Sunday, May 7, 2017

5/1&2 -- Fly Home

The day started out  lazy because we had nothing to do but finish packing by 9 am and get to the airport (15 minutes away) for our 11:50am flight.  It turns out that to get to Delhi to catch our home-bound  planes, most days you have to fly through Katmandu. Not bad, but each flight was delayed and one pair of our group was staying on in India and needed to get to the train station for an overnight trip. Lucky for them, the train was late and they got on only a minute before it departed. We were amazed that they made it and glad they let us know they did.

We transferred to a nearby airport hotel, where we stayed until 12:30 am to get to the airport for our 4:15am flight. We changed planes in Dubai (and handed over all electronics bigger than a cell phone – including an electric toothbrush! -- for a separate check in  process-- to meet TSA concerns about bombs in tablets, kindles, and pcs-- with collection in San Francisco). Emirates had had a half price upgrade to business with lay-flat seats when we checked in for the 15+ hr portion of the trip, so we went for it. What a contrast to the cheap seats! Too bad flying like that all the time would seriously curtail the number of trips we could afford to take. 

We also got to try our our global entry membership and dashed through immigration in minutes. The priority bags (ours) didn’t even start to appear for about 10 minutes after we got to the baggage carousel. 

So we are home now, trying to catch up and recover.

Watch this space…. The next trip is 6/10 to Sicily.

4/30 -- Tiger's Nest and Farewell Activities

This was the day we had been training for and I knew I was not as ready as I wanted to be. The valley floor is at 7700 feet and the high point on the trail is over 10,000 with 479 steps down from there and 231 up to enter the monastery. I had little faith that I could deal with going back up the 479 steps and thought that I would be doing well just to make it to the high point.

There used to be horses you could take up the second half, but now they are only available on the bottom half and three of our group elected to try that. The only person who was truly ready for the hike was Shelly, who was traveling with her mom and has a husband who loves challenging treks in Colorado. She actually completed the first mile up in 35 minutes vs. the hour or so it took the rest of the non-horse riders. She even beat the horses. But then, she is several years younger than my daughter so maybe that it to be expected, given her interests.

There is a restaurant about halfway up with great views of the monastery for the faint of heart. Every one in our group actually made it to the high altitude view point and 6 of us completed the whole trip, though some were faster than others. I turned on my endomondo app to see how long/fast etc. From the horse park to the first part of the monastery (30 steps up to go -- we had to leave all electronics and baggage at the gate) these are the stats from endomondo: Distance: 2.45 miles,  Duration: 2h:52m:51s, Calories: 1,789 kcal (YAY -- eat anything I want today!!), Avg Speed: 0.85 mph (I am a slow hill climber, especially at high altitude), Max Speed: 4.54 mph (the road flattened out at the top and at the restaurant), Avg Pace: 1:10:27 min/mi, Max Pace: 13:13 min/mi, Min Altitude: 8448 ft (probably 150-200 feet higher--at home Endomondo says I get to more than 100 feet below sea level at the bottom of our hill), Max Altitude: 10135 ft (add 150 - 200),  Ascent: 1919 ft (Total ups), Descent: 469 ft, Hydration: 0.83 L
Our objective, from a distance.
This was a nice part of the trail.  Much of it was rutted with
horse trails. There is no incentive to improve because people
think it should not be to easy to  make the ascent. The sense
is that you have to earn your way in
Zoomed in on one of the  buildings

Jim & Lynn with the monastery in the background,
Two more views: not zoomed, zoomed.
Water fall and  Lion's Cave (which doesn't really lean like that).
The 479 steps back up
I also used my fitbit to monitor my heart rate and rested whenever I went over 140 beats per minute, though in the early stages, I felt very winded even when my pulse was under 100, due to the altitude, I am sure.
Once we got to the monastery, Chimi took us to three worship spaces which were tiny, crowded, and filled with people speaking softly, which largely prevented me from hearing anything. We sat on the floor, which is a challenge because I can't do cross-legged any more, and Shelly  maneuvered so my feet didn't show, because showing feet (especially the bottoms), is a problem in the temple. By the third place to look at, I bailed out and waited for the group to return because I had had it with steps (each place was higher than the last) and I couldn't hear anyway.  

I thought the way down would be faster, and it was, except that Jim slipped when the dirt trail gave way with about a mile to go. Fortunately another tour guide was near him and caught him before he fell, but he twisted  his ankle and his pace for the last mile slowed quite a bit. I finally convinced him to use one of my walking poles to assist his descent. Endomondo details (this time, I tracked us to the bus level, a bit lower than the horse level):  Distance: 2.43 mi (we didn't stop at the cafeteria this time), Duration: 2h:35m:17s, Calories: 1,607 kcal, Avg Speed: 0.94 mph, Max Speed: 4.90 mph, Avg Pace: 1:03:52 min/mi, Max Pace: 12:15 min/mi, Min Altitude: 8389 ft, Max Altitude: 10292 ft: Ascent: 420 ft, Descent: 2379 ft, Hydration: 0.75 L
At the bottom, we had a delightful picnic lunch and then boarded the bus. We were supposed to see yet another temple, but no one in the group wanted to go there, so we went back to the hotel to clean up and recover from our day. 
At 5:45 pm, we gathered again to be dressed in traditional Bhutanese clothing and watched a dance presentation by local students. It was supposed to be outside, but the rains that had held off all day started to sprinkle, and then the lights went out, but with candles and cell phone flashlights, we could see it all. 

The country manager attended our farewell dinner to get a sense of what we thought of the trip, since this is only the 4th iteration of this itinerary, and provided us with a nice bottle of red wine as thanks. Wine is not plentiful here, and since we got off the plane in India on 4/16, I have only had 2.5 glasses of wine in 2+ weeks, which might be a new low record for me as a Californian. 

Mickey Mouse joined us for dinner and brought photos of some of the dorma he created as a monk..These are flour/butter/water artistic displays that we have seen in every temple, but have not been allowed to photograph.  Mickey was well on his way to being a major master of this art. His work was significantly more intricate than anything else we have seen.


4/29 -- Drive to Paro, Hot Stone Bath

Before we got to Paro, we stopped at the Simtokha Dzong, built in 1629 to guard a demon who had vanished into a nearby rock as well as to guard the area from invaders. 

Simtokha from a distance
Artwork of the dzong and the Founding Father, who is much
revered here.
Outside of the dzong
Another gargoyle
Above and below: sanctuary entrance

From the dzong, we continued to Paro, a very successful farming valley. The weather allows two crops a year and most of the farmers are relatively well-off. We stopped here for lunch with a family that will later host us for our hot stone bath. We met some of the women there (our primary contact was off at a wedding -- a  new concept here is to have weddings that are big deals, like many of ours, instead of very small, informal  ones) and proceeded out into the field to pick asparagus for our lunch, which turned out to be the best asparagus we have ever had. Now that I like asparagus, I may have to try to grow it.
Chimi (right) with our lunchtime hostesses

This family prepares rice seedlings and then sells them to other
farmers for planting.
The 6-year old girl was very good at identifying which spears
were ready to cut. Not a job I would want to do often...
Stairs to the house were more like ladders with
railings. Not so bad going up, but not much room
for feet unless they are tiny or you go down
The interior stairs were just as steep.
The granddaughter was a delight -- learning English and charning.
Her mother was an employee here and left her behind when
she was 6 months old to pursue marriage and her own family.
This family has informally adopted her with no plans to clue
her about her real parentage. That would not work here!

This is our bus driver. Chimi told us his name
the first day, which sort of sounds like Mickey,
so she calls him Mickey Mouse. He was a monk
from a young age to 32 when political issues with
his superior drove him back to the secular world.
He is divorced, with 2 kids, and lots of
girlfriends. Can you believe he is 52??

All of us after lunch. Our official hostess arrived as we were
finishing --on the left with the blue jacket. From left to right:
Hostess, Sharon, Gramma, Shelly, Lisa (in red), Lily (in pale
yellow), Lloydene (in medium blue), Cynthia (in black), 2
other hostesses, Jim, and Lynn

An interesting take on a hot tub -- the hot stones go in the
small end. This extra wide tub is for Jim and me to share--
facing each other.
For a big group like us, they start heating the
stones in the morning to be ready for us by 5pm.
The National Museum. Inside, one room was dedicated to dance
and the masks worn and had a 5-10 minute video of various
dances. The steps all looked pretty much the same with different
masks. Another section had thankas (religious art) and a
special display of clay statues.
View down the valley

You can see the raised roof here and the indication that there
is stuff in storage there.
 After the museum, we had 30 minutes to shop in downtown Paro, and I managed to find earrings and a necklace.  I had hoped to find a silk local style jacket, but there was not enough time to really shop well for such an item. Then it was off to the hotel to check in before our hot stone bath. We got derailed on the way to the hotel when someone espied an archery contest so we stopped to watch for a bit. The target was more than a football field length away and it was windy, so the contestants had their hands full. Nobody used anything that looked like a traditional bow. Archery is their national sport and they have the most advanced gear.

We got a room at the back with windows on two sides that look
out on fields, so we finally can leave the curtains open for
sleeping and not suffer from light pollution or the need
for privacy like in the cities.

4/28 -- Drive to Punakha

We drove to Punakha, retracing our path over the road during construction, and along the way, stopped at the Fertility Temple and learned about the Divine Madman who inspired it, walked a suspension bridge, and visited the Punakha Dzong, the main defensive fortress and scene of two clever defeats of the Tibetans.
As we crossed the pass out of the Probjikha Valley, where
we had walked before, we found this yak and calf beside the road.

Above and below: sharing the road with big construction
equipment as well as other cars, trucks, and buses.

Most of the trucks here are decorated like this one,
We made a pitstop at a hotel on the way and found these
children snacking in a gazebo.
Looking down into the valley we will cross to get to the
Fertility Temple.

Walking on the paths between the fields.
Typical artwork here
The temple we are heading to.
A house under construction
The builder mortaring the adobe brick with mud by hand.
This store sells the stuff in the window below.

More local artwork.
At the temple, young monks were practicing a variety of
instruments for their worship.

The Devine Madman, (1455-1570) was a Buddhist master who personified 'Crazy Wisdom' by using unconventional and outrageous teaching methods. Monks are supposed to be celibate tee-totalers, but he indulged in alcohol, women, hunting, feasting, and song and dance. His intent was the taunt the established order, including the monastic order. The phallus as a flaming thunderbolt symbolized the discomfort society experiences when facing the truth. He was supposed to have tamed a number of demons who were tormenting the Bhutanese. This temple was built by his 'cousin brother' on top of the mound where he buried a much-feared demoness of Dochula. 

We met the lama of the temple and were about to leave when a couple entered, seeking help conceiving. They had been here earlier, unsuccessfully, and it was said that the wife did not fully accept the prophecy, so they were trying again. She was given a large wooden phallus, the size of a 6 month old baby, and instructed to carry it around the exterior of the temple three times. When she came back in, she threw a set of dice which predicted her success and tried 3 times before the lama took charge, blessed them, and threw a number which indicated a baby could be conceived. Then she picked a scrap of paper from a sheaf of them and learned her baby's name (and therefore, sex), causing husband and wife to rejoice.

Chimi also told us her own story. After having 3 children followed by 2 miscarriages, her parents had come to this temple for help and got Chimi as a result.
The unusual thing about this stupa is the black paint.
Entrance to the Fertility Temple (Chime Lhakhang)
On our way back from the temple, Chimi
encountered her daughter, who is also a
tour guide, leading people to the temple, a
totally unexpected reunion.

We saw two women beating wheat with ropes to separate the
chaff and Chimi enthusiastically joined them. As a farm girl
growing up, she finds she misses this king of activity.
A couple ladies from our group gave it a shot too -- this is Shelly.
Next up was a potato farmer harvesting her crop. The altitude
is much lower here and the potatoes are further along that in
the valley we came from.
View of Punakha Dzong on our way to the suspension bridge.
The worst part is going up at the end. However
this is undoubtedly the most stable of the
suspension foot bridges we have ever crossed
in Asia.
Entry to the wood bridge over the river that
leads to the Dzong.
There are 3 set of wooden stairs here. There
has always been a pecking order of who can
go up which set. Now the outer two are for
everybody, except the royal family, which uses
the middle set.
The eaves of the entrance are a source of honey from these hives.
 This is the most impressive of the Bhutanese Dzongs, probably because Punakha was the country's capitol for a long time. It is situated where the mother and father rivers (Mo and Pho) join. It is also where all of the kings are crowned. It was established by Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the Founding Father, who coincidentally took an important Tibetan Buddhist statue when he left Tibet. The Tibetans tried several times to get it back, and brought a much larger force with them than the group defending the dzong, This dzong has an unusual feature, a back door not visible from the river. Zhabdrung had his soldiers march out the river-side door and around to the back, re-entering the dzong and going back out the front door, giving the impression of a much larger fighting force. The second time the Tibetans tried to recapture their statue, he gave the impression that he had heaved it into the river. Tibetans, like Bhutanese, rarely learn to swim because of the cold water temperatures, so they gave up and figured it was lost to both groups.
Prayer wheel at the entrance to the temple, which
was the biggest we saw here. I counted 48
supporting pillars, but most temples had fewer
than 10.

An inner courtyard.
Jacaranda trees at the front of the dzong.