Nepal: Travelogue

By Ritika Gupta

Early Saturday morning, two of us embarked on this journey which was extremely special to both. One was worried about kids, home and was constantly wondering if she had made the right decision. The other was contemplating how the next 8 days would turn out to be given that all she had was a list of places to go to, a few contact numbers and lots of courage – which might vanish at the slightest hint of danger. Nevertheless, both were excited to be on this journey unsure.

Day 1, we put up our bravest faces, bid farewell to folks and entered into the terminal all pepped and energetic at 6AM. In our excitement we do not fill the immigration assuming Nepal is a part of India in all respects. Result – we are sent back to go look for forms, fill them up and wait in the queue again. What followed was feasting on the duty free shops, every single moment being reminded of the trip being a “budget” one and hence no spend on luxury allowed. Within an hour and a half we land at the Tribhuvan International Airport breathing in the pristine air from the land of the Everest.

Haggling with the taxi (ages old maruti’s, with every corner creeking)  we settled for INR 300 for Thamel – the tourist hub and the most happening neighborhood in the country. There are innumerable guest houses here that range from INR 200 – INR 2100 a night. We settled in the Sunrise Cottage (INR 500/night). It is a real comfortable, cozy place behind the popular Tibet Guest House.  We threw our luggage took out the prints, maps, notes that we had collected over a week, broke our heads for minutes 30 without figuring out where to start exploring the city from and then decided to take a stroll. The vibrant alleys of Thamel are a treat, multi colored woollens, yak wool bags, accessories, trekking gears hanging in the shops are a perfect catalyst. It awakens the tourist in you and makes you want to trek right upto the summit.  Dinner at the Roadhouse Cafe was an awesome start to this vacation.

Day 2, woke up after a chilly night and decided to walk upto Swayambhunath. The greatest advantage of staying in Thamel is that the place is the liveliest till the wee hours, is close to bus stands and taxi stations. On our way to Swayambhunath we entered the Vijayshwari temple and boy what a site it was, 3 weddings in the temple complex. Beautiful ladies all dressed in the same shade of red made the dull courtyard brighter. Pandits ranting mantras, kids scurrying across the yard, pigeons feasting on the grains  – the temple was bustling with activity. After congratulating the newly weds we continued on our expedition. After having walked some 1.5kms we saw monkeys all around us. This was an indication that we are at the right place as I had read about the abundance of the apes here. Its a steep climb to the Stupa, but the breathtaking view from the top , makes it worth the while. The golden pagodas, vajras and the temple roofs are an architectural genius. Butterlamps, pigeons, monkeys, prayer bells and prayer flags are plenty. Special mention to Cafe De Stupa – they serve fresh cooked food (disclaimer that the food would not be served in less than 20 mins may make you  feel bad, but the parathas here will leave you with no regrets) only.We went exploring the place and accidently came across this easier to climb, less steep path that led to the temple. We had a good time laughing at ourselves. Right at the bottom of this is the Buddha Amideva Park, that receives a lot of devotees who go round in circles around the 3 golden statues of Sakyamuni.

Pashupatinath: From the ring road we took the bus to Gaushala(the stop for Pashupatinath). Situated on the banks of the Bagmati river, this is the most revered of the Hindu temples in the country. Lined with stalls selling puja thalis, shivlings, tikas, incense sticks , a walk up the crowded street would lead to the relatively tiny entrance to this huge temple. The golden Nandi(shivas bull) is all that is visible from here. Non Hindus are not allowed to enter and Mondays can be tough to explore the place as there hardly is space to walk. The ghats on the opposite end are an amazing site. the dead river, the yogi caves, the steep steps to the ghats and the usual site of cremation makes this place eerie.

Boudhanath:  Walking distance from here is the most famous Stupa. The place is surrounded by monasteries, shops selling Tibetan art, souvenirs, music, roof top cafes. The general direction of traffic is clockwise as thousands of devouts visit the place to perform the ritual walk around the stupa and then wait in a queue to ring the enormous bell. We recommend the desserts and the burger at the Saturday Cafe.

Day 3, we decide to experience the Kathmandu Durbar square – around 700m from Thamel. People sitting on the steps of the temples soaking in the sun, prayers being offered, pigeons being fed, children bunking school and hiding away from their parents are a common site here. This place provides an excellent experience of a day in the life of the citydwellers here.The square has the Kumari grah( the house of the Kumari of Kathmandu), the Bhairab temple, the museum. We strongly recommend the walking tours in the lonely planet guide. Next we went ahead to explore the famous Freakstreet – an Israeli settlement and the old chirpy hub, before Thamel took over. It was quite a disappointment after having stayed in Thamel for 2 days. Next on the list was the Patan square, but apparently there was some protest being held and hence it was closed. it is good to read the daily newspapers to get to know about similar such protests around the town, as they are quite common and the taxis are fairly expensive. :)Dinner at Fu ru Sato (Thamel)- the Japanese joint was heavenly. yasai cha haan (veg fried rice) and chilly tofu left us licking our cutlery.

Day 4, We packed a day bag and set out to explore Patan, Bhaktapur and Nagarkot There are buses from the Ratna park bus station (NPR 30, 30mins) to Patan. The durbar square here is ancient. There is a famous Golden Temple(a Buddhist temple) enroute to the Durbar square. It is a must visit for its courtyard temple architecture.I would like to flaunt my history a little  – just to eradicate the seeds of confusion that might have cropped up due to these multiple durbar squares. Well the kingdom had three regions Kantipur(Kathmandu), Patan and Bhaktapur and each has a Durbar of its own. The 2 hour long walking tour in LP is awesome to know about the history, architecture and significance of the various temples here.Club sandwich and tea at the Third World Cafe with a top view of the main temple under the early morning sun in the foggy winters is a perfect start to an eventful day.Next up was the walk to the Lagankhel bus station to board a bus to Bhaktapur(25 NPR, 40mins)
Bhaktapur: We found this to be the most interesting of these squares.Rich Newari cultural legacy sets this apart. Everyday life here is fun to observe.  It has a potters square where there are a zillion pots neatly laid out in the sun to dry, wheels spinning and earthen pots being shaped from the clay.  It has a Taumoudhi square with a 5 storied temple. The durbar square here has a cluster of palatial buildings, temples and sculptures which are a visual treat. Must notice  • The Golden gate to the Taleju temple. This temple is opened to public only for 3 days during Dussehra. It has a 108kg gold deity of Goddess Taleju who is pleased by sacrificing 108 animals. The courtyard overflows with blood when this is done.• The 55 windows palace that has been restored after a devastating earthquake• The Chardham temples – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Dwarka, Rameshwar – it is believed that people who cannot visit these temples in India can visit the miniature replicas in Bhaktapur. • Cafe Nyatapola – a beautiful place to lounge, right in the middle of the square, tables lined in the balcony of the old palatial building provide a great view of the squareWalking around these towns is like time traveling into the past. The sweet dahi (ju ju dhau) is a must eat.

Nagarkot: Next we were on a bus to Nagarkot  – the viewpoint to the Kathmandu valley and the Langthang ranges. the 40mins drive through well laid curvaceous roads made us switch gears from appreciating architecture to enjoying the natural beauty that the place abounds in. The Hotel At the End of the Universe is a mesmerizing resort. Excellent hospitality, good food and fairy tale like landscapes would make you want to stay. Strongly recommend to spend a night here.

Day 5, We were determined to witness the phenomena of Bali(sacrificial ceremony to please the Gods) at the Dakshinkali temple. Saturdays, when sacrifices are made, can be a disheartening experience. You may want to keep this for the end of the trip, else the sights of dead animals may haunt you. Generally you see stalls offering puja thalis, incense sticks, flowers outside temples. Here you have all of these plus stalls that sell goats and chickens too. People wait in a queue for hours to slaughter these innocent beings trying to please the Gods and beg for personal favors  – how oxymoronic can religious practices be – you sacrifice a life to fulfill your whims and fancies.
There was this tiny little black goat kid, trying to eat flowers out of the baskets of people standing around it. It did not have the slightest idea that these people around it were praying in front of it only to brutally slaughter it  the next moment.  The kid was held and in one sharp blow was beheaded – just like that!  This instance has blotted my memory.  It makes me hate Hinduism  – where such practices are still considered holy,not that other religions are any better.
No wonder Nepal is the only Hindu country! Bali is quite a common here… huh!
We got back to Thamel – a place that felt like home by now. A Newari thali at Zaika was our pick for dinner.

Kathmandu is a hot pot of religion, culture, heritage and the base for the daredevils who wander in the Himalayas conquering peaks, abseiling in the waterfalls, bungy jumping from gorges to view the peaks upside down. A week, a fortnight, a month …. still is less time to explore this kingdom of yaks and yetis, peaks and valleys, Hinduism and Buddhism..whatever interests you.

For more travelogues  from Ritika Gupta, check her blog –

My journey into Central Bhutan

By Abhik Dutta

We were at the ancient looking petrol pump in Wangdiphodrang town. Jigme, my friend and guide on the trip had gone to replenish his stock of Wills filters. I entered the ‘Black-necked Crane’ restaurant and ordered chicken ‘momos’ (kind of dumplings generally stuffed with pork) for breakfast. 10 minutes later I returned to the spotlessly clean main square.

The town, simply called ‘Wangdi’ (pronounced wongdi), is at an altitude of 4,430 ft and about 71 kms from Thimphu. I had spent the previous night at Punakha in a nondescript motel opposite the impressive Punakha Dzong on the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu rivers. The rivers met to form the picturesque Puna Tsang Chu River. In the morning, Jigme had collected me in a green Toyota pickup and we followed the river for about 45 minutes to reach Wangdi for fuel. It was 8.30 am on a crisp early November morning. There was not a speck of cloud in the sky. In the far horizon the dome shaped white peak of Mt. Jhomolhari was visible. Our destination was Bumthang in Central Bhutan, 200 kms away.

The central road over the Black Mountains…

” We are now entering wilderness country”, Jigme said soon after we left Wangdi. “There are no shops to buy anything till we reach Trongsa, 130 kms away.” I didn’t need anything as I had stocked my rucksack with all I would need for such an eventuality. The apples would serve me well till Trongsa and beyond.

The road snaked through the mountains as it followed the Dang Chu river which met the Puna Tsang Chu river at Wangdi just below the Dzong. A few kms from Wangdi, Jigme pointed out a prison in the valley below, flanking the river. It seemed out of place in such a serene and scenic location. The road climbed up steeply after the bridge at Tikke as we entered the Black Mountains. It is easy to understand why these mountains are thus called as one looks at the dark rock faces of the range in the distance. The area is sparsely inhabited and I could see farmhouses perched precariously on cliffs and hill tops. The jungles around here are dense and teeming with wild boar and Himalayan Black Bear. Only the previous week, ‘Kuensel’, the weekly newspaper had reported that a farmer was badly mauled by a bear near Nobding, a small village we crossed soon after. 7 kms beyond Nobding a road branched to the right. This road goes through a forest to Phobjika Valley at 9,840ft, 13 kms away, where Gangtey Monastery is located. Phobjika is the home of the rare black necked crane, which migrates from the Central Asiatic plateau to escape the harsh winters.

We continued down the road to Trongsa. Soon after this bifurcation the climb to Pele La Pass, 14 kms away, began. Near the Pass, on the right I could see the snow clad peaks of the Himalayan Range with Mt.Jhomolhari at 23,685 ft clearly visible. Only a few days ago I had seen the dome shaped peak as the backdrop to the ruins of Drukyel Dzong in Paro. This Pass at 10,825 ft is marked by a large prayer flag. The hillside around is covered with high altitude dwarf bamboo, a favourite food of yaks. If you are lucky, you can spot the yak herders who come down with their herd to the Pass for the winters.

Two huge bull-yaks were grunting and fighting fiercely on a slope beside the road as they locked horns. Jigme and our driver warned me not to go too close as I photographed them enthusiastically. The other yaks were fidgeting nervously as the two bulls tore the ground apart. I inched closer. Suddenly, there was a lull in the fighting and one bull yak just looked at me. Some wise man once said ‘adversity introduces a man to himself’. I turned and ran down the slope, past a bewildered Jigme, to the pickup!

On the other side of the Pass, the slopes were full of yaks feasting on the bamboo shoots. The young calves pranced nervously around their mothers. Even in Yumthang Valley in North Sikkim, I had not seen so many yaks in one place. This Pass marks the boundary between Central and Eastern Bhutan.

We descended rapidly and after Nikkarchu the road entered Trongsa district. We soon came across the huge white washed Chendebji Chorten next to the river. We halted here for packed lunch. Taking my camera, I walked down to the gurgling river. This is a fantastic place to spend a few quiet hours. There was not a soul in sight and the beauty of the place was overwhelming. I sat on a rock beside the river, munching my apples and watching a bird flirting with the water. This 18th century Chorten is Nepalese in style with eyes painted at the four cardinal points.

From Chendebji to Trongsa, the distance is 42 kms. The valley narrowed and the Mangde Chu river became a silver streak flowing hundreds of feet below the road. Jigme puffed his cigarette and announced, “For the next 20-25 kms, this gorge will remain deep and narrow. Vehicles that have fallen here have tumbled straight down to the valley floor below as it’s a sheer drop and there is nothing to stop the fall.” Seeing my nervousness, he said reassuringly, “Don’t worry, I’m sure one never feels a thing.” He also enlightened me that the Trongsa region is infested with snakes during the monsoons!

20 kms from Trongsa, we got our first enchanting view of the Trongsa Dzong clinging desperately to the cliff side across the gorge. The small township of Trongsa is scattered along the slopes. It took us an hour more to reach Trongsa. Bumthang was 68 kms away. It was 2 p.m. After an hour’s halt, we proceeded ahead.

Onwards to Bumthang.

The road went between the Dzong and the Ta Dzong (or the watchtower) and climbed sharply again. 29 kms from Trongsa, we reached Yotong La Pass (Yotola) at 11,155 ft. There was a sharp drop in temperature and we halted briefly to refresh ourselves. Then began the descent to Chumey Valley, the first of Bumthang’s four valleys- Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura.

I had heard about the exotic valley of Bumthang and it’s early November festival from the locals when I first stepped into Bhutan after holidaying for 10 days in Sikkim. I had heard that it is an enchanting place not frequented by Indians because of it’s remoteness. So, when Jigme and his colleagues processed my papers and arranged for my trip to Bumthang in a pickup van that was carrying luggage for some foreign tourists, the last doubts related to lack of finance began dissipating. Finally, the wandering bug in me took over and I decided to venture into a region where few Indian tourists go…

The road went through a wide and immensely beautiful valley. The farmers were returning from their day’s work and laughed and waved at us. An enchanting stream escorted us for a few kms till we reached Jakar, the main township in Bumthang and the seat of administration.

Because of the four-day festival at Jampa Lhakhang, foreigners occupied all the few good lodges in the valley. I didn’t see a single Indian tourist in Bumthang during my stay there. I checked into a room above a provision store paying 110 Ngultrums a night (equivalent to the Indian rupee). It was the only motel in town and my home for the next three nights as I discovered paradise on earth. That night in sub-zero temperatures, I slept in a room that was damp and cold and dug deep into my sleeping bag for warmth. Bumthang valley, like Paro valley, is an enchanting valley that is sparsely populated, with the shallow, emerald green Bumthang river going right through it.

I began walking the next morning at 9 a.m. after the fog cleared. Jakar town comprises of 25 wooden lodges on either side of the main street. Like everywhere else in Bhutan, the only vehicles around were the ubiquitous Toyota. Within 5 minutes, I was at the edge of town and walking along the riverside. Soon I came across a mechanical workshop and asked for directions to a shop selling the famous Bumthang cheese and apple juice. After gorging myself on the delicious cheese and gulping down 2 bottles of apple juice, I was told by the friendly landlady to check out the experimental Swiss farm atop Karsumpey Plateau, 20 minutes walk up from the shop.

I climbed up the gently sloping road towards the plateau and saw an awesome sight. Grazing in a lovely sun swept meadow were 23 sturdy Swiss horses which, I learnt later, were brought from Switzerland for crossbreeding with the local Tibetan breeds. I continued down the road and came across the farmhouse, and walked through an apple orchard. It was then that I first heard the overpowering melody of someone playing on the Dranyen, a 7-stringed instrument shaped like the mandolin.

He sat on a rock at the edge of the plateau overlooking the fabulous Bumthang Valley and hummed away. His two small children were laughing and playing with him. For the next two hours, I lay on the ground beside him as he played his Dranyen. I hungrily devoured the magnificent sight before me and carved every minute detail of the valley in my mind. Over the next three days, I would walk alone in this valley, discovering monasteries and chortens, eating cheese and sleeping on a meadow beside the river. I would attend the opening ceremony of the 4-day festival at Jampa Lhakhang at midnight in sub-zero temperatures and watch the naked dance, visit the Jakar Dzong, the Kurjey Lhakhang, drink apple brandy, flirt with the landlady’s pretty daughter Kuengzang and play with the local children. I would see the processing of beer and cheese in a local factory, lunch with the remarkable Fritz Maurer, the old Swiss dairy technologist who had made Bhutan his home over the last 29 years.

But, for now I was content lying in an apple orchard, many miles from home, listening to a father singing Bhutanese folk songs for his children…

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