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Author Archives: Pankaj Adhikari

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Backpackers’ Guru of Interlaken

My Swiss sojourn would have been far from complete had I not met Erich Balmer, the backpackers’ guru of Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland.

At 75, Erich exudes extraordinary energy and vitality. Every single movement speaks of his abiding zest for life and boundless enthusiasm. His ever smiling face and endearing mien was amazing.

(from left) Erich with daughters Carmen and Fabienne: awesome threesome

Balmer’s Herberge: backpackers’ paradise

“Hey, you’re a smart guy,” he bellowed as I was taking a stroll around Balmer’s Herberge in the wee hours of the morning. The March-end morning sun was caressing Interlaken with snow-clad Alps creating a surreal spectacle. “I saw you ambling toward the village so early in the morning…Few guys venture out so early in the morning. That’s great. I like it,” he told me.

I was taken aback. I wasn’t aware then that this man owns the property. His body language showed we can be friends forever. As we interacted, I realized how passionate Erich is about environment and how profound his vision is about life. “Keep smiling because your smile can make life more beautiful,” he said. “If you see somebody without a smile, give them one of yours,” he said.

“Look at the tap,” he said pointing at the flowing water coming from the tap in his hostel premises. “We drink this spring water all the year round,” Erich said as the rays of the sun on the Alpine peaks created a spectacular sight.

When I pointed out to him that I had an incredible trip to Jungfraujoch (‘Top of Europe’) the day before, he asked whether I had been to Schilthorn.

Schilthorn is a summit in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. It overlooks the valley of Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland and is the highest mountain in the range lying north of the Sefinenfurgge Pass.

“You must visit Schilthorn before you leave Interlaken. The summit is famous for watching the sunset over the Alpine peaks. ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, the famous James Bond movie, was shot there,” he said.

Spring water from the tap in the guesthouse premises

Bliss of solitude

Erich brought his car and drove us (my wife and son were there) for about 40 minutes to the base of the summit. It was an unforgettable car ride through the stunning mountain landscape as he was recounting his love for nature, adventure and how he nourished his baby, Balmar’s Herberge, which was elected from 8000 as one of the “Top 10 hostels for fun” in Europe.

As his car drove past the Alpine forests, we saw a herd of mountain goats. “Hey, look! Here are our guests from India,” he shouted at the mountain goats as they scampered away and disappeared into the forests.

We relished his hearty humor!

Camen hang gliding: captain courageous

He was about to buy tickets for three of us for the cable car ride to Schilthorn.  “We’ve a trip already scheduled for the day. Our train to Bern will leave at 11am,” I told Erich.

His magnanimity and warmth of feeling touched me.

Erich’s father Adolf was a down-to-earth Bernese Oberlander and an excellent cook. His mother Frida, who had Italian parents, grew up in the Sarganserland.

Balmer’s Pension has been operating since 1907. It is currently in the third generation of the Balmer’s family. Frida and Adolf Balmer originally started the operation as a “Touristenheim” (tourist house). The name Balmer’s Herberge is being used since 1945. The couple used to accommodate British school groups in the 50s.

Erich, who belongs to the second generation, came back from working in the US and Canada and transformed the “Touristenheim” into a private hostel in the 70’s. Initially, the guesthouse had 50 beds, but quickly the number rose to 350. “My wife Katharina and I managed the property for over 40 years, helping Interlaken grow into a global tourist destination,” Erich, who was the youngest of three brothers, said.

Since his boyhood, he had a penchant for doing business. On Hoheweg, he used to sell self-picked flowers. He always wanted to do something on his own.

Erich traveled to Manchester to learn English language when he was just past his teens. A year later, he traveled to the US with the Queen Elizabeth II. However, his family came to know about this only when he was back in the UK.

Road to a Swiss hamlet

His passion for travel and adventure made him go around the world to promote Swiss tourism. “I had been to Mumbai University and delivered talks on tourism,” Erich said recalling his good times in India.
“I was fascinated by India, its multiculturalism, its very many languages and different religions and above all its mysticism,” he said.

In 1993, Balmer’s ‘Tent village’ got the thumbs-up from the authorities. In 1998, ‘Tent village’ was expanded with more tents. “And in springtime 2010, everything was modernized,” he said.

In 1999, an underground bar in the style of a subway station was built. It is a great meeting place for all backpackers who’d descend on Interlaken to savor the ultimate experience of Swiss Alps.

Erich’s vision has a significant impact not only on his hostel, but also on the entire Bernese Oberland, the most beautiful region of the world. He has shown how the outdoor adventure possibilities can be developed in the region.

Erich seems inexhaustible when it comes to ideas on how to create added value for his young guests. Besides, the hand-operated ‘Handy-Boats”, for the physically challenged, Erich invested in other rideable two-wheeled vehicles.

Erich’s pioneering zeal to promote Bernese Oberland across the world was amply demonstrated when during the Geneva summit (1985) between US President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he invited 50 young Russians and Americans to Interlaken.

To everybody he likes, Erich hands a lucky one-Swiss-cent coin. Former US President Bill Clinton and soccer emperor Franz Beckenbauer also belong to this illustrious club.

He was given a folded US flag for his abundant merits in the US youth tourism.

Erich always remains true to his motto: organize, invest, delegate, motivate, and collect. His success proves him right. Switzerland’s oldest backpacker registers 45000 overnight stays per yer.

Erich knows perfectly well how to motivate his staff. His employees admire his infinite energy and unflinching zeal. He always leads them from the front.

Carmen, Fabienne’s daughter Elin and Erich

The septuagenarian, however, wants to hang up his boots. “It’s been a long journey. I’d like to hand over my property to my daughters. I’ll sign necessary legal papers soon,” Erich said.

His two daughters – Carmen and Fabienne- have been at the hostel’s helms, much to their dad’s delight, for quite some time now. Continuing the heritage isn’t an easy task. “Guys, is it gonna be alright?” Erich sometime asks his daughters. He, however, lets them run the hostel their way and works from behind. He’s confident his daughters will find their way, as he found it about 50 years ago.

What’ll Erich do now?

“I’ll travel to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, in May with my friends from Globetrotters group,” he said.

Eyes are windows to the soul, they say. I looked at Erich’s eyes and could easily gauge his infinite wanderlust and undying zeal for adventure.

Interlaken Ost

Scintillating Swiss Alps

Picture perfect

Incredible Interlaken


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My encounter with Vinci’s vineyard

As I stepped out of Hostel Meininger Lambrate Milano to savor the sublime experience of Leonardo’s vineyard, my schoolteacher’s history class on Leonardo da Vinci crossed my mind. I remembered the photograph of the Renaissance masterpiece, ‘The Last Supper’, which Leonardo had painted on the north wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica in Milan.

Milano Centrale, the largest train station in Europe by volume

Milan, the fashion capital of Europe, in motion

In about 15 minutes, the subway train chugged into Cadorna Metro station. I got off the train and took the stairs up and started walking toward my destination.

The magical Milan unveiled its stunning Renaissance architecture and incredible engineering marvels. Tourists in March-end weren’t many except some ‘affluent’ Chinese who were following a middle-aged lady holding a flag in her hand in the front: a common sight I had seen during my trip to European cities.

After visiting the stunning Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica, I crossed the road and walked into Leonardo vineyard’s cafe before having the feel of Vinci’s vineyard. I ordered pizza. Never did I have such an out-of-the-world stuff in my life.

Following the initiative of a family trust and wine geneticists, Leonardo’s vineyard (Duke of Milan gifted him) was restored. The estate passed through various hands, until in the 1920s its owners asked Leonardo expert Luca Beltrami to do some research on its history. Beltrami located the vineyard from Renaissance documents, and took photographs of vines still growing up in ancient wooden pergolas that were most probably made to Leonardo’s design.

Excavating organic matter at the site of the former vineyard, the team was able to determine the exact varietal of grape that Leonardo grew, as well as his vineyard’s original layout. Once it was decided to reestablish the vineyard, University of Milan staff had given the new grapevines a head-start by growing and grafting them in a greenhouse. They then introduced the vines into the soil of the historic plot of land in early 2015.

A peek into history: Ludovico Maria Sforza, who was nominated governor of the dutchy of Milan on 3 November, 1480, gifted Leonardo his vineyard measuring 60 x175m (located at today’s 65 Corso Magenta), just across the road where Santa Maria delle Grazie basilica is located. While painting ‘The Last Supper’, (1494-1498) Leonardo used to go to the vineyard and relax with a glass of wine.

During Ludovico’s tenure which ended in 1500, Milan witnessed amazing architectural marvels, some of which still stand more than five centuries on.

Leonardo, who hailed from a family of winemakers, hoped owning a plot of land would allow him to claim Milanese citizenship. Leonardo was deeply attached to his vineyard. In his will he left it to two of his servants.

The estate’s present-day owners replanted it as it had been in Leonardo’s time, after DNA testing on the roots of the original vines showed them to be malvasia di candia aromatica, a white grape popular in Renaissance Lombardy.

Now the vines keep flourishing in the garden of Casa Degli Atellani and the house and grounds are open to accompanied tours. Those visiting on Saturday afternoons can enjoy a typical Milanese aperitivo of wines.

In the early 1400s, Milan was still a Middle Age city focused on war and conquering Florence. However, the Sforza family took over and brought peace to the region. With peace came new ideas and art of the Renaissance. Milan was famous for its metalwork which included suits of armor.

The Casa degli Atellani is a historic Renaissance residence. Together with ‘The Last Supper’ and Santa Maria delle Grazie, the current Casa degli Atellani, while having undergone modifications over the centuries, remains the only existing trace of the district as imagined by Ludovico. It is the last building on what is now Corso Magenta which maintains part of the appearance it had during the Renaissance.

A guided tour leads visitors to the discovery of the treasures of the house and its enchanting garden where the  Renaissance genius used to unwind him while working on his masterpiece.

As I was leaving the garden, I traveled back to the glorious days of the Renaissance architecture, the architects’ innovative prowess and the great artists whose infinite wisdom and super skill shaped the European culture. And on the eve of Leonardo’s 500th anniversary of his death, 2019 is a perfect time to retrace the artist’s footsteps in the northern city.

Outside Milano Centrale station

Duomo de Milano


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Hooked on to Haa valley

Final Part

 As we left Chele La Pass (about 13,000 ft between the valley of Paro and Haa, it’s the highest motorable road pass in Bhutan) and drove downhill on our way to the Haa Valley (8760ft), we saw a number of magnificent yaks walking down the squeaky clean mountain road. The yaks’ leisurely and yet majestic movement was a mind-blowing spectacle! These yaks live above 12000 ft in the mountain. Apparently innocuous, they may pose a threat to unsuspecting travelers if “your car gets close to them”, Tshering Drukpa, our driver, warned. I was closely observing  the wobbly movement of a baby yak, fiercely protected by its mother.

Yak usually weighs about 300-350 kg (male) and 250-300 kg (female). They generally remain in herds and no other wild animals dare to harm them. They are very sensitive and manage to find moss, lichen and shoot of grasses under the snow, and quench their thirst from the ice melt water. These animals can trek up the steep slopes of the mountains and they can carry load varying from 50 to 70 kg on their backs for about eight hours at a stretch

An encounter with Yaks

The Haa Valley takes one through to the magical place beyond mountains where the world is tranquil and nature pristine, thanks to the government’s commitment and undying spirit to preserve the environment and ethnic culture.

I already mentioned that Bhutan tourism industry is founded “on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable”.

The majestic landscape offers hikers a perfect place to explore. Lush green surroundings and architectures from the medieval times are fascinating. One can go on a Poppy trail, live at a home stay, pray at a monastery, or taste some of the most delectable local cuisine in Haa.

The Bhutanese foresters: constant vigil

we got close to Haa town center, our driver pointed at a huge lush green field where the Bhutanese Army plays golf. An Indian Army Training school is located here. Bhutan Army keeps a constant vigil on the travelers moving in andBefore  out of the place as it’s very close to India-China border.

Haa is one of the 20 dzongkhags (districts) which are further divided into 205 gewogs in Bhutan. According to the 2015 census, the population of Haa is 13499,1572 households making it the second least populated dzongkhag in Bhutan after Gasa.

Haa was first opened to foreign tourists in 2002. Spread over 1706 square km, this sleepy valley was known for its animist tradition where residents used to offer blood to their local deities. However, such belief was transformed into to peaceful Buddhist tradition in the 8th century by Guru Padmasambhava. Traces of this belief are still observed here during festivals and rituals.

After a steep drive up the mountain, we took the winding road and descended into Haa. With the pleasant midday sun caressing us, we marveled at the panoramic view of the valley, the sound of silence and the laid-back lives of locals. There were no tourists, and no ‘Bengali bedlam’.

Absolute peace and tranquility!

After a stroll through the town, we walked into Hotel Lhayul for lunch. Elegantly attired, Kinga Norbu, the owner, greeted us. Stunning interior decor and tastefully designed dining hall shows the owner’s sense of aesthetics. Friendly and amiable staff is always there to help you with a smile. We ordered Hakka noodles, and Manchurian chicken. In no time the food was served. It was awesome!

Banking on happiness

“I’d come again and spend more time here,” I told Kinga, her refinement and dignity unmistakable. Her warmth and hospitality was amazing.

Usually tour operators take people up to the Chele La pass only, without taking them further to Haa, about an hour’s further drive. But, you’d surely miss a lot, a lot if you don’t take a trip to the spectacular Ha.

The Indian army cantonment here serves as a base for Doklam post. One can take a trip to local temples, fisheries farm, and even take a hot stone bath.

Those who love adventure must take the Yangthang-Hatey hike. One may drive from Haa town to Yangthang (20 minutes’ drive) to begin the hike. As you trek, you smell history. This hiking trail was the trade route used by the people of Haa in the ancient time. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took this route and came to Bhutan on foot from Tibet. He came to Ha valley and met with officials before continuing to Paro and Thimphu. One could walk till Gaychu Lakhang and walk back to Yangthang or drive from Gaychu Lakhang to Ha town. It will take about three hours.

Cultures, landscape, people and food are what makes travel a great learning experience.  I savored every bit of it. Really I did!

Journey’s over, but memories remain: memories of the magic mountain, memories of the Bhutanese people, their passion for culture and heritage, their disregard for ‘romantic consumerism’, their unflinching zeal to preserve environment and, above all, their conquest of happiness.

Here’s a rah-rah message for all travel buffs: Visiting the ‘Land of Thunder Dragon’ isn’t just a trip,  Bhutan is an experience!

Hotel Lhayul: Let it snow

Winter wonderland

Hotel Lhayul: height of hospitality

Hotel Lhayul: designer’s delight

PHOTO: by Tashi Om

 

 Royal Thimphu College cafeteria: captivating campus

Majestic Jomolhari

Tshering Drukpa,  whose punctuality and scholarly guide are the high points of my Bhutan experience

Thank you, Tshering

(Concluded)

 


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Captivated by Chele La

Part 3

My eight-day sojourn at the stunning Royal Bhutan College (RTC) campus and the jaw-dropping experiences in the Land of the Thunder Dragon remain deeply etched in my memory.

 Destination: Haa valley, via Chele La Pass (12,454 ft)

The promise of a sacred tourism experience lured me to savor the bliss of solitude, the grandeur of tranquility at the sleepy town on the India-China border. Tour operators usually avoid the Haa valley located to the west of Bhutan bordering Sikkim as traveling to Haa and getting back to Thimphu on the same day takes almost eight hours!

Tshering, my cabbie, drove his Bolero to our apartment at the RTC campus early in the morning with temperature plummeting to minus 1 degree C. The sun was struggling to break through the clouds. “You’ve to hurry up a little. We’ve to go uphill, travel a long distance,” he said, his politeness and civility unmistakable.

We were ready for the captivating Chele La featuring lush forests, waterfalls, grazing yaks and sweeping vistas and left the picturesque campus around 7am. We could feel the blast of cold; my hands were numb.

Chele La (means mountain pass) is the highest point on Bhutan’s roads. The mountain pass offers magnificent views of the surrounding peaks and the Paro and Haa valleys. Haa holds a strategic position stretching over 1700 sq km. It’s about 21km from the disputed India-China border in Doklam. Even though the small town was open to tourists only in 2002, the valley still doesn’t have too many conveyances.     

As our car drove up the mountains leaving the nation’s capital, I was overwhelmed by the rule of the road, by the traffic order and discipline. (Blowing horn is a serious offence. Pedestrians use zebra crossings only!)

Are Indian folks listening?

I already mentioned earlier how the tiny kingdom has been keen and fastidious in maintaining the environment. Here you won’t get the raucous cries of tourists (especially the Bengali tourists!) We know how our hill stations are being spoilt by insensitive and scatterbrained Indian tourists. (I mean most of them…)

Tshering was recounting his experience of visiting Haa and we were listening to him with rapt attention as the heavenly Himalayas kept unveiling its magical moments. I was lapping it up to my heart’s content.

“Look, look… That’s Jomolhari (13,084 ft, sometimes known as the Bride of Kanchenzhonga), and the highest peak in Bhutan,” said Tshering, his excitement betrayed a childish wonder. “Jomolhari still remains unconquered,” he added.

Jomolhari (or Chomolhari) straddles the border between Yadong County of Tibet, China and the Thimphu district . The mountain is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists who believe it is the abode of one of the Five Tsheringma Sisters — female protector goddesses (Jomo) of Tibet and Bhutan, who were bound under oath by Padmasambhava to protect the land, the Buddhist faith and the local people.

On the Bhutanese side is a Jomolhari Temple, toward the south side of the mountain about half a day’s journey from the army outpost between Thangthangkha and Jangothang ( 4150 m). Religious practitioners and pilgrims visiting Mt. Jomolhari stay at this temple. There are several other sacred sites near Jomolhari Temple, including meditation caves of Milarepa and Gyalwa Lorepa. Within an hour’s walk up from the temple at an altitude of  4450 m is Tseringma Lhatso, the “spirit lake” of Tsheringma.

We reached Chele La around 10.30am. Clear sky and surreal sunshine greeted us. I was reminded of Walt Whitman: “Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.

Chele La Pass: Himalayan grandeur

I got off the car, stood transfixed and marveled at the Himalayan grandeur, the mystery of mountains and Nature’s boundless bounty as temperature slipped to minus 4C. ‘Nothing burns like the cold,’ and I was enjoying every single moment of it as I stood at the edge of the cliff. I was awed by the magic mountain, absolute quiet and its profound tranquility.

Jazz legend Loius Armstrong’s ‘What a wonderful world’ (great musical maestro RD’s favorite) comes to my mind:

“I see skies of blue and clouds of white/The bright blessed day/The dark sacred night/And I think to myself/What a wonderful world…”

Jomolhari: magic mountain remains unconquered

There were only a few tourists (some westerners and a few Bangladeshis). I saw two Bhutanese army personnel standing guard in that bone-chilling cold. A middle-aged guy was selling tea and coffee. I ambled hurriedly to the shop and ordered a glass of coffee. As I was trying to sip my coffee, I could barely hold the glass! Tingling and numbness struck my right hand… I made vain attempts combating the cold …There was just another makeshift shop owned by a Bhutanese woman. The shop was selling ethnic Bhutanese woolens!

I was savoring Jomolhari’s white grandeur, trying to recall the myth of the mighty mountains. Almost lost in thought. Just then Tshering called me and I was jolted awake as it were…I had to rush to the car, reluctantly, though.

I left Chele La on my way to Haa. But, Jomolhari stays in my heart as I recall Keats’ timeless words “Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter…”

Royal Thimphu College: picturesque campus

Nunnery’s entrance: breathtaking view

Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery: only monastery with nuns in Bhutan

Punakha Dzong: His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema got married here in October 2011

Photo: By author

(To be concluded)


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Bewitching Bhutan beckons you

Part 2
Dawn crept quietly over the sleeping Royal Thimphu College (RTC) campus. Only a cock was aware of it, and crowed. I got out of bed and tiptoed across to the window. I pulled the window curtains and could see the heavenly Himalayas unfolding its surreal splendor and magic.
I said to myself: “Thank you, God, for giving me such an opportunity to savor the majestic beauty of the Himalayas and the sylvan surroundings.”
I watched in awe the misty peaks and was steeped in Himalayas’ mysticism.

I’ll remain grateful to the dean and acting president of the RTC, Shiva Raj Bhattarai, for providing us such an incredible guesthouse.

RTC campus: Picture perfect

College campus with sylvan surroundings

The sun was yet to appear in the distant horizon. I got ready to go out and stroll along the squeaky clean roads of the college campus – sprinting uphill and going downhill in the morning calm! The slanting rays of the early morning sun were just beginning to make emeralds of the dew drops!
As many as ten puppies, shivering in bone-chilling cold ((temperature 2 degrees C), were faithfully following their mom near the picturesque college canteen. I strolled toward the canteen to begin my morning walk.
The green grass, the blossoming flowers kept in tubs on the stairs leading to the canteen entrance, chirping of birds, the fresh air, and the morning dew filled my heart with happiness. I gazed at the gigantic statue of the Buddha faraway on the hilltop and the snowy mountain peaks.

Destination: Paro Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)

Bhutan Tourism Council (BTC), in its website, says its vision is “to promote Bhutan as an exclusive travel destination based on Gross National Happiness (GNH) Values”. The tourism industry in Bhutan, the website adds, is founded “on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable”.
I’ve seen during my stay in Bhutan how true the BTC is to their words!!!
I visited Paro, Punakha and Haa and saw how the government has been honestly preserving the ethnic culture, tradition and the environment.

On the way to Paro

Tshering, the young Bhutanese driver, came to our guesthouse to pick us up at 8am. We left the RTC campus in unforgiving biting winds and bone-chilling cold. As our car went downhill toward Paro (Thimphu- Paro about 55km) valley, we were amazed at the clean roads and noise-free traffic.
We can’t think of this in any hill stations in India!
As I mentioned earlier, India must learn from its tiny neighbor. Small is beautiful!
“Our government leaves no stone unturned to make sure our culture and tradition remains untouched by the relentless march of globalization,” said Tshering, a cricket buff and an ardent fan of Virat Kohli.
My trip to Paro and Punakha will especially remain etched in my memory for this young Bhutanese whose civility, commitment to work, punctuality and hunger for knowledge should be an object lesson for Indian cabbies.
I’m thankful to Tshering for teaching me several common words in Bhutanese language! (‘Kadin chhe‘ means thank you, ‘Jempoleso‘ means welcome, ‘kade bey you‘ means how are you etc, to name a few)
Among the villages we passed by were Simtokha and Lungtenphu. “That’s Chuzom (meaning confluence in Bhutanese),” Tshering said, pointing out the juncture of Thimphu river (Wang chu) and Paro river (Paro chu).
Chuzom is a major road junction, with southwest road leading to Haa (79km), and south road to Phuntsholing (141km).
From Chuzom, the road follows Wang chu downstream to Paro.
After Chuzom, we passed by Shaba and at Isuna, the road crosses a bridge to the other side of river.
As we drove to Paro, we passed by Bondey, a hamlet, from where we could see the tiny little airport. The terminal looked more like a giant temple courtyard. We’re lucky to see a plane landing majestically on the runway.
Paro, the only international airport (7200ft) of the four airports in the country, is located 6km from Paro downtown in a deep valley on the bank of the spectacular Paro chu (‘chu’ means river in Bhutanese). With surrounding peaks as high as 18000 ft, it is considered as one of the most challenging airports in the world.

Only 17 pilots are qualified to fly into this airport. The aircraft has to tilt its wings 45 degrees to squeeze between mountain tops while coming within feet of cliff side buildings and then make a quick stop on the short runway.

The Taktsang Goemba or the Tiger’s Nest Monastery to the north of the town remains perched at a height of 9842ft on a vertical cliff. It is believed Guru Rinpoche flew to this cliff on a flaming tigress and meditated here. This spectacular monastery is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhist pilgrims.
As our car came to a halt near the marketplace, I encountered some foreigners from the UK. I met an old, yet energetic guy in his seventies. He’s the roving diplomat of Austria. He told me he couldn’t trek to the top of the mountain where the monastery is located, although he had wished to. I was stunned by his scholarship and passion for India. He was telling me he had met our former vice president H.M. Ansari in Baghdad who was then working in the Indian Mission. “Your country has a great civilization. I believe India has a great future with its huge knowledgeable workforce and talented IT professionals,” he said.

Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary

Dr Swati, associate professor in the department of Business Studies at the RTC, told me that a high-end tourist resort, Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary, had been recently opened not far away from the downtown Paro.
Meanwhile, I met Jeroen Uittenbogaard, a tall young Dutch, at Ambient Cafe in Thimphu downtown before my trip to Paro. He said he had joined the resort as director (special projects) after his stint at the RTC. I was fascinated as he was recounting the unique concept of the Sanctuary, sipping freshly brewed espresso at the café. He told me about the visionary Dutch hotelier Louk Lennaerts, who built Bhutan’s first well-being inclusive high-end Sanctuary (tariff starts from USD1100).
“Your inspiration — body, mind and spirit,” says the website of the Sanctuary.
I was particularly amazed by the words “Become part of Bhutan by joining our social and environmental efforts”, as I was browsing the resort’s website.
I told Tshering to take us there. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach the resort as the driver got lost on the way, although we went quite close to the Sanctuary. However, Jereon was kind enough to send me the photographs of the Sanctuary. I expressed my heartfelt gratitude to the young Dutch.
Bid adieu to the urban chaos and cacophony and take a trip to the bewitching Bhutan which will delight your peripatetic hearts.

Front entrance gate: architectural marvel

Golden doors to lobby entrance : designer’s delight

View from the Sanctuary: The Himalayan grandeur

Well-being area lounge: practicing mindfulness and meditation

PHOTO: Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary

(To be continued)


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Grandeur of silence in breathtaking Bhutan

Part 1

Magic mountains, mind-blowing monasteries, captivating valleys, serene landscapes, and silent streams: Mother Nature has been so expansive to this tiny kingdom.
Tucked away in the Himalayas between India and China and untouched by ‘romantic consumerism’ (to borrow eminent Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s words), Bhutan is home to quaint Buddhist temples and numerous endangered flora and fauna; the tiny kingdom beckons travelers with its pristine natural beauties and daunting topography.
Having never been colonized or ruled by any foreign power, the tiny kingdom opened doors to the outside world quite late in the 1960’s and received the first tourist in the early 1970s.
Bhutan has always been promoting ‘Low volume High Value’ tourism where the number of tourists visiting Bhutan is limited and regulated. This is to showcase to the world the natural beauty and spectacular landscape, well-preserved age-old culture and traditions, family values of internal happiness as being more important than making money and generating income and the proverbial ‘rat race’. It’s not just the amount of money spent but the value and the destination that matters.
My eight-day sojourn in Bhutan bears testimony to this.

Destination: Royal Thimphu College

As our Bolero crossed Jaigaon, the border town of West Bengal, and entered Phuentsholing, and touched the Bhutanese soil I bade adieu to the chaos, cacophony and bedlam of Bengal and drove up far from the madding crowd!
What struck me particularly was Bhutanese citizens’ aspiration to do better. I visited Thimphu in 2013 and was stunned by their abiding passion for discipline, and keenness to preserve the environment. This time I found mountain roads even better (driving time from Phuentsholing to Thimphu has been reduced to four and half hours). The government’s strict directives — no blowing of horn, no littering and no smoking in public places – are being followed in letter and spirit by law-abiding citizens.
Wow!
Can we think of such a scenario in India? It’s time we learned from our ‘poorest’ neighbor.
Bitten by wanderlust and stung by the majestic beauty of Bhutan, I took the trip to this ‘tiny wonderland’ again.
After obtaining entry permits from the Phuentsholing immigration office, when we began our journey up the mountains, darkness was descending slowly.

Call of the wild

You’d better listen Mother Nature

As our car wounded its way up the mountains we’re a tad edgy. All of a sudden, a reassuring voice was heard. “Our roads have become much better now. No worries, just relax,” our driver Gyembu, a Bhutanese in his late twenties, said.
The mountains unfolded their nocturnal grandeur as we drove higher and higher. With temperature plummeting, we first stopped at a place not far from Phuentsholing. We got off the car and scampered to a wayside restaurant (Gurung restaurant) to beat the cold. The owner, a middle-aged Bhutanese, welcomed us with his native language: “Jem po leso…” (meaning welcome). His warmth and cordiality touched us all. We ordered hot, delectable momos and steaming coffee. In no time, the food was served and we gulped them down hurriedly and left the restaurant as we had a long way to go. The car had to negotiate a series of sharp turns (Blow Horn sign was there) on the way up the mountains. We kept savoring the beauty of the majestic mountains and countless ridgelines defining gorgeous valleys in the dark.
We finally reached the Royal Thimphu College (RTC) campus around 10pm. The security guard at the huge tastefully and aesthetically-made gate greeted us, his politeness and refinement unmistakable. My sister-in-law, who is an associate professor, department of business studies, made everything ready for us. We’re taken to an amazing two-storied wooden, elegantly-designed building overlooking the Himalayas.
Chilled to the bone, we got off the car, shivering (temperature dipped to 1 degree Celsius). The picturesque college campus (7546ft and about 700ft above Thimphu) and the surrounding visual marvel will be our home for the next eight days.

Snow-capped Jomolhari, known as ‘the bride of Kangchenjunga’

(To be continued)


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‘Google station’: Indian railways on wrong tracks

If you travel by train across India, you begin to look anew at the word “rail travel,” and revise your definition.
Overworked tracks, dirty and dinged-up coaches, commuters clinging to open doorways, late trains and cancellations, and platforms clogged with hawkers, beggars and stalls: these are indelible images of the 165-year-old Indian Railways. The sprawling network has become emblematic of Indian government structures that are at once byzantine and inefficient.
An analysis of available data show track failures and subsequent derailments are caused by excessive traffic and under-investment in rail infrastructure. Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Railways has roped in Google to bring free Wi-Fi services to 400 rail stations across India.
Isn’t it ridiculous?

Wi-Fi at Naihati rail station: lopsided priority

Well, the government may argue that the Google has provided the services free of cost.
But, is there any corporate house in the world which runs the business for charity. I’m sure the Google may have bigger things in mind. Or, they will charge fees for subsequent maintenance!
My question is does India need Wi-Fi at stations now? Is ‘Google station’ a priority when trains never run on time and daily commute is a nightmare; when overworked tracks make travel unsafe; when a 60-minute journey takes almost two hours and when ordinary passenger trains cannot average more than 25km an hour.
The idea of introducing free Wi-Fi at the stations across India is not just bizarre, it’s absolutely ridiculous. The government must focus on infrastructure upgrade like laying new tracks, repairing dilapidated rail lines, installing automatic signals, buying new coaches, ensuring commuters’ comfort and safety and timely running of trains.
Are the guys in Railways Board aware of the ground reality? Have they ever experienced the travails of daily travel? Do they know that millions of commuters face unimaginable ordeal daily as they travel in coaches packed like sardines. If they have slightest empathy for the commuters, they wouldn’t have gone ahead with the ‘Google station’ project.
I grew up in a suburb, 38km from Kolkata, and used to take train daily to reach my college. I know perfectly well the trauma and torment of a commuter.
I remember when the train pulled into Sealdah station relatively on time ((well, that happened very rarely), I heard someone saying “Oh! Train ta darun elo!” (performance of the train was admirable!) The guy was elated as trains are perennially late and its on-time performance on that day took him by surprise.
Dysfunction in Indian Railways is not a surprise.
There has been a 56 per cent increase in the daily tally of passenger trains over 15 years from 8,500 in 2000-2001 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59 per cent in the same period, but the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12 per cent in 15 years – from 81,865 km to 92,081 km.

Indian railways: Losing train of thought

If one considers the period from 1950 to 2016, the under-investment in rail infrastructure appears all the more acute. Against 23 per cent railways’ route km expansion, passenger and freight traffic increased 1,344 per cent and 1,642 per cent respectively, the Standing Committee on Railways said in a December 2016 report on Safety and Security in Railways.
Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has said part of the problem is seven decades of under-investment.
“If India is to grow at an eight to 10 per cent, or even a slower six to eight per cent growth path, railways will need to carry a lot more freight,” says an economist who examined Indian Railways as part of a government-appointed panel. “And right now it doesn’t. It’s almost bursting at the seams.”
Economic expansion requires more power and in India, that means more coal. Hauling the coal to power stations means more rail cars. “The capacity of railways to carry coal is totally exhausted at present,” says another expert. “It is absolutely essential to expand the capacity.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said India must “take the railways forward, and through the railways, take the country forward.” The rail system should be “the backbone of our economic growth,” he added.
However, the country needs to convert about 10,000 km of tracks just to have a uniform rail gauge. There are no timetables for freight cars—goods just show up when they get there—and four out of 10 lines run at 100 per cent or more of capacity.
The rail ministry planned to spend Rs.1 trillion in 2015-16 budget with almost 42 per cent of that coming from the central government. Analysts who reviewed the accounts said the bookkeeping was so opaque as to be inscrutable.
Mr Minister, please bring along your Railways Board members to Sealdah or Howrah stations in the morning and in the afternoon and see the veritable hell the commuters are thrown in.
Please come and witness how long-distance trains are made to wait for 15 to 20 minutes to get signal at Howrah station in the morning.
Whenever a long-distance train pulls into Howrah station in the morning (especially after 6am), they are made to wait near car-shed while local trains are given signal for departure. Why are the trains made to wait for so long to get signal? Imagine the sufferings of the passengers who have been on the trains for more than a day! I’ve been observing this since my childhood. I wonder why the Indian railways can’t solve the problem yet.
For an estimated 9.2 lakh people, who commute to Kolkata from suburbs every day, travel is a nightmare. Well, the word ‘nightmare’ is an understatement.
The Eastern Railways says Sealdah, one of the busiest rail stations in India, which will celebrate its sesquicentennial (150th year) next year, cannot be expanded to handle more than the existing 917 pairs of local trains that bring in people from the suburbs. Moreover, about 80,000 people embark and disembark every day from long-distance trains that run through Sealdah.
The ER authorities say the number of commuters who land in Kolkata by local trains every day, will cross the 10-lakh mark by 2020.

Sealdah station: Sea of humanity
Photo: Sudip Acharya

The ER says capacity augmentation is impossible due to encroachment along the tracks. Meanwhile, successive regimes in West Bengal have not only turned a blind eye to the blatant and rampant encroachments, but also encouraged them as part of their vote banks politics.
Mr Minister, do you know most of the footbridges at major rail stations across the country are without ramps and passengers face huge difficulties in carrying their luggage? It’s not difficult to set things right. Will you please look into such glaring mistakes?
Sir, you’ve traveled abroad and seen how rail bridges are built. I’m sorry to say your civil engineers don’t even know the basics of building a bridge. A footbridge over Naihati rail station has been built recently. It’s just awful! Please come and take the stairs up the bridge. It’s so steep. I’m sure you’d puff and pant.
Sir, please spare a thought for the millions of commuters and their daily ordeal. Instead of ‘Google station’, what is badly needed are more trains, improved tracks, increase of trains’ average speed, cleaner coaches, and timely running of trains.
I’m reminded of an old saying: “The right train of thought can take you to a better station in life.”
Are the guys in Railways Board listening?

Daily commute: an unspeakable ordeal
Photo: Sudip Acharya


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