Friday, 14 February 2014

India, the Golden Temple of Amritsar

Amritsar Golden Temple ©Solange Hando

As stunning as the Taj Mahal but a truly living place, Amritsar Golden Temple greets you with a glittering display of cloisters, domes and shrines mirrored in glistening waters, welcoming everyone regardless of faith.

Amritsar, the 'pool of nectar', refers to the lake where a temple was built after the miraculous healing of a leper. For the Sikhs, it is the most holy place where wise men, including Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, meditated long ago.

Pilgrims in Amritsar ©Solange Hando

Pilgrims come from all over India and beyond, sprinkling flowers around the sacred tree, meditating at the water's edge or bathing (men only) in a dedicated spot. All walk clockwise around the lake to the inner sanctum where the holy scriptures are displayed during the day. 

Service to others is an integral part of the Sikh way of life and most visitors will help in the communal kitchen, the largest in the world, which feeds up to 35 000 pilgrims a day at festival time.

Sikhs Draped in Blue and Gold, Amritsar ©Solange Hando

Festivals are held to celebrate the Gurus' birthdays or martyrdoms as well as Diwali, the Festival of Lights. It's a time to dress in traditional colours, join in prayers and offerings and maybe watch a traditional mock sword battle.

Close-up of Amritsar Golden Temple, Inner Sanctum ©Solange Hando

But every day brings blessings, especially during the procession when the holy book is ceremoniously carried to the silver gates of the inner sanctum from its night abode in the Akal Takht, the seat of the Sikh authority just across the causeway.

Strikingly beautiful, peaceful and filled with spirituality, the complex was  built on land donated by the great Emperor Akbar and enriched with marble and gold by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the 'Lion of Punjab'.

To all my loyal followers: I'll be rambling around Laos for a while, will see you back in March.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Kathmandu, Stay in Kopan Monastery

Approaching Kopan Monastery above Kathmandu ©Solange Hando

There is a peaceful place above Kathmandu where you can escape from the hustle and bustle of dusty city streets. You see it from Bodhnath, roofs glinting on a lonely hill top framed by the first wooded slopes of Helambu.

From Bodhnath, a road leads up to the monastery, with tempting shortcuts but if you take them, you'll miss out on the views. So  I prefer to keep to the road though if you don't fancy the slow climb, you could take a taxi up then walk down to enjoy the bucolic scenery at leisure.

Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu ©Solange Hando

Kopan greets you with velvety lawns and  flower beds, an oasis of peace where, as in Taiwan for instance, day visitors are welcome and anyone can book accommodation in the guest house or in the retreat section, according to their needs. This is no five star hotel, rooms are budget-type though there is a range of prices depending on amenities. Meals are served in the refectory if you want them.

November is usually fully booked (and may be closed to visitors) for the annual month-long retreat but even at other times, it is  wise to reserve in advance. There are short courses and retreats throughout the year and for those in the know, Kopan is proving a peaceful and scenic alternative to the ever popular Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel.

Temple and Red-robed Monks in Kopan, Nepal ©Solange Hando

But most of all,  Kopan is a real Buddhist community. Not a tourist coach in sight but you will find monks and nuns of all ages relaxing, praying,studying, getting on with their chores from dawn to dusk. Blankets dry on the balconies, pots and pans clatter in the kitchen and in the temple draped in Buddhist flags, meditation  gets under way.

Visitors are free to come and go, providing they respect the rules posted at the gate: no alcohol, no drugs, no killing, no sex. A small shop near the entrance sells books, drinks and snacks, and hand-crafted items such as stationery, woven bags and colourful wall hangings, all in a good cause . The young monks and nuns are well cared for, with an all round education many wouldn't get at home, and sufficient food.

Entrance to the Temple, Kopan ©Solange Hando

The temple itself is spacious and bright, adorned with Buddha images and thangkas, its doors open to all but make sure you are dressed decently and leave your shoes outside.

No one wants to anger the bulging-eyed dragons mounting guard by the steps among the flower pots.

Main Shrine in Kopan Monastery Grounds ©Solange Hando

But where flowers go, you can't beat the main shrine, reached along a path of blossoming trees and cosseted with petunias, bougainvillea and shrubs of every kind. A smiling Buddha and other deities invite you to relax and gaze at the view across the valley.

With the city at your feet, so close yet so remote, you soon sense some amazing vibes, regardless of your faith. It's a place where you feel at ease with your inner self, inspired by beauty and peace suspended, it seems, between heaven and earth. Try it, especially at night, and you'll know what I mean.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Bhutan's Amazing Arts and Crafts, Best Buys in the Kingdom

Festival Dress in Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Bhutan loves beautiful things. From everyday items to religious ornaments or fabulous festival dress, creating beautiful things shows appreciation  for nature's gifts and respect for the people around you whose environment you brighten up.

For visitors, it means the chance to buy superb hand-crafted gifts and souvenirs, with a price tag reflecting the highest quality. Bargaining is considered in bad taste but when you realise that the embroidered scarf you're looking at took weeks to complete, you understand.

Students at the Institute of 13 Arts and Crafts ©Solange Hando

Most ordinary folks across the kingdom have an innate aptitude for fine crafts, be it carving eaves and window frames or weaving on the doorstep, but the best study at the Arts and Crafts Institutes located in Thimphu in the west and Trashiyangtse in the east. Both teach the 13 disciplines defined long ago by the venerated Shabdrung Namgyel who unified the country.

These traditional skills range from weaving, embroidery and painting to metal casting, gold and silver smithing, bamboo, leatherwork, paper making, carpentry, masonry, carving and sculpting.

Painting in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

Visitors to the institutes often linger in the painting section where artists create historical or religious scenes in pastel colours. Some canvasses are huge, requiring input from several people, but no one chats. It's all about concentration, often bordering on meditation.

Weaving in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando

But the most stunning Bhutanese skill is weaving, especially in the central and eastern valleys. It's usually done on a backstrap loom, producing simple pieces of fabric which can be wrapped around and worn as the national dress or decorate a western interior.

The value of textiles depends on the material, synthetics, cotton, wool or silk, and the pattern created by extra wefts which may give the illusion of pure embroidery. Most highly prized are the rich textiles enhanced with brocade and the kira (women's dress) from Lhuentse with multi-coloured silk on a white background.

Main Square in Thimphu, Bhutan's Capital ©Solange Hando

The place to buy quality gifts in Bhutan is Thimphu, the capital, either in the government emporium or one of the smaller but reputable outlets such as Blue Poppy, in the Kawajangsa district, patronised by royalty. The market may tempt you with bargains but most items are imported.

Best Bhutanese buys include gold and silver jewellery, lacquered wooden bowls from the East, hand-made paper, carved masks, religious ornaments and paintings and of course textiles. Remember that Bhutan places gross national happiness above gross national income. Likewise with shopping, consider quality rather than cost and you'll be pleased when you get home.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

On the High Road across Bhutan

 High Winding Road in Bhutan ©Solange Hando

'No hurry, no worry', says the sign as you approach the next bend, but you know from the start this will be a spine-chilling gigantic switchback unfolding in slow motion through spectacular scenery.

From Thimphu in the west to the eastern valleys, the road cuts daringly through the mountains, range after range, pass after pass, nearing 3800 metres at Thumsing La, the highest point.

Offerings for the Gods ©Solange Hando

Traffic is light, just the odd tinselled truck, average speed is around 20 km per hour but no one takes any chances. This is the sort of place where you leave offerings for the gods and burn incense at the roadside. The gods, they say, are everywhere, dwelling among the peaks,  in the valleys, by the lakes and waterfalls.

Snow on High Pass ©Solange Hando

Between western and central Bhutan, the Black Mountains rise like a formidable barrier with overhanging boulders, trees split by lightning and ghostly sheets of lichen hanging down like giant cobwebs.

There may well be snow on the Pele La pass and a yak or two staring as you go past. When storm clouds begin to pile up on the horizon, it's time to head down to the valley. No one lingers here for long.

Golden Paddies in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando

But the scenery is always changing, from treacherous snows to lush rice terraces,  pastures, bamboo and candle trees, chir pines, marigolds and orange trees, tiny hamlets festooned in Buddhist flags and rhododendrons.

Vast unforgettable panoramas unfold all around as you gaze from a precipitous ledge or share the narrow ribbon of road with a herd of silken cows.

Chortens on the Dochu La Pass, Bhutan

But this is Bhutan and as you make your way across the kingdom, you're sure to be protected by myriad temples and shrines, bright mantras painted on the rocks and multicoloured prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.

You could cross the kingdom in 24 hours, allowing for rockfalls and other hazards, but take your time and enjoy. Every day on the road is simply amazing.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Pokhara in Nepal, Enjoy the View from Sarangkot

 Mystical Sarangkot above Pokhara ©Solange Hando

Rising to 1700 metres above Pokhara, the hill of Sarangkot is an inspiring place offering spectacular views of the Annapurna range and beyond in the high Himalaya.

Centre stage is the iconic pyramid of Machapuchre, also known as Fishtail, a sacred mountain where no one has ever set foot on the summit. Yet, at nearly 7000 metres, it seems almost within arm's reach.

Sarangkot Hill, Pokhara ©Solange Hando

From Pokhara, you can take a taxi (25 minutes, agree the price before you start) or walk up along the road, a long winding way with superb views of the valley and the hamlets clinging to the slopes where you can meet a farmer or two, watch the weavers at work or enjoy a cool drink in a rustic inn.

Alternatively, take a short cut through the forest along a rough path strewn with steps. It's a hot challenging climb, eerie and often deserted. Take care, especially if you're on your own.

Sunset on the Annapurna Range from Sarangkot ©Solange Hando

For me, the highlight in Sarangkot is to watch the sun set on the Annapurna when the peaks turn all shades of pink and gold and far below in Pokhara, myriad lights start to twinkle around the lake. 
It is more spectacular than the sunrise when drifting mist often dampens the colours and paragliders and day trippers arrive in their droves.

There are some wonderfully scenic lodges just below the ridge where you can expect a traditional welcome and peaceful night. Book beforehand to be sure of a bed and secure the best price.

Sarangkot near Pokhara ©Solange Hando

For those who come to Pokhara to relax rather than trek, Sarangkot is the nearest you can get to the Annapurna, so don't miss it. The best time to visit is autumn, when skies are likely to be clear.