Exploring the remote Kingdoms of the
The last true illusion of Shangri La?
A 4x4 expedition took us across some of
the most mythic parts.
Here is a note from one of our travel dairies:
"Today I woke up to the sweet sound of a puja – a 3 meter long, ancient Buddhist trumpet – handled by a young monk dressed in red, sitting on the terrace of a remote temple deep in the mountains.
Sounding like the singing of elephants, the trumpet-horn expressed a long, deep, whirring, haunting sound that took me out somewhere beyond the highest Himalaya peaks and at the same time back into my mother's womb.
As the first ray of the sun softly touched my face, I opened my eyes and saw a massive mountain covered with lush green forests and snow.
I then crawled out of my sleeping bag on the wooden terrace still wet with dew. Over our heads was the crystal clear blue sky, meditating monks was sitting here and there, and in the air I could smell fresh bread being baked over open fire…".
Welcome to the East Himalayas!
Locations: Bhutan, Sikkim and India's Northern Bengal, during 1 month
We’re enormously fascinated by these ancient lands and old kingdoms. They are remote, beautiful, and enchanting. Probably the last place in the world where Mahayana Buddhist culture survives as an integral part of everyday life. We have been to the Himalayas a couple of times, but this journey took us through Sikkim and Bhutan.
We started in Darjeeling: a beautifully located hill station in Northern Bengal, spread in ribbons over a steep mountain ridge and surrounded by emerald-green tea plantations. A backdrop of jagged white Himalayan peaks floating over distant clouds can be seen everywhere from Darjeeling, and in good weather we could see both Khangchendzonga and Mt Everest. In the narrow streets, we met an array of Himalayan faces from Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. We continued by 4x4 to Sikkim, one of the smallest states of India which used to be a real country and a kingdom. Travel overland was the only possibility, as there is no airport in Sikkim. Sikkim is located more deeply in the folds of the Himalaya, landlocked between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Compared to India, Sikkim was the perfect antipode - it had no hassles, few people, clean environment, and fresh mountain air.
The culmination of the journey was Bhutan – or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as the translation reads. This has to be one of the most extraordinary, mythical, complex, and little-known countries on the planet. We now understand why some Himalaya connoisseurs have articulated that Bhutan is the last true illusion of the Himalaya. In Bhutan, all inhabitants must wear traditional dresses; it’s not allowed to go fishing since you cannot disturb the fish; buying cigarettes is illegal; electricity, paper currency, and schools have just arrived – the television arrived as late as 2002. Bhutan has remained completely closed to foreign influence for centuries and opened up to the world just recently, when the first Western visitors were invited. Since then, the King’s policy has been to minimize impact and to keep alive the traditional culture and pristine natural environment. It is definitely pricey to go here. We had to pay a 200 US$ visa fee per person per day to stay in the country! But Bhutan is absolutely a fantastic destination only for the most intrepid travelers who do not mind paying the heavy fee to experience a world informed by Buddhist principles – as long as it may last.
If you simply love the Himalayas and the Indian subcontinent, then check out our extremely wild travel along the Karakorum Highway in neighboring Pakistan, our mountaineering in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan or our journey across India and Sri Lanka along the Hippy Travel.
Selected pics from this encounter:
After arriving in Shiliguri we arrange a jeep to take us through the Bangla Hills we you can loose yourself in tea plantations and wonderful views. These hills penetrate the West Bengal all the way to Tibet, and the route we take follows the old trade route to Darjeeling.
Darjeeling is a wonderful hill station resort town. It affords spectacular panoramic vistas of the distant snow-clad peaks of the Eastern Himalayas. Accommodation there tends to be remarkable as the imperial legacy of the Raj lives on in buildings and hotels.
The world’s third highest mountain, on the border between Sikkim and Nepal.
In Darjeeling, you will find yourself surrounded by mountain people from all over the eastern Himalaya who have come to work, to trade or, in the case of many Tibetans, as refugees.
Naya Bazaar is on the border with Sikkim. The population of Sikkim is approximately 18% Lepcha, 75% Nepali, and the other 7% are various mountain people from other northern states. It has never been easy to visit Sikkim and even now you need a special permit to enter.
Anders in front of the large 45m Samdruptse Buddha near Namchi.
On the banks of the Rengeet River, Legship is a chaotic and cluttered little village surrounded by wooden hills. It has that wellknown ramshackle appreal. We met this couple in the sacred Shiva temple in Legship.
We stayed in Pelling for a couple of days on this hotel with views towards Kanchenjunga (8.598m). There are some fine hikes in the area surrounding Pelling.
From Pelling you can do the "monestary loop" - which is a splendid hike that circles the Pemayangtse Gompa (Surrounded on two sides by snow-capped mountains), Rabdentse Palace (fine views, too) and Sangachoeling Gompa (magnificient glimpses of many peaks to the north).
This beautiful lake lies in a valley surrounded by prayer flags and forested hills. Nearby, is the ramshackle village of Tsojo. You can continue by foot towards Yuksom and onwards into Nepal to the west.
Definitely one of the best temple complexes in Sikkim and all of the Eastern Himalayas
On the route between Darjeeling and Bhutan. In the monsson season, as in the picture, the streets and hills of many of the mountain villages are enshrouded in mist. But even then the views are magnificient.
On the road between Shiliguri in the West Bengal and Phuentsholing in Bhutan. We had to fix a tyre.
The mighty Paro Rinpung Dzong, sitting amongst paddy fields in the fertile Paro Valley. The Paro valley is one of the most loveliest in Bhutan with whitewashed country houses, green terraced fields, forested hills, willow trees, and the charming small town.
Inside the the vast Kychu Monastry
Although Paro town has seen some modernization you will still see that many shops have a strange latter system that provides an entry though the front window of the shop instead of a door.
Trekking to the most spectacular monastery in Bhutan and – perhaps – in all of the Himalayas. The Taktsang Goemba – or Tiger’s Nest – miraculously perched on the side of a sheer cliff, 900m above the Paro valley floor.
It is believed that the great saint Padma Sambhava, known as the second Buddha in Bhutan, came at Taktsang in the 8th century on a flying tigress and meditated in a cave for 3 months, thereby subduing the demons that were trying to stop the spread of Buddhism.
Gigantic phallic penises are painted at the walls of most houses in Bhutan
mpu is set in a narrow, wooded valley, climbing up the hillside from the Wang Chuu River and dotted with prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Almost all buildings follow the traditional Bhutanese style with large flat roofs, highly decorated wooden balconies, and wall paintings.
Young monks at the Dechenphodrang Monastic School in Thimpu
We also visited the Dechenphodrang Monastic School and got a glimpse of the life of young monks and saw the evening prayers.
At the hill above of the city stands the Trashicchoe Dzong, housing the throne of the King. The highlight is the courtyard of Trashichho Dzong, which houses the Central Secretariat of the Government and the Throne Room of the King as well as the Headquarters of the Central Monk Body.