Mother Who Works

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Wise Bhutan

Yes, where the heck have I been?? I wish I had an exciting and fascinating answer for that - but I don't. Just been busy with other things I've afraid.

Anyway, I'm sure you're pretty much done with my travelogue, so I shall endeavour to make this the last instalment.

Bhutan, as you probably know, is focused on Gross Domestic Happiness rather than economic development. They have a point. They value the environment over mining and logging and have constituted that a minimum 60% of their landmass needs to remain in its natural state. It's currently 80% - and most of it is spectacularly green and mountainous.



Their poverty rate is around 13%. Against a different scale I'm sure, but it's the same as Australia. Their solution is to address the cause, which is to build roads and fund powered ploughs that can also be attached to carts so impoverished farming families can get their produce to market in a more timely manner and get a better price. So simple.

Strings of Yak milk curd
It's like dairy rock candy
Fresh produce market
                           






Close up in case you
can't see it in the shot below!














Travel to Bhutan is expensive. They whack tourists with a tariff, executed as a minimum daily spend that needs to be verified by the travel agent before a visa will be issued. Again, as a concept, it's hard to refute. They don't want backpackers there for the wild marijuana or people who are disrespectful in their temples. They want to leverage tourism for the benefit of all their population -  a meagre 700,000. On arrival, our guide gave us a message from their king; that our money is not wasted, it's directed to education and health.





Banks of marijuana - all through the towns.
You can smell it as you walk past
Our guide - in traditional dress
which most people still wear everyday


TV and the internet weren't introduced until 1990. (In fact, I'm still not convinced they do have the internet...)

They also have stray dogs everywhere. Mostly well fed from kitchen scraps, the government has a program to vaccinate them to ensure rabies doesn't get into the country. They even vaccinate the dogs that hang around the Indian side of the Bhutan border in case they should stroll over. We noticed some dogs had had their ear clipped, which our guide explained was part of the sterilisation program aimed to reduce numbers. Again, just so sensible.
Some of the many stray dogs

Our guide insisted that Buddhism can be viewed solely as a philosophy - and not necessarily as a religion. The tenets of tolerance and being kind are hard to dispute. In fact, when I asked about the Bhutanese attitude towards homosexuality and homosexuals, our guide quipped that if god hadn't meant us to all live harmoniously together, he would have made a seperate world for the LGBTIQ community!


In truth, I did feel our guide had drunk the Kool-Aid. For someone who'd only travelled to India for further study, he had some very firmly held ideas on how the world views their King. I didn't let on that many people haven't heard of Bhutan, let alone formed an opinion of its monarch. However, he was quite the intellect and philosopher and I certainly enjoyed the conversation. Not sure the kids were so dazzled.

An oddity was the devotion to air fresheners. I'm not sure if it's because of damp and mould, which I didn't particularly notice, but when we arrived at our first hotel, the lobby had been given such a big spray of something vile,  I was relieved when we were invited to go upstairs for coffee -  so my eyes could stop watering.

One of many air fresheners along the way
The food was fresh, tasty and good, if somewhat repetitious. Lunch and dinner consisted of a mini buffet of rice, noodles, cheesy potatoes, mixed veg and chicken. I think because we were outside the peak tourist season (it was meant to be rainy - but it wasn't) they downsized the buffet for a table of four. (In fact, we only saw four other Europeans in the week we were there.) I did request the local favourite of cheesy chili - it was hot, but delicious.

A mini buffet for four

We had pizza for lunch -twice - to
break up the buffets




















They do some great local beers as well. Red Panda is their most acclaimed - but to us, it tasted a bit like the temples smell - of incense. Much more to our taste was a new red rice beer that had just launched - now that was good!


At our request, our guide also arranged for us to sample yak butter tea. Not as salty as the Mongolian tea and no sign of a lump of fried mutton fat, this one tasted a lot like soy and the roasted rice adds a nutty aspect. It was actually pretty good!

Yak butter tea

We rafted and hiked up to various temples - all beautiful - but the highlight is the iconic Tiger's Nest. It's a 5 hour round hike but not difficult and well worth it.

So there you go; Bhutan in a nutshell. Pop it on your bucket list!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Troubled travelling bowels

As a traveller, I'm always been amused that if you are off the beaten track, the consistency of one’s poo is a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation - even among complete strangers.
For this last kind of trip, we packed both laxatives and Imodium – both got a good run (excuse the pun).  The family WhatsApp has been abuzz with commentary as has the lunchtime conversation.


Like me, Sass also had a ‘slow’ start to the trip. I was a little concerned when she suggested it’d been a week – but then I got this message on the family WhatsApp:


Elle, as usual, took out first prize.


Her first effort, after some delay, was at a tourist site where there were only two women’s toilets and a queue. I got this distressed message:


She says she was traumatised. I suspect the woman who went in after her was even more traumatised!
Further into the journey, we pulled into a village in Mongolia for lunch and she was desperate for the loo. Our guide showed her were it was – behind the restaurant – and then she was back, nearly crying, saying I needed to go with her. We had to call past the local shop to buy some toilet paper – a delay that left Elle pale and sweating. Sass came with us as we ventured past discarded building material, old cans, rusting sheets of iron and other junk, arriving at the wooden shed with a drop between the floor planks – the toilet. The smell was strong (or to quote the film Kenny - "There's a smell in here that will out last religion.") In Elle went and I held the piece of wire that functioned as the door closure, already committed to hanging on if this was my only option. ‘Gee she’s having a very big, long wee…’ commented Sass, based on the noise emanating from the dark, stinking space behind the door. Eventually she emerged ‘That.... was a poo’ she whispered, so as not to distress the Asian tourists waiting their turn. Oh dear.
This isn't the loo - this one was much fancier! In Mongolia, all toilet paper goes in a bin. Be grateful photos aren't embedded with scent!

I’ll spare you her thrush story, but will say that when we finally found a lovely English-speaking pharmacist when we first arrived in UB from Hong Kong (where no-one could understand the issue, despite our best charades), she quietly muttered ‘suppository?’ Amazingly, for once in my life, I didn’t see fit to correct her and tell her it was actually a pessary. Anyway, we got that sorted.
Geoff has forbidden me to share his stories - shame.
And while everyone has had the runs, I was backed up to billy-oh! Go figure.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mongolia's Naadam Festival

After nearly 2 weeks in the desert and steppes, we got back to UB (Ulaanbaatar) for the Naadam Festival – the Mongolian equivalent to the Olympic Games, featuring wrestling, horse racing and archery.

Day one was the opening ceremony which had all the pomp and ceremony you’d expect from such an occasion including a bit of a welcome by the country’s president who’d been elected the week prior. 

It was far more dazzling that we’d expected, with floats and the story of Mongolia’s history, from the beginning of man, (sprung from the union of a deer and wolf,) Chengis Khan (that’s not a typo – they call him Chengis) who conquered half the known world including Europe as far as Germany, through to their period of Soviet influence that only concluded in 1990, to present day. There were traditional performers, rock stars, the lighting of the flame, horses, warriors, doves, balloons- it had it all.





I asked our guide if he was impressed, to which he rightly quipped ‘not as impressed as you!’

Like hot cross buns at Easter, they have ‘meat pies’ for the festival period and they’re delicious! They cost about $1 each and have ground meat contained within a light pastry-like bread, fried and served with soy sauce.
Okay - it doesn't look great -  but it was!!
Day 2 was an early start to get out of town to the horse race. We saw the 5 year old horses that trot out and then race back – 25kms!! They’re ridden by kids – some the same age as the horses, some bare back. It was as crowded as a music festival with people who were camped out there for days, pop up markets, food stalls and games like shooting basketballs to win a cuddly toy. Kind of like Moomba, Falls and the Royal Melbourne Show rolled into one.

Note all the camps in the background. It was insane!

The Police went on for at least a kilometre













We found spot ‘On the Rails’ quite a way from the finish because it’s so crowded as locals vie to get to the winning horse to wipe its sweat on them to bring good luck for the next year. Ew. The police presence was enormous, with a cop positioned every couple of metres to make sure the crowd stayed behind the barrier. They seemed pretty friendly.
On The Rails - sans Veuve Clicquot!
The winners race through.

Once the horses shot by, we headed back to the main stadium to catch the wrestling. (That sounds so straight forward but there were thousands of people leaving and the traffic was grid-locked – exactly like trying to get away from A Day on The Green music concert…) We’d seen the archery at a stop out of town so we'd already ticked that box. The wrestling is actually pretty good spectator sport! In fact, I also learnt some of the best Sumo wrestlers are, in fact, Mongolian. Who'd have thought?

Wrestlers - they do an eagle dance before every battle - it's pretty cool

So all in all, I’d recommend Mongolia. It was really fun and very different.


Next stop; Bhutan.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mongolia - Part 3

Before we get on to the festival, I need to tell you about the gers. We stayed in about 12 different camps, all with shared bathrooms, immaculately clean, meals included and generally very comfortable.
Some had electricity, none have wi-fi, most have beer.
Most beds are really hard but have great blankets
Even the restaurants at the camp were sometimes a ger - check out those gold chairs!
You need to duck to get through the door.
     
The lady in traditional dress came out to greet us with sugared curd (then whipped out of her costume, popped on rubber gloves and started cleaning!). She also 'blessed' the wheels of our vehicle with milk on departure - for a safe journey. They used to bless horses' hoofs.

On our last night we stayed at a camp that had hot springs so we booked a massage after a soak in the pools. What we didn’t expect from the mostly pleasant event was a full-on boob massage and some vigorous head rubbing that wasn’t actually nice L Being in higher, mountainous country, it was quite a bit cooler so our guide offered to light our ger stoves. These are used to warm nomad families in temperatures that get as low as -40C. Seemed like a good idea but I swear our ger went from a coolish 17C to a sauna-esque 47C in about 15 minutes!! We had to leave the door open and stay low to the floor to remain in there. I don’t know how they cope with such extremes.
The frighteningly effective stove.
We also saw a few inappropriate T-shirt, like a 12 year old girl in a village with ‘Shameless’ emblazoned across her chest. At one of the camps, a shy, bespectacled teenager working there was wearing an oversized black T-shirt that had large white letters that said: CUROSITD [sic] KILLED YOUR VIRGINITY. Say what?? It was just so wrong. She was wearing it again the next day and we hoped to get a photo so our guide approached and explained her T-shirt was kind of funny and could we take a photo? She crossed her arms and said she’d bought it at a market and didn’t know what it said. Wisely, our guide decided not to tell her and nor did we take a photo – but you get the visual.
We didn’t meet many other travellers – most were in their 60s or 70s and from Europe, some were from Asia – most kept to themselves. We did meet a lovely family from Scotland who were taking a break from the trans-Siberian rail trip and we encountered the same posse of bikers from Vietnam at a couple of camps.




The driving can be as long as 8 hours a day, on tracks that can be extremely rough and frankly, the ‘sealed’ roads that can be rougher – but the scenery was spectacular, the sites varied and I don’t get car sick so can read – even if it is a tad bumpy!

Next up; The Naadam Festival


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