Dzongs and Divine Madmen

Punahka (60)SMOur shortened trek did mean we had time to visit Punakha, another town three hours drive from Thimpu. The dzong is one of the most beautiful in the of country, sitting at the confluence of two rivers in the base of the valley, framed by lilac flowers. We also visited the temple of the divine madman, one of Bhutan’s most beloved, and from the stories, most lecherously drunken saints. We walked through rice paddy fields back to the road and saw some of Bhutan’s prevalent phallic house paintings that definitely left little to the imagination!

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We ended up trip in Kathmandu which compared to the calm, relaxed, peaceful atmosphere that pervades everywhere in Bhutan, Kathmandu was quite an assault on the senses. We walked up then busy steps to the monkey temple and then sought refuge in my favourite place in Kathmandu, the Garden of Dreams.


Sunshine & Snow: Trekking in Bhutan

Druk (132)SMOur next trip was a five day hike across the mountain passes from Paro valley to Thimpu valley. With a small army of ponies and porters we set out from above Paro valley hiking through rhododendron forests in the sunshine, along hill  ridges and passing isolated monasteries. The campsites had toilet tents, carpets to sleep on, a dining tent and roast potatoes with dinner. Utter luxury. Not to mention being woken up by hot tea or coffee and warm water to wash your face.

Druk (185)SMOn the third day we experienced an unusual turn of weather for the time of year. A light flurry of snow in the late afternoon soon became a heavy snowfall. The last sound before drifting off to sleep was the sounds of our porters brushing settling snow from the tops of all our tents. We woke to a winter wonderland. Blue skies, bright sunshine and over four inches of crunchy virginal snow. The ponies were huddled under the trees looking decidedly unimpressed along with a heard of yaks that had wondered onto the plateau the previous evening. We ate breakfast in the open air at our campaign table surrounded by white peaks and blue skies. Although beautiful the snow meant we had to head back down the valley. This was fine until we got below the snow line and then had a three hour slip and slide through thick mud before reaching the bottom!

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The Land of the Thunder Dragon

imageBhutan. The Land of the Thunder Dragon. One of the world’s youngest democracies, a hidden kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between China, India and Nepal. A small population of people who believe in the importance of Gross National Happiness, driving economical growth but preserving their culture and ecosystems and who wear traditional dress while driving to work in their new Japanese cars. Where century-old monasteries nestle on the precipices of towering cliff faces, prayer flags flutter on the slopes above the towns, and demons and saints walk through the everyday stories of the country’s history and culture.

imageIMG_8471 SMOur trip began with one of the most unexpectedly unsettling landings I have ever experienced in a plane. I hadn’t been aware that Paro airport in Bhutan is one of the most dangerous airports to land in the world and few pilots are qualified to make the landing. The sharp turn during the dissent whilst almost on the runway and the very sharp breaking was a bit of a shock to the system.

Our trip began in Paro, nestled into the Paro valley, populate by large traditional Bhutanese houses with painted wooden eaves, white walls and painted animals on their walls. We visited the Paro festival, an annual Buddhist celebration of music and dancers, and one extremely large scroll. The locals (and tourists) gathered in huge numbers in their finest traditional dress to watch the vibrant performances. We even got to briefly see the King, coming out of the Paro Dzong on the final day of the festival he stopped to talk to the waiting crowd and thanked us, eagerly hovering near the front, for visiting his country!

imageFrom Paro we spent a day visiting the beautifully if perilously situated Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It was a steep but scenic climb up the hillside past woods and fluttering prayer flags to reach this Buddhist sanctuary gazing out across the valley.

Scaling the Greatest Wall on Earth

Our final activity in China was to take a two day hiking trip out onto the Great Wall. It’s hard to really describe the incredible feat of construction that is the Great Wall of china. We visited a rather secluded area at jinxou where the wall has not been restored so the surrounding forest is crawling over parts, erupting through the stone and crumbling sections into the countryside. The wall itself follows the highest ridge as it zigs and zags over the hill tops creating the most incredible views and routes.

Every watchtower we reached and every corner of the wall we turned seem to open up a completely new and equally stunning view of the wall. We camped overnight in the shadow of wall and the next day had the ‘adventurous’ part of the hike. Sections of the wall narrow so much you can grab both sides with your hands and so steep you struggle to get up each tall narrow step. On the other side of the wall the forest drops straight down into the valley hundreds of meters below. Parts of the wall has also almost completely crumbled away. Instead of steps a near vertical wall of uneven rock face confronts you. So we did some hair raising rock climbing, scrambling through the forest and gazing down at vertigo inducing views.

Beijing Bikes and Bustle

Beijing looks and feels very different to shanghai. The skit line is less dominated by huge skyscrapers, there are more traditional buildings, more traffic, and the mandarin is layered with rrr’s, almost as if the Chinese came via Cornwall. 
I’d picked the Emperor hotel as the Roof terrace over looked the forbidden city and up to Jingshing hill. Our room was named, as all the rooms, after a Chinese emperor. Ours Chong Zhen, the last emperor of the Ming dynasty who famously hanged himself from a tree in Jinshin park.

Our next day we walked up to the temple atop this park to look down overt the rooftops of the forbidden city, via trying on some rather fetching outfits, before spending the rest of the day walking in the footsteps of courtesans, eunuchs and emperors of five hundred years ago.

Beijing has many faces. From the beautifully tiled buildings and sculpted gardens of the forbidden city, to the traditional grey stone Hutongs creating hidden mazes and courtyards, quiet lakes, to the high rise glass towers downtown where we had amazing Peking duck at DaDong, to the red lantern lined Ghost street with steaming bowls of Mongolian hot pot. We also went out to an art district on the outskirts of the city centre called District 798 with Viv and Trevor. A huge area or former industrial buildings and factories that now house sculptures, galleries, cafes and shops.

Stepping into the future in Shanghai

We arrived in Shanghai just at sunset after a five hour delayed flight from Amsterdam. We fled straight from our hotel, Casa Serena, down to the Glamour Bar on The Bund to join Viv’s birthday celebrations and watch the myriad of light displays across the glass skyscrapers across the water in Pudong.

Downtown shanghai, seen from the glass floor of the oriental pearl looks like a scene from a sci fi film. Glass, greenery and steel in a landscape that seems to change by the month. Further away we had brunch at Kommune, a brunch spot in Tai Kang road’s maze of gift shops, galleries and cafe across town. The menu adorned with a retro illustration of the communist ideal. Not sure that Mao would have approved of the tongue in cheek reference! We spent mornings in Fuxing park watching the city’s elderly ballroom dance practice tai chi or sing in outdoor choral sessions. Watched fluffy white dogs with orange dyed ears and wearing converse trainers strolling along the pavements.

Before leaving for Beijing we took a day trip out to Xitang, a water town, with Viv’s family and friends. We walked along the waterside under the red lanterns exploring shops and alleyways before lunching and catching an old school long boat back to our start.

Another side of Nepal

I was lucky enough, in January, to visit Nepal with WaterAid, our fundraising partners for Aveda Earth Month each year. We visited two communities in a remote region of Western Nepal called Surkhet Palate is a semi urban community of 304 households and 1637 people. The government water supply is over 20 years old and the two taps in the village very rarely work. The water from these taps is not a safe source of water and leads to many diarrhoeal diseases in the village, the water is dirty and often contains dead worms and insects.
 Most days the women have to walk down to a second water source a 40-60 minute round trip below the village. This water is also not clean. We met Rekha who is 22 with two children, aged 7 and 4, who lives in a family home of 11 people. Unable to use the village tap point, she usually has to go 6-7 times a day to collect water from below the village, a journey of almost an hour. The weight of the jugs of water she brings back were almost too heavy for me to lift, let alone carry back up the hill. Aside from taking up large parts of the day the trip can also be dangerous. Jackals have bitten 25 women in the past year visiting this water point causing one woman to die. If Rekha can’t collect water early enough for cooking, the children either have to go to school without eating or miss part of the school day. They also suffer from diarrhoeal diseases. Last summer Rekha spent 3000 rupees per child on treatment (more than most families in the village earn in a month). Her husband has had to travel to Mumbai in India to work in a hotel to send back money to help the family.

Palate has set up a WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) committee that will work with WaterAid’s local partner NEWAH to implement a clean water project in 2012. They have already been declared ODF (open defecation free) an important part of ensuring both clean water and sanitation. The committee will work with NEWAH to ensure a safe clean water supply for the village as well as training local masons, caretakers and hygiene facilitators to ensure the long term sustainability of the project. Rekha is looking forward to the new, safe water source for the community as she says she will be able to spend more time with her children, ensure they get to school on time and have more time for housework and looking after her domestic animals.

The following day we drove to a village called Lamidamar that started work with NEWAH and WaterAid 18 months ago. We were greeted with flower garlands by the WASH committee headed up by Gauri. She spent a long time appealing to government organisations and regional committees to try to get a clean water source established for her village, before she heard about NEWAH. 18 months ago there was no safe water source, women collected dirty water from the river and there were no toilets so people would defecate anywhere in the open. With money from WaterAid, NEWAH helped to facilitate the building of a safe water source, pipelines, reservoirs, irrigation, 100 toilets and 25 tap stands in the village. They also trained masons, caretakers and health facilitators in the village to maintain the work. Lamidamar is a beautiful rural village and they are hugely proud of their achievements. There is no more open defecation and households have access to clean safe water. This has made a huge difference to the school. There are two taps, a low one for the smallest kids to reach. There are also separate toilets for boys and girls. Having girls toilets is key to ensuring they have the privacy to remain in school into puberty. Ceramic tiles at the tap stand remind the children to wash their hands after using the toilet and before eating. We also met a disabled girl, Babisera who is 12 years old. Unable to use the traditional pit latrines she had nowhere to go but in her bed or her wheelchair. NEWAH helped to construct a special toilet for her use with a seat so she is able to have the dignity of using a toilet like the rest of her family. It was hugely interesting to be able to visit the communities that our Earth Month money is helping in Nepal and talking to the individuals whose lives are benefitting. It was also an experience to learn how much planning goes into every project and how important the village communities are in implementing the projects and ensuring they are sustainable in the long term.