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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Happy Return to Bhutan

Arriving in Bhutan from Delhi was quite literally a breath of fresh air. Jangdon and Dawa were waiting at the airport. I knew her immediately wearing the Bhutan national dress. They greeted us very warmly and after two weeks traveling together for hours and hours, we knew each other quite well. As you will see, they were helpful in every way.

Bhutan is a country about the size of Switzerland with a population under 1 million people. Most of the people live in remote rural areas, some only connected by paths. I visited the west 4 years ago and had fallen in love with the country and its friendly people. My guide and driver were both from a small village in Eastern Bhutan and their stories inspired me to return for a longer trek. For this trip, I asked for a woman guide; it was a lucky request. This is my longest blog post - more like a travelogue. I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Jangdon - our Windhorse guide

Dawa - Windhorse driver

Samdrump Jongkhar
Every border and major town welcomes with a portal.

Narrow roads lead to interesting, sometimes frightening alternatives.

Happy to get out and stretch to break up 6 to 7 hour drives.

Prayer flags framing fabulous views.

Our first village - we ate a picnic lunch in a restaurant.
Jangdon knew Bhutanese food would be too hot for us.

Eastern Bhutan has not yet brought many tourists. Four young monks
were curious about us, but one was too shy to join in the photograph.

A shop/home still smoldering from last night's fire.

Villagers came to help recycle what remained.

A town in the distance - many sunbeams throughout Bhutan.

I had searched for contacts in Bhutan for months before the trip, but every lead led to a dead end. When I told Jangdon, she made calls on her cell phone and within minutes arranged a meeting at Sherubtse College in Trashigang. All we had to do was arrive by 3:30 PM. We arrived at 3:32 and the faculty member was patiently waiting for us with a colleague. He introduced us and  rushed off to his meeting while Sangay kindly took us on a tour of the campus.

Sangay Dorji

My first surprise was turning a corner and seeing the world's largest book. I had heard about it and, in fact, I have a smaller version. But the next surprise was even more amazing.

Liv with the book - Bhutan

Second surprise: The last building was the student center. Sangay  proudly announced  that he was going to Perth, Australia, for three years to study psychology, then return to the college to open the first college counseling center in Bhutan. A very aspiring young man, he then hoped to open counseling centers at all the colleges. I immediately tried to connect him with colleagues in Perth.

By this time we had been in the car 6 or 7 hours and ready to stop for the day. We drove through a gate to this Shangrila nestled into the hillside. Lingkhar Lodge  The buildings were beautiful, the accommodations luxurious, the food divine and the staff falling over themselves to make us comfortable.  There was yet another surprise to come….

An organic garden to supply the chef...
and rice patties as well.

The next morning we headed north to Transhiyangtse - another long drive with roads whose curves had curves. Fortunately Dawa is an excellent driver. All the drivers have special training in order to escort tourists. Dawa attended to our comfort as well - always fresh water in the morning - always assisting with luggage, meals, whatever was needed.

Before road construction began in the 1960s travel was on foot or by mule. Many villages are still inaccessible by road.

An unexpected delay.

Boulders had to be moved before we could pass.

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.  Buddha

Bhutan is the only Buddhist country. There are more candles, chortens, prayer wheels and temples than you can imagine. I was often filled with a sense of awe and magic.

Gom Kora

Chorten Gora

Young monks - moments of play and laughter

The Institute of Zorig Chusum in Trashiyangtze is a craft school where young men (particularly those from families with less opportunity) are brought to learn painting, metal work and sculpture most of which are sold to tourists in shops in Western Bhutan.

Returning to Trashigang, we stopped at the Dzong - a fortress. Dzongs were built in the 17th Century and serve both as centers for religion and government.
Trashigang Dzong entrance

Conference on Second Parliamentary Elections

Heading through the covered bridge into town.
Bhutan is very conscious of the AIDS epidemic.
Helen stops to watch a weaver...

and we are invited to tea with this lovely family.

Third surprise: That evening we returned to Lingkhar Lodge. Deki the owner of the lodge had been very friendly and we invited her to join us for dinner. She shared about her life as the wife of a former minister and invited us to their farm and village high in the mountains the next morning. We were thrilled and we requested the change with our guide. 

View of the Lodge from the farmhouse taken with my telephoto lens

Last surprise: I had seen Minjur the first night at the Lodge. He was sitting with a number of men talking intensely and looked familiar to me, but I thought nothing of it.
Minjur and Deki

When we sat down to tea at their home, I was sure that I had taken a photograph of Minjur on my previous trip to Bhutan - on National Day in the stadium in Thimphu. And when I checked my photos, it was true. There was the picture of Minjur.

Minjur and Deki's four-story farmhouse where they plan to have home stays.

Villagers waiting for the milk pickup

We headed down the treacherously narrow road wondering what we would possibly do if we met another automobile; we never found out. We headed west towards Mongar and on the way visited a monastery only  two mountains across - it took 5 hours to arrive. A monk told me some of the boys came as young as 6 years old.  They were "buddied up" with an older boys, but still had quite a difficult transition leaving their families.

Switchbacks to the monastery and the Drangme Chhu River beyond
Drametsi Monastery

We travel through beautiful fir forests and huge rhododendrons (nary a blossom in the winter season) and arrive high in the mountains in Mongar, the biggest town so far. Towns in the East tend to be on top of the mountains while towns in the West are in the valleys.

View from our room at the Wangchuk Hotel.

Our bodies are aching from three long days of driving, so we forego the long trip to Lhuntse, which includes the famous weaving village. Instead we take a hike up the mountains to a temple. It turns out to be a surprisingly exciting day and we are once again thrilled with our guide and Bhutan.

Field workers

Buddhism forbids killing of any kind.  But the Bhutanese are not vegetarians, so much beef (and chicken) is supplied by India - dried and very tough. We were told a tiger recently killed several cows and the people in the village were happy to have such a feast.
Watchtowers are
scattered across the fields.

As we hiked up the mountain we heard drums and horns and asked Jangdon what was happening. She explained that a ritual was being performed to forgive a family for eating meat. Can we go?  Yangdon asked the family and we were invited into their home. 

The monks perform the ritual from dawn to dusk - praying, chanting, blessing the family.  The Bhutanese eat a lot of meat; they believe they cannot live without meat. So once a year the family pays the monks to perform a forgiveness ceremony in their home. 

We sat on the floor of the alter room with the monks. We were served a corn kernel that could break a tooth (fortunately not required to eat it) and yak tea, which Jangdon indicated we must drink. It's more like a soup than tea, very rich and salty and not to my taste.

A young monk in training.

A Mongar family.

Mongar at night.

Mountain passes are sacred places in Bhutan and filled with prayer flags that are never removed. Once we made a fire offering for good luck.
Kori La Pass - 2310 meters

Continuing west, we stopped for lunch at a family owned roadside restaurant. The three girls entertained us.

And we stopped for other reasons...

And for the views...

Overlooking Ura. The villagers travel 4 hours each day to tend their crop lands far away.

Chuney Druk - a beautiful roadside shop in the mountains of Bumthang Region.

Bhutan is noted for its fine weaving.
and it's masks.

At Mountain Lodge in Jakar, we watched traditional dances
and joined for a lesson around the camp fire.
Friendly shopkeepers in Jakar busy knitting.

Our guide had a keen eye and pointed out many animals along the way.
Golden langur monkey - only about 5,000 left.
Yak's friend
A rare sighting of Himalayan griffons.

More than a dozen in this tree.

An incredibly lucky shot of this red panda.

Jakar Stupa

Not at all unusual, this mixture of the old and new.
Dish and Dzong in Bumthang.

Education is of prime importance in Bhutan. We were told there are about 200,000 students and 60,000 teachers. We stopped at the school Jangdon's daughter attends and were surprised when all the children began singing "The wheels on the bus go round and round." Everyone learns English - it's good for tourism and it unites this small country that has more than 19 languages of the Tibetan-Burman family.

Jangdon with her daughter.

Yotong La Pass

We reached Trongsa, the center of the country and Bhutan's largest fortress. The circular building above houses many Bhutanese treasures and is beautifully curated.
Trongsa Dzong

Driving on to Phobjikha Valley, our driver stopped to let us walk the 4 km Gangtay Nature Trail to our hotel. Along the way we came upon men carrying loads of hay. Horses are only used for longer trips.

Phobjikha Valley

Black neck cranes migrate to this winter home in the Valley.

Hotel Dewachen had a big dinning room with a huge stove. It was so cold we all huddled around it, including the other guides and drivers. It was great fun sharing stories.

On our way west to the old capital, Punakha, we pass through Wangdue Phodrang.
Wangdue Dzong - destroyed in a fire in February 2012; plans have started to rebuild.

North of Punakha, we hiked up to Khamsum Yuley Chorten.
Dawa circles the pray wheel - always clockwise.

Old and new methods of agriculture.

An unusual sculpture.

A monk teaches us about Buddhism and the temple.

Even though it is a short and not too steep trek, our efforts are rewarded with a fabulous view.
Puna Tsang Chu River

Typical building decoration throughout Bhutan.

In Punakha, Yangdan bought herbs from a nomad - down from the hills for the winter. Later she gave them as an offering to a temple.

Our driver shared with us that he used to chew betel nut for his grandmother when he was a young boy because her teeth had rotted and she couldn't chew it any more. We saw many older people with the telling red mouth and bad teeth, but almost no young people. It has a mild stimulant effect, perhaps like coffee. I have no personal experience.

Betel nuts

A very exciting day at Dochula Pass - our first festival.

Crowded with families and children, the festival is such a warm and friendly day. Winter is a great time to participate as few foreigners travel to Bhutan in the cold weather. We were two of perhaps 6 at this festival of hundreds.

Typical method to carry children; the adult leans over and the child climbs up.

An international game.

Extended families live together. Men are allowed to marry more than one woman, but they must be able to support their families. Women are also allowed to have more than one spouse, but they do not have the same economic requirement.

Beautiful faces, everyone in their kiras and Goas.

Older children often lovingly caring for the younger ones.

Dochula Festival - National Dance (click to see a video)

Masks used in festivals.

The Royal Family often attends festivals. At some point during the activities they wander through the crowds to talk with the people and the children. We were fortunate to be greeted by the Queen Mother, but it was so crowded she could not reach us.

Queen Mother, New Queen and ministers.

              The Royal Family and ministers join in the last dance at all the festivals.

The festival is over and we are in the car again. This time is is only a short drive (2 hours) down the mountain to Wang Chuu river valley and Thimphu, the capital.

Four years have brought some major changes. Thimphu is twice the size (100,000), with many 4 story buildings (the ground and roof floors are not counted, so often they were six stories).

Still the largest city in Bhutan maintains its character.

And there is still no traffic lights and only one booth where a policeman in white gloves orchestrates the movement of automobiles.

The only shopping mall in Bhutan.

City Center clock tower and Druk Hotel

Royal Palace

Building decor that signifies "good luck".

Women weave in small groups in the shops, talking and laughing.

There are many handicrafts including making paper.

Most art is religious and traditional. Here are two examples of more expressive art.

A quick visit to the Takin Santuary allowed us to watch several Takin grazing and wandering through the woods. Local legend asserts that the Divine Madman (Drukpa Kunley), a Tibetan tantric monk, performed a miracle by taking the head of a goat and the body of a cow to create the Takin. Found in the Easter Himalayas, they are now on the endangered species list.

A nun from Zilukha Nunnery, one of the few in Bhutan.

An interesting visit to the Folk Heritage Museum - a 19th century traditional mud and timber house.
Phelchey Toenkhyim Museum

Helen and Liv in traditional nomad clothing.

Thimphu weekend market with vegetables and other food products.

Buddha near the market

Also new in the last four years is a Memorial Chorten that dominates Thimphu - the largest Buddha statue in the world.
Buddha Dordenma

Buddha greets the morning.

Driving to Paro, we see the storm damage from the previous night - winds through the canyons up to 80 mph. Several houses were destroyed.

Paro is a small town on the banks of the Pa Chhu River. The Paro Airport is the gateway to Bhutan. The National Museum is housed in an ancient circular watchtower with many paintings, arms and a huge collection of Bhutan's famous stamps.

Monks leaving the Rinpung Dzong.

At last we are ready for our trek to Taktshang. Legend is Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas, flew here on a Tigress. The temples have been destroyed twice by fire in 1951 and again in 1998. They were rebuilt through donations and governmental support. The only way up is by foot or pony - a steep 2-3 hour hike. Now there are a couple of benches along the way and a cafeteria half-way up with a fabulous view of the temples
Tiger's Nest built on a 900m sheer cliff; Zangdopelri is at the top to the left.

There is a spectacular view at the chorten above the cafeteria at 3100 meters. But still a way to go before arriving at the steps - 300 down to the waterfall, then 400 up to the temples.
Taktshang Pelphung - Tiger's Nest

I had visited Tigers Nest on my first trip to Bhutan and was determined to go to Zangdopelri, built in 1853 on the summit above. I wanted to see Tiger's nest from another perspective.
Tiger's Nest from Zangdopelri shrine.

I realized half way up the narrow, steep gravel and sand path, that there was no way I would be able to get down. But having started, I had to finish. The view was breathtaking - not that I had a lot of breath after the long hike and the altitude.

Dawa told me there were three choices of return. The way we came (which I named "straight to Buddha way"); the path down the deep chasm to Tiger's Nest which included a wooden ladder where a woman had fallen to her death 3 weeks before; or the long way around past a monastery. I gladly chose the final route.

A number of women were selling crafts at the start of our hike. This mother and daughter team allowed me to trade a pair of brass fish cabinet handles for porpoises, which now decorate my living room cabinets along with dragons and peacocks.
A woman and her daughter selling crafts at the base of our trek.

Jangdon was able to switch our reservations to Tashi Namgay Resort for the last two nights. We had a large room, excellent food and one of the best massages in the world.

Moonlight over Paro Rinpung Dzong

Ready for National Day Festival - Liv, Jangdon and Helen in Kira; Dawa in Goa.
Four years ago when I attended the National Day Festival in Thimphu, an archery contest was taking place, a dozen young women were performing the national dance, a few ministers were in the grandstand. I don't remember seeing many other people. 

December 2013 was quite another story. When we arrived an hour before the start, the lines extended beyond where we could see. Everyone dressed in their finest kira and goa, including the children. The air was full of excitement. We were told "no cameras allowed" and checked through security. We soon found ourselves crushed into narrow spaces, holding our arms against our chests, looking for escape routes over the bars. It was truly frightening, but we all managed and hundreds, even thousands, filled and overflowed onto the field. 

I was stuck for hours squeezed on a step in a narrow passage, people crawling over front and side - always gently and mindfully - but I didn't care, because I had a good view of the field, the military, the ritual entrance of the first King statue, the old King and family, the ministers, and the new King and Queen all accompanied by bagpipes. It was thrilling.

His Royal Highness gave a speech of over an hour. He seemed so personal and relaxed. People were attentive and laughing throughout. At the end he gave many awards to people who had served the country in various capacities - lawyers, teachers, people of all ranks.
Airport photograph of the Royal Lineage.

Photograph of the Royal Family.

Earlier I wrote it was customary for the Royal Family to wander through the crowds to talk with the people. Midway through the dancing and before the games, the King and Queen with a few ministers and bodyguards began walking through a wide path on the field, stopping to congratulate those who had received honors. It was so crowded where we were sitting that we knew we had no chance of a closer look. We continued watching the performances on the field. 

Suddenly there was tremendous commotion; the big garbage cans beside me were being moved, all the people in the aisle suddenly moved away; to our right people began standing up. Then we realized that the entourage was coming right by us. I think my heart skipped a beat or two.

And there they were speaking with us - His Royal Highness King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema.  His Majesty asked where we were from and told us we looked beautiful in our kiras. Our guide had never met him, so it was a very special occasion for her as well.

Photograph of the Royal Couple.

It's not easy leaving the land of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan isn't a utopia, but the King is helping the people make the transition to democracy, increasing literacy and healthcare and developing a more diverse economy. The people of Bhutan are open, friendly and curious and they love their King. I hope to return again.
Himalayas with Tibetan Plateau beyond.

Thanks for taking this journey from East to West Bhutan. I know it was a long one. Please share your experience of this trip with me. Wishing you happy travels - near or far. Liv  

PS I'm already planning my next post - Faces of Bhutan.