Thursday, May 31, 2018

Seven amazing days in the Land of the Red Dragon

Traveling on business always has its ups and downs. The purpose of the trip will always be on top of your mind, the never ending meetings and sessions will keep you on your toes. But it does present the chances to go around and visit places. April 2018 extended to me one such opportunity to visit one of our big neighbors, world's most populous and one of the most powerful countries in the world, China.

What do Indians generally think when they hear anything about China - I bet it would be about insects/snake-eating people, cheap plastic products, a lot of hate for Indians, overcrowded places, traffic etc, at least this is a glimpse of what I had in my mind. Honestly I was expecting to see a country like our own with chaotic traffic, people honking at red signals, crowded cities, lousy infrastructure. Was I in for a surprise! Comparing our country to China would be next to impossible. It's in a different league, simply put.

Just out of airport

We landed in Beijing airport on April 8th. Taxiing to the terminal took about 40 minutes, that should give you an idea on the size of this humongous airport. Beijing alone is approximately 22 times the area of Bangalore or 11 times that of Delhi.

There was someone with a placard to pick us up from the airport and take us to hotel Crowne Plaza at Wangfujing. The travel from airport to the hotel was about 1 hour 30 minutes and that alone was sufficient to get rid of all the presumption mentioned in the above section. I've been to the US twice and I'm sure China is at par in terms of infrastructure, if not better than them. The traffic was really bad for a Sunday evening, but it was very organized, people follow lanes, no unnecessary honking, no road rage etc.

Crowne Plaza at Wangfujing was an amazing choice of stay as it was located at a place that bustled with activity. There were shopping malls nearby and very good restaurants to choose from. Weekdays were quite crazy at work but every evening we made sure to walk and explore streets and malls in the Wangfujing area. Most of the population don't speak English but that doesn't impede them or the tourists from communicating to each other. It is amazing to see how effortlessly everyone irrespective of their ages handles smart phones and translation apps to communicate to anyone who couldn't speak Chinese. Tiananmen square was just 3 kilometers from the hotel. In one of the evening walks we visited this famous location. You can read about Tiananmen square here - wiki
Here's my review on the hotel Crowne Plaza - Tripadvisor

Illuminated Tienanmen Square 

Wangfujing food street is an amazing place to visit, it was just 10 minutes walk from the hotel. You can see many kinds of insects and reptiles being grilled here. If you do have the 'guts' you should go for tasting some of it. I used to consider myself a foodie until I visited this place. I couldn't even stand the stench of some "food" being offered. We did a quick tour of the place to take pictures and made sure to escape before the smell forced us to throw up. We tried the steamed chestnuts from this street and they were amazing. The next day I talked to people in office who mentioned that the street showcases food habits of people in some remote parts of China but it does not represent Chinese food culture in general. They also mentioned that the food street totally focuses on attracting tourists. We saw a lot of tourists munching on these exotic meats. Majority of Chinese don't eat insects and reptiles, I'll have a separate section to detail my food experience.

Grilled insects at Wangfujing food street

Scorpions on skewers












Weekdays passed by quite quickly. On Saturday we took a conducted bus tour to a nearby city - Tianjin. It is famous for the industries and for its snacks. The bus stopped at one point for snack shopping. I picked up a lot of stuff without even checking what they were, the whole idea was to carry home some traditional Chinese snacks with me. It was not disappointing I should say but I should also mention that it was not everyone's cup of tea. The guide of the conducted tour  passionately explained about everything en route, but it was all in Mandarin, so couldn't make head or tail out of it. We were the only two foreign guys in the bus and that really was funny. The first stop at Tianjin was to visit Italian style street. It was a really nice experience to see two different worlds in one place.

Tianjin City view
The highlight of the day was the journey from Tianjin back to Beijing by bullet train. If you are in Beijing on a short trip and you want to experience bullet train, Tianjin is the best option to visit. A distance of approximately 120 kilometers that took 2 hours 30 minutes by bus was done in just 30 minutes by bullet train. It accelerated to a max of 297 km/h during the trip as was displayed on an led screen.
The Pu Xing Train
After the bullet train experience, we took a subway back to Wangfujing. I've seen metros in the US and the UK and I should admit Beijing subway is easily 2-3 times bigger in size and number of lines in operation. It is the second largest subway system in the world. 
Here is my review  - Tripadvisor

Sunday the 15th of April was our last day to visit places and we took a cab from the hotel to visit the Great wall at Mutianyu. It was around 75 kilometers from the hotel, well past the city limits. This journey made it clear that the excellent infrastructure was not just a feat of the city but extends well outside too. We passed through a couple of remote village occupied by farmers. Even in those remote places the road condition was good, though there were some bad patches, almost disregardable. We could see they are progressing with an extension of subway to Tianjin. It is really amazing to see that they are expanding the subway to Tianjin even though they already have other modes like normal trains, bus services and bullet trains plying between these cities. There are different tourist spots that one can visit and Mutianyu is one of the places close to Beijing. They have made the visit to the wall more fun by providing a cable car and a toboggan. The term 'Great Wall' would need a bunch of superlative adjectives in front of the 'Great' to emphasize its greatness. It is massive and you need to really be physically there to comprehend the size of the wall. The total length of the wall is an unbelievable 21,196 kilometers. I don't really know how obsessive and paranoid should someone be to build such an enormous structure in the fear of invasion by enemies. Maybe things were unimaginably bad during those times, still the way it resulted in this amazing structure exhibits their unparalleled skills and unrelenting dedication. If you are visiting the wall, be prepared for a tiring walk. It does require a good amount of climbing steps. If you have asthma, make sure you have access to your inhaler. You can find my review here - Tripadvisor
Steep climb

Cable car ride to the Wall












Toboggan ride from the top of the wall
Almost near one of the several towers













Well, that pretty much sums up whatever little adventure I could include in a business trip. Next section is going to be dedicated for food. I've had Chinese food from India, where it is unnecessarily too spicy and from the US, where it is totally bland. Honestly they shouldn't be called as Chinese food, they don't have any relationship with the original Chinese cuisine. I loved most of the food I tried in China. They have a nice combination of spices, very balanced and enjoyable. Some of the dishes were really hot and the spiciness came from either green chilly or from black pepper. All three meals and any snack you may run into will be strictly non-vegetarian. So if you are a vegetarian, you need to be careful what you are munching on. Most of the restaurants won't even have an English menu, so my warning is not unwarranted.

Peking duck roast - This is a must eat dish at Beijing (or probably many other places in China). They serve the roasted duck along with thin pancakes. You need to scrape the duck pieces and wrap it with the pancake to eat. Fried duck skin will be served along, you need to dip it in powdered sugar and eat. In fact, you can't eat it, it just melts in your mouth.

Fried duck skin
Roasted duck












The casserole in the center has the wraps (pancakes)
Fried pig's ears

I did give a try but honestly I didn't like them. It is tasteless and resembles a tender cartilage. It is a famous dish there. Here's a pic

Pig's ears

Donkey burgers and dumplings are very famous. I didn't get a chance to find the burger, but ran into the dumpling once. Again, nothing fancy there (avoidable). If you don't like turkey meat, there's every chance that you wouldn't like donkey too. 


Donkey dumplings
As most of the meals were in a hurry or with a crowd, I missed out on lot of pics. Especially the crazy vegetarian food. I had lotus stems, wood ear mushrooms and some other vegetables that I couldn't even identify. Their culinary skills are top notch. So if you  have a plan to visit China do a homework and make a list of items that you want to try there. I had a couple of visits to KFC and Subway there and I thoroughly loved the Chinese twist on all the dishes I got the chance to try from these places. 

I believe all the above topics covered the positives about China. I couldn't find many negatives, but yes there were some points worth mentioning. Most of these points have a common cause - China is not a democratic nation. For example, the government owns all the land. So if someone purchases an apartment, it is basically like leasing a house for 100 years after which the government can do whatever they wish to do with it. Media - In most of the countries media would be biased, like we have left supporters, right supporters, saffron supporters etc. But in China the media is run by the government itself. In essence, you will not be able to read / watch any negatives or a different perspective of issues at hand. Most of the websites like google/facebook won't work in China in public networks like wi-fi of the hotel - but they have equivalent or better websites and technology to handle their needs. People tend to waste a lot of food, that's something I couldn't digest. It burns more to think that their not-so-fortunate counterparts outside cities may be starving.

That was pretty much what I wanted to jot down. It has already been more than a month and I hope I did cover all the topics I wanted to. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Memories of a visit to Bhutan

First things first - This is the video that had planted the idea of a trip to Bhutan.
TED-Video-Youtube . If you haven't ever seen this TED talk, you should!

An amazingly beautiful little country smaller than our 'God's own country', Kerala, but I bet that title would better fit Bhutan by all means. Breathtaking scenery anywhere and everywhere. Though the country is generally cold, the people are warm, soft spoken and friendly. I'm trying to make a log of my 7 days trip to this pristine land which is very comparable to Scotland in terms of its scenery, traffic discipline, cleanliness etc. I wouldn't be writing all the minute details of my trip to Bhutan but I'll try to point the readers to other articles/sites which I feel would be helpful if anyone is planning a trip.

Indian citizens don't need a VISA to enter Bhutan. We entered by road through Phuentsholing which is a town in the border 175 km away from Bagdogra airport. In this town, there is an administrative office that processes permit for Indian tourists to visit the capital city Thimphu and the town of Paro. To visit the old capital Punakha, permit could be obtained from Thimphu. Best option is to go with a pre-booked package through some travels. We had booked our package through Akbar Travels. We flew from Bangalore to Bagdogra via Kolkata and back. Our package included pickup and drop off from Bagdogra Airport. I heard about another entrance through Assam border which is not currently operating because of ULFA threats or something like that (not a 100% sure about the fact)

Another option is to fly into Paro, which costs a little more and the flight options are limited as well. If you can directly fly into Paro, you can avoid Phuentsholing from your itinerary and this will save time, travel and money. I think the difference in flight charges will tally with the money spent on travel and accommodation from Phuentsholing

We traveled in Feb 2017, it was not a high season. If you plan to travel during tourist season, things may be different. You will need to plan out every detail of your trip in advance as the whole of Bhutan will be crowded. Mid February was actually a very pleasant time to travel. We had to use jackets and skull caps in Thimphu (Temperature was max 12 and min 4 degrees). Punakha and Paro were relatively warmer, but still needed jackets. If you travel during winter, definitely would require thermals and all other winter gears.

Language and Currency

Language is not a problem at all if you can manage a little bit of Hindi. Everyone speaks Hindi there. If I could manage, anyone can manage there. They speak far better Hindi than I can ever do. Most of the people speak English too.

Indians need not convert INR to Ngultrum as Indian currency is accepted everywhere in Bhutan including the new 2000 Rs and 500 Rs notes. It is still majorly a cash economy so make sure to carry enough Indian money for your stay. I was surprised to see that Bhutanese people also use our currency for their transactions. You may find hotels with swiping machines but don't be shocked if the personnel informs you that She/He does not know how to operate it, they are not lying.

Not sure if you noticed the She/He above rather than the regular He/She, it wasn't an accident. In Bhutan most of the businesses are run by women as we saw it. You will find ladies managing small vegetable shops to big hotels. In fact in the whole week in Bhutan I found only a few male staff/managers in hotels where we stayed or the places we visited.

Infrastructure, Attire and happiness. 

Most of the people wear the same attire (Traditional Wear). So it is near to impossible to look at someone and guess their economic class. Everyone seems to be from the same background. Probably the happiness index is the best in this country for this reason.  Most of the buildings look the same. There are stringent rules on what design should be followed to build homes/apartments. If anyone fails to follow the rules, they will be heavily fined. We saw a palace near Thimphu, nobody could guess it is a palace because it is a small and humble building unlike the picture that runs in our mind when we hear the term "Palace". Most of the roads are in good condition and the ones that are not, are really bad but still motor-able. Bhutan hardly had any infrastructure before 1960, when Indian government's BRO (Border Roads Organization) took the responsibility of constructing the roads in these most difficult terrains. Till date, India is taking care of their infrastructure. Currently India is undertaking a hydro electric project as well. You can read about DANTAK here - Bro. All through the journey you will be able to see presence of Indian Army personnel and BRO personnel here. So literally it is a country 'Made in India' but the living conditions are far better because of the lack of population and the meticulous administration by the Bhutanese government.

Travel budget

Depends on how you plan it, but if you opt for economy travel, deluxe stay and fine dining the total cost for 3 adults and one child would be less than 1.5 lakhs for 7 nights and 8 days. It is not as costly as traveling to a destination like Sri Lanka. (I had visited Sri Lanka back in 2013, but I regret I never made a proper note about that trip )


Jaigaon / Phuentsholing

These places are just separated by just one big gateway which is always open for to and fro traffic, but these are two different worlds altogether. Jaigaon is a typical Indian town, with roadsides full of garbage, vehicles parked as they please, people honking away to eternity, chaotic traffic, anything that we can see anywhere in India. You enter into Bhutan through that gate, suddenly it stops, clean environment, clean roads, vehicles properly following traffic rules and absolutely no honking. Our cab driver who picked us up from Bagdogra airport and drove the car with absolutely no regard to rules and discipline (He is an amazingly talented driver, I should give him that, controls his car meticulously at breakneck speeds) transformed to an entirely new person when he passed that gate. This small town bustles with activity as most of the goods pass from India into Bhutan through this border. There are a couple of shopping complexes here, where you can buy handicrafts etc at reasonable rates. But if you are looking for Bhutanese products, you are in for disappointment. The only Bhutanese products in Bhutan are jams, pickles, honey (very limited stocks and super expensive), alcohol (a lot of it) and some handicrafts, everything else is 'Made in India'. We stayed at 'The Park Hotel' here. Only by name it resembles the 'Park' hotels in India, but I think that's one of the best stays available in Phuentsholing town. My tripadvisor review here - Tripadv
Dolma Handicraft Stall Tharpai Lam

Phuentsholing Gateway



One curious thing I noted here is that Phuentsholing has a 'Pure Veg' restaurant (forgot the name)

Things to do

Nothing much actually, but make sure to do the handicraft shopping here, we found 'Dolma Handicrafts' in one of the shopping complexes to be particularly cheaper than all other places (Thimphu, Paro). But we discovered this only on our way back, so the damage had already been done by picking up fridge magnets, keychains etc from other places like Thimphu.

Thimphu

The drive from Phuentsholing to Thimphu takes about 5 to 6 hours. Mind it, if you can't stomach traveling through winding roads, you better stay away from this trip or take necessary precautions. We stayed at Hotel White Tara. Amazing experience here. My review can be found here - Tripadv

Things to do

There are a lot of tourist attractions in and around. I'll note down the places we visited.


  1. National Memorial Choeten - You can read all about it here - Wiki
  2. Buddha Dordenma Statue - Details here - Wiki
  3. Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery - Details here - Wiki
  4. Changankha Lhakhang - Details - LonelyPlanet
  5. National Library - Details here - Wiki
  6. Folk heritage museum - Details - Wiki
  7. Shopping street near Changlam Plaza - Very colorful street with a lot of souvenir shopping options, but they are a tad bit costlier than the ones in Phuentsholing as we figured later in the trip.  
       Listing a couple of places where we had food from.
  1. Masala family restaurant, Olakha Thimphu
  2. Kintshen Restaurant - Chubachu Thimphu
  3. A hotel without name near by Sherpa restaurant near Hotel White Tara. 

National Memorial Chorten

Dordenma Buddha Statue 
Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery














National Library
Changankha Lhakhang

Shopping street near Chung Lam Plaza


Punakha

Punakha is the old capital city of Bhutan before Thimphu took over that title in the 60s. The drive to Punakha takes around 4 hours. There are a couple of tourist attractions on the way which is not exactly at Punakha, but I'll include their names in this section as they are on the way. The route is quite scenic and we could see beautiful snow capped Himalayan mountains at some distance. I think people leave out Punakha as it is quite a detour from usual Thimphu and Paro sites, but it is worth the visit. It is beautifully located where two rivers (Pho chu (father) and Mo chu (mother)) meet each other

 I came to know there are places with hot water springs, but couldn't cover those (List of springs here - Wiki) . We stayed at Hotel Vara. My tripadvisor review can be found here - Tripadv


Things to do
  1.  Dochula Pass - Amazing view point of Himalayan peaks. Also there is a beautiful site hosting Stupas (Chortens) that was created in memory of soldiers. Details - Wiki
  2. Druk Wangyal Lhakhang - Situated very near to the Stupa site. Details are covered in the same link given above. 
  3.  Punakha Dzong - This is a majestic awe inspiring structure and I would recommend every visitor to include this place in their itinerary. Details - Wiki
Mentioning the name of a hotel that we had food from - Kumar restaurant at Punakha town


108 Memorial Chortens
Druk Wangyen Lhakhag
Punakha Dzong


Memorial Site


















Paro

Drive from Punakha to Paro is around 4-5 hours again. There is a little repetition of scenery because half the way is back through the same road that was taken from Thimphu to Punakha. Paro is an amazingly beautiful valley. On the way there is a view point to see flights landing and taking off from Paro airport, the only international airport in Bhutan. As above, I'll cover the attractions that we visited. We stayed at Mandala resorts. My tripadvisor review can be checked here - Tripadv


Things to do
  1. Lampelri National/Botanical Park - It wasn't the season for rhododendron flowers. I came to know it would be breathtakingly beautiful during the season. Its a good walk nevertheless. Details - Wiki
  2. Paro Rinpung Dzong - This is not as big as the Punakha Dzong but it is amazingly located and is worth the visit. Details - Wiki
  3. Takstang Monastery (Tiger's nest) - I read somewhere that your visit to Bhutan is not complete unless you paid a visit to this place. In fact I can't explain in any better words. The most amazing sight that just makes you forget a long mountain trek. I was very doubtful of completing this trek as my 66 year old mother and 5 year old daughter were also with us. Thankfully we finished it even though it took a little longer than I could've done alone or with my wife. The sight that awaits you up there is worth every drop of sweat that you break, I swear. 
  4. Kyichu Lakhang - Details - Wiki
Baritsho Lakeside Lampelri Park
Beginning of Trek to Tiger's nest.The white spot is the destination
Half way through the trek

Kyichu Lhakhang


Inside Lampelri Park
Almost done with the trek
Rinpung Dzong Paro


Taktstang Monastery

Mentioning the name of a hotel that we had food from - Bimal Restaurant in Paro town.

So, I've covered almost everything that we visited in Bhutan in 7 days. Next one is an important topic that I would like to cover. If you are a vegetarian or a person disgusted by pictures of meat dishes, you can skip this section. Thanks for taking the time to read so far.

What to eat/drink in Bhutan

Buddhist country - First thought that would strike anyone - oh is this going to be a vegetarian trip? Well, you are in for a pleasant surprise. Buddhists are not vegetarians. There are some clauses though that I figured out by reading. Apparently Buddhists can eat meat if the animal was not killed on behalf of them.  Also they don't eat organs (liver, kidney, tripe etc) which is considered non-vegetarian. In a cold country like Bhutan I'd be very surprised if people were not allowed to eat meat or drink alcohol. They don't shy away from any meat and as I figured beef and pork are staple there.
So what to eat and drink? Be advised that at majority of the restaurants, they make food when a order is given. I didn't find any pre-cooked food other than at breakfast buffets.

Let me start with non-veg

  1. Sikkam Pa / Shakkam Pa



    This is dried beef with vegetables and red-chilies. I couldn't quite get the difference between the 2 in the title, but figured that the vegetables will change from place to place. Radish was a common ingredient in this dish. As I could understand, the beef strips are sun-dried and then sauteed in vegetable oil along with vegetables and chilies.

     
  2. Phaksha Pa

    Dried Pork (mostly fat) prepared the same way as the dish above. (I don't have a pic)
  3. Shakkam Datsi


    Dried beef strips sauteed and added with cheese and chilly.
  4. Pork Ribs



    Pork ribs fried with radish and red chilies.
  5. Chicken Curry



    It was pretty much like Indian chicken curry except that chicken was different in taste, was better than the broiler ones.
  6. Fish curry



    This fish curry was made with Rohu and it was almost like the Bengali fish curry except that it wasn't in mustard gravy. I had heard about a trout fish in Bhutan but it wasn't season so couldn't find it anywhere. 

Now vegetarian dishes

You can get almost all North - Indian vegetarian dishes (like paneer butter masala, etc) with a little Bhutanese twist. The Bhutanese dishes will be mostly ending with Datsi. Ema Datsi is chilies with cheese, mushroom datsi is mushrooms with cheese. You can try out different kinds of noodles. 














What to drink
  1. Bhutan's national tea is called Suja. It is a tea made out of some special tea leaves, hot water, butter and salt. Tried it in different places and it tasted different. Most of the places use Amul butter from India. A must try!
  2. There is a country liquor named 'Ara' mostly distilled at home. This is a must try drink if you like tasting alcohol. One glass will keep you warm for about 4-5 hours. 
  3. The whiskey K5 is better than the best whiskies that we get in India. 
  4. There is something called special courier, which is also good. 
  5. Druk 11000 beer - nice one. A must try beer here
  6. Druk lager - Okayish and avoidable. 
  7. Peach wine - Okayish, a little sweeter than how I like my wines. But a must try one as its different.
  8. Spy 21 grape wine - avoidable. It's a fizzy drink and better stay away from it. 
That pretty much sums up the whole one week's adventure :)