Jaipur – Heart of Rajasthan

In July of 2012 I was invited to visit a new Indian university to assist the faculty to establish a GIS Master’s Degree program modeled after a long and well recognized program at the University of Redlands. The trip began with a flight from LA to Zurich on Swiss International Airlines. My seat in Business Class afforded me a great culinary experience, beginning with a fantastic Nicoise salad of peppered Yellow Fin Tuna, followed by the main course of Chicken Dijon, accompanied by a unique shallot bread pudding. The dessert of vanilla mousse with Bourbon butter peaches, topped with crumbled almond biscotti finished off the evening in grand fashion. The next day, we landed in Zurich under cloudy skies and light rain showers – a dramatic contrast to the 100+ degree weather I had left in southern California! Since my onward flight to New Delhi departed two hours before, Swiss International had arranged for a hotel room at the “Welcome Inn Hotel” in the small town of Kloten, just 10 minutes from the airport. That evening I went downstairs to the “Restaurant – Bar Kanzlei” for a cold beer – a local brew called “Halden Gut”. As I looked around, I noticed a lot of people ordering “Cordon Bleu” for dinner, so I decided to do the same. It turned out to be a fabulous breaded pork schnitzel stuffed with parma ham and gruyere cheese, served with French fries and a delicious ratatouille. During the night there were several periods of heavy rain, and I awoke to a very wet world. After breakfast I grabbed my camera and hiked up a footpath behind the hotel, through the forest to the top of a hill overlooking the airport. I had entered a large nature reserve where there were beautiful views of the Swiss countryside as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.

Swiss Countryside
Swiss Countryside
Path in Nature Reserve
Path in Nature Reserve

On my way back to Kloten I came upon several old farmyards and the old village church with a small cemetery surrounding it. The path followed a small stream that flowed through the town.

Old Farmyard in Kloten
Old Farmyard in Kloten
Farmhouse in Kloten
Farmhouse in Kloten
Old Village Church
Old Village Church

Back at the hotel, I took the shuttle bus to the airport to check in for my flight to New Delhi. Once again the culinary experience in Business Class was superb – a delicious roasted Veal chop in wild mushroom cream sauce, accompanied by an amazing “potato roti”, a traditional Swiss dish that resembled a potato casserole. After dinner, I settled into my seat with a glass of Swiss wine to watch the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a movie that was filmed in Jaipur, India and a quintessential look at Indian philosophy and culture. I loved the film, which was so positive and uplifting. My favorite line in the film was “Everything will be alright in the end, and if it is not alright, then it is not the end”. It was a perfect introduction to arrival in India! Upon landing in New Delhi, I was astonished to find a brand new International Terminal, very spacious and beautifully decorated with all forms of Indian art and antiques. Despite the arrival of three 747’s at the same time, I cleared immigration and customs in a record time of 20 minutes, whereas on all of my earlier trips to India it had taken no less than two hours! A driver from the Indian International Centre (IIC) was waiting outside to take me to the hotel, which was part of a large research campus on the edge of the city. Finally, at 2am I checked into my room and called it a night. The air was still very warm and quite humid, even in the middle of the night.

Four hours later I awoke and discovered that IIC was surrounded by a lush tropical nature preserve called “Lodhi Gardens” – really a lovely, peaceful setting far removed from the noise of the chaotic traffic for which New Delhi is well known. The gardens contain the tombs of many Sayyid and Lodhi rulers of the 15th century Moghal Empire, the most famous being the tomb of Mohammed Shah. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lodi_Gardens

Tomb of Mohamed Shah - Lodhi Gardens
Tomb of Mohamed Shah – Lodhi Gardens

After breakfast, my colleagues from the local Esri office picked me up for the drive to the new NIIT University (NU) in the small town of Neemrana, about 60 miles south in the state of Rajasthan. The route followed the “National Highway” linking New Delhi with Jaipur, the capitol of Rajasthan. The journey was sometimes fast on the new 4 lane road, and at other times frustratingly slow, bordering upon not moving at all as the 4 lanes suddenly became a very narrow 2 lane road through every little town and village along the way! One must keep in mind that “lanes” on roads in India, although clearly marked, have little effect on how the traffic moves. Sometimes we found the southbound traffic using 3 lanes and then suddenly, without any warning, it seemed to reverse and we found ourselves driving in 1 lane! On top of that, our driver constantly darted around and amongst heavy trucks spewing huge clouds of thick black diesel smoke. Luckily for us the car was well air conditioned, but following just inches behind a large truck going 60 mph was a bit unnerving, to say the least. However, my Indian colleagues appeared unconcerned – just a “normal” drive in India. There were several times when we encountered massive traffic jams and trucks broken down in the middle of the road. Sometimes, along the roadside were signs reading “Accident Prone Zone – Go Slow”. In my view the entire highway qualified as an accident prone zone! As we neared Neemrana, we began seeing a lot of people dressed in yellow and orange, carrying large containers of water. I was told that these people were devout Hindu pilgrims carrying sacred water from the Ganges River, some of whom had walked hundreds of kilometers.

Devout Hindus carrying water from Ganges River
Devout Hindus carrying water from Ganges River

At last we arrived in Neemrana and I was taken to the new “Cambay Sapphire Hotel” in the heart of the old village – needless to say, although it was a very nice, modern hotel, it looked uncomfortably out of place among the ramshackle buildings surrounding it. My room was very nice, but the hotel was not quite finished. The bar had not received a permit yet, so it was closed, and it wasn’t possible to make international phone calls, let alone access the internet. However, my Indian hosts made sure to buy a large stock of beer for the fridge in my room. I soon found out that I was among only a dozen guests in the 500 room hotel, the others being technicians from Japan working on the development of a large manufacturing facility on the edge of the village. That evening I went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner and enjoyed a fantastic meal of chicken tikka masala, steamed rice, and fresh baked naan. Meanwhile, my Japanese neighbors ordered from the Japanese menu – they don’t know what they missed! Outside the evening air remained very humid and hot (95 degrees), but the locals kept saying how cool and comfortable it was now after the recent monsoon rains! After dinner, I turned on the TV in my room and found only 3 channels in English, out of more than 60, and surprisingly, one of the English language channels was NHK from Japan.

The next day was spent meeting with the NU faculty and staff to discuss the establishment of their new GIS Master’s Degree program. The discussion continued over lunch in the student cafeteria where several different vegetarian dishes were available, all of which were delicious. As I proceeded through the queue with my metal tray, I was reminded of my days in the Army and the mess hall. At the end of the day, I returned to my hotel room for a cold Kingfisher beer before enjoying another fantastic dinner in the restaurant downstairs. Then it was time to watch the world news on the NHK channel. I was up early the next morning to meet my university host for a trip to Jaipur, the ancient capital of Rajasthan. It’s often known as the “Pink City” for all its brightly colored buildings. Once again we were southbound on the National Highway with all its insane traffic. (hundreds of heavy trucks, cars in various states of disrepair, motorcycles, bicycles, tractors, camel carts, sacred cows, elephants, and people dashing in and out of the whole mess) Our driver was constantly weaving in and out among the trucks, inches from their bumper. Even sitting in the back seat was scary when I could see nothing in front but a massive steel bumper, made more frightening at 60 mph! But as I looked around it seemed like this was the norm, and throughout the 3 hour journey I saw only one minor accident. The most terrifying part of the trip came when traffic suddenly began travelling the wrong way straight toward us! Virtually all the heavy trucks were totally overloaded and had various signs painted on the rear, such as “Blow Horn Please” (and there was plenty of that going on), “Keep Distance” (which appeared to be completely ignored by everyone), “Use Dipper at Night” (British English for the headlight dimmer switch), and the most common sign of all “Great India”. Besides the very colorful trucks with their signs, I noticed several roadside signs in the numerous construction zones that read “Inconveniency Regretted”. (unfortunately they didn’t make the travel experience feel any better) As we passed through the small towns along the way, I made note of some of the business signs, like “The Meet Place” (a local bar) and “Lucky Family Restaurant”. At last we reached Jaipur and were rewarded with some amazing historic sites for which the city is famous. Among the most famous is the “Amer Fort”, also known as the “Red Fort”, having been built of local red sandstone, located on a high hill just outside the city. It’s a formidable structure built in 1592 by Raja Man Singh that blends both Hindu and Rajput styles of architecture in a massive four story structure. A significant architectural feature are the many beautiful courtyards and lush gardens incorporated seamlessly into every level, flowing naturally from one to the other like a river.

Amer Fort - central courtyard
Amer Fort – central courtyard
Amer Fort - main entrance
Amer Fort – main entrance
Amer Fort - central courtyard
Amer Fort – central courtyard
Amer Fort - gardens
Amer Fort – gardens
Amer Fort
Amer Fort

Also, a high stone wall, resembling the Great Wall of China, surrounded the enormous complex. My Indian host and I spent several hours walking around the gigantic palace, visiting the royal residences, libraries, gardens, and galleries, but we hardly saw even a quarter of it.

Amer Fort and great wall beyond
Amer Fort and great wall beyond
Amer Fort - great wall
Amer Fort – great wall

It’s definitely worth another visit someday. Meanwhile, thousands of families, both Hindu and Muslim, also wandered among the hundreds of rooms and gardens. Visiting Amer Fort remains the highlight of my time in Jaipur. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amer_Fort

From the Red Fort we drove into the center of the city to Albert Hall Museum, the oldest museum in the state of Rajasthan. It was built in 1876 and named in honor of Albert Edward, who later became King Edward VII. The museum had a rich collection of paintings, sculpture, carpets, ivory, stone and metal art, as well as stunning works of crystal. The large building was an elaborate structure of native stone and marble, with several towers and courtyards. It was situated in the center of a large park just outside the old city wall.

Albert Hall Museum
Albert Hall Museum

As we approached the museum I became aware of thousands of pigeons roosting on the roof of the building, but once inside the museum resembled a lavish palace, and the art work on display was beautiful, historical, and very impressive. During our visit, we encountered many families and groups of school children who were also enjoying the gorgeous displays, as well as the history of the museum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Hall_Museum

Late in the afternoon we paid a visit to “Hawa Mahal”, one of the most distinctive buildings in Jaipur, and known in English as the “Palace of Winds”. The entire front (façade) of the 5 story structure was carved from local red and pink sandstone and designed to be a “screen wall” to permit the women of the royal household to observe street festivals and everyday life while remaining unseen from the outside. The palace was built in 1799 by the Maharaja of Rajasthan in a style to resemble the crown of the great Hindu god Krishna. There were 953 small windows decorated with intricate lattice work, which allowed air to move freely through the entire structure, hence the origin of the name “Palace of the Winds”. It’s also believed that it gave rise to the name “The Pink City”, being forever associated with Jaipur.

Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds)
Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds)

A major restoration project was undertaken in 2006, and once again it gained the stature and heritage of its unique past! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawa_Mahal

On our return trip to Neemrana, we stopped at “Maharaja’s Food Restaurant” for a delicious spicy dinner of traditional Rajasthani dishes. Later, near a small village we came upon a large troop of monkeys alongside the road, surrounding a banana stand. So our driver stopped to buy some bananas to feed the monkeys. It was a very clever way to “market” the bananas!

The next day I met with students during lunch in the cafeteria, while a classic “Bollywood” movie played on the small TV in one corner of the room. Then after some further discussion of the proposed Master’s Degree program with the department faculty, I went back to the hotel where we were supposed to have dinner with the university President. But suddenly the plan was changed to meet at “Nurala’s Restaurant” in the Days Hotel (it looked exactly like a Days Inn in the US) several kilometers from Neemrana, since the Cambay Sapphire Hotel still did not have a license to sell alcohol. So once again we joined the heavy truck traffic on the National Highway headed north toward New Delhi, and soon we encountered a massive traffic jam at the toll booth. Eventually we reached the Days Hotel, after making a difficult and dangerous U-turn in the middle of the busy highway! The dinner was a fabulous selection of traditional food from Rajasthan, with whiskey and beer flowing freely all evening. When I finally got back to my hotel room, I watched part of a movie on TV titled “The Alamo”. It looked to be a fairly decent production, but, all of the English dialogue was accompanied by English subtitles, while the Spanish dialogue had no subtitles! (it’s something that still confounds me, especially having watched it in India) The following day I met with the university President to present a summary of my visit and discussions with the faculty and staff. Before leaving for the return trip to New Delhi, I was given a tour of the campus by the facility manager, a retired Commodore in the Indian Air Force. He had a deep passion for the natural environment surrounding the campus. Afterwards I was presented with a gift from the President, and the Commodore insisted that I help plant a tree, a university tradition. As I scooped soil around the little tree, I was asked to give it a name, so I named it “Magellan” in honor of my Siamese cat of the same name. But I had to explain to the Commodore that it was also the name of the first person to circumnavigate the world!

Luckily for us the truck traffic on the National Highway was fairly light, so we made good time on our journey back to New Delhi, despite the occasional herds of goats, sheep, and cattle crossing the busy 6 lane highway, bringing all traffic to a halt! (I think only in India is this taken as a natural and accepted part of driving) As we approached the outskirts of the city we passed an overcrowded bus (the only kind of bus in India), and as I looked up I saw a monkey happily riding on top! Soon afterwards we made a stop for lunch at a roadside McDonalds. (after executing another scary U-turn across the busy 6 lane highway) The menu, as well as almost everything about the place, was just as you would find at home, with the exception that all the hamburger choices were made with chicken. (virtually no one in India would eat beef or pork) I ordered a “McSpicy Chicken Burger” with fries, and it was superb! Once we arrived in New Delhi, I met with the CEO of NIIT to brief him on my time at the university, which he had established two years earlier. We had a great conversation about GIS technology, and as I was leaving he gave me one of his favorite books, which he personally signed for me. Not only was he one of the wealthiest and most influential men in India, he was very bright, articulate, and humble, having risen from a poor, rural background. It was a real pleasure talking with him. Then it was time for my return to the Indian International Centre to check in for the next two nights before my return flight to Los Angeles. I went to the bar and enjoyed an ice cold liter bottle of Carlsberg beer as I sat outside in the warm, humid evening listening to the cacophony of birds in the park. Meanwhile, a fierce ceiling fan whirled above me, with little effect that I could tell. Later, I savored another delicious Indian dinner in the dining hall, along with a large number of scientists and researchers from around the world.

The next morning, I met with some of the technical staff in the Esri-India office before visiting the National Railway Museum nearby. I was amazed at the long history of railroads in India, dating back to the 1800’s when the country was an English colony. The 10 acre open-air museum was formally opened in 1977, dedicated to preserving the railroad heritage of India. Among the several dozen classic steam locomotives was the oldest operational steam locomotive in the world, the “Fairy Queen”, built in 1855. One of the most unique and fascinating collections was the “Patiala State Monorail Trainway”. It consisted of a single rail of iron track upon which the “load carrying” wheel ran. On the opposite side was one big steel wheel running on the ground to balance the load and keep the train upright. It was built in 1907 by Orenstein and Koppel of Berlin and remained in continuous operation until 1927.

Patiala State Monorail Trainway
Patiala State Monorail Trainway
Fairy Queen Steam Locomotive
Fairy Queen Steam Locomotive

At the other end of the spectrum of travel by rail was one of the most opulent and luxurious of the many plush private railcars that once transported Royalty and Maharajas around their kingdoms. The “Saloon of the Prince of Wales”, built for King Edward VII for his visit to India, was lavishly decorated with teak, velvet, gold, and ivory – several other saloon cars of similar luxury were also on display.

Saloon of the Prince of Wales
Saloon of the Prince of Wales

In stark contrast were the common passenger cars with their open air windows and hard wooden benches. I spent 2 hours walking amongst the old locomotives and railcars, and the experience was fascinating, despite the oppressive hot, humid weather. But I would not have missed this opportunity to visit the museum and see a unique part of Indian history. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Rail_Museum,_New_Delhi

Back at the Indian International Centre I decided to take a long walk through “Lodhi Gardens”, the huge park surrounding the centre. Not only did I enjoy the peace and quiet of the lovely tropical forest, I also discovered several beautiful 15th and 17th century mosques and tombs. Lodhi Gardens was once the estate of a powerful “Moghul” whose family ruled the region centuries ago. After walking through the gardens for a couple of hours (there were many young couples enjoying time together, away from their crowded homes), I returned to the bar at the centre for another ice cold Carlsberg before checking out.

Young couple walking in Lodhi Gardens
Young couple walking in Lodhi Gardens
Tomb of Mohammed Shah
Tomb of Mohammed Shah
Remains of Ancient Mosque in Lodhi Gardens
Remains of Ancient Mosque in Lodhi Gardens
15th Century Moghul tomb in Lodhi Gardens
15th Century Moghul tomb in Lodhi Gardens

Luckily, the trip to the airport went smoothly and soon I was checking in for the Swiss International flight to Los Angeles via Zurich. Flights from New Delhi to Europe typically depart around 1am, so as to arrive for the start of the business day at 7am. I was fortunate to be able to spend the time waiting for the flight in the new Lufthansa Business Class lounge – it was very comfortable and offered a wide selection of food and beverages. Once on board the flight to Zurich, we were served a very nice light Indian meal, and sleep came to me soon after.

Upon arrival in Zurich, I proceeded to the Swiss International arrivals lounge to take advantage of a shower and delicious breakfast. Since my connecting flight to LAX wasn’t scheduled to depart for another 6 hours, I decided to take a train to the small town of Zug in the heart of the Swiss Alps southwest of Zurich. It was a lovely journey through the Swiss countryside to the quaint old town on the shore of a beautiful lake and surrounded by spectacular snow-capped mountains. I spent a few hours walking around the town and along the lakeshore, taking photos and soaking up the historical atmosphere before boarding the train back to Zurich.

Lake Zug
Lake Zug
Town of Zug along lakeshore
Town of Zug along lakeshore
Town Square in Zug
Town Square in Zug
Rathskeller in Zug
Rathskeller in Zug

The 12 hour flight to LAX was once again smooth and very comfortable in Business Class. During the flight I watched a most interesting film titled “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”. The film is a romantic comedy-drama about a fisheries expert who is recruited by a consultant to help realize a sheikh’s vision of bringing the sport of fly fishing to the Yemen desert, initiating an upstream journey of faith to make the impossible possible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salmon_Fishing_in_the_Yemen Finally we landed at LAX and I encountered very long lines to clear immigration and customs, as well as a long, frustrating ride back home in horrific freeway traffic. But despite the experience of my return home, I brought back a treasure of memories from amazing places and a bundle of beautiful photos. India can be uncomfortable at times and very frustrating, but it’s also one of the most interesting and fascinating places on earth. Visiting India takes a great deal of patience and tolerance if one hopes to enjoy the experience. And despite having traveled to India many times I still find the experience much the same – uncomfortable, fascinating, scary, beautiful, ugly, strange, unique – the list goes on, yet it remains one of my favorite destinations!

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Bhutan – Himalayan Kingdom

In November of 2002 I was invited by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) to attend the first GIS Symposium in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny country in the heart of the Himalayas. There was virtually no “tourism” in the country since the only people from outside allowed to enter had to be officially invited by a Bhutanese government agency, so this was an opportunity that I wasn’t going to miss. My trip started with a stopover in Rome to meet with FAO staff and conduct a short training class. Then it was on to Bombay and finally New Delhi where I was to connect with a Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu and join UN staff who were also going to the symposium in Bhutan. Arriving at Indira Ghandi Airport I had four hours before the scheduled departure of the Kathmandu flight at 7:15pm, or so I thought. My heart sank as I looked at the monitor and saw the flight was delayed until 1:45am! Naturally there was no one from the airline around to discuss options. The Royal Nepal Airlines flight was to connect in Kathmandu with the Druk Airlines flight to Bhutan, and since that flight would begin in New Delhi in the morning, I made a decision to stay overnight in New Delhi and try to get on the Druk Airlines flight in the morning. But of course there was no one from Druk Airlines around to confirm a seat on the flight. After a cold Kingfisher beer in the one and only bar open in the terminal, I heard an announcement of the arrival of the Druk Airlines flight from Paro, so I hustled up to their office and found a nice young man who listened to my story and said, to my great relief, there would be no problem to change to the Druk Airlines flight in the morning. I left a note at the office of Royal Nepal Airlines informing them of my change in travel plans and then got a taxi to the new Radisson Airport Hotel, after bartering with the driver to pay 300 rupees instead of the 500 he was demanding. After a short but chaotic drive amidst trucks and buses belching huge, foul smelling clouds of heavy black diesel smoke, we arrived at the 5 star luxury hotel. Entering the beautiful pink marble lobby was a world away from the crowded streets of New Delhi, and the complimentary upgrade to a nice business class room was most welcome after 27 hours of travel from Rome. After enjoying happy hour in the Concierge Lounge, I headed to the hotel’s “NYC Café” for dinner. All of the restaurant staff were dressed in sombreros and colorful blankets to celebrate “Mexican Buffet Night”. (To be entirely honest, they all looked like “bandidos” from Poncho Villa’s army!) But they were exceptionally courteous in offering me a selection of Mexican beers. Later on another “bandido” came by with a large bottle of tequila slung over his shoulder and offering shots. Not wanting to eat Mexican food while in India I chose a delicious dish of chicken tikka masala to go with my Corona beer. Back in my room I set the alarm clock for 5:00am and watched a National Geographic film about a young Pakistani woman who had been blinded and disfigured by her husband after she became pregnant as the result of a rape! Later she escaped to the US and was treated by a Pakistani doctor in Washington, DC who literally “rebuilt” her face. It was an amazing and truly inspiring story. (She was much more fortunate than many Pakistani women who are killed by their husbands and even their fathers in some cases, being justified as “honor killings”)

Early the next morning I took the hotel shuttle back to the airport to arrange a seat on the Druk Airlines flight. It came as no surprise when I saw the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu was now scheduled to depart at 6:00am! Thankfully I was given a seat on the Druk Airlines flight since I already had a confirmed seat on the sold out leg from Kathmandu to Paro. As I went to pay for the new ticket with my credit card, a frown appeared on the airline manager’s face, and I was informed that the airline would only accept cash in the form of Bhutanese Bhat or Indian Rupees! Then he lead me to the Thomas Cook foreign currency exchange where I was able to get a cash advance of 18,000 rupees, enough to purchase the ticket – thank goodness, as there was now less than 20 minutes before departure! After going through a thorough security check we joined other passengers travelling to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The 1 ½ hour flight to Kathmandu was pleasant and a nice breakfast was served by flight attendants in native Bhutanese dress. Landing in Kathmandu, more passengers boarded, including my UN colleagues. The flight was absolutely jammed with people carrying bulky backpacks and huge plastic bags stuffed to overflowing on to the small aircraft! Departing Kathmandu, the plane climbed steadily to 29,000 feet and the captain began pointing out the highest and most important peaks of the Himalayan Range, including Lothse at 28,000 feet and of course Mt Everest at over 29,000 feet, which was actually just slightly above us.

High Peaks of the Himalayas
High Peaks of the Himalayas

About 45 minutes later we began our descent toward Paro, the one and only airport in Bhutan. Slowly the plane weaved its way down through the steep, narrow valley and the mountains began to close in on us. At one point I could look out both sides of the plane and see nothing but trees and rocks clinging to the steep slopes less than 100 meters away! I could only imagine what it must be like to land in bad weather? We finally landed in Paro under beautiful clear skies and were met by our Bhutanese host Drungkar. We loaded our bags into the Landcruiser and headed east on one of the few roads in the country. After an hour or so we stopped for tea at the Pegyel Hotel beside the Wang Chhu River, where we enjoyed a gorgeous view of the mountains and the trees in their full autumn glory along the banks of the river.

Paro Valley
Paro Valley
Tea Break at Pegyel Hotel
Tea Break at Pegyel Hotel

The hotel was built in the unique and traditional style of a Bhutanese wooden building, with intricate details carved around the windows. Then it was back on the road to Thimphu, the country’s capital – a long two hour drive on a rough, narrow winding road that followed the river. The “highway” was only one lane in many places and the maximum speed limit was 30 – 40 kph (20 – 25 mph). It was typical for everyone to drive down the center of the road, swerving to the side at the last moment for oncoming traffic! They all seemed to know the “rules of the road”, but whenever our vehicle swerved toward the outside edge on a sharp curve, with only a foot to spare where the dropoff was well over 100 meters (350 feet) down to the river, it was pretty scary! Finally, we arrived in Thimphu and were taken to the Jambayang Resort, a small, rustic hotel on the hill across the river from the city. I was shown to a nice “apartment” with a balcony overlooking the river and the city beyond, surrounded by steep forested mountains.

Jambayang Resort Hotel
Jambayang Resort Hotel
View of Thimphu from Jambayang Resort Hotel
View of Thimphu from Jambayang Resort Hotel
Enjoying a cold beer on my balcony
Enjoying a cold beer on my balcony

Soon I was sitting on the balcony in the warm afternoon sun, enjoying a cold Black Label beer from India. Later that evening we were all invited to a formal dinner in the hotel, hosted by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. Lots of Indian beer and Nepalese whiskey flowed freely all night, and I was introduced to the local “Red Panda” beer produced in Bhutan. It was a nice Weisbier developed by a Swiss sponsored aid project originally targeted to develop a cheese making industry in Bumtang, a small town in eastern Bhutan. During the dinner there were many toasts and at one point I noticed the Secretary was wearing a long white undergarment under his traditional “Gho”, and it was exposed above his high socks, but it didn’t seem to bother him, or anyone else for that matter.

The next morning, I arose early to find clear blue skies and a chill in the air. Before retiring for the night, I had placed the one and only small electric heater in the marble floored bathroom to ensure a warm place for a shower in the morning. But to my dismay, I found the old extension cord had a bad connection and the heater had failed sometime during the night. So it was literally a stone cold bathroom, but luckily there was hot water for my shower. Following a delicious English breakfast, we drove up to Dochu La Summit viewpoint for a spectacular view of the high Himalayan peaks covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow. We were standing at an elevation of 3150 meters (11,000 feet) and staring at peaks soaring over 7500 meters (25,000 feet) on the northern horizon.

Dochu Summit viewpoint
Dochu Summit viewpoint
High Peaks of the Himalayas from Dochu Summit
High Peaks of the Himalayas from Dochu Summit
Buddhist prayer flags at Dochu Summit
Buddhist prayer flags at Dochu Summit

It was one of the highlights of my visit to Bhutan. Leaving the summit, we followed a very narrow, rough winding road down through heavily forested mountains, descending over 2000 meters (7000 feet) to the ancient village of Punakha, surrounded by huge rice terraces. In the region surrounding the village were two beautiful and ancient Buddhist monasteries. One was “Punakha Dzong”, also known as the Palace of Great Happiness. The other was “Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag”, a very impressive ancient fortress that eventually became a monastery. (Several ancient fortresses had been built by the rulers of Bhutan as protection against raiders from Tibet)

Rice terraces near Punakha
Rice terraces near Punakha
Punakha Dzong - Palace of Great happiness
Punakha Dzong – Palace of Great Happiness
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag

As we walked around each of the monasteries, many young monks came running up to greet us. I ended up giving away all my pens, save for one, and the expressions on their faces were so beautiful and welcoming. Everywhere I saw incredible architecture of stone and wood, along with brilliantly colored paintings.

Inside a Buddhist monastery
Inside a Buddhist monastery
Painting of "Enlightenment"
Painting of “Enlightenment”
Traditional Bhutanese architectural wood carvings
Traditional Bhutanese architectural wood carving

That evening we checked into “Hotel YT” in the small village of Lobesa, just south of Punakha, where we enjoyed dinner outside on a large deck overlooking the valley. Later that evening the one and only television in the hotel was showing the English language news from BBS (Bhutan Broadcasting Service). Among the very important news stories were (1) locations and dates for census reporting, (2) locations and dates for school exams, and (3) weather conditions and forecasts for virtually every town and village in Bhutan. (We never heard any international news – no wonder this country is so isolated in the world)

Road sign pointing our way
Road sign pointing our way

The next day we drove back to Thimphu, once again over narrow, rough winding roads. Unfortunately, thick clouds covered the high peaks of the Himalayas. After a couple of hours we stopped for tea at a police checkpoint along the border with India and watched an Indian Army convoy pass by on their way to resupply the road maintenance stations. The remainder of our journey back to Thimphu passed through beautiful, thick pine forests that carpeted the steep mountain slopes rising thousands of feet above the road. Once back in Thimphu I spent the afternoon walking around the old town and had a nice lunch at “Plums Restaurant” with my UN colleague Sushil. We discovered that Thimphu has no traffic lights, nor does anywhere else in the country for that matter. However, there was a traffic policeman directing the few cars in the city from his post in the middle of the intersection.

Traffic control in Thimphu
Traffic control in Thimphu

On our walk back to the Jambayang Hotel we stopped to watch an archery competition, the national sport of Bhutan. Nearby was a street sign about the “prohibition against public urination and defecation” – something I could certainly support. After another delicious Bhutanese dinner, I retired for the night as the chilly air crept into the valley. The next morning, following breakfast with our host Kinley, we drove up into the Thimphu valley, passing a large Dzong (old Buddhist monastery) that had been converted into use as a government headquarters building – a very impressive structure. Further up the valley was a military training post and a small Tibetan refugee camp. Then the road became very steep and narrow as it clung to the side of the steep mountain slope amid the beautiful pine forest. At the end of the road we came upon an old monastery literally “hanging” on a sheer rock face directly above us. Nearby was a small stone bridge entirely covered with different colored prayer flags blowing in the wind. This place also happened to be the entrance to a national park.

Buddhist monastery in the Thimphu Valley
Buddhist monastery high on the mountain in the Thimphu Valley
Stone bridge - entrance to the national park
Stone bridge – entrance to the national park
View of the Thimphu Valley
View of the Thimphu Valley

As we gazed at the monastery, Kinley told us that young men from every Bhutanese family must enter a Buddhist monastery for at least three years, and during that time they have no contact with their family. It’s a tough, rigorous religious training, and some of the young men choose it for life. On our way back to Thimphu we stopped at the zoo to see Yaks that are native to the Himalayas and Tibet.

Yaks at the zoo
Yaks at the zoo

Then it was time for traditional Yak butter tea at Kinley’s house. It’s a very popular drink in Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, but the taste borders on greasy and rancid – definitely one that must be acquired! The day ended with another dinner at the Jambayang Hotel, where I met a fascinating one-armed American guy who was working on a USAID sponsored mushroom production project in the eastern provinces of the country. On our last day in Thimphu we met with probably all of the GIS users in the country, where I gave a technical presentation and some software demos, despite a couple of power outages. Eventually it all worked out and people appreciated the opportunity to see the latest software developments. That evening we were honored guests at another fabulous formal dinner of traditional Bhutanese dishes at the historic Druk Hotel, hosted again by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. The hospitality of the Bhutanese people is well known throughout Asia and we were the very fortunate recipients. During dinner Kinley informed me that all government officials and school children were required to wear the traditional Bhutanese dress that included a religious shawl and knee-high socks for men. In fact, the men love to wear very colorful “Argyle” socks.

Our drive back to the airport in Paro the next day was another hair raising experience on the narrow winding mountain road. Our group stopped twice to replenish their supply of “paan” – the essence of the Beetle Nut which produces a mild feeling of intoxication and relaxation.

The stop for replenishing "paan"
The stop for replenishing “paan”

Upon arriving in Paro that evening we had a spectacular view of the famous “Taktshang Monastery” perched high on the sheer vertical cliff thousands of feet above the valley. It is more well known as the “Tiger’s Nest” and dates back to the early 1600’s.

The "Tiger's Nest" monastery
The “Tiger’s Nest” monastery

Back at the Pegyel Hotel we were invited to join a reception and dinner by a group from the World Trade Commission. As we all sat around a huge campfire, we were treated to a beautiful performance of traditional Bhutanese music and dancing. Later the Aussies in the group also gave a memorable performance of “Waltzing Matilda”, to the delight of everyone. All in all, it was a lovely evening under cold, clear night skies. Before retiring for the night, Kinley and Sushil insisted that I join them for a traditional “stone bath”. There was a large stone tub buried in the ground and the water was heated by red hot stones from a fire at one end. It was very relaxing, like being in a modern hot tub, but this experience dates back hundreds of years, as compared to my 10 year old hot tub at home.

Pegyel Hotel in Paro
Pegyel Hotel in Paro
Traditional Bhutanese "hot tub"
Traditional Bhutanese “hot tub”

The traditional Bhutanese music continued into the late evening hours as we soaked in the hot water. It was a very restful, quiet, and peaceful sleep that night. The next morning, to my dismay, there was no water in the hotel so it was a very chilly beginning to the day. Outside the air was quite cold and there was even ice on the car. But once we arrived at the airport, I was fortunate to get the last window seat on the flight back to Kathmandu, and I had amazing views of the highest Himalayan peaks, as well as the Tibetan plateau beyond. Upon arriving in Kathmandu it came as a bit of a surprise to learn that it was less expensive for me to stay at the new Hyatt Hotel ($45 per night) than at the UN Guest House. The hotel was a gorgeous five star property in a park like setting with a beautiful view of the valley and the mountains. In the lobby were lovely scale models in stone of famous Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout Nepal.

Hyatt Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal
Hyatt Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal
Stone scale models of Buddhist temples in Nepal
Stone scale models of Buddhist temples in Nepal

For the next three days I conducted a training class for the UN staff at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Following the work in Kathmandu I joined some of the UN staff on a trip to Lhasa to attend the first Tibetan GIS Conference. But that’s another story, and a fascinating one at 18,000 feet – so stay tuned!