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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Blissful Bhutan

Two years ago today I finished packing for a destination I'd dreamed of since I was 10 years old - trekking in the Himalayas. I travelled through India and Nepal before arriving on top of the world in Bhutan - the land of Gross National Happiness. 

Sonom, my guide from Wind Horse Tours, met me at the airport wearing a warm welcoming smile and his Gho - the traditional national dress (required for all men during business hours - dungarees otherwise). He and Pem, the driver, were childhood friends from a small village in Eastern Bhutan where roads have only recently been constructed. Both attended tourism school for several years before being certified by the government. They were friendly, eager to please, and ready to change the itinerary in a moment to suit my interests. When I was overloaded with information, their quiet conversations helped transport me into this peaceful, mystical and beautiful land.

Pem drove quickly through Paro, then weaving expertly through the hairpin turns towards Thimpu.

Bhutan or Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) is about the size of Switzerland, with a population under a million people.  Fewer than 50,000 people lived in the capital of Thimphu, but it is growing rapidly. Where is it? Straight north of Bangladesh squeezed between India and China. Buildings are decorated with colorful (sometimes phallic) designs and while structurally diverse, windows are required to be similar to these.

My hotel room was clean and sparse and COLD! Darkness came quickly, dinner delicious and sleep welcome in my warm bed.

Early the next morning I was off to Punakha, the old capital. High on Dochula Pass (3,150 meters) my hands were so cold I could barely operate my camera and my heart so full I was sure a dragon would swoop down to fly me even higher.

108 Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chortens dedicated to the his Majesty the King in appreciation of his selfless service and leadership. He served for 34 years before abdicating to his eldest son in 2006. At 18, he was the youngest monarch in the world. His Majesty was married to 4 queens (all sisters) and had 5 sons and 5 daughters.

Prayer flags everywhere - here with frost-covered grass with the sun beginning to warm the roof of the world.

Gangkhar Puensum from afar - the highest mountain in Bhutan and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world (7,570 meters). In 1983 mountaineering was opened in Bhutan, but with new respect for local spiritual beliefs, mountaineering over 6000 meters has been prohibited since 2003.

Plunging down to 1350 meters to Punakha Valley - the garden of Bhutan. I was surprised to see banana trees.

Punakha, the ancient capital, lies at the confluence of the Mo Chu (Mother) and Pho Chu (Father) Rivers.

Breathtaking Punakha Dzong - the Palace of Great Happiness!

Part administrative, part spiritual the dzong was built in the 1637 and is now the winter home to many monks. A young woman told me that so many men choose a monastic life that many women cannot find partners to make a family.

Sonom demonstrates how to use the prayer wheel.

Donations from a Swiss organization helped build this bridge. Of course I walked over it!

And this is what I found on the other side - construction workers repairing a home. The people of Bhutan love their new young King. After a recent fire in a small village he went himself to rally the people in the rebuilding of homes that had been lost.

As I was leaving the dzong, the differences in these boys' expressions made me wish I was a mind-reader.

A final view of Punakha Dzong - taking much happiness with me.

Nearby Chhimi Lhakhang, built on the site of the chorten of the divine Madman Drukpa Kuenlay - a temple dedicated to barren women. It is believed that a pilgrimage could bring fertility to a couple. We stopped here for a delicious lunch and, to my astonishment, the bathroom could have been photographed for a magazine.

Dha (archery) - the national sport of the Bhutanese. Bhutan has competed in the Olympics 7 times without winning a metal but to watch them is such a joy. At tournaments, they taunt each other standing dangerously close to the target; then howling, chanting, jumping up and down, they laugh and laugh.

All the while, the young women dance.

And the ministers play games. It's all a celebration.

Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan - the only country in the world. About 75% of the population are Buddhists and 25% Hindu. I found visiting the temples to be a very powerful experience.

Prayer wheels come in many sizes.

Sacred art of the mandala.

Ganesh decorating a dzong.

Dylong-gyem tsi (taken), the national animal of Bhutan - said to have been created by the Divine Madman, who ate a goat and a cow for lunch, then stuck the goats head on the bones of the cow and magically brought the beast to life.

The lovely women of Thimphu Market.

Bhutanese weaving is very fine and a treasure. The Gho and Kira national dress can take 6 months to a year to weave. A person might have 2 or three that last a lifetime. Often women weave in groups talking and laughing together.

My pilgrimage to Taktsang Monastery - Tiger's Nest - was a highlight of my journey. The a day-long trek at high altitude demanded respect. I was glad I trained for it. This photograph does not begin to show the real magnitude of the experience.

I was carrying a small backpack. These college students carried supplies to the monastery that had been damaged in an earthquake. Four sheets of metal, the loads were so heavy I could not lift one end. Education is free in Bhutan, but on holidays the students must earn money to pay for their living expenses. Most of the path was so narrow, the young men had to walk sideways.

Some people travel half way by horse, but my guide told me I would gain more spiritually if I walked.

I'm almost there! I check my pulse and it's over 160. That's almost 3 times my regular rate, so I figure I need to slow down.

Just a few more steps - 200 down and 300 up? Too many to remember exactly.

No photographs are allowed inside the monastery. And no photograph could capture the experience. The two temples I entered were very small. One just a cave. In the second, I was overwhelmed by the size and the peacefulness of the Buddha. Behind him was a huge prayer wheel which I turned as I made my wish. I hope it will be granted.

The trek down is much easier; we stop for tea and treats, but this view is the real treasure.

Our host.

Sonam plays the Dungchen - a long trumpet used in Buddhist ceremonies. It's deep haunting wail takes you to another level of consciousness.

We continue to turn back towards Tiger's Nest as we descend - here some local merchants show their crafts.

And prayer flags.

Druk Airlines awaits the new King's arrival for his first diplomatic trip to India. I had no doubt with the King aboard that we will have a safe flight. Bhutan Ministers brought the King's apologies that he was unable to come back to greet us all as he needed to review papers before his meetings with dignitaries in Delhi.

Agricultural Bhutan from above.

And unforgettable memories. Thanks for taking this journey with me.

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