Saturday, 4 April 2015
Getting to any Himalayan country is dramatic, getting to Bhutan however is epic. Our flight was from Delhi at 0630 in the morning which involved getting up at 0415 and navigating our way through Delhi airport customs. We took off in the pouring monsoon rains and headed due East over Nepal. The flight gave us a unique view of the Himalayas including Everest and a whole host of peaks.
The approach to the runway is exhilarating to say the least. The plane dips over a ridge and then follows a river valley around a dog leg then drops on the runway. Hard enough when you are in a turbo prop but pretty short of spectacular when you are in an Airbus A319. At one point we looked out of the window and there were villages above us. Everyone was a tad relieved when the wheels finally hit the tarmac.
The airport terminal at Paro is beautiful, in the style of the stone and timber Dzongs that we would see in every town. It was the first time I had ever got out of an airplane and everyone dawdled about on the tarmac enjoying the sun taking photos rather than trying to rampage through customs. Speaking of which one of our fellow passengers fell foul of the cigarette import laws. They tried to get a full carton of cigarettes in but were stopped. Since there is a 100% import tax I expect they had quite a lot to pay.
Our entire trip had been arranged by a fantastic agency which specialises in Bhutan, Blue Poppy. Out of the airport we were met by our guide Rinzin Dorji and our driver Rinchen Dorji. Apparently they were not related and since nobody apart from the king truly has a family name there are only about fifty second names doing the rounds. First things first Rinzin told us we had arrived on the last day of the Tshechu festival at Paro Dzong so we decided to have a look before driving to Thimphu, the capital.
This proved to be a well timed decision as the Fifth King of Bhutan was just leaving the festival as we came in so we had to line the road up to let us pass. As he passed us he noticed our white scarves and stopped to talk to us and some other tourists from the UK, wishing us good luck. I have to say there are not many countries where we have been personally welcomed by the king on arrival so we were starting to feel very much at home.
The festival when we finally got there proved to be a huge draw. Hundreds of people were sitting on a hill above an open area behind the Dzong. When we arrived a few jesters were entertaining the crowds with some odd tale which involved several dry humping and then one giving birth to a phallus.
After a while the main act started, the Dance of the Twelve Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. This seemed to feature twelve monks dressed up like extras from the film Predator, followed by a set of drummers dressed up as demons who proceeded to run around the audience hitting them on the head with their drumstick as some sort of atonement. It finished with a crescendo of the drummers trying to distract the guru rinpoches by drumming next to them.
After the dancing we headed back to the car and set off to the capital Thimphu . Both Paro and Thimphu are in wide river valleys and the rivers meet downstream so rather than what would for us become the usual route of going up and down passes here we could simply zip down one river valley and up another. We got to the hotel around 1600 and being rather tired went to sleep for a couple of hours.
Dinner was a rather entertaining affair. We were already aware that hotel food is typically dull so we were determined to try a few restaurants whilst in Thimphu. So we asked Rinzin to take us to a pizza place called Seasons which was actually really nice.
Afterwards we drppoed into a local pub which was no more than a hole in the wall. My first issue was that I was bursting for the toilet and the proprietor very kindly showed me to a piece of waste ground opposite the pub which doubled up as a urinal. Once we had our drinks in hand all the locals proceeded to talk to us. Most of the conversation revolved around what football team we supported. As always we did a bit of a David Cameron and pretended to follow our local team Arsenal for the sake of the conversation. (Un)luckily for us they all turned out to be fervent Arsenal fans - they were a bit perplexed about our lack of knowledge of the current squad!
Sunday, 5 April 2015
A huge thunderstorm had followed us from India and had raged all night. So when we got up the atmosphere was very clear and the air pristine. We had decided to go for a quick hike up a hill just outside of Thimphu to a monastery. This was a fantastic opener to the scenery of Bhutan, we hiked up through a forest of rhododendrons and epithetic ferns. Chagri Monastery itself was bite size with a caretaker monk who recited prayers all the time we were there. We climbed up all the stairs to the demon suppressing temple and had great views from just above it.
We were a bit surprised coming down as we met at least thirty tourists on their way up. We soon realised that there are only a limited number of destinations in Bhutan and you tend to run into the same people over and over again.However its a big enough place that you can escape them by getting off the beaten track which is exactly what we decided to do.
After the walk we popped into Thimphu market and bought a few supplies for the coming car trips. We then went to lunch at a place called Bhutan kitchen which only through having Chili Cheese managed to slightly improve on the standard tourist buffet.
After lunch we went to watch an archery competition which could only be described as mad. Archery is Bhutan's national sport and they frequently win medals at the Olympics. Two groups stood at either end of a 100m range. They would then take it in turns to fire arrows at a tiny target with some of their team mates standing next to the tiny target trying to give them advice on where to aim. At the same time members of the opposite team try to distract them by shouting insults. It is a wonder any arrows hit the target and in fact in the hour we stayed there we only saw four arrows hit the board and none were in the rings.
So to get an understanding of how difficult it is we picked up some archery kit and then Rinzin found a field on the outskirts of Thimphu where all the locals were playing darts, an outdoor variant with huge darts, and we started to practice. The difficulty of what the professionals were trying to do became slowly apparent. With two targets only 25m apart we only managed to hit the target board twice!
That night we again did not want to brave the hotel restaurant so headed to a really nice burger bar called Cloud 9. It really would not have looked out of place in London and what was interesting was it was almost entirely populated by the rich offspring of army and government officials. This was only apparent as they all talked English amongst themselves.
Monday, 6 April 2015
Dang Chu Valley, Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan
The start of our long drive East. Road travel through Bhutan was complicated by the fact that they are starting a ten year process to widen the only road connecting the west to the east. As a result there is a daily road block between Thimphu and Punakha and we had to reach the block by 1000.
The first task was winding our way up to the Dochu La which at 3140m took a while. Just before the pass I amazingly saw a flying squirrel gliding over the car but there was no time to get a camera. Theoretically at the pass there should be a view of most of Bhutan's biggest mountains but cloud prevented this. There were also hundreds of Chortens to ward off evil spirits but these did not entertain us for long. Instead we went for a walk in the cloud forest which was incredibly beautiful. There were Rhododendrons everywhere and lichen hung from the ancient conifers. We made it back to the car quite late and had to rush to get to the road block point before it closed at 1030.
The road block had the unfortunate effect of condensing all the tourists into one convoy so we all reached the fertility temple at Chimi Lokhang the hordes of other tourists were just behind us.
To explain why most Bhutan country houses have a phallus drawn on them you need to delve into the mythology of Drukpa Kunley, the divine madman, who went around Bhutan in the 15th century taming demons with his magical penis. The temple of Chimi Lokhang was built in honour of his taming of the demoness of Dochu La who he had sex with and scared off because during it the tip of his "flaming thunderbolt" popped out of her mouth. Our guide told us a few stories and he certainly seemed quite a character.
We walked through rice paddies and a couple of villages selling souvenir phalluses to get to the temple. The temple itself was pleasant as trainee monks sat around its grounds learning to play the horn. Inside the temple the main excitement was a huge wooden phallus that women take around the temple in order to conceive.
After Chimi we worked our way up a side valley to Punakha stopping for lunch at a hideous tourist buffet. We managed to persuade our guide to leave early and go and sit on a beach on the Mo Chu river to read for an hour or so until the Dzong opened.
Punakha Dzong itself is easily the most photogenic in Bhutan and at one time served as the capital. It consists of a series of courtyards and its high point is the hundred pillar assembly hall which houses some amazing murals of the life of Buddha. We looked around for a while then headed off to our hotel.
We had found getting a hotel in Punakha difficult so had booked a room at Kicu resort a little further on our route to the east. This proved to be very fortunate as the hotel was situated in a river gorge with the river literally running past the end of our verandah. We had a passable buffet dinner and a few beers by the riverside.
Tuesday, 7 April 2015
Jakar, Bumthang, Bhutan
We had a lot of driving in front of us and two more road closures so got up early to head east. The scenery of the Dang Chu valley is amazing early in the morning as the mist drifts over deciduous trees and occasional farms. After a while we got to a block and had to stop until it opened. We then headed up to the Pele pass and once over it arrived once again in pine forests.
It took around four hours to get to Trongsa, the next major town. Here we had lunch at a cafe overlooking Trongsa Dzong possibly the most dramatic in the country perched on the edge of a gorge. We had decided to give the Dzong a miss but instead headed for the Trongsa museum which is housed in a watchtower overlooking the Dzong.
This proved to be eventful as we arrived in the middle of a power cut. After waiting half an hour we decided to get creative and got our torches from the car and started to explore the museum by torch light. I was rather enjoying it and it was frankly a bit of a shame when the power came back on. The museum was well worth a look as it houses mostly restored artifacts from the Dzong and each is explained in great detail. The view from the top if the Dzong was spectacular, as they had banned cameras in the museum I had to run out and grab mine from the car in an attempt to take a similar shot nearby.
After this we had another long drive to our final destination Jakar in the Bumthang valleys. We went higher and higher to cross our final pass the Yotong La then popped out at the top of the Chumme valley into a scene that would have not looked out of place on the highlands of Scotland if you substituted Yaks for Highland Cattle. Finally we got to our hotel in Jakar in the Bumthang Valleys at around four.
Dinner was a buffet disaster and we resolved not to eat at the hotel again!!
Wednesday, 8 April 2015
Jakar, Bumthang, Bhutan
We got up at seven to go walking. We had signed up to a five day trek so clearly we needed some practice. Rinchen drove us out to Tharpaling Monastery in the Chumme valley from where we hiked up to a ridge and then admired the views from the hermitage on the saddle. We then started to descend.
The cloud forest just after the pass was mystical. Long strands of lichen draped every tree and there were hundreds of primroses lining the track. After a while we descended through forests of short bamboo, pine and the odd rhododendron. Very strangely on the way down we ran into a German girl we had met at Trongsa Museum and two nuns she was with. We then had lunch at a splendid spot sitting on a bed of pine needles.
After about three hours of walking we popped out into civilisation in a valley just above Jakar Dzong. We then made our way down to the Dzong through several farms and then returned to the hotel. It was a fantastically beautiful walk and it left us with a couple of spare hours to enjoy the afternoon.
We had organised to go to the Swiss Guesthouse for dinner. This proved to be just what the doctor ordered, fondue in a cosy pine lodge up in the trees above Jakar. We also had out first taste of Red Panda Bhutan's original craft Weiss beer brewed in Bumthang!
Thursday, 9 April 2015
Jakar, Bumthang, Bhutan
We had a lot of debate about what walk we wanted to do and finally settled on trying to walk from Jakar to Petsheling Monastery and then over the ridge to Kunzangdrak monastery in the Tang valley. This had the distinct advantage of not requiring a lot of driving and so maximising our walking time. The only disadvantage was we were not exactly sure of the route.
The walk up to the monastery was very pleasant, through pine forests and alpine meadows. Our legs were just about giving up when we saw the monastery a hundred metres above us. The monks at Petsheling treated us very well inviting us in for tea and biscuits.
However after that we had a bit of misfortune in not finding the path to Kunzangdrak. We started out on a lovely path through orchards of pea trees and twittering birds. But then about twenty minutes in Rinzin worked out that we were not on the right path and we had to double back to the path down to Bebkar. Once we had almost got down to the road we found a path up to Kunzangdrak but it looked like good two hours hike back up the other side if the valley, which did not appeal.
Instead we decided to get Rinchen to pick us up. Whilst loading the car the local school emptied out and the children stopped to investigate us on their way home. Anna quizzed them, giving the most mouthy ones sweets. On the way back we stopped at Membartsho the burning lake. This is more of a pool in a river where Pema Lingpa found treasure guided by a dream then returned to immerse himself and a lamp into the lake only to emerge half an hour later with the lamp still lit.
That night we had arranged to eat Bhutanese food on a farmhouse. It was delightful and the food really made a change from the usual fare. We managed to polish off a bottle of Ara, the local moonshine, with a couple of cordyceps fungi sitting in the bottom.
Friday, 10 April 2015
Phobjika Valley, Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan
Yet again we got up early as we had a long drive. We headed up and over the pass at the top of the Chumme valley stopping briefly at Chendebji Chorten created in imitation of Swayambhunath in Kathmandu. We then zoomed past Trongsa stopping for lunch at a bridge on the Nikka Chu. Here we were treated to lunch with our guide and some significantly more original Bhutanese food including a traditional bacon dish which mainly consisted of fat.
We got to the Phobjika valley around one. We the visited Gangteng Monastery sitting high on a ridge above the valley. The monastery established in 1613 has recently undergone massive renovation and has some of the freshest most intricate wood carving and painting we had seen. Inside the main temple the wall paintings were equally elaborate and like a lot of temples we visited featured a statue which apparently had an important religous leader embalmed in it.
We then headed off down the "nature trek". We already knew that the Tibetan black cranes had left for the summer flying over the Himalayas but even so the trek was nevertheless a little disappointing as there were very few birds in comparison to other day treks we had done, and since it was very pedestrian a lot of Chinese tourists.
What was certainly not disappointing was the view. It was akin to being in the highlands of Scotland looking over the vast marshlands where the cranes spend the winter.
We then retired to our hotel the Dewachen where we had seemingly been given one of the best rooms in the place with a 180 degree view over the plains. The room also featured a wood burning stove which we leapt upon feeding it with so much wood that we thought we might burn the hotel down. On going to dinner, having already experienced a power cut we took out head torches with us. Naturally halfway through dinner there was another cut and it was not only us that was so prepared, half the restaurant switched to head torches! By the time we got back to our room the fire had gone out and we had to rebuild it to ensure a cosy night.
Saturday, 11 April 2015
We had to get up painfully early to get on the road by 0730. Again the road works were dictating our schedule, we had to get to the first one by 1000 so would need to motor. The first part of the journey was fantastic as we zoomed through the upper Dang Chu valley which as opposed to a lot of others was entirely deciduous.
At the first roadblock we had to wait twenty minutes so I ran out of the car into Nubding village to see if I could get any decent photos. It was quite disconcerting as every other chilip had done the same and so what was otherwise quite an unremarkable village was swamped with people with cameras. Nevertheless I found myself almost alone on a shoulder of a green ridge and managed to get a few shots. I say almost because next to me was an old dude sitting cross legged enjoying the view whilst weaving a basket almost oblivious to my presence. The village is also the site of some of the country's most impressive phalluses which undoubtedly are amongst its most photographed.
After working our way around the Trongsa valley we then ascended to the Dochu La. Here we were reminded of the wisdom of exploiting things the first time you see them, it was raining very hard so we retreated into the cafe for what was a surprisingly nice buffet lunch.
Back in Thimphu we checked ourselves into the Osel. Their lift had been put of order when we left and being one of only a handful in Bhutan still was. They diplomatically put us on the first floor.
We then went shopping for camping supplies in town. I had a new camera rucksack but had not spotted it did not have a rain cover so needed to buy one. This involved a few hurdles as in the first shop they gave us one price and proceeded to charge is another at which point we walked out. The second shop was a bit more reputable and we got the cover. We then went for tea and cakes at Ambience which turned out to be almost full of Buddhist monks who had the same idea.
That night we had pizza again at Seasons. Whilst we were managing by this point to get decent variety of Bhutanese food we needed some comfort food and this was the place.
Sunday, 12 April 2015
Gur Campsite, Thimphu, Bhutan
First day of our trek. We drove to a suspension bridge in a side valley of the Par Chu river where we met our cook Dubchen and his helper Gogo. We filtered some water from the river whilst waiting for the horseman Tschering.
After the horses arrived we started to gently climb up through a primeval forest of evergreen oak and rhododendrons. We stopped for lunch at an amazing view spot. Gogo fished out an oversize thermos from his backpack out of which came four different dishes, rice, two veg and one meat, which proved a very delicious lunch. This was a trend that was to continue through the trek, no matter where we were we would get a selection of four dishes for lunch and dinner and each one was new.
We climbed just over ridge to a clearing in the wood called Gur. Here we set up camp. We then relaxed in the sun exploring the wood and sitting in the meadow of primulas. We found some yellow billed blue magpies which I stalked trying to get a decent photo of.
By dinner the guys had a fire set up. We had our dinner around the fire and went to bed as it just started to spit with rain.
Monday, 13 April 2015
Gur Campsite, Thimphu, Bhutan
The second day of our trek. We woke up to strange swooshing sounds from outside our tent. It had been raining most of the night and this had changed to snow in the early hours. The snow would build up then slide down the dome. We snoozed on and were woken up for tea at 0700. We then went to our dining tent where a breakfast of toast and scrambled egg had been prepared. It was still snowing and about an inch had settled.
We spoke to our guide and it was clear we were not going up to the Labatamba pass and the lakes beyond at 4000m just yet. We had a spare day so went back to our tent. We had bought a card game with us so sat in the tent playing that for a couple of hours waiting for it to pass....
It did not, it just transmuted into rain then sleet, then snow and back to rain. By lunch we were very bored so as soon as the rain let up went for a walk round the forest gathering wood ear fungus which grew on rose bushes, and failing to spot any animals. As we were returning to camp we ran into some very bedraggled groups who were just ahead of us and had been caught in the snow at 4000m. They had woken up to collapsed tents and had to trek back down through waste deep snow. One group was still up there as their horses had decided they had enough and had run off in the night.
We swiftly realised that we would need to reroute our trek and decided to take the lower pass to Thimphu bypassing the Dagala plateau. However it was too late in the day to break camp so we stayed put and spent a second night at Gur.
Tuesday, 14 April 2015
Upper Genekha, Thimphu, Bhutan
The third day of the trek. We started walking with a completely blue sky. We reversed back to the suspension bridge and then slowly climbed up the valley to the last set of houses in the incredibly long village. Here Anna chatted with some of the villagers and somehow managed to buy a bottle of Ara the local hooch. We then set up camp in a field just beyond the village and went for a walk.
We crossed a perilously high plank bridge to the other side of the valley and located a yak herders trail which took us up through a series of beautiful meadows. We got to a point where we could see the neighbouring valleys and turned around. On the way back we went for a very quick wash in the mountain stream below the campsite. It was a painfully cold but much needed experience.
That night we had ara with our dinner. We could not have a log fire but just sat out eating our dinner looking at the crystal clear stars.
Wednesday, 15 April 2015
Wilderness Campsite, Thimphu, Bhutan
Fourth day of our trek. We packed up camp and set off up the valley. We were walking in forests for three hours. At one point we found bear marks where a bear had climbed into a tree. We finally emerged into rugged yak meadows at the head of the valley. We then climbed up to a pass at 3990m and marvelled at the views of the Dagala range on one side and the mist enveloped pine forests on the other.
We had lunch at the saddle and then headed off up the ridge on a side trek to see if we could get any views. It was a struggle, not that we were not used to the altitude, just that we had been walking for eight hours by that point. We climbed to one false peak and another and then traversed to another saddle.
However views we did get with the range to the north of the country appearing through the clouds and a final fantastic view at 4300m overlooking the whole of Thimphu valley.
We then descended to our campsite 20 minutes below the pass. On the way Rinzin collected some firewood, a huge dead tree trunk about twice the size of him. It is only legal to use dead wood for fires in the wild. Consequently the area around known campsites tends to be completely free of fire wood so we often had to carry it for several hundred metres. However the guys delighted in showing off their abilities to cut up logs with machetes and transport them any distance so we never ran out.
When we got there it was the most wild campsite we had seen, a plateau perched above the clouds. We set up our tent which was slightly tricky as no metre of ground was perfectly flat. Meanwhile the guys had lit a huge log fire which we sat around warming up and having our dinner.
Thursday, 16 April 2015
The fifth and final day was a bit of a slog. We traversed for an hour to another meadow through the most amazing garden of rhododendrons we had seen. Rinzin then had to scare a huge bull Yak off the saddle at the end of the meadow and once we had occupied this we had a superb view of the wall of mountains surrounding Bhutan.
After this it was two hours straight downhill through woods to a small town above Thimphu. Interestingly the town was the location of an "uncle's house" the Bhutanese euphemism for a prison, I.e. Q: "where is Chimi?", A: "Oh he was caught using drugs and has been sent to uncle's house". It was interesting to see that even in a Kingdom as idyllic as Bhutan they are starting to see some of the social problems inherent with urbanisation. Only some however as the population is still 70% subsistence farmers.
We reached the bottom around lunchtime where lunchtime and beers were waiting for us. We then tipped the cook, assistant and horseman and set off for Paro.
In Paro we had booked into the Gangtey Palace, formerly the governor of Paro's palace it had a wonderful view of the Dzong and a very traditional painted exterior. However our bathroom left a lot to be desired and smelled of mildew. Nevertheless it was the first shower we had seen in five days so was welcome.
That night we again eschewed the hotel buffet and went into central Paro. To say it was dead at 1930 was an understatement but we found a recommended restaurant where we were able to get a break from the usual fare with some Chinese food.
Getting back to the hotel was interesting, we flagged down a taxi but when he stopped we noticed it was full. The driver then proceeded to kick the passengers out but we walked off in disbelief. In retrospect it may have been his family who were riding around with him. Anyway we continued to wait observed by a pack of stray ten dogs until another taxi eventually turned up.
Friday, 17 April 2015
We had one last hike to do, going up to Tiger's Nest Monastery . This Buddhist monastery is sited 300m up a cliff and requires one and a half hours of up and down hill to get to it. Sadly not everyone wanted to put in the effort and a large number of mostly Chinese were going up on horseback. This had the unfortunate effect of making the path really dirty.
When we and the hordes of others finally made it to the top it was certainly worth it. The path crosses a waterfall from where you ascend to a series of shrines which literally hug the rock. We visited each in turn, lit butter lamps and admired the view. It was truly a place where you could imagine lamas meditating for years, sadly not anymore with hordes of Indians and other nationalities breaking the peace.
The monastery was sited where Guru Rinpoche had meditated after flying there on a tiger's back. It had burned down and been rebuilt at least twice in its history, most recently in 1990 due to a lightning strike.
When we finally made it back down we decided to take Rinzen and Rinchen to a coffee shop we had found in Paro. It was a welcome break from the buffet lunches but I am not sure what Rinchen made of his perfectly poured Cappuccino.
We spent part of the afternoon looking at souvenirs and found a weaving shop. Here we were created with the information that the traditional women's dress of Bhutan takes 6 months to weave and costs around $2000 to buy. We however just bought a table runner!
That night we took Rinzin and Rinchen out for dinner at Cafe Yegyel the towns Thai/Bhutanese restaurant. It was undoubtedly the best place we found in town. We also managed to make Rinchen cry from the heat of chilies in a Thai dish, we took this as a big achievement as Bhutanese like their food very hot!
Saturday, 18 April 2015
New Delhi, India
We were leaving that morning for Delhi. Anna as always was petrified of flying and this was not helped by a persistent layer of low lying cloud in the Paro valley. This was not however a problem for the pilots who circled the valley about three times gaining height and then zipped over the Himalayas to Delhi.
Arriving in Delhi we were suddenly jolted back into the frenetic pace of life outside Bhutan. Our taxi driver from the airport drove at breakneck speed missing other cars by inches. It was with some relief that we got stuck in a traffic jam for half an hour. We checked into the Park hotel whilst a pool party was in full swing and the hotel was filled with Delhi's bright young things.
We did not have a lot of the afternoon left so only managed to squeeze in a visit to the Jantar Mantar . This is a collection of astronomical instruments that was built by Jai Singh in 1724. I say instruments but they are a series of huge constructions akin to 20m tall sundials with astounding accuracy for the time.
We had no done a lot of research for where to go for dinner so opted for the Spice Route at the Imperial hotel. For anyone that has not visited the Imperial I would strongly encourage it as it is steeped in history but has been refurbished in a very striking way. The meal was a fantastic mix of southern Indian flavours but not cheap!
And that was it, we went back to the UK the next morning, still dreaming of Bhutan's pristine valleys and dramatic monasteries.