wanted my bed. I’d an early start the next day too, to catch my flight from Bagdogra. I wanted to attempt the Kanchenjunga again & hoped the clouds would give way. My wishes were to come true.

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Kanchenjunga clearly visible on a gorgeous sunny day

When we started the next morning, the clouds parted just enough for me to capture the peak. I thanked the Almighty. Subconsciously, I’ve begun to be grateful for my blessings. I strive to see the positive in everything.

I dreaded returning to Delhi NCR because of the pollution there but I knew I’d to go back to be able to step out again. I love the Himalayas; Sikkim, with its cleanliness, discipline, simplicity & friendliness, appealed a lot to me. I can’t wait to return there for a longer trip. & I’m pleased as punch that the new airport is opening soon in Pakyong which will make Sikkim more accessible. So long Sikkim! You were good to this solo woman traveler.

To end the blog, for the women hesitating to take that solo trip, my top tips:

  1. If it’s your first trip or if you’re anxious, go with a travel agency who’ll take care of all your needs. Even among those, opt for the bigger names; credibility will be a nonissue then.
  2. Choose an easy destination to begin with. Don’t make it Ladakh or Spiti at the first instance. These are difficult terrains & going in company (or at least if you’re a seasoned traveler) will be better. Ensure mobile connectivity isn’t a concern; the last thing you would want’s you being stranded & your folks worried to death.
  3. Don’t hesitate to demand changes to the itinerary, flights, hotels, cabs, transfers etc. if you’re spending money on it, it better be according to your taste.
  4. Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
  5. Ensure you stay alert at all times even when you’re having fun. Trust your instinct! At the same time, don’t hesitate to talk to locals.
  6. Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”
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