Saturday, November 3, 2012

Our Long Beautiful Ride Through the Kingdom of Happiness

Four wheels move the body,  two wheels move the soul. - Popular bikers' adage.

Chris and I, childhood friends, had been craving to do a long motorbike ride together but somehow it didn't happen for a long time. Finally, in the Pujas, we decided to take off from all the hustle and bustle that the city will be and head to peace and tranquility in what is dubbed as the last Shangri La.

The Kingdom Of Bhutan, with it's concept of Gross National Happiness, was the ideal distance for our 2 week adventure. We loaded our saddle bags with the bare minimum clothing and accessories and set out for the ride of our lives. Our first stop was Jalpaiguri, a mere 600 km's away but something that took us more than 24 hours to cover owing to the terrible condition of NH34. We were hosted in a wonderful tea garden by Chris' relatives, Calcutta Chinese, who lived and worked at the Danguajhar Tea Estate.

After a wonderful sumptuous home cooked meal and much needed rest from the iron butts that NH34 gave us we headed to the border town of Phuentsholing. The bureaucrats at the Bhutan border, we came to realise, were just as bad as the ones on this side and after a few greased palms and lots of coaxing and cajoling we got our one permits to enter Bhutan up until Thimphu which was to be later extended in the capital city.

From the moment we entered Bhutan we felt a whiff of fresh air - the roads were far better than on this side of the border, although it is the Indian Border Roads Organisation (under Project Dantak) that makes all their roads but it did a much better job there than here. After a full day of riding and stopping at a few check posts to show our permits and register our names we arrived at Thimphu.

With a population of less than 80,000 and no street lights, but very animated traffic cops, this must be the cutest country capital of the world. And Bhutan has implemented a uniform model code of building styles that is completely in sync with the traditional building styles of the region, something that none of the heritage laden cities of India have managed till date. That is the reason why every new building seemed in sync with the old ones and there was none of the eyesore of glass and steel structures that we come to expect from other capital cities.

Bhutan has developed a unique tourism model that seems to be paying off very well. Since the Bhutanese total not more than 700,000 the visionary former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck realised that they would have to restrict the number of tourists coming in or else their identity, culture and traditions could easily be lost. So he instated a rule by which all foreign tourists wanting to visit Bhutan would have to book a local guide and pay USD 200 (revised to USD 250 fom 2012) per person per day as their visa fees which would include accommodation, car, guide et al. Thankfully, that rule does not apply to Indians and we're given a free peek into this beautiful country. The high fees ensure that only very few select individuals opt for the trip and the local guides ensure that the codes of conduct in this small closely knit society are not violated by callous visitors.

Another wonderful thing that strikes you is that almost all Bhutanese are always wearing their traditional clothes - gho for the men and kira for the women - whenever they step out of their homes. And when we reached there then there were two fabulous reasons to be in the country at the time ... the new King's wedding as well as the time for the annual Tsechu or traditional Drukpa Buddhist festival. The locals in their finest of clothes, the festive atmosphere and the beautiful scenery of the Himalayan Kingdom were quite a heady mix and we felt levitated to a higher state just being there.

Our next stop was the adjoining town called Paro. And the roads between the two cities were four lane international standard highways and a complete pleasure to ride on. We soon learned that fuel was much cheaper in Bhutan than India and hoped we'd brought canisters to take some back. But better sense prevailed as we lost ourselves to the beauty of this wonderful town.

The next morning was the pilgrimage that all coming to Bhutan must take - the trek to Paro Takstsang more popularly known as Tiger's Nest Monastery. It's a scenic half day trek to the most sacred site for the Bhutanese Buddhist as this is from where they believe Buddhism was introduced in the country. And the stories associated with it are no less fantastical than the breathtaking views all around. The most popular one is that Guru Padmasambhava aka Guru Rinpoche flew here on the back of a flaming tigress and introduced Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan.

Guru Rinpoche flies to the Tiger's Nest on the back of a tigress and introduces Buddhism to Bhutan.
We stopped at a wonderful cafe situated right next to a flowing river and had cheese and chilli toasts - which seemed to be the national dish of sorts. The Bhutanese love their chillies and I once committed the blunder of mistaking Schezwan pepper for oregano and put a lot of it in my soup. Never again.

Another interesting thing that the restaurant owner told us was that they don't kill any animals in the country owing to their Buddhist non-violent beliefs. And therefore all the meat requirements of the restaurants and the hotels is met by Jaiganj, the bordering Indian town with loads of butchers ready to serve this well paying client country.

Next morning was wasted in extending our permits as owing to the king's wedding in Punakha travellers were restricted from going there. But hardly were we in the mood to hear a no and were standing in front of the wonderful Punakha Dzong by nightfall. It was mesmerising to watch the palace under the light of the moon and the water flowing by to meet at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers. We sat there for a long time enjoying the beauty and the calm serenity of the place till it was time to find some accommodation and take some much needed rest.

At our hotel we met two very interesting people, one was a young Officer-in-charge of Punakha Police and the other was a senior official with the Bhutan military. They were very kind hosts and especially kind after hearing that we've ridden on our motorbike all the way from Calcutta. Interestingly quite a lot of Bhutanese we met, who spoke English, had all either studied or at least visited Calcutta for some reason or the other. And that connected us immediately as they all carried fond memories of our city.

Archery - The national sport of Bhutan. 

After a long and lovely sleep, we woke up fresh and headed to the famous fertility temple called Chimi Lakhang or the Temple of the Divine Madman. We learnt here that the divine madman, Lama Drukpa Kuenley, was a fun loving (read drinking and womanising) monk who spread Buddhism throughout Bhutan through his unconventional and relaxed ways of practice. His temple is now where women who want to conceive go to be blessed by a wooden phallus. Those not familiar with Hindu mythology find this fantastical and unbelievable but of course for us here in India this is common ground.

Myths and legends aside the walk to the temple goes through beautiful rice fields and up a small hillock. Once you reach the top you're greeted with prayer flags, prayer wheels and loads of monks in all age groups playing musical instruments, meditating or simply hanging around. It's a wonderful cultural, spiritual, mythological and scenic kaleidoscope. There's a great restaurant nearby where one can shop for souvenirs as well as try some traditional Bhutanese butter tea - locally called suuchaa and not for the unadventurous as its a strong flavour containing yak milk butter and salt.

Although we were having a ball the high point of our trip was yet to come. Our next stop was the Pobjikha Valley - famous for the migratory and highly endangered black necked cranes that come here during the winters from upper Tibet. It is said that the birds come and encircle the nearby Gangteng Monastery thrice while coming in and again thrice before heading out; therefore considered holy and well protected by the locals.

It is this same monastery that gave us the unbelievable experience of a traditional Bhutanese annual Tsechu. The farm that we stayed in for the night invited us to the unveiling of the Thangka, a huge two stories high painting of the Buddha, which is shown only one day in a year during the festival. We were lucky to have witnessed it and the colourful dancers wearing all kinds of masks and performing acrobatics was an unparalleled sight to behold.

Completely content from a soul fulfilling journey we found some local riders and headed to another beautiful valley called Bumthang. Since this was our last stop before we headed back we took it easy and relaxed here for a couple of days. Our return journey was cutting through the Royal Manas National Park where it was common for deer and snakes to come in front of our motorbike while we tried our best not to harm them.

All in all Bhutan is all that the tourist brochures tell you and more. The effects of the concept of the Gross National Happiness that the visionary monarch said his country would be judged by really seems to work. Most locals we met, including taxi drivers and hotel staff, have immense regard for their monarch and seem to have the faith that the King will guide them well for a long time to come. And the King seems to know and perform his duty really well. Although they are opening up to international influences but at the same time they're also holding close to their hearts their traditions, customs and their proudest possession - Buddhism.

Bidding goodbye to this wonderful little paradise.
Long distance riding tips:

  1. Wear a quality helmet. Preferably one that covers your chin and ears. 
  2. Use a parachute cover. One that can be used when raining - it should be big enough to cover the attached luggage too.
  3. Buy well proportioned saddle bags for even distribution of weight on both sides. has decent options. 
  4. Travel light. But bike spares and a torch are a must. 
  5. Keep your arms loose when riding as tense muscles will lead to ache in the neck and back. 
  6. And last but not the least: Don't go fast, go far.

Day 1 - Tee off from Calcutta.
Day 2 - Reach Jalpaiguri and rest in Danguajhar Tea Estate.
Day 3 - Cross Phuentsholing in the morning. Reach Thimpu by night.
Day 4 - Thimphu sightseeing and head to Paro.
Day 5 - Relax in Paro.
Day 6 - Trek to Tiger's Nest and relax in Paro.
Day 7 - Get permit from Thimphu and head to Punakha.
Day 8 - Punakha Dzong to Pobjikha
Day 9 - Pobjikha to Bumthang
Day 10 - Bumthang sightseeing
Day 11 - Bumthang to Gelephu
Day 12 - Gelephu to Siliguri
Day 13 - Silguri to Calcutta.

For more pictures please check my Facebook Album - Riding Through The Kingdom Of Happiness.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Our journey through amazing Iran

Iranian lady looking at the city of Esfahan from the Sofeh mountains.
Ever since ever I've always wanted to visit Iran - A country that is so connected with our own culture for so long deserved to be explored. And so we packed our bags and landed at the Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran to get our passports stamped for visa-on-arrival. (Yes one of the few countries to provide that privilege to Indian tourists.)

We had no idea where we were headed but we knew that we had to maximize our two weeks and see as much as we can. We obviously expected the myths that the media generates against Iran to be dispelled during our stay there but boy, we didn't know we'd be in for such a wonderful and pleasant surprise.

Our travel style was simple - explore through the day, travel by bus at night, speak to locals and if possible stay with them and eat local food. Little did we know that this will turn out to be such a life altering trip and leave us yearning for more.

The team of explorers at Naqsh E Rostam from L to R - Ifte, Shaheera, Chris, Suman and Danish.
Our journey began from Tehran, which we found to be a modern mature metropolis with all the facilities and amenities of any big town. The weather in April was beautiful - just a Darjeeling-in-summers kind of chill in the air. Our host was an electrical engineer with the government who loved to interact with travelers  from across the globe. We spoke about a lot of things since he was the first Iranian we chatted with and therefore we wanted to get a complete lowdown on what the country was all about. One of the things he said struck a deep chord with us, he said, "Governments of of all countries love America while their people don't care too much for it, but Iranian people love America while our government hates it." 
It may not be entirely true but it reinforces that people are the same everywhere. They just want to lead a good life with their families, friends and cronies. 

We took an overnight bus to arrive in Esfahan - what later became our favorite city of Iran. There is an old saying that 'Esfahan nest-e-jahan ast' which translates to Esfahan is half the world. And you will truly believe that if you happened to be at one of the largest constructed squares in the world called 'Naqsh E Jahan' recognized as one of the many UNESCO heritage sites of Iran. When Shah Abbas wanted to shift his capital to Esfahan in 1598 he wanted to be the most powerful Persian king - a very tall order considering the greats that Persia has seen in its long history - and this he did by building the Naqsh E Jahan square. He built the Shah Mosque on one side to harness the power of the mollahs, the Buzurg Bazar on the other side to rope in trade and commerce and built his Ali Qapu palace in the middle to lord over it all.  

An absolute must buy from Esfahan's bazaars is the mina kari plates.
There's loads to do in Esfahan but for brevity's sake I will list the 3 must do's:
  1. Hang out with the locals and sing songs on the centuries old bridges of Si Oh She, Khaju or Shahrestan. 
  2. Check out the super-cool Armenian quarter of Julpha - where many Armenians in India came from - including our very own Arathoon Stephen of the Grand Hotel fame. 
  3. Climb up to the Soffeh mountains to check out how Iranians love their outdoors. And you may indulge in one of their national passions besides tea - the qeyloon or hookah.  
Locals enjoy a day out near Masjed E Shah at the Naqsh E Jahan Square
Our next stop was a city that my Parsi friends would kill to be at - Yazd. We stayed in a wonderful restored old mud-brick house now aptly named The Silk Road Hotel. They were so happy to receive us, people of the Hind, that they gave us free cokes, yogurts, cheeses et al. 

Our walking tour took us through this amazing old city standing the test of time with it superb use of mud brick and plaster, wind-catchers to ventilate homes and qanuts or water channels crisscrossing the city's belly and we ended with some mouthwatering baghlavas, the traditional sweets of Yazd. 

The next day took us to one of the holiest mountain shrines of Zoroastrians today - Pir E Sabz or Chak Chak. Located on the top on a mountain in the middle of the desert this was a picturesque climb to the fire and that legend says was ignited by Zoroaster himself. Legend says that Nikbano, daughter of one of the last few Zoroastrian rulers of Iran was protected in this mountain by her God - Ahura Mazda and that attaches all the more importance to this holy spot. Chak Chak, by the way, is Farsi for drip drip and seeing the atrocity being committed on Nikbano the mountain is supposed to have shed tears. The spring runs till this day. 

Faravahar at Chak Chak - The most popular and well known symbol of the ancient Zoroastrians. 
Day 8 took us to Shiraz, one of the most famous and important cities of Iran, which impressed Tagore too when he came visiting in 1932 on an invitation from the Shah. 

We spent our lives' most historically fascinating day exploring the ruins of Persepolis, Takht E Soleyman, Naqsh E Rostam, Tomb of Cyrus The Great, ancient Kaaba of the Zoroastrians and the list goes on. Amazing history and well preserved too. One thing was clear not only are the Iranians aware of their past but they also make ample efforts to preserve it. It was vey heartwarming to see all their heritage sites in great shape and open to study by various travelers and interpreters. 

We wrapped up with a visit to the tomb of Hafez, a place that inspired Tagore. We obviously got ourselves a copy of Diwan E Hafez or The Complete Poems of Hafez - a book that is used throughout Iran to look for answers by running a blade through it whenever one is faced with a Hamletesque 'To be or not to be'.

Before we departed from Iran we saw old towns like Mayboud and Abyaneh which date back to pre-Islamic Iran and continue to live today albeit the women have to adhere to the Islamic dress code.
Jam E Mosque of Kashan.
Some things we learned about Iranians:
  1. They love Bollywood and therefore everyone that comes from Hind is a friend. 
  2. We may say, 'Atithi Devo Bhava', they practice it every day. 
  3. It's difficult to praise any object in Iran without it being offered as a gift. 
  4. In Chelo Kabab, their national dish, chelo actually means rice.
  5. Everyone from drivers to bellboys in hotels know their history and are mighty proud of it. 
  6. Their unofficial national sport is 'picnic'. All Iranians love their outdoors.
  7. Chai or tea must be had endlessly through the day with endless cubes of sugar.
  8. Contrary to popular perception, women are more liberated here than most other places we've seen in the world.
  9. All Iranians seem to be well educated and well trained in their respective fields.
  10. Some youngsters we met were rebellious in their own way. They loved America and despised their own government. I guess the more man changes the more he remains the same across the world. 
Tomb of Cyrus The Great in Pasargadae - A Unesco Heritage Site. 

Just like all great trips, we learnt and saw so much that we realized how little we know of the world and how much there is to explore. Reminding us of Prophet Mohammad's famous quote:

“Don’t tell me how educated you are, 
tell me how much you have travelled.” 

Our Itinerary:
13th April - Day 1 - Arrive in Tehran via Dubai.
14th April - Day 2 - Breakfast + Azadi Square + Milad Tower + Board bus to Esfahan.
15th April - Day 3 - Esfahan + Javad's Homestay + Naqsh E Jahan Square + Chelo Murg.
16th April - Day 4 - Azam Biryani + Julpha + Sophe mountain + Dizzi for dinner.
17th April - Day 5 - Ateshgah + Shaking minarets + Khaju bridge + namaz + Mehti + pizza at Julpha.
18th April - Day 6 - Yazd by bus + Silk Road Hotel + Walking Tour + Haji sweets.
19th April - Day 7 - Full Day tour of Chak Chak, Mayboud, Caravanserai and Ice House.
20th April - Day 8 - Arrive Shiraz + Hafez Hotel + Sajjad's City Tour + Saadi + dinner at Sharze with Sama.
21st April - Day 9 - Full day of Pasargad, Persepolis, Takht e jamsheyd + ka'aba of Zarushti's etc.
22nd April - Day 10 - Taxi booking from Pars Travel Agency + Hafez tomb + drive all night.
23rd April - Day 11 - Abyaneh + Kashan - Ehsan hotel + historical houses walk with Ali + meet Neda
24th April - Day 12 - Lunch with girls + drive to Tehran + Vahid at Milad Tower + dinner with Mehboobe and Mohsen.
25th April - Day 13 - Shopping at Tajirish + dinner at mall + sarzameen e ajayeb bowling
26th April - Day 14 - Dubai - arrive to Elizabeth's House - Mall Of The Emirates + Student Biryani
27th April - Day 15 - Elizabeth drive to Deyra + Desert Safari +
28th April - Day 16 - Ibn Batuta Mall + Bobby and family + Shopping at Deyra + dinner at pics with Elizabeth
29th Apirl - Day 17 - Return to Calcutta.

For more pictures check out our Facebook Album : The Beautiful Land Of Persia.
The Telegraph on 28th July '12 published a version of this travelogue : From Tehran To Shiraz