Agra to Jaipur – the Hard Way

It’s July 24 – Amelia Earhart Day.

There’s more to life than being a passenger.‘ – Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is one of my favourite historical enigmas. Here’s a small femmage to her, courtesy of J. Mitchell. ‘Then your life becomes a travelogue of picture-postcard charms…’ Indeed.

See you in another life, Amelia.

Anyway, back to Delhi. After a few enervating days in Delhi taking care of business, we go south. First stop is Agra.

The Southern Gate

The Taj Mahal is one of those tourist sights that is genuinely pretty impressive in real life. Like Ayer’s Rock.

There is controversy about the meaning of Taj Mahal (although ‘mahal‘ certainly means ‘palace.’)

What’s in a name?‘ – Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

We think this mother-daughter duo are worth a picture.

Say ‘paneer

We stay at a cheap place nearby. Great views of the Taj as we sip an evening beer.

Look out for the monkeys, though

A slow bus takes us to Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned capital of the remarkable Moghul emperor Akbar.

A local goat finds a good place to rest in the heat…

…as does a local older gentleman.

Fine stone-carving is everywhere.

This place hasn’t changed that much since I was last here countless decades ago. Just a lot more people around.

Akbar listened to philosophical debates in this hall. (So they say.)

When I was young, I read the Story of Civilization series. Twice. Still have it. It’s what sparked a lifelong interest in world history.

This is the Jama Mosque.

Of course, the women have to pray outside.

Back to Agra. On another day, we visit Akbar’s Tomb.

It’s in nearby Sikandra. Getting here is quite an experience – like doing just about anything in India.

The beautiful gardens are a respite from the chaos outside the walls.

A fountain would be nice right about here…

There are quotations in Persian and Arabic on many surfaces.

Calligraphy carved in marble

The roof in the entrance preserves its glorious paint job.

Back in town, we visit the Agra Fort. Akbar also had a hand in the way it looks today. He was a big cheese in this part of the world.

We’re not sure why these girls are dressed alike.

More wonderful stone-carving. Similar buildings in modern times use concrete. Not very impressive, especially when it begins to crumble within a few years.

You can see the Taj through these arches, further down the Yamuna (or Jumna or Jamna – take your pick) River.

These audience halls are a common feature.

Putting the ‘arch’ in ‘architecture’

Our next stop is Jaipur. We stay in the Pearl Palace Hotel, the nicest place we’ve stayed so far in India.

Behind our hotel is Hathroi Fort – old and abandoned, but people still live in it.

Just part of the neighbourhood

The market in the Old City is worth a look, especially the narrow interior lanes.

This man is hauling about a half-ton of bricks in his cart

Rajastan is well known for its textiles. In these market stalls, groups of ladies sit as the shopkeeper – or his assistants – pull down bolt after bolt of colourful cloth.

Looking for bargains.

The hawa mahal is one of Jaipur’s iconic buildings.

Palace of the Winds

Close by is the City Palace.

Another part of the palace. Everyone wants to stay out of the sun.

In the area is the famous Jantar Mantar. This is a collection of architectural astronomical instruments built in the early 1700s.

There is no royal road to geometry.‘ – Euclid

According to Wikipedia:

The name is derived from jantar (yantra, Sanskrit: यन्त्र, “instrument, machine”), and mantar (from mantrana, Sanskrit: मन्त्रण, “consult, calculate”). Therefore, Jantar Mantar literally means ‘calculating instrument’.

It looks like a Le Corbusier sculpture park.

‘…and she’s buying a stairway to heaven’ – Led Zeppelin

One day we go out to the Amber Fort (known nowadays as the ‘Amer Fort’).

There are many of these forts in Rajastan. Most have a lengthy wall climbing the surrounding hills. Looks like a ‘Great Wall of India’.

Some parts of the palace are neglected, others are in a good state of preservation.

Entry into the Shila Devi temple

Interior of the first courtyard.

Fit for a Maharajah

This is the first courtyard. (There are at least three.)

The village of Amer is below

The fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.

Colourful portal

The day is hot – we make a point of moving slowly.

Let’s take a break

The Mirror Palace is pretty snazzy.

The day before we leave Jaipur, we drop in on the Albert Hall Museum.

Inside is a good collection, a little bit in need of some curatorial care.

Museum pieces

Sight or Insight of the Day

There are many interesting and wonderful things to see and do in India, but holy smokes, it’s exhausting traveling in this country. We’ve been on a few humble buses and trains in the last few weeks. (It’s not a case of looking for an ‘authentic’ experience of getting down with the locals, like some people carry to a slight extreme – it just turns out to be the only way to get to where we’re going.)

Unless you’re willing to wear blinders, every day brings constant exposure to people spitting, gobbing jets of scarlet betel juice, blowing out snot, lots of public urination (and worse). Wherever you turn, someone is vigorously reaming out a nostril or an earhole. Men are constantly pawing their genitals. 95% of people (read: men) who approach you want something from you. A dead giveaway: the first thing they say is ‘I don’t want anything from you’. (A negative side-effect of this is the guilt you feel when you are rude and snap at the 5% of people who are trying to be genuinely helpful.)

It’s not a place for sensitive souls. (I would say ‘No Country for Old Men’, if I wasn’t so close to being one myself.) And that’s not even getting into the physical environment. Maybe in a later entry.

Bhutan – Last Days

From eastern Bhutan, we make our way west again.

Waterfall on the Mongar-Bumthang road

We stop for a few days in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley.

Besides being famous (in Bhutan) for its potatoes, it is also known for a yearly migration of black-necked cranes from late October to mid February.

This is Karma. He was attacked by a feral dog and suffered permanent wing damage. He is now a permanent resident of the Black-Necked Crane Visitor Centre.

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Karma likes visitors

The valley itself is very scenic.

We go for a hike one day. The weather is perfect.

Sunny. Not too hot.

A squad of people are building a rammed-earth house. It’s very rhythmic as the ladies pound the earth down.

This is what a rammed-earth house looks like when it’s done.

We meet a young couple from Canton, NY on our walk. Practically neighbours. They’re making a tourism video.

We stop for a rest.

Take Five

We reach the goal of our hike – the Gangteng Monastery.

The next day, we hike the Lungchu Tsey pilgrimage trail. This takes several hours. When we finally get to the top, the place is locked and there are no monks in sight. Just a couple of dogs.

We enjoy the view and set off back down the mountain.

The next day, we drive over the Chelela Pass to Haa.

Haa is a sleepy kind of place.

One-horse town

There is an Indian Army camp in town. This is to discourage incursions from the imperialist Chinese, who – surprise, surprise – lay claim to large tracts of the Himalayas that were once ruled by Tibet. Their logic: any former Tibetan territory must naturally default to China after that country’s forcible overthrow liberation of Tibet.

The palatial size of our hotel rooms is a real treat after the space-challenged rooms of Japan.

Our quiet hotel awaits

The next day, we head back to Paro over the Chelela Pass.

This time, we stop at the pass and hike to the nearby Kila Gompa nunnery.

As is common for mountain passes, there is a riot of prayer flags.

You can see Paro far below.

The crack of a thousand flapping flags is kind of scary.

On the hike, we stop to erect a prayer flag ourselves.

Sending happiness to all sentient beings

After an hour or so…

Kila Gompa nunnery

Some people come to this nunnery for meditation retreats.

Kila Gompa nunnery

As you can see, some of these structures are, um, precarious, to say the least.

Sight or Insight of the Day

After nearly 2,000 KMs driving around Bhutan, it’s time to part ways with Tula and Mr. Rinsin at Paro Airport.

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye…’

We’ll miss Mr. Rinsin’s sense of humour and Tula’s solicitous guidance in all things Bhutanese. Thanks, guys.

Eastern Bhutan

From Trongsa, we drive to Bumthang and beyond.

The morning we leave Trongsa, the dzong is shrouded in mist.


The beginning of the journey to Bumthang – we are above the clouds.

At a rest stop, the pass is covered in prayer flags.

Flag Day

Our accommodation in Bumthang (pronounced ‘boomTONG’, not ‘BUMthang’, FYI) is in the Tang Valley. Tula, our guide, describes our hostess, Ms. Kunzang Choden, as ‘of a noble family’. She’s also an author, having published ‘Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan‘. Her husband is Swiss. We have rösti with our dinner.

At home with the princess

On the grounds of the property is the Ogyen Choling museum.

This is the Jampa Lhakhang monastery near Bumthang. It’s famous for staging a mysterious ‘naked dance‘ annually.

Dance Naked

Bhutan has a lot of festivals. Peak tourist season (which we are NOT in now) usually means foreign visitors want to see these spectacles performed.

Doorway – Jampa Lhakhang monastery

It’s not something we like to do: Bhutanese people are very sincere about the importance of these dances. We feel that the more they become a tourist attraction, the less vital they become for Bhutanese identity. But that’s just us.

We visit a ‘heritage house’, which portrays traditional everyday life in Bhutan in the past.

Our hostess is the dignified Ms. Dorji Lhamo.

We are shown tools, textiles, and other artifacts.

Mr. Rinsin, our driver, has to interpret Dorji’s eastern dialect

This is the balcony at the rear. Actually, Ms. Lhamo’s house next door doesn’t seem that much different from the ‘heritage house’.

Not far from Bumthang is the Pema Choling nunnery.

Get thee to a nunnery, go!’ – Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

Among their duties is caring for the nearby Burning Lake – an important place in the national mythology.

On the way, we see a stupa under construction. The low-tech scaffolding and ample manpower bring to mind the Pharaonic construction of the pyramids.

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.‘ – Exodus 1:11

Another day, we make an excursion to Lhuentse.

Langur in a tree

Along the way, we stop to visit a suspension bridge over the swift-flowing  Kuri Chhu river.

‘… a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun…‘ – Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

Lhuentse Dzong from below.

As usual, the doors are photo-worthy.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. ‘ – William Blake

And below flows the Kuri Chhu river.

These dzongs often combine the monastery with the local civil government.

Courtyard – Lhuentse Dzong

A young monk takes a break from his studies.

We stop for a picnic lunch along the river.

We make a postprandial visit to Khoma, a village where women bring home the bacon by their weaving skills.

House in Khoma

This woman spends about four hours a day at the loom.

That’s besides doing other household work.

Fruit of the Loom

We visit another monastery on top of a mountain.

In the courtyard, monks and lay people are practicing for an upcoming dance.

Tula tells us about a politically incorrect Bhutanese saying: ‘Beware of women or monks driving.’

Monk practicing his motorcycle skills for his driving test

Another fancy door.

Courtesy of Tula

Some monks relax in the garden.

View of the river far below.

This monk is very generous about explaining the history of the monastery.

Thanks for the tour

We arrive back in Trashigang.


Trashigang looks a bit like an Elizabethan town.

Town square

Tula, Mr. Rinsin, and I stock up on water for the road.

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan.

Doing a victory dance

We see a fascinating example of how this works. Rivals shoot from 125 meters (!) away. The opponents do a mocking dance in front of the target, daring the other side to come close to hitting them (while keeping a close eye on the actual trajectory of fired arrows.) When a team does score a bulls-eye, then begins an elaborate dance that looks like a bunch of football players celebrating a touchdown.

Sight or Insight of the Day

We hear that João Gilberto passed away. Descanse em paz, amigo.

Um cantinho, um violão…

This man almost single-handedly brought Bossa Nova to the world. That world is a richer place for containing such classics as ‘Chega de saudade‘ and ‘Corcovado‘.

See you in another life, João.

The Road to Trongsa

From Punakha we drive to Trongsa. Much of the route follows these death-defying dirt roads.

Glad I’m not driving…

As usual, around mid-morning we stop for a tea.

Time for a cuppa

We pass many stupas along the way.

We eventually arrive at the outskirts of town.

Trongsa Dzong from the other side of the valley

Downtown Trongsa is a hive of activity.

We get a view of the dzong from our hotel room balcony.

At our hotel, a man paints decorative dragons on the doorway.

In the valley below is a dam for a hydro-power project.

Hydro exported to India

The fortress/monastery is a short stroll away.


We befriend a kitten.

‘He who is kind to animals, heaven will protect.’ – Gautama Buddha

Pretty amazing doors are standard in these places.

Gotta keep the monkeys out, though.

Tula takes this photo as we look out from an ornate upper gallery.

Coming out of the woodwork

Sight or Insight of the Day – Trongsa

We read ‘Beyond the Sky and the Earth‘, by Jamie Zeppa. A quick read, and schmaltzy in the way of most chick-lit, but interesting in that many of its observations are still evident in Bhutan today. (The political tension is much reduced now.)

Bhutan is the kind of place that lends itself to over-romanticization. The country is making hay with its ‘Gross National Happiness‘ initiative – seems like a Bhutan Tourism Board marketing gimmick, really. Bhutan is already a kinder, gentler place than any surrounding country, but that’s probably more because they are a small, Buddhist country rather than anything else.

Punakha and Points East

Our time in Bhutan is nearly up – we’ll try to keep the blog up to date by posting shorter entries. Here goes.

We head east from Thimphu over the Dochula Pass.

The 108 Druk Wangyal chortens

There are always things to see along the way.

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Terraced rice paddies

We stop to visit a market. Maria stocks up on fruit.

Village market

A pair of nuns walks from one village to the next.

We stay near Punaka in a town called Lobesa. We walk through rice paddies to the temple of Chimi Lhakhang.

This is the Punakha Dzong, located at the confluence of two rivers.

We model giveaway t-shirts for Bhutan Mountain Holiday

As we enter, we pass an aged monk pondering life’s eternal questions.

What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?

There are giant beehives hanging above the main door.

The interior is pretty neat, too.

Wall art – Punakha Dzong
Courtyard – Punakha Dzong
Shrine room – Punakha Dzong
Gold doors – Punakha Dzong
Stupa – Punakha Dzong

There’s also a great suspension bridge over the river.

Sight or Insight of the Day – Punakha

The Chimi Lhakhang temple is known for its fertility-enhancing powers.

This means many buildings in the area are adorned with graphic paintings of phalluses.

Souvenir shop

What would Freud make of it all?

Thimphu & Special Canada Day Edition!

Happy Canada Day!

Our hotel happens to have some Canadian flags

Can July 1 be here again so soon? Doesn’t seem like a year since we were raising a glass to the True North Strong and Free in Australia.

Revised global map courtesy of Canadian World Domination

In tribute, here’s a link to one of my favourite songs about Canada – The Longest Road – from the underappreciated songwriter/guitarist Stephen Fearing. And just so our francophone frères et sœurs don’t feel left out, a lovely version of Un Canadian Errant.

We enlist some hotel staff for a photo opp.

How do you say ‘Happy Canada Day’ in Bhutanese?

So until we are once more in nestled in the bosom of the Canadian motherland, we wish everyone at home a great Canada Day/Bonne Fête du Canada.

Now, where were we? Oh yeah; from Paro, we drive to the capital city of Thimphu.

Iron chain bridge

The Tamchog Chakzam (iron chain bridge). According to legend, ‘Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo was the Tibetan man who built the iron chain bridges in Bhutan in the late 1300s, and is said to have built 108 of these bridges around Tibet and Bhutan.’ 

Bridge, tourists, prayer flags

We stop for some fruit along the way. Wrapped in plastic are cubes of local cheese.

We arrive in Thimphu.

Thimphu from above

Among Thimphu’s sights is a giant seated Buddha.

Thimphu is sometimes describes as ‘the only capital city in the world without traffic lights.’ Not quite; we know for a fact that Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, has no traffic lights. (Actually, they have hundreds left over from the days of French rule. They just haven’t worked in decades.)

Traffic control in central Thimphu

We seek out the Bhutan Textile Museum. Unfortunately, you can’t take photos inside.

This tapestry is at the entrance

This is the Memorial Stupa, built to commemorate the third King of Bhutan.

Our guide, Tula, points out an interesting phenomenon. Some people who work in town leave their elderly relatives at the stupa grounds as a sort of ‘daycare for seniors’.

Granddaddy Daycare

The photo below shows a killer fungus used as medicine in these parts. According to wikipedia:

O. sinensis parasitizes the larvae of moths within the family Hepialidae, specifically genera found on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas, between elevations of 3000 m and 5000 m. The fungus germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then a dark brown stalk-like fruiting body which is a few centimeters long emerges from the corpse and stands upright.’

This is taken in a post office. Someone’s going to get a special treat in the mail.

Sight or Insight of the Day

We visit a fair-trade shop that sells Bhutanese textiles and other things at a fixed price.

Backstrap loom

Bhutan has a rich tradition in textiles.

These jackets – tegos – are worn by women.

An array of silk scarves.

We pick out a few things to send home.