Tuesday, March 13, 2018

We Visited Bhutan – 23The main airpot building Sep to 29 Sep 2017

This photograph epitomises what bhutan is all about - Mountains,valleys,Rivers,Winding roads,small villages,Dhongs - et all 
Bhutan invokes an element of mystique and wonderment. The mountains, valleys and innumerable rivers add to the beauty of the landscape. Any visitor is sure to be mesmerized by its tranquility, cleanliness, open spaces, equitable weather and more importantly their friendly people. No doubt it has positioned itself as a sought after tourist destination. It offers tremendous opportunity to tourists who seek adventure, solitude or just plain relaxation. A little more than 209,000 tourists visited Bhutan in 2016.

Bhutan is a small country hidden in the Southern slopes of the Eastern Himalayas, landlocked between Tibet to the North and the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh to the West and South. It has historical links with India from ancient times. Increasing the ‘Happiness Quotient’ is one of the primary objectives of the government. Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government.

Jai, Sushama and I started our journey on a wrong foot. We were offloaded from the aircraft in Bengaluru for carrying a battery charger in our checked in baggage. With great difficulty we managed to board the next flight and catch Delhi – Paro flight on time. The Paro airport is located in a very picturesque valley and presents extremely challenging task to the pilot in maneuvering the aircraft for landing. Impressive Bhutanese architecture surrounds the airfield. In fact the people have struggled hard to maintain their traditional architecture throughout the country. The design blends beautifully with the natural surroundings and presents a very harmonious façade.


Main airport building

A stunning view from the airport

Another view

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.and Jetsun Pema The Queen of Bhutan
After a quick immigration process we met up with Mr Wangchuk our van driver cum English speaking guide. He remained with us for all the seven days, endlessly talking and sharing experiences, information and tidbits about himself and Bhutan. He certainly made our stay very interesting. We drove from Paro to Thimphu stopping at various places to absorb the breathtaking views and for photography.

Outstanding view as we drove to Thimphu

Photo opp

With our driver cum guide Mr Wangchuk
We stayed in the Indian Army messes in Paro and Thimphu. The messes are located at vantage points offering the best views in the town. However we stayed in an excellent hotel ‘Dragon's Nest Hotel & Spa’ at a distance from Punaka. The property overlooks river “Puna Tsang Chhu” . The hotels in Bhutan are very reasonable while offering excellent service and ambiance.
From our room in Army Mess

In the mess dining hall - ancient relics - i meant the bear

View of the valley below

There is very minimal touristy stuff to do in Bhutan, One can start the visits after breakfast and be back at the hotel or a nice restaurant for some chilled beer and delectable lunch. Druk 500 beer kept us company throughout our stay. Druk is a good beer but slightly on the stronger side. Bhutan cuisine is very unique with abundance of cheese, mushrooms and chilies in their preparations. The chillies are used more as a vegetable than as spice in their cooking.

Sushama at her best

Babesa Village Restaurant

Very happy with vegetarian Bhutanese food
The first evening we visited ‘Babesa Village Restaurant’. Located, 7km outside Thimphu, this charming restaurant offers traditional Bhutanese cuisine in a lovely century-old building. In the beginning, nobody came to take the orders and the people in the restaurant simply stared at us. As time passed, an English speaking lady came across to our table to inform us that the joint was closed to public as they were celebrating a family reunion. When she learnt we had travelled all the way from Bengaluru, she very graciously set up a private table and served us whatever they had prepared for the family. Assisted by old faithful ‘Druk’ we went on to enjoy an excellent Bhutanese cuisine and their remarkable hospitality. The lady looking after us was the manager and trained in ‘Taj Westend’ Bengaluru. Our bill of fare included Ema Dashti, Shakam Paa, Hoentay Momos, Lom and white rice. Some of our meals were at ‘Zone’ restaurant which is very popular with the expats and provides both local and continental cuisine.

Main entrance to the shrine

Great Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains of Bhutan celebrating the 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The statue houses over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the Great Buddha Dordenma itself, will be made of bronze and gilded in gold

One of the 108 Apsaras which adorn the platform

Jai and Sushama taking rest

Other Apsaras
After visiting Thimphu and Punaka we headed West to Paro.
Very colourful market place selling traditional wares

Local knitting a sweater

Highpoint of our visit to Bhutan was trekking to the “Tiger’s Nest” monastery located six miles from the city centre. The monastery complex consists of seven temples which is perched on top of a vertical cliff. The trek involves an extremely arduous vertical climb from a base height of 6000 ft to 10600 ft. Most of the way, there are no regular steps or a paved path. It is one long and steep dirt rocky track leading to the top. Just short of the temple there are 800 steps to climb.

To the base

An almost vertical climb

FINALLY
Jai and I decided to use a horse up to the first stage and then trek. Unfortunately, Jai fell of the horse and decided to rest in the restaurant. I continued to trek alone, as Sushama had already gone ahead. Apart from the vertical climb, one has to worry about high altitude sickness. I really do not know what motivated me to undertake this strenuous climb, may be to prove a point that I am physically and mentally strong. Whatever prompted my internal decision making, I completed the trek in six hours. I was totally exhausted yet extremely elated that I could complete this challenge. Getting down is much worse and your knees take a severe beating.

You need to carry some food, water and a strong walking stick to complete the trek. The view from the top is simply exhilarating and pumps in extra amount of adrenalin to reach back. As you sit back and look at the calm and serene face of’ “Lord Buddha”, it envelopes you with inner strength and resolve. 

Trek to Tiger’s nest was indeed a remarkable achievement for me.
There are wonderful opportunities for kayaking and White water rafting. One can choose the degree of difficulty depending upon level of fitness and familiarity with the sport. We did a level 3 Paro to Chhuzom five mile rafting. Must see attraction includesGreat Buddha Dordenma” a gigantic Buddha statue in the mountains outside of Thimpu. Drive to Chele pass is very, visit to Paro Taktsang monastery ends the list.
At the end of seven days we felt relaxed and recouped. Bhutanese are very warm and friendly. They go out of their way to be helpful and courteous.

Beginning of white water rafting

Ended in Paro Dzong which ranks as a high point of Bhutanese architecture.


On the way to Paro - Lyril soap ad with clothes on

A bird in the bush and nothing in hand - Yellow billed Magpie

Rich in agriculture


Chelela Pass at 13200 ft - love drive

If you are looking for a peaceful getaway at very reasonable cost, then Bhutan is definitely the right destination. It offers a different basket of experiences to savor.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Fascinating La Paz and Lima


On our way back from Lake Titicaca and Uyuni we stayed in Hotel  Rosario La Paz – literally an oasis in the middle a chaotic city. La Paz the capital of Bolivia is situated at an altitude of 12,500 ft. The city is very densely populated with hundreds of houses occupying the sloping surface of the valley. Roads are narrow and winding, full of cars and people.

Maze of Lights
The city has developed around a number of hills which surround the valley.  The houses are located on the top of the hill, on its slope and the valley below. To ease the vehicular traffic on the narrow roads which connect various parts of the city, in 2014 the government introduced an extremely imaginative and bold alternative transportation system to carry people up and down - Mi Teleférico (My Cable Car). La Paz is now officially home to both the longest and highest urban cable car network in the world with more than six miles of lines, 11 stations and 74 towers in total. There are three teleférico lines – each named after a colour of the national flag: red, yellow and green – that carry commuters above the traffic in a jiffy.

Unique way of transportation
Apart from the long drive from airport to the hotel in the centre of the valley, we did not venture out much, except for shopping walks in and around the hotel. For some reason the valley reminded me very much of Shillong.

Time and space did not permit to tee off from the second highest Golf course in the world “Golf Club La Paz” at 11,000 ft.

Lima

We visited Lima on three occasions once on our way to the Iquitos and again on the way back. We spent another day on 14 May on our return journey.

Lima is truly a fascinating city. Not many people can recall Lima with ease, at least for us Indians. We are more familiar with cities in America, Europe, Far East etc. Somehow Lima does not strike a chord. Lima the capital of Peru is a bristling metropolis located on the lap of Pacific Ocean. The city is ancient and dates back to 1535. The city is extremely beautiful, clean and the roads are state of the art. Driving around in the city and listening to their FM station ‘Peru Magica’ gave us an opportunity to enjoy everything Lima had to offer. The up market area of Miraflores is located overlooking the ocean. The broad roads run parallel to the beach and the view it offers is simply breathtaking. The entire route is marked with parks, seaside restaurants and shopping arcades. It has all the best Lima has to offer.  We took a bus tour “Lima By Night” which finally ends up in the world famous “ Magic Water Circuit”. The place is home to the most extraordinary show of 13 fountains with lights and laser.  We were enthralled watching the light and fountain show with mesmerizing Peruvian music. The atmosphere is elevating; it brings out the child in you to join the band wagon in getting wet under the fountains and loosing oneself in gay abandon.It was certainly one of our tour highlights.
Fascinating experience

Simply nreathtaking

Felt like watching for ever
We spent the evening in an exclusive restaurant by the sea in Miraflores "La Rosa Nautica". 
A very pretty restaurant
All Nautica

By  the peer

Bonding

Jai steering the ship
Photo op for Rita

A group op
I had the enviable opportunity of wishing three lovely ladies and travel companions a very happy ‘Mothers day’. It was an extraordinary night by the sea, the waves softly lapping the shore endlessly, pleasant breeze, delectable wine and food.
A lovely rose for a lovely lady

To my dearest wife

Wishing Sushama all the very best on womens day


'Ceviche' an official national dish of Peru. Preparation of raw fish marinated in citrus juice. The acid in the fruit “cooks” the fish, giving it a delicate flavor and slightly chewy consistency.

What a way end our tour of South America.




Sunday, January 14, 2018

We Visited ‘SALAR DE UYUNI’ salt flats of Bolivia 11 to 13 May

Back to blogging after a long time ……..

After a very relaxing stay in Lake Titicaca we drove back to La Paz and spent a delightful evening at the hotel. Very early next morning we took a flight to Uyuni, located 410 Km South of La Paz. Uyuni is a small town situated in the middle of nowhere which acts as a staging post for tourists visiting the salt flats. Tourism is the main source of income.
We booked with the ‘Red Planet Expeditions’ for our three days tour of the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is part of the Altiplano of Bolivia. The Altiplano is a high plateau, which was formed during uplift of the Andes Mountains. The plateau includes fresh and saltwater lakes as well as salt flats and is surrounded by mountains with no drainage outlets.


Figure 1 - Fascinating trip

Visiting salt flat was a major item in our must do list. Friends who had visited the Salt flats had cautioned us about the extreme conditions under which we have to travel. Uyuni is located at a height of 12,000 ft and the tour reaches a height of 16,600 ft. In addition to the omnipresent altitude sickness we had to face sub zero temperature and extremely strong wind. Due to its desolate and remote location, the Red Planet had warned us in advance about our extremely basic accommodation and food.

Four of us and two youngsters from Netherlands travelled together in a Toyota land cruiser. After an extensive briefing we departed Uyuni. The salt flats are one endless sea of salt covering a mind blogging 10,582 square kilometers. It is covered by a few meters of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness with the average elevation variations within one meter over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in Lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world's known lithium reserves. The Salar is virtually devoid of any wildlife or vegetation. The only vegetation that can be seen is the giant cacti reaching up to 40 feet.  On a still day, the thin layer of water covering the salt forms a giant mirror reflecting the sky.

Travelling endlessly from one attraction to another was an integral part of our visit. In all we covered 1400Km of salt flats in three days. We stayed in houses entirely built with salt bricks, including the dining tables, chairs and beds. We chewed lots of coca leaves to overcome high altitude sickness, drank endless amount of water and ate very frugally throughout our stay. Sleeping was yet another big issue. In spite of four layers of clothing, blanket and a sleeping bag, nights were unbearable. The mirror like flat surface gave us unlimited opportunity for trick photography.  The temperature varied from +5 to – 4 deg C. The strong wind tears into your body. One must always park your car facing the wind or risk your door being blown away with the wind as one tries to get out of the car. I endured a bit of gum bleeding at 16,600 ft on top of an extinct volcano. We were able to frequently sight the local animal life – James Flamingo, Culpeo. Llama and Alpaca. Incidentally James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” was extensively filmed in the Salt Flats.

The most fascinating aspect of our trip was the images of snow capped mountains, hills in various hues of colours entrapped between clear blue skies and the salt flats. Watching sunset and gazing at the star filled night sky also kept us busy.

In spite of all the hardship, visit to the salt flats was a rare and memorable experience.

Day 1


Figure 2 The companions

“Great Train Graveyard” 

Uyuni has long been known as an important transportation hub in South America and it connects several major cities. In the early 19th century, big plans were made to build an even bigger network of trains out of Uyuni, but the project was abandoned because of a combination of technical difficulties and tension with neighboring countries. The trains and other equipment were left to rust and fade out of memory.


Figure 3 At the graveyard


Figure 4 Getting Cozy


Figure 5 Sushama all excited


Figure 6 - Rail tracks to nowhere



Figure 7 - Futile attempt


Figure 8 – Alpacas grazing

Colchani to witness how the salt is processed. 

Colchani is a tiny, one street town situated on the edge of the Tunupa Salt Flat, 80 km (50 miles) northwest of Uyuni. The only salt-making facilities using salt from the Salar de Uyuni are located in Colchani – a cooperative joint-owned by all salt workers. There is an estimated 10 billion tonnes of salt contained in the Salar de Uyuni, with around 25,000 tonnes excavated and processed at Colchani annually.


Figure 9 - A typical salt house


Figure 10 - Colorful market place


Figure 11 - At the factory


Figure 12 - Mine owner busy with his work


Figure 13 - A salt monument

Playa Blanca salt hotel 


Figure 14 - Posing after a good lunch



Figure 15 - Flags on display outside the hotel

At the Salt Flats and crazy photography


Figure 16 - Evolution of humans


Figure 17 - Carrying my travel companions


Figure 18 - Jurassic experience


Figure 19 - Wine break


Figure 20 - Lifting Rita



















Figure 21 – It can’t get any better - a roll on the bottle


Figure 22 - A spoonful of lunch

Trichocereus cactus

For most Salar de Uyuni tours, the main destination is the spectacular Isla Incahuasi, otherwise known as Inkawasi, in the heart of the Salar 80km west of Colchani. This hilly outpost is covered in Trichocereus cactus and surrounded by a flat white sea of hexagonal salt tiles.


Figure 23 – Amazing growth of cacti

Night view


Figure 24 - Jumping with joy


Figure 25 – Chances of confusing the plains with sea

Day 2

 Chiguana desert- We visited Sol de Mañana

This desert is surrounded for many volcanoes…like dormant ones, extinct ones . We visited Sol de Mañana, meaning Morning Sun in Spanish, which is a geothermal field in south-western Bolivia. It stands at a height of 16,600ft. The short stay was punctuated for me when I started to bleed in the gums. The guide had to rush me down to lower altitude to stop the bleeding.


Figure 26 - At a distance


Figure 27 - Photo op


Figure 28 - The geyser point


Figure 29 - Incredible sights of the Andes

Andean lagoons


Flamingos gather here by the hundreds to drink the mineral rich water


Figure 30 - A lovely sight

Lunch at the Echo Hotel


Figure 31 - Very colorful to contrast the desert


Figure 32 - Beautiful Bolivian Lady


Figure 33 - Very basic and frugal lunch


Figure 34 - A lonely Culpeo


Figure 35 - Captivating beauty


Figure 36 - Unforgettable sights


Figure 37 - Sharing a quiet moment



Figure 38 - A memorable trip. drive back