The Towers of San Gimignano

Have you seen a time machine or made a time travel back into history? Do you believe that such a thing exists! Yes, there exists a time machine in Italy. You have to see it to believe it. It is in a place called San Gimignano in the province of Siena, Tuscany, Italy. The visit to the town called San Gimignano takes you back to the middle ages. And then you never want to come back. This UNESCO World Heritage town is a representative town of 10-15th century and it is preserved in pretty much the same state.

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So come along for a virtual tour of San Gimignano, You will yearn to go if you have not been there yet. You will surely pine for it, if you have already been there.

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The walled city of San Gimignano dates back to the middle ages. Its existence began as an Etruscan village from 3rd century. It was saved from Attila the Hun by the bishop of Modena, San Gimignano, and therefore the city was named after him. The city prospered because of its location on the “Via Francigena” which was the major pilgrimage route to Rome from France and the north as far away as Canterbury. San Gimignano was a prominent resting place for the pilgrims.

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There are eight entrances into the city which date from the 12th and 13th centuries. You are standing at the main gate called Porta San Giovanni.

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This gate was built during the 13th century and its peculiarity is the external segmental Arch that is surmounted by a guardroom that is supported by six trilobated hanging arches. You will also notice a small bell tower of a 16th century church, “La Madonna dei Lumi” just behind the gate.

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On the left side of the gate you see the part of a fortress. It was dismantled in the 16th century and stands as the ruins in current date.

Let’s enter the town.

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On entering the gate, you start walking on the stone paved main road “Via San Giovanni”. The road is wide enough to allow two horse-carts pass side-by-side comfortably and also allow people to walk on the sides of the road at the same time. But the road appears narrow due to tall stone-built houses on both sides of the road.

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The houses do not leave any space between them and give us the impression of walking on a road enclosed by giant stone walls on both the sides. Albeit the stone walls have arches in the bottom and shuttered windows above them. What lies behind these arches and windows is something that tired pilgrims of Middle Ages must be eagerly waiting for – a place to eat, drink, sleep and shop.

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There are cross-roads and alleys along the main road leading to different parts of the city.

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They have steps, archways and distinct road lamps. Though very tempting, we are not going a take turn into any of the alleys to explore them. We are walking straight to the city center.

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The towers that you see at the end of the road is where the city center is.

San Gimignano is also known as the city of towers. The city has an interesting history of towers. As mentioned earlier, the small town of San Gimignano lies conveniently on one of most important medieval pilgrimage routes. Its inhabitants exploited the situation well. The constant influx of pilgrims made them quickly rich. And then, as always, the families of San Gimignano wanted to show off their wealth to the world. Though they desired to build palaces, the town did not have enough space to do so due to densely constructed houses within the surrounding walls. But the rich families found a way out.

In medieval times a tower was the symbol of economic power, mainly because the building process was not simple or cheap at all. So the rich families turned toward building towers over their houses instead of building palaces. And then began the competition among the merchant families for building higher and higher stone towers over their houses. At the peak of competition there were 72 towers in San Gimignano of which only 14 now remain. The competition reached such ludicrous height that the city council made a law to forbid building a tower taller than the main communal one, known as Torre Rognosa. To bypass this law, merchant families built two towers next to each other.  Though each tower was shorter than “Torre Rognosa”, when added together the height of two towers was more than Torre Rognosa!! Thus they went on to prove that they had enough wealth.

Interesting, isn’t it? Let’s take a look at those towers and the houses of those rich merchants.

dsc_8955The scaled down model of San Gimignano during its heyday

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Piazza della Cisterna is the most beautiful square of the town. It was originally lined with workshops and taverns. In the middle there is an octagonal travertine well that gives the name to the square. The well was built in 1273 and enlarged in 1346 by Podestà Guccio dei Malavolti.

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The Palazzo Comunale (Municipal palace) of San Gimignan has been the seat of the civic authority in the comune since the 13th century. It is located on the Piazza del Duomo close to the Collegiate Church. The building and Collegiate Church are at the heart of the medieval town, and are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Historic Centre of San Gimignano”. The building contains important fresco decorations.

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Well, Well. Now that we have reached the heart of medieval town, it is time to return. Like all shows, this time-machine show also has to come to an end. If you can afford you can opt for a detailed version of this show by choosing to stay in this town for at least one full day if not two.

I had to leave and here is one shot on my way back to Porta San Giovanni from where my tour started.

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My heart was dying to go back and live those medieval times as long as I can. But the constraints of reality were pulling me outside the walls of San Gimignano.

I step outside the walls of the town and I look around. And I witness the insanely beautiful Tuscan vistas all around me.

And then the Shakespearean debate started playing on my mind. To be, in the beautiful reality of Tuscan landscapes and explore them further; or not to be, and return to the medieval times and explore the towers of San Gimignano, further and further.

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What would you do if you were in my place?

 

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High Altitude Vacations – Part II

<–  High Altitude Vacations – Part I

Expect the Unexpected #1: Altitude Sickness

The first unexpected that one comes across is Altitude Sickness. It is also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). As altitude increases, the effective oxygen in air reduces. Effective oxygen at 8,000 feet is roughly 75%, at 12,000 feet it is 40% and at 18,000 feet it is half of effective oxygen at sea level.

This low levels of oxygen causes altitude sickness. It manifests itself in the form of headache, nausea, and fatigue. This is very common: some people are only slightly affected, others feel awful. But in its acute form excess fluid build on the lungs and causes breathlessness. And in its worst form fluid starts building in the brain and it causes confusion, clumsiness, and stumbling. The first signs may be uncharacteristic behavior such as laziness, excessive emotion or violence. Drowsiness and loss of consciousness occur shortly.

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Shot on the banks of Chandrataal (14,100 feet). One needs to walk about 1 km from the parking lot or about 3 km from camping ground to reach the lake. You can see young people short of breath, with heads down and/or just lying down on the banks of the lake due to altitude sickness coupled with the walk.

Altitude sickness can happen to anybody irrespective of age, sex, or physical condition. Some people get it and some people don’t. If you haven’t been to high altitude before, it’s important to be cautious. If you have been at that altitude before still it is better to be cautious.

The only cure for AMS is either acclimatization or descent. Human body has amazing ability to get adjusted to altitudes, provided we climb only 500m per day. Unfortunately, in today’s world of fast travel we invariably end up ascending more than 500m per day and give very little time to our body to acclimatize.

The alternatives to a slow 500m/day climb are –

(1) Carry a personal portable oxygen cylinder with you. Many tour operators carry oxygen cylinders with them as a precaution,

(2) Use drug like Acetazolamide (Diamox) to accelerate acclimatization. This drug is said to create conditions very similar to high altitudes conditions in our body. This helps body acclimatize faster provided Diamox is taken two days prior to the beginning of ascent.  Unfortunately, I have seen people start taking Diamox only after they start experiencing AMS and then Diamox worsens the condition. Please consult your doctor before using Diamox or any other drug. Take Diamox two days prior, if you have to. Be ready for its side-effects.

(3) Carry camphor with you. Bheemseni Camphor is the preferred variety of camphor. Keep inhaling it. How does it work? Some say it helps decongest your breathing track allowing you to take in more air, some say it attracts oxygen molecules from the air which then you inhale and some others say it’s a placebo effect. Whatever it is, I have always used camphor and it has worked for me.

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Wear a porous pouch filled with camphor pieces around your neck.

Best is to allow body to acclimatize normally by ascending at 500m per day. Talk less. Restrain yourself from exerting and running around in excitement (though it is difficult to restrain).

Expect the Unexpected #2: Medical Assistance

God forbid, no one should need medical assistance at high altitude destinations. Why? Because most of the places are in remote locations without proper medical practitioners in the vicinity. Medical facilities are available in large towns but the remote location you are in may not have it. Rushing to the nearest large town may mean a day’s arduous journey or using air ambulance. It’s doable, it’s costly, but worse is that we lose time.

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Langza village – 13,780 feet above sea level with a population of 150. (Based on the board placed by govt.) The nearest medical center is in Kaza which is 16 km away. Manali is 212 km away and Shimla is 460 km away.
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Roads and heavy traffic on road leading to Khardungla pass
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Long and winding roads that lead you to nearest large town

Many of us move around with our life-time partners like BP, Diabetes, Cholesterol, Thyroid, and so on. Carry sufficient quantity of your regular medicines with you. Make sure you make sets of your medicines according to your daily schedule and split the sets across different pieces of luggage. Luggage pieces have tendency to get lost during travel. So carry at least one set in your hand-luggage.  This set should contain sufficient medicines for entire vacation.

In case you fall short of your medicines, you may not get the same brands in the local pharmacy. Carry the prescription with you so that the local doctor or pharmacist can suggest alternate drug to you. Do not depend on calling your doctor at last moment because expect the unexpected #3.

Expect the Unexpected #3: Telephone connectivity

So you are at 14,000 feet altitude in xyz village in a homestay. You suddenly realize that you have exhausted your stock of BP pills. Your tour companions have extra stock and you can possibly borrow. But tablets are not the same. You want to consult your family doctor because there are three more days to go. You start dialing your mobile-phone only to realize that there is no range.

This situation is not a fiction. Many high altitude destinations do not have telephone connectivity – neither land line nor mobile range. In quite a few places only one mobile operator operates – BSNL – that too if it is post-paid card. (This is true as of writing this blog. Things are changing and improving over the years!!) So carry a BSNL card but do not assume you will be able to always connect. Keep your near, dear ones and, last but not the least – supervisors at work, informed that you will not be reachable for few days.

I know of a very high ranking official in 24×7 global software services organization went for vacation in Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet. He became unreachable for consultation during a crisis situation at work. On returning to work, when he faced his CEO he realized that he would have been better-off by taking refuge for life-time in one of the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet.

Expect the Unexpected #4: Electricity

Many high altitude destinations get electricity supply only for a few hours, that too if they are connected to a grid. So, you may have cell phone range but may not have electricity to charge your cell phone. So carry power banks with you.

Many villages now have solar panels installed. That generates energy to power solar lamps. But you are unlikely to find room heaters in these places.

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Solar panels at Dhankar Monastery (12,774 feet above sea level)

Read on……

High Altitude Vacations – Part III –>

 High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

High Altitude Vacations – Part III

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part II

Expect the Unexpected #5: Food

You may be able to adjust with the taste and limited choices of available food at high altitude destinations. But finding food joints while you are on the road is far more difficult than finding food of your choice. For hours and hours you will find yourself travelling through mountains without any soul to feed you.

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River Chenab. You can notice the road winding down from the mountain on right and then going along the Chenab for miles and miles.
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The (one and only) food joint at Gramphu

If you are used to eating food every few hours or your life-time partners (e.g. diabetes) force you to eat at regular hours, be sure to carry food along with you. Always carry sugar packets and Gluecon-D with you. Drink enough water, if necessary add Gluecon-D to it.

Do not be shy to pack few parathas, fruits or poha right at the time of breakfast and carry them along. Your tour companions are likely to laugh at you. But don’t worry. Carry some extra food because these very folks will ask for some share of your food later on. Treat your food as your medicine.

Carry packets of ready-to-eat food products and a good aluminum thermos filled with hot water. Poha and Upma will be ready on the go in 3 minutes. For other food, you may need boiling water for 5 min. Any house on the way will offer you hot water.

Expect the Unexpected #6: Road condition

Following photographs will tell the story for themselves. Expect tyre punctures (sometimes multiple times during the day), landslide and road blocks due to various reasons. Keep slack in your schedule to accommodate all these. If you are on photography tour, you are likely to stop at multiple places on the way. Keep enough slack time for photography as well.

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On the way to Nathula Pass (14,140 feet above sea level)
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Clearing road from the debris of the landslide. You just have to patiently wait and hope that no more debris comes sliding down your way.
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India-Tibet highway. Thrilling, isn’t it?
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Road leading to Kunzumla Pass (15,060 feet above sea level)
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Road leading to Kunzumla Pass (15,060 feet above sea level)

Expect the Unexpected #7: Weather

The weather can change within minutes. You may be enjoying bright sun now but you may experience sudden showers/snowfalls within next 15-20 minutes.

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You see a rainbow only when the sun and rain play hide-n-seek. Shot somewhere in Lahaul-Spiti region.
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Thick clouds approaching Khardungla pass. Rain and snowfall followed in next hour or so. The locals advised us not spend time at the pass but to start moving towards Leh at the earliest to avoid the rain and snow.

Expect the Unexpected #8: Transport

Please ensure your vehicles are in sound condition. Tyres should be suitable for mountain roads. Make sure there is fire-extinguisher available in vehicle. In one of my tours the stereo speaker in one of the vehicles blew off due to short circuit and door was on fire!! If your vehicle breaks down mid-way, there is very little that you can do except getting stranded till some rescue comes your way. The Unexpected #3 & #7 make the situation worst when you are stranded.

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On the way to Nathula pass but can happen anywhere.

Read on …..

High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part I

<– High Altitude Vacations – Part II

High Altitude Vacations – Part I

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A photograph from 1990 shot from Aiguille-du-Midi (12,605 feet above sea level). Mont Blanc in the background.

– Huff-Puff!!  Huff-Puff!!

– We are at 12,000 feet altitude and oxygen levels are 40% of the normal. I doubt if I can climb any further.

– Oh! Just look around! It’s worth the climb. C’mon! We will be there soon.”

– Huff-Puff!!  Huff-Puff!!

– Ahhh! We are at summit! We made it!

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A photograph from 1990 shot from Aiguille-du-Midi (12,605 feet above sea-level)

And the show continues on TV channel. I was always impressed by these courageous people of NatGeo and similar organizations for exploring our earth at such destinations at heights and depths and also shooting these adventures to show on TV/films later. I envied the videographers and photographers who got the opportunity to shoot along with them. I always dreamt that one day even I would own a good camera. Someday someone will take me to some high altitude destinations and I will be able to do the photography to my heart’s content just like these TV show people.

But how could this happen? All said and done I was, and still am, a couch-potato adept at experiencing adventure travels over TV channels all the time in comforts of my home.

But some dreams come true. That’s exactly what is happening in India. The booming tourism industry coupled with improved means of transportation, better connectivity by air and road, and proximity of Himalayan destinations is bringing high altitude destinations within the reach of all. The advent of digital technology has put camera in the hands of every cell phone owner. High-caliber DSLRs are now within the reach of amateurs and enthusiasts. The ever increasing number of tour operators is ensuring that all kinds of tourists can reach the high altitude destinations – by hiking, or by biking or sitting comfortably in sedans/MPVs.

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Khardungla Pass – 18,380 feet above sea level
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Khardungla Pass – 18,380 feet above sea level

Altitude is defined as Normal (0 – 8000 feet / 0 -2,458 meters), High (8,000 – 12,000 feet / 2,438 – 3,658 meters), Very High (12,000 – 18,000 feet / 3,658 – 5,487 meters), and Extremely High (18,000+ feet / 5,500+ meters).

Many popular hill stations in northern India are below 8000 feet of altitude e.g. Mussoorie, Nainital, Shimla, Manali, Darjeeling, Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgaon. However, the newly popular destinations like Leh-Ladakh, Lahaul-Spiti, Zanskar, Kailash-Manasarovar, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Valley of Flowers, Nathula Pass, are all “High” to “Extremely high” altitude destinations.

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All right, All right! So what is this blog about?

At high altitudes many “unexpected”s come along with the “expected”s. This series of blogs notes down the unexpecteds that I came across during my vacations at high altitude destinations. It is for those who assume that vacations at high altitudes are no different than vacations at any other place and/or those who have yet to travel to high altitudes. All I would say to them is –

Expect the unexpected…..

So read on….

High Altitude Vacations – Part II –>

High Altitude Vacations – Part III –>

High Altitude Vacations – Part IV –>

Moon Magic

Losar, a small village in the Lahaul and Spiti District of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, is situated at an altitude of 13,400 feet above sea level. It consists of a few houses with a population of about 250. It is supposed to be the coldest place in the Spiti Valley.

We stayed for two nights in Losar on our way from Chandrataal to Kaza. The original plan was to stay two nights at Chandrataal itself and then one night at Losar. But some of our tour members developed altitude sickness after the first night at 14,100 feet altitude of Chandrataal. The tour manager ordered that we descend to lower altitude at the earliest. The camp manager was kind enough to co-ordinate and make our staying arrangements in Losar a day ahead of our schedule. Reaching Losar involved ascending to Kunzum Pass at 15,060 feet altitude before the descent could begin. But the rugged beauty of barren monstrous mountains around us made us forget the altitude sickness altogether.

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It was 4 pm and Sun had started its westward journey.  The evening light transformed the mountain peaks into the thrones of gold for the gods-of-day to arrive after their day’s work and take rest before retiring to their celestial abodes.

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A little while later we could see the god-of-the-night, the Moon, quietly marching into the blue sky to begin its night duty. It was a full moon day. The moon-god was in his full form and arrived a bit early. But he had to wait to take charge as the Sun-god was still completing his last chores and yet to vacate the throne.

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We reached home-stay at Losar when the Sun was about to set. Our rooms were located on the first floor while the kitchen and dining room were on the ground floor of the home-stay. We were ushered into our rooms. We could see the landscape of Losar village right outside our windows. The green patches of farmed land were surrounded by barren mountains in shades of brown and gray. They appeared like well-toned muscles of a body-builder. The setting Sun had showered them with a ting of evening gold.

The lower altitude of Losar made us feel better and we could take deeper breath with more oxygen. No one had the energy to go out for a walk after the journey from Chandrataal. The journey had become tiring due to low levels of oxygen. We anyway had the entire next day for it. So, as soon as we refreshed ourselves we marched to the dining room for a cup of green-tea, but ended-up staying there till dinner. After the dinner, feeling better with delicious food served to us at the home-stay, we walked back to our bed-rooms.

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As we looked at the landscape from our windows, we were stunned. The landscape that earlier looked barren was now shimmering in soft white glow of full moon. The moon had made its magic. It appeared that the Moon-god has gently draped the masculine landscape in white muslin to cover it from the harsh cold winds of Losar while it was in sleep, and ordered its citizen stars to keep an eye on the sleeping baby.

Being a cut-and-dried person, I had not believed in the magic spell of the moon on human mind so far.  But here I was experiencing the moon magic myself.

And today I am proud to say that “Yes, I was moon-struck, at least once in my life time”.

Bhutan – The Enchanting Architecture

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Paro Valley

Bhutan is situated in the fertile valleys of Himalayas. The valleys are separated from one another by eastern Himalayan ridges extending across the country from north to south. The nature has painted Bhutanese canvas with various hues of greens and blues.

Bhutanese architecture stands out on this canvas with its Dzongs (forts) painted in white and red ochre stripes, wooden houses in natural shades of brown and walls painted white, Lhakhangs (Buddha temples) filled with prayers and compassion, Chortens to keep reminding you the presence of Almighty, and prayer wheels everywhere so that you can recite mantras and prayers on the go. And, one cannot miss the bridges necessary for crossing the rivers and ravines. The traditional cantilever bridges and suspension bridges add to the beauty of Bhutanese architecture.

Bhutanese architecture is strongly influenced by Tibetan tradition of Buddhist architecture. A glance into the history tells us that Bhutan always had close links with Tibet. Bhutia, the largest ethnic group in Bhutan, are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who came southward into Bhutan beginning about the 9th century. Buddhism was introduced in the 7th century by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo and further strengthened by the arrival of Guru Rimpoche, a Buddhist Master that is widely considered to be the Second Buddha.

The history of Bhutan and Tibet is replete with periods of civil and religious wars. The country was first unified in 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. After arriving in Bhutan from Tibet he consolidated his power, defeated three Tibetan invasions and established a comprehensive system of law and governance.

The living conditions were always tough even in peaceful times. The security measures were a must for a layman or a lama. Dzongs (or forts) is the manifestation of these security measures.

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Thimpu Dzong

Dzongs are the local fort complexes where people would seek protection during warfare. They were strategically located, and in early times they were usually on hilltops. Here they were the means for expansion and control for various rulers, and contributed to the domination of territories. During the Yarlung dynasty (7th-9th C.) the districts were subject to the authority of the local forts.

Dzongs in Bhutan have served as religious and administrative centers since the 17th century. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks’ accommodation. The rooms inside the dzong are typically allocated half to administrative function (such as the office of the governor), and half to religious function, primarily the temple and housing for monks. This division between administrative and religious functions reflects the idealized duality of power between the religious and administrative branches of government. Some Dzongs (e.g. Punakha) have additional courtyards for memorials or Lhakhangs (Temples).

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Punakha Dzong with three courtyards. First for Administrative Offices, Second for religious offices and third, the Lhakhang.

Tourists to note that many of the dzongs can be visited only after the office hours in the evening after administrative office are closed. Only religious quarters can be visited. Administrative quarters are off the limits.

Being a fort, the walls are high and inward sloping without any windows in the lower section. They are made up of bricks and stone and painted white. The entry doors are massive and made-up of wood and iron. There is a red ochre stripe near the top of the wall.

Houses: Bhutanese houses have timber frame structure assembled with a system of pegs. Windows with glass panes are seen in cities but the traditional houses have sliding wooden shutters. Countryside houses have a country yard in the front and are multi-storeyed. The living quarters, kitchen, family rooms and prayer rooms are normally on the upper storey.

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Traditional village houses

The exterior of any new building must have traditional look though internally it can be very contemporary.

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Modern City House in Thimpu
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Thimpu City Center

Lhakhangs are Buddha temples. They are simple single storied structures with a courtyard and a protection wall around them.

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Kyichu Lkakhang –  Originally built in 7th century, considered to be one of the four border taming temples. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava has concealed many spiritual treasures here.

Chortens: The basic structure of a Chorten consist of a square foundation symbolizing the earth, a dome symbolizing water, and thirteen tapering steps of enlightenment symbolizing the element of fire. These steps lead to a stylized parasol, the symbol of wind, which is topped in the ethereal sphere by the well-known ‘twin-symbol’ uniting sun and moon, which is the shimmering crown of the Chorten.

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Chorten or Stupa

Pilgrims and locals circumambulate chortens in order to gain merit.

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Chortens at Kharbandi Gompa

There are different styles of chortens. The native Bhutanese style is a square stone pillar with a khemar near the top, sometimes accompanied by a ball and crescent to depict the sun and moon. This indigenous style represents a kind of reduced form of the classical stupa. Yet another style of chorten is supported on two pillars, under which people pass to gain merit.

The National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu was built in 1974 by Queen Ashi Phuntsho Choden in memory of her son the Third Dragon King of Bhutan Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

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National Memorial Chorten

You will find many old people circumambulating the chorten and praying within the campus.

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We were told that the working couples leave their old parents in the campus in the morning while going to work and then pick them up in the evening and take them home. The aged people pray and spend time with their friends in the campus during the day.

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Old people spending the day praying at National Memorial Chorten
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Spending time with friends at Memorial Chorten
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Sharing the moments

Dochula Pass Chortens. You will find 108 chortens at Dochula Pass. The Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang (red band) Chortens were built as a memorial in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.

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This blog cannot be complete without the mention of prayer wheels and bridges.

Prayer Wheels:

The prayer wheels are omnipresent. A prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. Also sometimes depicted are Dakinis, Protectors and very often the 8 auspicious symbols Ashtamangala. At the core of the cylinder is a “Life Tree” often made of wood or metal with certain mantras written on or wrapped around it. Many thousands (or in the case of larger prayer wheels, millions) of mantras are then wrapped around this life tree. The Mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is most commonly used, but other mantras may be used as well. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.

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Prayer wheels outside a shop

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A large prayer wheel under construction outside a college campus
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Wooden prayer wheel outside a village house

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Small prayer wheels available in market

Bridges:

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The wooden cantilever bridge near Punakha Dzong

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The wooden cantilever bridge on river Mo Chhu at Punakha
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Suspension bridge on river Wang Chhu

The distinctive architecture of Bhutan gives a spectacular get up to its natural beauty. One must keep sufficient time aside to study this architecture and appreciate it.

 

Bhutan Reflections: My Ramblings

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Punakha Dzong

Bhutan – the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan – the happiest country in Asia. Bhutan – the country with 70% green cover. Bhutan this and Bhutan that. So many vivid images were dancing in front of my eyes while I was planning my Bhutan tour. The colors of these images were borrowed from various web based sites, blogs and photos. The images made me so damn excited that I could not wait for the tour to begin.

The excitement was based on my previous tours which offer similar vista in various parts of India, like Jammu-Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Nainital, Munnar etc. And Ladakh which lies in the same Himalayan region but offers a completely different vista.

As a photographer, all these places did turn out to be sumptuous feasts to my eyes albeit one was always glued to my camera. And so did Bhutan. However, my overall tour-happiness index of Bhutan turned out to be lower than the other tours. Why? I am still confused. And my confusion is inconsequential. Therefore I have decided to call this blog – “My Ramblings” – dictionary meaning of rambling being “lengthy and confused or inconsequential writing or speech“.

As a photographer I got some amazing photographs that I will be presenting through this series of blogs on Bhutan. Enjoy the photographs and leave behind the inconsequential confusion with me.

Enter the Land of Thunder Dragon:
Indians are not required to obtain a visa to enter Bhutan. An entry permit is issued at the city of entry on production of either passport or voter id card. The two popular entry points are Paro (if entry is by air) or Phuentsholing (if entry is by road). We were going by road. It involved reaching Bagdogra by air. From there begins the road travel.

We reached Bagdogra at noon and proceeded to Siligudi. It was May 2016. The summer of unprecedented heat. Siligudi was hot, humid and roads were crowded and full of traffic jams. The road journey from Siligudi to Phuentsholing via Jalpaiguri took about 4-5 hours. The journey was boring. The road widening and construction work was in progress through out and air was filled with cement dust. The only relief came in the form of tea estates of Jalpaiguri later during the journey as we were nearing Phuentsholing.

Tea plantation in Jalpaiguri
Tea plantation in Jalpaiguri
Sunset seen thru tea plantation
Sunset seen thru tea plantation

Jaigaon is the last Indian town on the way and it shares its border with Phuentsholing. You are driving through a typical Indian highway town and then you pass through an archway and your driver tells, we are in Bhutan now. The archway called Bhutan Gate marks the border line between India and Bhutan. Yes, your eyes have noticed the change. The place looks more disciplined, looks cleaner and far more organized. But you also notice the shadow of Jaigaon cast over Phuentsholing. Later you realize this was just the beginning. The shadow of India disappears once you move further away into Bhutan. Phuentsholing is a trading town and villagers can freely roam within 5 km area of the gate for the purpose of trading. Bhutan beyond this town is impeccably clean, disciplined and quiet.

Jaigaon
Jaigaon
Phuentsholing
Phuentsholing

Next program – An overnight stay in Phuentsholing. Waiting in the queue next day at the Regional Immigration Office for biometrics and to get an entry permit and then another 5-6 hours’ drive to Thimpu.

Getting entry permit:
Morning 8 am and we are standing in front of Regional Immigration Office near Bhutan Gate. Biometrics is necessary before permits are issued. The office will open at 9 am. There is already a huge queue of 100-150 people. No place to sit. Everyone is standing under the bright sun in hot summer weather.

The gate opens promptly at 9 am and it provides space for only one person to enter and one to leave. The officers sit on the first floor where biometrics take place. Suddenly a huge stampede ensues. All 100-150 people standing in the queue start pushing ahead to enter the office. The only two Bhutanese security personnel posted there to manage the queue get swamped in the melee. Whether you wish or not you are forced into the scuffle. In next one hour, till I reached the officers and came out in open air, I experienced all the motions and emotions that a sugarcane experiences when pushed inside the crusher. Phew! The unique experience, rather the “sugarcane-crusher-test”, which I never took in my earlier life nor do I wish to take it again.

My other friends who entered Bhutan via Phuentsholing, few days before or after me, confirmed that they too underwent the sugarcane-crusher-test at the time of entry. It is thus confirmed to be an everyday phenomenon and that Bhutan govt. has done nothing to ease the life of Indian visitors. Are Indian visitors responsible for this? Yes 100%. We and only we are responsible for this stampede. Why can’t we just have the patience to wait for our turn to come? Having said that, I fail to understand why Bhutan govt. cannot make better security arrangements to manage the crowd? Why cannot Bhutan govt. issue a visa or permit in advance in India?

Whatever be the reasons, the sugarcane-crusher-test crushed my Bhutan dreams as well. I am still unable to re-construct them.

We receive our entry permits by 10:30 am and begin our journey to Thimpu. This entire journey is uphill via twisting and turning ghat roads. Though the roads are good, the journey is tiring. The surrounding mountain ranges wear thick green cover. But nothing specific to note (from photographer’s perspective). Pretty average scenery when compared with my pervious ghat journeys through other parts of India. This remains my opinion after travelling by road via Phuentsholing-Thimpu-Punakha-Paro-Phuentsholing.

Lush green mountains
Lush green mountains
Chorten along the highway
Chorten along the highway

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The ghat road
The ghat road

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The other entry-point to Bhutan is via Paro. That requires flying in.

Paro Airport is the sole international airport in Bhutan. The airport is 6 km from Paro town in a deep valley on the bank of the river Paro Chhu. With surrounding peaks as high as 5,500 m, it is considered one of the world’s most challenging airports, so challenging that only 8 pilots are qualified to land there.

Paro airport
Paro airport

I, now, strongly believe that better strategy to enter Bhutan is via Paro albeit at some additional cost of air travel. First, the entry permit procedure would be far more orderly at airport. Second, saving of four days of road journey (Bagdogra-Thimpu-Bagdogra). The same four days spent inside Bhutan would provide far more quality experience than the infertile road journey to/from Bagdogra provides.

The Food:
Being vegetarian put severe constraints on my food options. The variety of available vegetables is limited plus Bhutanese eat meat more than vegetables, we were told. At few eating places the smell of non-vegetarian cooking was so dominant, it almost killed my hunger. Bhutanese cuisine contains rice but it is a different variety (with a nutty taste) that grows at high altitudes. Curd, buttermilk and sweets (for desert) are rarity. The oil used for cooking is (I suspect) mustard oil. Either you like it or you can’t stand the smell. It is certainly not the one normally used in homes in western India. Bhutanese eat very hot food especially chilies. I tried eating chutney and it burned my tongue.

Bhutanese food has its own distinct taste. But I could not adjust with it in my short duration. Bhutanese cooks are yet learning to cook the desi way. I did not starve in Bhutan but did not relish either.

Net-net:
As said in the beginning, my overall tour-happiness index of Bhutan turned out to be lower than the other tours. Why? Is it due to the wrong choice of season to go there, or the sugarcane-crusher-test that needed to be undertaken, or my non-agreement with local food, or the vistas turning out to be different than dreamt earlier or all of this? I still don’t know.

I am still confused. And my confusion is inconsequential. But it is time to stop my ramblings.

My next blogs in Bhutan series will focus on distinct positive impressions and images of Bhutan – The magnificent dzongs and chortens, unique architecture,  lovely landscapes and caring people!

Stay tuned, enjoy the photographs and leave behind the inconsequential confusion with me.