Bhutan Discovered

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In October 2019, we spent a week or so in the last remaining kingdom of the Himalayas. Years ago, there had been three: Sikkim, Nepal, and Bhutan. Today only Bhutan remains

In 1975, Sikkim joined India as its 22nd state after anti-royalist riots took place in front of the palace.

The Nepal monarchy suffered a mass murder in 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed ten people, including his father King Birendra, and was himself mortally wounded by what was allegedly a self-inflicted gunshot. Seven years later the monarchy was formally abolished on 28 May 2008.

The Bhutanese Royal family must have been worried and we were about to find out. Bhutan has a mere 750,000 people. It’s a bit of grit between the millstones of China to the north and India to the south. Even its flag, a struggling dragon crushed between two blocks of colour, seems to portray its predicament. Bhutan flag

Our visit was costly because each tourist has to pay $250 per day to include transport, guides, hotels and basic meals. Of this $65 goes directly to the government. Bhutan has a strategy of low volume, high value tourism, and it seems to be working. The International Monetary Fund has estimated Bhutan’s economic growth for 2019 at 5.5 percent, higher than the global growth forecast of three percent, but below a few countries in the region, including Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Maldives and China. Will we find good value there, we wondered as we left the Royal Singli Hotel, Kathmandu at 6.00 am on the 8 October 2019?

I hope these notes will help you make up your mind. Continue reading “Bhutan Discovered”

A Walk to the Tiger’s Nest

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Tuesday 15th October 2019

I awake at 6.50 after a decent night’s sleep. Sleeping has been difficult in Bhutan. It’s been a bit hit and miss: time zone changes, altitude and the beds having variable layers of blankets and duvets along with thick hard pillows, just the opposite of what I like. However, the daybreak is wonderful, the air is white diamond clear, no hint of pollution, and a cloudless periwinkle sky, an ideal day for a good walk.

We breakfast at about 7.15 and there’s nervous anticipation in the group. The Tiger’s Nest is probably the most iconic image Bhutan gives to the world. Indeed it is a metaphor for the country itself: isolated, scenic and religious. Like the country, it too has modernised in the last twenty years following a disastrous fire in 1998. As we drive towards the mountain departure point, Kunzang is being cautious advising us on clothing and the need to stay hydrated. He’s responsible in some measure for a group of people whose levels of fitness and ability he barely knows. We stop at a small shop to buy last minute supplies of nuts, biscuits and water. Continue reading “A Walk to the Tiger’s Nest”

Suzhou to Shanghai

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…the observation deck on the 88th floor. The views of the city are wonderful.

In transforming backward agricultural China into an advanced industrialized country, we are confronted with arduous tasks and our experience is far from adequate. So we must be good at learning. Mao Zedong’s opening address at the eighth National Congress of the Communist Party of China. (September 15, 1956).

25 October Pan Pacific Hotel

We awake around 8.00. There’s genteel start today, breakfast lasts till ten.

Made out of large granite blocks, the Pan Pacific hotel has an inclined ramp up to the top, third, floor giving it the feel of a Mayan temple. But inside, it has the complexity of a pharaoh’s pyramid with false passages and little straightforward. We did find our bedroom eventually after visiting a boiler room and confronting a ‘No Entry, Staff’ sign.

However, the hotel does have some elegance and it fits well with low housing all around. Its downfall is the staff who seem at best indolent and at worst downright unhelpful. The evening pianist played more on her mobile phone than the piano during our brief stay, and at breakfast, Amy, our waitress stared into spaced ignoring her guests.

Francis is very quiet this morning, Chris said the hotel had been rather snooty and refused him a room. Finally, they found him a store cupboard at about three in the morning, apparently. Although he looks weary, he is with us doing his duty.

We have round-faced, black-haired Selina (Liu Yu Jia) to lead us to the canal. The red-lipped former schoolteacher in the clearest English tells us the famous Chinese general Sun Tzu, beloved of management consultants and military strategists, was born here two and half thousand years ago. Some things endure. Continue reading “Suzhou to Shanghai”

River Cruise to the Three Gorges Dam

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The gorge becomes more and more spectacular with mountains soaring up on either side.

When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills. Chinese Proverb

Chongqing is now a skyscraper city with the feel of Manhattan. In the centre of the city is People’s Liberation Monument, locally called Jiefangbei. It commemorates China’s s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). Francis says it was the highest building the city, which had been heavily bombed in the war. It was built in 1946. Now, it is only a child coming up to the knees of all the adult buildings surrounding it.

Marjorie likes central Chongqing especially the diamond jewellers, CRD, where the diamonds look so cheap, but we don’t purchase any, it is so easy to get carried away.

We board the MV Century Diamond after a quick visit to an old riverside temple-cum-house complex in painted in yellow emulsion and a rushed and disappointing Lazy Susan dinner on the eighth floor of a city centre restaurant. However, our cabin is a delight with red bedsheets and two swans made from towels. Our 42nd wedding anniversary will occur on this boat. Continue reading “River Cruise to the Three Gorges Dam”

Beijing to Chongqing

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Francis’ Family in Tianamen Square

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Lao Tzu.

Our journey nearly faltered at the first step. In the comfortable Titan chauffeur-driven Mercedes beside Ioan and Anita, we sat in a motorway jam. We were going to miss our flight. However, thanks to the mobile phone and the responsive Titan employee, Jo Kavanagh, we were re-booked on an Emirates flight via Dubai and we would arrive only a few hours later than originally planned.

During the trip, I was about to experience so many new superlatives, greatest, biggest, longest and the door to door journey time of 32.5 hours was the longest I had ever undertaken. We arrived in the Landmark hotel at 00.30 on Saturday 13 October in the company of the most helpful guide, Yang Zhen Xiong, who preferred his “English” name of Francis. Continue reading “Beijing to Chongqing”

The Catalan Referendum – The Impasse

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The European Political Map Before the Unification Movements of Germany and Italy

Doesn’t the path of history look obvious when viewed through the lens of time? A hundred years ago the actions and subsequent reactions of states or politicians seem obvious. Events which so troubled our forefathers are taught by the simplicity of a needlewoman’s thread and as the embroidery becomes a tapestry and we see the pattern so clearly that even the simplest student can follow it.

But look into the future and the clear patterns distort, the threads tangle. After hundreds of years of association and unification, do we face, in Europe today, the first cuckoo of the spring of disunion? Continue reading “The Catalan Referendum – The Impasse”

The Catalan Referendum

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…the ballot papers – in three languages, Spanish, Catalan and Occitan.

George Orwell said of the Catalans, “I defy anyone… not to be struck by the essential decency, above all their straightforwardness and generosity.”

What he saw in 1935 is still present today.

Straightforward decent people want the right to vote on the most important issue- the issue of how they should govern themselves. Yet the Spanish government does not want to engage in the debate – rather it prefers to deploy the Guardia Civil, whose faces are hidden behind perspex shields, to kick and punch peaceful protesters and to attack and beat with truncheons ordinary citizens and old ladies in a crude attempt to dissuade them from congregating and voting. It seems they have learned nothing. The power of the masses will not be thwarted by a few policemen, however belligerent.

Continue reading “The Catalan Referendum”