Bhutan - The Mystic Land of Happiness

I knew that the trip to Bhutan from 30th January 2014 to 5th February 2014 would be memorable for more than just one reason- my first venture into the hills of the North East ( though technically its not a part of North East India), my first tour with friends that included overnight stay, the first stamp on my passport (which unfortunately did not happen 😔) and of-course my first article on a travel experience.

The Gang!
Bundle of Joy
A place where every building has a story to tell through the exquisite paintings on its walls, where serenity prevails even in the busiest traffic,where strangers greet like they've known each other for  ages and man lives in complete harmony with nature despite the progress in technology - that in a nutshell is Bhutan for you. In the five days I spent in Bhutan with my friends, a number of intricate details touched me more than the natural view, Dzongs and trekking experiences, without a mention of which my account of this trip would remain incomplete. In our 8-hour journey from the border town Phuentsholing to Paro, we could not hear a single horn blowing, even in the twists and turns of the hilly path. In fact, it was the sudden outrage of vehicle sounds that made me aware that I've crossed Bhutan on our way back to Kharagpur. Another impressive thing about the Bhutanese, according to me was that "Formals" to them mean their own traditional attire, rather than the conventional western suits- be it in the monastery or in administrative offices. This trip to Bhutan seemed like a time travel to the period that our parents often talk about- when people were much closer to the nature around them, when kids spent a bulk of time playing outdoor games on the streets without their parents running behind trying to protect them from "calamities" like catching cold or tripping off and injuring their knees; when people were less  worried about future and more indulged in enjoying the present. For the old-world dreamer that I am, the tour was really the much needed break from the mundane mechanical life of ours.

Day 1: 31st Jan 2014, Friday- Enter the land of the Thunder Dragons

It was a surprisingly warm day when we reached Hasimara at 1p.m. After immigration formalities and lunch at Jaigaon we set off for our 8 hour long journey to Paro, a beautiful town in the lap of  the Paro valley that is home to hundreds of legends from the Bhutanese and Buddhist history. What we were not aware of despite the  research we did prior to our tour was that , 31st January 2014 was the 1st day of the last month of the Bhutanese calendar, which according to their tradition was the Day of  Offering, similar to the Thanksgiving day of the US and Canada. We were rejuvenated after the long tiresome journey by the warm reception given by the proprietor of our hotel at Paro, who told us about this day celebrated as Buelwa Phuewi Nyim – the Traditional Day of Offering. 

Day 2: 1st February 2014, Saturday- Exploring the mystical Paro Valley
We were late by an hour on our first day of sightseeing and we set off for Chele la  Pass, which at 3988m elevation is the highest point on the famous Dantak road. It was a 2 hour uphill drive to this point, a path speckled with scenic beauty of the densely covered forests and view of  the snow covered mountain peaks of the Himalayas. The point is marked with colorful flags fluttering in the wind, which are believed to keep demons away and colorful rhododendrons that shine under  the bright sun. We found  patches of snow-covered areas glittering in the sunlight on our way, however the place itself was warm and sunny, and to our little disappointment, devoid of snow :(
Chele La Pass, Bhutan
Way to Chele la pass


As we leave Chele la for our next stop

We spent a great time there enjoying tea and making futile attempts of capturing the spotless beauty of nature in our high resolution cameras, after which we set off for our next destination, the Rinpung Dzong - the ancient court of justice and administrative building of Bhutan. 
At this point I would like to pause and put a note on Dzongs. Loosley translated as "fortresses", the Dzong architecture is typical to the Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas. Every valley of Bhutan has atleast one Dzong which is considered to be the most elegant building and a trendsetter for all the building architecture in that area. Every Dzong has an administrative part and a monastic part which are separated from each other. Bhutan homes the world's oldest and most spectacular Dzongs, each of which is an architectural wonder. [Courtesy: National Library, Thimphu]


@RinpungDzong
Built in the early 17th century on the foundations of an ancient monastery of the 10th century, by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual ruler of Bhutan, the Rinpung Dzong consists of the office of the Dzongda ( the district administrative head) and the court of justice of the Paro district. People are  supposed to wear full sleeved outfits and remove any kind of scarf off their head before entering these dzongs.

We then visited Ta Dzong- the national museum of Bhutan situated on the hill above the Rinpung Dzong, which was built as a watchtower during the wars of the 17th century to defend the Rinpung Dzong. The place took us on a memorable journey through the histroy of Bhutan- the small country with a population of less than 6.5lakhs, its rich cultural diversity and the faunal biodiversity. Outside  the gate of the Dzong we met a little Bhutanese girl who couldn't understand a  single word that we spoke but stuck around us while we posed for photographs.

Our last destination for the day was the Kyichu Lhakhang monastery, one of the oldest shrines of Bhutan built in the 7th century. It is considered extremely sacred  by the Buddhists and is famous for a pair of  evergreen orange trees that bear fruits throughout the year.

Day 3: 2nd February 2014,  Sunday- Tiger's Nest Trekking

Here comes the day that we were most excited about- a 3 hour hike to the famous Taktshang Lhakhang- more commonly known as the tiger's nest. It enjoys the status of being one of the most sacred sites  for the Buddhists all over the world. Located on the side  of the cliff 900m above the floor of the Paro valley overlooking the Paro river, trek to the Tigers' nest was a rough thrilling path inlaid with thick vegetation all around. It being my first trekking experience, I was full of zeal and started climbing up the rocks energetically despite not being in my best health. On the way to the monastery is a small Lakhang (a small village level monastery) and a temple. This is a viewpoint from where the copper-colored rocky mountain on which the Taktshang Lhakhang is built looks like the face of a fierce demon (a fact cited by one of our fellow Bhutanese co-travelers on our way back). There is a cafeteria on the path below this viewpoint for tourists and travelers to relax a bit.


Tiger's Nest - Perched at top of the Montains

Locals walking to the Tiger's Nest
Crossing a few more hurdles and difficult terrains on the way we finally reached the place to find out that the monastery was closed for lunchtime. However, the waiting time in the monastery came as a  blessing in disguise, that allowed us to enjoy the chilly breeze in the warm sunny day, amidst the sound of waterfall and chirping of birds all around.  We spent our time chewing on snacks and chatting among ourselves as well as with the other travelers from different parts of the world -  some of whom visited the place for religion while some simply for the joy of trekking. Once again I was touched by the warm, jovial nature  of the Bhutanese people, who climbed the hills like it was cakewalk and offered help to others in every possible way. 

The monastery comprised of eight temples each of which housed hundreds of mystical stories. Legends hold that Guru Padmasambhava (popularly known as Guru Rinpoche) arrived at this point from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated in the caves for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours in the 8th century. The monastery was first built in 1692 around those 13 caves, but were destroyed in fire twice, latest being in 1998 and the reconstruction was completed in 2005. One of the disciples in the monastery spoke to us about the various legends associated with the place and took us to each of the temples. We were awestruck at the splendor of this ancient building and the stories encompassing the mystical caves. The thrill and wonder of this amazing place made me forget the pain in my ankles and we returned with our hearts filled with awe at the mystery of the land.
Day 4: 3rd February 2014- Experiencing the rural Bhutan at Punakkha
Punakha, the former capital and still the winter capital of Bhutan is endowed with warm temporal climate and the Punakha valey is the abode of the richest soil in Bhutan owing to the natural drainage provided by the two main rivers, Pho-chu(father river) and Mo-chu (mother river). 
We started off early in the morning at 7a.m from Paro to the capital city Thimphu, where we needed to get the permits. For this first time in the 3days, we found ourselves in a usual urban atmosphere that we are more accustomed to- shopping malls, marketplaces, lots of restaurants, cafes and small shops. While our driver went off to take the permits, we went to the textile museum on the other side of the road. The museum was built in 2001 by the Mother Queen Ashi Choden Wangchuk, with the objective of sustaining Bhutan's traditional textile art and showcasing the cultural diversity of Bhutan on an international platform. We were shown an interesting AV that described the different styles of outfits worn in various parts of Bhutan, accessories distinct to people of a certain region or section of the Bhutnese society, the unique way in which the textiles are woven and the way the traditional formal attire are worn. The museum is  divided into 6 parts- Achievements in Textile Arts, the role of textiles in religion, textiles from indigenous fibres, The Royal Collection, warp pattern weaves, and weft pattern weaves.

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We then drove our way to the enthralling Dochula Pass, the famous pass between Thimpu and Punakkha that gives a 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayan Range. The pass is decked by 108 chortens known as Druk Wangyal Chortens built opposite to the temple Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. The snow-covered Himalayan mountains provide the perfect backdrop to the pulchritudinous pass that is a center of attraction for locals and tourists alike.

Dochula Pass
Our next stop was the Punakkha Dzong, the second largest and second oldest Dzong of Bhutan built at the confluence of Pho-chu and Mo-chu rivers on the Punakhha- Wangdue Valley. This majestic building stood the test of time and was rebuilt and restored its past grandeur by the present King, after being destroyed four times in the past due to fire and earthquake. This is the  Dzong where the royal wedding of the present King of Bhutan took place in 2011. 

Bridge on Paro River
Punakkha Dzong, Bhutan
Punakkha Dzong, Bhutan
Basking at the beautiful river side beneath the Himalayas
We were standing before a temple inside  the Dzong listening to the mystical chants, when all of a sudden we heard the cries of some monks and found some of them rushing out of the temple with canes   in their hand  hitting hard on the grounds. For a moment we were stunned and fled like a bunch of terrified kids, but soon we discovered that it was a part of an annual ritual that is performed at this Dzong, and felt lucky to have witnessed it.
Our last destination for the day was Chimi Lhakhang- the fertility temple located on a hill top in the farmlands of Punakkha.  It is believed that couples who don't have children get their wishes fulfilled when they worship at this temple. When we reached the temple through the dusty road with lush green fields on both sides, the evening puja was going on, and an occult ambiance was created inside the temple. A  guide was depicting the various legends associated with this temple to some foreign tourists, about how a demoness camouflaged as a  dog to fool  the Lama Kunley but was ultimately  pointed  out and subdued. Lama Drukpa Kunley, was a monk who preached Buddhist philosophy in form of simple tales and was known as the "Divine Madman" for his unconventional ways- a personality that we can very easily relate to our very own saint Sri Rama Krishna. The temple is decked with frescos and statues depicting the legends associated with it.  Outside  the temple were two Shivlings, a huge Peepal tree and lines of colorful flags fluttering in the pleasant breeze in the evening. The mountains far away shimmered like gold during the twilight as we made our way downhill  back to the cab.We stayed overnight at a small hotel at Wangdue.


Illustration of legends inside temple
Chimi Lhakhang temple

Day 5: 4th February 2014 - Sightseeing at the capital, Thimphu
Our last day at Bhutan was dedicated to the capital, Thimphu that exhibits an unique juxtaposition of modern developments with the ancient traditions. Born in the lap of the Wang-Chuu valley, Thimphu is the abode of the historically and politically important buildings and is the center of economic and government activities of Bhutan. We started off from our hotel at Wangdue at 8.00a.m. and drove through the scenic Dochula pass to reach the Thimphu valley. 
Our first destination for the day was the National Memorial Choeten. It was built in 1974 by Her Majesty Queen Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck in memory of her royal son the 3rd Druk Gyalpo, King Jigme Dorji Wanchuck, popularly accepted as the Father of modern Bhutan. Also known as the Thimphu Chorten, it is considered to be the "most visible religious landmark of Bhutan" the frescos and statues inside  which gives an insight into the Buddhist philosophy.


Thimpu Chorten, Thimpu, Bhutan
Thimpu Chorten - the most visible religious landmark of Bhutan
Thimpu Chorten, Thimpu, Bhutan
Gate to Thimpu Chorten

We visited the Changankha Lhakhang, a fortress-like temple standing high amidst the ruins of it past splendor, where young children in Bhutan are named. Established in the 12th century, the temple houses a splendid statue of Chenrezig with 11 heads, a group of three very large prayer wheels and rare large scriptures. The courtyard of the temple provides  an amazing bird's eye view of the Thimpu valley.


Changankha Lhakhang, Bhutan
We then reached the Buddha Point, a place at an elevation of 300 ft above the Wang-chu river bed where stands the grand bronze statue of Gautam Buddha under construction, known as Buddha Drodenma. The 169 ft statue is going to be the tallest statue of Buddha and is envisioned to  become the probable eighth wonder of the world. Overlooking the capital town Thimpu, this temple will have 1,00,000 8-inch idols and 25,000 12-inch idols of Buddha inside. We were spellbound  at the view of the city from the courtyard of the temple. Later, from our hotel far away from the Buddha point we could still see the majestic spiritual body, the first thing in the morning when we woke up to bid farewell to the kingdom of Bhutan.


The Lord Buddha
On our way to the Takin preserve, we caught a glimpse of the one of the most important Dzong of Bhutan, the Thimpu Dzong which has served as the seat of  Bhutan's government since 1952. The pompous beauty of the Dzong thrilled us, but we came to know that the Dzong is  open to visitors of for 1 hour from 4pm to 5pm, after the flag is pulled down ceremoniously. so we went  past  the Dzong and arrived at the Motithang Takin preserve  that is a safe abode of  the national animal of Bhutan classified  under "vulnerable" species. It is the largest and sturdiest goat antelope in the world that can be found only in the Himalayan regions in and  around Bhutan.  Legends have that this animal was created by the great Buddhist Lama, Drupa Kunley- the reason Takin was declared the national animal of Bhutan in 2005. This place was  originally a mini-zoo but was converted into a preserve where the animals could roam about freely, under the orders  of  the King of Bhutan who considered it  was not right for a Buddhist  country to keep an animal confined in artificial shackles. The rare animal was seen living in harmony with other herbivores like deer and goats in the large open space of the preserve. Here  we  also found a  small house outside which a local weaver was weaving the traditional colorful Bhutanese Scarfs on a machine that had a striking resemblance to the Indian charkha.



Takin Reserve
From here we headed to the Folk Heritage Museum having exhibits of ancient Bhutanese artifacts, instruments, domestic equipments and documentation of  the rural Bhutanese lifestyle. We took a stroll into a model 3-storeyed rural Bhutanese house, wherein each of the storeys is dedicated to a specific household activities, and the stairs to the upper storeys are unusually steep, probably to save the ground space. The museum is dedicated to provide a sustainable life to the underprivileged through the revenues earned from visitors. Near the museum there was the Institute of Zorig Chusum, the Art&crafts school which we saw on our way to the National Library. Rare exhibits of Indian Pattachitra art depicting Hindu Mythology, printing blocks for prayer flags and ancient Buddhist manuscripts dating back to centuries alongside the modern academic books, were the biggest attractions of the library. 

A walk at the dusk in Bhutan
After this we headed to the city where we reveled on Indian and Chinese delicacies, and did some shopping at the throbbing marketplace till 4pm, the time at which the Thimpu Dzong would be open for visitors. To our disappointment, we got late to see the daily closing ceremony, but the Dzong was still open so we could go  inside and relish on the amazing visual treat provided by the paintings and intricate sculptures in the interiors.This being the center of political affairs in Bhutan was under strict  security and visitors are restricted entry to many parts of  the building. We could catch a  glimpse of the golden palace of the King peeping  beyond the thick forests, from the courtyard of the Dzong, during the sunset and enjoyed the joyous dance of colors in the sky that quite made up for the closing ceremony that we missed out. Thus  we completed our tour for the day and returned to our hotel at Thimphu full of wonder and with a lingering note of melancholy in our mind as we knew the tour to the  mysterious land of Bhutan ended here.

Thimpu Dzong
Day 6: 5th February 2012 - Goodbye to the world's happiest country

So this was officially our last day in Bhutan- we packed our belongings and set off for our last drive through the hilly roads offering the memorable view of the Himalayas, bidding goodbye to the mountains, forests, creatures and the architectural wonders of  the land of mystery and happiness. As we made our way to Hasimara, our heart was full of thanks to the people of Bhutan and our minds filled with priceless memories to be cherished for a long time ahead.

Special thanks to: Himalayan Travels for planning everything for us - the itinerary, hotels, all permits and car. Recommend them to everyone planning a trip to the Himalayas for all kind of budget http://www.planmyvacation.in/

P.S. This post was originally published in my earlier blog -
https://sinjana-mycorner.blogspot.com/2014/02/trip-to-bhutan-mystic-land-of-happiness.html

Trip to Toledo- a walk into history

Mirador, Toledo, Spain
Panoramic view from the Mirador Del Valle
The Historic city of Toledo is one of the most popular day-trip destinations from Madrid. With a history spanning over two millennia it is one of the most ancient cities of the world and was declared by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1986. I loved how organised the transport to nearby regions are from Madrid- there are high-speed trains every hour which go directly to Toledo in 30 minutes, frequent public buses which usually take an hour and there are these private tourism buses which organize day trips to Toledo. Being first-time tourists to Europe we decided to take the tourist bus which include a guided walking tour and panorama view. It costs five euros more than the train, but is completely worth it. Our guide, Rachel was very friendly and talked about the city's history while she took us on the walking tour.

The Medieval Wall and the Modern Escalators
Toledo Wall, Spain
The Wall
As soon as we disembarked the bus we were thrilled at the sight of the old buildings clamped atop the hill and ruins of the great wall that once surrounded the city (although most of the ancient walls are still intact). Quoting the signboard on the ruins-
"the wall of Toledo shapes the urban landscape of the city since its origins.. its strategic importance determined construction of one of the most fortified complex systems in the Middle Ages of Europe" 
The fortified city is at an elevation 614 ft where you can reach in no time thanks to the series of escalators raised along the ancient walls of the city. The ambiance is heightened by live music played by amazingly talented artists as you rise through the walls and enter the city.

McDonald's Square and the market
Damascene Jewelry, Toledo
Men at work - creating the Damascene Jewelry
Even for a non-shopper like me the market with some of its unique Toledian offerings has its own allure- Damascene jewellary, ornamented swords and knives, and special almond based desserts called Marzipan.We walked through the throbbing market area which was all decked up for some festival till we entered the narrow stone pavements with stone walls on both sides almost transporting us to a different era. Being a big-time Game of Thrones fan, I could totally see myself walking into the King's Landing of Westeros.
Some history (courtesy our lovely guide Rachel and little bit of internet search)
Toledo is known as the city of three cultures as for centuries during medieval period it was home to people of three different religions - the Jews , the Christians and the Muslims who co-inhabited in the same place in harmony. Well, harmony unfortunately is not a permanent state in a world full of conflict - there were wars, there were forced conversions, expulsion and even extermination. In 15th century, the Roman Catholics put an end to the co-existence of several faiths by enforcing Christian faith and expelling Jews from the land.

The Toledo Cathedral ... and the others
Toledo Cathedral
Toledo Cathedral - the main facade
Also called, Catedral Primada, or the Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary is a twelfth century masterpiece of French Gothic architecture. It was built for 266 years. The north tower of the cathedral hosts the famous "Fat Bell" , which is one of the largest bells in the world but is never rung. There are many folklore about what happened when the bell was first rung- some say that all the windows of the buildings across the city collapsed, while some even say that all pregnant women who came to see the ceremony had pre-mature delivery at the instant!
The other section of the facade is Baroque dome of Mozarabic chappel. It stands in place of the second tower that was planned but not built due to shifting ground. The main entrance is named portal of the lions after the lion sculptures adorning it.
Unfortunately we could not enter the temple as we ran short of time, and I seriously regret this. A monument built for over two and a half centuries, should never be missed.
The building facing the cathedral is the Town hall of Toledo, which houses the members of the city council . It's construction is said to have begun in late 16th century and it was completed in 1703.
Town Hall
Facing the cathedral on the other side is the Archbishop's palace built in the 13th century, but despite it's historical significance is easily overshadowed by the Gothic Cathedral. Basically three of the most iconic monuments of Toledo are clamped in this small triangular space

Jewish Quarter

Our next stop was the Jewish quarter- a neighborhood of Jewish people in the medieval ages. Characterized by extremely narrow cobbled streets and medieval styled buildings, this place has a very romantic ambiance in general. The most famous monument here is Santa Maria la Blance, which is a former synagogue - a Jewish place of worship.
Plaza de Salvador
Plaza de Salvador
A church built upon what was initially a mosque in the ninth century. After the conquest of Toledo, the mosque was turned into a church in early 12th century. The interiors is said to have significant Moorish influences. Well, we did not have the time to enter this church as well :(
Half-time!
Our guided walking tour ended at the first panoramic viewpoint near the site of Plaza de Salvador. From here we could see some of the most famous places of Toledo including  the Monastery and  the museum of El Greco, the most celebrated artist of Toledo. This is where we took a lunch break after which would have some free time to explore the city.The buffet spread for lunch included the Spanish special, Paella with prawns, roasted chicken, salad, pasta and soup.

Monastery of San Juan De los Reyes
Our first stop after lunch was the famous Monastery of San Juan De los Reyes.The beautiful Gothic style monument was commissioned by "Catholic monarchs", Queen Isabella and her husband King Ferdinand II to commemorate the birth of their son and their victory in the Battle of Toro against Portugal in the 15th century. The main facade building is adorned with exquisite sculptures of chained saints which represent the Christians who were imprisoned by the Moors. On the other side is the church facing the river Tagus.



We walked into the monastery and walked up the stairs to the church and then walked down to the garden beneath, till we could finally see the river. Walking on this historical bridge was my best experience in Toledo, I would put it in the city tourism's top things to do list.
Walking on the bridges
Walking on the beautiful ancient bridges across the Tajo river is the best thing to do in Toledo. I loved that the bridges were not crowded as I expected them to be. Tagus or Tajo is the longest river in the Iberian peninsula and has been the lifeline of Toledo for ages. The beautiful medieval bridges across built across the river take you to a different world. We walked on the bridge closest to the monastery, the San Martin bridge, which was constructed in the 14th century. The bridge has 5 arches the largest one at the center spanning 40m and is fortified on both sides with towers. The most famous bridge in Toledo is the Puente de Alcantra, which was first built in the Roman era. For those looking for some adventure,there are zip-lining activities conducted near the river.
San Martin Bridge, Toledo, Spain
Posing at San Martin Bridge
Time to return to Present
On our way back to the bus stop we walked around the street soaking in the spirit of this historical city. There are innumerable sword shops showcasing the Toledian steel- a special light weight but sturdy steel which was in high demand across the western world during medieval ages. Iconic Hollywood movies like Gladiator and We entered a shop where an artisan was making Damascene jewelry and demonstrated the procedure to us. Its amazing to see such skilled people at work- putting the fine gold threads on iron and hammering it on the intricate design without any visual aid.
We spent some time at the garden near the escalators before we descended down the enchanting walls of the city to the bus stop.
The Infantry Academy - Training center of the Spanish Army located at Toledo
The Bonus !
As we set off on the double-decker tourist bus to return, we thought that our trip was over for the day. But the bus drove uphill  and took us to several panoramic viewpoints of the city - the most famous one being Mirador del Valle. You can see all the famous monuments of the city on the other side of the river, including the Alcazhar.

Panorama view of Toledo, Spain from Mirador
Another stunning view from Mirador,doesn't it look like a drone shot of King's Landing

What if... we spent a night or two there


Needless to say, this is one of the most beautiful cities I saw in my euro-trip and those 5-6 hours we spent at Toledo wasn't enough to explore to our satisfaction. I can only imagine what a romantic evening it would be to just look at the sunset view from one of those bridges and walk on the narrow cobbled streets after that.
Here's why you should choose to stay in Toledo for 1 night atleast (sad that we didn't)-
- Cheap hotels and hostels , with a double-bedroom in a budget hotel starting from $31 booking.com
- Photography or simply treat to eyes!Watch some of the most stunning views of the sunset on the river side. I'm still drooling over some of the Instagram photos I checked out after I returned
- Enter the Toledo Cathedral. The entry fee is cheap but it takes time to explore a grand historic monument like the Toledo Cathedral or the monastery. We wanted to get a holistic view of the city in those few hours we spent there, so skipped entering any of those.
- Check out El Greco Museum to know more about the artists behind the scenes that you see all around

Hope you enjoyed taking this virtual journey to Toledo with me. Do share your comments and check out what else we did on our first Europe trip On our trip to Europe