Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


The palace hotels of India’s northern region of Rajasthan spoil you for any other style of travel. It’s not just that these are glittering palaces of white marble, often designed around one or more courtyards, a lily shaped marble fountain at their centres, are exquisite. It is also the graciousness of the staff, and the cool luxury of those deep, colonnaded verandahs where you might be served, each afternoon, a tray of tea. It’s easy to feel very spoiled.

Ram Bagh Palace FNL-877711

In 2010, I was writing a book about the ebb and flow of the seasons in my garden, and how to use its produce in the kitchen. I wanted to include a chapter on curries, a staple of my upbringing, and also a favourite in our house during winter months. So I went, with my friend Gillian, to India early that year to learn more of the secrets of preparing the perfect curry. I have included the recipes in my book, Seasons in my House and Garden.

While I have been brought up on a diet of curry, as my parents lived in Sri Lanka - then Ceylon - for many decades, I had wanted to visit some of the great kitchens of India to discover the secret of creating a hot curry that is, at the same time, layered with flavour.

Among the many exhilarating aspects of travel anywhere must be, surely, visits to produce markets. On several occasions, just after dawn, we would visit the local markets with the hotel executive chef. Along with the noise and colour of local commerce and the appreciation of unrecognised scents in the air, a social geography is revealed by stalls groaning with fruit and vegetables, goods proudly displayed by the farmer.

Baskets of richly fragrant spices laid out to tempt chef, housewife and traveller alike, added to the excitement. Even the word ‘spice’ seems to heighten awareness of exotic places: could there be any more evocative destination in the travel lexicon than ‘The Spice Islands’ - the Moluccas, a clutch of tiny atolls in the Indian Ocean?

Days took on a pleasant pattern. Breakfasts were of the local dhosas, a thin, crisp pancake, filled with spicy vegetables. Mornings were taken up with sightseeing and afternoons with drinking cups of delicious tea on those shaded verandahs. We would then continue on to the next town, not quite in the style of the Mughal emperors, those most elegant of travellers, who would journey in caravans of beautifully decorated tents. In fact, as we rattled along endless mountain roads we discovered that Indian drivers are not invincible. Around more than one sharp corner we would come upon a truck that had crashed into the mountain side, and then simply abandoned. The vividly painted trucks each carried the cheery instruction, “Horn please.”sign in India

And the tourist in India is certainly not invincible. After two weeks in India we had travelled to the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan for ten days before re-entering India to explore the tea estates of Darjeeling. Even though we had obtained the required multiple entry visas, our journey back into India, via Phuentsholing - among the most unappealing border towns in the world - nearly ended in disaster.

But first we had travelled through the western half of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. Just getting to this mysterious Himalayan country is an adventure. It’s a nation shrouded in mystery, but the thousands of species native to this mountain kingdom – just the size of Switzerland, with a population of about 700,000, and wedged between China and India - will be well known to horticulturalists and gardeners.

Plant hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries recognised the Himalayan region, from where some 30% of the world’s plants hail, as a horticultural treasure chest. Joseph Hooker, Frank Kingdon-Ward, George Forrest, and Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson were among the explorers who searched for new plants through southern China, Tibet, Nepal the mountainous regions of Northern India, and, when they could, Bhutan. They journeyed through beautiful, but remote lands, often risking terrible deaths in their pursuit of rare bounty to return to an increasingly demanding gardening market in the United Kingdom and Europe. This was the time when a vigorous horticultural dialogue, and exchange, was taking place between leading families, and among the major botanic gardens of the world. Plant hunters were sponsored by keen gardeners in the United Kingdom and in Europe, who received, in return, ‘dividends’ in the form of seeds and plants. The result is many great northern hemisphere gardens that house vast collections of Himalayan treasures that have become places of pilgrimage for plant lovers.Rhododendron Loderi final1

As I have said, we don’t souvenir plants these days, preferring to capture botanical treasures on camera to carry back images to appreciative colleagues. And there can be few experiences more exhilarating for a gardener than seeing greatly loved and familiar plants growing in their natural environment.

Leaving for Bhutan from Bangkok, excitement mounts as you fly past the glory peaks of the Himalaya, glittering white with snow against a clear blue, late winter sky. There is Everest, with her familiar wisp of mist, like a permanent spire of smoke. Lhotse is next, and then Kanchenjunga, at 8586 metres the third highest peak in the world. To land at Bhutan’s Paro airport the pilot must thread between the mountains, executing a last-minute hairpin turn. The cheers and clapping from appreciative and relieved passengers are just the beginning of the adventure.

The greatest altitude to which you can drive in Bhutan is the Chelela Pass, at 4000 metres affording perfect views across the tops of the spruce forest to sacred Chomolhari, the highest peak in the kingdom. Just after the Bhutanese New Year, in February, Primula denticulata emerges lilac through the melting snow. And it is there that the national flower of Bhutan, the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) guaranteed to break the hearts of gardeners around the world, flowers cerulean each June, covering the meadows that drop away on either side of the pass.Bhutan Chelele PassFNL-1611

Taktshang Goemba, better known to travellers as Tiger’s Nest monastery, was built in 1692, around a cave into which the guru Rinpoche flew, in the 3rd century, and on the back of a female tiger. Don’t ask questions: just accept it. The guru drove out evil spirits and claimed the site for Buddhism. It’s now one of the most revered sites in Bhutan, visited by followers and the few tourists allowed into the country each year. The climb to the monastery is through forests of conifer, which cling to the cliffsides. There is the graceful Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana) with its gentle, grey green tendrils weeping to the ground. There is the Bhutan cypress (C. torulosa), the chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) and blue pine (P. wallichiana) all supporting dripping curtains of moss, wafting like green veils in a welcome breeze.

You are assisted on your climb up by guides: mine, on my first visit in 2010, was our driver, Pema, a young man from the east of the country, an undeveloped area where there are no roads. To visit his family Pema must walk for several days. On our climb to Tiger’s Nest Pema seemed more enamoured with holding my enormous, heavy camera, which he nursed like a baby, than with shielding me from the treacherous drop into the ravine on one side of the track.Bhutan tigers nest FNL11

Before you set out on this gruelling hike the Australian chef at the Hotel Uma Paro serves a breakfast of a buckwheat pancakes: it is sustaining but not too heavy, topped with a cinnamon-spiced, candied pumpkin puree and a pumpkin cream. You can find the recipe in Seasons in My House and Garden.

Such hikes can lead to a little discomfort. Up in the clouds at Chelela Pass, an isolated but beautiful place of pine trees, rocks and views to the snow-capped Himalaya, a large rock provided some modesty when ‘nature called.’ The only problem was that the ground on which one had to squat seemed almost vertical. And a yak with a pair of enormous horns searing to the sky was eyeing me menacingly!

I read an amusing article by a travel writer who was dismissive of the adventurer who, in pristine places like Bhutan, treks to almost inaccessible sites by day, but returns to ‘spa resorts’ by night. I am happy to confess; that is me. A hot stone bath, a delicious dinner, an open fire and crisp white sheets can only add to the joy of seeing plants growing where God and nature put them.

Before you climb Tiger’s Nest from Paro, where the airport is located, however, you will usually travel to Thimpu, the capital, which is situated at a lower altitude, to allow you to slowly become acclimatised to the thinner air. It’s the site of government and where the young King and Queen live.

On our second day in Bhutan we undertook a short, easier climb, led by our guide, Tshewang, of just a few kilometres to Cheri Goemba, a monastery founded in the early 17th century, and set some 3000metres above sea level. As we rested on a rock on the edge of the path almost at the top, a long line of young monks appeared, weaving slowly up the steep path, a swish of deep red saris the only sound, other than that of the breeze in the pine trees. They had just completed the first part of their training and were now entering the sacred site for three years of silence. Not for me!Cherry Gomba

If you were in Bhutan in early February, and if the snows allowed it, you would travel over somewhat nerve-racking mountain passes to reach the Phobjika Valley, where the villagers have turned their backs on electricity in order to protect the endangered black necked crane that flies in from Russia each winter. Recently the Austrian government installed underground power, but our guest house, when we trekked to the valley in 2013, was still run on wood fires.

Dochula Pass fnlL-3-31It’s a drive of several hours, on winding roads to reach the Valley. On the way, a rest house above 3000 metres, at the summit of the Dochula Pass (just an hour from Thimpu) offers uninterrupted views to the Great Himalaya Range and a chance to gather around a log fire with other trekkers for coffee and botanical boasting. Then, as you start to descend, winding through the mists into the valley below, if you are there in February, a white canopy of Magnolia denudata is revealed. An understory of the heavily scented M. dolsopa (now moved into the Magnolia genus) is in full bloom.

At 2500 metres you’ll find rhododendron flowering: among the 70-odd species native to Bhutan, the cream R. maddeni and the blood-red R. arboreum are the first to unfurl after winter. An under story of Edgeworthia chrysantha blooms yellow: its flowers appear on bare stems. Related to daphne, it thrives on the warmer, south facing sites, while Daphne bholua is found lower, on the north facing slopes, its bark harvested for handmade paper. If you are in Bhutan in April and May you will find mountainsides covered in flowering rhododendron, different species flowering at different altitudes. And higher up in the Himalaya great swathes of cinnamon bark maple shed their russet bark in curling sheets.

In Bhutan all life is interconnected; Gross National Happiness is honoured over Gross National Product, primary school children are taught to meditate, men and women wear national dress in public (and look fabulous). Thirty percent of the land is protected as National Parks: and, smoking in public is banned. Bliss.

But, I remember that I promised to tell you about our unnerving experience upon re-entering India, after that first trip to beautiful Bhutan. We had wanted to travel to the Indian hill station of Darjeeling, which is close to Bhutan, up in the north of India, among the Himalayan peaks. People go to watch the dawn rise over Mount Kanchenjunga, although on many mornings it is shrouded in mist.

My advice to all travellers would be that it is unwise and dangerous to try to re-enter India, no matter how gilt edged you believe your multiple-entry visa to be. You’ll recall that I told you that Phuentsholing is the most depressing place you are ever likely to encounter. In fact, it is to be avoided. You’ll understand, then, that we were desperate to leave the decaying, grimy town, and to begin the road journey to Darjeeling.

First, however, we had to clear the border and the Indian customs officials.

Gillian and I entered the small customs station on the Indian side of the border nervously, with Tshewang and Pema waiting on the Bhutan side to ensure that we exited safely. Our new Indian guide was with us. Two enormous customs officers, rifles slung over their shoulders – I tell people they were Kalashnikovs, but actually I have no idea what they were - took our passports and told us to sit. They disappeared into back offices, returning a few minutes later. "Whose passport is this,” one asked. Gillian answered that it was hers. And there was a problem. Her passport had suddenly acquired a stamp declaring that she could not re-enter India without a stay outside its borders of three months. She knew that the stamp had not been in her passport when we left Australia: we both had multiple entry visas. And we knew we could not go back into Bhutan as our visas for that country had expired that morning.

I suddenly went into mother lion-mode and insisted that the stamp had not been in Gill’s passport when we departed Australia. As if speaking to a recalcitrant teenager who has woken the household as he staggered through the front door in the early hours of the morning, I scolded these menacing-looking officials, telling them that we had been excellent guests in their country just ten days before, that our visas were in perfect order, and that we did not expect to be treated that way. I tried to draw myself up to more than my 160cms. I had an alarming flash that my stern words would either land us in gaol, or would get us through the border. “Hand me the phone, Gilly, I am ringing the High Commissioner in New Dehli,” I huffed. With that, the guards stamped our passports and hustled us through. But the incident spoiled the rest of the trip for my friend.

Recounting the tale to a psychologist friend a few months later she mused that it was fortunate that the incident had happened to Gill. Somehow, one goes into protective mode when a friend is in danger, she said. I may not have been so brave – or foolhardy - if it had been my passport.

And up in Darjeeling – which is no longer a charming colonial hill station - we didn’t get to view the sun rise over Kanchenjunga. The night before we were to watch the sunrise, we received intelligence that the Ghurkhas were intending to demonstrate for a separate state, and intended to blockade the road to Siliguri, from where we were to fly from Bagdogera airport to Calcutta to return home. We left Darjeeling at 2 o’clock in the morning and made a hair-raising dash to the airport. We were among thousands of locals, business people and tourists, all trying to flee the area. Chaos.

I have not returned to India since, but returned to Bhutan, leading a group of ten travellers, in April 2013, just a few months after my lung operation in November the year before.

I was determined to climb Tiger’s Nest again – and I did!DSCF11561