India Nepal and Bhutan
December 2010-January 2011
it All Came About
decided that I would take a break from overseas motorcycling to devote more
time and resources to exploring the Australian Outback (after my Big
Trip North and Mt
Isa and the Gulf), I was introduced during the Dalmatia trip
earlier in 2010 to a new, re-jigged itinerary that combined Nepal and Bhutan
into one trip, with a few days transitting India.
It was Ferris Wheels’ new
Shangri-La tour. My reaction was that this would be the perfect trip to share
with my 13 year old grandson, Dylan, who loves riding on the back of the bike
with his granddad and has travelled with me on a few trips in Oz (see Riding
with my Grandson).
initiative, we planned to leave ahead of the scheduled trip to spend a couple
of days exploring Delhi and visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra.
preparation for the trip, I prepared a rough guide – a very rough one – to
the tour. Its purpose was to set out some of the highlights in more
detail. You can find it here.
prepared a simplified, easier-to-read guide for Dylan - just a short page or
less for each place of interest.; and a few pages on historical and cultural
issues. That might appeal to someone who wants a quick virtual tour or a feel
for what the tour provided. I called it Dylan's
A source of
expectation and anticipation, especially for Dylan, was Little Buddha. It’s a
Bernado Bertolluci movie of 1993 vintage. A lot of the cinematography was
around places we would visit (and which were identifiable in pictures in our
guide notes); and underlying the movie story is a sort of sub-story about the
birth and life of the young Prince Siddhartha, who becomes the Buddha. All in
all, the movie helped arouse interest in many aspects of the trip: places and
themes either relevant to the story or, indeed, featured in it: Paro in Bhutan,
Lumbini and Kathmandu in Nepal; as well as Tibetan religious and political
issues; and also, by extension, much of what we’ll discover in Bhutan in terms
of Buddhist history and influence.
Something that caught my attention was
an ABC News item on 12 November on paragliding at Pokhara. Check
out this news item on paragliding
Pokhara, Nepal. This was what got us both interestested in parahawking;
and lead to our booking ahead to do it.
Apart from the interest aroused by watching the
movie Little Buddha and coming across the ABC story about ‘parahawking’
in Paro, Nepal, we decided to rise to the challenge of bringing clothes to the
charity in Brijghat on the Ganges that Ferris Wheels supports. The practice is
generally for participants to add a few kilograms extra to their luggage.
However, both our airlines (Virgin Blue and Singapore Airlines) responded
positively to my request for an extra 20-23kgs for us to transport the clothes.
The quick and generous response from Dylan’s family and my cycle group
delivered us 40kgs of clothing. Virgin Blue immediately met the additional
request and authorised 40kgs excess. Singapore had an issue with an already over-booked
flight because of the change of aircraft from the originally scheduled A380
(with its engine problems) and didn’t want to authorise the extra excess up
front; but when we turned up in Sydney with the 40kgs, they readily agreed to
carry it – and upgraded us to business class, although I don’t think the two
decisions were necessarily linked.
For Dylan, preparations also included four sets of inoculations against
this and that, obtaining a passport, getting visas for India, Nepal and Bhutan,
being introduced to curries, and getting to understand what’s ahead of him in
terms of places, people, monuments, history, geography etc. It was all very
exciting for him. He tackled everything enthusiastically and mastered more than
many a tourist might.
to India: Delhi
On the day
after our arrival we set out to walk to local markets but soon decided the Red
Fort was a better idea. That justified flagging down a motorised rickshaw or
tuk-tuk. Dylan had been hanging out to ride one since seeing them on a Hamish
and Andy show about India. You feel awfully close to the confusion of traffic
in a tuk-tuk weaving its way around and between cars, buses and trucks.
Fort, a product of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, provided Dylan’s first
encounter with the many Mughal treasures of India; and he was far from
disappointed. He marvelled at the grandeur and was eager to cover it all. We
mingled with a couple of school excursions and Dylan soon found himself the
centre of attention as they grouped around him to ask him his name and where he
came from – a phenomenon that would be repeated several times over the ensuing
Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque and another product of Mughal emperor Shah
Jahan, was reached by rickshaw – the pedal sort. You sure get to appreciate the
leg work that the poor driver has to exert on the up-hill sections.
has a huge courtyard and dominating minarets, one of which you can ascend to
the very top; and we did.
Mughal-era sites are in the heart of Old Delhi. The main focal point of Old
Delhi is Chandi Chowk – a long, crowded street of shops, stalls, vendors and
people. We pretty much covered the full length on foot. Fortunately, I’m sure
Dylan thought, there was a Macca’s half way along. The Macca’s are strictly free
of pork and beef. Dylan had his usual chicken nuggets and I had a Veggie Mac,
the only sort available.
mid-afternoon, we were heading back to the area of Karol Bagh, where our hotel
was situated. This time we tried the Metro. It was easy enough to navigate but
not always obvious to locate the right platform. The first line, from which we
had to change lines at the centre of New Delhi, was crowded like I’ve never
struck in any Metro anywhere. Getting on and off was both physically and
mentally challenging. The second line was much easier.
remaining task for the day was to get into our securely padlocked luggage
without the keys, which were presumably on the kitchen bench at home with my
mobile phone. After wandering the local Karol Bagh markets without finding a
solution, we eventually resorted to prevailing on the hotel to be a bit more
imaginative than they had been late the previous night. One of the wallahs went
out and bought a fearsome saw blade of some sort or other. He spent a long
time, going through two blades and scraping fingers, cutting through the
padlocks. But, at least, by the end of the day we had access to our luggage.
day had us back on the Metro to the amazing complex of Swaminarayan Akshardham.
That’s a mouthful, but the central concepts, deities and gurus of Hinduism,
including its various sects, all have names unfamiliar to the non-Hindu world.
This complex has absolutely mind-boggling architecture, sculptures, and
religious motifs in the traditional Hindu intricacy. Unfortunately, photography
was strictly forbidden. That was disappointing but the visit was none the less
was the only practicable option to get from there to Connaught Place – the
central retail area of New Delhi. That was a convenient lunch stop before a
tuk-tuk got us to the National Museum for a relatively quick visit. We could
walk from there to the India Gate, a monumental war memorial to India’s many
involvements in conflict, most as part of the British Empire.
Back into a
tuk-tuk for a visit to Humayun’s Tomb – another of India’s many World Heritage
Sites (we visited five or six such declared sites over three days!). Humayun’s
Tomb was the highlight of the day. It’s a large complex with several tombs and
other monuments. The whole site was absorbing; and the actual tomb of Humayum
was truly grand. All of it had Dylan quite taken by its size and significance,
even though he was also fascinated by the squirrels.
the second Mughal Emperor of India. His tomb was built by his widow in 1569-70,
14 years after his death. The tomb is considered a landmark in the development
of Mughal architecture and the earliest extant example of the Mughal tradition
of the garden tomb. The complex was later used for the burial of various
members of the ruling family and contains some 150 graves. It has been
described as the necropolis of the Mughal dynasty.
It was well
after 6.00pm by the time we got back to the hotel, making it a very long day –
but nothing compared to what we had awaiting us on the morrow.
published a separate page on Delhi and Agra
that combines this visit and my subsequent visit as part of my Himalaya tour.
Agra: Taj Mahal,
Agra Fort and Fatephur Sikri
It was a
5.15am pick-up from the hotel to catch a 6.15am Shantabdi Express to Agra. In
company with Russell, another of the Ferris group who had also arrived ahead of
the tour, we had a car and guide the whole day to take us to the Taj Mahal, the
Agra Fort (also called the Red Fort), and Fatephur Sikri.
initially worried about the expected three or four hours we might have to kill
before catching the return train at 8.30pm; but that was an ill-conceived
worry. We got back to the station at about 8.00pm, having arrived at 8.30am
Mahal was no less wondrous seeing it for the second time. The creation of Shah
Jahan as a burial tribute for his wife, it has a typically Mughal symmetry in
and around its precinct, except for the tomb of Shah Jahan himself next to his
wife’s; but that was subsequently added by his son.
and experience of the Taj are unique. It has a magnetism and fascination that
is likely the equal of no other world monument or natural feature. Its special
interior appeal is its beautifully executed marble with intricate and delicate
designs of in-laid semi-precious stones.
Fort, built of red sand stone and hence shares the name of Red Fort with its
counterpart in Delhi, was a creation of Akbar, the most famous and influential
of the Mughal emperors. It was the centre-piece of his capital at Agra. It was
both a military bastion and royal palace; a sprawling city in its own right,
surrounded by a moat and several levels of defensive fortifications.
and grandeur were innumerable levels above the Red Fort of Delhi, but, in
fairness, the Agra Fort had many different functions.
Sikri was another creation of Akbar. It was to be his new capital, located and
dedicated in honour of a guru who was attributed to bringing him the blessing
of a son and heir. The city took 15 years to build and another 14 years to
recognise that it didn’t have a reliable source of water. It was abandoned and
left to decay. Much of the 11km U-shaped wall still stands, the large lake that
bordered the top of the U has long gone, as have most of its buildings; leaving
only the royal palace complex and adjacent mosque and tomb of the guru
standing. It’s all pretty amazing.
Back in Delhi for
Such a long
day had to be followed by a rest day for us. The bulk of the group arrived on
the evening we got back from Agra, so we went straight from the station to our more
luxurious tour hotel in Ghaziabad, about 20kms east of Delhi. We hung around the hotel next morning while
the group went sight-seeing.
the afternoon was Meeting the Royal
Enfields time. And that’s what we did. It included lessons on the vagaries
of this historical bike; test runs around the car park; a traditional Hindu
blessing invoking the protection of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity
(performed by Lali Singh, a Sikh, owner of the bikes); and general meeting of
one another and our support team.
Heading out from
day’s ride was a traffic-mingling challenge as we made our way out of Greater
Delhi heading for the old British hill station of Nainital. Our route took us
though the pilgrimage town of Brijghat on the banks of the Ganges (Ganga). It’s
here that the charity (called Ganga Brijghat), set-up and run by the mother of
Amar, our local tour organiser and manager, is situated. We stopped for a visit
and so were able to personally deliver the 40kgs of clothes we had brought
thanks to Dylan’s family and my cycle group, who donated them; and to Virgin
Blue and Singapore Airlines, which carried them gratis.
It was a
special event to see and cross the Ganges.
The Ganges is something very special in Indian history and culture; and
in Hindu religious traditions and beliefs.
rises in the Himalaya Mountains and flows 2,500kms to the great delta in
Bangladesh. It has the largest volume of
water of any river in India. Hindus regard the Ganges as the holiest of
rivers. It was named after the goddess Ganga, the daughter of the
mountain god Himalaya. Bathing in the river is believed to wash away
one's sins. To bathe in the Ganga is a lifelong ambition for
cast the ashes of their dead in the river in the belief that this will guide
the souls of the deceased straight to paradise.
It is also
important as a national river. Many former imperial capitals were located on
the holy Ganges and continued our journey to the hill station of Nainital.
Somehow, calculations of time to cover the distance had gone awry. This lead to
covering the last 30kms in the dark. That might not sound too much of a
problem, except that these 30kms were the climb to the hill station – a narrow,
constantly winding, twisting road with several longish stretches of rough,
rocky gravel road and high beam headlights of trucks coming at you. It took a
couple of hours to make the climb and gladly welcome Nainital.
The road to Nepal
compensation for the nightmare of the evening before was to retrace our path
back down to the lower plains – in daylight. Even short distances on maps can
take a disproportionately long time to cover on pot-holed roads, any number of
road work diversions and in teeming traffic which jams to standstills in every
town you pass through. Despite that we got to the India/Nepal border at a
reasonable time. The processes were slow on both sides and added a delay of
more than two hours to the timing for the day’s ride.
Nepal was less confronting but there were enough trucks to hinder progress,
especially as darkness soon engulfed us along the Mahendra Hwy that crosses the
whole of Nepal east and west.
after 8.00pm before we finally regrouped at the turn-off to Bardia National
Park. That was something of a relief as it’s impossible for all the bikes to
stay together; and travelling long, dark roads, with no one anywhere to be seen,
can be very daunting. At least, I found it so. There is a system of corner
marking and a tail-end Charlie, but it’s not infallible and I found I was constantly
wondering if something had gone wrong.
of re-grouping at the turn-off, however, was short-lived. We had a 13km ride on
little more than a fire trail road, with a river to cross – in the pitch black
of night. While the river was not flowing, there were two long billabongs side
by side, with a mound of gravel between them. You really had to take it on
faith that the bottom was sound and the depth manageable. Coming up the gravel
mound was a good feeling even though it was quickly followed by dropping back
into the next stream, which mercifully was not as deep.
exhausted night was followed by a very early start for elephant rides into the
jungle and plains of the national park. The elephants lumbered their way down a
river bank and across a (much deeper) river, with a 2 year old calf having to
swim alongside Mum to manage the depth. We didn’t see any of the famed Bengal
tigers but we caught a glimpse of a native antelope scurrying through the thick
crossing on the way out was more fun in daylight. Incongruously, I made a
better job of it in the dark, if a reasonable benchmark of success is how far
up your trouser leg got wet. The night before it was less than half way up my
carves. The following morning it was half way up my thighs. At least Dylan and
I emerged with bike upright and moving – until it stalled with the back wheel
about 10cms out of the water.
Into the High
the birth place of the Buddha, was our destination. Again it was slower going than
had been calculated for this first time tour. By 8.00pm, after hours of high
beams in my eyes and still another hour of riding, Dylan and I had had enough
and retreated to the support bus, imposing on one of the mechanics to ride the
being so late and with another long day to follow, we didn’t get to spend any
time at the Buddhist monastery or monument commemorating Buddha’s birthplace. A
thick fog prevented even a glimpse of it.
making our way back to the bustling town of Butwal that we had come through the
previous night, we then commenced our climb into the high hills of central
Nepal. As you can see from the map on this page, especially in terrain mode,
there is a strip of low land along the southern border – the Terai; with the
central part a maze of hills and valleys, followed by the Himalayas along the
northern border. Although we had only 200kms to cover for the day, it still
took all day, but thankfully we got to Pokhara before the sun set, but only
One of the
innumerable corners we encountered as we climbed hills, descended into valleys
and climbed even higher out of them, was a sharp left-hander that had water
running across it. This was nothing unusual but it did contribute to taking the
wheels out from under us and having the bike scrape along its side for five of
so metres, with rider and pillion seemingly racing alongside it. No damage
done, but Dylan was very subdued to the point of refusing to talk. His only
sentence was “I told you, Granddad, that the tyres didn’t have good traction!”
I subsequently heard about that a few times. We hopped on the support bus for
the next half hour until the group had stopped for lunch. Then it was back on
the bike for both of us for the next few hours to Pokhara.
disappointed by the first views of the Himalayas as we got closer to Pokhara.
Christmas Eve and
I think the
first thing that came to mind on seeing Pokhara was a daylight arrival (more
duskish) after three night time arrivals. This was closely followed by the
thought of a rest day – a 2 night stopover.
highlight of this resort town was to be the parahawking. This essentially is
paragliding with an accompanying vulture (Egyptian Vultures, which, despite the
name, are indigenous to the area – as they are to many parts of Asia and
in Pokhara on 23 December offered an initial opportunity to wander down the
very tourist-oriented main street to dine in one of the many establishments
providing any variety of meal choices.
day was the ‘rest’ day in Pokhara. Dylan and I had pre-booked a
‘parahawking’ experience. Booking ahead
turned out to be a good move. They had actually cancelled all the parahawking
for 24 and 25 December but had agreed to accommodate us because we had pleaded
for an exception long before our departure from Australia. We were the only two
who got to do parahawking that day.
bonus was having a vulture each. There are only two vultures trained to land on
the arms of the paragliders. So usually one does the morning run with two
paragliders; and the other does the afternoon run with two paragliders. The
vultures are Kevin and Bob. Partly because of our different weights (leading to
different altitudes) and partly because of the two planned lay days (=no
exercise for the vultures), they brought both Kevin and Bob for us – each
carried in the taxis we took from Pokhara to Sarangkot, higher up in the
It was a
great treat, with wonderful views of the Himalayas in the background.
evening – Christmas Eve – was, in effect, our Christmas, in keeping with the
traditions of many countries that celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. We had
a fine, celebratory dinner in a local restaurant; and we even had a Santa
The next day
was a pretty straight-forward run to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
is a sprawling city that fills out most of the Kathmandu Valley. The long, slow
trek into the vehicle-overloaded centre was the singular most stressing part of
the day’s journey.
We then had
a full day to explore Kathmandu.
Most of the
morning was taken up with a flight along the Himalaya peaks. The plane kept
south, as north of the range is China. Between everyone having window seats and
being brought up in turn to the flight deck, we all got good views of the
amazing Himalaya mountains, dominated by Mt Everest.
afternoon, a few of us set out to visit the main attractions of Kathmandu
itself. These were the temple complexes (World Heritage sites) at Durbar Square
in the centre of town and the Swayambhu Stupa high up on a hill overlooking
Kathmandu. Both were great experiences.
Square is the religious and social heart of Kathmandu’s old city and is a
complex of palaces, temples, shrines, statues and courtyards built between
the 12th and 18th centuries by the ancient kings of Nepal.
of Swayambhu is one of the most popular symbols of Nepal. It is
colloquially known as the 'monkey temple' after the large tribe of monkeys
which guards the hill. It is said that Emperor Ashoka paid a visit to the site
over 2000 years ago. An inscription indicates that King Manadeva ordered
work done on the site in 460 AD and by the 13th century it was an important
Buddhist centre. The painted eyes on all four sides of the stupa symbolise the
all-seeing eyes of the Buddha. What looks like a nose is the Nepali number one,
which represents the unity of all things.
was a mixed bag. Six people had Indian visa problems and had to stay back to
get them corrected. That meant that 10 bikes set out to take the old Rajpath
Highway south to Hetauda. The old
highway went directly over the mountains – criss-crossing ridge after ridge,
climbing to 2,400m and descending in the same manner. It’s no longer used today
as the main transit route between India and Kathmandu; but was for many years.
A newer, longer but much quicker road has been built that goes around the
‘shorter’ way of 130km took us over 7 hours. The climb was relentless. The
switchbacks merged into zig-zags, as the road wound its way up, across and
between the many precipitous ridges. The peak was 2,400m. Then the long winding
way down the other side.
and descent – in winter – were not without several stretches of both visible
and black ice. They claimed five of the ten bikes, bringing down one of them
twice. Six ‘overs’ out of ten riders. Mercifully, Dylan and I stayed upright as
we ever so steadily picked our first-gear way through the frost and ice. We had
a few slips and slides as the back wheel resisted following the front, but each
time finally relented and succumbed to the front wheel’s leadership.
The ride up
provided several glimpses of the Himalayas, with the top of the range exposing
a view of the length of the Himalayan range.
eventually descended into Hetauda as dusk.
six bikes, with a later start, made their way along the longer but quicker
route and pretty much arrived at the same time as we did.
Hetauda, we had a long 260km highway ride along Nepal’s Terai (the low-land
plains along the southern border). Dylan made a good choice to ride in the bus.
He was dead beat. He slept most of the time and still slept soundly that night
followed by a shorter but again highway ride to the border with India. We
crossed back into India ended up in the town of Siliguri.
highlight of three nights in India before heading for Bhutan was a rest day in
the famous hill station of Darjeeling. And, yes, we drank and bought Darjeeling
Hotel in Darjeeling is an old British colonial establishment, which still proudly
preserves all the hallmarks of the era of the British Raj. It’s lavish. Its
setting is spectacular. Darjeeling, of course, apart from being famous for its
tea, was a renowned ‘hill station’ during the British Raj – a summer retreat to
the cool of the high altitudes to escape the suffocating heat and humidity of
the lowlands and coastal areas. In fact, it became the summer capital of the
Raj when the capital was in Calcutta.
from Siliguri to Darjeeling was short by kilometres (120km), but the
never-ending climb to the 2,000m or so of Darjeeling made for a 5½ hour ride
(nothing as taxing as the day out of Kathmandu). The ‘main’ road from Siliguri
to Darjeeling is shorter by 50km or so, but landslides forced us to take a back
road. The downside was we missed the criss-crossing of the road by the ‘toy
train’ that still carries ‘real’ passengers between Siliguri and Darjeeling –
climbing patiently and painfully up the hills and ridges to Darjeeling.
brighter side, the back road was an enjoyable ride on a reasonably good surface
(mostly) and without the constant challenge of Tata trucks and long wheel-based
of Darjeeling from several kilometres out were enticing. You could see the town
nestled on and around a ridge, with the Himalayas as a backdrop. They included
the world’s third highest mountain – Kangchenjunga.
in Darjeeling, we dropped into the town square, browsed shops galore, and
tested the Tibetan bazaar (lots of stalls run by Tibetan refugees). Dylan
became engrossed with the Tibetan meditation bowl, which he insisted on buying.
I then spent a lot of the next two nights listening to its ringing tone (a bit
like the wine glass ring).
is nestled on and around a high, steeply-sided ridge. The town square occupies
a large flat area just below the peak of the ridge. From the town square a wide
pedestrian mall encircles the peak of the ridge, returning to the square.
Within the encirclement, higher on the ridge stands the old English church of
St Andrew’s, whose bell tower clock chimes every quarter hour and can be heard
across the town centre.
morning walk around the mall revealed views of Mt Kangchenjunga, the world’s
third highest peak, sitting high in the Himalaya range across the valleys and
the morning, after a later start than the group, Dylan and I visited the local
zoo, attracted mainly by the elusive snow leopard; and the mountaineering
institute, set up by Tensing Norgay, who accompanied Edmund Hilary to the top
of Mt Everest in 1953 – becoming the first to reach the summit. The institute
contains a lot of the gear used in that first ascent to the summit by Hilary
and Norgay. Norgay was a native of Darjeeling and his ashes are entombed in the
afternoon we did a ‘toy run’ on the bikes to a refuge for mentally disabled
people run by the Sisters of Charity. We all bought and brought gifts of
various sorts. Most of the inmates were adult women whose glowing faces and
overt pleasure at receiving even the simplest of presents made the trip a very
emotional but rewarding experience.
Hotel had an elaborate New Year’s Eve party planned. Bon fires and cocktails in
the garden at 7.30pm; a ‘cultural event’ in the garden’s pagoda (local singing
and dancing troupe); dinner at 9.00pm – with all the tables lavishly decorated;
followed by a DJ-led night of dancing. Then, after midnight, their own
fireworks, with Dylan soon into the fray with hotel staff lighting them.
out of Darjeeling was very slow and careful. It had rained overnight, the roads
through town are unbelievable steep, mud patches abounded, and there were the
toy train tracks to cross at awry angles a half dozen times. The trek down the
ridge and across to neighbouring ridges, as we found several back roads to join
us with the ‘highway’ towards Bhutan, was mostly steep, tight, wet and
slippery. It was a relief to reach the bottom of a valley and stop for a
‘highway’ came the inevitable load of trucks and other traffic, but we
encountered that on every trunk road in India. Frustratingly, it was on this
more easily manageable section that, making our way up the line of a convoy of
army trucks, lead to a second drop of the bike. It was a harder fall for me,
but Dylan bounced lightly, although not without a telling scrape on his helmet
and a few sore muscles next day. I confined myself to the bus for a few days
with either a bruised or possibly cracked rib and swollen ankle.
all for getting back on the bike there and then; but that wasn’t an option for
late in the afternoon at the border and crossed into Bhutan to the town of
Phoensholing for the night.
was dark by the time we arrived, it wasn’t long before Dylan had met some of
the local kids around his own age and began several active games in the street. I had to call him in for dinner; and again
after dinner to go to bed.
was a steady climb to Paro. Dylan was not too happy at the prospect of spending
the day in the bus, so had began the previous evening to sound out Mike Ferris
to take him on his bike. The upshot was that Dylan rode with Mike leading the
procession out of town and into the mountainous terrain of Bhutan’s interior.
the ride in the small and comfortable bus was made less comfortable by nursing
painful bolts at every bump, I couldn’t help feeling that managing the narrow,
climbing road, with any number of landslides that had all but taken the road
with them, would have been a stressful challenge. While most of the group were
revelling in the challenge of the roads and conditions, I had already begun to
feel the strain of long exhausting days.
was no stopping Dylan. From the time of a late lunch stop, there was filming to
do by camera man Robin from the back of Mike’s bike, so Dylan negotiated with
Pinky, one of our mechanics, who was riding tail-end Charlie, to go the rest of
the way with him.
drive/ride into Paro saw us come into a very wide, flat valley – no doubt the
main reason why Paro has Bhutan’s only airport. It dominates the approach to
the airport, the Paro Dzong loomed up. This was a special sight for us, as it
was the location of a significant part of the movie Little Buddha, which Dylan
and I had watched together twice as part of preparations for the trip. We later
visited it; and Dylan was excited at being able to be in precise spots that he
remembered from the movie, although the dzong no longer has an active monastery
within it, as depicted in the movie.
Dzong, also called the Rinpung Dzong, was originally built in the 17th century
to defend the valley from Tibetan invaders. It was also used from the outset as
the administrative and monastic centre of the western region; and was
traditionally called the Rinpung Dzong. Below the dzong, providing access from
the town, is a typically Bhutanese cantilever bridge. These bridges seem to be
part of all dzongs, which were often built alongside a protective river.
On the hill
above the dzong is a seven storied the watchtower fortress or Ta Dzong built in
1649. In 1968 this was established as the home of the National Museum of
highlight of Paro was Tiger’s Nest monastery. We had both been looking forward
to making the 4 hour walk up and back, climbing the 1,200m vertical ascent from
the bottom to top. I had even brought some of my cycling energy boosters to
help ensure I didn’t run out of puff before reaching the top. But a climb to
Tiger’s Nest was off the agenda for me. Dylan set out with most of the group,
who were committed to the feat. As it turned out, he, along with most others,
hired a horse that could get to a point a little above the monastery on a
neighbouring ridge, leaving the rider to walk down a deep dip before climbing
up to the monastery.
interviewed on camera much later into the trip, Dylan cited Tiger’s Nest and
parahawking as the two most memorable highlights of the tour.
it was a short ride to Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital. Dylan again rode with Mike
by lunch time and had the afternoon to visit the city’s central stupa and see
the city from a high vantage point just below the huge Buddha statue
overlooking the whole valley.
visited a wildlife reserve which housed several Bhutanese Takin. According to
Bhutan’s religious mythology, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay, the ‘divine madman,’ ate a
cow and a goat, leaving only the bones. He then stuck the goat’s head on the
bones of the cow; and upon his command, the animal came to life. Thus was
created the Takin.
from Thimpu to the Kichu resort at Chuzomsa, over-looking the raging Dang Chu
River, included a visit to the impressive Dzong of Punakha on the confluence of
the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. The
dzong dates back to the early 1600s.
the capital of Bhutan until the 1960s. In 1907, Punakha Dzong had been the site
of the coronation of the first king of Bhutan. It retains current significance
as the winter home of Bhutan’s central monastic body led by Je Khenpo. We spent
some time exploring the magnificent architecture of the dzong and the solemnity
of its monastery, in which religious ceremonies were being conducted.
before we could enjoy the impact of the Punakha Dzong, we had to climb the high
Dochu La (Dochu Pass) soon after leaving Thimpu. I hadn’t known that La simply meant Pass. I had always assumed it was something far more exotic, as in
However, in Bhutan the pass has a
lot of significance. Each pass (the high point of crossing a mountain range) is
marked by chortens, stupas, shrines and prayer flags. (Chorten is a Tibetan word which, in effect, is a smaller stupa-like
structure. Chortens are very common throughout Bhutan.)
Dochu La had over 100 chortens and
several shines and sets of prayer flags, as well as several vantage points
providing spectacular views of the Himalayas. It also included a restaurant
that provided a welcome chai stop. It also had lots of snowy and icy roads on
the ascent and descent.
resort that night would be a great summer resort, but, as nice as was the
setting, it wasn’t exactly an ideal winter resort; although, once we got the
hang of turning on the hot water ‘geysers’, we could at least enjoy hot
From Chuzomsa it was a three pass
series of climbs through the Black Mountain Range of Central Bhutan. I wasn’t
too disappointed at both of us being in the bus this day. The icy roads – often
unpredictable – turned treacherous in one spot; and bought down three or four
bikes on the way up to Pele La (about 3,400m). Often enough the black tyre
tracks through the snow-covered roads provided a firm path, if taken slowly at
low revs (I actually later got confident at doing them in second gear!).
However, every now and then, with no warning, the black tracks camouflaged
black ice that showed no mercy for two-wheeled vehicles.
As we passed over Pele La, with its
chorten and prayer flags, the day brought great views of Mt Jhomolhari, a
sacred mountain in Bhutanese history and tradition.
A planned visit to Trongsa Dzong had
to be foregone to avoid a night time arrival into Bumthang that evening. While
some were obviously unfazed – even relieved – by this ‘disappointment,’ I would
have liked to visit it, even though it came up soon after the Punakha Dzong.
Trongsa is one of Bhutan’s most historic towns. The first monastery was built
there in 1543. The dzong, constructed in 1644, is said to be described as a
dragon flying over mountain peaks. According to the literature, in addition to
the dzong, the town has a lot of tourist interest, including its three storey
white traditional houses, its local weaving from hand-dyed wool and its Tibetan
We did get the opportunity to view
the dzong from various vantage points and to drive through the town; and,
importantly, we arrived in the Bumthang area before dark.
The latter part of the day had us
cross the Para Tsang Chhu (river) near the Wangdi Phodrang Dzong; and then
embark on another icy climb to the top of Yutang La also at about 3,400m – with
the pass being marked with prayer flags and a single chorten/monument in the
middle of the road.
Our stop-over was Chamkhar, a small
village or district of Jakar (wasn’t sure which). The area was dominated by the
Jakar Dzong, which we got to see next morning spectacularly overlooking the
of particular interest in the ride/drive from Chamkar to Mongar was the fact
that most of the say was spent at higher altitudes that the highest point in
Australia. Mt Kosciuszko is about 2,200m (7,300ft). We spent most of the day
higher than 3,000m, culminating in crossing Thrumsing La at almost 3,800m
(12,400ft). We had a couple of altitude sickness cases, but I don’t think too
many of us even bothered with the altitude medication. Neither Dylan nor I had
any adverse reactions to the altitude.
crossing the highest pass in the country, with any amount of snow and ice
sections, did not bring down a single bike. Was it improved skills or the luck
of no black ice?
event, the climb over Thrumsing La was thoroughly enjoyable, albeit in the bus
(for both of us again this day). The enjoyment was enhanced by the views on the
way up of Bhutan’s highest mountain, Mt Gangkhar Puensum (at 7,500m).
This was an
important day for me. I was back on the bike. While my ribs or rib was still
sore and my ankle swollen and tender, I was encouraged to give it a go, having
the bus as a fall-back if it wasn’t working.
fine; and I had a great ride day.
Not that it
seemed that way early in the ride. In contrast to an ill-founded expectation of
no more ice passes, it wasn’t long into the ride before we started the ascent
to Kori La (2400m) decked out with prayer walls and prayer flags. The ride up
was safe enough despite stretches of snow and ice. I guess you start to assume
all such stretches would be similar; but that wasn’t to be. The very first such
stretch on the descent brought down three bikes in quick succession, as black
ice suddenly revealed itself lurking deceptively in the wheel tracks. Fortunately, I was well back in the pack and
had the benefit of others’ close analysis of how to proceed. It still took some time and contemplation
before I was mentally ready to go. The key was to stay off the road and edge
along the half metre wide shoulder, over the frost and through the potholes,
but steering judiciously between the black-iced bitumen to your right and the
long, perpendicular drop to your left. It worked fine.
there continued to be ice patches as the road switched back and forth as it
made its way down through the forests, they remained victimless. The descent
was steep and included the Yadi hairpins (I’m not sure I consciously took them
in at the time!). Once out of danger, as it were, the road traversed a few more
switchbacks before it flowed into the Sheri Chhu Valley that took you to the Drangme
Chhu (river). From here, it was mostly a gently curving road, clinging to the
steep hill sides high up above the river, winding in and out of side valleys
until it finally turned off on a short diversion to Trashigang.
It was both
a relief and a pleasure to arrive in Trashigang, having had a safe and
enjoyable ride. Dylan had been happy to
let me ride alone on the first day back on the bike. Mind you, he had not
missed too many days on a bike.
was a small, pretty town, with a river running through it, an ‘upper’ market
and a ‘lower’ market, steep streets and precariously placed houses and hotels.
Our hotel was sitting on the edge of a ridge, with valleys on either side; and
a great view of the local dzong.
the Google Map doesn’t provide a very good or even accurate depiction of the
road. Here is a better depiction provided by Wikimapia.
Last Day in
day’s ride in Bhutan would be a long one of 180kms. And through more
mountainous territory before reaching the lowlands at the very end – Samdrup Jongkhar,
the Bhutanese border town.
There were a
few passes to cross that day. At least one caught a couple of riders out, but,
as with the day before, I benefited from their encounters and they waved me
through the icy patches with gestures as to where to go and not to go.
more benign mountains, however, provided their own challenges, as layer upon
layer of road struggled up and trickled down mountain sides, with the usual
hazardous tight turns linking each layer.
surprise came about between the 45km and 40km milestones (to Samdrup Jongkhar).
It started with the inevitably expected road works – usually as a result of
monsoon landslides. But somehow, this time, it seemed different. The road
quickly turned into a rougher than usual set of wheel tracks that all but
disappeared into muddy quagmires, deep water-filled potholes and recently excavated
landslide rubble. Whenever you felt the end must be just around the corner, the
tracks, euphemistically called such, often deteriorated further into barely
recognisable traces over piles of rubble and around immovable rock falls. The
best it got was the emergence of something that could reasonably be called a
road but whose surface was a maze of craters, lumps of rock and loose stones on
the innumerable tight corners that brought us all the way down to Samdrup
mind this segment; actually, enjoyed it to a point. I felt more comfortable in
it than coping with constantly winding, icy mountain roads. But I was pleased
not to have a pillion; and consoled that Dylan didn’t have to cope with such an
ordeal. Ha! About 20mins after arriving at Samdrup Jongkhar, in comes Dylan
gleefully on the back of Mike’s bike, having not only endured (=enjoyed) the
last 40kms but ridden with him over the passes. He was ecstatic at the day’s
Bhutanese National Sports
At different times during the course of our travel
through Bhutan, we came across archery and darts competitions along the side of
the road. Both are considered Bhutanese national sports. Archery, in
particular, ranks high on the list of national pastimes.
On tyhe two occasions we saw the competitions, the
contestants were colourfully decked out in national garb; and after each round
of shots, they came together in a sort of celebratory song and dance to
acknowledge the winner of the round. It was all quite ceremonial.
The bows used in the archery competition were no
longer the traditional bamboo bows. They were modern 'composite' bows. The
darts, however, were far more traditional, being very large and being thrown a
great distance to hit a ground-based target.
There are photos of the competitions in the slide show
Finish in India
well-earned, restful last night in Bhutan, we faced a fourth border crossing on
the bikes. To be followed by what I had imagined would be a traffic-filled but
reasonable road to Guwahati, the capital of India’s Assam province.
know why I imagined that; but it certainly wasn’t to be. Although the road from
Guwahati into Bhutan would have to be a major trade and supply thoroughfare, it
was mostly rough gravel for almost half the 100kms. After that, the surface was
okay, but there’s always the unexpected jam. This time due to a road blocked by
collided Tata trucks. There’s a certain ingenuity with Indian drivers. You simply
make a new lane...until that comes to a standstill because of in-coming
traffic. Then you make a new one again...this time being replicated by the
on-coming traffic...until all lanes in both directions have absolutely nowhere
to go. Except that the bike riders (and
a few more flexible cars –not always successfully) could mount the half metre
or so embankment onto a broad, flat sand platform. Which is precisely what we
did – much to my consternation and Dylan’s delight. Once past the road
congestion, it was back down the embankment and onto the now clear road.
until we reached the congestion of traffic all vying for a priority place to
cross the huge Brahmaputra River, considered one of the world’s greatest
rivers; and a major flow into the gigantic delta of Bangladesh. The bridge
across it into Guwahati seemed at least a few kilometres. It was hard to tell
on the bike, since most of the crossing was spent squeezing between lines of
Guwahati and found our neat hotel tucked away in this seemingly grimy city. It
was nice to finish the trip to have a challenging day’s ride and Dylan on the
back, albeit instructing me through the intercom, as he did from Day 1, to dart
here or there, go up the left side, get up onto the embankment, overtake NOW.
And, of course, in response to frustrations expressed about gear changing, to
hear through the intercom “it’s not the bike, Granddad!”
Farewell to Himalaya
We left the
bikes in Guwahati to be trucked back to Delhi. We took the quicker way – by plane to link with our international
Dylan and I
were lucky to have seats on the right hand side, as the plane spent two hours
of its flight tracking west along the southern side of the Himalayas over
Bhutan and Nepal. We had great views of the Himalayan range along the route.
I’ve done two slide shows. One is a
general one on the trip. The other is more specifically focussed on Dylan’s
experience and adventures. There is some duplication, but not very much.
More on Dylan
There's a bit more about Dylan and his (or our) experience together, including a couple of additional videos, on the page: Riding with my Grandson.
Here is a
map of the tour. There is a noticeable gap in the route in the east of Bhutan
between Trashigang and Samdrup Johgkhar. There's just no road on My Maps, but
it was there. More or less. That was an amazing ride through landslides and
rough mountainous dirt tracks. Little wonder the road's not on My Maps.
You can interact with the map. You need to click in the middle of the
four little right angles at top right of map to get the larger map. Then you
need to scroll down to the bottom of the bottom of the map legend column on the
left to get to the satellite mode.