Where Old Fliers Come to Roost

April-May 2019


The Ancient Eagle crew has taken a break from poetry and journeyed to South Asia for a month of birding and general fun.  We may get back to poetry in the near future.  In the mean time, here's our report of the doings in Assam and Bhutan.

If you just want to skip to the pictures, you'll find them here:

Each month Ancient Eagle Press offers a poem appropriate to the season or the mood of our editorial staff.   Poems may be new or drawn from existing AEP editions.


  March 2919 -- Swatting Gnats

  February 2019 -- To My Valentines, Past and Future

  January 2019 -- I'll Never Say Goodbye

  December 2018 --  Graandpa

  November 2018 -- Meditation

  October 2018 -- Benediction

  September 2018 -- Passages

  August 2018 -- Feeding the Beast

  July 2018 - One Can Have Knowledge...

  June 2018 -- The Unsinkable Molly Drown

  May 2018 -- Advice to my Grandson

  April 2018 -- Awaiting Idunn

  March 2018 -- Flight

  February 2018 -- Lakesong

  January 2018 -- Schrödinger's Cat

  December 2017 -- Daybreak

  October 2017 -- Night Watch

  September 2017 -- The Princess

  August 2017 - Pelham

  July 2017 --  Siena

  June 2017 -- Loyal, Straight, and True

  May 2017 --  A Thousand Flowers

  April 2017 -- Oboe Rap

  March 2017 - March Madness

  February 2017 -- The Cost of Doing Business

  January 2017 -- Reflection at a Winter Window

  December 2016 -- The Creation

  November 2016 -- Hemolymph Moon

  October 2016 -- Vortex

  September 2016 -- Do You?

  August 2016 -- Sailing
  July 2016 --  Mulberries
  June 2016 -- Off Tucker Point
  May 2016 -- Unforgettable
  April 2016 -- At Night She Cries

Ancient Eagle Press

Poem of the Month

                                                               India/Bhutan Trip Report

                                                                   9 Mar – 5 Apr 2019

 Assam, the northeast corner of India, is just a hop, skip and jump from Washington, D.C.  A 14-hour hop from Washington (IAD) to Abu Dhabi, a three-hour skip to New Delhi, and a four-hour jump to Guwahati, the largest city in Assam state.  Throw in transfers and layovers, and it will set you back about 30-hours.   Trip IAD to Abu Dhabi was uneventful.  Several meals and snacks.  I mostly read but got a couple hours of sleep.  After 4 hours on the ground in Abu Dhabi we were delayed for an hour more on the ramp due to ATC delays.  The airways were full.  I fell asleep during the ramp time and slept through the takeoff. 

 11 March - Arriving in Delhi an hour late, I was glad for the extra ground time there.  Turned out to be plenty of time to wander the airport.  I got to the gate 2+ hours early and read by a charging station getting the cell phone juiced up.  As the gate crew arrived and started getting people ready to board, they called me and said there was a problem with my checked bag.  I was handed from one agent to the next as we worked our way behind closed doors down to the baggage inspection area.  They had x-rayed my bag and noticed the power bank (battery pack.)  When I checked the bag, the agent asked if I had any electronics in it.  I said there were just a couple batteries.  I guess our definition of allowable batteries was different.  Anyway, there were lots of forms to fill out and sign, the bag had to be opened and the battery pack removed, more signatures, then a trek back to the security screening to run the battery back through the x-ray machine.  Meanwhile they were calling final boarding for my flight, which was by this time about 1/4 mile away.  They finally gave me back my battery and escorted me through the back corridors and turned me loose speeding for the gate.  When I got on board and into my seat, I realized I had left my phone at the charging station in all the confusion.  The steward called the gate agent who retrieved my phone and brought it to me on the plane.  (Security note: There were actually two power banks in the bag.  Somehow removing one makes it OK to keep the other in the bag.)

To my surprise, when I got to Guwahati my bag had arrived with me!  Stayed at the Radisson Blu, about 30-min from the airport.  Got to the hotel with a few hours before dinner, so l walked around outside for a bit to check out the birds flying through the garden.  Dinner with Andre, David and the other participants.  Had an Assam specialty: a very spicy chicken dish with excellent rice. 

 12 March -- Departed 0800 after breakfast buffet and went to the Guwahati dump.  As it is dry season, the atmosphere was tolerable despite the dump being many acres of accumulated trash, a giant heap of smoldering refuse.  The dump is home to authorized refugees from Bangladesh, random cattle and the world’s largest concentration of Greater Adjutants (storks.)  During our visit we saw about half the world’s population of 1100 individuals along with scores of black-eyed kites.

We left town on National Highway 37 (NH 37), a two-lane road.  At least it would be a two-lane road if it had lanes.  However, “lanes” suggests lane markings, and “lane markings” require pavement, which is not universally present on NH 37.  In Guwahati itself the road was paved and marked, but outside of town it was often dirt and unmarked.  The road is an artery carrying the commercial lifeblood of Assam east from Guwahati with cars, lorries, mini-busses, motorcycles, tractors and bicycles competing with pedestrians, vendors, cattle and the occasional elephant for a spot on the road.  In theory, traffic flows in the left “lane,” India retaining the British practice of driving in the wrong side of the road.  In practice, the entire width of the road is available for whomever has the nerve to take it.  Although we saw no accidents during out five-hour passage, the route was adorned with numerous hulks of expired transportation.  Road condition varies from poor to near-lethal, but it supports a vital presence. 

Everybody is working, from small roadside vendors to the ever-present “construction workers” adding second or third levels to residential structures.  All the housing and businesses, whether old of currently under construction, give the appearance of rapid decay, as if they will melt away with the next rain.  Judging from the amount of dust in the air, the next rain is sorely needed. 

We made several stops for birding along the road.  Lunch was at a small restaurant near Tezpur that provided numerous local specialties, mostly vegetarian and spicy.  All the food was excellent, particularly the smoked eggplant mash and the forest ferns.  All the food was prepared on portable LP gas burners in the same room as the dining.  No fancy equipment, just excellent outcomes.

Impressions along the way: Lots of communications towers.  Everybody has cell phones, as there are no telephone lines.  Lots of rice paddies, although most are dry at this time of the year.  Many were being tended in anticipation of coming monsoons.  Lots of brick kilns, each spouting black smoke which contributed to the poor air quality.  I did not see the sun for the first two days despite the weather being “clear.”  Sun rise and sunset featured at best an orange orb in the sky.

Historical Note: The current boundaries of Assam represent the borders of an independent country, albeit one ruled by various princes over the years.  In 1817, forces from Burma took over Assam, only to lose it to the British in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1826.  Assam was governed as a state by the British colonial rule and became a sovereign state of Indian in 1950.  Some nationalist sentiment remains, leading to anti-immigrant (from neighboring Bangladesh) and separatist movements.  In 1990 India launched operations against separatist in Assam; the separatists relocated to camps in Bhutan where they assisted the Bhutanese government in the expulsion of the ethnic Lhotshampa (Nepalese) population who had settled in uninhabited lands of Eastern Bhutan.  By 1993, four separate Assamese separatist groups were conduction cross border operations into India.  Bhutan tried to negotiate with the separatists to get them out of the country but had little success.  Under pressure from the Indian government, the Royal Bhutan Army (all 6,000 of them) conducted operations against the separatists’ camps, killing or capturing 485 separatists who were turned over to the Indian government.  That was Bhutan Army’s first and last operation. 

 Beyond Tezpur, NH 37 skirts Kaziranga National Park, our destination for the first two days.  We arrived in time to decamp from our two minivans and get into three open air jeeps for a photo safari of the Eastern section of the national park.  The park is 175 sq miles, containing 2/3 of the world population of Asian rhinos.  Accommodations at the park were fine, although Internet was unreliable for me.  There was hot water in the shower and the food was good.

13 Mar began with breakfast at 0530 and an elephant safari into the grassland.  Elephant riding is not for the old and brittle, but the vantage point above the tall grass provided a good view of the hog deer and rhinos.  In theory it also provides habitat for tiger, although most tigers are in the central part of the park.  The elephant ride was followed by morning and afternoon jeep rides along quite jarring roads (though less jarring than NH 37.)

 14 March we traveled to Nameri National Park and stayed in a tented eco-camp for two nights.  Arriving in Nameri early afternoon we got a quick lunch then went for a 2-hour raft ride down the river searching for shore birds.  Bird checklist preceded dinner (buffet with mostly vegetarian dishes again) followed by sleep, much needed since the next morning started as usual at 0530. 

15 Mar after a quick early breakfast (cereal and instant coffee only) we headed across the water for a five-hour jaunt through the “forest,” or as we all it, the jungle.  Hot and humid!  We were searching for the white-winged duck.  This critically endangered species exists only in Nameri NP in India, with small isolated populations in a few other Asian countries.  There are an estimated 70 individuals in Nameri, two of which were recently sighted in a small pond in the forest.  They are a very shy bird and rarely seen.  After three hours of skulking we did indeed locate and photograph one.

One diversion while looking for the duck: a Great Hornbill flew in.  That is one noisy bird!  His wing beats can be heard from a great distance.  There is no doubt then he is moving through the air!

While some of the group went back to the forest in the afternoon for another hike, others birded around the camp.  I reconfigured my camera and searched for bugs.  Right outside my tent I noticed a flicker of blue and discovered a small jumping spider (~4mm) and spent about an hour photographing him over the course of the afternoon.  The tragic part of the story is that after I put him back on the leaf where I found him, he was eaten by a cow. 

When not working with the jumping spider I found several other spiders, beetles and bugs.  Most interesting non-spider I found was a wasp colony.  Two wasp nests together were less than 30 mm.  The resident wasps were about 6 mm long (around ¼ inch.)  Digging through plants chasing a plant hopper I got into some stinging nettle, so cut short my explorations to return to camp and my hydrocortisone.

 16 Mar was another 0530 breakfast and morning bird walk before departing Nameri for Bhutan.  Departure was delayed for a few minutes for birding in the parking lot and a visit to a pigmy hog breeding center (farm yard) where the endangered pigmy hog is being bred, with the piglets being transitioned back to the forest.  Full size pigmy hogs are about the size of an overfed pug.

General: India seems to live on paperwork.  Permits required for everything.  In Kaziranga there was an extra charge for each camera.  Fortunately, our guides took care of all the paperwork.  The school kids are very friendly, all smiling and waving at the crazy tourists with all the cameras.  Bird count India: 340 species.  I got good views of fewer than half on them and got good pictures of a few dozen at most.  I tried several configurations of camera and lens to refine my technique, and by the end of India birding had pretty much decided that for birds I’ll stick with the 7D II with the 100-400 and 1.3 extender, and for road shots use the 6D with the 40mm pancake lens.  Will try shooting some video with my phone.  Several towns have military bases.  (Following the Chinese invasion of 1952, India started garrisoning forces in Assam to block Chinese incursions.) 

Assam is famous for its tea.  We saw many tea plantations and spent a couple hours birding on one.  The pickers were all women dressed in colorful sarongs, with a single male supervisor present.  The tea is picked as new growth from the tops of low shrubs, so all the ladies carry baskets to collect the leaves, having to bend only slightly to do their job.  The Dejarling region of Assam is said to be prettier topography with terraced tea plantations.  In the region of Assam we visited the land was pretty flat so terracing was not possible.  Although I am a coffee drinker, I did have some Assam chai marsala, the local white tea.  It was good, but I’ll stick with coffee.

Stopped for lunch about 40 mi (3-hrs) from the Bhutan border.  We were served typical food: rice, naan and a selection of vegetable dishes as well as pannier and chicken marsala.  We were offered eating utensils, which must have been reserved for foreigners since the locals ate with their fingers, as is the custom.  They mix the vegetable mixture (dahl…) with the rice and eat with their fingers.  Desert was small (1”) balls of grain, deep fried and soaked in molasses.  Extremely sweet!  They brought us bottled water (normal), then brought glasses…still wet.  The guy with the glasses noticed we were a little surprised by wet glasses, so he picked up a napkin and started drying the insides.  At least we’ll all be exposed to the same germs!

Like many small businesses along the road, the restaurant has a side business supplying buckets of water to truckers so they can wash (themselves, not the trucks.)

Approaching Bhutan, we saw our first divided highway.  It is not in great shape but is far better than the washboard streets we have been driving for the past few days. In any case the divided highway only lasted a few miles.  Back on the washboard.

                                                                         Welcome to Bhutan

Stopped just prior to the border to have exit visas stamped in our passports.  Another mile and we hit the Bhutan border at Samdrup Jongkhar, where we were processed into Bhutan and visa stamps added.  The contrast between countries is stark!  As vibrant, chaotic and gritty as India is, Bhutan is serene, orderly and neat.  Indian architecture is anything that can be built; Bhutan’s is classically Buddhist.   It is not legal to sell tobacco products in Bhutan.  More on Bhutan culture later. 

Found out Bhutan SIM card is not as easy as I thought.  I have to get my guide to put his name on a form and then bring the form to “the office” to get an authorization to get a SIM card.  No problem, except that we arrived in Bhutan at 1700 and leave for camp at 0600.  No time to get to “the office.”  No contact again.  I did get a text from Bhutan telecom saying I could call for $3/min, text for $0.50.  Not sure where the CDMA in coming from, but probably not available in the mountains anyway.

Saw and heard more dogs in Bhutan, many with one ear clipped.  Bhutan has a stray dog sterilization program in which they clip the left ear after sterilization.  {This was evident in the East, but we noticed few dogs with clipped ears in Western Bhutan.  Lots of dogs everywhere, and they form choirs at night.)

Stayed at the Menjong Hotel in Samdrup Jongkhar the first night (elevation ~500,).  Relatively comfortable hotel with hot water and Internet.  What more can you ask for?  Very polite and accommodating staff.  Left at 0600 the next morning (16 Mar), did some birding in town.  The plan is to spend time slowly acclimating to higher altitudes for the next couple weeks to see different environments and minimize the possibility of altitude sickness as we bird up to 14,000’.  Air is much cleaner and drier, but still a bit hazy at 3000’.  Many birds…saw 100 species the first day.  Stopped for the night at Morong.

17, 18 Mar - Tent camping in Morong.  Everything trucked in for us from tents to potties.  Good food.  National dish is ema datshi, a mixture of hot peppers and cheese.  Very tasty; very hot!  Weather went from warm to quite cold when the sun went down.  Sleeping bags are quite warm.  Night walks were a hazard, with limited light and lots of tent lines in the way. 

19 Mar – Traveled to Trashigang, stayed in Druk Deothjung.  Marginal Wifi.  Great birds and numerous waterfalls along the way.

20 Mar – En route from camping area to the next location (Lower Lingmethang Road) was supposed to be a “travel day.”  In fact it was excellent birding.  We stopped often.  The road through the mountains is under constant repair due to landslides and erosion.  We had a 1000 slot to get through one of the passes where the road was just one lane; widening was underway and blasting was scheduled. 

 On another stretch the bus had a flat tire after bumping over fallen rocks.  Both delays added to the excellent birding opportunities.

Roads: The roads through the mountains in eastern Bhutan were…exciting: Narrow, twisting, unpaved, with shoulders that had long since crumbled into landslides. 

20-22 Mar – Stayed three nights in the same hotel in Trashigang.  Trogon Villa is about three years old, can accommodate about 20 guests.  Appears to cater to birders at the national park.  There is only one other guest, a British birder.  Before this place was built, Rockjumper tours camped nearby.  Hotel is much better option!  Spent yesterday in the national forest looking for trogons.  Didn’t find any; spent an hour standing silently in the rain staring up at trees waiting for one.  Not good for this old back.  The area was heavily overcast, occasionally rainy, sometimes shrouded in clouds.  Not great for photography or birding.  Still we saw some interesting birds.  As usual, the bus was nearby and they set up tea & cookies at 1000. 

After dinner we went on a night drive looking for owls, frogmouths or whatever.  Turns out “whatever” was giant flying squirrels.  Got great views and decent pictures.  There is some question about this species (or sub-species.)  Reports of this squirrel include tail markings unlike what we saw. 

23 Mar – Drove from Trogon Villas at ~5000 feet to our camp at Sengor at more than 9,000 feet.  As we passed 9,000 feet we left the bamboo and ferns of the high altitude rain forest (technical name something else) and entered a hemlock forest.  Most of the way the road was unpaved and eroding along steep cliffs.  For a couple hours we were in the clouds with very poor visibility, Many waterfalls which I tried to capture on video.  Road work was being done by local hires with knives, cutting small trees and bamboo along the road banks so they would not wash across the road when the monsoons start in August. 

The road itself was built around 1980 with help from India, and it is immigrants from Bengal who are doing the maintenance.  They live in shacks along the road, or in small shack-villages at major nodes.  The shacks are about 8x8 and made from flattened asphalt barrels.  Bhutan has instituted technical training opportunities for those who don’t go to university, so there is now a labor force available to do road work and the percentage of Indian workers is decreasing.

 Prayer Flags.  Two kinds of prayer flags are abundant.  These are placed by families or communities to commemorate a loved one or honored person.  One style is a pole with many white flags.  On each of these is printed a mantra of the Buddha of Compassion.  The other display is a string of colored triangles or squares with mantras on them.  The five colors represent Earth (yellow), Wood (green), Fire (red), Water (blue) and Air (white).  Some are vibrant, many are faded and tattered.  That is intentional.  The material of these flags is such that it will weather and deteriorate; the pieces of the flags will bless the ground.

“Bhutan” was not a name chosen by the Bhutanese.  During the Raj, British asked the Indians what was in the region and were told something that sounded like “Bhutan” so the British cartographers assigned that name.  The Bhutanese people call the country Druk-yul, the country of the dragon people.  Druk is the name of the national airline and the local beer.  Tuesday is no-booze day for the Bhutanese.

24 Mar – Still camping in Sengor. Woke up to the first clear day in two weeks.  Beautiful view of snowy peaks and blue skies.  Very cold, so put on three t shirts, long johns, a fleece, my birding vest, a scarf and a jacket.  Just about right.  Breakfast at 0530, birding on the way up to 11,200 feet.  Great birding this morning, with plenty of sunshine.  Even able to unbutton a couple layers till the clouds rolled in around noon and we were back to cool and hazy weather.  I was surprised to see lots of rhododendron at those high altitudes.  There is no more of the giant bamboo, but fair amount of dwarf bamboo.  It is red panda territory, though we didn’t see any.

The high altitude hasn’t bothered me much most of the time but is quite noticeable when climbing while carrying things.  My tent is at the top of a hill; carrying my camera bag and paraphernalia up the hill reminds me I am a sea-level creature.  At one point today we were stalking an owl and ended up well down in a valley.  Scrambling back up, I was winded.  Must learn to slow down.  After dinner they handed out hot water bottles (as they had last night) to prewarm the sleeping bags.  I was surprised last night that they stayed warm all night.  Tomorrow we head back down (to 7,000 feet) and into a hotel!

25 Mar – Drove up to the Shaytong-la (pass) at 12,100 ft, marking the border between East and Central Bhutan.  Per our cultural guide, those in Central Bhutan speak a different dialect and dress differently.  The roads in Central Bhutan are certainly better, in part because the area is less mountainous.  The road widening project is more advanced, with many sections paved and widened to a generous two-lane.  The towns are much larger.  In Eastern Bhutan (EB) the few towns we passed had fewer than 1,000 residents.  CB has towns of 15-50,000 (?).   Traveled to Bumthang and stayed at Rinchenling Lodge, a hotel inspired by Swiss advisors, that featured wood-burning fireplaces in the rooms…a welcomed change from our freezing camp!  Several people chose to have fires.  The room was already plenty warm, however, so I did not.  Took a long, hot shower!!! 

26 Mar – Left Bumthang and our Swiss lodge and headed over additional passes to the regional center of Trongsa {Newtown}, home of the Unifier (the man who unified the various regions that are now Bhutan) and birthplace of the third King.  Rain started before our arrival, the first real rain of our trip.   Checked in to the Yangkhil Resort and went to tour the local dzong, the largest in Bhutan.  Built by The Unifier in 1647 and expanded over the years, it is a major fortress and monastery complex overlooking the river.  All trade in the region came through the river, and everyone passing through the dzong to get to the river was taxed.  The regional rulers became the richest and most powerful in Bhutan and in 1907 the Trongsa leader was chosen as king by the coalition of religious and political leaders who had previously ruled the country. 

At the dzong, men were having an archery competition.  Archery is the national sport.  This competition included three-man teams firing at 10” targets 145 meters away.  All the shots we saw were close, some hit the target.  While the sport is traditional in Bhutan, the bows were compound bows made in Logan, Utah!  By the time we left the dzong, the rain had stopped, so more birding. 

27 Mar – The plan of the day is breakfast at 0600 (later than usual) followed by birding en route to our camp at Tingtibi (Zhemgang camping area) the lowest altitude of the trip…almost down to sea level after a week between 8,000 and 12,000 feet.  Two days there will be followed by a return to this hotel.

27, 28 Mar – Spent two days camping in the warm lower elevations of Tingtibi.  The high hemlock forest has been replaced by a lush landscape dominated by tree ferns, giant bamboo and marijuana.  Exaggerating a bit on the marijuana, but it is abundant growing along the road and in forest openings.  I was taking pictures of birds before I realized I was waist deep in marijuana.  Until 2000 it was used a pig feed.  Two things changed that.  First, for reasons I don’t understand, pig farming went out of favor.  Second, in 1999 television and the Internet were allowed in Bhutan.  Suddenly the young kids discovered there was another use for marijuana.  It is now illegal to sell it as a drug, but there is an increased use among young unemployed people.  Not a problem by U.S. standards, but in Bhutan there are so few problems, this is one of them.

Cultural note:  In Bhutan, daughters inherit the family property.  The eldest daughter inherits the house (and care of the aging parents.)  Younger daughters build houses on the family property if there is room, or the family may add on to the existing house for the other daughters.  Although there is a king who is the titular ruler, the parliament and cabinet have many (?) women.  The constitutional monarchy, established in 1907, stipulates that the king must retire by age 65, although all the kings have died young (late 30s to early 50s) or abdicated to their son while in their 50s.  All the kings and the current queen went to universities in the UK and US.  All the official government signs are in English and Dzongka, the official Bhutanese language.  The three regions (West, Central and East) have their own dialects as well.

29 Mar – Back to Trongsa and the Yangkhil Resort.  Some people had left laundry when we were here three days ago.  The laundry was generally distributed to the right people. 

30 March – Left Trongsa for Punakha via Pele-la (Pele Pass), marking passage from Central to Western Bhutan.  The change was not as dramatic as from East to Central Bhutan but it was noticeable.  The roads are better, the towns are larger, and almost everybody is wearing western clothing.  There are enough people in traditional clothing that they don’t stand out, but there are far more slacks and t-shirts.  There is more of a presence of Indian as well as Tibetan ancestry in Western Bhutan.  The local dzong, built in 1639, was largely built by Indian laborers.  As tribute, the Unifier who had the dzong built granted the laborers Bhutanese citizenship (although there wasn’t really a “Bhutan” then.) Over the centuries the Indians have become a separate but equal part of the citizenry and are mostly Buddhists now.  90% of Bhutanese are Buddhist; 10% are Hindu.  Settled in to the Zhingkham Resort for two days.

I appreciate now why Bhutan is called The Land of the Thunder Dragon.  A storm came through last night.  The thunder that preceded it was amazing.  It shook the buildings!  A storm from the high Himalayas produces dramatic thunder echoing through the valleys!

31 Mar – Explored the Tashitang Valley from our base at the Zhingkham Resort.  For the record, “resort” is overused here.  Still, it beats camping.

1 Apr – Traveled from Punakha to Thimphu via Dochu-la and checked in to the Pedling Hotel.  Thimphu is the capital city, a dense city of more than 100,000, about 12% of Bhutan’s population.  It is one of two Asian capitals with no stoplights.  The other is Pyongyang.  There is one liveried traffic cop working from a small covered podium in the middle of town.  Think mini-bandstand.  There is much construction going on.  There are many dogs roaming the streets.  They barked most if the night, settling down to sleep in the streets around sun up. 
The logistics company that supported us in Bhutan hosted a dinner at a nearby hotel.  We were seated with a Bhutanese between each of us.  Made for some interesting conversations.  The girl on one side had been a guide but was now working in the front office.  As a guide she had had “accommodation” problems.  I can understand that since the guides all camp/room together.  As the other guides are all guys, it could be an uncomfortable arrangement.  She went to school in Austria, is from Central Bhutan, now lives outside Thimphu.  The girl on the other side was younger and seemed to be falling asleep through dinner.  She is one of 8 children from Eastern Bhutan, has never been out of the country but hopes one day to visit Korea because she imagines kimchi must be delicious.  I asked them about the role of women in Bhutanese society to double check the stories I had gotten from the men.  They both confirmed that women were head of the household and made the money decisions, that men mostly earned the family money, and that daughters inherited the farm.  Their impression was that women were underrepresented in government but were there in increasing numbers.  There are more women than men in the two Bhutanese universities.  Education in free and mandatory for 10-years, after which there is a comprehensive exam.  Those that do well can go on to years 11 and 12.  Others can pay for private education in Bhutan (expensive) or go to India (less expensive.)  Classes are in English, with Bhutanese being taught as a separate subject (Dzongka, the formal language of Bhutan is taught.  Local dialects are used outside school.) 

Much of the labor is being done by Indian or Japanese companies with Indian laborers, since there was no resident construction expertise prior to the country opening up around 1980.  Now Bhutan had opened trade schools for those who don’t qualify for years 11 and 12, so a growing number of Bhutanese are involved in building roads (for the Indian companies) or bridges (Japanese companies.)

Bhutan’s major export is electricity sold to India.   India is financing and building a major hydro project that is to come on line in June.  India will pay for power delivered to Assam but will receive favorable rates for the first 10 years.

2 Apr – Travel from Thimphu to Paro, about 20-miles away and home of the international airport.  Paro was once the capital of Bhutan, but Thimphu took its place in (1970?)  Stopped along the way to view the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan.  Although the takin is a high-altitude animal, a small herd is being raised in Thimphu.  This unusual animal looks like an ungainly mix of cow and goat, with a set of horns too small for its head.  I’m sure his mother thinks he is beautiful.

 One highlight of the trip was a climb to the Tiger’s Nest (aka Paro Taktsang, aka the Taktsang Palphug Monastery), the monastery featured on most of Bhutan’s tourist posters.  Built in 1692, it was severely damaged by fire in 1998 but restored by 2005.  The hike to/from the monastery takes about 5-hours.  During the restoration work a cable car was set up but was removed when work was complete. Stayed the night in the Dewachen Resort (again with the “resort” label) for our last two nights in country.

3 Apr – Up at 0330 for a 0400 departure to Chele-la, the highest point of our journey at slightly under 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet).  The point of the 0400 departure was to be near Chela La by daybreak to see the Himalayan monal, a dramatically colored pheasant. 

 We did indeed get good views and pics.  The day was clear and photography was great.  In addition to the monal we saw more blood pheasants and several birds restricted to the higher elevations. 

4 Apr – Packed and headed to the Paro airport.  There were several uncertainties about our departure.  We had been briefed that we could probably not check our luggage through to our final destination, that we would be allowed only 20 kilos for our checked baggage (23 kilos is standard for international flights and pretty much what everybody had brought) and that our hand-carry would be limited to 8 kilos, which doesn’t even cover the weight of the camera equipment carried by many of us.  To accommodate, most of us left worn out clothes and any excess items (e.g., half used bottles of sun screen etc.)  Turns out most of us had no problems at the airport.  Luggage was checked through to final destinations and our hand carry was not limited.  A few people had to pick up their bags in Delhi, go through immigrations and customs and recheck their bags.  It seemed to depend on the onward flight.  Departure was on time and the flight to Delhi was wonderful.  I had a window seat on the right side of the plane.  We had been briefed to request a right-side window seat.  I forgot to ask but got one anyway.  Most people asked but did not find one available.  The purpose of the right-window was that the flight tracked the High Himalayas for an hour.  I got wonderful views (and good pictures) of the mountains, including Mt. Everest and Annapurna 1 and 2.

Then there was Delhi!  After a wonderful flight getting there, it was payback time.  As transit passengers, we had to wait in a holding area to get our boarding passes before we could go through security into the international departure area.  The holding area has a counter behind which half a dozen attendants sit playing games on their cell phones.  The only people waiting for boarding passes were the 8 of us from the Bhutan flight.  The fastest boarding pass arrived in about an hour.  I waited 4 hours before collaring a guy with a badge and a phone who made some calls and within a half hour I had my boarding pass, as well as assurances they would find my luggage sometime before the connecting flight at 0445 the next morning.  After 5 hours sitting around waiting for my boarding pass I was exhausted, and 30-minutes going through security screening (there were two travelers and five screeners) left me drained.  Fortunately, I had reservations at the Holiday Inn Express located in the International Departures area.  Unfortunately, the HI Express computer was down so I had to sit in their lobby for another half hour before they could give me a room key.  I got some rice and curry in the food court and went to bed after asking Reception for a 0245 wake-up call.

5 Apr – Work up just before 0300.  No wake-up call.  I had set my phone alarm for 0300 just in case, but awoke at 0259 and turned off the alarm.  Took a shower and headed to the gate, picking up a coffee on the way.  Found the 0345 boarding time was delayed because of a preceding flight occupying the gate.  Out new departure time was 0530.  When we finally loaded it was an unorganized mess.  Indira Gandhi Airport (DEL) is a “silent” airport, so there are no announcements of any kind.  At 0500 some people started gathering around the departure gate, and eventually others noticed and started gathering around.  When the doors were finally opened people just surged through.  Nobody checked passports of boarding passes.  On the plane people seemed to sit wherever they pleased, requiring numerous changes of seating before takeoff.  My seat was taken by a young Indian boy, whose mother asked if he could sit by the window (my seat.)  I said yes, of course, and was frankly happy to have the aisle seat.  He was well behaved the whole flight to Abu Dhabi, which is more than I can say about the three kids on my left, the one in front or the one in back.  At least one was crying loudly the entire trip.  I was just glad to be out of DEL.  If you die and find out the only way to Heaven requires a transfer through DEL, seriously consider a long-term lease on a condo in Hades as a less painful option.  Did I mention my credit card was compromised on my earlier trip through DEL and $32,000 was charged on the card?  Clearing that up will be my priority when I get home.  Avoid DEL!!!!

Arriving in Abu Dhabi around the time my IAD flight was supposed to load was a little concerning, but since both flights were on Etihad I figured it was OK.  It was.  I had to go through extra screening (TSA Precheck) and U.S. Customs & Immigration before getting to the departure gate.  Loading started about 45-min late, and takeoff was further delayed by a medical problem requiring a doctor.  Finally took off more than an hour late, but at least we’re on our way.

That about sums up the trip.  I got home with about 15,000 photos to sort through and 750 bogus charges on my credit card to dispute.  The charges were all cleared before I got through the first 5,000 photos.  Kudos to Rockjumper and the India and Bhutan support teams for making the in-country portion of the trip effortless for us.

Now that you’ve gotten this far, if you want to see many more pictures, they are available on line at:

https://www.flickr.com/gp/ancient_eagle/h4289Z for India pictures (~100 pics), or  

https://www.flickr.com/gp/ancient_eagle/6Me31b for Bhutan pictures (~150 pics).