SpiceRoads Blog

Bhutan: The Switzerland of Asia

Posted on: December 20th, 2016 by Sujittra
Posted in: Bhutan

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From the arrival flight into Bhutan past the peak of Mount Everest, to the adrenaline filled landing at Paro nestled in a deep valley, the journey to the kingdom of the Thunder Dragon was an adventure in itself.  As I disembarked the small plane with our group, my first impression was the incredible landscape.  Soaring mountains in every direction and noticeably the dense fauna, which grew right to the top of all but the highest peaks; a climate feature of the latitude counteracting the altitude.  The architecture caught my eye next, as all buildings from the large airport to the smallest hut followed the same design principles.  Not least was the welcoming people, as we were met with the traditional welcome gift of a white silk scarf by our guide team, themselves wearing smart but practical traditional clothing called a ‘Go.’

dsc_4752Bhutan, a country of only 700,000 people, seemed at first glance like a tiny self contained world, with rugged terrain and unusual distinctive culture, but for all this cultural and natural content, one was also reminded of the tiny country of Switzerland, itself a landlocked mountainous nation. Even the architecture had some practical similarities.  Our accommodations for the first night were an old Dzong (Fortress), and as we settled down that evening to a hearty meal of curried paneer and red rice, conservation at the table made it clear that the altitude, at 2400 m, was affecting some of the group.

Our Bhutanese adventure began with a hike up to the famous Tiger’s Nest, a monastery perched on a cliffside at 3100 m.  Its holy walls had held off invaders for hundreds of years, with only the occasional fire to mar its long history.  Stood on the monastery balcony, with the reverberating sounds of throat-signing monks all around, butter lamps burning close by and the view of the mountains below, I could already sense the spiritual element of this trip would be a strong feature.

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This SpiceRoads tour was to be one of our Epic rides, an expedition crossing the Bhutanese Himalayas from West to East, before passing into India.  Following a deal with the Indian government to widen roads across the country, many of the winding mountain ways were under repair, only serving to increase the difficulty of this tour, which would see the group climbing over 20,000metres and crossing 11 high passes in two short weeks.

Having set up our Trek mountain bikes the day before, the riding itself began gently. A rolling countryside road gradually gaining incline until we began climbing to our first pass at Dochula.  At the very top, 108 chortens have been erected as a reminder of the 108 Bhutanese who died during a bloody border conflict with an Indian minority group.  From the pass we could see the Bhutanese Himalayas laid out in front of us, sweeping northwards and gaining altitude until snow covered the highest peaks.  The climb was rewarded with a long descent into Punaka, where we stayed for the night in a mystical cloud filled valley of rice paddies.  The air late at night was so clean and clear that every light in the valley shone as if it was in the same room.

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Our journey continued East over the next two days with a challenging 46 km climb to one of the highest passes of the journey, laden with colourful prayer flags at 3400 m.  From Wangdu we traveled onward via Trongsa to the center of the country and beautiful Bhumthang, and Jakar a tiny town with a rich history.  In Bhumthang whilst visiting Dzongs and eating Bhutanese Yak pizza, we stayed at the famous Swiss Guest House, as guests of Fritz Maurer, a Swiss national who had answered an advert for a cheese maker from university and never returned.  Now the founder of the guesthouse, cheese factory and brewery and well into his 70’s.  Having introduced the milk cow to the Bhutanese bloodlines; he rubs shoulders with royalty, whilst never having lost the common touch.  Fritz regaled us with his tales over breakfast, of having been the first person to own a bicycle in Bhutan, and giving up his bed for a visiting US senator who got stuck in the valley when the snows set in.

Rested and recouped, our group took to two wheels again to ride over the pass to the next valley, where a relatively luxurious camp had been arranged.  From now we had entered the East of Bhutan, and accommodation would be scarce, or of such poor quality that camping would often be the best option.  As we rode from the Tang Valley, to Ura to Sengor, camping all the way, we crossed passes and camped at over 3100 m, adjusting to the gaining altitude whilst sitting round the bonfire at night.  The final pass would be the highest in Bhutan.  Thumshingla pass at 3798 m tested even the strongest climbers in the group.

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The ride from Sengor to Mongar has been described as the greatest one day ride in the world.  A 60 km downhill with barely a single vehicle, which travels from silent Alpine forest and cool dry climate, past waterfalls, and birds, until different species of gibbons appear hooting in the thick humid air, and dense jungle with its cacophony of insects.  With a short climb to our lunch spot laid out in the warm sub tropical sun.  From here we still had several passes to climb, but the feeling was definitely changing to a general winding down, and despite the tough journey, that feeling was met with some sadness by most.

No-one however, had expected the incredible views that we were afforded in these last few days. From the mountain top hotel at Trashigang to our campsite in the Monastery at Wamrong, serenaded by the monks deep melancholic instruments we were treated to a heavenly sunset which seemed to change every minute but always to a new an more incredible scene.  Around us it seemed that the mountains changed from jungle to alpine depending on the direction they were facing or the micro climates in their valleys.  The terrain became more and more varied as we approached the border and Samdrup Jonkar.

Our crossing to India was as hectic and different as could be.  We passed form the quiet empty streets of Bhutan, to dense population, traffic and animals wandering in the hustle and bustle.  It was a taste of India, for a two hour ride which framed the peace and serenity of our spiritual trial that was Bhutan.

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Persia’s Ancient Wonders Now

Posted on: December 6th, 2016 by Sally Hoare
Posted in: Iran

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Modern day Iran boasts ancient and amazing sights influenced by centuries of Persian culture and history. Such a simple term, ‘Persia’, is a far reaching and wondrous melange of ethnicities, environments, and events that developed into the delights to be discovered so near to the Cradle of Civilisation, where we all came from in one way or another.

 

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Shiraz is thought to be over 4,000 years old. What is definite is its role in Persian culture – it is home to renowned and beloved gardens, wine, education, and poets, inspiring artists throughout the ages.

 

Imam (Shah) Mosque, Isfahan, Iran

Eram Garden, one of the UNESCO Persian gardens, dates to the 12th or 13th century. Cypress trees are a feature, including one that apparently is almost 3,000 years old. Visitors now can see the results of the centuries – cultivating not just the plant life, but also the integrated architecture and art. It is now under the care of Shiraz University, open to both botanists and the public.

 

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Tombs of Sa’di and Hafez: These two poets, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, have influenced scholars, writers, and lay people alike to this day. Their tombs have been maintained and visited by those who want to contemplate their writings in its tranquil gardens and serene marble mausoleums.

 

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Zand Complex is an area of Shiraz featuring the Arg of Karim Khan, an 18th century citadel and fortress, and Vakil Mosque and bazaar. The mosque is an excellent example of the art of its time, and the night prayer hall features a minbar, or pulpit, carved out of a single piece of green marble.

 

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Persepolis, once the richest city on earth, was founded by Darius I in 518 BCE. This capital of the Achaemenid Empire was built on an immense half-artificial, half-natural terrace, with an impressive palace complex adorned in gold and silver, ivory, and precious stones. Considered one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Eqlid is close to the Zagros mountains and is one of the highest Iranian cities at 2250 metres. Considered the border between the mountains and the desert, it offers views of snow-covered peaks almost year-round.

 

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Photo by destinationiran

Abarkouh is a desert city known for its ancient ice houses and windcatchers and for being home to the second oldest tree in the world, a 4,000-year-old cypress. Depending on the legend, it was either planted by Zoroaster or by Japheth, Noah’s third son.

 

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Zein-o-Din Caravanserai is one of 999 travellers’ inns on the Silk Road built during the reign of Shah Abbas I. Dating back to the 16th century, it is one of two caravanserais built with circular towers at the corners of a square surrounding a courtyard with a pool.

 

Disused old building interior at the foot of the hill with Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran.

Disused old building interior at the foot of the hill with Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran.

Yazd, one of ancient Persia’s oldest cities and one of the largest made almost fully out of adobe, dates back over 5,000 years. A major Zoroastrian centre, it’s home to the famous Tower of Silence where the dead were left to be picked clean by vultures as well as the Fire Temple where a fire has been going since 470 AD.

 

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Isfahan, a former capital of Persia and now Iran’s third largest city. Among its tree-lined boulevards, picturesque bridges, verdant gardens, and historic bazaars, visitors can appreciate how the reign of Shah Abbas I optimised urban planning to highlight its architecture and art such beauties as the UNESCO-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Royal Mosque.

 

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Photo by irantraveltours

Kashan was an important centre for high quality textiles, pottery, and tiles from the 12th and the 14th centuries. It’s importance as a trade centre can be seen in the architectural wonder of its main bazaar complex, teeming with shops, inns, and restaurants and featuring an amazing light well. Beyond the hustle and bustle of business is another UNESCO Persian garden, Fin.

 

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Photo by howtoiran

Iran’s capital city, Tehran, is where antiquity and modernity meet. The National Museum houses a priceless collection of artefacts, chronicling life, great and small, from pre-history to more recent times. Golestan Palace began as a citadel in the 16th century, became the seat of the capital in the Qajar era, and was rebuilt to its current form as a palace in the 19th century. This complex of intricate marble carvings, brilliant mirror works, and exceptional design was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013.

Everywhere you travel in the region, it’s very likely that you’ll uncover more enchantments, from quaint farms and villages to vast world heritage sites, that hopefully will deepen your appreciation of this singular yet expansive culture. These destinations have survived so much through so the millennia and should continue to charm and be cherished. Don’t you think it’s time you joined in?

To find out more about these sites and about what else you can discover:

http://www.untoldiran.com/

http://www.farschto.ir/en/

http://www.irantourismcenter.com/

http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/ir

https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/cities/cities.html

Rider of the Month – Jeffrey Olver

Posted on: November 24th, 2016 by Sally Hoare

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Tell us about your earliest experiences as a cyclist…

I have ridden a bicycle since I was a child however I discovered the pleasure of road cycling in 2011. I bought my first road bike and joined my first SpiceRoads Bangkok to Phuket Tour 3 months later. Though I realized I had much to learn about cycling, capsule I met experienced cyclists on that tour and learned a great deal about Thailand in those 10 days. In short, I was hooked on cycling after my first SpiceRoads Tour.

Tell us what you most enjoy about cycle touring and why you like to see the world by bicycle?

Cycle touring brings people from all around the world together with at least one thing in common, the love of road cycling. I have met many fine cyclists and have made some of my best friendships on SpiceRoads tours. It is also common to find very strong riders older than myself and that has given me hope for aging gracefully also. Lastly, the guides and drivers are key to feeling integrated into the Thai community as we move from town to town across Thailand.

How many cycle tours have you been on with SpiceRoads and which has been your favourite?

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I have cycled 8 tours with SpiceRoads. One trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and 7 tours of Bangkok to Phuket (Yes, 7 times so that must be my favourite). I enjoy the small beach towns on the Gulf of Thailand and spectacular scenery of the Andaman Sea coast. The dinners offer a wide variety of dishes and the Thai massage is perfect complement to a day of exercise on the bike. Even though the tour travels the same route, I see and learn new things that I missed on previous tours. Every group of SpiceRoads cyclists is unique.

Where would you like to cycle next?

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I would like to explore the Northern Thailand hills of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and the Isaan/Lao area with SpiceRoads in the future. The local Thai cycling culture is extremely vibrant and Thai drivers are respectful of the cyclist. I feel safe and welcome with my bicycle in Thailand and it truly is the land of smiles.

– In your opinion, what is the benefit of travelling by bicycle?

The health benefits from cycling would have to top the list. Personally I have lost weight, lowered my blood pressure, increased muscle mass and found an outlet to the mental stress of modern life. I have recently retired and visit Thailand a couple of months a year. I always bring my road bike as my main means of transportation and a tour with SpiceRoads brings together old and new friends.

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Persian Cuisine: Extraordinary and yet Familiar

Posted on: November 22nd, 2016 by Sally Hoare
Posted in: Iran

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Many know Persian art and architecture. Many appreciate the intricacies in ancient Persian carpet-making. But many may not be acquainted with true Persian foods. Unfortunately, Persian cuisine is sometimes lumped together with Arabic, but although they share similar geographic origins and some ingredients, there are distinct differences.

Of course, there are familiar sights at a Persian meal: rice, flat breads, kebabs, yogurt, grilled fish, meat stews. But there are unique uses of other ingredients. You might not be surprised to taste saffron and cardamom, but then you’ll find fruits like pomegranate and tamarind as well as walnuts and pistachios coursing through every course, complementing succulent meats, fishes, or pulses. Persian recipes deftly mix sweet and savoury ingredients to create dishes that burst with flavour.

Some dishes considered essential (it seems unfair to call them ‘basic’) are:

Jewelled rice: When the occasion for dinner needs more than just rice, this dish combines rice with dried fruits and nuts, creating a colourful treat for the eyes as well. Typically, pistachios and almonds slivers mix with barberries (like cranberries), glazed orange peel, and pomegranate and are spiced with saffron.

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Ghormeh Sabzi is a stew, but so much more. Its considered by many as a favoured Persian dish, combining an incredible mix of herbs that is sautéed to make the base of the stew. Dried limes are added for a singular tartness. As with many other Persian dishes, this can be made with meat or can be a perfect vegetarian option.

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Photo by turmericsaffron

Sabzi Khordan can be found at most meals. It is amazing in its simplicity but complex in the flavours to be discovered. A plate of fresh herbs and roots (parsley, cilantro, radishes, scallions, dill, basil, mint, chives) often accompanied with pickled vegetables, cheese, and nuts. Select your ingredients and eat with flatbread.

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Photo by food52.com

Borani Esfenaj is another way to get your spinach. Walnuts and fried onions are chopped and combined with spinach in yoghurt for taste sensation like no other. An amazingly healthy vegetarian dish, it is served can be served with ‘sangak’, a whole wheat leavened flatbread.

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Photo by Familyrecipecentral

Joojeh Kabob is a typical, if such is possible, kebab dish, grilled skewers of vegetables with chicken that has been marinated in saffron and lime.

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Fesenjan is another dish normally for a special occasion, but with these ingredients, who can be blamed? This is a sweet and savoury stew of walnut, pomegranate, and most often, chicken or duck. Naming its main ingredients doesn’t do it justice.

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Kohresh Bademjan: This stew is one of many traditional Persian dishes that feature eggplants, or aubergines. This particular stew combines the flavour of eggplants with the tartness of limes or sour grapes. This can be made with meat or can go vegetarian.

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Photo by turmericsaffron

Persian desserts and sweets includes Faludeh, a dessert of thin noodles served cold with rosewater and lime juice; Tar Halva, a confection made of rice flour, cardamom and butter; and Shir Berenj, Persian rice pudding.

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Faludeh – Photo by Abouttimemagazine

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Tar Halva – Photo by persianmama

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Shir Berenj – Photo by afghankitchenrecipes

This barely scrapes the surface of the delights that can be found in Persian food. There’s the delights of the crispy crunch of Tahdig rice, the refreshment of the fruit or flower flavoured Sharbat drinks, the myriad variations to create a thick, luscious Aash soups. And so much more.

With the increased interest in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines because of reports on the health benefits of their traditional ingredients, and with the opening of Iran and the region to those who are unfamiliar with it, the joys of outrageously delicious Persian dishes will hopefully spread even further!

To find out more, you can start with (I don’t endorse any of these recipes, but I did use these sources to learn more):

http://www.cultureofiran.com/persian_cuisine.html

http://www.foodrepublic.com/2014/10/29/persian-food-primer-10-essential-iranian-dishes/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/27/persian-recipes-food-iranian_n_3504083.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/iranian-food-why-a-vibrant-cuisine-is-ripe-for-rediscovery-fesenjan-tahdig-ottolenghi-a6974246.html

http://persianmama.com/recipes-4/

Beyond Persepolis: Persian Arts and Culture

Posted on: November 9th, 2016 by Sally Hoare
Posted in: Iran

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At one time the centre of one of the largest empires of the world, Persia has borne some of the world’s greatest treasures. Various intricate arts, lyrical literary styles,  and architectural techniques can find their beginnings in the area in and around Iran that is attributed to Persia.

Persia can be considered as beginning with the Achaemenid Empire, known as the realm of Cyrus I, Darius I, and Xerxes. These leaders achieved almost mythological standing, expanding their empires, implementing public works and constructions, and patronising arts of all origins. The empire was known for incorporating elements from those they conquered, endeavouring to create the best of all worlds.

Another major influence was Zoroastrianism, the main religion until the widespread adoption of Islam after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century AD. But its origins go back to around the 10th century BCE, so its influence can’t be over-emphasised. Its main tenets are Humata (good thoughts), Hukhta (good words), Huvarshta (good deeds). The rites and traditions surrounding these seemingly simple ideas are represented in temples and artwork that survives to this day. Notably, the purifying and protective endowments of earth, air, water, and fire can be found throughout.

With the Arab conquest, Islamic influences found its way into Persian arts and culture. And Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Mesopotamian traits also had their hands in – showing that trade as much as war can impact artisans.

Architecture

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The epitome of Achaemenid architecture is Persepolis, the capital of the First Persian Empire. This UNESCO World Heritage site exemplifies how Persian artists, artisans, and architects worked together to combine the best in urban planning, construction, and art. Building on naturally terraced land, additional terraces were created to erect regal structures featuring elegant friezes, slender columns, and majestic sculptures.

The columns are a unique design – the engineers at the time could construct lighter roofs to make a lighter load for more slender columns. These were often topped with ingeniously designed animal sculptures, also known as capitals.

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As a counterpoint to the many temples and palaces, Persian mausoleums and tombs also received great attention and detail. Are simple sepulchres, other necropolises, but all adorned with sculptures and some with intricate metalwork.

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Within and around these sites can be found even more artistry. Monuments carved out of mountainsides, mosaics depicting scenes from history and mythology, sculptures in bronze and other metals, all adorned homes and palaces, and now can mainly be found in museums and private collections.

Persian metalsmiths didn’t only master bronze work, but also excelled at many techniques for working silver and gold to create decorative jewellery pieces as well as functional drinking vessels and dishes, sometimes inlayed with gems and decorated with abstract designs or scenes of feasting.

Carpets

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The one thing that most people know of is the quality and beauty of Persian carpets. But they aren’t just a single type — Persian carpets covers a wide range of styles and materials. This tradition is thought to have dated back a few thousand years. Each village, city, region developed their own techniques and methods.

Some use cotton, wool, silk, or unique mixes. Some feature geometric designs, birds and flowers, hunting scenes. Some use brilliant, bright colours, others more subdued hues. There are myriad weaves and knots as well. All work together produce beautiful functional works of art. And unlike some arts that are relegated to antiquity, these lovely pieces are being created to this day.

persian_rug_1It’s a testament to the quality and handiwork required that two traditions of Persian carpet weaving is listed as on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages.

Gardens

Imam (Shah) Mosque, Isfahan, Iran

The nine Persian gardens are listed as UNESCO natural world heritage sites, recognising the tradition and its influence on landscaping since Cyrus the Great. They are designed to integrate natural surroundings with manmade structures. They are thought to be representative of Eden or of the Zoroastrian principles of air, fire, water, and earth, often being separated into four sections. Often featuring innovative engineering and water management, these gardens have passed the test of time, offering themselves oases to visitors, past and present.

The beauties and wonders of Persia’s heritage is being rediscovered as the region pulls out from its recent tumultuous history. What once could only be discovered in history books or museums is now available to those who wish to experience this culture first-hand. Plan a visit soon and see the wonders that come when so many worlds meet and combine!

To find out more:

http://www.persiansarenotarabs.com/persian-culture/

http://www.iranchamber.com/index/art_culture.php

http://www.cultureofiran.com/art_articles_and_links.html

http://www.avesta.org/avesta.html

http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/traditional-skills-of-carpet-weaving-in-fars-00382

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/114

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1372