On our way from Sikkim, we reached the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing on Monday, 7th November. There, we were greeted by A Way to Bhutan Tours & Travels Team, our outstanding and always very friendly guide and driver team, who both took care of us during the next 10 days in Bhutan.
Bhutan is a small kingdom of 635000 inhabitants of which about 10% are living in Thimpu, the capital. In 2008, the new king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck decreed a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary elections every five year. The geographical structure of the country can be compared with a huge staircase which climbs from the low regions first to 1700m in South Bhutan and from there to the Himalaya tops of above 7000m in North Bhutan. Buddhism is the state religion, and is practiced by 75% of the people in many temples.
walk we started to use road blocks always as an opportunity for short hikes until A Way to Bhutan Tours & Travels team would catch up with us with the car. On Tuesday morning in Thimpu the sky was blue. From our lovely room on the fifth floor of the Taj Tashi Hotel we could see a snow covered Himalaya peak. Later we visited the National Reminiscent Shrine and the huge “Golden Buddha” a recent gift from China which is still under construction. In the city center there are many buildings which show typical.
Bhutanese wooden frames on windows and walls. We visited the “School of Traditional Arts” where talented youngsters are being educated in the traditional technics of drawing, wood carving, weaving and stitching. In an animal enclosure we looked at the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It belongs to the family of goat-antelopes and looks like a cross- breeding of an elk and a goat. Afterwards we visited the Tashi Chhoe-Dzong (fortress of the Glorious Religion ) a gigantic fortress, which has been changed and reconstructed several times in its long history. In the beginning it was too small to accommodate both civil officials and monks, and later several fires burnt down parts of it. The latest renovation project by the royal architects took place from 1962 to 1967 without any architectural plans or the use of any nails. Nowadays, the fortress accommodates the secretariat, the throne room and offices of the king as well as the ministries of home affairs and finance. On its inside walls there are colorful mural paintings and the beautiful architecture of the wooden facades as well as of the roofs is very impressive. On the following day we drove about 100km eastwards the center of the country.
At the Dochu La at 3050m (“La” means mountain pass) we looked at the newly built collection of towards 108 Buddhist stupas and enjoyed the beautiful sight of almost all snow covered Bhutanese Himalaya mountain peaks between 6000 and 7500m (25000feet) above sea level. All Bhutanese mountain peaks are regarded as holy and are not permitted to be climbed by anybody. Everywhere in the countryside one can see these water driven prayer mills. A bit below the pass we hiked for 3 km through a forest formed by tall rhododendron bushes and various types of pine trees. During midday in the low altitude valleys of Punakha and Wanghdi Phodrang the temperature rose to comfortable T-shirt levels. In the small Chimi Temple childless women like to receive a blessing from the monks and mothers-to-be pray to the fertility goddess, and then select their future baby’s name from a collection of bamboo slips. We listened to young monks playing the long trumpet which sounded a bit like the Swiss Alphorn. We always met children (and parents) who loved to have their pictures taken.
In Punakha we visited the Punakha Dzong (Palace of Great Happiness) at the confluence of the rivers Pho and Mo. It is the most beautiful dzong of Bhutan whose elaborately painted gold, red and black carved woods add to the beauty of the architecture of the buildings. The steep wooden entrance stairs are designed to be pulled up, and there is a heavy wooden door which is still closed at night to avoid any intruders. In the central tower of the Dzong Bhutan’s most religious relic, the Ranjung Katsapani, is kept. In the 17th century it was brought from the Ralung Monastery in Tibet. Only the king, the highest monk and the top supervisor of the Dzong are allowed to look at it.
The Dzong of Wangdue Phodrang (Wangdi’s Palace) is impressively situated a top a high ridge between two rivers to get the best commanding view of the valley. Between two of the buildings there is a small gorge through which in former times trade paths connecting different areas of Bhutan were running. To make the Dzong impenetrable on all sides of the hill cactuses were planted which are still growing and blooming today. The outside of the prayer mill was damaged and there- fore we had a chance to see the prayer written on paper behind the leather outside. On Thursday morning shortly before the Pele Pass (3.300m) we drove to the lovely glacial valley of Phobjika where about 300 black-neck cranes from Tibet are spending the winter each year. The first had arrived, and while we hiked a bit above the marshy area we could count already 40 of them. Closer to the pass we saw yaks grazing. As it is common in Bhutan hundreds of prayer flags are sending away their prayers on every mountain pass.
From the highest point we looked at the Jomolhari, with 7200m the third highest Himalaya peak of Bhutan. In some places we saw wild cherry trees blooming only in November. These dart playing youngsters had chosen their targets across the road. Therefore all cars had to stop and wait till the teams had a break. From the Chendebji stupa four eyes are looking into the four directions like it is common with Buddhist temples in Nepal. The Dzong of Trongsa is situated high above the roaring Mangde River with a sheer drop to the gorge. The Dzong’s buildings are constructed so that they follow the cliff with alley-like corridors, wide stone stairs and beautiful paved courtyards. There are about 23 temples, and in front of one we watched about 30 monks exercising a dance with a song.
On a field outside the Dzong two teams were playing the national sport: archery. The tournament is always interrupted with dances of the men who have just hit the target. The targets are placed 140m apart, the archeries are made of a light metal, and the bamboo arrows fly rather straight. On our way to the Bumthang valleys in central Bhutan we passed the Yutong Pass at 3400m with a beautiful old coniferous forest. We enjoyed a pick nick lunch in the quiet Chume Valley nearby. In our hotel in the Jakar Jakar valley all rooms were equipped with small ovens which help to save on costly and precious electricity. In Bhutan there are some hydroelectric power plants in the process of being constructed BUT it will take a couple of years till they will be completed to meet the increasing electricity demand of Bhutan AND its neighbouring countries. On the next morning we visited the dance festival in the monastery of Jampa Lhakhang. There were both many locals and tourists at the dancing ground. They were either watching the different dances or walking through the nearby market stalls. Some of the kids had big smiles because they had gotten money to buy some sweets. The Jakar Dzong (a) (Fortress of the White Bird), was first founded in 1549, and hundred years later constructed like it is today to accomodate local officials as well as monks. Not far away is the temple complex of the Kurje Lhakhang(b), which is devoted to Guru Rinpoche who, coming from nowadays Pakistan, introduced Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century. Later we visited the Tamshing Lhakhang(c) temple with its very old mural paintings. On Sunday we hiked in the Ura valley (3100m), the highest valley in the Bumthang region.
The temple of Ura was closed because the caretakers were gone to the dance festival near Jakar. 15 years ago the farmers had begun to grow potatoes which seems to have enriched the food of the people and adds to the income of the farmers, too. This time we had a hot lunch pick nick which we all enjoyed. Afterwards, A Way to Bhutan Tours & Travels team made sure that the two dogs, the ravens and magpies got an even share of the left overs. He mixed everything with the rice and then distributed the food in separate heaps on the road. After the pick nick we hiked for 45 minutes along the main highway between Western and Eastern Bhutan where we met only two ladies and their children and only three cars(!). We passed through a rather primeval forest with blue pine, soaring deodars, as well as firs festooned with thousands of strings of old man’s beard (Spanish moss). On our way back we visited the “Burning Lake” at the beginning of the Tang Valley, another very important pilgrim’s site for the Bhutanese people. There Pema Linga could prove that he was the spiritual son of Guru Rin-poche. He dived with a lightened butter lamp into the lake, and after some time managed to come out with it still burning. All Monday we drove towards Punakha (220 km), and the weather was grey and wet with some snowflakes on the moun-tain passes. This autumn the monsoon season did not seem to have yet come to an end in the eastern parts of the Himalaya.
Tuesday morning there was some blue sky when we visited the Nepali temple in Punakha before we continued to the Dochu Pass which was fogged in. The Druk Wangyial Ihakhang Tempel was recently built in the honor of the father of the fifth king and shows very modern wall paintings. We continued to Thimpu and further on to Paro in the western region of the country. Suddenly, we saw a group of grey or Hanuman langurs sitting on the side of the road searching for food. In Paro we visited the Rinpung Dzong (Fortress on a Heap of Jewels) that is perhaps the finest example of Bhutanese archi- tecture. In the 17th century the Dzong was constructed on the foundation of a monastery, and since then it houses both the monastic body and district government offices, including the local courts. On the pavement of the town red and yellow chili pods as well as rice were laid out to dry.
On our last day in Bhutan we hiked to the Taktshang Goemba (= Tiger’s Nest Monastery) which is the most famous place of Bhutan because in the 8th century Guru Rinponche meditated here high up on the cliffs. In the 14th century people started to build the first monastery there. The houses of the temple are miraculously perched on the side of a cheer cliff 600 m above the Paro valley. When we started our hike it was rather foggy but 70 minutes later and 600m higher at 3100m we looked at the Taktshang Goemba in sunlight. Like in all other temples picture taking was strictly forbidden. After our visit we returned to an open hillside where we were served a well tasting hot Pick nick lunch. All the food had been carried up with the help of horses. After having returned to the car we drove to the nice village of Tsento at the end of the Paro Valley. From there we walked around the crumbled walls of the Drukyel Dzong. In historic times the watchmen of the Dzong supervised the pathway to Tibet and made sure nobody invades unknown. We watched the farmers plowing the rice field with the help of two oxen.
While visiting the Kyichu Monastery we saw the snow covered mountains looking through the clouds. In the 19th century the monastery was reconstructed, but the recent earthquake in September has destroyed some of its walls. Before our final dinner together with A Way to Bhutan Tours & Travels team in a farmhouse at the edge of Paro, we enjoyed a “hot-stone-bath” in a hut of the farmhouse. In an open fire big stones were heated for about an hour. Then they were washed and laid into the 4°C cold water of the wooden basins. Within minutes the water temperature climbed to more than 40°C, and we had to add cold water to get a comfortable temperature. The altar room of the farm house was surprisingly large. We liked the typical Bhutanese dinner, and we felt SAD when this last evening together with our exceptionally friendly and competent guide-driver-team was over.
On Thursday morning we flew to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal in India. Rainer was very happy when he found out that we were sitting on the right side of the airplane so that he could see the third highest Himalaya peak of Bhutan, the amphitheater of the high peaks in Sikkim and the most eastern and over 8000m high mountain peak of Nepal:
In summary, we can state that we enjoyed very much our varied journey through Bhutan. The landscape of the mountains, the architecture of monasteries and temples and the friendliness of the people everywhere were impressive. The journey was perfectly organised by our German tour operator and his Bhutanese counterparties. Finally, travelling with our own guide and driver was ideal for us as it offered both a maximum of efficiency regarding overall travel organisation and a maximum of flexibility regarding the daily sightseeing program.
Best regards and many thanks,
Gabi and Rainer Widera