Dalhousie

A quaint hill station in Himachal Pradesh is a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Dalhousie in Chamba district fits in beautifully with this. It is located on the western edge of the Dhauladhar mountain range of the Lesser Himalayas. The Pir Panjal range of Himalayas is also visible from here on clear days. I had been yearning for a vacation in the hills of Himalayas for a while now and an opportunity to visit Dalhousie was not to be missed! We visited Dalhousie as part of a trip to Amritsar and Kangra Valley including Dharamshala and Palampur.

Dalhousie is named after Lord Dalhousie who was the Governor General of British India at the time when the town was established as a summer retreat for the British from the scorching heat of the plains of North India. It was annexed from the Sikh Empire by the British. It has been built on and around five hills called Kathalagh, Potreyn, Terah, Bakrota and Bhangora. It remained a part of Punjab after India gained independence until 1966 and serves as a gateway to the Chamba region of Himachal.

We took a car from Amritsar to Dalhousie and the journey took us around five hours excluding food breaks. Other options to reach here include taking a train till Pathankot in Northern Punjab followed by a two and a half hour journey by road or taking a flight till Gaggal in Kangra district of Himachal followed by a three-hour journey by road. The peak tourist season is from May to September. We visited Dalhousie in the last week of September. The days were pleasant and it rained on and off, making the nights cold. The clouds covered the skies at most times but we managed to get a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of Pir Panjal range on a couple of days.

The sun lights the peaks of Pir Panjal

The Sun lights the peaks of Pir Panjal

Pir Panjal through the camera which can see better after dark to

Peaks of Pir Panjal just after sunset

Grand View Hotel

Grand View Hotel is a unanimous choice to stay when in Dalhousie. The fact that this reasonably old hotel has managed to stay at the top position on tripadvisor with rave reviews for a long time says a lot about the service here. We stayed here for three nights and had a wonderful time. Our little one loved the place and was sad to leave at the end. Our room was located in the new block of the hotel though we might have liked to experience our stay in the heritage block. We did visit the Tiffins restaurant in the heritage block for our meals and loved the decor and ambience. The food was delicious and the buffet had a good mix of North Indian, South Indian and Continental cuisines.

The location of the hotel is great to admire the beautiful landscape of the surrounding area. On clear days it must be a treat to watch the snow-capped peaks from the garden or balconies of rooms here.

The trees around the garden are abundant with birds and it was a delight for us to sight so many species easily without having to walk much :)

Subhash Chowk

Subhash Chowk is a square in Dalhousie named after the prominent freedom fighter Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. It houses a statue of Netaji and offers sweeping views of the valley behind it.

Netaji stayed for a few months in Dalhousie upon being released by the British when diagnosed with Tuberculosis. The fresh mountain air of Dalhousie and water from a freshwater spring from which he used to drink everyday during his walks called the Subhash Baoli now is believed to have cured him miraculously. Thus Dalhousie has a memorable connection with the great Netaji.

Gandhi Chowk

Named after Mahatma Gandhi, this centrally located square is right next to the sprawling market on Mall Road. A statue of Gandhiji can be seen here. Lall Ji’s is an iconic shop in the market here for some beautiful sweaters and other woollen wear made locally.

Churches

Dalhousie has three old churches from the British era which can be visited. St.Francis Church is a historic nineteenth century Catholic church located in Moti Tiba next to Subhash Chowk. It is surrounded by tall Deodar trees and beautiful flowering plants. It contains dioramas depicting stations of cross. St.Johns Church is a nineteenth century historic Protestant Church next to Gandhi Chowk. It has glass paintings of St.John and St.Peter. It is also located amidst lush greenery. St.Andrews Church also known as the Church of Scotland is an early twentieth century Protestant church located in the Cantonment area. This church was closed during our visit unfortunately. One thing that is common between all these churches is that they are located amidst beautiful surroundings. They offer a peaceful atmosphere for those seeking solitude.

Khajjiar

Khajjiar is a beautiful hill station in Chamba district close to Dalhousie. It takes an hour to get here from Dalhousie making it ideal for a day trip. There are options to stay as well. Khajjiar sits on a plateau and has a lake in the centre. It has a rare combination of lake, forest and meadows. It was nicknamed ‘Mini Switzerland’ by Mr.Willy T.Blazer who was the Vice Counsellor and Head of Chancery of Switzerland in India in 1992. Khajjiar is one amongst the 160 locations across the world which bear resemblance with Switzerland in terms of their topography. Khajjiar is part of the scenic Kalatop Khajjiar Wildlife Sanctuary which has dense Deodar, Pine and Fir forests with beautiful walking trails. On clear days, panoramic views of the Dhauladhar range of mountains can be seen from Khajjiar as it sits at the base of the mountains.

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View Enroute Khajjiar

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Khajjiar meadow

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Khajjiar Meadow

Khajjiar Lake is a small lake surrounded by lush green landscape and Cedar trees on all sides. The lake gets its name from the nearby ancient temple of Khajji Nag. The lake has shrunk considerably from its original size due to dense growth of weeds. Horse Riding and Zorbing can be done near the lake. The place is ideal for long walks around the meadow.

The ancient Khajji Nag temple dating back to the twelfth century was built by the King of Chamba. The sanctum has been carved beautifully from wood.  Life size images of the Pandavas of Mahabharata can be seen on pillars inside the temple while the Kauravas have been depicted as hanging from the roof inside. These images were added to the original temple in the sixteenth century by Raja Balbhadra Barman. The temple was renovated in the seventeenth century by Batlu who was the religious nurse of the then ruler Raja Prithvi Singh. The deity worshipped here is Naga (Snake) called Khajji Nag.  Idols of Snakes can be seen inside the main sanctum. Other idols include those of Lord Shiva and Goddess Hadimba.

Chamba

Chamba town is the headquarters of the Chamba district and located on the banks of the Ravi river. It is named after Princess Champavati who belonged to the Maru dynasty which ruled the state of Chamba from around 500 AD.  Their capital was Bharmour before it was shifted to Chamba by Raja Sahil Varman in 920 AD upon the request of his daughter Champavati. Chamba is well-known for its contributions to arts and crafts particularly miniature pahari paintings, handicrafts and textiles. Chamba is around 50 km from Dalhousie and it takes around two hours to get there. We did a day trip from Dalhousie to Chamba and went there via Khajjiar.

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View en-route Chamba

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Chamba from a distance

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Ravi river

The Chaugan which is a huge ground in the centre of town is the nucleus of all activities in Chamba. It is surrounded by buildings and shopping markets. It is used for fairs, picnics, cricket matches and promenades depending on the time of the year.

Laxmi Narayan Temple

The Laxmi Narayan temple complex was constructed during the tenth century by Raja Sahil Varman. His successors added some of the other shrines later. The main Laxmi Narayan temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The dhwajasthambha (flagstaff) pillar at the main entrance to the temple complex has a metallic image of Garuda who is the mount of Lord Vishnu. These beautiful temples have wooden Chhatris. The carvings on the exterior walls of the temples are exquisite. The temple has been constructed in the Shikara style. The temple roof was adorned with Gold pinnacles in the late seventeenth century by Raja Chhatra Singh as a riposte to Aurangzeb who had ordered the temple to be demolished.

Chamera Lake

Chamera Lake is the reservoir of the Chamera Dam which has been built across the Ravi river for generation of hydroelectric power. It is located near Dalhousie. Boating can be done in the placid waters of the lake. We went here on our way back to Dalhousie from Chamba. The sun setting behind the hills with the lake in the foreground was a beautiful sight to behold from the boat.

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Bird’s eye view of Chamera Dam

Other Places

Dalhousie is a walker’s paradise. While we couldn’t do the walks as we were traveling with a toddler, I am listing them down here.

  • Thandi Sadak – This is a walking path in Dalhousie which gets its name as it is covered with trees which obstruct sunlight and keep the path cool.
  • Garam Sadak – This is also a walking path connecting Gandhi Chowk with Subhash Chowk. This path receives direct sunlight and remains warm even in the evenings.
  • Dainkund Peak – This is the highest peak in Dalhousie. A trek to the top is rewarded with panoramic views of the Himalayas. The path leading to the top is supposed to be pretty as well dotted with beautiful flowering plants. Vehicles can be driven up to a point near the Air Force base on the way after which one needs to walk. There is a temple dedicated to Pohlani Devi at the top of the peak. This peak is popularly known as the singing hill due to the sound created by the breeze passing through the trees here.
  • Kalatop – This is part of the Kalatop Khajjiar Sanctuary and the trail leading to the forest rest house is supposed to be very charming. It might be a good place for birdwatching.

The below places are in Chamba town. We could not visit these places due to lack of time. A stay of at least one night might be needed to do justice to Chamba.

  • Bhuri Singh Museum – This museum was established in the early twentieth century in honour of Raja Bhuri Singh who ruled Chamba at that point of time. It houses an impressive collection of royal paintings, portraits, traditional costumes, jewellery, arms and armour, coins, valuable inscriptions about the medieval history of Chamba, musical instruments and other such artefacts.
  • Akhand Chandi Palace – This eighteenth century palace served as the residence of the King. It was sold by the royal family to the Government of Himachal Pradesh in the twentieth century and has been converted into a Government College and District Library now. It can be identified by its distinct green roof and gives commanding views of the town.

 

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Amritsar

Amritsar colloquially called Ambarsar is a heritage city in the state of Punjab in North Western India which is steeped in history and culture. It lies on the stretch of Grand Trunk Road connecting Delhi to Lahore.  It is the holiest city for Sikhs. It is home to the Harmandir Sahib popularly known as Golden Temple. It is also well-known for its rich cuisine and shopping.

It had been on my wish list for quite a while and I got an opportunity to go there this year during Dussehra. For the trip to Dharamshala in September this year, we figured that Amritsar was a very meaningful option from both distance and costing perspectives. The other options are Chandigarh – little further than Amritsar from a distance perspective – and Gaggal (Dharamshala), flights to which were very expensive.

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Golden Temple in the morning

History

Amritsar was founded in the late sixteenth century by the fourth Sikh guru, Guru Ram Das. He settled here first and the place was known as Ramdaspur. The Golden temple was constructed after some time around a man-made lake that he had completed. The old city area of Amritsar has narrow streets which date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The infamous Jallianwala Bagh Massacre took place in the heart of the old city in 1919. Amritsar is located very close to the border with Pakistan (around 30 kms from the Attari-Wagah Border). Due to this Amritsar, along with Lahore, faced some of the worst communal riots during the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.

Harmandir Sahib

The Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as Golden Temple is the holiest Gurudwara for Sikhism. It is very popular amongst tourists from all over the world and supposedly attracts more crowds in a day than the Taj Mahal. It is an open house of worship for all people irrespective of their caste or religion. The temple has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site but the application is still pending. The place should be visited both during the day as well as night to appreciate its beauty and tranquility. It is quite a spectacle when lit at night!

 

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The fifth Sikh Guru Arjan requested Sai Mian Mir who was a Muslim Pir of Lahore to lay the foundation stone for Harmandir Sahib in 1589. The temple has been built around the man-made lake that was completed by Guru Ram Das who founded the city of Amritsar. The holy book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth (which later became the Guru Granth Sahib)  was placed inside the temple. The place has been rebuilt several times over the centuries as it was targeted and destroyed by the Mughal Empire and the Muslim armies of Afghanistan. In the early nineteenth century it was rebuilt using marble and copper by Maharaja Ranjit Singh who founded the Sikh empire. He also got the sanctum overlaid with Gold foil which led to the name ‘Golden Temple’.

The temple complex has four entrances and a circumambulation path around the pool. Apart from the sanctum the complex also houses the Akal Takht which is the chief centre of religious authority of Sikhism. The Langar of the Golden Temple, which is a community run kitchen where simple vegetarian meals are served to all visitors without any discrimination is considered one of the mega kitchens of the world. There is also a clock tower, museum and offices of the Gurudwara committee. Around one lakh people visit the place every day.

The Guru Granth Sahib is seated inside the sanctum for the greater part of the day. It is carried in a palanquin every night to its bedroom in Akal Takht with elaborate ceremonies. This ritual is known as Sukhasan which translates to comfort or rest position. A similar ritual called Prakash which means light is performed at dawn when the Guru Granth Sahib is carried back to the sanctum amidst chanting and bugle sounding.

Before entering the Golden Temple premises, you will need to remove your footwear. Footwear can be left at the footwear room where a lot of Sikhs perform Seva by managing your footwear for you. Every person entering should cover their heads as a token of respect for the Guru. The ladies can use shawls or stoles if you have them. There are also huge bins just outside where people deposit their used scarves which you can then pick from and cover your heads. Around the Golden Temple premises, you will find a lot of people selling scarves too. With your head covered, you can then step through a pool of water at the entrance to ensure that you enter the premises after having cleaned your feet.

 

Typically pilgrims make a circumambulation around the lake in clockwise direction before queuing up to enter the sanctum. In the sanctum, the Guru Granth Sahib is continuously recited by the Granthis. On days when the crowds aren’t too much, one can spend some time sitting around here and listen to the recitation. Sitting in the middle of the lake listening to the recitation can be very soothing to the soul! Even to those of us who may not understand the meaning of what is being recited. When you leave the sanctum area and get back to the area around the lake be sure to collect the Khara Prasad, that is ladled out by volunteers to everyone. Around the lake you will also find volunteers handing out drinking water to anyone who needs it. Of course, the langar is an experience by itself!

 

Interesting tidbit: A simple book which can help in understanding important facts about the Golden Temple and Sikhism which can be read before a visit by both adults and children is ‘Amma Take me to Golden Temple’ by Bhakti Mathur.

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala Bagh is a public garden tucked away in the historical old city along the path leading to Golden temple. Today it serves as a memorial dedicated to the gruesome incident of Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919.

 

Thousands of people had gathered in the garden on the day of the Baisakhi festival for a peaceful protest meeting against the British. General Dyer reached the spot with his troops when the meeting was in progress and had all the exits blocked. He then ordered his troops to fire indiscriminately without warning the crowd to disperse. Pandemonium broke and a lot of lives were lost. Ceasefire was ordered only after ammunition was exhausted. A lot of people died due to the stampede. Many lay injured and could not be moved as a curfew was imposed that day. They died later in the night. Lot of people jumped into a well in the garden to escape from being fired and lost their lives in the process. The well is now known as Martyrs Well and a plaque has been kept outside. Bullet marks can still be seen on the walls which have been preserved as a memorial.

 

Attari-Wagah Border Ceremony

The security forces of India and Pakistan perform a beating retreat ceremony every day before sunset. The flags of both the countries are lowered as part of this elaborate ceremony which involves a lot of dance like movements. The ceremony is quite a sight and an experience which is not to be missed. The rivalry between the countries can be felt while watching this. Loud patriotic music is played on both sides of the border and the crowds cheer. The immense patriotic feeling that one can get cannot be explained in words.

 

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The ceremony starts with parades by soldiers on both sides and ends with the perfectly coordinated lowering of flags. One infantryman stands at attention on each side of the border. As the sun sets, the iron gates are opened and the flags are lowered. The flags are then folded and the retreat ends with a brusque handshake between the soldiers of  both sides followed by the closing of the gates. The soldiers who are part of this ceremony are specially trained for this purpose.

 

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Food in Amritsar

Food in Amritsar deserves its own special mention. It is a haven for all foodies, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. The locals claim that the special taste of Amritsari food should be attributed to the water of Amritsar and tell you many a story on how even the best of chefs taken from Amritsar cannot reproduce the same taste elsewhere! We even heard a story of a rich businessman from Amritsar carting truckloads of water from Amritsar to Delhi for his daughter’s wedding!

Below is a list of just a few of Amritsar’s marquee eat-out joints! These are places which we visited and loved! All of these are vegetarian friendly. Amritsar definitely warrants another visit, just for the food!!!

Kulcha Land

This small outlet is a good place for sampling the famous Amritsari Kulchas. The Kulchas are stuffed with Potato and served with Chana curry. Despite being stuffed, they didn’t seem too heavy. Most of the Kulcha places shut shop after late afternoon. So they have to be visited either for breakfast or lunch.

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Amritsari Kulcha at Kulcha Land

Brothers Dhaba

This restaurant has two branches and we visited the main one near the heritage walkway leading to the Golden Temple. The food was to die for! So different from the food that we had tasted before. We tried the Tawa Paneer which is one of their signature dishes and Maa Ki Dal along with some Tawa Chapathis. The meal was finished off with some Amritsari Phirni. A lovely way to end the day!

 

Kanha Sweets

This legendary place for breakfast lived up to its name. We were not disappointed at all. As I write this, I am reminiscing the taste of the fluffy big Pooris and the delicious Chana curry as well as Kachaloo ki chutney (Colocasia Stem Curry) and Aloo ki Launji (a sweet and sour Potato curry). The Gur ka Halwa (jaggery based sweet) was a perfect add-on. When in Amritsar, we had every one of our breakfasts here!

 

Gian Di Lassi

And how can we skip Lassi which is one of the must haves when in Punjab. We had already tasted it in all of the above places. But this hole in the wall outlet in the old city came recommended for its Pedewali Lassi. The sweet Malai Pedas are crushed and mixed while making the Lassi. What a heady combination this one was!

 

Shop in Amritsar

Punjab is famous for its intricate Phulkari embroidery and colourful Juttis. So these are a must buy in Amritsar. Some of the places that we visited for Phulkari shopping were Raja Exclusive in the crowded Katra Jaimal Singh market and Phulkari Creations in the upmarket Rani ka Bagh locality.

 

When it comes to Juttis the only name that sprang up everywhere online was Raunak Jutti. The shop had an amazing collection of Juttis across two floors and the staff ensured that we decided quick and got what we wanted.

 

New Mahajan Store which sells dry fruits and papads came highly recommended. We tasted the Afghani Almonds called Mamras which are sourced from Kabul. The Amritsari Wadiyan and Papads can also be bought here.

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Havelock and Neil Island in Andaman

Blue skies, vast stretches of pristine beaches shimmering with azure waters, Scuba diving and Snorkelling. Add to that historical significance to the Indian Independence struggle & World War II. What place does this bring up first in your minds? Of course, I am talking about the Andaman Islands. The previous post talked mainly about Port Blair and its history. This one is dedicated to the beaches and azure waters of Havelock Island and Neil Island.

Havelock Island

Named after a British General Sir Henry Havelock, who served in India, Havelock island is one of the largest islands in South Andaman. This island is a must visit and figures in most of the typical itineraries to Andaman. The island can be reached by ferry. Regular ferries operated by both the Government as well as private companies like Makruzz and Green Ocean ply to the island. It takes about one and a half hours to get here from Port Blair.

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Makruzz ferry to Havelock

Havelock island

First view of Havelock

The beaches of Havelock are picture perfect and pristine. The beaches here are given numbers. Some of the famous beaches are Radhanagar Beach, Elephant Beach, Kala Pathar Beach and Vijay Nagar Beach. Scooters are available on rent for those who want to go around the island on their own.

Radhanagar Beach

Beach no 7 on the western side of the island, more popularly known as Radhanagar Beach, has been voted as the most beautiful beach of Asia a few years ago. Time Magazine had even ranked it as the seventh best beach in the world. This white sand beach surrounded by mangroves looks straight out of a postcard.

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Radhanagar Beach

Long walks across the beach upto Neil’s cove, which is a hidden gem along this stretch, is something that will remain etched in your memory forever. The beach is ideally suited for spending a lot of time for both adults and children alike. Children can have a great time here with their sand toys. Getting into the water is perfectly possible as the waves are not too rough or high most of the year. And finally, the sunsets here are to die for! Especially during the winter months, the sky turns into a canvas with myriad hues. As you walk the beach, you can see small crabs sauntering across the sands creating beautiful trails all around. The intricate patterns make for some interesting photos.

Patterns

Intricate Patterns in Sand

Barefoot Resort

The biggest advantage of staying at Barefoot at Havelock resort is that you can get a private access to Radhanagar Beach from within the resort. And the hospitality and ambience being great just makes it a wonderful option. Devoid of any digital access, the resort and the island in general is a great place to unwind and fully soak in the beauty of the surroundings without distractions. Most of the other resorts are on the eastern coast of Havelock and give you an opportunity to enjoy sunrise from the resorts.

Back to Barefoot resort. The accommodation options range from tents to villas. Both the Andaman and the Nicobari Villas have been tastefully done. The cottages have been constructed in the traditional style with local wood.

The path that leads to the beach from inside the resort is truly magical. Enchanted Woods might be the best way in describing the place :D The tall trees and the light filtering through the canopy with the white sand beach just across the mangroves is an unforgettable sight. Towels and mats can be picked from the resort while going to the beach. Since this section of beach is at quite a distance from the public entrance to the beach, you will mostly find residents of the resort here save for the occasional one who walk a long way from the public beach.

For those interested in birdwatching, early morning walks around the property can be rewarding. Sometimes endemic birds such as Andaman Coucal can also be seen near the villas in the property. One can sign up for a birdwatching walk with the Yoga trainer at Barefoot who also does birdwatching. Typical sightings here include Racket-tailed Drongo, Green Imperial Pigeon, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Collared Kingfisher, Andaman Serpent Eagle, Sandpiper, White-breasted Kingfisher and Asian Fairy Bluebird. The walk leads you through dense foliage next to the Radhanagar beach and past Neil’s cove. The place looks straight out of a fairytale and has an otherworldly charm in the early morning.

The Andamans, especially Havelock, is one of the best places in the world for scuba diving. Barefoot also runs a scuba diving institute here and the folks at Barefoot Resort can also arrange for the same. Given all that you can do when at Havelock, you should plan for atleast 3 nights here, so as to not feel rushed.

Elephant Beach

Elephant Beach along the North Western edge of the Island is a popular hub for water sports in Havelock. The most common way to get here is to take a speed boat ride from the Havelock jetty which takes around 20 minutes. The other way is to trek through the forest for close to 2 kms from a path on the way to Radhanagar Beach. This will take around 45 minutes.

This beach has crystal clear water. Fallen trees and logs strewn across the shore add a charm to the beach. This is the hub for water sports on Havelock. Some of the water sports that are conducted here are snorkelling, under water sea walks and banana boat rides etc.  Glass bottom boat rides can also be taken to view the colourful underwater world. Lots of clownfish, jellyfish and other colourful fishes can be seen.

Kalapathar Beach

Kalapathar Beach is probably the last beach on the eastern coast. Most of Southern Havelock is uninhabited. A drive along the eastern coast of Havelock leads one past many resorts and hotels before ending at this scenic beach. The beach is named so due to the presence of coal black rocks scattered across the coast here. This might be a good place to watch sunrise. Small shops have been setup next to the beach to sell souvenirs and food for tourists. This beach is not as popular and crowded like Elephant Beach and probably Radhanagar Beach (where one can have an excellent experience minus the crowds upon staying at Barefoot).

Neil Island

Neil Island is a smaller island compared to Havelock in Southern Andaman. It is named after a British Brigadier called James Neill who fought on the side of the British in the sepoy mutiny of 1857. It was uninhabited till the Hindu refugees from Bangaladesh were settled here around the late sixties. As the land was suited for paddy cultivation, most of the forest was cleared here making the island a bit warmer than Havelock. This island supposedly supplies vegetables to the rest of Andaman.

There are fewer resorts and tourists here compared to Havelock. Momentum of tourism is picking up gradually though. The island has a different charm of its own. It takes an hour to get here from Havelock and two hours to get here from Port Blair. One can choose to do this as a day trip from Havelock too. A stay of 1-2 nights is definitely recommended to appreciate the beauty of Neil Island.

Some of the key attractions of the island are its beaches named after characters of Ramayana such as Rampur beach, Sitapur Beach, Laxman Beach and Bharatpur Beach. The ferries plying to Neil island embark on the jetty at Bharatpur Beach. While Sitapur Beach on east is considered good for sunrise, the Laxmanpur Beach at the Northwestern tip of the island is best for sunset.

Bharatpur Beach

The jetty where the ferries land is right next to the Bharatpur Beach. This is a picturesque beach. Like Elephant Beach, water sports such as snorkelling and scuba diving can be done here too. Glass bottomed boat rides can also be taken. There are plenty of shops selling knick knacks and food next to the beach.

Natural Bridge and Coral Reef

A visit to Neil Island is incomplete without visiting the landmark bridge created by nature. To get to this place one needs to take a short and easy walk along a narrow path on a small hillock like place dotted with makeshift shops selling trinkets and then walk past coral reefs. Manoeuvring the corals is best done on barefoot.

Highly recommended to engage a guide to understand the place better. A guide can explain about the various types of corals that are encountered along the way. Some of the interesting corals here include Beehive Coral, Jackfruit Coral and Brain Coral. Plenty of Sea Cucumbers can also be seen.

The bridge formed by live corals gradually comes into view and it is magnificent. It is visible only during low tides which is typically before evening when it gets submerged in water.

Other Places

Andaman is definitely a hotbed of natural diversity. There are many places in North and Little Andaman that can be visited other than the ones mentioned above. Some of these include :

  • Diglipur in North Andaman which is the gateway to the nearby Ross and Smith Islands which are supposed to be very pristine and excellent for snorkelling.
  • Baratang Island which is a gateway to North and Middle Andaman district for its mud volcanoes, mangrove and tropical forests as well as limestone caves. This region is quite offbeat from a tourism point of view and still retains its virgin beauty. The nearby Parrot Island is known for its sunset which is special as hordes of Parrots (common misnomer for Parakeets) make their way back home at this time of the day.
  • Little Andaman for its beautiful waterfalls. For the adventurous, it is a surfing destination as well. It is also good for birdwatching.
  • Mount Harriet National Park for birdwatching. In addition to the birds, it is a butterfly hotspot. Most of the endemic birds are found here. Notable fauna includes Andaman Wild Pig, Robber Crabs, Saltwater Crocodiles and Turtles.
  • Wandoor in South Andaman which is a gateway to the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Jolly Buoy and Red Skin Islands near the national park are alternate places to do snorkelling or go on glass bottom boat rides.
  • The wetlands of Port Blair, Ross Island and Cellular Jail too can be visited for birdwatching.
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Andaman Islands

The name Andaman brings to mind memories of the dreaded penal settlement of Kala Pani, Blue skies, vast stretches of pristine beaches shimmering with azure waters and water sports such as Scuba diving and Snorkelling. Andaman and Nicobar islands are a group of islands which are located at the juncture of Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea. It has always been an exotic destination ever since I heard about it. Though it is a union territory of India, it is closer to Myanmar and Thailand. The only airport is at Port Blair which is the capital. If the weather is turbulent, the planes land at the airport in the neighbouring country of Thailand as it is closer than mainland India :P Since Andaman is a lot more to the east than the rest of India, daylight kicks in real early on the clock as IST is a single timezone for the whole of India.

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Little known fact: Andaman has been inhabited for thousands of years. It was part of the Chola empire as a strategic naval base against the Srivijaya empire of Sumatra in the south east. However, very little seems to be known of the involvement of the indigenous tribes of Andaman with the Chola empire. The indigenous people of Andaman seemed to have lived in substantial isolation till the eighteenth century when the British arrived here to set up the penal colony for which the island attained notoriety as Kala Pani.

Today the island is inhabited by people who originally hailed from different parts of mainland India. A reasonable number of them are Bengalis from Bangladesh. They were settled here by the Indian Government when they came over to India as refugees during the tumultuous times before Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971. The indigenous tribes still occupy some parts of the island but are seldom encountered in the regular tourist trails. In fact a lot of the areas where the most secluded of the tribes still live are off limits to outsiders with access being controlled by the Indian Government and Navy.

Port Blair

Port Blair is the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is a laid back city and serves as the base for a trip to the islands. Port Blair is well connected by air to the mainland. You can also get here on ships from Chennai, Kolkata etc. A day or two can be spent hopping around the museums (Anthropological Museum, Samudrika Naval Museum and Fisheries Marine Museum), Cellular Jail, Chatham Saw Mill and the nearby islands. Aberdeen Bazaar is the main shopping area in Port Blair. Most of the shops and restaurants are found here.

Aberdeen Bazaar Clock Tower, Port Blair

Aberdeen Bazaar

Sunset at Port Blair

Sunset at Port Blair

Cellular Jail

Andaman served as a penal settlement primarily for political prisoners who were subjected to torture and harsh treatment during the British rule. The convicts were used to set up the British colony in the island. The prison set up at the island was called Kala Pani by the Indian prisoners and Sazaa-e-Kala Pani was dreaded by everyone.

The islands were occupied by Japanese during WWII who drove out the British. The jail was used for housing British prisoners. During this time Netaji Subash Chandra Bose visited the islands and raised the flag of Indian Independence, making it possibly the first place in current independent India where the Indian tricolour fluttered. After WWII the islands returned to the British. The penal settlement was abolished when India gained independence in August of 1947.

The jail was constructed by the prisoners themselves who were sent to Andaman and it took around 10 years to be constructed. It was built in the shape of a starfish with seven wings radiating from a central tower. Each wing had three floors. The cells of each wing were designed such that they faced the back of the adjoining wing thereby preventing communication between prisoners of two wings. Solitary confinement was a tactic used by the British to ensure the isolation of political prisoners and revolutionaries from each other.

The hardships that the inmates were subjected to was often severe and unbearable. The inmates were made to extract oil from coconuts manually which was a gruelling process. It was impossible to extract the expected quantity of oil within the specified time and punishment which included brutal flogging was meted out for not completing the work. Some of the other tasks assigned were rope and coir making.

One of the most popular inmates of the jail was Vinayak Damodar Savarkar well known as Veer Savarkar, a freedom fighter from Maharasthra. Both he and his brother Ganesh Damodar Savarkar were imprisoned here in different cells. The design of the prison and isolation of prisoners ensured that the brothers were unaware of each other’s presence for two years.

David Barry was probably the most notorious jailer in terms of torturing the prisoners. Mass hunger strikes were carried out by the inmates protesting against his brutality in the 1930s. The British officers tried force feeding due to which three freedom fighters died. At this juncture, Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore intervened and the Government decided to repatriate the political prisoners from here just before the outbreak of WWII.

After Independence two of the wings of the jail were demolished. There was public outcry that the monument be preserved as a national memorial to independence. Today only three wings and the central tower remain. A Government Hospital has been established in the rest of the premises.

The Cellular Jail is a must visit place for anyone visiting Andaman. The place evokes profound patriotism and one cannot miss feeling a lump in the throat upon going around. Despite its macabre past, the place radiates charm and serenity now. A museum has also been set up near the entrance displaying paintings and photographs. The museum also contains a model of the entire Cellular Jail as it was originally built. Guided tours of the jail are available during the day. Light and Sound shows are conducted in the evenings in Hindi as well as English.

There is an eternal flame burning in memory of the martyrs who dedicated their lives for the sake of freedom as we enter the premises after visiting the museum. The gallows where prisoners sentenced to death used to be hung can be seen. The mess where meals were cooked is next to the gallows. The work sheds lie in the middle of the premises. Various models have been displayed to depict the kinds of work that the prisoners did.

This tree has been witness to the terrible history of the Cellul

Inside the Cellular Jail

The long corridors of the prison which have been a mute witness to the gruesome past reverberate in silence today. Veer Savarkar’s cell has been marked out and is one of the stops during a visit here. The airport at Port Blair is also named after him. Boards listing the names of prisoners have been kept. Upon reaching the top of the central tower, one can see the starfish shape of the structure and get sweeping views of the entire place. The neighbouring Ross island can also be seen.

A park right across the road from the cellular jail houses statues of prominent freedom fighters who had been imprisoned here.

Ross Island

While the prison was set up on mainland, the neighbouring Ross Island was where the British colony was set up. Prisoners were used for clearing the island and constructing buildings. The island served as the administrative headquarters of the British for almost a century before being occupied by the Japanese during WWII. An earthquake in 1941 destroyed most of the buildings on this island and led to it being abandoned.

Today all that can be seen are the remains of the opulence and grandeur of the colonial era. In its heydays Ross Island was referred to as ‘The Paris of East’. Ruins of the hospital, bakery, Rosary Church, Chief Commissioner’s residence, stores, swimming pool, tennis court, water treatment plant, barracks etc serve as a reminder to the past. Nature is slowly taking over with most buildings being covered by creepers and roots of trees. Deer can be seen roaming amidst the ruins. Today the island is managed by the Indian Navy and no civilian settlement is allowed here by the authorities.

What you see on the other side is the spot which is featured in

The island seen on an Indian Twenty Rupee note as seen from the highest point on Ross Island

Ross Island can be reached by a fifteen minute boat ride from the jetty of the Water Sports complex in Port Blair.  Electric vehicles are available on the island to go around. The island can be covered by foot too. Light and Sound shows are held here during evenings.

Chatham Saw Mill

This is one of the oldest and largest saw mills in Asia. It is located on Chatham island which is 11 kms from Port Blair and can be reached by a road bridge. The mill was established by the British in late nineteenth century to meet the timber requirements for construction purposes. The mill is still operational and maintained by the Forest department.

The mill was affected by bombings during WWII which resulted in the creation of a huge pit in the premises. Today the pit is filled with water.

A museum has been set up inside the premises showcasing samples of wood carvings, furniture and wooden showpieces. A board depicting the two dozen varieties of wood found in Andaman has also been kept here.

Different varieties of timber from the Andamans (at Chatham Saw

A guided tour can be taken to observe the operations of the mill. The different phases that the wood is subjected to right from the time it is ferried across to the mill till it is sorted, cut, stored and transformed into wooden planks can be seen here. One may find the guides here to be not very enthusiastic and mechanical. Nevertheless the mill is an interesting stop for the history buffs.

The wood is piled high at Chatham Saw Mill

The wood is piled high at Chatham Saw Mill

Chidiya Tapu

Chidiya Tapu Beach is famous for its gorgeous sunsets and birdwatching. It is at the southern end of the main island, 30 kms from Port Blair, and it takes an hour to get there. The ideal time for birdwatching here is early in the morning. The terrain changes drastically in the last leg of the drive. The forest is very dense here and thats why it is a birdwatching hotspot.

A visit to Chidiya Tapu can be combined with a stop at the nearby Mundapahad Beach. There is a checkpost here where the records of people visiting are maintained. This beach offers beautiful views of the surroundings. Driftwood can be found scattered all across the Mundapahad Beach. Most of the tourists spend quite a bit of time here.

The sunset at Chidiya Tapu beach can be quite a sight and the stones that crop up given the low tide make it a wonderful location for sunset photography. A tip. Wait a little post the actual sunset too. You will see gorgeous colours!

Havelock & Neil Island

Named after a British General Sir Henry Havelock, who served in India, Havelock island is one of the largest islands in South Andaman. This island is a must visit and figures in most of the typical itineraries to Andaman. Among others, Havelock is home to the world famous, picture perfect & gorgeous Radhanagar Beach!

Neil Island is a smaller island compared to Havelock in Southern Andaman. It is named after a British Brigadier called James Neill who fought on the side of the British in the sepoy mutiny of 1857. The Natural Bridge and Coral Reef here are unique and one of a kind!

All this and much more on Havelock & Neil Island in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pondicherry

“Give Time a Break”. This is the slogan for Pondicherry Tourism and it brilliantly summarises life in this quaint little union territory of India. Pondicherry was a french colony until 1954 and manages to retain its French connection to this day. Having been to France a few months back, I was yearning for the French delicacies and the French way of life. N, our little one wanted to go to a beach in his holidays and play in the sand :) How could I say no when Nagesh suggested a trip to Pondicherry!

French Town

Somehow we had never managed to travel here all these years though we did do a trip to Auroville few years back. I had seen quite a few pictures of the White Town which is the French part of Pondicherry with its quaint houses painted in shades of yellow, dotted with beautiful bougainvillea flowers. Finally we spent three lovely days with the family here during a long weekend in October of last year.

Despite the sweltering heat we had a memorable time. As it was a last minute planned trip we had trouble finding accommodation at some of the hotels we intended to stay. So Nagesh decided to give AirBnB a try. We liked the sea view and garden view rooms at a colonial bungalow centrally located in the White Town and very close to the promenade. Our superhost Bitasta and her family ensured that we had a good time. And we are so glad that our stay was hassle free.

The town is divided into two prominent sections called the White Town or French Quarter and Tamil Quarters which are separated by a canal. We spent most of our time in the French Quarter, which is where a lot of the sights are located. It has lovely streets with quaint names and beautiful buildings as well as homes which are reminiscent of a bygone era. There are many cafes and restaurants serving French and Creole cuisine. The best way to get a feel of the French Town is to go around on foot or drive around slowly.

The Promenade

The promenade has a striking resemblance to the one in Nice in Cote d’Azur region of France. No wonder Pondicherry is referred to as the Cote d’Azur of the east. The French must have felt at home here due to the similarity of the coast back home. Vehicles are not allowed on the beach road next to the promenade in the evenings making it convenient for those walking.

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Prominent landmarks that can be seen from the promenade include the statue of Mahatma Gandhi, the statue of the French governor Dupleix housed in a small park, a war memorial dedicated to the soldiers who were part of WWI, the old lighthouse, a park housing a statue of Joan of Arc and the backside of Notre Dame church. Petanque which is a popular game played on the streets in France is played opposite the Notre Dame church on Sundays. As we happened to be there on a Sunday, we got an opportunity to watch it during our walk along the promenade.

The sand on the promenade beach is no longer there due to extreme coastal corrosion resulting from construction on the shore. One needs to head out either to Paradise Beach or Chunnambar beach which is on the outskirts of Pondicherry towards Cuddalore or Auroville Beach for the regular beach experience.

Promenade Beach

Bharathi Park

Close to the promenade is Bharathi Park which is a large green area surrounded by important government buildings on all sides. The park houses a monument called Aayi Mandapam which is a memorial named after a courtesan called Aayi who had a reservoir erected in place of her home to supply water for the city. The monument was built during the reign of Napoleon III of France. The colourful fountains of the park proved to be a delight for little N who couldn’t resist posing in front of them!

Manakula Vinayagar Temple

The Manakula Vinayagar Temple behind Aurobindo Ashram is an old Hindu temple which has been in existence even before the French came in the seventeenth century. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Ganesha who has been depicted on the inside walls in forty different forms in which he is worshipped in different parts of the world. An Elephant named Lakshmi is present here in the evenings and one can get blessed from her for an offering. This was something that little N had been looking forward to after his previous experience at Virupaksha temple in Hampi. We ended up going to the temple thrice during our visit as we kept missing the encounter with Lakshmi :P

Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden is a large green area located in the Tamil part of the town. The gardens were laid out in the mid nineteenth century by the French. The garden has exotic plants from different parts of the world. N was super excited to go on a ride in the toy train which traverses through the garden. If not for the heat, we might have ended up spending more time here.

Basilica of Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Basilica is a beautiful church located near the railway station. It is supposed to have been built in the eighteenth century by French missionaries. The highlight of this place is its beautiful stained glass panels which portray scenes from the life of Christ. As we were here pretty early in the morning, we had the place pretty much to ourselves and could admire it in peace.

Basilica of Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception is a Roman Catholic church located in the Tamil part of the town. The current structure dates back from the late eighteenth century. The interiors of the church are pretty impressive. The Bishop’s House is also located here.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception

Eglise de notre Dame des Anges

The Eglise de notre Dame des Anges Church also called Our Lady of Angels Church is one of the important landmarks along the promenade facing the Bay of Bengal. It is a Catholic church that was built in the Nineteenth Century by Napoleon III. This beautiful Pink and Cream coloured church built in the Greco-Roman style of architecture blends well with the neighbourhood. There is a popular belief that this church has been modelled similar to the Notre Dame de Paris and the Basilica at Lourdes. It is the only church offering mass in three languages namely French, Tamil and English. There is a statue of Joan of Arc behind the church towards the promenade. It was donated by Goubert who was the mayor of Pondicherry during that period.

Cluny Centre of Embroidery

The Cluny Centre of Embroidery is housed in a beautiful heritage building on Rue Romain Rolland in the White Town. It is a testament to Pondicherry’s French colonial era. Run by the sisters of Cluny Convent, it trains and employs underprivileged and destitute women. They make hand embroidered handkerchiefs, cloth pieces for framing, napkins, pillow covers and bedspreads. The exquisite and intricate designs are made by referring to encyclopaedias on plants, animals and birds. Prices are a bit stiff on the pocket, but more than make up with the sheer quality and intricacy of the work. I couldn’t resist buying a cloth for framing :)

Beach

We drove to Club Mahindra resort which is outside the city towards Cuddalore. Our friends were staying there and little N had a ball of a time at the beach. He played in the water and just sat as the waves splashed him all over :P  We saw a beautiful sunset here.

Gastronomy

Pondicherry is well known for its creole cuisine. Three days weren’t going to be enough for trying out all the restaurants that I had read about online. Seafood is supposed to be one of the best aspects of creole cuisine and also at Pondicherry. However, none of us eat seafood :| Despite this, what we got to eat here more than engaged our tastebuds!

Les Alizes, Palais de Mahe

Palais de Mahe is a heritage hotel owned by the CGH group. I had come across mention of this hotel and its restaurant in quite a few articles on Pondicherry. While we did not manage to stay there owing to non availability, we decided to have lunch in their Les Alizes restaurant. The decor and ambience of the restaurant and the hotel proved to be quite impressive.

We had the Mushroom and Spinach Crepes, Veg Stew with Appam and Pondi Chicken Curry served along with brown rice and Carrot thoran for mains. Nagesh loved the perfection in taste of the Chicken curry so much that he doesn’t  mind going back there any day :D Then came the best part of the meal. The dessert of course! We asked for the Orange Mousse which was listed on the menu. But they did not have it on that day and suggested the Guava Mousse instead. We agreed and it turned out to be the perfect ending for a nice meal. Overall it was a pleasant experience :)

Surguru Restaurant

This is a popular South Indian vegetarian restaurant located on the busy Mission Street. Little N who had been surviving on icecream mostly due to the heat gorged on the Masala Dosa here with his grandma :D We ended up doing two meals here!

Onion Uttappam at Surguru Restaurant

Zuka Choco-la

Zuka Choco-la is a dessert boutique famous for their chocolates. They also have some sandwich options and other quick bites. Their speciality is the heavenly Hot Chocolate which is something that chocolate lovers will swear by. Had heard highly about this place from friends who consider it as a must visit on each of their trips to Pondicherry. The place lived up to its expectations. The rich hot chocolate comes with an edible chocolate spoon! Little N was attracted by  chocolates shaped like vintage cars kept in the display and promptly devoured one :)

Carte Blanche, Hotel De L’Orient

The Carte Blanche restaurant in Hotel De L’Orient owned by the Neemrana group of hotels is on the same street as Palais de Mahe hotel. The old world charm of this place is magical. The cuisine is creole with infusion of Tamil spices in the French cuisine. I quite liked the Ratatouille au Cottage Cheese which is their version of Ratatouille with paneer as the main ingredient. The Mousse au Chocolat for dessert was rich and tasted divine. The Creme Caramel Noix de Coco which is Caramel Coconut Custard was decent.

Baker Street

Baker Street is a popular French bakery on the busy M G Road. A variety of French breads, snacks and desserts can be found here. We tried the Macarons here which were a bit on the crisper side compared to the ones we tried in Paris. Overall we found prices to be a little on the higher side.

Macarons

Gelato Factory

This ice cream shop came highly recommended by our host. So we decided to give it a try on one of the evenings. Quite a few interesting flavours were available. The best part was that we could take two scoops of different flavours together and we liked all that we tried. The little one gave a thumbs up as well :D

Icecream at Gelato Factory

Maison Perumal

Maison Perumal is a heritage hotel owned by the CGH group of hotels. It is located in a beautiful mansion built in the traditional Tamil style in a quiet street in the Tamil Quarter. I had heard quite a bit about the decor of this hotel as well as the delectable Tamil food that they serve in their restaurant. We missed out on an opportunity to stay here. We ended our trip with a memorable dinner here. The cuisine here is South Indian and predominantly Tamil. Everything that we ordered was cooked to perfection. The appetiser was Vazhapoo Vadai which is Banana flower patties. We ordered Vada Curry (Homemade Lentil curry with Kuzhi Paniyarams), Vatha Kuzhambu (Dried Berry Tangy Curry with Rice, Vegetable Poriyal and Papad) and Kongunadu Kozhi Curry (Coriander Flavoured Chicken Curry with Rice, Poriyal and Papad) for mains. The meal ended with piping hot bowls of delicious Payasam! We never even thought about clicking pictures of all the dishes :|

 

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Bhutan – Beyond the Regular

The concluding post of the ongoing series of posts on the two week trip that we did to Bhutan in May of 2013. Thimphu, Punakha and Paro in the western part of Bhutan form the regular tourist circuit. Bhutan has much more to offer to a traveler. Keeping this in mind we had decided not to stick to just the above three places. This post is going to be on the places beyond the above which we covered.

Trongsa

The town of Trongsa in Central Bhutan can be reached by crossing Pele La pass between the districts of Punakha and Trongsa. It is a pleasant escapade from the heat of Punakha. The countryside along the route is beautiful. Some of the sights that I remember are the ruins of the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, lush green valleys and a small waterfall. It became cooler gradually on our way and the pass was completely shrouded in fog by the time we reached.

Wangdue Phodrang Dzong

Picture perfect valley

Misty Pele La

There is a view point near the town from which the Trongsa Dzong can be seen across the lush green valley.

Trongsa Dzong from viewpoint outside Trongsa

Though the town is small, it is an important place for the Bhutanese. It serves as a gateway between Western and Eastern parts of Bhutan due to its central location. Like most places in Bhutan, the town is located next to the Mangde Chhu river which snakes through a lush green valley.

Snaking through lush valleys

We had included Trongsa in our itinerary for three reasons. It would be an ideal place to break our journey from Punakha to Jakar. Secondly we had figured out from various trip reports that this was a very good destination for bird watching. Thirdly we wanted to visit the Trongsa Dzong which is the largest in the whole of Bhutan. Not many tourists venture out to this part of Bhutan and this was very evident with very few accommodation options/restaurants. There were hardly any tourists when we visited the Dzong which was a striking contrast to the towns of Thimphu as well as Punakha.

Yangkhil Resort

We had chosen Yangkhil Resort for our two night stay in Trongsa. The resort overlooks the valley and has a fabulous view of the Dzong.

Yangkhil Resort

Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong amidst the greenery

Our room on the first floor was very cosy and well equipped. The food served in the restaurant was excellent. Snacks and ala carte meals had to be ordered well in advance but the taste of the food made up for this small inconvenience. The lawns next to the path leading up to the rooms were well manicured  and dotted with flowering plants and bushes. Our feathered friends kept us company throughout our stay here.

Chendebji Chorten

The Chendebji Chorten is located in Trongsa district about 50 kms before the town of Trongsa while driving from Punakha. It is a Nepalese style stupa modeled on the famous Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu. It was built in the eighteenth century by a Lama over the spot where a demon who had terrorized the countryside had been subdued. The stupa has four eyes painted each of which point in all directions.

Chendebji Chorten

Trongsa Dzong

The Trongsa Dzong also called Choetse Dzong is the largest in the whole of Bhutan. It has played an important role in the history  of the country due to its strategic location. Even today the Trongsa dzongkhag is of significance to the royal family. It is necessary for a prince to serve as the governor of the Trongsa dzongkhag to become eligible to be crowned King of Bhutan.

The Dzong overlooks the valley through which the Mangde Chhu flows. The Dzong looked very impressive on a bright day against the backdrop of the lush green valley when we went. Like all other dzongs it houses administrative offices, temples and monasteries. A tall Cypress tree which is the national tree of Bhutan can be seen near the entrance of the Dzong.

Trongsa Dzong and the greenery

Monk looks back

Prayer Wheels

Cypress tree at Trongsa dzong

The Dzong looks magnificent when it is lit up and we could watch it right from the comfort zone of our balcony :)

Trongsa Dzong at night

Trongsa Tower

The watchtower of the Trongsa Dzong called Trongsa tower or Ta Dzong stands across the road from the Dzong. Today it serves as a museum housing various artefacts belonging to the royal family and allows visitors to get a glimpse of bygone history. There is a flight of steps leading up to the tower. Though we did not go inside the museum, we spent two delightful and extremely productive mornings here in the presence of some beautiful avifauna :) This place turned out to be a bird watching heaven as I have mentioned in this post from Bhutan birding diaries. When lit up along with the Dzong, the tower seemed to acquire an eerie look!

Trongsa Tower

Trongsa Tower at night

Jakar

After bidding farewell to Trongsa, we headed to the town of Jakar in Bumthang district. This district can be reached by crossing the Yotong La pass. As it was a foggy day with a dash of rain every now and then, most of the way was shrouded with fog. We were lucky to get the last of the rhododendron blooms along the way.

Red & Green Carpet

The valley of Bumthang is said to be the ‘Switzerland of the East’ due to its beauty and weather being similar. This fact had drawn my attention when I was planning our Bhutan trip and made me include it in our itinerary. As we entered Chumey village which can be considered as a gateway to the Bumthang district, we encountered straight roads for a considerable distance which seemed like a complete contrast after having navigated through hilly roads since the start of our trip. This picturesque village dotted with colourful fields and traditional homes which seemed to have a fairy tale like feel about them blew our minds away. This village is famous for its weavers. Women can be seen busy weaving outside their homes and there are a couple of shops where one can buy the finished goods like prayer mats, carpets, dresses and stoles. The current queen hails from this village.

Our ride for the Bhutan trip

Weavers in Chumey village

Traditional Bhutanese house in Bumthang

In a little while as we went around another set of hills, the town of Jakar came into view. The weather had changed considerably along the way and it was colder in this region.

Bumthang Valley

Jakar and the Jakar Dzong

Swiss Guest House

The Swiss Guest House is a hidden gem overlooking the town of Jakar. We stayed there for 3 days. The owner is an old Swiss gentleman who came to Bhutan in his youth and fell in love with the country. He married a local and settled there. Today he and his children run the guest house. Surrounded by apple orchards and accessed via a long driveway this place is extremely charming.

Swiss Guest House

The traditional heater (wood burning) was definitely needed here as it was pretty cold during the night. Our room was at the far end of the property and we could see the Jakar Dzong from the window.

Jakar Dzong looms up above the trees (color)

Jakar Dzong

There were three friendly dogs owned by the family who accompanied us whenever we were out for a walk inside the property :) We got used to their presence pretty soon!

Guardians of the orchard

The highlight of our stay here was some lip smacking food. Right from the pasta and pizza to the Cheese Fondue, which we had for the first time, everything was delicious. The Fondue which is a traditional Swiss dish was cooked for us by the owner’s daughter and we had read how to eat it beforehand on wiki :)  Added to this was the lovely decor and ambiance of the dining area. We had different varieties of homemade cheese for breakfast. The Red Panda beer factory is owned by the same family and beer can be bought here off the tap. An additional attraction for us in the dining area was the lovely collection of books.

Homemade Biscuits and Strong Coffee

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Jambay Lhakhang

Jambay Lhakhang or Jampay Lhakhang is an important temple in Central Bhutan. A religious ceremony/festival was in progress during our visit here and the place was filled to the brim with pilgrims from various regions of Bhutan. The place was agog with monks meditating and pilgrims joining them. Lots of stalls had been set up around the temple and hawkers were busy selling their wares. We had some piping hot tea at one of the stalls.

Chanting prayers at Jambay Lakhang

Vendor of Wares

Old pilgrim

Pilgrims at Jambay Lakhang

The temple is surrounded by fields of mustard and colourful flowers.

Fields of Gold

As we were walking around taking pictures, I suddenly felt a hand placed on my shoulder from behind.  I turned around to find an old woman talking to me in the local dialect. We were at a loss to understand what she was telling us. Our guide Tshering told us that she was asking Nagesh to take a picture of me and her together. She was asking me to keep the picture and not throw it away :) Why she picked on us and decided to talk to us remains a mystery to us! One of those pleasant surprises Bhutan seems to throw up every now and then I suppose.

"Do not discard my photograph"

Kurjey Lhakhang

Another important temple in Jakar is Kurjey Lhakhang which is located just outside the town. It houses the remains of the first three kings of Bhutan. The queen mother was visiting the temple when we were there resulting in security guards being posted outside. There were hardly any people here. The prayer hall here has idols of Guru Rinpoche and Buddhas. It is said that a large tree here is a Terma (hidden treasure; generally Tibetan Buddhist teachings) left there by by Padmasambhava. That tree is a HUGE cypress tree.

Kurjey Lakhang at Jakar

Prayer flags

Monks on a stroll

Gangtey

On our return journey to Paro from Jakar, we had chosen to stay in the village of Gangtey located in the Phobjikha Valley. The valley is a broad marshland which is flat and very scenic. It was very different from what we had seen till then in Bhutan. My only regret is that we had chosen to spend just one night here and we reached the place late in the evening just before it got dark. Also we had planned to leave very early the next morning to head to the old road to Trongsa for birding. Therefore we could hardly enjoy the beauty of this place or take pictures. The valley is a haven for the endangered Black-necked Cranes which migrate here every year during winter from the Tibetan Plateau. The villagers take care not to disturb these birds and a conservation centre has been created here. The birds are considered to be sacred and the people celebrate their arrival every year by having a festival in their honour in the Gangtey Monastery. As we were here after the migration period, the cranes had already left.

Phobjhikha Valley

Gangtey monastery

Dewachen Resort

We had chosen the Dewachen Resort for our stay in Gangtey. We loved the place the moment we reached there. The rooms were cozy and well done. The food was also good and the staff ensured that we were comfortable.

Devachen Resort in Gangtey

From here we returned to Paro and spent 2 nights there which I’ve covered in my earlier post itself.

Thus ended a trip with lots of happy moments. We would love to go back to this enchanting land and continue our journey to the east from where we left off. Some destinations in mind are Zhemgang, Gangtey (of course!!), Mongar and Ura.

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Bhutan – Regular Tourist Circuit

The first detailed post on the places that we visited during our two week trip to Bhutan in May, 2013. This one will be on the three cities of Bhutan that is on the itinerary of most of the tourists who visit Bhutan. The regular circuit of Thimphu, Punakha and Paro in Western Bhutan! Paro has the only international airport in Bhutan and the mystical Tiger’s Nest is close to Paro. Thimphu is the current capital of the country. Punakha is the old capital and also the cultural capital for the country. Also being next to each other, they naturally form the regular tourist circuit.

Thimphu

Thimphu, the largest city is the capital of Bhutan. It became the capital only about 50 years back and is therefore a relatively new city. The city lies next to the Wang Chhu aka Thimphu Chhu river.

Peaceful Resort

As the name suggests this resort is tucked away in the peaceful residential area of Motithang away from the hustle and bustle of Thimphu town centre. We stayed here for two nights. We had our room on the topmost floor of the two storeyed building which was ideal for me especially to scan the surrounding area for birds :) And we were not disappointed since the area around had a reasonable avian activity as I have mentioned in my birding diary post.

The staff at the dining area were pleasant and the food was pretty good. We decided to try the Ema Datshi here. Ema Datshi is a staple dish of the Bhutanese made using cheese and plenty of green or red chillies which makes it extremely spicy. Since we were in Bhutan we wanted to try this dish. When the dish finally arrived, we realized that it was way too spicy for us. We ended up hardly eating any of it and leaving the bowl almost untouched!

Ema Datshi

Ema Datshi

Tashichho Dzong

Taschichho Dzong is a Buddhist monastery as well as a fortress which is located near the river bank. It also houses government offices. The head Lama of Bhutan spends his summer here. On our first day in Bhutan we went to the Dzong around 5 in the evening to watch the flag lowering ceremony which happens on a daily basis signalling the end of the working day.

This particular day was special as the head Lama was arriving with his cavalcade from Punakha for his summer sojourn. The whole place wore a festive air and the monks were busy with their preparations to welcome the Lama.

All set to receive the Lama

Lot of people had gathered to witness the arrival of the Lama and seek his blessings. We walked around the beautiful courtyard inside the dzong for a while. The whole path leading to the entrance of the dzong had been dotted with colourful prayer flags which were fluttering in the wind adding to the beauty of the place.

Outside Trashicho Dzong

Flags signify prayers

When the Lama arrived a set of monks standing atop the roof of the dzong played the dungchen. Dancers dressed up in traditional costumes were also part of the procession. To our pleasant surprise we saw the King and Queen receive the Lama before they retreated back to their palace which is located right behind the dzong.

The wait of the monks

The dzong looks spectacular when it is lit up in the night. Photographing the lit up dzongs of Bhutan became a mini project once Nagesh started with this dzong!

Trashicho Dzong at night

Takin Reserve

The national animal of Bhutan is the Takin. It looks like a hybrid of a Yak, Goat and a Horse. It is endangered and found in the wild only in remote regions of Northern Bhutan. However there is an enclosed area for Takins which were initially captured with the intent of housing them in a zoo. As the zoo never materialized and the freed Takins began to wander aimlessly around the town, they were housed in an exclusive reserve.

Takin – the national animal of Bhutan

As per local belief, Drukpa Kunley who was popularly known as the divine madman was asked by the villagers to perform a miracle. He asked them to get him a cow as well as a goat to eat before he could perform a miracle. The villagers did so. He devoured the cow and goat and all that remained were bones. To the utter astonishment of the villagers who had gathered, he attached the head of the Goat to the skeleton of the Cow. He then clapped his hands and the skeleton was covered by a body. The animal jumped up and ran to a nearby meadow for feeding. Thus the Takin was created!

Kuensel Phodrang

A gigantic 169 feet long statue of Gautama Buddha is being constructed on a hillock on the outskirts of Thimphu amidst the ruins of the Kuensel Phodrang palace. This statue called as the Buddha Dordenma, made of Bronze and gilded with Gold, looms over the city of Thimphu. It will be one of the largest Buddha statues in the world upon completion. The statue stands upon a platform, the inside of which will be used as a meditation hall.

Kuensel Phodrang

Punakha

Punakha is the old capital of Bhutan. It is still the religious capital and home to the Lama through most of the year. More on this below as part of the Punakha Dzong. First let me cover the route from Thimphu to Punakha!

108 Chortens

The Dochula pass lies between the districts of Thimphu and Punakha. On our way to Punakha we visited the 108 chortens built on this pass. The chortens were commissioned by the Queen Mother as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the conflicts that raged with the militant outfits.

108 Chortens at Dochula Pass

On a clear day this place offers an unobstructed 360 degrees panoramic view of the Himalayas. But we were there on a foggy day making it impossible to see the valley below let alone the Himalayas! However this lent a magical look to the place and it looked like a setting out of a fairytale :) The place looked so colourful despite the fog. Clearly this place was one of the highlights of our trip!

108 Chortens at Dochula Pass – another view

We felt completely at peace walking around the chortens surrounded by lush green grass dotted with flowering plants. We saw a monk meditating here and he seemed to be oblivious to everything going on around him.

Monk at Dochula Pass

Royal Botanical Garden

The Royal Botanical Garden spread over 12,000 acres of land is located at Lamperi on the way to Punakha past the Dochula pass. The park has a Rhododendron Garden, visitor information centre, a lake and several trails. We went here for birdwatching. It turned out to be the weekend during which the Rhododendron festival was going on.

Bhutanese women in a traditional dress singing a song

The place was pretty crowded. Lot of families had come for their Sunday picnic. There were cultural performances by the local women and school children.

Bhutanese Folk Dance

We saw Yaks grazing around the lake. Some nomadic shelters had been put up to showcase how they lived in various regions. We met Mr Wangchuk Phuntscho who works in the forest department and he was glad to take us around to try and watch some birds. Though we did not see too many on that day due to the crowd, we had seen enough to determine that this place deserved a second visit on our way back.

Meri Puensum Resort

We had chosen Meri Puensum Resort for our stay in Punakha. We spent three nights here. The resort is located on a hillock in Woolakha area. The view from our room which was close to the edge of the property was very nice. The fields dotted with homes was a beautiful sight. We could do quite a bit of balcony birding. Food was pretty decent. The only disappointment was the way too greasy Aloo Parathas that we got for breakfast early morning at 5 when we wanted to go to Jigme Dorji National Park for birdwatching. We realized that it was better to stick to continental breakfast.

View from our room at Meri Puensum Resort

Meri Puensum Resort

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong aka Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong is one of the most picturesque places in Bhutan. It literally translates to the palace of great happiness or bliss. It was constructed by the Zhabdrung in the seventeenth century. The dzong was the administrative centre and seat of the government until the capital was shifted to Thimphu in mid nineteenth century. Today it serves as the winter seat of the Lama and the Punakha district administration. It houses the relics of Zhabdrung. It is an important place for the royal family and most of the important functions take place here. The notable amongst them being the coronation of the king and the weddings in the royal family. The current king and queen got married here in 2011 and that was an event which the whole country celebrated.

The dzong lies next to the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother river) and Po Chhu (Father river) under a hill shaped like an Elephant’s head.

Punakha Dzong at the confluence of Mo Chhu and Po Chhu

The approach to the dzong is  through a beautiful covered wooden bridge built in the traditional style. The Jacaranda tree lined path in front of the dzong enhances the beauty of the place during the blooming season.

Punakha Dzong at sunrise

It is a delight to watch and photograph the dzong at different times of the day with the light varying and making it look different. The picture above was just after sunrise. The next pic in the evening light and the one after at night. The dzong looks stunning when it it is lit in the night.

Punakha Dzong in the evening

Lit-up Punakha Dzong at night

The view from within the dzong at the entrance is fantastic and can only be described as fit for kings!

Outside view from Punakha Dzong

The dzong is possibly the most regal dzong in Bhutan and the insides of the dzong reflect the same.

A monk looks out

Bodhi tree within Punakha dzong

Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten

The Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten is a beautiful temple commissioned by the Queen Mother before the coronation of her son as king. It is located on a hill in the countryside and about half an hour away from the town.

Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten

The chorten can be reached by crossing the bridge across the river, a walk through the fields and a hike up the hill.

Mo Chhu snakes along

The walk takes around 1 hour. It is more than worthwhile spending that time and effort for the superb views of the surrounding countryside that can be seen through the walk.

Lush green countryside

Chimi Lhakhang

An important figure who played a role in the Bhutanese history has been Drukpa Kunley popularly known as the Divine Madman. He was a popular poet and a teacher of Buddhism in his own eccentric ways thereby earning the above title. There is a strange monastery dedicated to him near Lobesa village in Punakha district which is called Chimi Lhakhang aka the temple of fertility. The strange custom here is to bless visitors with a wooden phallus. It is a belief that praying here has caused childless women to have babies and mothers with newborn babies come here to give offerings and choose a name for the babies.

Chimi Lakhang – Temple of fertility

Monks, a dog and a Jacaranda tree

The temple can be reached by a short walk through the village and fields. The monks were practicing the playing of Dungchen, a traditional Bhutanese trumpet, and our guide joined in!

Playing the Dungchen

Paro

The last of the three cities on the regular tourist circuit of Bhutan is Paro. In addition to being the gateway into Bhutan, Paro is a beautiful valley as well. And given the presence of Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest Monastery here, Paro is also the “face” of Bhutan for most people outside Bhutan.

Metta Resort

We spent the last three nights of our trip at Metta Resort in Paro. Located away from the hubbub of the town centre, it was a good place to relax and end our two week journey. The food was excellent and the room was cozy. The culinary highlight was ginger cake prepared by the owner of the resort. She mentioned that it was an Indonesian recipe and one of her specialties. The garden was filled with beautiful flowers and the views of the surrounding hills was nice.

Fluttering flags at Metta Resort

Paro Dzong

Paro Dzong aka Rinpung Dzong houses the administrative offices as well as the monastic body of the Paro district. The word Rinpung literally translates to heaps of jewels. The dzong and its jewels were however burnt in a fire in early 1900s. The dzong was then rebuilt. It is located next to the Paro Chhu river and can be approached via a traditional wooden bridge. As some construction work was going on when we went, we had to enter the dzong from the rear. This dzong can be seen as one lands in Paro airport! On the hill above the dzong stands an ancient watchtower called Ta Dzong which is being used as the National Museum of Bhutan currently.

Paro Dzong

Landing in Paro

As mentioned in my introduction post on Bhutan, we had taken the Druk Air flight from Delhi to Paro. The highlight of the flight was fantastic views of Mt Everest and some of the other peaks of Eastern Himalayas.

Mt Everest

Mt Everest

Our first glimpse of Bhutan from high above was the heavenly sight of mist parting up to reveal what seemed like an endless cover of Pine trees! The landing itself was one hell of an experience with the plane gliding through the valley and doing some last minute turns to land on the runway which we couldn’t see :) All the passengers started clapping out loud once we had landed!

Taktsang Monastery

The “face” of Bhutan for many. If you have to choose one view that defines Bhutan, many would choose the view of the Taktsang hanging at the cliff’s edge as that. The Taktsang Monastery is popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The name comes from the Bhutanese belief that Guru Rinpoche rode a flying tigress and landed at this place on the cliffs on his way to slay demons from Tibet. Given the importance Guru Rinpoche has for Buddhism, in Bhutan and in general, this monastery is an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists. The Bhutanese believe that their sins will be washed away if they hike up to the monastery and pray. A popular offering is butter and people carry a large load of it on their backs up the hill to the monastery and offer the same. The monastery has had it’s share of fires and has been reconstructed each time.

Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest

The monastery is closed during lunch time and therefore it is advisable one leaves early enough in the morning to ensure that one can reach the monastery well before lunch. The monastery can be reached by a moderately difficult trek which took us about two hours one way. Frankly, we weren’t in the best of shape, so I suppose it can be done in lesser as well. Walking sticks can be obtained for a small fee at the bottom of the trail.

Start of the hike to Taktsang

There are also pony rides available. The pony will take you only on the upward journey till the point where steps begin. Midway on the trek there is a cafe where you can rest and enjoy a cup of tea watching the monastery from much closer. Through the first half of the trek the monastery is never visible and it comes into view just a little before reaching the cafe.

Us at half-way point

Just when you think you’ve reached the monastery at about the end of the trek, you turn a corner and realize that you have a set steps which lead you way down below the monastery before you can climb another set of steps leading up into the monastery. Many a tourist feels like giving up when they see this. So it helps to know about this beforehand!

Us overlooking Taktsang just before the last set of steps

While getting into the monastery one needs to leave all belongings including shoes and jackets outside. Given the Buddhist traditions, no leather items can be worn inside. For the ladies climbing, given that you will end up leaving your jacket outside, it is advisable that you wear full sleeved clothing with a collar or a shawl to ensure you cover your neck as a respect to the Buddhist traditions. This is an expectation when visiting most of the Dzongs as well in Bhutan. I was carrying a fleece jacket in my backpack during the climb for this very purpose. It also helped in the climb down as the weather had turned colder by then.

In Short

This was our trip in what is the regular tourist circuit of Bhutan. As is our wont, even in these places we covered some places which are generally not the typical tourist haunts. That said, there is so much to Bhutan when you go beyond the normal. It is nothing short of “falling off the map” and therein lies the real Bhutan. More on those in the upcoming post.

This post took a while putting together and the next may take longer as we will probably be taking a little bit of a break from the blog. Hope to see you guys on the other side of the break. Thanks for reading!

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Bhutan Birding Diaries – Part IV

The final post from the Bhutan birding diaries. The list of birds, as you will read below, just got better!! In my previous post I’d mentioned about the return journey to Paro from Jakar. We would be breaking the journey at Phobjikha valley which is famous as one of the sites where the endangered Black-necked Cranes migrate every year during winter from high altitude regions of Tibet. But the Cranes would have left already by this time of the year.

Yotong La

This time around when we reached the Yotong La Pass the weather was clear. We saw lots of Rhododendron trees in bloom. A Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush could be seen high atop a tree. Suddenly a pair of Spotted Nutcrackers descended on a bare tree stump a little above eye level. Finally we managed to get a good look at these birds which are usually way too high up the pine trees.

Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush

Spotted Nutcracker

Trongsa

As we reached Trongsa in time for an early lunch, we saw the Grey Bushchat male at its usual spot on a bush next to the road.

After lunch, Tshering asked the car to be stopped at Ngala Community Forest area somewhere between Trongsa town and Chendebji. We walked around for a while and had quite a few sightings. We saw Black-winged Cuckooshrike (lifer), White-throated Fantail, Whiskered Yuhina, Rufous Sibia, Grey-winged Blackbird and Green-tailed Sunbird.

ID help needed

White-throated Fantail

Whiskered Yuhina

Rufous Sibia

Grey-winged Blackbird

Green-tailed Sunbird

We then proceeded to Gangtey where we would be staying overnight at the Dewachen Resort. We decided to leave very early next morning to go to Old Trongsa Road to try our luck with Pheasants. We could then drive back to Paro.

Old Trongsa Road

This road is no longer in use and some sections of it have got blocked by boulders making it not motorable and therefore ideal for birdwatching without any disturbances. We saw a few Yaks grazing around. We saw a Himalayan Monal climb up the slopes far away. Wondering if we were late for the pheasants, we continued down the road. A lifer soon appeared in the form of a Rufous-vented Tit.

Rufous-vented Tit

As we walked further along the road, Tshering suddenly asked us to stop. In excited and hushed tones he said “Satyr Tragopan”!! I couldn’t believe what I was about to see. A gorgeous Satyr Tragopan walked out majestically from behind the bushes and crossed the road right in front of us. We felt blessed to have been able to see this bird which is one of the rare species seen in Bhutan. The red colour was mesmerizing to say the least!

Satyr Tragopan

The next lifer was a Stripe-throated Yuhina. Within 5 minutes we saw a Tragopan again. This time it was atop a bush and incessantly calling out. It then made its way down the slope. Our day was already made with sightings of two Tragopans within half an hour :)

Stripe-throated Yuhina

Satyr Tragopan

There were plenty of small birds along the road. We did not spend much time as we were feeling tired and hungry. We had not carried breakfast with us due to the early start. Some lifers that we saw on our way back to the car were Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Spotted Laughingthrush, White-winged Grosbeak and Black-faced Laughingthrush.

Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher

Spotted Laughingthrush

White-winged Grosbeak

Black-faced Laughingthrush

We then went to Kuenphen Restaurant at Nobding in Wangdue Phodrang district and had a hearty breakfast. We decided to stop again at Lamperi as we were doing good on time. We were in luck as Ishay’s guru, Dorjee, had come that day. We went for a walk along with him and spotted the Green-tailed Sunbird. He showed us a Large Hawk-Cuckoo (lifer) and we realized that we had been mistaking it for the Common Hawk-Cuckoo aka the Brainfever bird throughout our trip whenever we heard its persistent calls.

Green-tailed Sunbird

Large Hawk Cuckoo

I suddenly spotted a mass of bright red which I immediately recognized as the Scarlet Finch (lifer again!). The others were walking ahead of me. Nagesh realized that I’d seen something and stepped back just in time to see it before it flew off. We managed to get only a blurred pic. We called out to the others and waited for a while at the same spot to see if the bird would come back. But it seemed to have gone down the hill and did not return. We then spent time discussing about the birds that we’d seen and photographed. Dorjee went through our checklist and helped us identify some of the birds that we had not been able to till then. After lunch we bid our farewell to Ishay and Dorjee and were on our way to Metta Resort in Paro where we would be spending our last 3 nights in Bhutan.

Chele La

We started off early from our resort around 5 AM. It was a foggy morning and the weather was perfect for the Pheasants which reside around the Chele La pass. Chele La is the highest motorable road in Bhutan at an altitude of 3988 mts above sea level. The road connects Paro valley with the Haa Valley.

We saw quite a few Kalij Pheasants as we began our ascent up the road to Chele La. We finally managed to get a good glimpse of these beautiful birds and some nice pictures as well. They had eluded us on previous occasions.

Kalij Pheasant

After a while we saw a lone Blood Pheasant (lifer) cross the road far ahead of us. It was shortly followed by a Himalayan Monal which was crossing the road majestically. It realized the presence of our car and rushed down the slopes of the hill within the split of a second resulting in one blurred picture.

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We decided to stop the car and walk for a while as we did not want to disturb the pheasants. We saw Black-faced Laughingthrush and Coal Tit (lifer) before stumbling on a pair of Blood Pheasants which were scanning the road carefully before crossing. We let them feed happily while we got our share of pictures! As we went ahead we saw a scene which will remain etched in our memories forever. A flock of around 10-15 Blood Pheasants were descending down the slopes of the hill towards where we were headed with the males ahead followed by the females. The mist added a magical touch to this amazing moment.

Black-faced Laughingthrush

Coal Tit

Blood Pheasant

Blood Pheasant

We drove till the highest point on this road. It was pretty cold. We had some hot tea and breakfast that Tshering had got for us. On a clear day Mt.Jomolhari can be seen from Chele La. Since it was foggy we could barely see even the Haa Valley. But then the weather had been very favourable for Pheasants. So we had no qualms about not being able to see the Himalayas!

After waiting for a while for the fog to clear we realized that the weather wasn’t going to change much soon. So we started on our way back earlier than planned. Most of the stretches on the way back were devoid of any activity. We managed to see few more lifers like Whistler’s Warbler and Blyth’s Leaf Warbler. Nagesh spotted an excellently camouflaged Hodgson’s Treecreeper.

Green-crowned Warbler

Blyth's Leaf Warbler

Hodgson's Treecreeper

We were back in Paro for an early lunch. In the evening we went to the Rinpung Dzong and near the bridge over Paro river leading to the Dzong, we sighted a Plumbeous Water Redstart. This was the last bird that we photographed on this wonderful trip. We spent the rest of the time going around Paro and hiking to the Tiger Nest monastery. It had been a wonderful experience to see so many new species of birds. We would love to return back to this wonderful country some day and continue into the Eastern  and Southern parts which are supposed to be even better in terms of birding.

Plumbeous Water Redstart

The complete list of birds from our Bhutan trip is up on bubo.org. Thanks for reading!

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Bhutan Birding Diaries – Part III

The birding diaries continue on. Taking up from where I left off in my previous post, the highlight of this post is the birding heaven in Central Bhutan which will always remain memorable. I am talking about Trongsa and its surroundings.

Trongsa

We reached Trongsa just before sunset. We were going to be there for 2 nights and had booked a room at Yangkhil resort. As we walked around exploring the resort we saw a couple of Yellow-billed Blue Magpies flitting around. The Blue Whistling Thrush and the Russet Sparrows were all over the place. Our guide Tshering told us that he would take us out early next morning for birdwatching to Trongsa tower. We had an early dinner and retired for the night completely unaware of what the next morning would bring us!

It was a misty morning the next day. We saw a Grey Bushchat high atop a pole near the prayer wheels in the resort. Nagesh fished out an Oriental White-eye and got some nice pictures of it against the flowers of the Bottlebrush tree where it seemed to be residing.

Oriental White-eye

Our driver Yenten dropped us at Trongsa tower which was opposite the Trongsa Dzong. It has been converted to a museum housing artifacts belonging to the royal family as well as the Bhutanese culture. As we got in through the door next to the road, there were a series of steps that led to the tower. The place seemed to be teeming with birds. We were completely lost as to which bird to watch!! It was as though we had stepped into a birding heaven if there is one!!!

The Green-backed Tit which was completely fearless and coming very close to us. Given how common this bird had got to us and all the other wonderful birds here, we ended up ignoring it at most times. First up were Verditer Flycatcher, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler (lifer), Eurasian Jay, White-throated Fantail, White-tailed Nuthatch and Striated Laughingthrush. All of these in a matter of few minutes.

Verditer Flycatcher

Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler

White-throated Fantail

White-tailed Nuthatch

Striated Laughingthrush

Then came the icing on the cake. A cute little bird high on our wish list which we had missed on our trip to Saattal last year. We were awestruck by the sudden appearance of the Red-billed Leiothrix!

Red-billed Leiothrix

The next set of birds included Ashy Drongo, Greenish Warbler and Blue-capped Rock Thrush (both male and female).

Greenish Warbler

As we reached the end of the stairs we noticed a flock of birds high atop a tree. We identified them as Spot-winged Grosbeaks (lifer) later. While flipping through the pages of the Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent book by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp, I would inadvertently land up on the last set of pages containing illustrations of the colourful Grosbeaks and Finches wondering when I would get a chance to see them. Finally I saw a Grosbeak! Another moment for us to cherish therefore :)

Spot-winged Grosbeak (male)

Spot-winged Grosbeak (female)

As we were feeling hungry we started walking back as it was time for breakfast too. The Green-backed Tit decided to seek our attention. We saw the grisly side of this beautiful little bird. It grabbed a moth, tore apart its wings and then gobbled up the poor victim in a matter of seconds.

Green-backed Tit

This was followed by a good sighting of the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush which we had seen earlier in Lamperi. We also got a glimpse of a yellow coloured small bird which we figured out to be the Golden-spectacled Warbler (lifer) later.

We had been wondering about the absence of other species of Tits except the Green-backed Tits since they are generally found in mixed flocks. As we were about to get into the car we noticed a different looking tiny little bird on a tree nearby. It turned out to be a Black-throated Bushtit (lifer).

Black-throated Bushtit

In the afternoon we went to see the Trongsa Dzong which is the largest dzong in Bhutan. As we were getting out of the car, I spotted a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker on a tree nearby. Nagesh started taking pictures of it and a small crowd of local people came to watch the woodpecker and us trying to photograph it. The locals were very happy to get a close up glimpse of the bird’s photos on the camera.

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker

After the enriching experience in the morning I wanted to go back to the tower in the evening. We decided to go there. It proved to be disappointing with hardly any activity compared to the morning. We managed to see Ashy Drongo, Blue Whistling Thrush, Greenish Warbler, Rufous Sibia and a pair of Long-tailed Minivets.

Blue Whistling Thrush

Long-tailed Minivet (male)

Long-tailed Minivet (female)

We decided to go on a walk along the road behind the tower. We managed to see a Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Rufous Sibia and Black Bulbul at close quarters. As we were walking back towards the town a female Grey Bushchat posed for us on an electric wire next to the road.

Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon

Rufous Sibia

Black Bulbul

Grey Bushchat (female)

Next morning we would be heading to our next destination Jakar in Bumthang valley. Before leaving Trongsa we could not resist heading back to the tower. This particular morning was very foggy with visibility being pretty low. As we were walking around I sighted the Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and was busy observing it gorging on some insects in the undergrowth. In the meantime Tshering and Nagesh had climbed up the stairs and reached the top when they caught a glimpse of a female Kalij Pheasant! But it rushed off down the slopes of the nearby hillock.

The number of birds seen were few compared to the previous morning. We saw Grey Treepie, White-tailed Nuthatch, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Grey-hooded Warbler, Eurasian Jay, Red-billed Leiothrix, Rufous-capped Babbler (lifer), Whiskered Yuhina, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush and Spot-winged Grosbeak.

Blue-capped Rock Thrush (female)

Eurasian Jay

Rufous-capped Babbler

Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush

Yotong La

In order to go from Trongsa district to Bumthang district we need to cross the Yotong La pass. As it was a foggy day interspersed with rain during the first half of the drive we could not see much of the acclaimed beauty of this route. We got to see only a Grey Bushchat on the outskirts of Trongsa before visibility reduced greatly.

Grey Bushchat (male)

As we neared Yotong La, Tshering asked Yenten to stop the car as the area around the road was frequented by Pheasants and the weather was ideal for them to venture out. I decided not to head out in the cold and stayed back in the car with Yenten. Nagesh and Tshering went around inside the forest. Unfortunately they did not see anything save a Spotted Nutcracker far away. The only consolation was that Nagesh managed to get a good picture of a beautiful Rhododendron tree in full bloom.

Bumthang

The weather had cleared by the time we reached Bumthang valley. The place looked stunning and we began to appreciate the fact that it called Switzerland of the East. I had read that the Black-billed Magpie and the Choughs are found here. We stopped to take pictures of mustard fields in full bloom against lush green slopes and blue skies. Suddenly I saw a Black-billed Magpie posing brilliantly atop the fence of the mustard field. Excitedly I pointed it out to Nagesh and he got some fantastic shots of it!! It seemed like this beautiful bird had come to welcome us to its land :)

Black-billed Magpie

As we drove past Chhumey village famous for its weavers, Tshering pointed out a couple of Red-billed Choughs. They look just like crows till you get closer and realize that their beaks are bright red in colour.

We would be staying at the Swiss Guest House in Jakar for 2 nights. We reached there in the afternoon and decided not to venture out anywhere that evening. A walk amidst the Apple trees in the property with the resident dogs accompanying us ensured that no bird came close to us :)

While having breakfast next day I saw a small bird resembling a sparrow on the grass patch next to the window. A picture of the same revealed it to be what we think is the Plain Mountain Finch. Other resident birds that we saw from our room were the Greenish Warbler and a pair of Oriental Turtle Doves. Red-billed Choughs visited the grounds quite often.

Plain Mountain Finch

Red-billed Chough

We saw plenty of Eurasian Tree Sparrows when we visited the Kurjey Lhakhang and Jambey Lhakhang in Jakar. A pair of Black-billed Magpies were also seen near Kurjey Lhakhang.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

A walk near the older rooms of the guest house revealed the presence of a Speckled Wood Pigeon which seemed to be roosting in the nearby thicket. By far Jakar had been the coldest place in our trip. Next morning would be our last here before we would start our journey back to Paro. We were a little disappointed that we had not made any progress with respect to bird sightings.

Speckled Wood Pigeon

After our last breakfast here I suggested why not go back to the place where we’d seen the Pigeon the evening before. The sun had finally decided to come out and it was a bright day. As we headed to this spot, a riot of colours passed overhead! It turned out to be the gorgeous Mrs.Gould’s Sunbird (lifer). We were mesmerized by its colours. Then came another big surprise. A bush nearby had more than 10 Red-billed Leiothrixes in it! Unbelievable luck when it was time for us to leave.

Mrs. Gould's Sunbird

Red-billed Leiothrix

I guess this post is pretty long. What remains from our Bhutan trip, is the return journey to Paro spread over 2 days. That deserves a separate writeup I think! Till then…

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Bhutan Birding Diaries – Part II

The second post from the birding diaries from an awesome trip to Druk Yul aka the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Continuing from where I left off in my previous post, the next place on the itinerary was Punakha.

Punakha

We stayed at the Meri Puensum resort in Punakha for three nights. The weather here was warmer compared to Thimphu. The balcony of our room faced the fields behind the resort and was a good place for birdwatching. We were woken up in the mornings by the Ashy Drongoes, Oriental Magpie Robins, Common Mynas, Eurasian Tree Sparrows and Red-vented Bulbuls.

Ashy Drongo profiled

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

We hiked up to the Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten near Punakha on our first morning. The trail passed through lush green fields and then gradually wound up its way along the hill. On the way up we saw a Grey Treepie high up a pine tree. Colourful butterflies flitted across. We saw Long-tailed Minivets and Large-billed Crows near the Chorten.

Butterfly - different colors

Underscored with Red

It started raining by the time we went inside the chorten and came out. We had to wait for a while for the rain to subside. I noticed a bird the size of a Dove come and perch on an electric wire a slight distance away. An inspection of the bird through the binoculars revealed it to be a Common Kestrel. It was too far for the camera though!

As we descended down the hill after the rain stopped, we saw Russet Sparrows and Long-tailed Minivets flitting around the trail. The unusual thing about Minivets which are commonly seen in pairs was that there were three of them this time together. Two females and a male! We also saw the Blue-capped Rock Thrush male in its natural habitat. We had seen it earlier this year in our umpteen trips to Nandi Hills when it migrated for the winter. It seemed so tiny in its natural habitat amidst the huge pine trees and could be easily missed!

Russet Sparrow (female)

Long-tailed Minivet (male)

We went back to the resort post lunch to take a snooze.  As we were watching the fields from the balcony of our room, we suddenly spotted a movement on the ground in the neighbouring field. We could not identify the bird. Realizing that this was a lifer we rushed out near the compound wall of the resort with the camera. The bird was oblivious of our presence and busy foraging for insects in the mud. The size of the bird and the shape of the beak gave it the appearance of a Scimitar Babbler. When we returned to the room we poured over the book and were happy to identify the bird as a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler. Scimitar Babblers are generally shy and very elusive.

Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler

In the evening we went for a walk up the hill where our resort was located with our guide Tshering. On the way we saw some Red-vented Bulbuls and Oriental Magpie Robins.

Red-vented Bulbul

Red-vented Bulbul (juvenile)

Oriental Magpie Robin

We started hearing a loud screeching sound from a tree nearby. Tshering said that it must be a woodpecker and started looking for it. After a while we managed to locate the bird and it turned out to be a Rufous Woodpecker. Another lifer and a gorgeous one at that! It led us on a wild goose chase as it flitted from one tree to another. At one point of time we realized that there were a pair of them and they had gone higher up the slopes of the hillock that we were walking on. We let Nagesh walk ahead and try approaching the woodpeckers. Both me and Tshering contented ourselves watching them through the binoculars while Nagesh crept closer to them stealthily. They were busy gorging themselves on a termite nest on a bush which was at eye level. We stood admiring them until they called it a day and flew off as it began to get dark :)

Rufous Woodpecker (male)

Rufous Woodpecker (female)

The next morning saw us up and going well before sunrise to the Punakha Dzong. The dzong is located next to the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother river) and Po Chhu (Father river). As Nagesh was taking pictures of the dzong from across the road I spotted a couple of River Lapwings for the first time on the other bank of the river. They looked so elegant. Sadly these birds are today endangered due to loss of habitat. Also saw some Oriental White-eyes in a bush nearby.

We then went to the Jigme Dorji National Park. On the way we saw Grey-hooded Warbler and Spotted Dove. As we entered the national park limits Nagesh spotted some movements and got off the car to figure out what bird it was. He thought that it looked like some Trogon from far but the bird literally vanished before he could get a second look. Instead he got record shots of a Maroon Oriole (lifer) and Golden-throated Barbet (another lifer).

Grey-hooded Warbler

Tshering suggested a walk next to the river to try to spot some kingfishers. Unfortunately bird activity seemed very drab here due to the sound of the trucks which are continuously plying here to carry sand off for constructing dams! We managed to see a few River Lapwings, a solitary Slaty-backed Forktail on the other side of the river, a Fire-breasted Flowerpecker (lifer again) which was way too high up a tree and a Plumbeous Water Redstart which seemed to be nesting on a tree near the river bank.

River Lapwing

After spending some time near the river we decided to head back to Punakha dzong and stop en-route the place where we had earlier seen the Oriole and the Barbet. We saw a Grey Treepie and the Maroon Oriole again. Tshering was walking ahead of us. He excitedly waved that there was an Eagle ahead. We rushed towards where he was and saw that it was an Eagle indeed looking very similar to the Changeable Hawk-Eagle. It was being chased around by a bold Ashy Drongo. We later found out with the help of the book that it was a Mountain Hawk-Eagle (a lifer again)!

Grey Treepie

Maroon Oriole

Mountain Hawk-Eagle

As we were on our way again we saw the Golden-throated Barbet up close. I was mesmerized by the colours of this gorgeous bird. Two shades of Green, Blue, Red, Golden, White and Black all put together! A pair of Minivets which looked smaller than the Long-tailed Minivets were flitting further away from where the Barbet was. We didn’t pay much attention to them and took just a couple of pictures of them as we were focussing on the Barbet. We realized that they were Grey-chinned Minivets (lifer) later when we saw the pictures and used the book to identify them. We never saw these birds anywhere during the remainder of our trip. There were a couple of Rhesus Macaques atop the trees.

Golden-throated Barbet

Grey-chinned Minivet

Lobesa

On our way from Punakha to Trongsa we went to the village of Lobesa to visit Chimi Lakhang aka Fertility temple aka the Divine Madman monastery. In order to visit this Lakhang one needs to walk a short distance through the village past fields. On our way back to the car from the Lakhang we spotted a Common Hoopoe posing for us against the backdrop of the lush green slopes. I saw a brown bird of a similar size as a Dove land in the fields as we were walking. The binoculars revealed it to be a Common Kestrel. It gave Nagesh enough time to take a few pictures before it flew off. We had never managed to get pictures of this bird before! So we were overjoyed. We saw quite a few Common Mynas in the pools of water amidst the fields.

Common Hoopoe

Common Kestrel

Punakha to Pele La

The road from Punakha to Pele La en-route Trongsa was rich with respect to bird life. We saw Verditer Flycatcher, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush female (we had missed getting a good picture of this when we visited Binayak last year due to the fog), Plumbeous Water Redstart and the White-capped Redstart. The White-capped Water Redstarts were wary of our presence and giving Nagesh a hard time as they made him run to and fro while he tried to take pictures of them.

Verditer Flycatcher

Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush

Plumbeous Water Redstart (male)

White-capped Redstart

The White-collared Blackbirds and the Blue Whistling Thrushes were seen aplenty after a brief absence when we were in Punakha.

As we approached the Pele La pass we sighted the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie for the first time. The Magpie posed brilliantly atop a tree stump for the camera! The graceful flight of the beautiful Magpies never ceases to amaze us. They have been blessed with amazing plumes.

Yellow-billed Blue Magpie (on a stump)

Pele La Pass

The Pele La pass separates the districts of Punakha and Trongsa. It was shrouded in mist when we reached there in the afternoon. Just outside a village near the pass we saw a Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon who chose to ignore us and posed brilliantly. It gave us enough time to go very close to it.

Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon

It was way too cold for my liking and I chose to remain inside the car while Nagesh and Tshering walked around looking for birds. They saw Brown Parrotbill and the Grey Bushchat male.

Brown Parrotbill

Grey Bushchat (male)

It was late afternoon when we reached Chendebji Chorten in Trongsa district. We sighted a Plumbeous Water Redstart female hopping from rock to rock along the stream that flows next to the Chorten.

Plumbeous Water Redstart (female)

As we approached Trongsa we stopped at a view-point from where the Trongsa dzong can be seen in all its splendour. We heard and later saw a Great Barbet screeching loudly sitting high up a tree far away. Green-backed Tits could be seen in trees near the view-point. Little did we know what a treasure trove Trongsa was going to prove. But more on that later in the next post!

PS – The complete list of birds we encountered in Bhutan is available on bubo.org

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