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Heart of India 2014

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Pre-trip: Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom

Few travelers have ever heard of Bhutan—much less passed through its majestic (but remote) Himalayan borders. The Buddhist kingdom cautiously controls tourism to preserve its culture and protect its legacy as one of the world’s ten biodiversity hotspots. Here is a unique opportunity to experience a deeply spiritual world of elaborate temple-fortresses, ancient customs, and mind-boggling scenery—at a price as rare as Bhutan itself.

It's Included:
Airfare from Kolkata to Bhutan and from Bhutan to Delhi
Accommodations for 2 nights in Kolkata, 2 nights in Thimphu, 2 nights in Punakha, and 2 nights in Paro
20 meals—8 breakfasts, 6 lunches, and 6 dinners
11 small group activities
Services of our own resident OAT Trip Leader, who speaks English and the native language
All transfers
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    You will fly overnight from the U.S. to Kolkata, India.

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    Depending on your flight schedule you will arrive in Kolkata either late tonight or very early in the morning of Day 3. You'll be met at the airport by an OAT representative who will take you to the hotel where you’ll meet your Trip Leader.

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    After a late breakfast, spend this morning relaxing at the hotel and enjoying some time at leisure.

    Later, embark on a sightseeing tour of the city. During your explorations you’ll stop at the “Mother House,” where Mother Theresa set up her Missionaries of Charity in 1950. It was here that she worked for nearly half a century caring for the ill and the destitute of Kolkata. Mother Theresa died at the Mother House in 1997 and was laid to rest in a tomb on the premises.

    Then we’ll explore more of the city, including the Victoria Memorial, the General Post Office, the Governor's House, and the riverfront area. We'll also discover Kumartuli, a potter's community which crafts idols of the goddess Durga for shipment to Hindus all around the world.

    Your evening is at leisure to spend as you wish. Enjoy dinner tonight on your own.

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    After a very early breakfast, you fly from Kolkata to Paro. In clear weather, the flight to Bhutan provides a wonderful view of Himalayan scenery. Flying along the Himalayan range from Kathmandu, it is a fascinating journey, culminating in an exciting descent past forested hills into the kingdom.

    Your Bhutanese Trip Leader will meet you on arrival at Paro airport. Then we’ll take an interesting drive of about 2.5 hours’ duration to Thimphu (7,600 feet), the modern capital town of Bhutan, and a stop at the Confluence. Throughout our drive, we will have the opportunity to see, firsthand, the road building program currently underway. We’ll have lunch at our hotel in Thimphu.

    Before dinner you’ll have a briefing with your Trip Leader on what you can expect to discover over the next few days of your adventure. This evening dinner will be in the hotel.

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    Exquisitely beautiful and brimming with traditional Bhutanese art, architecture, and culture, this tiny capital of Bhutan is nothing less than Shangri-La. As we spend the day exploring, notice the touches of modernity, each one introduced thoughtfully and gradually to protect the environment.

    This morning’s tour is sure to provide insight into Bhutan’s unique culture. We begin with a visit to the National Library, which holds a vast collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts as well as the world’s largest book, followed by a stop at the Arts and Crafts School, also known as “Zorig Chusum,” the traditional school of the 13 arts and crafts. Next, the Textile Museum offers us rare glimpses into Bhutan’s finest textiles through demonstrations of production techniques such as weaving, dyeing, and spinning. We then enjoy a visit to a factory that produces handmade paper before lunch at a local restaurant.

    This afternoon we’ll visit the Handcrafts Emporium to see the exquisite artistry of traditional crafts and textiles. Then we’ll drive to the Memorial Chorten. Built in 1974 in memory of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the “Father of Modern Bhutan,” this multi-storied monument displays numerous paintings and statues that provide a rare insight into Buddhist philosophy.

    We will also visit the Takin Reserve, where we will see the national animal of Bhutan—an odd beast that confounds the experts, who have managed to relate it only to sheep. A Bhutanese myth suggests that the takin is a cow-goat hybrid, but its strong resemblance to the North American moose is difficult to ignore. We’ll continue up for a bird's-eye view of Thimphu and take a brief hike beyond to enjoy a stunning view of the valley.

    Enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.

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    After breakfast, we'll depart for Punakha. We drive over the stunning 10,000-feet Dochula Pass, one of Bhutan's most enchanting views. Weather permitting, we can see the craggy peaks of Bhutan's northern Himalayan border. After a short stop at the pass we continue to Punakha, arriving at the hotel in time to enjoy lunch.

    The fertile valley of Punakha is drained by the Phochu and Mochu rivers and blessed with a temperate climate. Before Thimphu was made the capital of Bhutan, Punakha held the title as the winter capital because of its more temperate climate. Today it is the winter seat of the Je- Khenpo (the Chief Abbot) and the Central Monk Body.

    Later in the afternoon we’ll visit the Punakha Dzong or (Palace of Great Happiness), built at the junction of the Phochu and Mochu rivers in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This majestic dzong served as both the religious and the administrative center of Bhutan in the past. It measures some 600 by 240 feet and has a six-story, gold-domed tower. Inside are courtyards and religious statuary that hint at the depth of history and spiritual tradition embodied here. Your guide will illuminate your understanding of this intricate culture that is exotic to us, though long established here.

    After dinner at the hotel, our evening is free.

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    After breakfast, we head for Wangdue Phodrang, a nearly 400-year-old town that is home to a dzong located on a ridge with a commanding view of the valleys below. As we enjoy a guided tour here, we’ll be fully immersed in Bhutan’s spectacular Himalayan world, where the works of a long-isolated culture exhibit a dignity and spirituality to match the loftiness of their natural surroundings. You’ll visit Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, which was founded by the Shabdrung in 1638. The dzong is strategically located on a promontory overlooking the meeting point of the Sunkosh and Tangmachu rivers. The district of Wangdue Phodrang is also famous for its bamboo products and slate and stone carvings. We'll also enjoy a nature drive of the region's surrounding valleys and learn more about the abundant regional flora and fauna en route.

    After lunch at our hotel, you’ll hike to Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery, a 30-40 minute gradual hike. Situated on a hillock below the village of Metshina, the temple was built by Lama Drukpa Kuenley (also known as the Divine Madman) and is believed to enable conception to childless women who visit it and receive a blessing.

    A walk through the village near the temple will give you rare glimpses into the daily life and lifestyle of the villagers. We’ll also visit a local farmhouse and spend time with its occupants, enjoying the warmth of their hospitality.

    Dinner is at our hotel this evening.

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    After breakfast, we drive to Paro via Thimpu, stopping at Dochula Pass for another opportunity to view the spectacular scenery.

    After a late lunch at our hotel, we visit the Paro Dzong: "Fortress on a Heap of Jewels." Considered by many to be the most impressive dzong in Bhutan, it's a fine climax to our explorations of these magnificent structures. Gleaming white above the surrounding valleys, this dzong was built in 1646 to defend the valley against repeated invasion from Tibet.

    Later this afternoon we enter Paro by crossing a traditional bridge. We then have the rest of the afternoon to explore the town at leisure. We have dinner together at our hotel in Paro this evening.

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    In the morning, we’ll hike (approximately 90 minutes) to the Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) Monastery viewpoint. Perched seemingly impossibly on a cliff 3,000 feet above the valley floor, Taktsang is a place of pilgrimage for locals—and for visitors like us, a hike to the viewpoint opposite the monastery is thrilling and mystical. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress from Tibet, and meditated there for three months—thus bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The main building of the temple was destroyed by fire in April 1998 but has now been restored to its original splendor and glory. It is possible to take the ride up by horseback—but only for the brave!

    Today, enjoy lunch at a local restaurant. This afternoon we explore sacred Kyichu Lhakhang. The temple was reportedly built in AD 659 by King Sontsen Gampo of Tibet. According to legend, it pins the left foot of an ogress so large that she covers Bhutan and most of eastern Tibet.

    Tonight you’ll enjoy a Farewell Dinner at your hotel.

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    This morning, you transfer to the airport and board a flight to Delhi. Your Indian Trip Leader will meet you at the Delhi airport to assist with your transfer to your hotel. You have the balance of the day at leisure.

    Travelers arriving for the main Heart of India trip (who have not taken the optional pre-trip extension) arrive later tonight at the same hotel. You meet them tomorrow as we all continue on Day 3 of the main trip.

    Please note: Depending on flight schedules, your flight to Delhi may be routed through Kathmandu or Kolkata.