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Notes from “Beyond the Beaten Path” in India and Bhutan!

Posted on Thu, 10/24/2013 - 12:56 by conniekincheloe

A series of notes on the experiences of an ETI guest on her 2nd trip with us that took her across the length of India from Mahabalipuram in the deep south all the way to Shimla in the lap of the Himalayas and then onward to scenic Bhutan and back to Ladakh!

I arrived in Mahabalipurum on the Bay of Bengal, famous for incredible 8th Century rock cut sculptures made as models for temples, manmade caves of sculptures and my favorite; the world’s largest bas relief in stone of daily life. So charming! Students here are given bicycles to encourage them to stay in school. In uniforms biking everywhere.

Then went to Kanchipuram, the Golden City of a Thousand Temples all very different from those we saw last year and all still in constant use. Our guide finagled my wearing my boot so I could enter but had to take off other shoe. Thank goodness for my walking sticks! Thrilled because the largest temple was beautiful with halls of stone with smaller temples where we actually received blessings from the Hindu priests.

Saw statues dressed in emeralds, rubies and diamond jewelry and halls of brightly painted merry go round looking animal figures that carry the deities in festival parades. So bright and different from temples in North. In contrast a charming small temple with carvings reminiscent of Angkor Wat, ancient frescoes still visible. Our guide was a wonderful interpreter of his Hindu faith.

For my girls... during lunch at our hotel,I noticed a table of 30 something women surrounded and hidden by staff. Thesewere wives of wealthy businessmen in Chennai. Wish I could have photographed but didn't dare. The latest in Indian fashion gorgeous colors but very different with nose rings attached to diamond hair Pins on some. My guide said that his wife has 300-400 saris!

From Kanchipuram, proceeded to the beautiful, forested foothills of Himalayas at Shimla.The trip to Shimla is a 4 hour ride up narrow, two- lane windy road with fruit stands, pedestrians, monkeys, cattle, timber stacked high along sides all the way. Cars, trucks loaded high with apples, motorcycles passing constantly with inches to spare. Shimla is the capital of Indian Himalayas.

Visited Lovely Wildflower Hall, former 1800's site of home of British Governor Kitchener during the Raj (British control of India). Then trip by horseback took 25 days. We're in the foothills but above the clouds with wonderful views of the mountains. Monkeys everywhere I have been warned to keep windows closed so they don't enter room and open refrigerators. A Langur monkey guards (the hotel) to scare the others away.

Here in the Hill Stations the British Government established schools and colleges for the military families. These are now attended by children from around India and International students (and are known) for their excellent education.

At highest point of Shimla, saw statue of Monkey God taller than Christ in Rio It stands surrounded by monkeys who reach in Indians’ pockets (not foreigners) looking for food they bring to the temple. The Monkeys also take Sunglasses off heads giving them back only when treats are offered.

The town of Shimla is amazingly cosmopolitan with industry, banks, bustling commerce, people of all religions and nationalities. Men are primarily in Western dress while women wear western and modern saris with pants with beautiful colors and patterns.

I walked the 2.5 mile "mall" of what used to be the longest pedestrian mall in the world. The mall has Sports complex, shops, restaurants, Indian fast food, churches, businesses, outdoor markets, depot, performance hall as well as old British government buildings transformed into banks and offices.

I climbed to the Ridge with ice rink, pony rides, wonderful views of houses, hotels, temples and schools built into beautiful mountain sides of a fur forest. Visited the 1800s Anglican church with stained glass windows made by Rudyard Kipling’s father. The Church is such a surprise after car ride to the top of the ridge. At the end of the ride is the exquisite home and gardens of British Governors.

The site is now the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies where PhDs from around world are invited to study and publish. Major international conferences including the signing of a peace treaty between India and Pakistan occurred here Although there are still Pakistani terrorist attacks in Kashmir, the adjoining district.

Hated to leave Wildflower Hall with its beautiful walking trails, scenery as well as the finest personal service I've ever experienced anywhere. Excitedly,looking forward to seeing Bhutan.

Today we leave (Bhutan), the most beautiful country I've ever seen. It's not just the breathtaking scenery of rice growing terraces, mountains, valleys and rapidly flowing rivers but the charming architecture of the wooden painted Bhutanese houses, temples, fortresses built on mountains and into hillsides; the colorful hand woven traditional clothing worn proudly daily by the people; the magnificent costumes of the Thimphu festival; as well as the lovely, kind demeanor of this Buddhist population.

Never during the 3 days among the crushing crowd of 1000s at the ThimpuFestival did we hear a child whine or cry or a word of complaint from anyone. The only raised voice I ever heard during this week was mine as the crowd was pushing me to the stairway and I was losing my balance because of my boot. The look of surprise on the people's faces quickly changed to kind smiles as I pointed to my foot and they took me by the arm to guide my way. It's impossible not to love this wonderful country. No tourists (were allowed into Bhutan) until the 70s. Now they only allow 80,000 visitors yearly. We consider ourselves fortunate, I have lots of pictures!

The Royal Family has ruled the Kingdom through the lives of 4 Kings. In 2008, when the king abdicated in favor of his 28 year old Oxford educated son, the young king and father announced that Bhutan would now be a democracy similar to Britain's Parliament. They just had their first national election, the vast majority of the country participated and voted for the opposition party.

In 2011 the young king married an American educated 21 year old fellow countryman he first met when she was a child. They were married in the temple of the old capital of Punakha and walked most of the way to the present capital of Thimphu, which is a car trip of 1 and a 1/2 hours. This took them 15 hours, greeting their countrymen lining the roads all the way. I recall seeing this report on TV 2 years ago. Since then he has traveled across his country meeting and photographing the people and their land. He has just given 1,000 acres to 1,000 families to build their homes. The Queen has just opened a textile museum and weaving school to highlight the beautiful woven fabrics the country is famous for. Their countrymen talk of them at every opportunity and have their pictures everywhere. The former King had 4 wives, all sisters.

(Bhutan had) no national education or healthcare until the 60s. Now both are free. Lifespan then was 45 years, now is 65. An American doctor told us care is very good especially for pregnant women and children. (Bhutan has) no arranged marriages, no beggars or poor on the streets. Families take care of their own. Environmental conservation takes precedence over commercial interests. However conflict is arising with need for creating more jobs. Road building is everywhere by crews from India with half (the crews being) women.

Our guide used to walk 4 days to (visit) grandparents in another part of country, now a road goes to their door. New buildings have to be in the Bhutanese style which adds to the charm of the country. (Bhutan is) rich natural resources, especially hydroelectric power which they export especially to India.

Guides have to be provided by Bhutanese government. Ours was 28 years old, very nice, informative and comfortable answering any question. To his great disappointment, he attended College in India because did not pass an exam to get free college in Bhutan. Worked at call center so English was great but everyone in the country speaks English well. I was surprised last day to find he likes Bon Jovi and Guns & Roses!

Our trip began with a visit in Paro to the first of many beautifully painted fortresses built in the 16th century under one ruler to protect the country. Each includes a stunning carved and painted Buddhist temple. We happened to be there during a practice ritual march with music that the monks hold only once a year in honor of the unifier of the country and the people who followed him. It's performed when receiving the country's highest officers.

On our last day in Punakha, the most beautiful region we visited, the oldest fortress and temple monastery that dates back from the 15th century. Our visit (coincided with) a once yearly 3 day ritual presided over by a Lama. While chanting sacred texts, 36 monks in dark red also sat beating enormous drums with unusual curved metal sticks and blowing both long horns and small horns made from men’s ankle bones. They broke occasionally for tea and cracked corn snacks. Both were wonderful experiences.

(We visited) the Super Natural History museum with animals that I have never seen before. The Tarkin, (Bhutan’s) national animal is said to be a mythological creature with the head of a goat and the body of a cow. (Other attractions included) Prehistoric looking Great horn bill and female crocodile with long pointed snout. Later, heard the sounds of barking deer at a mountain park.

(We saw) food markets hanging with squares of white Yak cheese that last in mouths for 5 hours and provide lots of energy. There were wide selections of rice (loved red) and unusual vegetables.

Saw an archery contest using composite bows that can Shoot upto 500 feet. I couldn't even see the target! Regional teams competed to qualify to represent country in Olympics. With every successful point, the winning team sang and performed a short ritual dance followed by a cheer that sounded like a frat party.

Our main reason for going to Bhutan was the yearly Festival in Thimphu in honor of Guru Rimpoche, the 2nd Buddha, who came in the 8th Century and marks the beginning of the country's history. His statue is in every temple.

(During the Festival) mesmerizing dance dramas performed by monks and lay people often masked, in breathtaking colorful costumes go on all day long for 4 days.

Dancers are heroes, demons and animals as well as wrathful and compassionate deities in every form. Crowds in beautiful traditional dress sit or stand in the stadium chatting and watching intently. During dances, jesters mimic performers with comic routines and carry phallus that they chase and hit the crowd including us! (This is) an enormously happy celebration. One can't help but get caught in the spirit of the events, making it sad to leave.

From Bhutan we move on to Leh in a very different dry desert Himalayan region in India. Here there is snow on the mountains instead of Vegetation we land in a rocky brown desert surrounded by the Himalayas on all sides. 75% of these mountains lie in India.

Our hotel is a 1820s fortress/palace of the former king of this region. Charming painted rooms, beautiful murals on walls of our small dining room where we sit on rugs at small bench tables for meals which are delicious. Small doorways that even I have to enter bent from the waist and hot water only if scheduled hours in advance. No electricity between midnight and 6 am. (There is a) wonderful museum with clothing, jewelry, weapons and possessions of former king as well as their old kitchen. Monk from local monastery sponsored by family lives upstairs. One day we're invited to a meeting with the Lama, monks and surprisingly, nuns from area. The young ones giggle at us as we sit while they eat and then chant. On last evening during dinner, the present King (50ish and wearing jeans) visits us. We are the first Americans to stay at his palace. (He is) very congenial. Has an NGO working to preserve monasteries and palaces in Leh. He plans to build a resort nearby. He lives at palace with his family 4-5 months a year. (Meeting the King was) quite an experience.

Until 1949 this region, called Ladakh, was part of the Silk Road and wasthe siteof the highest road in the world leading from India into China and Pakistan. Surprisingly, Ladakh is a very different, slower paced and more progressive India with young people leaving to study in the big cities and then returning home to decide their own marriages, ignoring taboos like holding hands. (There are) TVs is in every home. Our wonderful guide is a doctoral student in philosophy and linguistics in Delhi but returns to guide during the tourist season and intends to live in Leh after graduation.

We walk the old town and the more modern bazaars. So many buildings made of mud bricks. Visit fort palaces (one with the longest prayer flag in the world), beautiful temples and a Stupa built by Japanese dedicated to world peace. Early one morning, we visit Thiksi monastery for morning devotions and a tour of this huge complex including a huge multi-storied Buddha, and young monks who are 5 and 6 years old.

For their Festival (in Leh) smaller performances are organized in close up in small monastery courtyards with similar music and costumes as Bhutan and mostly tourist audience this time but plenty of locals with their Mongolian/Tibetan faces. Archery contest with old bows made from ibex horn involve 2 or 3 archers shooting one right after the other.

Women in native costume watch, waiting for their turn to perform and acting like their own cheerleading squad. We attended Festival's traditional music concert with amazing folk costumes with heavy turquoise headdresses and discordant singing.

On our final day, we drove along Indus River into the countryside. (There was an) enormous military presence because of the close proximity to China, beautiful mountains and valleys with wide rivers that invite rafters and trekkers. Out here the loveliest Buddhist monastery I've seen is theAlchi; an 11th century painted by artists from Kashmir. We don't climb panting at 12,000 ft to this one as it lies on the banks of the Indus. Simple small buildings but the artwork inside is exquisite often with miniature scenes covering the bodies of the statues.

It snowed in the mountains when we were leaving Leh. The plane is full of trekkers. October 1 ends their seasonand the winter is coming. Stores & restaurants will now close until May when they return. (We bid) goodbye to the mighty Himalayas from this height covered with snow.

Am home safe & sound. Love to all.