Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Bhutan, Peaceful Punakha Valley

The Peaceful Punakha Valley ©Solange Hando

Just two hours from Thimphu the capital, over the spectacular Dochu La pass, Punakha greets you with exotic flowers and trees, rice terraces and birds twittering in feathery blue pines.

At just over 1200 metres, it's a semi-tropical valley, a great place to relax for any visitor to western Bhutan, with a choice of accommodation in traditional style ranging from budget to the luxurious Aman resort.

Punakha Dzong, Western Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Even the monks from Thimphu come here for the winter, drawn by the pleasant climate and the most important dzong in the country, home to stunning religious festivals.

Dzongs are fortified monasteries typical of Bhutan, with whitewashed walls and gilded roofs. This one rises at the confluence of two rivers, offering protection, it is hoped, against evil spirits and likely floods. The covered bridge leads to a maze of shrines and temples where myriad deities painted in bright colours adorn the walls.

Village Trek around Punakha ©Solange Hando

The Punakha valley is a trekkers' paradise, whether you opt for a day's easy ramble through villages and paddies or the six day hike from Shong Pang to Chung Soka, reaching an altitude of 3490 metres.

Rhododendrons bloom in the spring and there are pine and oak forests, remote farms and hamlets, snowy peaks peeping here and there on the horizon, and possibly a black bear or two...

Namgyel Chorten near Punakha ©Solange Hando

Attractions close to town include the hilltop Namgyel chorten with superb views over the valley and the 'infamous' temple of the Divine Madman where in exchange for a small donation, you may be blessed with a wooden phallus, but beware... This is the 'fertility temple'. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Paris off the Beaten Track

Paris, Bois de Vincennes ©Solange Hando

Paris in the spring?
Wonderful but when you have seen the iconic landmarks, how about a few secret gems tucked away  in the French capital?

The Bois de Vincennes is a wonderful place to recover after days of sightseeing. The Parisians love it, picnicking or sunbathing on the lawns, rowing on the lake, cycling or wandering around the nursery where plants are grown for all the parks in Paris.

La Villette, the Géode ©Solange Hando

Or you might want to explore the futuristic Parc de la Villette, a vast open space with elevated walkways and the giant sphere of the Géode (over 6000 stainless steel triangles), housing an equally giant cinema screen, for all things cultural.

 The park is also home to the Cité des Sciences, the Cité de la Musique and an old cattle shed turned concert hall. The Canal St Martin is just a few steps away, prized by fishermen, canoeists and anyone looking for a cruise away from the crowds.

Belleville, Vineyard at the heart of Paris ©Solange Hando

BeIleville is one of my favourite districts.
If you wander up to the top of the hill, you'll enjoy a bird's eye view of the city, including the Eiffel Tower in the distance. This lovely vineyard is just there... and yes, they make wine.

There's also  a superb ethnic market selling all sorts of colourful produce from exotic spices and couscous to melons bursting with sunshine, peaches and fresh fish.

Viaduc des Arts in Paris Daumesnil ©Solange Hando

There are lots of unusual museums in Paris, Magic, Perfume, Romantic Life..., but I like to browse around these craft shops which found a home under the archways of a disused railway viaduct, now brimming with antiques, theatre costumes, paintings and much more.

The old track on top has been turned into a 5km long hanging garden, lavender, roses and shrubs, with plunging views over the streets now and then.

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris ©Solange Hando

But if you'd rather to chill out right in town, follow the Parisians to the Luxembourg Gardens, on the left bank of the Seine, looking out to the Eiffel Tower and boasting the French Senate House by the entrance.

It's a favourite haunt for the locals, a place to practise taichi, play chess, read or just sit in the shade and watch the world go by.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Nepal, Altitude Can Kill

Sunset on Everest (middle) and Lothse (right) ©Solange Hando

In just a couple of months, the new trekking season will begin in Nepal and it's a good time to remember the dangers of altitude sickness. Above 3000 metres, this can hit any of us, regardless of age, fitness or experience, due to lower air pressure and oxygen levels.
Ignoring symptoms may lead to pulmonary or cerebral edema, both potentially fatal, the latter in a matter of hours, so if you'd like to see the sunset on the Everest range, make sure you look after yourself...

Namche Bazaar, Rest Day on Everest Trek ©Solange Hando

What can you do to prevent mountain sickness?
Climb slowly and take frequent breaks, even just a few minutes, to allow your body to acclimatise.
Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol.
Whenever possible, sleep at a lower altitude than the highest reached in the day (it's all up and down).
Take a day's rest (2 nights) every time you gain 1000 metres.
Sleep in a lodge rather than a tent where you keep breathing the same depleted air.
Have a high calorie diet to boost energy levels, include garlic soup to thin out the blood.
 Diamox tablets might help but don't expect a miracle if you ignore everything else.

Looking across to the High Annapurna ©Solange Hando

What are the symptoms?
 Anything from headache and nausea to racing pulse, breathlessness, fluid retention (can't pass water) or sleep problems.
Worsening of the above, plus possibly dizziness, loss of balance, blurred speech, fever, cough, nose bleed, exhaustion.

Langtang Trek ©Solange Hando

What's the remedy?
In the early stages, rest for 2 or 3 nights,  follow all prevention measures and if there's no improvement, descend 1000 metres.
When things get serious, there's a Gamow pressure bag at the Pheriche clinic (Everest trek) if you're nearby.
Otherwise, your guide will probably save your life by carrying you down or call the rescue helicopter from Kathmandu.
Be aware that the helicopter will fly only in daylight hours and clear weather, providing your insurance covers such a service or you deposited the necessary cash with your agency in town.

Sunset on Everest ©Solange Hando

So keep well, keep safe and enjoy...
My favourite spot is up Kalapatar above Base Camp, where this view was taken.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Bhutan, Haa valley near Paro

View on the way down the Chelela Pass near Paro ©Solange Hando

The Haa Valley is a hidden gem close to Paro, accessed on the long winding road from Chuzom or if you don't mind a vertiginous short cut, over the Chelela Pass, at 3998 metres, the highest road pass in Bhutan.

It's a spectacular drive with fabulous views on both sides, snowy tops peeping over green conical hills, prayer flags clustered on the pass or tumbling down the slopes and tiny trails scratched into the earth meandering down to the valley far below.

 Haa Valley near Paro ©Solange Hando

Down there, a glistening river babbles over the stones, willows and pines line the banks and traditional houses add a distinctive Bhutanese touch with carved eaves and window frames and auspicious symbols painted on outside walls.

Traditional Architecture in the Haa Valley ©Solange Hando

Here and there a patchwork of fields bears witness to a generous land but everything is on a small scale, pocket-sized allotments, a couple of cows, a man restoring a temple, a woman carrying rice for the monk who meditates in a cave half way up the cliff.

Happy Monks in the Valley ©Solange Hando

As elsewhere in Bhutan, monks are highly respected and play an important role in the community, ensuring an auspicious life for all through daily prayers and religious rituals.

Some choose to live in solitude, most stay in monasteries but either way, Buddhism is a joyful religion here, based on respecting all living things and appreciating the gifts bestowed by the gods and the natural world. 

Bhutanese Dzong above River Gorge ©Solange Hando

That includes the awesome scenery from mountains and valleys to deep river gorges guarded by fortified monasteries known as dzongs.

Here, you never know what awaits around the corner as the valley changes its look, now peaceful, now dramatic, dotted with isolated farms or rustic hamlets gathered around gilded temples.

Fun in the Snow on the Chelela Pass, above Paro ©Solange Hando

And of course, the biggest surprise of all may come on the Chelela Pass when snow flurries can descend like magic in the night but providing the road is open, there's plenty of fun to be had in this happy land.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Bhutan, Taktsang, the Tiger's Lair in the Paro Valley

Paro, Taktsang, the Tiger's Lair ©Solange Hando

Clinging to a rocky ledge, 900 metres above the valley floor, Taktsang is the most holy site in Bhutan and top attraction near Paro, the pretty little town which claims the only international airport.

According to legend, the Tiger's Lair is named after Guru Rinpoche who in the 8th century flew to this spot on the back of a tigress to bring Buddhism to the valley. Before setting off on his mission, he meditated in a cave and over time, the monastery and myriad temples and shrines were built around it.

Prayer Wheel on the Way to Taktsang ©Solange Hando

It's roughly a three hour trek to the monastery, though you can hire a pony to the half way point. The first section takes you through a forest of blue pines and rhododendrons where primroses and orchids bloom along the path. Only bird song and the occasional tinkling of  prayer wheels disturb the silence.

Taktsang from the Lodge ©Solange Hando

Draped in marigolds, a rustic lodge welcomes you half way up, looking out to the monastery, so close yet so far across the chasm and inaccessible, it seems.There's hot tea and soup but if you want lunch on the way down, it's best to order on the way up.

There's a scenic though vertiginous viewpoint on a rock around the corner, a must if this is as far as you want to go.

Waterfall on the Trail to Taktsang ©Solange Hando

After the lodge, the path climbs steeply above the tree line, fringed with holy rocks and caves while temples and shrines nestle on the slopes all around.

At last the monastery appears, almost within reach but first you have to tackle the 775 steps down to the waterfall and footbridge then climb back up to the gate on the other side. If you don't have a permit , this is as far as you can go.

Approaching Taktsang above Paro ©Solange Hando

Hand in your camera at the gate (photographs are not allowed on site) then you can peep into the holy cave and make your way along the dizzying ledge, marvelling at this extraordinary complex where monks can spend up to seven years in solitary meditation in the furthest building. Inside the temple,  incense rises around gilded statues and awesome paintings of gurus and deities and the deep chanting of monks echoes all around.

In 1998, Taktsang was partly destroyed by fire but donations of cash and labour restored to its former self, as dramatic and inspiring as it has ever been.

Rainbow over the Paro Valley ©Solange Hando

For many visitors to Bhutan, Taktsang is the highlight of the trip and whether you go right to the top or just half way, weather permitting, you can expect superb views of the Paro valley, its traditional houses sprinkled here and there, the wooded hills and the river meandering along golden paddies.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Taiwan, Fo Guang Shan Monastery and Guest House

Fo Guang Shan Giant Buddha ©Solange Hando

Located near Kaohsiung on the south west coast of Taiwan, Fo Guang Shan, the largest monastery on the island, is  home to over 100 monks and nuns engaged in education and charitable work.

Like monasteries in Kathmandu, it is welcoming place. Guests of all faiths can visit for the day or stay the night in Japanese or Western-style rooms, ranging from simple, with air-con and en-suite, to more upmarket. Booking is essential as accommodation may be scarce during retreats and conferences.

Rooftops and Domes in lush grounds, Fo Guang Shan ©Solange Hando

Spreading across five peaks, the grounds are all flowers and trees, lotus ponds, quaint bridges, moon gates and temples and shrines scattered in luxuriant greenery.

Even when day trippers arrive, heading up the hill in golf-style buggies, there's always a quiet spot to relax and gaze at the view, from the myriad Buddha lining the way to the main peak to the Kaoping river meandering across the plain far below.

Helping in the Garden ©Solange Hando

Wander around and you find Fo Guang Shan full of surprises, here a stone cherub having fun in the garden, there a calligraphy hall, as respected as a shrine, or the main temple with three large golden Buddhas on the altar and 14 800 little ones around the walls.

A Good Deed for the Day ©Solange Hando

So what can visitors do?
Have an amazingly quiet night, join in dawn prayers, if they wish to, and feast on the best vegetarian food in Taiwan, most popular the auspicious noodles and the traditional hot pot.

Then you can watch a nun feeding the fish for luck, visit the museum and the cultural centre where local artists exhibit their work free of charge, or try your hand at calligraphy (booking required).

Shop in Fo Guang Shan, Taiwan, ©Solange Hando

The shop sells refreshments and souvenirs and there's a chance to learn about Humanistic Buddhism, a modern concept based on the value of work and involvement in the community.

Everyone here has a job on site, be it showing visitors around, teaching in the college, caring for the old or working in the orphanage. The monastery also provides employment for locals who tend the gardens or work in the kitchens.

Floating Candles in the Pure Land Cave ©Solange Hando

But the pride and joy of Fo Guang Shan is the Pure Land Cave, a slightly disneyesque representation of heaven with talking birds, moving statues and atmospheric lighting. The idea is to encourage a good life on earth, not through fear of hell but the promise of beautiful things  in heaven.

It's a good place to leave a donation, make a wish and light a candle. Let it float away on the water before returning to the real world and the giant Buddha glowing in the sunset on the hill top.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

South Africa Drakensberg, Sani Pass and the Highest Pub in Africa

Driving up to the Sani Pass ©Solange Hando

The Drakensberg, or Dragon mountains, deserve their name, all jagged peaks and dramatic rocks silhouetted against a blue sky. The Zulus call them the Barrier of Spears and that suits them just as well.

It's a great place for serious hikers but for the less adventurous, the drive up to the Sani Pass is a scenic alternative if you don't mind mountain roads.

The Drakensberg, South Africa ©Solange Hando

The drive is gentle enough at first, past blossoming trees and golden protea splashing colour at the roadside.
There are places to stop and gaze at the view and a chance to spot baboons and antelopes roaming around.

A few kilometres below Sani, you enter a no man's land leading up to the kingdom of Lesotho just beyond the pass. That's when the fun begins and driving skills are put to the test.

Ice Corner below the Sani Pass ©Solange Hando

Soon, the road begins to climb, narrow and steep, twisting around vertiginous bends with names that say it all, 'ice corner, 'suicide corner', 'god help me corner' and as a last resort for some, 'whisky corner'.

The final bend often requires a three point turn then at last you are there, greeted by thin air, sweeping winds and views to die for.

The Highest Pub in Africa ©Solange Hando

But before you enjoy it all, you probably want to warm up in the Sani top chalet, the highest pub on the continent which serves delicious hot food and mulled wine.

There's plenty of jolly company inside and you could even spend the night in a rondavel, a traditional African hut. There's skiing in winter and rambling in summer.

Lesotho ©Solange Hando

But most visitors just walk across the border into Lesotho where people wrapped in blankets from head to toe share the bleak plateau with angora goats. You are likely to be invited into a hut for a sip of sorghum beer from a communal mug and a few souvenirs from woolly hats to African beads.

View from the Sani Pass ©Solange Hando

Back on the pass, lesser kestrels and bearded vultures hover in the thermals while wild orchids and carnations bloom in the hollows. You feel on top of the world as velvety slopes unfold at your feet, tinted with gold, purple and pink, and  the long winding road shows you the way home.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Costa Rica National Parks, Pacific Coast

Capuchin Monkey in Costa Rica ©Solange Hando

Among Costa Rica's 190 national parks and reserves, an amazing number for a such small country, the Pacific Coast claims some of the finest protected areas where wild life thrives in a range of habitats, from wetlands and ocean to rivers, forest and jungle. With its exemplary conservation policy, this is a country, they say, which  'sells oxygen to the world' in return for targeted aid.

Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast ©Solange Hando

Down south, Manuel Antonio, the smallest of the parks, is fringed with white sand and clear waters which attract dolphins, Magnificent Frigates, pelicans and occasionally turtles.

There are coral reefs and nature trails where ramblers look out for iguanas, raccoons, squirrel monkeys and rare two-toed sloth. It's a popular place for visitors so a daily quota is in force. It's best to reserve beforehand to avoid disappointment.

Scarlet Macaws, Costa Rica ©Solange Hando

In Northern Nicoya, the Palo Verde National Park offers a superb combination of wetlands and tropical forest. You find mangrove and marshes, savannah and a great variety of trees, ironwood, sandbox, 'green stick' trees, which give their name to the park, home to some 300 species of birds, including the dazzling scarlet macaws, regarded as Costa Rica's national birds.

 Crocodile in Costa Rica National Park ©Solange Hando

The park also attracts howler monkeys, white-tailed deer, puma and variegated squirrels while crocodiles are found up the Tempisque river. There are hiking trails and boat trips on the river and wetlands.

Blue Morpho Butterfly, Costa Rica ©Solange Hando

Closest to Puntarenas, the Carara National Park occupies a transition zone between dry and rainforest where sleeping hibiscus and red lilies splash colour along the trails. There are endangered spider monkeys, rare poison-dart frogs, myriad birds and blue butterflies the size of your hand.

Sunset on the Tarcoles Estuary ©Solange Hando

When the sun sets all red and gold on the Tarcoles estuary, Carara settles down for the night. Thousands of egrets come to roost in the mangrove while the raucous call of howler monkeys echoes across the canopy. It sends shivers down your spine and within minutes, darkness falls over this pristine natural world.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Costa Rica Volcanic Highlands

Poas Volcano, Costa Rica ©Solange Hando

At 2700 metres, Poas claims the world's largest active crater, 1.6km across and 320 metres deep, with a small crater lake puffing out thick volutes of acid fumes. Just an hour's drive from the capital San Jose, the national park is laced with walking trails rich in bird life, including toucanets and brightly-coloured quetzals.

Costa Rica, Volcano in the Mist ©Solange Hando

Costa Rica's mighty volcanoes are often covered in cloud and mist but this can clear in minutes and it's always worth waiting for the view, now a glimpse of the crater lake, now the new rust-coloured cone or the vast ash plain at the top of Irazu.

At 3432 metres, Irazu has claimed  23 eruptions in modern times, the most notorious in 1963, coinciding with J.F. Kennedy's visit. Like Poas and Arenal, Irazu is protected by a National Park.

Arenal Hot Springs ©Solange Hando

But Costa Rica's most famous volcano remains Arenal where hot springs and streams gush down the lower slopes, attracting scores of locals and visitors. The surrounding rainforest is a jumble of ferns, bromeliads, orchids and palms where white-faced monkeys and exotic birds can be spotted around the waterfalls. 

In 1968, a massive eruption had sparked decades of activity, spewing out ash, lava and molten rock on a daily basis. Arenal became the country's top attraction as people gathered after dark to witness the spine-chilling spectacle.

Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica ©Solange Hando

Having entered a dormant phase in 2010, Arenal now rises like a harmless giant  above luxuriant slopes and a lake where sails flutter on silvery waters and Indians sell masks and beads at the roadside. But in this small dramatic land set on the Pacific Ring of Fire, dotted, they say, with 100 volcanoes, no one can tell when things will change.