Kolkata, India – 6th to 8th January
Having unexpectedly ended our road trip a few days early, we found ourselves back in Kolkata with time to kill before heading north to Bhutan.
The night bus had deposited us unceremoniously at around 5:30am, but thankfully we were able to arrange for an early check-in back at the Middleton Inn. Utterly exhausted, from both the night bus and the drama of the preceding days, we shambled into our room and collapsed.
We’d heard that there was going to be an open air baroque concert at the South Park Street Cemetery that afternoon. So, with Hannah still dead to the world, Phil managed to get up just in time to stroll along and catch the start. The setting was perfect for such an event; and it was clear that the audience were very much a part of Kolkata’s high society.
Sadly, however, the musicianship wasn’t quite solid to carry off the Bach concertos they were performing. But, it was still utterly brilliant that it was happening! With an entry price of just 20p (the standard charge for visiting the cemetery), it was a perfect example of culture for the sake of culture. Something which should definitely be encouraged!
A baroque recital in the South Park Street Cemetery
The next day, Hannah had arranged for us to go and visit a sanitary towel factory. In a region where discussion of periods is still very much taboo, we were excited to see that there are efforts going on to bring women’s issues forward out of the shadows.
However, we’d made it about two miles down the road when Hannah suddenly realised that it was a Sunday! After a few frantic calls we established that the factory was closed, so it was back to square one.
We rearranged our visit for the following evening, just before we were due to get our train north to Bhutan. But we had the day to fill, and some bits and bobs we wanted to pick up before we left. Hitting the streets for supplies we happened across a trades union march, causing a blockade on the already clogged streets.
The Federation of Indian Trade Unions hit the road
So, the next evening, with bags in tow, we headed again to the factory. We were dropped off in a maze of tiny backstreets – the taxi could go no further. But after just a few minutes direction-following we turned a corner to see Deepak waiting for us at the end of a narrow lane.
We were ushered along a couple more streets, and then were at the factory proper. Now, this was far from what we were expecting. We stepped into the hallway of a modest sized building to find a woman ironing fabric on the floor. It was the only space big enough. Treading carefully around her we went into the office to learn more about what they do. Shomota was set up by an American, Meghan, who saw that girls and women were facing problems attending work and school because of menstruation and inadequate sanitary care products. Her idea was to set up this factory to employ local women making reusable and discrete sanitary towels for Indian women, and help educate and empower women along the way.
A sewing station at the sanitary towel factory (the women didn’t want to be photographed)
After a brief chat with the manager, we took tea in the sewing room with the women who worked there. In the room were a few sewing stations for the women to work at, and shelves filled with the finished product. We were explained to by the women how much they appreciated the flexible working conditions (they work as much or as little as they like, on a drop-in basis); and shown how they make the towels.
We were a little surprised to discover that even the women working in a sanitary towel factory still felt too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about periods. So deeply is the taboo embedded in their society.
We had been there for well over an hour when we suddenly realised we had a train to catch! Our experience with Kolkata’s relentless traffic had taught us never to expect to be anywhere fast! A nervous forty minute taxi ride later we were at the station with time to spare.
Hannah tries to work out how on earth we find our train!
Sealdah station is Kolkata’s main railway hub. And we had arrived at rush-hour. A seething mass of people jostled to get to their trains. Workers filled commuter cars to bursting; some hanging out of doors; a crazy few crouched on carriage rooves. The air was thickly misted with diesel fumes and the smell of humanity. It was as though we’d stepped into a literary parody of modern India, and it was playing out just as expected.
Crowds and diesel mist at Sealdah Train Station
We discovered, inconveniently, that they left luggage could only keep our items for a week (not two as advertised on the website). So we (Phil) were stuck lumping the third bag around through our time up north. We managed to get some supplies for the train, a chai each, and a hot kati roll for dinner; and then it was time for our train.
To our great relief, the horror of overcrowding on the Indian railways only extended to the commuter trains. Our sleeper carriage was a slightly tired looking version of what we had come to know and love on the rest of our trip. The great difference we discovered on Indian sleeper trains, is that there is an endless supply of cheap chai and samosa vendors working their way through the train at most times of the day and night!
Four hours late, Phil waits at Hasimara Station for our guide
We were met at Hasimara train station the following afternoon by our Bhutanese guide and driver, Nim and Ngawang, in traditional dress, with a shiny and very comfortable little SUV. This might not seem like much, but after a couple of weeks in India it really stood out!
They drove us to Jaigon, the Indian border town, where we were to stay for the night, before beginning our Bhutan adventure early the next day.
Our four days in Bhutan with Raven Tours and Treks cost us about £650 each, all inclusive. The Bhutanese government sets the price for tourists, which for us was $230 per person per day. Unless you’re a diplomat, Indian, Nepali, or Australian, there isn’t really any way around it!
Phuentsholing, Bhutan – 10th January
The border between India and Bhutan is marked by a giant open gate. We had thought reports of one side being clean and the other dirty were a bit of an exaggeration, but it turned out to be true! Jaigon and Phuentsholing are two sides of the same coin. One tarnished, one shiny.
India and Bhutan, 100m apart. Not quite night and day, but not far off.
Immigration formalities out of the way (in the most relaxed manner), we were loaded up into the SUV and headed for the hills. Bhutan is a mountain kingdom in the truest sense. Winding our way out of Phuentsholing towards the capital, Thimphu, we followed hairpin after hairpin; the plains of India to the south lost in the haze as we ascended.
The roads were quiet, and well maintained. The absence of car horns particularly noticeable after our time in India. And it was beautiful. Really beautiful. Not in a dramatic, or breathtaking way. But in a quiet, understated, peaceful way. As we reached the highest point on the road, we pulled over and took tea at a prayer pagoda. The wind was up; the air fresh and unpolluted.
Nim prepares tea high in the windy valley
Thimphu, Bhutan – 10th to 11th January
We pulled into Thimphu in the early afternoon. Even before we offloaded our bags we were off to our first tourist attraction: Tashichho Dzong buddhist monastery. Built as a fortress, it served in the past as the seat of Bhutan’s government and king, and now is the summer home of the head abbot of Bhutan. While we were there we were treated to the ceremonial lowering of the flag. It being midwinter, it was pretty much a private show!
The imposing Tashichho Dong in Thimphu
After this we checked into our hotel, Tashi Yoedling, overlooking the Chorten Memorial Stupa. We were given the best room of the whole trip! It was so good that Hannah actually cried.
We began the next day with a visit to the stupa. Coming from a secular society, it is truly amazing to see the everyday devotions of the religious. Each morning, buddhists come to walk around the stupa (always in a clockwise direction). Bhutan takes its devotion and religious observance very seriously. Deities are consulted on all matters: the name of a newborn child; the colour of a new car; no decision is taken without the influence of the gods. Prayers are regular, and part of the fabric of everyday life.
Chorten Memorial Stupa
We moved on to a much more recent icon – a giant gilded Buddha overlooking the city. From here we walked for two hours back down through the woods to an animal sanctuary, where we met the national animal of Bhutan: the Takin! Then, after a brief stop at the birth temple of our guide, we visited to the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory.
After getting some personalised stamps to send back to the UK (cheesy but necessary), we were back in the SUV for the drive to Paro – Bhutan’s second city.
Along the way we stopped off at the stunning Tachog Lhakhang chain bridge. Thousands of prayer flags danced in the wind over the emerald waters of the Paro Chu river. Sadly, the chain bridge was being renovated, but the wooden substitute made for a better photo anyway!
Hannah crosses the prayer-flag-adorned bridge at Tachog Lhakhang
Closer to Paro, we pulled in to an incense factory. We were getting the feeling a little that every time we stopped was another opportunity for us to spend money on souvenirs. This was probably the case, as with any guided tour. The greater shock was the realisation that in so many months of travel, this was our first personal guided tour with souvenir opportunities!
Paro, Bhutan – 11th to 13th January
Paro was cold. High in the mountains, now, and in the middle of winter, our lovely hotel room at Khangkhu Resort was delightful, but freezing cold! We were forced to concede to ourselves that we were soft Westerners, fond of gas central heating and double glazing. Asking for extra blankets was becoming a necessary, if embarrassing, ritual upon check in. Followed by a call to reception half an hour later to ask for an extra heater in our room.
We had asked to have a traditional Bhutanese farmers’ dinner, not realising that this meant going to a real working farm. Into somebody’s house, to be cooked for. The food was delicious, and the experience authentic, but we couldn’t shake the feeling of imposing on someone’s time. Dinner was hearty, as the next day was a big day, in the truest sense.
There are few times in one’s life where one is able to tick off a real, verifiable, bucket list item. Friday was to be one of those days. We were hiking up to Taktsang Palphug: the Tiger’s Nest monastery.
Rising early, we were met with mists and low cloud. We had been assured that an early start was the best way to see the Tiger’s Nest. Pulling into the car park, the only other person there was a walking stick vendor (Phil indulged); the horse trek handlers hadn’t even corralled their charges!
Through the gate and into the mist
The mist gave a literary setting to the climb. And we were soon grateful for the cool, moist, air. The way was steep and unforgiving. Handily, some enterprising souls had though to build a cafe and comfort stop half way up, so we were able to take some black tea and biscuits on the way. We met a troupe of American pensioners there (Chip being perhaps the most American name we’d ever heard!), and were treated to a fairytale glimpse of the monastery as the cloud thinned above us.
A tantalising peek at the monastery complex through the clouds
Refreshed, we pushed on up the path, passing countless prayer flags along the way. And then, right on cue, as we reached an appropriate viewpoint, the mist cleared and we found ourselves above the thin clouds; the whole of the Paro Valley opening up below, and above: the Tiger’s Nest.
The Tiger’s Nest
Winding our way around the side of the mountain, past a dramatic waterfall, we finally arrived at the monastery. As we explored the various rooms open to tourists we were struck by how determined the builders must have been, and were surprised to discover that the whole structure is a recent reconstruction. The previous monastery was destroyed by a fire in 1998; this iteration of the monastery was conly completed in 2005. To look at it you would never guess.
Hanging on a cliff 900m above the Paro valley, it was a sight to behold – one we are unlikely to forget. And despite the soreness of both our knees and Hannah’s hip on the way down, well worth the small effort of the climb.
Just to prove that we were really there!
On our return to Paro, we had a chance to dress up in traditional Bhutanese clothing, and had a go at some darts and archery (which Phil obviously took very seriously).
Our last day in country started at the National Museum of Bhutan, before setting out on the long winding road back to India. From Paro to the border at Jaigon is 60km as the crow flies, but nearly 170km by road, so winding and mountainous the route.
The stupa and the emerald river; a brief pause on the way back to India
And so, five hours later, we reached the border and left Bhutan. Our adventure complete. Having travelled 17,500 miles overland, and spent ten months on the road, we had achieved our dream of getting from the UK to Bhutan overland (with only a short flight to get past some politics!).
But we weren’t quite finished yet! Next week we travel further north to Darjeeling for the final week of the trip, riding the first (and arguably the most spectacular) toy railway in the world!
Hannah and Phil x