S: BHUTAN 2012
1: Thursday arrival Our flight into Paro was diverted to Baghdogra, Assam, India due to cloud cover and we saw the third highest mountain (28,000 ft) in the world Kangchenjunga in Nepal. I'm guessing the approach is VFR with DME perhaps. The pilot must see the airport first, then fly away from the airport down the valley and finally turn toward the airport to land. On our departure, we had to stop in Baghdogra again to add fuel. The plane takes off with low fuel to minimize weight and maximize climbing over the mountains. So many things to say about Bhutan. It certainly isn't China - we saw farms very near the airport and so far no shopping malls, McDonalds or factories. My elegant room is equipped with candle and matches and the WIFi is out at the moment. We are staying in the only hotel in the capital with an elevator and one store has an escalator. The road is just two cars wide, no shoulder, no guardrail and never straight, always a hairpin turn. We stopped right on the highway for a photo op of cows sunning themselves on the road. Traffic is not an issue here. The only stoplight in the capital was replaced by a white gloved police officer directing traffic. $70 of our tourist dollar each days goes to support free education and health care. Only the government can cut down trees and the constitution states that 60% of Bhutan must remain forested.. Most of the men do wear gho and knee socks and formal shoes. The white cuffs on the gho are symbolic of a victory of the Buhtanese over the Thai? in the 6th century when someone hid the true relic in his sleeve and threw the false relic into the river. The chili and cheese dish that I dreaded turns out to taste good as a condiment but I could not eat it as a dish. The women wear a solid color short jacket, long patterned skirt and high heels, but no makeup or earrings that I can see. The buildings are all in the traditional style and the traditional homes are made of rammed earth, three stories high, the attic open for drying and ventilation, with very thick walls. The prayer wheels contain rolls of paper (like toilet paper) with prayers printed on them and must be spun clockwise. True or not, I heard that children who die are thrown into the river and therefore the Bhutanese never eat fish. But we did eat fish on our trip.
3: Friday At our orientation we are advised to carry toilet paper for when we use the nature. As it turns out, many toilets do not include toilet paper. The western toilet is a rarity, but the eastern squat toilets usually flush. I'm not very practiced at peeing in the right spot. At the textile museum we see weavers weaving fabric for royal family, weaving on backstrap looms with inlay. The postoffice will make personalized stamps with your picture on them. Bhutan is known for stamps. The bank rejected a $100 bill dated before 1996 National Institute of Zorig Chusam preserves traditional arts, wood carving, sculpture, painting, embroidery (treadle machines). Our hotel is 3 years old and full of beautiful wood carvings. All buildings in Bhutan must have traditional architecture on the outside. Democracy- Ugyen Dorji MP, Labor and Employment Committee speaker Bhutan was never conquered. First king in 1907 (K1), K4 abdicated in Dec 2006. K3 opened Bhutan to outside world, established the national assembly 1953, education in english, Bhutan joined UN, K4 commanded drafting a constitution in 2001 and established multiparty democratic system in 2003. First election in 2008. Now K5 looks after the welfare of the people (sick, handicapped, poor). All members of house and national council are directly elected for 5 years. Candidates can continue, but they must resign 3 months before the elections, candidates must possess university degree, cannot be older than 65. Campaigns are financed by the Election Commission. No lobbyists, yet. Our little group is 13. Joanne, the storyteller from Shelter Island, Kathleen who worked at Alameda Air Base, Sheila the occupational safety officer,Clinton geologist for Exxon from Bellevue WA, Carol the nurse and computer scientist, Ron the city planner, Barb who runs the financial office at Boise State, and The NJ mafia – Tony materials scientist from Princeton, Pat the newspaper reporter, Bill the guidance counselor, his wife Betty the math teacher and Jerry the silent dentist from Kansas who is also a potter. Our guide Fin spent 4 years going to school in Virginia and 3 years working in Seattle.
5: Saturday First stop is to pay our respects to the worlds largest seated Buddha, perched high on a mountain above Thimpu. A wealthy lady from Singapore prevailed upon the head abbott in Bhutan to let her install the 167 foot high Buddha. The bronze buddha was cast in China and assembled by Chinese welders and placed on a concrete base built by Indian workers. Bhutanese woodcarving and painting will decorate the pedestal and a botanical garden will be built at the base. The Buddha's third eye is 10 feet around and studded with real diamonds, $10,000,000 worth. Tashicho dzong in Thimpu houses government offices and the monks. The dzongs, fortified monasteries, date from the 1600s and protected Bhutan from Tibetan invasion. The monks are currently in their winter home but they will make their journey to this dzong, their summer home in a few weeks. The chief adminstrative monk for Bhutan spoke to us about Buddhism, which he summed up in three admonitions. Be good (do good works), don't be bad, and tame your mind. He advises inititates to first contemplate parental love, the love your parents had for you, to understand love, and next to contemplate all your lives and the fact that anyone could be your parent, to understand compassion. The body/order/governance of the monks is the oldest institution in Bhutan. After lunch, we visited the takin, a goat antelope that is supposed to be so hard to classify taxonomically that it has its very own classification. Legend attributes the origin of the takin to a goats head on a cows body brought to life by the 'divine madman'. No animals can be slaughtered commercially in Bhutan. Many animals fall off cliffs just before dinner time, but official meat comes from India. Bhutan is facing the problem of infrastructure. Right now cement is in short supply. We watched Indian workers carry stone and bags of cement by hand, mix with water then laboriously carry the wet cement in the remnants of the cement bag hanging from a pole up to the building. Parts are hard to come by to repair elevators and people with the expertise to fix elevators even harder to find.
9: Sunday Today is an auspicious day in the Buddhist lunar calendar (the 1st, 5th, 8th, 15th and 20th days) and we had a very auspicious day for our journey across the mountains to Phobjika valley, the conservation area of the black necked cranes. To begin with, highway construction ceases on Sunday, so we did not need to wait for construction. The road is really amazing in places. A full size bus could never travel these roads. We started at 8:30a and arrived at 5:30p to drive 82km. At our first stop, Dochula pass 11000 feet, an important monk arrived to walk to a temple described at 45 minutes walk away or 2.5 hours away and heard the horns heralding his arrival. I personally witnessed the arrival of the queen mother, her daughter, and her grandson and I shook hands with the queen. Our group had a lovely outdoor tea and we saw a Himalyan griffin. Our driver Tandin is a superb driver, birder, and cook. After a lunch stop 5000 ft we climbed again and took a short hike along the road for going to the nature. Tandin spotted a group of gray langurs and we watched them jump from tree to tree. Gray langurs are auspicious, maques are not. And now we are staying in the ancestral home of the reincarnated monk. The walls have beautiful paintings, 13 of us share 4 bathrooms, the bathroom has a shower on the wall and a drain in the floor but no separate shower stall. The view is great and tomorrow we are promised an outdoor dinner and bonfire. Electricity was installed last month, so we don't have lights out at 10p and I have an electric wall heater. I enjoyed exploring the traditional house, including the beautiful altar room. The group remains in high spirits and survived the long bus trip without incident. Monday Pema Thinlay (the treasure hunter) found the 108 relics and teachings hidden by the guru Rimpoche. Carrying a butter lamp, Pema Thinlay dove into the river and emerged with relics and his butter lamp still burning. He then founded the monastery and monastic school at Gangtey Goempa. The monastery has been headed by 9 reincarnates of Pema Thinlay. We are staying the the birth house of the 9th reincarnate. The monasteries still offer an education to young men. Three years of basic religious training is followed by 9 years of religious college. English is taught 3 hours a day. The highest religious aspiration is to spend 3 years, 3 months and 3 days in meditation. Electricity arrived in our valley only two months ago. Previously people used solar power. The area is designated as environmentally sensitive, so the power is underground. The black necked cranes have left the valley for their summer breeding grounds in Tibet. When they enter the valley in the fall, they circle three times around the monastery and when they leave in the spring, they perform their dance and circle the monastery again. We walked 4km from the monastery to our lunch, through the pine forest and lichens hanging from the trees, the wind in the trees and among the shy cows.We even had tea along the way with real mugs. Everyone completed the hike. I do hear a few complaints in Shangrila about some of our group members who never seem to stop talking. The dentist from Kansas who is always alone is not the only complainer, as some others on the bus would prefer some quiet. Mr dentist responded to a question about his profession by tapping his teeth, no words. We had butter tea with roasted rice yesterday on arrival, and this morning for breakfast red rice porridge with ginger and sczhwan pepper.
23: Tuesday I cannot describe the main highway in Bhutan. Although two cars can pass each other on the road, overtaking or even crossing two vehicles in opposite directions takes cooperation from both vehicles, each pulling over as far as possible. The rare bridge is one lane. A few stones mark precipitous drops, guard rail does not exist and in many places pavement does not exist. Our speed is so slow that I can identify plants and the bird people can identify birds. Where the road is being widened, the hill is dug away. At times a rock wall narrows the road further. I cannot imagine driving at night, but the rocks have white paint spots to aid night driving. We encounter other tour buses, private cars and taxis and some road construction trucks and goods carriers from India. After two days in bus, we cheered when we saw straight road stretching out ahead through a village. It did not last long, but it was the only straight road that we have seen. After the 20th bird stop, dissention arose. Bird spotting seems best in overcast rainy weather and the driver is a birder, so we had many bird stops. Pat insisted that she preferred her birds with a good burgundy and Tony complained that he kept missing shots because we did not stay long enough at the bird stops. A rhododendron stop was the last straw. The road we are driving on is the main highway from western to eastern Bhutan. The road laborers are all Indian and the labor mostly manual. For paving, tar is heated in barrels over fires, then mixed in a pile of stone. The stone/tar mix is loaded into a truck and shoveled onto the road. A roller does tamp down the asphalt. The road is paid for by the Indian government and constructed by their corps of engineers and they employ only Indians. The laborers were depositing their pay into Bhutanese banks and wiring rupees to India, but the Bhutanese government has closed all bank accounts owned by Indians probably under pressure from the Indian government because Indian merchants at the border were hiding income in Bhutanese banks. A small bus hanging precipitously off the road, with only the right side tires on the road was rescued when the local bus stopped, all the young men jumped off and pushed the bus back onto the road. We drove to Pele La (pass) 12000 ft, Lawa La 11000 ft, Yatong La ? and on to Bhumtang called Jakar on the map. I read in the Bhutanese newspaper today that Bhutan will stop importing vegetables from India in three weeks in an effort to make Bhutan self sufficient and to cut down the high food prices due to middlemen. I'm glad I will be out of here before the change. We are eating asparagus and fiddlehead ferns and potatoes, squash and cabbage from last year, but I don't know what people here will find to eat for a few months. Rice was just planted in this valley and harvest is months away. I do understand that southern Bhutan is tropical, so perhaps they will feed the rest of Bhutan. A Japanese tour group joined us at the last hotel so I asked what brought them to Bhutan. The king of Bhutan just visited Japan and made a good impression on everyone, so the young man I spoke to decided to take his honeymoon in Bhutan. Druk Air currently has 3 planes, two large and one small, has the international airport in Paro and two other airports, one here at Jakar. One more plane is on order and a new domestic airline is starting up. You can fly to Paro from Delhi, Bangkok, Mumbai and Singapore. Fin told us of a charter flight that followed the wrong river toward Paro and ended up in Thimphu (forbidden airspace because the kings palace is in Thimpu). We stopped at a spot used in the filming of Travellers and Magicians. Many sacred sites are filled with tiny (2") stupas made of clay or clay and ash from cremations, with a tiny hole for prayers to be slipped in.
29: Wednesday At the weaving store, we watched as handspun wool yarn was dyed with natural dyes. Looms were set up with silk and wool using similar inlay techniques for each but a very different result. Weavers are being taught to tone down the colors they usually use to sell to western tourists. A plant they called indigo was combined with ash for blue, and they use lime for acidity instead of vinegar. Lac and turmeric are used and the govt is encouraging exploration of local plants for dyeing. The small festival we attended featured continuous dancing outside the temple by masked dancers whirling, monks blowing horns and clashing cymbals. The minister of agriculture arrived with his entourage. Surrounding the temple vendors sat under tarps selling snacks, offering dart games that turned into illegal dice games. Jambay Lhakhang was the first Buddhist temple in Bhutan. The temple is part of a series of 108 temples built at the same time to control a demon and holds down the knee of the demon. The remaining 107 temples holding down the demon are located in Tibet. The building containing the statue of the future buddha is from the 7th century. Kurjey Lhakhang 8th century contains the imprint of Guru Rimpoche's body left after his 3 month meditation. An ailing king asked Guru Rimpoche to cure him and remove the demon who was terrorizing the valley. The demon turned into a snow leopard and Rimpoche into a mythical bird. Once the demon was subdued, he became a spirt guarding the valley. Thursday The boys crowded around at the school we visited, the girls were more shy. From the mountain pass, 12000 feet, we hiked to the village of Ura. The path was the old road before the paved road came and was worn down deeply in places. We saw a decrepit water powered prayer wheel and several mani walls, resting places for sacred statutes with prayers carved in Tibetan, Sanskrit and Bhutanese. The road divides along the wall, so that you complete a clockwise circuit of the wall as you walk out and return. Ura has no streets, only stone paths between houses. Each house seems to have a loo, a small stupa guarding a passage to the underworld. The school principal came to talk to us. On previous trips, we have had lectures by faculty. Fin's philosophy is that we should talk directly to the actors, so we had a MP, the head monk, the principal. For us as beginning learners, I'm starting to think that we need the general overview before we can really take advantage of these high level people. School is compulsory until grade 10 and all schooling is free but fewer places are available at higher levels. National exams are held for grades 6, 10, and 12. The school curriculum is determined nationally. More girls than boys attend school. In general, parents have no trouble paying for school uniforms and lunches. In the school we visited, the children clean the grounds, sweep, clean the toilets and weed the gardens before school. No plastic bags or junk food are allowed. Children must eat a homemade meal at lunch time. The government seems to make decrees that may be good in the long run but that may not have consensus in the short run. We did not really learn how parents felt about the no junk food rule at the school. The govt just declared a ban on importing vegetables from India to take effect in three weeks. Crops currently being harvested are asparagus, maybe lettuce and spinach, mushrooms, ferns and stored vegetables are potatoes, cabbage, pumpkin, carrot. Other vegetables like tomatoes will not be ready for months. I'm glad that I will be out of Bhutan before the ban begins.
31: Saturday The roads follow the contours of the hills and our top speed is around 40km but we usually travel at 20km. Today we spent 30 minutes essentially crossing the valley, going all the way down to the end of the valley and returning. The landslide was a very deep soft spot in the road and scary, but traffic had packed the sand and we made it. Having a car is new here and the private cars we see are quite new. Not too many SUVs. We see small bus taxis, public buses like our little bus, goods carriers from India, and short heavy trucks. Generally traffic cooperates well, honking when they want to pass, or pulling over for oncoming traffic, so today's standoff with a truck was surprising. We and three other vehicles had to back uphill on a narrow dirt section with a sharp dropoff. At home I'm sure insults would have been exchanged. As usual we stopped for tea and found many no-seeums in the warm still air. At our second stop I watched a woman wind a warp and set up a loom for card weaving. Once we arrived here traffic increased and the quiet of the mountains disappeared. Traffic (including the stone carrying trucks) runs all night outside my room on one side. On the other side of my room I have the river and the birds. Now that we are at lower altitudes (5000 ft) corn is growing well, barley is ready for harvest and the air is warm. We hiked up to the temple of the divine madman. With a pleasant moist breeze, the hike was fine but tomorrow we take the qualifying hike for the tiger's nest. Our two oldest hikers are supported by the guides and but they did complete the hike. Phunaka was the winter capital until K3 moved the capital to Thimphu. The monks still travel from Phunaka to their summer dzong at I purchased a divine madman and carried him up to the temple for blessing. The divine madman shot an arrow from Paro, which flew over the mountains to this location where he subdued three female demons with his flaming penis. The demons are now buried under a chorten. Their spirits protect the valley today. He loved dogs and I watched a pack of dogs run, play with a water bottle, and tease each other with a shoe. Sunday Two people stayed behind at the hotel and two stayed in town to explore. The rest of us went on for our qualifying hike, up from the river to the stupa built by the queen mother of the current king for the sucess of his rule, Khamsum Yueley Namgyal stupa. Half of the hike wound up hill through the rice paddies and farmers fields and then the real uphill began. The sun was warm and we plodded uphill. The stupa was full of esoteric dieties whose meaning is only revealed to the high monks. Most are depicted as animal heads on dancing human bodies, just like the masked dancers. Lunch was catered under the pine trees along the river with warm summer breezes. Fin talked about meeting a 5 year old reincarnate of an aide to the first king who created Bhutan in 1616. He came to believe in reincarnation from this experience. Sometimes a religious leader will leave clues about when and where he/she will be reincarnated. Sometimes a child will show unusual behaviors or speak ancient languages. The signs apparently pass as the child ages if no one picks up the clues. The Punakha dzong is the winter residence of the chief abbott. The monks used to walk 3 days to the summer residence, blessing people along the way. Monks are allowed to keep money they earn by performing ceremonies. Kinga told us the Buddha story illustrated in the temple and Fin explained the Bhuddhist wheel painting. The six worlds depicted are the demigods, the human world, a world where people cannot eat because their throats are constricted, hell divided into burning and freezing, the world of the animals and another. Buddha and the god of compassion look over the worlds. The three sins that keep us going around the wheel are greed (boar), ignorance and anger (snake). The dzong is on the confluence of the mother river and the father river. Kinga and Fin were students studying in a school overlooking the rivers and the dzong in 1994 when they saw a huge flash flood pass through the valley. A glacial lake broke its dam and carried logs downstream in 5 hours. The sacred stupa that is the soul of the dzong was underwater but survived the flood and held the dzong together. Only two more days in Bhutan. We lose travel time and the extra days we spend travelling from Bangkok to Bhutan.
33: Friday The hilltops are covered in snow this morning and low clouds lie in the valley. Rice was just planted yesterday, I hope the seedlings survive this cold weather. Rice is a new crop for this valley, the result of global warming. Forest land and community forest is owned by the government and people must apply for permission to cut wood. Beams are hewn by hand or with a two person saw, some must be 18" square. Boards are cut with a portable sawmill. Every house seems to have a lumber stash, waiting for future projects. The custom of flying 108 prayer flags for the dead means cutting 108 trees, and replanting 1080 trees. The government is encouraging people to reuse poles or to use bamboo poles. Planting and harvesting are done communally. One young person from each house volunteers, and the young people use the time to check each other out. If they really like each other, the girl tells the boy where her bedroom is in the house. The boy climbs through her bedroom window on the second floor in the night time, and announces himself to the family in the morning. Today we turn west and head back toward Paro and the international airport via National Highway 2 (which is National Highway 1 in the opposite direction. The road out of Trongsa to Paro is currently blocked by a landslide. We drove 3 hours to Trongsa, stopping for one last visit to the handicraft store and tea on the mountain. The guides bring thermoses, set up a table for tea and cookies, and we enjoy nature. They carried tea 2km for our hike. The watchtower for the dzong in Trongsa was restored by the Austrian govt and houses the most beautiful statues. The dzong was founded by Guru Rimpoche and is the longest dzong in the country. Each king must serve as governor of Trongsa before becoming king. In front of the dzong we watched an endless archery competition and witnessed the crane victory dance. A path leads from the hotel down to the river, to the one bridge that linked eastern and western Bhutan before the roads, and up to the dzong. I can see the dzong across the valley as I sit in my room. None of the hotels has an elevator so young girls carry the suitcases up stairs to the rooms. At this hotel a one armed man was carrying two suitcases. We have homework. We are reading the equivalent of the Sunday supplement to the national newspaper, Kuensel. The shortage of monks, a portable chorten, incense, the mani walls, chilis, tea are all covered.
39: Monday Bhutan has banned tobacco and other drugs. Mind altering drugs are not allowed under Buddhist teaching anyway, even if marijuana grows along the roadside. We hit the scheduled roadblock at 9:30, before the 10 am opening. Cars are allowed through for 30 minutes, then the road is closed again for roadwork. Keep in mind that this is the only road across the country. The guides talk to each other along the way and at the hotels and keep up on road conditions, like the landslide. The dogs are shy and don't beg or come over for attention. They seem relatively healthy and fed. At night they start roaming in packs and howling. I found a new vegetable - crow beans. The shape is rather like a milkweed pod and they have black seed that are not eaten. A local pepper tastes rather like sczewan pepper. They grow several kinds of chilis here and use both mustard seed oil and ? imported from India. Our hotel overlooks the runway in Paro and we just watched Druk Air depart on 15. Tuesday We set out early for the Tiger's nest to beat the crowds. Team 1 planned to relax in the meadow at the bottom 8000 ft, Team 2 to enjoy the teahouse at 9000ft and Team 3 to attempt the full hike 10,000ft. As it turned out, Team 1 member Kathleen just kept on walking and walked to the tea house about 90 minutes after everyone else. After a good long rest at the tea house, I think I could have continued but Team 3 was long gone. We only learned later that the first part of the hike was the hardest. The weather cooled down in the afternoon and now the valley is filled with rain and clouds. I enjoyed the downhill hike alone. Solitude is hard to come by in the group and I am very fortunate in having a single. Team 2 had lunch with delicious momo dumplings. Kathleen was exhausted and we returned to pick up victorious Team 3. The guides say that they have actually carried people down. The trip above the tea house rose another 1000 ft, then dipped down into a valley and up to the monastery (750 steps one way). We passed many tourists taking horses or donkeys up the mountain who were impressed that we 'old people' were hiking up under our own power. I think the hike would be quite doable riding horses to the top, hiking down to the monastery, and then walking back down the mountain.