Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bhutan: Trek to Tiger's Nest

Tiger's Nest, Paro

I put Paro on the itinerary only because of Taktsang Valley. Ok, and because it is one of the more historical towns in Bhutan and looked pretty in pictures. If we hadn’t entered Bhutan in a bus (or truck or smuggled ourselves across the border), we would have flown into the country’s only international airport in Paro.
In any case, by the time we hit the town, we’d already been to Thimpu and Punakha. It was a Tuesday, which was Pedestrian Day in Paro. From the gate of the town, we walked several hundred metres to the square. I was certain we were in the wrong place, that there was somewhere else we would have to go, somewhere more, ummm, populated.
A small tower stood in the main square, surrounded by a garden, where little children squeaked in excitement after school. There was an archery tournament in a field nearby. We would have to check it out sometime, and try not to get pierced in the bum accidentally.
The hotel was cheap, decent (ish) and served by a restaurant downstairs. We got a ride to Taktsang the next day. At the base of the hill were the obligatory souvenir stalls selling prayer beads, flags and other knick knacks. Piles of pony dung peppered the rocky ground and the pungent smell of the animals and their faeces hung in the air.
A 40-something European gentleman and his wife were selecting rides. We were young and full of vigour; surely we weren’t going to take the ponies to the half-way mark. Five minutes into the walk and I thought, ‘hell, this is easy’. Then came the uphill climb. While it was nippy getting there, I ought to have been smart enough not to wear my sweater. After all, exercise does make you work up a sweat. I bore it out.
The path was probably hewn into the rock over the ages. Taktsang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Monastery was built in the 1694, but held sacred for centuries earlier. Legend has it that the revered Guru Rinpoche flew to this location on the back of a tigress to meditate sometime in the 8th century. Seated precariously, on the edge of the cliff-face, the monastery with its four main buildings, chortens and caves, was rebuilt after a fire in 1958.
Taktsang through the trees
We plodded on. Up ahead, the European gentleman was not on his pony anymore, but instead behind it, urging it forward. On and off he would climb onto its back, helped by the guide, but the pony seemed to want the day off.
Between the trees on certain turns of the path, glimpses of Taktsang peek at you. It’s a good way to motivate you on, particularly if you start having second thoughts about the walk. Soon, we were at the little restaurant where you can tank up with water and a bite. The next point at which you can get the strange tasting butter tea the Bhutanese love is at a little kiosk run by a toothy, smiling old lady along the steps to Taktsang (It’s free and served out of a mug).
The road gets nastier here. I realised how much more fit I needed to be (or turn miraculously into Heidi of the hills) as elderly Germans passed us with their hiking sticks, a senior Japanese lady bent forward to tie her shoelaces and continued on, and Bhutanese pilgrims raced by with barely a heavy breath.
We strung up our prayer flags, took a few mandatory pictures and began climbing down the stairs. Already I was dreading the walk back. Stairs have never been my best friend.
But the view from Taktsang is worth every uphill climb, every second thought, every penny spent getting to Bhutan. Chilly wind from the valley whips at your face, threatening to tear off your nose. The wood panelled rooms are comparatively warmer, and because you were on too tight a budget to afford a guide, you sidle up to the ones speaking English and catch snippets of their stories.
As usual, I got lost, roaming room to room for at least half an hour before I was heated up enough to grunt ‘where the hell were you?’ when I finally found my travel buddy at the ‘Personal Belongings’ desk. We chatted with the sentries, who like most Bhutanese were dressed in traditional ‘gho’s.
We trudged back up the stairs, stopping to take pictures by the waterfall as a web of colourful prayer flags fluttered maddeningly in the wind. I couldn’t help but wonder how they tied them across cliff faces like that.
The Dzhong we saw the previous day had nothing on Taktsang. Sure it was beautiful in its own right, majestic and royal with its pretty wooden bridge across the pebbled river and gilded tops. Truth be told, visiting Bhutan had always been a wish, but it was Taktsang that actually yanked me there.
A dzhong

How I got to Bhutan:
Flight from Goa to Calcutta, train to New Jalpaiguri, rickshaw to Siliguri, bus to Phuentsholing

Where I stayed:
Thimpu: R Penjor Lodge (spacious, clean, nice views, neat café attached with free wi-fi), Hotel Tandin
Paro: Hotel Peljorling (the walls don’t quite keep the cold out and the bathroom is a bit dingy)
Punakha: Damchen Resort (lavish for my standards)
Phuentsholing: Hotel Bhutan

What I ate:
Ema datshi (chilli and cheese, Bhutan’s favourite dish)
Pork (with lots of fat)
Chicken rice with cheese and chillies

Points to note:
Indians are one of the very few nationalities allowed into Bhutan without a visa and on a pre-arranged tour. However, one must obtain a permit, easily available in Phuentsholing, for five days, extendable only in Thimpu. Carry photocopies of all your documents and keep your permits with you at all times. They will be stamped at every check post.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Coonoor: That little slice of paradise

I felt like an explorer travelling an unknown land. Unending undulating grass-covered hills, punctuated by tree cover, silence enveloping the scene, wild buffalo grazing contentedly by the pool of clear cold water.
Parsons Valley
Zooming in as far as my camera phone would allow, I pressed down to capture the scene. The click shattered the silence, in unison the wild buffalo snapped their heads towards me, eyes full of confusion.
Of course I wasn’t the dreaded majestic tiger that roamed the Nilgiris, or the cunning panther that stalked them in the underbrush. I was a stupid weak human who would shit bricks if they took three steps towards me. The big male at the head of the herd looked at me threateningly. I wanted to somehow melt into the wet grass under my feet.
Dorai was unflustered. He stood with his hands behind his back, his lungi loosely knotted to allow the chilly air to whip around his sinewy calves and looked at the scene before him. If the short elderly guide was laughing in his head, his face did not show it. Perhaps this had happened before.
We quietly moved on, me hoping we could get as far away from the herd as possible. The big male watched us until we were out of sight. At that moment, I felt adventurous, even a little brave for facing off a herd of two dozen buffalo like that. In truth, there was nothing brave or adventurous about it. I wasn’t chased by bison, startled by a leopard, harassed by a band of rambunctious monkeys or even attacked by a swallow and lived to tell the tale.
I was simply getting a lesson, just the basics, in being one with the wild.
It was my first time staying in a national park, hopefully not the last. Parsons Valley is part of a cluster of valleys, reservoirs, and wildlife sanctuaries that make up the Nilgiris. Spanning 2,479 square kilometres, the Nilgiri Hills are huddled in the westernmost part of Tamil Nadu, near the borders of Karnataka and Kerala in south India.
They are home to a wide range of flora and fauna, including large pockets of eucalyptus trees that give them the name ‘Nilgiris’ or ‘The Blue Hills’, and the largest concentration of tigers in the wild. Sambar deer are much larger in real life than one would have thought, even at 200 metres away. And they are very nervous. Flinch, and they scamper off to hide.
Rows upon rows of pine trees seemed to have the only man-made affectation. The government could have planted them randomly to give the hill-side a natural effect, but this is just nitpicking.  
Here the grass gave way to a soft carpet of dead pine needles. On my left, a few foxes ran up the hill and then paused to observe us. We ducked under a low branch to enter an archway of sorts made by another species of tree.
The path was obviously used, but there was no one in sight. How in the world did a wild cat pick its way through the twigs without snapping one? Here I was announcing my arrival to all and sundry with an orchestra at every step. I gave up trying and hurried along, keeping my eyes on Dorai.
View from Parsons Valley Retreat
He had a peculiar sense of fashion – white lungi and white shirt, a suit coat (yes, you heard me right) and gumboots. Every so often he would unhitch the second knot of his lungi and retie it to maintain the knee-length that is so common with working south Indian men.
A panther had made a kill only a couple of days ago, he said. Perhaps the carcass was still there. It was close by. Images of Animal Planet flashed by – the stench, buzzing bluebottles and swarming flies, coagulated blood. I sniffed the air, bracing myself for the onslaught. Nothing.
Dorai pointed but I couldn’t see a thing. Suddenly we were almost standing on top of it. I had never felt so stupid before, having watched endless hours of television shows on the subject. I could make out the spine, but that’s something a baby would do. There was a mass I thought could have been the head, and some stringy stuff that was presumably a few entrails left behind.
The panther had done a fair job of cleaning up. You could smell the carcass, now that you were so close, but the rain had probably subdued it. The cat could have still been in the vicinity – the pickings of wild boar, sambar, buffalo and rabbits seemed great.
We climbed up an embankment and suddenly it looked like one of the views I had travelled from Goa to see. It didn’t look like the pictures, simply because the image online was of Avalanche Lake and I was on the banks of the Mukurthi reservoir. But it was breathtaking all the same.
I zipped up my jacket against the chilly wind and we sat there, soaking in silence and the greenery. Not a honk, not a wail, not even the tinkle of a cow’s bell. This was perfect.

How I got there:
From Goa to Coonoor: Via bus (KSRTC) from Goa to Mysore to Ooty and a local to Coonoor
From Coonoor to Parsons Valley: Four-wheel drive (they send you one if required at extra cost)

Where I stayed:
Parsons Valley Retreat (Rs1800 per person per night including breakfast, lunch, tea + snacks, dinner). They made a bonfire and put some logs in the cabin so we wouldn’t freeze to death.

What I ate:
In Parsons Valley: delicious array of south Indian food
In Ooty: Chocolates from Modern Stores

Published in the Navhind Times Panorama: