24 Days and 27,000 Miles – Bombay-Kathmandu-Bhutan-Tibet-Kunming-Bangkok

In November of 2002, I embarked on a long business trip to Asia to conduct software training classes for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The ticket agent at LAX had trouble sorting out my two reservations, three separate tickets, and all the upgrades to business class. The length of my itinerary and numerous connections on the route from New York to Rome, Paris, Bombay, New Delhi, Kathmandu and back again made it even more of a struggle for her! But eventually, flights were upgraded (a perk of being a “Million Miler” with Delta), tickets re-issued, and boarding passes printed. Then I boarded a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York JFK airport. I made the connection in New York with only a few minutes to spare. The 7 ½ hour flight to Rome was very pleasant. Dinner began with a small plate of steamed rock lobster, grilled shrimp, and crisp steamed asparagus, followed by a delicious fresh green salad topped with roasted red pepper vinaigrette dressing. For the main dish I chose the pan-seared halibut in a Thai green curry sauce, served with stir fried Asian vegetables – absolutely incredible! After the fruit and cheese course, along with a glass of Port, I retired for a few hours of sleep, somewhere over the North Atlantic.

The next day I had a meeting at the FAO headquarters in Rome to discuss future training plans for their GIS staff. Later that afternoon, I boarded an Air France flight to Paris, where I connected with the Delta Airlines flight to Bombay. Seated across the aisle from me on the flight to Bombay was an Indian man with his young five-year old daughter. She was very cute and a favorite of the flight attendants, who doted on her all during the 8-hour flight. As we flew over Turkey and Iran, a very tasty dinner of lamb kabob and chicken tandoori was served, before arriving in Bombay at 1:00 am. And to my great surprise and relief, there had been significant improvements made in the Immigration and Customs procedure. The airport had even installed a “Disney line” to eliminate the “chaos” of the past. Remarkably, I was through the formalities in a matter of minutes, compared with the hours I had endured in the past! That night I stayed at the luxurious 5-star Leela Kempinski Hotel near the airport. As I was walking out of the terminal, I spotted an advertisement that read “Sahara Airlines – Emotionally Yours”.

Leela Kempinski Hotel – Bombay

The next morning, I returned to the airport and boarded a Jet Airways flight to New Delhi. And despite the short duration of the flight, we were served a delicious lunch of Hyderabad fish curry, Shinkampur Kebab, Gobi Mussalum, and onion Pulao, along with a small salad, bowl of soup, Indian breads, fresh fruit plate, chocolate cake, and tea! (incredible for a 55-minute flight) As we approached New Delhi, I could see the dark, heavy air pollution hanging over the city. We arrived at the domestic terminal (1A), so when I asked the Jet Airways staff how to get to the international terminal, they simply said “go outside and turn left”. That took me to the international terminal 1B, but my flight to Kathmandu was scheduled to depart from international terminal 2! So, when I asked how to get to terminal 2, I was told that I needed to take a taxi! Immediately a young guy grabbed my bags, loaded them into an old white Indian made car, and we piled into the back seat. Leaving terminal 1B, the engine sputtered and rattled terribly as we sped through the crowded streets. The old car bounced along with the rest of the chaotic New Delhi traffic, dodging hectic scenes of bicycles, push carts, scooters, tuk tuks, and huge diesel smoking trucks and buses – not to mention the holy cows wandering aimlessly amidst all the traffic! (it was uniquely “India”)

Amid this chaos I noticed three things about the old car. (1) The steering wheel was mounted at a 45-degree angle to the driver. (2) The needle on the gas gauge was below empty, but then again, none of the gauges appeared to be working! (3) The turn signals were operated by a small switch on the dashboard, although I never saw it being used! Despite these “deficiencies” the driver seemed to handle the dilapidated old beast pretty well in the heavy traffic. (ie. I arrived at terminal 2 in one piece!)  There was a full 4 hours to wait before the scheduled departure of the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu at 7:15pm. But my heart sank when I checked the display board of arrivals and departures and saw the flight was “delayed” until 1:45am! And, of course, there was no one from the airline to be seen. But since I was already booked on the Druk Air flight from Kathmandu to Paro the next day, which originated in New Delhi, I decided to look into the possibility of staying overnight in New Delhi and taking the Druk Air flight instead in the morning. But, of course, there was no one around from Druk Air to confirm the change, and nobody knew when they might return to their office. It became a very frustrating situation; however, I was able to find a small restaurant and bar in the huge waiting hall. So at least I was able to enjoy a cold Taj Mahal beer, while a cheap B-movie played on an old TV in the corner. It was a bad Hindi takeoff on a combination of “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, and “Night of the Living Dead”! About an hour later I heard an announcement about the arrival of the Druk Air flight from Paro, Bhutan. I rushed down to the arrivals area in an attempt to find someone from the airline, but all in vain. Just by chance, as I reluctantly headed back up to the departures lounge, I found a nice guy in the Druk Air office. He patiently listened to my story and then said, “it should be no problem to switch flights”. Upon hearing this, I quickly decided to stay overnight in New Delhi. Before leaving the airport, I left a note at the office of Royal Nepal Airlines, informing them of my change in travel plans. Then I proceeded to find a taxi to the nearby Radisson Airport Hotel. As I exited the departures area, a young man approached and asked if I needed a taxi, so I said yes. Just then a grizzled old man popped out of the shadows and demanded 500 rupees for the short 10-minute journey. I countered with 250 rupees, but he insisted on 500. When I said “No, I’ll wait for the hotel shuttle van”, he offered 400 rupees – we struck a deal at 300 rupees! Suddenly, two more young men jumped out of the car and quickly threw my bags into the boot (trunk), as I was “herded into the back seat, holding my garment bag in my lap. Meanwhile, the old man sat beside me and the three young guys squeezed themselves into the narrow front seat. The short drive was very hectic in the heavy rush hour traffic, weaving in and out between trucks and buses belching huge volumes of foul-smelling black diesel smoke! At last, after many directions shouted by the old man, we arrived at the hotel. And as I suspected, the old man claimed that neither he nor his sons had any change for my one and only 500 rupee bank note! So, as I surrendered my lonely bank note, I admonished him for his sly “trickery”!

But at long last, I stepped into the beautiful pink marble lobby of the 5-star Radisson Hotel – a world away from the stress and frustrations of the airport. The hotel front desk must have known that somehow, maybe by the expression on my face, and proceeded to upgrade me to a business class suite at no extra charge.

Radisson Airport Hotel lobby – New Delhi

After checking in, I went up to the Concierge Level lounge for the complimentary Happy Hour and enjoyed a cold Black Label beer, after which I headed downstairs to the “NYC Café” for dinner. Upon entering the restaurant, I discovered all the servers 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 and friendly as they offered me a selection of imported Mexican beers. Later in the evening, another “bandido” came around with a large bottle of Tequila and shot glasses in a bandolier slung over his shoulder. Despite the valiant effort by the hotel to turn the room into Mexico, I was not up for eating Mexican food in India. So, I ordered my favorite dish of delicious Chicken Tikka Masala, rice, and fresh baked naan, along with a cold bottle of Kingfisher beer. After dinner, I retired to my room, set the alarm for 5 am, and nodded off to sleep. Earlier, I had watched a fascinating, but disturbing National Geographic film about a young Pakistani woman who was blinded and disfigured by her husband after she had become pregnant as the result of a vicious gang rape! Eventually she was able to make her way to America where she was treated by a Pakistani doctor in Washington, DC. He literally “rebuilt” her face! The story of her recovery was amazing and inspiring, but she was much more fortunate than many women in Pakistan who have been killed by their husbands, or even their fathers, that were “justified” as “honor killings”!

The next morning, I was up early at 6 am to meet the Druk Air station manager and confirm a seat on the direct flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu. As I entered the airport, I glanced at the display board showing the times of the departing flights. I must admit, it was not a total surprise when I saw the “new” departure time for the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu at 6 am! Just then, a very nice man from Druk Air met me and confirmed that I could buy a ticket from New Delhi to Paro since I already had a confirmed reservation on the “sold out” segment of the flight from Kathmandu to Paro. But when he asked me how I would pay for the ticket, and I answered, “by credit card”, a frown appeared on his face! I was then informed that only Bhutanese Baht or Indian Rupees would be accepted. At that point, he guided me to the Thomas Cook Agency office, where he advised me to get a cash advance of 18,000 rupees on my American Express credit card to pay for the ticket. I did so in short order, received my ticket, and proceeded through Immigration. As the Indian immigration officer looked at my old passport photo, he “chuckled” at the picture of my long hair and beard. (I had cut my long hair and beard two years before)

Having passed through the Immigration formalities, I headed to the wonderful peace and quiet of the Sheraton Maurya First Class lounge for a cup of coffee and an assortment of delicious Indian pastries. Afterwards, going through the security checkpoint, my baggage and I were thoroughly searched. As I arrived at the departure gate, passengers were boarding other flights to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Finally, we boarded an old Indian bus that took us to a small ATR-72 aircraft parked at the far end of the runway. Luckily, I had an aisle seat in economy class on what would be a completely full flight on the next segment. (Unfortunately, business class had been sold out for several weeks) The 1 ½ hour flight to Kathmandu was very pleasant, and we were served a nice breakfast by the beautiful, young flight attendants in traditional Bhutanese dress. Upon landing in Kathmandu, only a few people departed the plane, but a large crowd began boarding the flight. A very nervous Nepali man took the middle seat next to me, and he had incredibly large, active elbows. As I looked around, the plane was jammed with people trying to carry on everything from heavy backpacks to large black plastic bags stuffed to overflowing! My host and colleague from UNEP-ICIMOD also boarded the flight, to join me for the first GIS user conference scheduled in Bhutan. As we departed Kathmandu, the plane climbed steadily up to 29,000 feet, and the captain began pointing out the highest and most important peaks of the massive Himalaya Mountain Range, including Lhotse, Annapurna, and of course, Mt Everest. The mountains were shining brilliantly, clad in fresh fallen snow and jutting high above the clouds! It was a view that was only possible on the flight from Kathmandu to Paro, since the route parallels the southern boundary of the Himalaya Range – truly a spectacular vista!

Himalaya Range
Mt Everest

About 45 minutes later, we began our descent toward the airport in Paro, slowly weaving our way down through the steep, narrow valleys. The closer we got to the airport, the mountains began to close in on us, until at one point, I could look out both sides of the plane and clearly see the trees and rocks clinging to the steep slopes less than 100 yards away! I could only imagine what it would be like to land in bad weather. But this day we were blessed with beautiful, clear blue skies. As we deplaned, we were met by our Bhutanese government host, Mr. Drungkar, and our bags were quickly loaded in the waiting Landcruiser for the trip to the capitol city of Thimphu. The journey took us south and then east on the one and only road to the city, following two major rivers. After a half hour or so, we stopped for tea at the “Pegyel Hotel and Guesthouse” beside the “Do Chhu River”. As we sipped our tea, we enjoyed lovely views of the surrounding mountains, as well as the trees along the riverbank, their leaves having turned a beautiful bright golden color. The hotel was built in the unique traditional architectural style of Bhutan, with intricately carved wooden details around the windows and doors.

Do Chhu River near Paro
Pegyel Hotel and Guesthouse

The two-hour drive to Thimphu was on a rough, narrow twisting road with only one paved lane. The maximum posted speed limit was 25 mph, and everyone used the one paved lane, regardless of direction, swerving off to the unpaved side of the road at the last minute to avoid oncoming traffic! Everyone seemed to know the rule, but when the vehicle swerved toward the outside edge of a curve where the steep slope dropped down to the river over 300 feet below, it was pretty scary, even at 25 mph!

During the journey, I noticed almost everyone we passed was dressed in traditional Bhutanese style, which created a feeling of being in a very old culture. Finally, we arrived in Thimphu and were taken to the Jambayang Resort – a small hotel high up on the mountain slope across the river from the city. I was shown to a small apartment with a balcony overlooking the river and the city of Thimphu, surrounded by mountains covered in thick, deep green forest. That afternoon, I sat on the balcony in the warm rays of the sun, enjoying a cold Black Label beer from India.

Jambayang Hotel
Cold Black Label beer on the balcony
View of Thimphu from the balcony

Later in the evening, we were invited to a large, formal dinner in the hotel, hosted by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. Indian beer and local whiskey flowed freely all night long, during which I was introduced to “Red Panda Beer”, the one and only beer produced in Bhutan. It turned out to be a very nice Weissbier that was developed by a Swiss sponsored aid project over 20 years ago. Apparently, the project had originally been funded to develop a cheese making industry in Bhutan. But it wasn’t long before the yeast made its way into fermenting beer! During the dinner, I happened to notice that the Secretary was wearing long white underwear beneath his traditional robe, known as a “Gho”. The white underwear showed below the robe and above his tall socks – but it didn’t seem to matter to him, or anyone else for that matter! It was a lovely evening, with lots of toasts by everyone seated at the long table.

Just before I retired to my room for the night, I placed the small, one and only electric heater, on the marble floor inside the bathroom, so as to have a halfway warm place to take a shower in the morning. During the night I could hear dogs barking in the distance down in the city below, and I remembered my Bhutan guidebook had warned that large gangs of stray dogs roamed the streets of Thimphu at night, barking incessantly. (Thank goodness for my earplugs) I awoke early the next morning to see clear blue skies and felt a sharp chill in the air. But to my dismay, I found the electrical extension cord had a bad connection and the heater had failed some time during the night. The result was a “stone cold” bathroom! After breakfast, our Bhutanese government host drove us up to “Donchu La Summit Viewpoint”, at an elevation of 3070 meters (10,200 feet) for a spectacular view of the snow -covered peaks of the Himalaya Range on the border with Tibet. Many of the highest peaks were well over 7500 meters (24,000 feet).

At Donchu La Summit Viewpoint
Himalaya Mountains on the border with Tibet

Following many photos, we proceeded down a very narrow, rough, twisting road, surrounded on both sides by steep heavily forested mountains. Slowly we descended almost 7,000 feet to the small village of Punakha, and suddenly found ourselves amid an expanse of deep green rice terraces. Here we visited two very old, historic Buddhist monasteries, which are known as “Dzongs”. The first monastery was “Punakha Dzong”, or “Palace of Great Happiness”. It was a beautiful structure over 400 feet long and six stories high, with a large gold dome, built in the year 1676. Like many of the Dzongs, it had also served as a fortress against invasions from Tibet. The second monastery was “Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag”, a very impressive stone fortress atop a high ridge between two major rivers. It was founded in 1638 by an ancient warlord by the name of Shabdrung. The entire interior of the structure was decorated in beautifully carved wood and stone, painted in brilliant colors of the rainbow.

Punakha Dzong
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag
Inside Punakha Dzong monastery
Religious artwork inside the monastery

As we walked around the monastery, many young monks came running up to greet us, and a few were eager to practice their English upon us. Leaving the monastery, I gave away all my pens to them, save for one to write in my journal. Meanwhile, we passed a huge gathering of local people waiting to receive the blessings from Bhutan’s holiest monk.

That evening, we all checked into “Hotel Y.T.” in the tiny village of Lobesa, about 20 miles south of Punakha. As the sun set over the mountains to the west, we had dinner, seated on a large wooden deck overlooking the valley below. Later, the one and only TV in the hotel was showing the English language evening news from the Bhutan National Broadcasting Service. Over the next half hour, we listened to some very important news, such as:

  • Locations and dates for census reporting
  • Locations and dates for school exams
  • Current weather conditions and forecasts for virtually every town and village in Bhutan

The next morning brought heavy clouds for our drive back to Thimphu. It was a long trip over steep, narrow, rough roads, and I became convinced there were no smooth, level roads anywhere in the country. No wonder the national speed limit was 25 mph! Unfortunately, the heavy clouds precluded any views of the high Himalayan peaks.

The way to Thimphu

After a couple of hours, we made a stop for tea at a police checkpoint, just below Donchu La Pass. As we sat enjoying our tea and a break from the rough road, a large Indian Army convoy passed through the checkpoint, on their way to re-supply the road maintenance stations that India provides as a service to Bhutan. (In my view, it was quite obvious that the road upon which we had been travelling had not seen any maintenance for many years!) the remainder of our return trip to Thimphu was through lush, thick pine forest that covered the steep mountain slopes like an enormous green carpet, sometimes rising thousands of feet above us.

Finally, back in the city, Sushil, my UNEP-ICIMOD host, and I spent the warm, sunny afternoon walking around downtown Thimphu. The city had no traffic lights, nor where there any in the entire country. However, there were two policemen directing the small number of cars on the street, from their “posts” in the center of a main intersection.

Traffic control in the center of Thimphu

After a lovely lunch at “Plum’s Café”, we began the trek back up the hill to Jambayang Hotel and Resort. Along the way, we stopped to watch an archery competition. Soon we found out why archery was the national sport of Bhutan, as spectators often stood less than a foot away from the target in order to get the best view! The archers launched their long arrows more than 100 yards away from the target and very rarely missed – luckily for the spectators! Further on, we passed several signs posted along the side of the street – “Public urination and defecation prohibited”. Thankfully, there was no evidence of any “illegal” activity! We arrived back at the hotel just in time to join the rest of our group for dinner.

The next day we left the hotel and met up with our local Bhutanese host named Kinley, for a drive north up the deep valley above a Thimphu that also took us through a small Tibetan refugee village. The narrow road clung to the steep mountain sides that were carpeted with a beautiful, thick forest of tall pine trees. At the end of the road we came to an ancient monastery, literally “hanging” on the sheer rock face directly above us. Nearby was a small stone bridge covered with hundreds of colorful prayer flags.

Kinley with Professor Konecny
Monastery at the top of the mountain

And a short distance away, several large Indian families were picnicking on the grass beside the small stream, their huge stereo systems blaring out the latest Hindi pop music! As it happened, the old stone bridge was the entrance to the national park.

As we gazed at the ancient monastery above us, Kinley told us about the traditional religious custom for Bhutanese families. At least one young male child from every family must enter a monastery for a minimum of 3 years of religious study. And during that time, they have no contact with their family. It’s an ancient Buddhist tradition that’s centuries old and continues today. Back in the city, Kinley invited us for lunch at a small café downtown called “The Blue Poppy”. The food was delicious and closely related to North Indian cuisine, reflecting a common heritage in the distant past. Later, Kinley took us to the zoo where we came up close with a small herd of Yaks, animals of great importance to the people and culture of the Himalayan region. Then it was time for traditional Yak butter tea at Kinley’s house, and I can only describe the drink as being very greasy and bordering on rancid – definitely an “acquired” taste! But Kinley’s hospitality was warm and generous. Dinner that evening was at the Druk Kotel downtown, where we happened to meet a one-armed young American guy who was working on a mushroom production project in the mountains east of Thimphu.

The next day, we joined Kinley again to visit with GIS users from around the country before the start of the first annual “Bhutan GIS Users Conference”, hosted by the Ministry of Planning. Later, I was shown to an office where I was told I would be able to access my email, for the first time in almost a week. My first attempt to connect to my email came just before a power failure as I was opening the second message! On my next attempt, the system was so slow in opening any messages that I just gave up! Meanwhile, the one-armed American was still trying unsuccessfully to connect his laptop using the fax line at the hotel front desk. As the day came to an end, the Secretary of the National Planning Commission hosted a fabulous dinner of traditional Bhutanese dishes at the luxury Druk Hotel. The following day, I gave a technical presentation to the staff of the National Land Commission, which was delayed due to the late arrival of the video projector, an essential piece of technology for my presentation. Meanwhile, as I sat patiently awaiting the delivery of the projector, I began to notice that all the government employees were required to wear “formal” traditional dress that included a religious shawl and colorful knee-high socks for men. At last the projector arrived, with many apologies, and my presentation was a great success! Following the close of the session, I returned to the hotel to pack my bags for the return trip to Kathmandu. As I went to check out of the hotel, I was informed the hotel did not accept credit cards or traveler’s checks, so a quick trip to bank was required. (Bhutan really was a “cash only” economy!)

The drive back to Paro was another “hair raising” experience on narrow, one lane mountain roads. Twice, our Bhutanese hosts stopped at small roadside stands to “replenish” their supply of “Paan” (aka “Betel Nut”, a mild stimulant).

At the “Betel Nut” shop on the way to Paro

As we arrived in Paro, we visited the ancient ruins of “Paro Dzong”, once a large fortress where the last battle took place against the invaders from Tibet. From there we had spectacular views of the world famous “Taksung Monastery”, also known as the “Tiger’s Nest” – perched high on a sheer, precipitous cliff thousands of feet above the valley!

Taksung Monastery – “Tiger’s Nest”

With evening approaching, we returned to the Pegyel Hotel and were invited to join a reception and dinner hosted by a group from the World Trade Commission. Seated around a huge campfire, we were treated to a performance of beautiful, traditional Bhutanese music and dance. After which, some people from the various countries represented in the commission were invited to participate in the evening’s entertainment. Of special note were the Aussie’s doing “Waltzing Matilda” around the campfire.

Pegyel Hotel – Paro

After dinner, Kinley and Sushil insisted that I join them for a traditional “stone bath”. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I agreed. So, wrapped in a towel from the hotel, I joined them outside in front of a large stone tub that was buried in the ground and filled with water. At the far end of the tub was a small platform where large “red hot” stones from the campfire were placed to heat the water! It was certainly an ancient and original version of the modern “hot tub”. As we soaked in the tub under clear, cold skies filled with millions of stars, traditional Bhutanese music and dancing continued well into the night. Needless to say, I enjoyed a very restful sleep that night – quiet and peaceful.

“Stone Bath”

The following morning, we awoke to find our vehicle covered in a heavy layer of frost. Then it was a short drive to the airport for the flight back to Kathmandu. Upon check-in, I was most fortunate to get the last available window seat on the right side of the aircraft, which would afford me spectacular views of the highest peaks of the Himalayan Range and the Tibetan Plateau beyond. But upon boarding the plane, my excitement and anticipation were quickly dashed when I saw the windows were heavily scratched, most likely from a great many tourist cameras! However, it was a pleasant flight to Kathmandu, and upon arrival, it was determined that it was less expensive for UNEP-ICIMOD to have me stay at the new Hyatt Hotel, rather than the ICIMOD Guest House downtown. So, I soon found myself in a gorgeous 5-star luxury hotel situated on several acres of land on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. (at $45 per night, it was an incredible bargain – I only wished I could have stayed longer) As I explored the hotel, I discovered several beautiful scale models of famous Nepalese temples and monasteries displayed in the lobby.

Hyatt Hotel – Kathmandu
Hyatt Hotel lobby

Later that afternoon, my hosts took me to the ICIMOD office to have our photos taken for the Tibetan visas, the country that would be our next destination. In the evening, we were invited to a cultural program and dinner in the Hyatt Hotel, sponsored by the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). During the program, a contest was held to highlight the cultural traditions of each country – the delegation from Japan won first place. It was a lot of fun, both for the contestants and the audience.

The next day began with a delicious Nepalese breakfast and a leisurely morning preparing my “15 minute” presentation to the ACRS Conference. The meeting was held in the beautiful new conference center near the airport, where we had an incredible view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The conference began with the obligatory speeches by local government officials, followed by the opening keynote address. Meanwhile, the main entrance door to the ballroom kept “squeaking” loudly as people constantly walked in and out – very distracting! Finally, I leaned over and “quietly” suggested to the session moderator to have the door left open and avoid the disturbing noise. My presentation went very well, and at the conclusion of the session we headed back to the hotel, once again a slow, frustrating drive through narrow streets filled with noxious black clouds of diesel exhaust fumes from hundreds of old trucks and buses! However, along the way I spotted several very interesting local business signs, such as:

  • “Glamour Public School”
  • “Sleep Well for Years Mattress Company”
  • “Royal Peace Restaurant and Bar with Dance”
  • “Moral Academy” (with a huge picture of Mickey Mouse pointing the way!)

Finally back at the hotel, Basanta’s friend, the hotel General Manager, invited our group to have drinks in the “Rox Bar”. He led us down a narrow stairwell, whose walls and ceiling were completely covered with “rocks”. It was a beautiful multi-level restaurant and bar where we were served large glasses of cold Indian draft beer, along with tasty snacks of chicken tandoori and spicy potato wedges. While I enjoyed the draft beer, all the Nepalese in our group were drinking local whiskey and soda, the most popular brand being “Mount Everest Whiskey”. After sharing conversations about our various travel experiences, it was dinner time and we were escorted upstairs to the restaurant. It was a gorgeous atmosphere of simple, elegant décor, with lots of lovely dark tropical wood, together with plenty of native rocks. The food was outstanding, but all during the meal, heavy metal music blared in the background from the bar downstairs. (oddly, I seemed to be the only one to notice it!) In stark contrast, there was lovely, ethereal Indian music playing throughout the hotel lobby. Later in the evening, a very large tour group from Japan arrived just as I headed back to my room.

The following morning, as I waited for Basanta and the ICIMOD driver to pick me up, I watched a large Indian wedding party arrive, dressed in their very finest, the ladies sporting tons of gold. Soon the ICIMOD driver arrived and took us to the airport for our flight to Lhasa to attend a meeting with the Tibetan University staff in charge of the GIS department. As we checked in, we noticed that the flight was delayed an hour, but when we got to the departure gate it was back on schedule. Luckily, both of us had been assigned window seats on the left side of the plane – the “right” side to be able to see Mt Everest! The China Southwest Airlines aircraft was a new Boeing 757, so the windows hadn’t been scratched yet! Due to recent threats from Maoist terrorists in Nepal, airport security was on high alert. As we joined the security screening line, a young Chinese girl in front of us had her batteries, matches, razor blades, and Swiss army knife confiscated! Once through the security checkpoint, we had just enough time for a quick cup of coffee at the snack bar before boarding. Soon after takeoff, we had spectacular views of all the highest peaks of the Himalayan Range! (and this time, the window was reasonably free of scratches) There were magnificent views of the entire Himalaya – Hindu Kush Range as our plane turned north, crossed over the summit just east of Mt Everest, and into the enormous, barren Tibetan Plateau. Suddenly the landscape became an endless vista of barren mountains, broken in places by large rivers, all under cold, deep blue skies!

View of the Himalaya – Hindu Kush Range and the Tibetan Plateau beyond

Two hours later, we slowly descended to the airport, situated on a very barren, dry flat plain, almost 100 km (60 miles) from the city of Lhasa by road – but only half that distance as the crow flies! We were met by our Tibetan and Chinese hosts, and as we drove to the city, the highway from the airport was lined with a series of young Chinese soldiers stationed every 2 – 3 kms to honor and salute the new Chinese army commander being posted in Lhasa. Who knows how long they had been waiting, or how long they still had to wait! Once we finally reached the hotel in the center of town, we were invited to lunch – a Yak burger and Lhasa beer. As we sat in the little café, I noticed a sign on the wall – “Place your order for Christmas pudding from Eat Lover Bakery”! Later that evening, we joined our hosts for dinner at the historic “Snowlands Hotel” for a delicious combination of Chinese, Nepalese, and traditional Tibetan dishes. And afterwards, we all took a long walk down the “new” main street – a very gaudy collection of bright neon lights, new restaurants and bars, mixed among old traditional Tibetan shops. It created a rather weird, odd combination that certainly reflected the recent massive influence of the Chinese culture. Returning to the hotel I felt the sting of the cold, thin air (20 degrees F) and high elevation (almost 12,000 feet). Even the electric heater in my hotel room couldn’t raise the temperature above 55 degrees, at its highest setting no less! And as I entered the tiny bathroom, I had to stoop down to see myself in the mirror – a problem for shaving!

Hotel room in Lhasa

The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, our Tibetan driver arrived to take us to the world-famous landmark in Tibet, the 1600-year-old “Potala Palace”, official residence of 14 Dalai Lamas. Fortunately, we were driven up a steep, narrow winding road leading to the rear gate, so we didn’t have to climb the steep staircase rising over 100 meters (320 feet) from the other side, which all Tibetan pilgrims must do. There were over 1000 rooms in the palace and 8 of the 14 Dalai Lamas were buried within the palace walls.

Potala Palace – Lhasa
Potala Palace and the main square of Lhasa

As we toured the countless small dark rooms filled with row upon row of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, all neatly stacked on shelves, nomadic Tibetan pilgrims from the remote regions lit up ceremonial candles made from Yak butter. It made the air in the dark rooms very smoky and heavy with a rancid smell – rather unpleasant! Our Tibetan host also told us that hundreds of cats were kept in the palace to control the rats and mice – a practice dating back many generations.

Tibetan pilgrims ascending stairs of Potala Palace

When we reached the rooftop terrace, we had a spectacular view of the incredibly deep blue sky, in sharp contrast to the brilliant white-washed buildings. As we gazed upon the magnificent scene of the landscape spread out before us, the soft, haunting sound of Tibetan monks chanting in the distance reached our ears – a mesmerizing, magical moment!

View of Lhasa from the rooftop terrace
Rooftop terrace – Potala Palace

Later in the afternoon, we visited the “Tibetan Cultural Museum” and saw beautiful displays of traditional Tibetan lifestyle, culture, and art. (our Chinese host made certain that we also heard the “Chinese version” of the liberation of Tibet by the Communist Party) Following the museum visit, we had a traditional Tibetan lunch at the tiny “Lhasa Kitchen House” in the old quarter of the city.

The next day, I gave a technical presentation to the faculty and students at Tibet University, and afterwards there was a formal ceremony to donate Esri GIS software to the university. Then we were led on a tour of the university, including a visit to the GIS lab. Since there was no elevator, we had to climb 4 flights of stairs to reach the lab. Every one of the lab staff were dressed in sparkling white lab coats and white overshoes – a very neat and clean room indeed. However, when I enquired about the location of the toilet, I was informed that the one and only toilet in the building was down on the ground floor. And when I entered the toilet, it was the typical Chinese style “squat” facility – no toilet paper and atrociously dirty (disgusting!). What an amazing contrast between the computer lab and the toilet! On my way back up to the lab, I saw large photos of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison hanging on the walls of the bleak hallway.

Einstein in the hallway

As we traveled back to our hotel, I noticed a few traffic lights amidst the chaotic traffic, all with a unique feature. They had digital clocks that counted down the remaining time for both vehicles and pedestrians. But the vast majority of the city operated without any traffic control, yet everyone seemed to manage to move safely, though very slowly.

That evening was the inevitable, formal Chinese banquet, hosted by the Vice-President of the university. Although the food was pretty much as I expected, (ie. the “obligatory” Sea Cucumbers and Jellyfish soup, in spite of being over a thousand miles from the ocean!), but we were presented with a new dish I hadn’t seen during previous banquets – small roasted birds that had been chopped into pieces, heads and all, with their eyes and beaks “staring” at us from the plate! (not the most appealing dish on the table!)

Chinese banquet

I was surprised when I was introduced with the title “Guest Professor” and presented with an incredible gift of a gorgeous brass scale model of the Portola Palace mounted on dark tropical wood.

Gift from Tibetan University

During the banquet, numerous toasts were offered, and each time we all had to shout “Gambai”, chug the entire glass, and turn it upside down on our head to show it was indeed empty – no matter if it was fruit juice, beer, or strong spirits! As it turned out, Basanta had chosen the wrong glass at the beginning of the evening and was stuck with having to drink strong spirits all night – a toast every 5 minutes! Near the conclusion of the evening, the restaurant staff serenaded us with beautiful Tibetan folk songs. It was a lovely way to end the evening.

The next morning, we visited the GIS computer lab again, but this time the room was freezing – there was no heat anywhere in the building. Later, we made our way down to the university students’ canteen for lunch, and along the way I saw a very unusual way of heating water for tea. Outside, a large parabolic shaped sheet of highly polished tin was placed facing the sun, and in the center was a metal tea kettle filled with water. Amazingly, it actually boiled the water, probably due to the thin air and the high elevation.

Unique way to boil water for tea

On another note, I was still having trouble adapting to being on “Beijing” time – 2 ½ hours ahead of what would be the normal “local” time in Lhasa. Following another Chinese banquet that evening at the Tibet Post Hotel, we joined a group from the Tibet Academy of Agricultural and Animal Sciences (TAAAS) for a party at a new Chinese nightclub.

  • We were seated at a table reserved for us, complete with a pre-ordered case of Budweiser beer waiting for us
  • The beer was served in small “shot” glasses which we were expected to “chug” every time a toast was offered, which was every few minutes!
  • Meanwhile, a large pot of boiling pig’s feet was available nearby as a “snack”
  • The nightclub was very bright and gaudy in décor, and packed with young Chinese having a great time, laughing constantly
  • After an hour or so, we were treated to a lovely show of traditional Tibetan dances and folk songs by local performers dressed in very colorful native costumes from different regions of Tibet
  • The sound system was extremely loud and too much for me, but our Chinese hosts thought it was just the right volume
  • As we were leaving the nightclub, a crew from the city was busy tearing up the floor at the entrance and pumping out raw sewage from a break in the pipe

So ended our evening out at the nightclub!

The next morning, when I got up at 7:30 am, it was still pitch dark outside as I made my way downstairs for breakfast. But the door to the restaurant was locked, and it was clear that no one was awake. At the same moment, someone was banging on the front door of the hotel, which was also locked. Finally, a half hour later, someone fired up the kitchen stove and fixed us some hot coffee and toast. Later, Basanta and I joined our Tibetan host for a visit to the Yak Research Institute and Breeding Center north of Lhasa. The road followed a large river into a steep gorge where work was going on to construct tunnels and bridges for the planned extension of the railroad from Beijing to Lhasa. The road climbed slowly up to a low, broad pass at 4600 meters (15,000 feet), surrounded by beautiful, snow capped mountains rising to above 24,000 feet.

On the way to the Yak Research Institute
Nima and Basanta on the road from Lhasa at 15,000 feet

Meanwhile, under clear, deep blue skies, large herds of Yak, sheep, goats and horses grazed peacefully on the enormous expanse of brown grassland. Most of the streams that we passed were still ice covered, since temperatures were not much above zero, even at mid-day. After a reasonably smooth trip over the unpaved road, we suddenly encountered a 3 km long stretch in horrible condition, with basketball sized boulders forming the pavement! It was insane, but our driver and the Landcruiser handled it quite well. In the meantime, the few vehicles we encountered were mostly large trucks, overland buses (with double decker sleeping compartments) and small two wheeled tractors pulling old wooden carts. Later, we passed several small villages, each one with a busy outdoor market where nomadic herders traded hides of Yak and sheep. Finally, after several hours of driving, we arrived at the Yak Research Institute and Breeding Center, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. It was definitely a very remote, lonely outpost of the Tibet Agricultural Department. Following our visit and tour of the center, we spotted some huge black vultures of the kind that are used by Tibetan Buddhists to dispose of the bodies of deceased relatives. The Tibetans believe their spirit is released to join the afterlife by the act of the birds eating their flesh, whereas the Chinese prefer cremation.

As we headed back to Lhasa, we made a short stop to visit an area of natural hot springs where a large new “spa” had recently been developed. It happened to be adjacent to a new electrical generating station that was powered by underground steam from the hot springs – the first geothermal power plant in Tibet. Several miles further down the road, we passed many Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims making their journey to the Potala Palace, much like Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca. The Tibetan pilgrims must make the trek for hundreds of miles on foot, stopping to kneel and pray every 2 – 3 steps, which can take many weeks or even months to reach Lhasa – that’s a remarkable symbol of belief and devotion!

Tibetan pilgrims on their trek to the Potala Palace in Lhasa
Village market – trading Yak hides and meat

Later, our driver stopped at one of the village markets to haggle with some nomads for several kgs of Yak meat. Our journey took only a few hours, but making the trip all the way from Lhasa to Chengdu in Sichuan Province would take 3 days. Once we were back in Lhasa, we stopped for a quick lunch at a local noodle shop. Although the place was very spartan, the food was very tasty. However, the toilet was tiny and atrocious – something I had come to expect in China! Later that evening, Basanta and I joined the TAAAS group and a lovely lady from Colorado named Camilla for dinner at the Snowlands Hotel. (seemed like a favorite place for foreigners to meet in Lhasa) She told us she was doing research on the Yak and its importance to the Tibetan economy. During dinner, Camilla entertained us with a short story about a Tibetan woman who had 4 husbands. Husband #1 to work in the fields, number 2 to tend the Yaks, number 3 to do the shopping, and number 4, the young one, to stay home with her! We all had a great laugh at the end – the meaning was clear! After dinner, I walked back to the hotel in the cold night air, passing the small shops as they were closing for the night. During the night, I awoke at 2:30 am and was unable to fall asleep again, perhaps due to the altitude.

When 7:30 am arrived, I headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, though it was still pitch dark outside. The staff were quite sleepy, but they managed to prepare a nice Yak cheese omelet and cup of hot coffee. After breakfast, our Chinese host, Nima, picked us up and we headed south to the airport, as a gorgeous sunrise greeted us. The long drive of 100 kms (60 miles) took us under an hour as our driver insisted upon driving down the middle of the road, except when avoiding oncoming traffic, as well as overtaking vehicles on blind curves. It seemed to be the norm for Tibetan drivers, but it was rather scary to be sitting in the back seat! Along the way to the airport we were rewarded with beautiful views of sunlit mountains reflected in the icy waters of the mighty Brahmaputra River that flows into northern India and Bangladesh, often causing major floods during the monsoon season. About 30 miles outside Lhasa we passed an encampment of nomads beside the road, with campfires blazing in the cold morning air. Finally, we reached the airport, with less than 30 minutes before departure of our flight. (I had no idea why Nima thought we should have time to stop along the way for breakfast, but fortunately, Basanta and I insisted upon going directly to the airport) Two days earlier, China Southwestern Airlines had suddenly canceled the last return flight to Kathmandu for the winter. So, we had only two options from which to choose; (1) Drive for 2 – 3 days over the Himalaya Mountains and hope no landslides closed the one and only road to Kathmandu, or (2) fly to Kathmandu by way of Chengdu, Kunming, and Bangkok – we chose option #2!

The process of checking in for the flight to Chengdu was an absolute madhouse of people pushing and shoving in the chaotic lines of passengers. And to make matters worse, our baggage could only be checked as far as Chengdu because we had to connect to a different airline in Chengdu – apparently no process for transferring baggage in China! By this time, Basanta, Nima, and I had to take the last remaining seats, and I ended up with a middle seat – UGH! Luckily, Nima saw my frustration and found a window seat for me before takeoff. As the A-320 gained altitude, we had incredible views of the vast Tibetan Plateau and the high, rugged peaks in western Sichuan Province. Nearing Chengdu, the plane descended through a thick layer of clouds at 8,000 feet, making the mountain peaks resemble “islands” in a fluffy white sea – gorgeous! Landing in Chengdu, we discovered a beautifully designed, very modern new terminal that reminded me very much of the new Kansai airport in Osaka, Japan. However, our plane landed at the very far end of the runway, so it was a long, very crowded bus ride to the terminal building. Once inside the terminal, Basanta, Nima, and I found a small café for coffee as we waited for the Wuhan Airlines check-in counter to open. Getting from the arrivals area to the departure lounge involved wheeling our two fully loaded baggage trolleys up a steep escalator. A large sign posted at the bottom of the escalator read “No Trolleys”, but the airport staff insisted we must take the trolleys up the escalator, because there were no lifts (elevators) available. While we successfully negotiated the escalator, a trolley behind us suddenly slipped, just as it approached the top and dumped all its bags down the escalator – effectively blocking everyone below!

Having checked in for our flight to Kunming, we explored the shops in the terminal. I found a nice DVD video about Tibet, while Basanta came back with a bright orange “Pumpkin Doll” for his daughter that danced to the sound of a silly Hindi song.  As we sat in the departure lounge, he insisted upon demonstrating it for us, when suddenly, a young Chinese couple seated behind us turned around. It was obvious that that they were enthralled by the doll and demanded to know where he had bought it. While we didn’t understand exactly what they were saying, it was clear by their sign language and facial expressions. A short time later, they returned with their very own “pumpkin Doll”! Finally, the flight to Kunming on China Northwest Airlines was called for departure. The short one-hour flight was quite pleasant as we watched the inflight entertainment, a series of Polish cartoons about a mole and his friends in the forest. Meanwhile, the landscape below us was one of lush, deep green mountains and lovely terraces of rice fields. Upon arrival in Kunming, Nima led us from the baggage claim area to the Tourist Services Desk, where two cheerful, young Chinese girls proceeded to book us rooms in a new 5-star hotel downtown and arrange for a van to transport us there. They were even able to confirm our airline tickets to Bangkok for the following day. All of this was conducted by Nima in a long series of conversations in Chinese, while Basanta and I sat in the waiting lounge.

It was a long, slow ride in heavy rush hour traffic from the airport to the “Greenland Hotel”. Upon entering the hotel lobby, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by enormous Christmas trees and holiday decorations throughout the lobby! (my thought at that moment was that Christmas in China must be nothing more another economic opportunity, and unfortunately, maybe not that different than places in America) The hotel registration and check-in process was long and tedious, but finally we were given keys to rooms for $39 a night, and that included breakfast! (it was a far cry from the “advertised” rate of $199 a night – perhaps due to Nima’s negotiating skills?) My room was a very nice corner suite on the 12th floor, and although it was supposed to be a “non-smoking” room, there were ash trays and burned out matches everywhere! By this time, I had my doubts there was any place in China that was really non-smoking! Later, I went down to the hotel lobby bar, ordered a cold Tsingtao beer, and wrote in my journal, trying to capture the multitude of experiences, feelings, and senses of the past several days. At the same time, I was surrounded by the Christmas decorations, while a local band named “Happy Trails” played some pretty decent old rock-n-roll tunes. Later in the evening, I met up with Basanta and Nima as they were finalizing arrangements for me to visit the “Stone Forest”, a United Nations world heritage site, the next morning before our afternoon flight to Bangkok. Then we all went in search of a local restaurant for dinner. As we climbed into the taxi, Nima began to chat with the driver about his recommendations of places nearby for dinner. Suddenly, the driver pulled over, next to the “King Royal Palace Restaurant”. It was then that I realized we had driven less than 3 blocks from the hotel. A 2-minute ride for 8 yuan or about $2.00!

As we approached the front door, several young ladies in native Yunnan dress greeted us and began jabbering, all at the same time, on our way upstairs to the dinning area. As I looked around, it became obvious there were several different restaurants, each one competing for our business! After several rounds of discussion between Nima and the young ladies, it was decided that we would have our dinner in the seafood restaurant. Then suddenly, a whole crew of servers descended upon us, showed us to a table, and began preparing it for our dinner. As one of the servers, a young Chinese girl with a bright pink, punk hair style proceeded to take our order, Nima expressed some surprise and shock at the high prices, probably, because as our host, he would be paying for the dinner. As Nima continued to carry on the long conversation with the server, focused on the menu choices, Basanta and I began to wonder just how many dishes we would be getting, as well as what “exotic” items might be included? As it turned out, dinner started with a small glass of local herb flavored aperitif, followed by Szechuan tofu, “Moa’s Special Lamb Ribs”, shredded chicken with bamboo shoots, and a steaming bowl of local fish stew – all of which were delicious! Throughout dinner, we toasted many rounds of the local beer named “KK”. All in all, it was a wonderful dinner, especially with the restaurant staff “fluttering” around us, filling our glasses, changing our plates, and bringing even more food!

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and I retreated to my room to prepare for the trip to the “Stone Forest” in the mountains northeast of Kunming in the morning. As we walked back to the hotel that evening, I spotted a menu board outside one of the many tiny cafes on the street. In big bold letters it proudly announced it was serving a special dish – “Hot Pot with Smelly Fish Tofu”! I was sure it must have appealed to someone, but not me! (later the next day, I found out that Basanta and Nima had spent the night at a nearby pub until 2 am!) The next morning, after breakfast, without Basanta and Nima, I joined my taxi driver/guide for the trip to the Stone Forest, some 100 kms (60 miles) northeast of the city. For the first 20 minutes we were stuck in the midst of heavy traffic on the new “ring road”, which abruptly turned into several miles of incredibly rough unpaved road under construction. Our route took us up into mountains cloaked in thick forest, lovely terraced rice fields, and bright red brick farm buildings. The strong contrast between the bright red of the brick and deep green of the fields was beautiful. As we descended a steep, narrow rocky canyon where two railroads had been chiseled out of the sheer cliffs above us, there were a couple of places where the highway crossed over itself in a series of spectacular tunnels and bridges – very impressive engineering! Amid the new highway construction, intended to replace the old narrow two-lane road on which we were traveling, my taxi driver constantly zipped in and out between the heavy trucks slowly laboring up the steep grade – narrowly avoiding “head on” collisions with the oncoming traffic! At one point, while descending a steep hill, we were suddenly halted by a police van blaring out some kind of announcement over the loudspeaker. As we got closer, we saw a small truck had side-swiped a beautiful new black limousine elaborately decorated for a wedding! (so, someone would be late for the ceremony) As we continued the journey to the Stone Forest, I became aware of two things about the taxi – (1) on the dashboard was an air freshener in the shape of a flying saucer, and every time the taxi made a turn, it spun around, and (2) I realized we had been listening to the same Kenny G song ever since we left the hotel. This continued for the entire trip, and when we finally reached our destination, I wasn’t sure if I could ever listen to Kenny G again! Among my other observations, I began to notice that all the work in the fields of rice and produce was being done by hand! The only tractors I saw were those pulling small wooden carts and wagons on the highway – it was truly the epitome of a classic “peasant” scene.

Arriving at the Stone Forest, a national park, I discovered one of the most unique geological features in the world – a large-scale karst landform that dominated the Yunnan Plateau. It was formed over 250 million years ago as the plateau was slowly eroded by constant wind and water, sculpting the thick layer of soft limestone into various shapes resembling “trees” in a forest. The stone peaks (trees) had smooth lines, stood upright, and had a color of steel grey. Some of the highest ones reached heights over 40 meters (130 feet).

Entrance to the Stone Forest – Kunming
Stone Forest
Walking among the stone “trees”

Walking among the massive stone “trees” was amazing and a bit disorienting at times. I encountered many local visitors, but only a couple of foreign tourists. I spent over an hour wandering around the “forest” and never saw the same scene twice – it was constantly changing at every turn. At the entrance to the national park was a lovely lake, and many young families were having a great time picnicking and enjoying the gorgeous weather.

Small lake in the Stone Forest
Looking into the Stone Forest
Local visitors
A path through the Stone Forest

All too soon, it was time for me to join my taxi driver for the return journey to Kunming. And the trip back to the city was just as “exciting” (aka scary!)

That afternoon, I joined Basanta and Nima for the trip back to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Although I wasn’t able to use my credit card to upgrade to business class on the Thai International Airways flight to Bangkok, I was able to do the upgrade with cash from a nearby ATM, using my credit card. Once on board, the service in business class was wonderful and worth the price of the upgrade. Soon after departure, a superb lunch of deep-fried Red Snapper in “Three Taste Sauce” was served – outstanding! The landscape of Yunnan Province and northern Laos was one of beautiful, deep green forests and mountains wrapped in thick mist. As we flew over northern Thailand, we could see huge thunderstorms raging to the west and lots of water standing in the rice fields. On our approach to “Don Mueang International Airport” in Bangkok, I could see a golf course had been developed in between the runways! (golf carts had to wait for planes to pass before crossing over the runway to the next hole!) Landing in Bangkok, we were immediately overwhelmed by the 98 degree, very humid weather, even though it was early December. Basanta had already arranged rooms for us at the 5-star “Rama Garden Hotel” near the airport. And because we would be connecting with another Thai Airways flight the next morning, he was able to book a rate of $45.00 per night, which included dinner and breakfast! The hotel had a lovely German beer garden, where they served Texas style BBQ beside the pool. As we enjoyed our cold glasses of German beer, American country music played in the background. A half hour later, our relaxation by the pool was abruptly interrupted by a short, but intense thunderstorm – quite common in Bangkok.

That evening, I joined Basanta, Nima, and Camille for a “farewell” dinner, since they would be departing for Kathmandu in the morning, whereas I would be heading to Bombay, and eventually home to Los Angeles via Paris and Atlanta. As we sat around the dinner table, we shared our experiences of the past three weeks. And for me, I was nearing the end of an incredible journey of 24 days and 27,000 miles!

On a final note, while sitting in the Oberoi Hotel First Class lounge at Bombay airport on my return home, I was “privileged” to see many of the contestants who would be competing in the “Miss World Contest”! It was a moment far removed from the cold, dreary hotel room in Tibet a few days before.

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Around the World in 12 Days – Los Angeles/Tokyo/Singapore/New Delhi/Zurich/Los Angeles

In February of 2000, I made another “Around the World” business trip, which began with a non-stop flight to Tokyo on Delta Airlines in their new Business Elite cabin. As I relaxed in my seat on the MD-11 aircraft, I enjoyed a chilled glass of champagne before takeoff. In the meantime, many other flights were delayed, due to a massive snowstorm in the Midwest and Northeast. After takeoff, I put on the Japanese slippers provided by Delta and ordered a cold gin and tonic as the plane began the 10 hour flight across the North Pacific. Lunch soon followed, beginning with a selection of sushi, along with a plate of smoked salmon and a tortilla filled with creamed spinach. Next came a fresh garden salad and the main dish of Maryland backfin crab cakes. I finished lunch with a nice selection of cheeses, accompanied by a glass of Austrian Ice Wine – fabulous!

Menu – Los Angeles to Tokyo

After lunch I watched a film titled “Flawless”, starring Robert DeNiro as an ex-cop who suffered a debilitating stroke and was befriended by a group of “drag queens” – very interesting story! After the film, sleep overtook me for several hours before landing at Narita Airport. I passed through Immigration and customs quickly, and then boarded a bus to downtown Tokyo.

Map of Central Tokyo

I had booked a room for two nights at the luxurious 5 star “Palace Hotel”, situated across the street from the Imperial Palace. As the bus made its way into the city, we passed Tokyo Disneyland, with the world’s largest “indoor” ski area! As the bus approached the city center, I noticed several large signs along the highway displaying the current traffic conditions for different routes. (Yellow for moderate traffic and Red for heavy) As the traffic suddenly came to a slow crawl, a “red” condition, a very pleasant, sweet female pre-recorded voice announced, “there is a traffic jam ahead, so we are going to take a detour”. Finally, we arrived at the hotel, and after checking in to a beautiful room on the top floor, with a commanding view of the Imperial Palace Gardens, I headed to the “Summit Lounge” for a cold glass of Sapporo beer.

View of the Imperial Palace Gardens
Palace Hotel Lobby

Meanwhile, at a table nearby, a group of Brits were talking about their trip to China the week before. The conversation centered on the topic of “exotic” Chinese food, especially monkey brains, as well as small live crabs that had to be smashed with a wooden hammer before they could be eaten – ie. they had to be killed first! Then I went to the hotel restaurant for a fabulous dinner that included lots of small dishes with fresh vegetables and varieties of seafood, all beautifully presented with small flowers and exotic garnishes.

The next day I bought a ticket on the famous “bullet train” (Shinkansen) to the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. As I entered the huge Tokyo main station, I saw that all the platforms had clearly marked “lanes” for passengers to queue for boarding each car of the train – very organized!

Tokyo Main Station
Aboard the “Bullet Train”

The train to Kyoto departed precisely on time, was exceptionally clean, and an extremely smooth ride at 175mph. We arrived in Kyoto less than 2 ½ hours later, after making only two short stops, Yokohama and Nagoya. Once we were out of the dense urban area of Tokyo and the massive industrial port of Yokohama, I began seeing extensive fields of rice, dark forests and distant mountains shrouded in mist – a lovely pastoral scene. Further south the heavy dark clouds gave way to occasional sunshine. As the train approached Nagoya, it climbed into the foothills of a high mountain range, and suddenly entered a landscape covered with a thick blanket of fresh snow! Beyond Nagoya the snow gradually gave way to rice fields and forested hills. Along the journey I made note of some unusual advertising signs that used common English words in a strange way, such as:

  • “Pocari Sweat” (a sports drink)
  • “Yamamoto Mannequins”
  • “Foot Up Shoes”
  • “Nice Day Cards”

And besides the interesting signs, we passed lots of golf driving ranges everywhere! Eventually we arrived in Kyoto, and as I left the main station, I consulted my small map of the city and headed north toward the famous “Ni-Jo Palace”.

Map of Kyoto and my walking tour
“Ni-Jo Palace”

It was the ruling seat of the first Shogun to unify Japan centuries ago. I found the ancient palace to be a fascinating glimpse of 17th century Japan, during the height of the Samurai period, a very violent warrior society. That period of Japanese history ended when a powerful Shogun united all the feudal lords who had ruled their lands for hundreds of years, like tribal chiefs. The huge palace was a collection of many old interconnected wooden buildings, amid several beautiful gardens and surrounded by a deep moat.

Ni-Jo Palace – Main Gate
Ni-Jo Palace Gardens

Most of the palace rooms were simply furnished, built from warm Japanese Cypress wood, delicate bamboo, and with rice paper walls that were elaborately painted with beautiful scenes of tigers, exotic birds, and colorful flowers. The paintings were more than 400 years old, yet as bright and colorful as the day they were painted – amazing!

Inside Ni-Jo Palace
Ni-Jo Palace

Another fascinating feature of the palace was the “nightingale floor” – so named because it squeaked with the sound of the bird as one stepped on it, however so gently. It was designed that way to alert the Samurai guards of any intruders! Really clever, as well as having a beautiful, soothing sound.

Nearby was the “Higashi-Hoganji Temple”, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, and a spectacular example of the very best in Japanese woodworking craft from the 17th century. Every joint in the massive structure was held in place solely by huge wooden pins and complex carved joinery.

Higashi-Hoganji Temple
Higashi-Hoganji Temple
Map of the temple

Leaving my shoes at the base of the temple, I gently stepped into a huge room whose floor was covered by soft bamboo tatami mats and framed by walls of delicate rice paper wooden panels. The high ceiling was elaborately painted in gold relief – such a beautiful and peaceful place! As I left the main hall and stepped outside on to a massive wooden plank deck that surrounded the temple, I was almost overrun by a group of “pilgrims” rushing past me, chanting loudly and pushing white robes across the floor on their hands and knees! I speculated that it must have been some sort of religious ritual, and they seemed to be having a grand time “racing” each other!

Pilgrims in the temple

As I left the temple, the sun played tag with the clouds, and walking along Karasuma-Dori St, I seemed to hit every traffic light “out of step” and had to wait for the walk signal. Each time as I waited, I observed that the Japanese strictly obeyed the signals, even on the one lane, one-way streets no more than 6 feet across, despite the absence of any oncoming traffic! By the time I returned to the main station in Kyoto, I had walked about 10 miles in 5 hours around the city. But now it was time in the evening to board the bullet train back to Tokyo.

The following day, I changed hotels to a “business man’s hotel” which had been arranged by Esri Japan so as to be close to their office, in preparation for the training class I would conduct over the next few days for their staff. “Hotel Suave” was a small place directly beside a huge overhead expressway! I was lucky enough to get a room on the opposite side, though it had only one small opaque window – but there would not have been much to see outside anyway. The room was incredibly tiny, with a single bed, small desk, tiny closet, a TV mounted on the wall, and a self-contained bathroom made of one single piece of molded plastic!

Single Room – Hotel Suave

There was barely enough space in the shower to turn around. Outside the room, in the hallway, were a number of vending machines serving hot coffee, chilled sodas, cold beer, and small bottles of Japanese whiskey – probably the hotel’s “bar”. There was also a vending machine to dispense Pay-TV cards, which were required to watch the one and only English language channel, as well as a movie channel and two soft porn channels. Otherwise, the other 12 Japanese language channels were free to watch. So that evening I settled into the tiny room with a cold beer and a Pay-TV card!

During the next few days, I walked to the office along very narrow streets, passing small shops and traditional houses. On the first day I stopped at a local branch of Fuji Bank to change some money, and as soon as I stepped through the door, an old man came forward and assisted me with the whole transaction – he was the bank’s “concierge”. That evening, after class, I had dinner in the small hotel restaurant – a very nice meal of fresh scallops sautéed in marinara sauce, along with an ice-cold bottle of Kirin beer. The following evening, I joined three of the Esri Japan staff for dinner at a small, traditional noodle restaurant near the office, where we shared a huge bowl of rice noodles, spicy broth, fresh vegetables, onions, and thin sliced beef. It was hot and delicious on such a cold, windy night. As I walked back and forth every day between the hotel and the office, I noticed many people wearing surgical masks to protect themselves against the spread of germs. And during the class, I found out that most of the staff commuted at least 1 ½ hours each way by train, and judging by the staggering crowds at rush hour, it made me appreciate the leisurely 15 minute walk I had every day! And as for breakfast at the hotel, it was the same every morning – scrambled eggs, Vienna sausages, slices of boiled ham, and fresh sliced cucumber. Meanwhile, as I sat in the breakfast room, massive numbers of pedestrians and vehicles rushed by outside on the street. After class one evening, the staff invited me to join them for dinner at a very traditional Shabu-Shabu restaurant in the busy Shibuya district.

Shibuya District – Tokyo

We had a great time sitting around the table, each of us cooking our thin slices of Wagu beef in the huge pot of boiling water, along with fresh vegetables and “Glass” rice noodles – delicious! Later, the hot broth was mixed with thin egg noodles to make a fantastic soup. And the entire meal was washed down with lots of cold draft beer and small cups of warm Sake – really a fun evening!

At last came the final day of the training class, and to celebrate the occasion, we all went to a very small restaurant that specialized in dishes prepared with eel. We shared a large plate of grilled eel, served with bowls of steamed rice, several small vegetable dishes, and lots of cold beer! I found the grilled eel to be surprisingly delicious – delicate and sweet. Meanwhile, on the TV in the corner of the restaurant, was a Japanese game show in which contestants had 60 seconds to build a 3 story house of cards! No one was a winner that evening, but all of us in the restaurant had a fun time watching them. The following day, I grabbed my camera, consulted my map of Tokyo, and headed to a large park northwest of Shibuya train station. Yoyogi park is the site of the “Menjji Shrine”, dedicated to the first Shogun who united Japan.

Menjji Shrine

As I approached the enormous train station, a major junction of subway lines and the extensive Japan Railways Yamamote system, I encountered large crowds and huge neon signs, which are so typical of Tokyo. But once I was inside the park, the sights and sounds of the bustling city began to fade away. There were many food vendors with their carts surrounding the main entrance to the park, and surprisingly, I also saw a few elderly “bag people” (homeless) setting up their cardboard “houses” for the night. A broad path through huge old trees led me to the shrine, as the sun was beginning to set.

Yoyogi Park – Tokyo

As I stepped over the wooden threshold and into the large courtyard that surrounded the temple, several young monks dressed in white robes, scurried around attending to whatever duties young monks do. Meanwhile, people entered the temple and clapped their hands 3 times before offering prayers. Off to the right of the alter was an enormous drum that was probably beaten during important ceremonies and rituals.

Menjji Shrine
Ceremonial Drum – Menjji Shrine

I felt the whole temple had a sacred and peaceful atmosphere, even as recorded announcements informed us of the park’s closing. As I exited the park on the opposite side, I walked through dense woods into the fading daylight, past large flocks of ravens who had arrived to roost for the night, squawking loudly. And at the same time, the endless, muffled roar of the trains could be heard in the distance. The air became chilly and a soft breeze made its way through the trees, signaling the approach of the night. Once outside the park and back on the crowded streets of Shibuya, I watched countless commuter trains pass by, literally “jammed” with people, anxious to head home for the weekend! (definitely not the time for a tourist to be on the train)

Shibuya District

As I continued walking through Shibuya, I suddenly realized that I did not have enough cash for the taxi to the main train station or the bus to Narita airport in the morning! So it became necessary to try and use one of the multitude of cash dispensers (ATMs) on virtually every street corner. My first few attempts were totally unsuccessful – my credit card having been “spit out” with a nasty note stating that my transaction had not been accepted, despite the sign above the machine clearly indicating that Diners Club and American Express were “welcomed”! (as it turned out later, only the Japanese issued cards were accepted) Finally, at a “Cash Corner” machine, a kindly old gentleman on “guard duty” saw my dilemma and offered his help. He pointed to a small sign that showed the location of an ATM nearby that would accept my American Express credit card.

“Cash Corner” machine

He proceeded to give my profuse, explicit directions, none of which I understood. But fortunately, there was a map beneath the sign. So luckily, I was able to find the Fuji Bank cash machine that would accept my American Express card. But without realizing it, on my first attempt to withdraw cash, I had mistakenly entered 500,000 Yen ($5000 USD) – thankfully it didn’t go through! Having successfully withdrawn my money on the second try, I continued on my way back to Hotel Suave, along a narrow street beside the railway. I discovered a very interesting collection of “tiny” eating establishments, some of which could only seat 2 or 3 people. The street was beautifully illuminated by old traditional Japanese lanterns.

Narrow street in the evening

Eventually hunger caught up with me and I began a search for a place to have dinner. As I rounded a corner, just off a busy street in Shibuya, I spotted the “German Farm Grill”. I was intrigued by the name of the place and decided to check it out. What I found was a fascinating little restaurant with a menu printed in Japanese and German, soothing background music, and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Luckily, I could read much of the German side of the menu. Just after I sat down at a small table beside the fireplace, a tall black man came up and said “welcome man”! After I ordered the bratwurst and a glass of German beer, I asked him about the restaurant. As the story went, he and two other black American soldiers stationed in Japan fell in love with the country and decided to stay after leaving the military. And having also served in the US Army in Germany, they chose to open one of the very few German restaurants in Shibuya. The food was delicious and authentic, the atmosphere relaxing, while the chaos of traffic rushed by outside.

German Farm Grill – Shibuya

A small group of young Japanese came into the restaurant to celebrate a birthday with several rounds of champagne. The young man being honored had two severely deformed arms, perhaps resulting from exposure to Thalidomide. It was obvious they were having a really fun time. It was such a unique and fascinating place – a wonderful “discovery”. When I left the restaurant, it was full, whereas there had only been two other people when I had first arrived.

The next morning, when I checked out of Hotel Suave, the young desk clerk hailed a taxi for me. When I told her I wanted to go to the City Air Terminal, she gave me a strange look and said it would be very expensive. (as if there was anything in Tokyo that was cheap!) When the taxi arrived, she asked me if I was going to terminal 1 or 2? At that point I realized she must have thought I had meant Narita airport, which would have cost $250 – $300! So I had to make it very clear that I wanted to go to the “City Air Terminal”, from which I could take a bus to the airport, the cost being around $25! Once I arrived at the City Air Terminal, the check-in for the Singapore Airlines flight was very efficient, so that I could board the bus without having to drag my luggage along. There was even a place to complete the customs and immigration formalities before arriving at Narita Airport. Once at the airport, I spent some time in the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge before boarding the flight to Singapore. The lounge overlooked a gorgeous tropical garden with huge, colorful Japanese Carp swimming in a clear pool amid beautiful flowers. It was very peaceful and tranquil, with lots of tall, deep green ferns – like a small jungle in the middle of a busy airport!

Silver Kris Lounge – Narita Airport

Shortly after takeoff, lunch began with a delicious assortment of satay and spicy peanut sauce, followed by a small plate of sashimi and a fresh garden salad. Then came the main dish of pan fried giant prawns on a bed of Japanese noodles, accompanied by a chilled glass of French Chardonnay. Lunch service finished with a selection of cheeses and a glass of port – superb food and service!

Airline Menu – Tokyo to Singapore

The 7 hour flight was very smooth and relaxing as I listened to some New Age music. We landed in Singapore on time and I breezed through immigration and customs. During the taxi ride to downtown, the Indian driver gave me several recommendations for famous “fish head restaurants” in the Indian Quarter near the port. The name of the company was “Comfort Taxi” and posted on the dashboard was a sign that read – Caring, Observant, Mindful, Friendly, Obliging, Responsible, Tactful. Meanwhile, a local radio station played music by Buena Vista Social Club! Upon arriving at the Le Meridien Hotel on Orchard Road, I was very fortunate to be upgraded to a room on the President’s Club Level for having checked in using my American Express Platinum card.

Lobby – Le Meridien Hotel
Le Meridien Hotel

And I was just in time for the complimentary evening cocktails and appetizers in the club lounge. As I sat with a cold local Anchor beer, I watched the final match of the International Ping Pong Championship between China and Sweden – surprisingly won by Sweden!

The next morning, I grabbed my camera, slipped into my hiking boots, and headed to Fort Canning Park, an old British military site near the port. On the way, I passed the Presidential Palace, with its beautifully manicured tropical gardens and immaculately groomed deep green lawn – definitely off limits to tourists! I found that Fort Canning had a long history, dating from the 14th century, having been the royal residence of many Malay kings. Later in the 19th century, the British arrived and made their indelible mark on the fortress.

Fort Canning Park

As I hiked up and down the hills, I passed several groups of people engaged in various cultural activities, such as the Chinese in a Tai Chi class, Indian dancers practicing for a wedding, and some Malay pilgrims paying homage to the ancient tomb of a Malay king. Further along, near the old post headquarters building, I heard a group of local musicians rehearsing for a performance – banging large gongs and drums in a rhythmic beat. It was a beautiful sound to listen to, but I was never able to see them. Meanwhile, by this time of the day, I was totally soaked in sweat, with the temperature in the upper 90’s and the humidity near 100%! As I exited the park, I came to the central business district, where I spotted a lovely old turn of the century building on a street corner, surrounded on three sides by tall, modern skyscrapers. I decided to venture in for a look and I was rewarded with views of the beautiful restoration, and cool air conditioning! The gorgeous dark tropical woodwork was highly polished and the pure white marble floors were sparkling.

Downtown Singapore
Restored old building – Singapore

One entire floor was devoted to the “Pennsylvania Country Store” – an outlet for traditional Early American furniture. Then I walked to the nearest Metro station and rode the subway to Jurong East to visit the Singapore Science Center. The subway was very modern, efficient, and exceptionally clean – especially since chewing gum was forbidden on the subway and punishable by a hefty fine! Despite the sold out showing of the new “Fantasia 2000” film in the IMAX theatre at the Science Center, there was a fascinating exhibit on the history of the making of the original film, alongside with details of the production of the new digital version of the film. The exhibit included the computerized scenes of the digital version of the musical instruments in the animated orchestra – absolutely fascinating! Returning to the Metro station, I decided to take the longer, scenic route back to downtown. Essentially, the route “circled” the entire island (aka country), and along the way we passed vast complexes of high rise apartment buildings. At one station, four US Navy sailors, dressed in shorts and carrying backpacks, boarded the train – looking very much like they were on a mission to see Singapore. When I got back to the hotel that afternoon, I packed my bags and got a taxi to the airport, just before a tropical downpour hit the city.

View of Singapore from Le Meridien Hotel

Country music was playing on the radio as the taxi driver sped along the expressway, ignoring the speed limit. It meant that I had to listen to a very annoying “Ding Dong” speed limit warning alarm bell for the entire 30 minute trip! It went something like this – “on the (DING) wings of a (DONG) snow white (DING) dove … (DONG)” Finally we reached the airport, just before I reached the limit of my tolerance! Once on board the new Singapore Airlines Boeing 777, I settled in to a comfortable Business Class seat and ordered a cold Gin and tonic before takeoff. As the plane reached its cruising altitude, a superb dinner was served, beginning with a smoked salmon and sashimi appetizer, along with a crisp garden salad. Next came a small bowl of soba noodles, followed by the main dish of grilled tiger prawns, fried okra, and steamed rice. The dinner service concluded with a selection of international cheeses, fresh fruit, and a glass of Port. Later in the flight, chocolates, coffee, and Drambuie were served.

Airline Menu – Singapore to New Delhi

During the long 6 hour flight to New Delhi, I watched the “World’s Strongest Man Competition” on my personal entertainment device. The competition was won by a hulking brute from Finland for the third year in a row. I also had time to catch the conclusion of the film titled “Stir of Echoes”, which I had first started watching on the flight to Tokyo a few days before. Around midnight we landed on time in New Delhi, and then began the incredibly frustrating ordeal of the Indian immigration and customs process, where even the simplest of tasks often takes forever! It was particularly annoying when some people were “escorted” (shoved) into the long queue ahead of me, supposedly being “diplomats”! And as for the “machine readable” queue that I was standing in, there was no sign of a machine anywhere. Finally, after 45 minutes, I was close enough to be able to slap down my passport in front of an agonizingly slow, stone faced Immigration Officer, who painstakingly pawed through my passport, page by page. Then at last, he stamped it and I was allowed to enter the country. But then came another frustration, no luggage trolleys to be seen anywhere, nor any porters. So I dragged my bags through the crowd waiting outside the customs area and headed to the “pre-paid” taxi counter, where I had to fight my way to the front of another long queue to secure a voucher, which I surrendered to a taxi driver in the shadows. By this time, it was well past 2am as the taxi began the journey, amid lots of noise and confusion, to the Park Royal Hotel near Nehru Place. As the taxi bounced along the rough road in the dark of night, dodging an amazing array of bicycles, Tuk-Tuks, trucks, buses, pedestrians and cows, I felt as if it could almost be a plot for a film noir – “The eternal hell of an Indian taxi ride through the dark streets of New Delhi”, with no beginning and no end! At last my ordeal came to an end as I checked into a lovely room at the beautiful 5 star luxury Park Royal Hotel, which had been arranged by Esri-India.

Park Royal Hotel – New Delhi
View of New Delhi from Park Royal Hotel

The next morning, or more like later in the day, Dinesh from the Esri-India office picked me up and drove through the crowded, chaotic traffic to the new training facility. It was located in an old farm estate that had once been outside the city but was now surrounded by it. Besides the new, well equipped classrooms, there were residences for students travelling from distant parts of the country. The small cafeteria served simple, but very tasty vegetarian dishes, some of which were quite spicy.

Esri- India Training Facility

After class, I returned to the hotel, went down to the lobby bar, and ordered a large, cold Black Label Beer, a popular Indian beer brewed in Bangalore. As I sat in the bar, I finished transcribing the notes from my recent trip to Syria and Greece. Later in the evening, I went to the hotel coffee shop for a delicious dinner of chicken Tikka Masala, my favorite Indian dish. The following morning it was back to the training facility for another long day of lecturing and computer exercises for the Esri-India technical staff.

Students during a class break

Many of the students were young women, dressed in beautiful saris made from brilliantly colored silk. Lunch with the students in the cafeteria featured a very nice spicy potato dish, along with cold fresh yogurt. That evening, back at the hotel, I had another ice-cold bottle of Black Label beer as I wrote notes in my journal. For dinner I had a luscious south Indian chicken curry served in a thick, richly spiced tomato sauce. As I enjoyed dinner, I watched a large table of two Indian families, where all the men sat on one side and the women on the opposite side. Later, a young man and young woman rose from the table and strolled off together. I speculated that they were on a “date” and the two families were there as “chaperones”! Meanwhile, another group bearing gifts and flowers celebrated a birthday that included several versions of “Happy Birthday”. And at the same time, a large tourist group of Scandinavians “attacked” the enormous dinner buffet! It was all very fascinating to watch, almost as if it had been “staged” for my entertainment that evening.

Another day of training followed the next morning, which began with the usual chaotic, “white knuckle” drive through the crowded streets of New Delhi. That same evening, back at the hotel, I received an invitation to join the General Manager for cocktails in the Club Room, a beautiful old English style library. The GM was a large man from Austria, and we had a lively, fascinating conversation about our various travel experiences around the world. We also talked about President Bill Clinton’s upcoming trip to India and all the preparations being made for him in the hotel. Meanwhile, the Sheikh of Dubai was staying in the Presidential Suite, along with his large delegation. They were in New Delhi for an International Shooting Competition, and the Sheikh was the team captain. The GM was also proud of the new nightclub he had just opened in the hotel, especially now that it was the most popular venue in the city. Later, I finished the evening watching a fascinating video about the world famous Indian luxury train “Palace on Wheels”. The following morning, I joined Dinesh for another hair-raising ride to the training facility, the car radio having been tuned to a morning show that gave up to the minute traffic reports.

Negotiating New Delhi traffic

The reports included the average speed of the traffic, the presence or absence of “diversions”, and the maximum “stopping time” at major traffic lights! In between the traffic reports, a young female DJ spun the very latest American pop music. At the end of every traffic report, she gave a “driving lesson of the day”. And as we negotiated our way through the chaos, it was obvious that her driving lessons were having no impact on the traffic, judging by what I could see around me – or perhaps, Dinesh and I were the only ones on the road tuned in to the radio station? For the second day in a row, a very large, vicious looking yellow wasp continued to wander around the classroom. No one seemed to be concerned, nor in any hurry to find a way to get it out of the room. But I kept my eye on it as best as I could while I was teaching. However, at one point, as I was helping a student with a computer exercise, another student suddenly “flicked” the hair on the side of my head, chasing away the giant yellow beast that had just landed there! Fortunately, I was not aware of its presence, but I was almost sure it would still be in class the next day. Later that afternoon, the ride back to the hotel with Dinesh was a bit scary, with him “babbling” away about something of no importance, while huge, battered buses came screaming up beside us on both sides. As I look out the car window, all that I could see was a large bald tire, a crumpled fender, and a bus driver who looked as if he was “barely” in control of the speeding vehicle! At that moment, I had no choice but to place my trust in God and Dinesh! All the while, the cows rested sublimely on the narrow median separating the lanes of insane traffic. They just gave us a very nonchalant, casual glance – they must know more than I know! At last we arrived at the hotel and I retired to the lobby bar for a cold bottle of Taj Mahal beer. The bar was decorated in rich, dark tropical wood paneling, gorgeous oriental carpets, a huge stone fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and paintings depicting 18th century English country scenes – very much a classic English gentlemen’s club. Afterwards, I had a superb dinner of delicately spiced lamb curry and rice in the hotel coffee shop.

Park Royal Hotel garden

At last it was the final day of the training class, and when Dinesh picked me up in the morning, I had my camera with me, in an “attempt” to capture something of the indescribable, chaotic, insane traffic. But I found it hard to record the scene of hundreds of people on bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles, all positioned at the head of a long line of traffic stopped for a traffic light at a major intersection. Well before the light changed, they all began “creeping” forward, with bicycles first. And then all of a sudden, they were in the middle of the intersection, fighting their way through the cross traffic still passing through the intersection. And when the light changed, the rest of the traffic ”bolted” forward, clashing with the “stragglers” in the cross traffic, as well as the bicycles that had gotten a bit of a “head start”. It could only be described as “anarchy on wheels”! The head start was necessary for the cyclists, otherwise they would have been mowed down by the multitude of buses, trucks, Tuk-Tuks, and cars behind them. For the uninitiated, it was an absolutely crazy, insane scene, as all manner, size, and mode of transportation jostled and jockeyed for position in the center of the intersection. And in the midst of all the insanity, pedestrians darted in and out, while the cows sat peacefully on the side of the road, observing it all! My impression was of a modern Indian version of the ancient Roman Gladiator games. Later in the morning, during a short break in the class, I sat outside in the delightful, warm winter weather and watched a pair of beautiful, but noisy green parrots in the trees above me. Then I joined the class for lunch in the cafeteria for the last time before concluding the class. Though it had been an exhausting five days, the students were very engaged and appreciative. Later in the afternoon, on the way back to the hotel, once again we encountered the monotonous sounds of the traffic – horns of various tones and volume, incredibly loud mufflers (or maybe none at all) on the trucks and buses, all of which spewed out massive clouds of black, choking diesel smoke! And most disturbing of all, the continuous, eerie screeching of brakes from the old, battered, overcrowded buses as they came to a sudden, agonizing stop! The sound was like a tribe of screaming “banshees”. Every time I heard that awful sound, I couldn’t help but envision a spectacular and gruesome accident about to happen, but the same scene seemed to play out every day I was in New Delhi. And yet, it must be noted that during my entire time in New Delhi, I never saw an accident, just hundreds of “near misses”! That evening, as I sat in the hotel bar, the staff greeted me with “good evening sir, a Black Label?” Later, Rajesh and Dinesh joined me for dinner in the hotel’s “Dehuli Indian Restaurant” for a wonderful meal of grilled jumbo prawns smothered in delicious, spicy mango chutney. It was a delightful time of conversation and shared experiences that brought my time in India to a very pleasant conclusion. And for all the uncomfortable and frustrating times, there were just as many or more memorable and unforgettable times. Such is the “unique” experience of India!

Early the next morning, at 4:00am, I boarded the SwissAir flight to Bombay and onward to Zurich. There was a light meal of chicken jhatka and fish cake served on the way to Bombay, and before landing in Zurich, we were served an Indian breakfast of pancakes filled with masala, along with scrambled eggs and chicken shashlik.

Menu – New Delhi to Zurich
Swissair Business Class Lounge – Zurich Airport

In Zurich airport I had enough time to take a shower and have coffee in the Business Class Lounge before boarding the SwissAir flight to Los Angeles. Shortly after takeoff, lunch was served, beginning with smoked marlin and trout with horseradish sauce and red beet salad. For the main course I chose the grilled scallops and jumbo shrimp in a delicious Pernod cream Sauce, along with spinach and fennel.

Menu – Zurich to Los Angeles
Swissair Wine List

Nine hours and two movies later, we landed at LAX – twelve days after leaving home, I had travelled around the world again!

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Images of Tokyo

Shibuya District
Entrance to Yoyogi Park
Yoyogi Park
Old Tokyo

 

Images of Kyoto

Ni-Jo Palace
Higashi-Hoganjji Temple
Higashi-Hoganjji Temple
Modern Building in Old Kyoto
Ancient Cemetery – Ni-Jo Palace
Gardens of Higashi-Hoganjji Temple
Traditional Rain Spout
Map of Ni-Jo Palace

 

Images of Singapore

Orchard Road

 

Images of New Delhi

Garden – Park Royal Hotel
Garden Fountain – Park Royal Hotel
Evening in New Delhi from Park Royal Hotel

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!

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!