Sunday, 29 December 2013

Bhutan Iconic Dzongs

Punakha Dzong ©Solange Hando

Dzongs, or fortified monasteries, are an integral part of the Bhutanese landscape with their sturdy inward-sloping walls and red roofs topped by gilded pinnacles. Most were erected in the 17th century when the Tibetan Lama,  Shabdrung Namgyel, unified the country.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Bhutan, the Kingdom of Gross National Happiness

King of Bhutan on Coronation Day ©Solange Hando

On his coronation day in 2008, the young King of Bhutan repeated his father's pledge to ensure gross national happiness for his people. Income will be a contributing factor but preserving the indigenous culture comes top of the list.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Lhasa in Tibet

Potala Palace, Lhasa ©Solange Hando

Set into the hill and rising to 13 floors, the Potala is often described as a soulless museum but as you wander through the maze of courtyards and halls filled with amazing treasures, the whole history of Tibet unfolds in front of you. You cannot linger long in this bustling place but when you gaze at the robes of the exiled Dalai Lama, draped ghost-like on his empty chair, you sense a deeply spiritual place and a shiver down your spine.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Train to Tibet, the World's Highest Railway

Tibet ©Solange Hando

Back in 2006, China opened the Qinghai Express linking Lhasa to Beijing and now extended to other cities. Climbing to 5072 metres at the Tanggula pass, this is the highest railway in the world, a masterpiece of engineering with amazing bridges, viaducts and tunnels and large sections built on permafrost.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Bhutan, expensive or value for money?

Paro Valley, Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Is Bhutan really expensive?
That depends how you look at it: compare it to backpacking in Nepal or Indonesia and you may feel it is overpriced but compared to western Europe, I think Bhutan offers amazing value for money, everything thrown in for the price of a bed in London or Paris.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Bhutan's top festivals in central valleys

Festival Dance in Central Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Festivals are held across Bhutan throughout the year, giving everyone a chance to watch sacred dances  (above), earn merits for the coming months and laugh at the antics of medieval-style jesters. People walk for days to attend such celebrations and no visit to Bhutan is complete without a festival.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Welcome to Bhutan, Glimpses of a Coronation

Pageantry for Bhutan Coronation ©Solange Hando

Five years ago, on November 6th, I was privileged to attend the Coronation of the new King of Bhutan, then just 28 and the world's youngest reigning monarch. It was an amazing five day event, high in colour and celebrations, held for the people and by the people.
Young and old, they had come from all over the country, by any means possible, and I even met a group of nuns from central Bhutan who had drawn lots to hitch a ride on the back of a truck.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Lakeside Pokhara, my Shangri La

Pokhara Lake, Fishtail and Annapurna ©Solange Hando

A short but spectacular flight from Kathmandu, Pokhara is for me the perfect escape, the place where I can chill out and relax in the fold of the snow-capped Annapurna. Just look at the view above, taken from the Peace Pagoda: the placid waters of the Phewa Lake and just the central section of the mountains which stretch either side as far as you can see. I can almost touch the snow and smell the flowers.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Tribute to Mandela

Mandela, Drakenstein ©Solange Hando

Mandela has passed away but hope must live on, for he left the world a better place than many of us ever imagined. As I looked up at this statue at the gate of the Victor Verster prison  (now the Drakenstein Centre), I certainly felt a shiver down my spine. On the 11th of February 1990, this is where he walked to freedom, a man everyone had heard about but nobody had seen his face until that moment.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Bodhnath, my favourite place in Kathmandu

Bodhnath Temple in Kathmandu ©Solange Hando

True, Tibetan refugees came to Kathmandu decades ago but their culture flourishes as strong as ever and there's no better place to feel the vibes than in the district of Bodhnath.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Nepal, what next?

Begnas Lake near Pokhara, Nepal ©Solange Hando

After 14 fabulous visits, what next? I thought of volunteer work but then came the TV report on orphanages set up by unscrupulous entrepreneurs and I almost had second thoughts.
But all things considered, only two homes were mentioned, out of 500+ in the Kathmandu valley alone, and myriad memories came flooding back...