Up to Thimpu, the modern capital of Bhutan

This really is a different country. The bus is new & comfortable with good shock absorbers and the roads are well made up. The sun comes out after a night of torrential rai; the mists hang on for a while and then let go their last clasp on the mountains to reveal blue sky!!!!! Rural & town houses are well constructed and well painted with beautiful paintings of spirits on their gables & facades.

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The road winds up and down around valleys, ravines & peaks. Cows munch grass contentedly & pictures of alpine meadows come to mind particularly when the sound of the occasional cow bell can be heard. The mountains drop straight down to little slivers of rivers as mountains stand majestically above. I pass a Shagri-la of farmhouses, villages & small towns. Yep, really is like this. How can Bhutan be one of the poorest countries in the world? It seems they sell hydro electric power to India!!??

After a smooth drive we arrive in Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital – so surprising: modern, clean, large (600,000 people live in Bhutan, slightly bigger than Wales and 200,000 li be in Thimpu. I visit the national textile museum, the fort, the main stupa and have a wander around town.20150331114251_IMG_2915 20150331101017_IMG_2870 20150331095035_IMG_2831 20150331082754_IMG_2747 20150331081605_IMG_2705 20150331081254_IMG_2690 20150331081348_IMG_2693




Bhutan at last!!

Bhutan at last!!! But before we get there I have to share these two images with you – tea pickers along the road in one of the West Bengal tea plantations & the back kitchen of a town cafe selling chai & an assorted range of sweet, deep fried snacky things. Both equally atmospheric.

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So Bhutan……..It’s like entering a different country …derrrr. Immediately there is a lot less litter, cars are bigger, it feels cleaner, most houses are well maintained. The Bhutanese smile a lot more and the traditional costume for guys in particular is soooo smart. A good Scotsman would feel right at home here. These are a cross between a kilt & a set of overalls/dressing gown, mostly in very suave plain greys but the occasional man about town will go into loud stripes to catch the eye of the girls.

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This place is just a small border town but see what you think. Have tried to catch the feel of the place from the local cinema to shops & hotels. See what you think.









The frontier town of Kalimpong

Leaving Gangtok today, I head for the border and leave the Kingdom of Sikkim. The road winds it way up the side of the mountain, crosses the ridge & winds its way down to the next boulder strewn river. The bus follows the Ranipul valley to the border.

My last afternoon back in West Bengal is spent in the scruffy boder town of Kalimpong stuck to the side of a mountain at 1,800 metres. The town was a frontier trading post for wool merchants coming from Tibet. It is a hotch potch of little narrow streets in the shadow of tall tatty buildings with busy people trading & going about their business from small stalls or workshops. In the people’s faces there is evidence dozens of cultures & religions. A spagetti of electricity wires & telephone cables tangle their way around the roads & streets. See what you think.

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So tomorrow I enter Bhutan. I have no idea what to expect but am so excited. There may be Wi-Fi, there may not. You may hear from me. You may not  😉 😕😢.


Feeling very spiritual in Gangtok

It is another long day’s drive along mountain roads to reach Gangtok. The least said the better although needless to say the rear suspension on the bus found it all too tough & gave up the ghost with a loud clunk. The driver got down to making emergency repairs, squatting underneath the rear axle, while the passengers exercised their posteriors and gained a short relief from the Brocking Bronko fairground ride.

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Today is the anniversary of Rama & Sita’s wedding. The Hindu celebrations started in the streets with bells, symbols & chants. It all happens at the temple & is over by midmorning. However it did get me up on the roof for dawn. The sky was clear and, yes, I saw sunrise over the Himalaya (the correct name for the whole range without an ‘s’) and over Gamtok. It was worth the wait. This is Kanchenjunga at 8,586m.20150328032354_IMG_1928 20150328000227_IMG_1877


Gamtok is the present day capital of Sikkim. Here are some images of the town centre (apologies, for the two that are a bit wonky because taken out of the front window) and some of the side streets.

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Rumtek Monastery was built in the 1960s and is the headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It an awesome building, its colourful facades towering over monks & novices & visitors & tourists. This is a bit of a Where’s Wally -find the single monk and find the group down the alley & try and work out what is going on.

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Drodul Chorten is a monastery and a stupa and it has 108 prayer wheels around the central chorten. It was built to commemorate the victory of good over evil. Chants, drums & bells could be heard from the prayer hall. Visitors could only listen from outside – only the Buddhist monks were taking part including these guys from Bhutan. Check out their robe gear – their’s is very David Beckham!

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In and around Pelling in the Himalayan foothills

Today is a chance to explore, in the bus & on foot, in & around the town of Pelling. The haze lifts for a bit and the sun warms the valleys & hillsides. The first stop is a village that dots its houses, shops & barns along the winding road.

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The next stop is a chance to walk around Kecheopelri or the Wishing Lake. A small cafe, a tatty gift shed, a tiny Buddhist prayer wheel & monastry huddle at the top of the path that leads to the lake itself – considered the most holy lake in Sikkim and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists & Hindus alike.

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Pemayangtse Monastery is the second oldest and is one of the 60 still active in the kingdom. As well as the male monkss, young boys age 7 to 13 attend for up to 3 years. Its members are devotees of a mystical type of Tantric Buddhism characterised by the red caps they wear.

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Banging and bashing into the Kingdom of Sikkim

Well, it started off fine. This was a 140 km drive north from Darjeeling to Pelling in Sikkim. The bus left at 8 in the morning in warm sunshine and it arrived in Pelling at 6 o’clock in the evening in the middle of a thunder & lighting storm. You do the maths – with an hour off for stops it took 9 hours. The average speed was 14 km per hour!!! The driver never got out of third the whole way.

The first part took me through tall broad leaf forests with dappled sunlight through high foliage onto grasses, ferns, mosses, bamboos. The road snaked its way through the forest. At one point teak trees appeared. It took a fair while as the bus was old & lacked any acceleration and the road was a single & a half carriage way,which meant vehicles had to slow right down to pass each other. But the scenery was wonderful and the road relatively smooth.

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Then when the bus dropped down through the trees to the border to enter Sikkim it all went very wrong and the real problems started. I will let the images tell the story. Needless to say, it can be summed up as the ‘rocky horror journey’ along pitted, unmade up roads where dust & shakes & rolls & grinding gears & exhaust fumes & horns hit the senses at every stage of this journey from Mad Max 3. I’ll let you use your imagination!!!

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Dawn over the Himalayas

At 4am a convoy of 100 or so Jeeps race up the narrow streets and lanes to Tiger Hill at 2,590 metres (that’s over 8,000 feet!) to watch the sun rise & to see its rays illuminate the west facing peaks of the Himalayas. Sadly the haze sploit the occasion. This what we were supposed to see:



And here we all are not seeing it.20150323233845_IMG_1106 20150324002402_IMG_1160

After breakfast I set out to explore this town of 140,000 mostly Mongol origin people. Darjeeling is so near Tibet & Nepal & China that it i easy to forget that we are very much in India. I share the first part of my walk up the main street & along an open road with the joggers & speed walkers. The haze is really disconcerting because there is never a clear view down the hills (I’m going to start calling them mountains because that’s what they are) so the views out & between houses are simply blankets of grey.

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Being so near Nepal the locals are mostly Buddhist. There is a wonderful temple hidden in a grove of trees with a huge flutter of a thousand prayer flags, a clanginging of prayer bells & a haze of smell – smoke from hundreds of incense sticks.


Darjeeling is a really busy place. The houses are multistoried as space is such a premium. Their frontages are in need of a good sand down and a bit of exterior emulsion applied. Streets are very narrow and wind through the buildings, the deep descents and steep slopes of the mountain sides. The most amazing sight is that of a handful of porters who climb these steep slopes with enormous weights on their backs and a strap attached around their foreheads. The most amazing was one with 3 large gas containers.

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Hundreds of Jeeps scurry through the maze of streets honking constantly to no avail as parked vehicles, pedestrians, huge potholes that could swallow a small car, market stalls (I saw a market being held on the railway line!!) or one of the many water lorries cause an obstruction & everything stops for 5 mins, the problem is sorted & the traffic moves on to the next obstruction a few hundred metres further on. The streets of the old town are full of stalls & bustling traders & tributaries &streams of busy shoppers who manage to snag up the vehicles that are also sharing the flow. Great fun buy everything is on the mountain so you know if you go down and some point it is a long slope or a steep climb back up.

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At this altitude the temperature has drops to a chilly 12 or so degrees so it’s goodbye to shorts & out with the fleece. Day & night the locals go about well wrapped up in coats, blankets & heavy woollen hats.

Tea plantations were visible through the mist in the distance but it is20150323085440_IMG_1095 20150323090132_IMG_1101

still hard to believe that this place is the source of some the world’s best tea. Tomorrow I move onto Spelling in the former Kingdom of Sikkim. Am hoping Wi-Fi is available!!

Up to the hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal

The luscious green paddy fields of Bangladesh are at their best in the early morning haze. Driving through the manicured patchwork of luscious emerald fields it feels like Shangri-La. This makes the coming contrast even more marked. Today is the day I head for the border with India. Once all formalities have been completed by over zealous bureaucrats on both side, golly – paperwork in triplicate, I cross into West Bengal and within a few kilometres all has changed. All that clean gas & pedal power is replaced by Mr Tata’s diesel driven cars & lorries & buses, old rusty tuk tuk favourites, all still honking before passing the vehicle in front, with louder alpine horns I have to say. Air pollution is back on the agenda. The landscape loses all its order & colour and is replaced by dusty, rather scruffy fields of potatoes & skinny grazing cattle. The towns & villages are full of groups of men hanging about while the women are out in the fields doing all the work. Religion has changed from Muslim to Hindu. The overwhelming friendliness of Bangladesh is replaced by a general apathy to the presence of Westerners.

All is flat & dry for an hour or so and then, all of a sudden the bus starts a slow climb. No warning, it has been flat and now the hills start, simple. It takes several hours to climb from 150 metres above sea level up to Darjeeling at over 2,100 metres. Up & up the bus meanders through the sunlit mist as if entering a hidden kingdom up in the skies.

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Shortly the railway track of the narrow guage railway that bought the Brits up from the sweltering plain, appears from a small engine shed on the side of the road & hugs the now narrow road as they both make their tedious way together through shabby houses & shops to the top.Vehicles have become small lorries & lines of beeping Jeeps acting as buses & taxis chug or beetle up & down the hills.

And then the bus drives through the little main square of Darjeeling. It is nothing like I imagine it to be. The buildings are tall and scruffy; they cling on to the side of the tall hills & look like they might almost peel of the walls. Yet the place has a real charm. The weather has changed at this altitude – fresh, even chilly at night. What I thought was romantic cloud is pollution from the towns below. The people are descended from Mongul tribes coming down from Tibet. To find out more I take the Toy Train to Ghoom, a slow 1 hour journey out of Darjeeling.

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Bananas and dried fish at Rangpur


I spend another day driving north through the biliard table that is rural Bangladesh. For 400 km the view from the bus has remained amazingly constant. Gloriously lush, green paddy fields of rice stretch away. It is easy to forget that this green carpet grows in the shallow water that lies across this flatness. The only clues are the gushing pipes of the irrigation systes and the regular sighting of kingfishers balanced on poles seeking their next meal from the watery lines. In some areas the crop changes and the landscape becomes more patchwork but still neat & tidily organised, even manicured. Wheat stands at an even height in tight rectangles, bananas grow in compact rows, maize stands to attention20150321022237_IMG_0165 20150321035937_IMG_0203 20150321050952_IMG_0246

like regiments and even the drying tobacco is hung like granny’s tea towels in neat lines for kilometres on either side of the road.

So how does this place work? Basically it is all based on manpower. In rural areas everything, and I mean everything, is done by hand. Any ploughing, planting or weeding or harvesting or sacking or loading is all done by manual labour. When transportation is required, to take crops, goods, livestock to and from market, then vehicles are used – hugely overpacked lorries, tops of buses, rickshaws some batery powered, some larger motorised ones like mini toy town trucks and many that still require a man to exert huge energy to get those pedals moving under such weights, all with flat beds of about a metre or two square that carry mountains of rice straw and bulging sacks of rice and 20m lengths of bamboo and 3 score and 10 bricks.

The day starts & ends at a food market. Both are equally fascinating.20150321021007_IMG_0122 20150321021450_IMG_0146 20150321021512_IMG_0150 20150321021720_IMG_0156

I arrive in a group and walk down the drag. We take & share photos of the locals. The locals take & share photos of us whitey tourists. Lots of smiles & laughter & posing. A great time is had by all.

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I get the opportunity to walk through a village and to chat with the locals. The ladies drying out the rice show off their team work and the local boys test out their knots.

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I do visit a site although, as always, it is the local people that steal the show. I’ll show it to you anyway. Kantanagar temple, a Hindu, temple, is built of brick & terracotta and every inch is beautifully embellished with exquisite plaques depicting flora & fauna & social & religious themes.




And who is this having his lunch?




Potatoes and picnics outside Bogra

I think I have the traffic situation sorted. The basic idea is to get from A to B in the most hazardous way possible. Rural roads have line markings, which are there to be ignored. So all vehicles, rickshaws, lorries buses, motor bikes, Tuc tucs, the occasional car, charge down the road, each comes up to the vehicle in front, belts hell out of the horn & pulls out, passes & barges in to avoid oncoming traffic. Buses basically travel down the middle, horns constantly blaring to win the ongoing game of chicken with the one coming straight at you.

In towns there are no road markings or trafficlights. So all these vehicles jam up on their road as they shuffle up to the many crossroads & then dodgem bang their way through the accumulating vehicles. A permant hold on the horn seems to help. How there are no knocks I have no idea.


Oh, by the way you pay more for a seat on top as is only place with air con!! Strictly illegal.

So, I spend a day out in the countryside. I am getting used to the emerald green landscape. The only blot are the regular brick kilns, each with their own tall chimney belching out wood smoke. Besides the carpet of rice paddies, wheat, garlic, maize, sugar cane & jute add an extra rectangular shade to the tapestry.

Then we come across the potato market. Farmers in syndicates sell their crop at the side of the road. The merchant buys them up, bags them, sends them off to wholesalers in the towns. You have never seen so many potatoes in your life. And in 4 hours they are bought & bagged & off and the 400 metres is deserted.

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I suppose if you visit new countries you should visit places of interest

This I did but the only images & impressions I keep with me are the smiles & laughter & welcome of the local people. What a wonderfully friendly place this is.

First was a visit to Parharpur monastery complex which coincided with a number of school educational visits.




The next place was the ancient city of Mahastangarh. Its shaded groves within the ruined battlements were the site for family picnics – all welcome!!

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Up country into rural Bangladesh


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An early start to miss the fanatic mania of Dhaka’s roads takes me past the parliament building & parks. Then it is out past the factories & cement works and into the flat hinterland of the Bangladeshi delta.

Bangladesh has four huge river systems flowing through it. Every year during the wet season these rivers flood and bring down from the north, India & Nepal & the Himalayas, huge quanties of rich silt and deposits it all over the flat expanses of the huge Bangladeshi floodplain. Enough rice is grown to feed the 120 million population & export some to neighbouring countries.

For 250 miles I drive north. Rice paddy fields stretch to the flat horizon on either side of the road in an emerald green patchwork of irregular shaped fields. Wheat, garlic, maize show up as rectangular interruptions to the billard table of rice. Minute blobs of colour show where farmers tend their parch. Even though it is the dry season water lies everywhere – rivers & tributaries criss cross the country side, lakes & ponds & puddles lie still as the water stagnates & waits to be refreshed by the rains. Busy, noisy roads connect equally busy villages & towns filled with people & workshops & vehicles & animals.

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Puthia is a small town with a palace & a temple located around dark green & rather murky ornamental lakes.





Having followed the progress of Bangladesh in their World Cup game against India at every stop on route. Usually this is a small wooden shack with a handful of locals watching an ancient kitchen sized TV through an analogue snowstorm, staying for enough time to drink a cup of chain at each stop. Lots of encouraging noises & serious debate in sign language. Sadly, it is in a shack next dor to the hindu temple in Puthia that we learn that their task is too great & they have lost. Oh well, we’ll be in India for their games in the semis.


Arriving in Dhaka, the heaving capital of Bangladesh

Nothing can prepare you for Dhaka. It is the 7th largest city in the world and the fastest growing one. Thousands arrive from the country every day to find work & wealth. The streets are clogged with battered buses held together with fibre glass, with smashed headlights, cracked windscreens & all weather air con through the empty windows. Human sardines peer out of their mobile cans, worry sketched on their faces, praying that their interminable journey will eventually end. Caged ..?tuk tuks, yes with metal grills on either side, follow on amongst their bigger brothers. Then the cars & lorries manoeuvre into the gaps. Mix in with this the thousands of rickshaws & their wirey riders & you get the picture. Horns blare constantly as these vehicles snag their way from jam to jam. Held up stationary for 10 minutes, a quick dash for all of 2 metres to be repeated time after time after time. Any journey takes hours. Yet the air quality is good as all engines are run on natural gas so no exhaust & no pollution!!

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A bit of extra info about the rickshaw companies. There are 400,000 rickshaws in Dhaka. One guy may well own 100 or so rickshaws. Other guys will rent one out for 24 hours at a cost of 150 taka, about £1.50. The longest you can ride is an eight shift so 3 guys will each do one of these. The average each will make is 400 taka, about £4.00 a day – £2.50 profit per day. Here are some of the main men who fight the big boys through the streets.

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Dhaka holds some fascinating sights in amongst the smash & grab of its streets. The locals stand & gaze at us. All fascinated by a group of whiteys and SO friendly – waves & smiles, jokes bout cricket & laughter. Wonderful. They want to take my picture!!

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