Bhutan – Day 6 – to Jakar via Trongsa

I think today counts as one of the most spectacular, and potentially dangerous journeys we have ever done. Apart from the possibility of rockfall and unstable road edges above plunging valley sides, there was the added risk of being blown up.
We awoke to a hard frost, the valley covered in a film of white. After an early breakfast we hit the road at 8.00 and climbed out of the valley. It was a glorious day, but still quite cold. We wound around the valley sides, the road good in places, but often nothing more than packed earth. The views were breathtaking and Mr Numgay was continually pulling over to let us take pictures. He has truly got my measure and has a good eye for a photo opportunity.

Around 10.00 we stopped at a Nepalese stupa, identified by the eyes painted on the top. It was beautiful as a river gurgled past it and children played on 5he grassy area in front of it. It was quite warm by now and it was good to stretch our legs.

We climbed steadily heading towards Trongsa and lunch. At about 12.30 we stopped on a bend in the road with an incredible view over Trongsa and its dzong. Below us an HEP plant was being built with Indian money. Bhutan is self-sufficient in HEP so is making money exporting electricity to India. Sunam pointed out the restaurant we would be stopping at for lunch. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I needn’t have worried, it took another hour to reach the restaurant. We went down one valley side, crossed the river and then back up the other. By the time we got there we were both starving.

It was a very good lunch – buffet style as always. We enjoyed ‘nackey datsa’ which was edible fern fronds in a cheese sauce with chillies and was very hot. The restaurant had a good view of the dzong and we were entertained as a group of staff rehung the prayer flags around the garden in front of us. It seemed like organised chaos and at one point one man nearly fell off a ladder when the guttering he had propped it on broke off!

After lunch, Sunam asked if we would like to walk to the dzong and of course we did. It was sunny and warm and it was good to be walking. We passed through a local vegetable market, built by the government and tried to identify various veg. and fruit.

Just below the dzong there was an archery match taking place, this time using compound bows rather than the traditional archery ones. The distance over which they shoot is 176 metres! After watching for a bit we walked across a beautiful bridge and into the dzong grounds. The dzong was built in 1644 on a site that was already considered holy since 1541. However an earthquake in 1897 severely damaged it and it was repaired by Bhutan’s first king. The royal family are hereditary governors (penlops) of this area.

The dzong is very beautiful with the traditional regional administrative offices in one part and the monastery in the other. The decoration is stunning as you walk through two courtyards before reaching the temple. Inside the temple it is very dark but you can still see the beautiful paintings and the statues of the past, present and future buddhas. A monk shuffled past the altar, with dusters under his feet – a clever way to clean the floor! Corporal punishment still exists in monasteries, although banned in schools, and the monks were chasing each other with a broad leather strap used to enforce discipline.

The setting of Trongsa is very attractive at the head of a valley feeding the main one. We climbed up steadily and the road deteriorated as we went. No need of a massage this evening, we got one for free over the next 4 hours. The problem is that the government has decided to make the road two lanes throughout, with the help of Japanese money. So they have mostly taken up the old road, and covered it with earth and stone. Then frost, snow and monsoon rain has got to work on it. The result is enormous potholes. Where they are working the road is often down to one lane and can be a quagmire. In places they are having to blast away rock to create a wide enough road.

 

We slowed down at one point because a lorry was half way across the road. Mr Numgay eased the car between the lorry and the road edge. As he started to accelerate a man came running and shouting after us. I told Mr Numgay and he slowed down. The man drew level and shouted ‘blasting’. Mr Numgay lowered the window and the man explained they were about to blast away some rocks. We retreated and a few minutes later there was a loud bang. Of course we had to wait for about 15 more minutes while they cleared the road. The second time this happened we waited as snow fluttered down out of a foggy sky.

Mr Numgay’s driving was superb and he seemed inexhaustible. We were tired just watching him from the comparative comfort of the back seat! We gave him a round of applause we when got to our lovely hotel. Now we are sitting by our log stove, stuffed with some delicious food ( more nackey) and wondering what tomorrow will bring. I gather we are staying fairly local thank goodness. We have 3 nights here and then……..yes, you guessed it, we make the same journey back. I can’t wait!!

Bhutan – Day 5 – The Phobjika Valley

 

A wonderful day today, beginning with a walk along the far side of the valley. We were driven to the monastery we visited yesterday and then Sunam led us down through pine forest and meadow to the valley floor. On our way we passed clumps of cotoneaster microfloris and berberis. The air was filled with the intoxicating scent of Daphne bushes, from which the Bhutanese used to make paper. We handled some later in a temple. In places the ground was turned lilac with primula. In a small village we stopped at a stupa which had a large prayer wheel turned by a waterwheel underneath it.

Once on the valley floor we crossed the boggy areas on planked walkways. The ground is quite dry compared to what it will be like when the monsoon comes in June. Below us the Nakey Chhu meandered, a river far too small for its large glacial valley. We entered the grounds of a monastic school for young children which was also a Buddhist camping site. We looked into a room which would have 4 or 5 children in it. It was clean if rather spartan. The toilets were neither being quite modern and well appointed, with the highest urinal I have ever used. At 6 foot I struggled to use it. However there seemed to be no water supply so the toilets were pretty disgusting.

Moving quickly on we crossed the valley stopping only on the bridge over the Nakey where we taught Sunam how to play Pooh sticks. He was delighted as he won – beginners luck! We climbed up the valley side, stopping at a government store. Here locals can buy basics such as rice, sugar, cheese, washing powder etc. at prices lower than in the shops. This is designed to keep people in the villages. Not sure how it goes down with local shopkeepers though!

We then climbed up a steep track past the black necked crane information centre to our restaurant for lunch. We had complained that, while we were passing hundreds of fields full of potatoes, we had had none for dinner last night. I suspect Mr Numgay may have had a word, because along with rice, pasta and noodles there were two bowls of potatoes. The first were halves of small potatoes roasted with their skins on in salt and ginger – absolutely delicious! The second was a version of gratin dauphinois and again scrumptious. Add to that a bowl of mushrooms and onions with ginger and we were in heaven. The rice and pasta did not get a look in.

There was also a log stove in the dining room which allowed us to warm up. It was actually quite cool outside and I wish I’d worn a vest or a coat.

After lunch we were driven down to the black necked crane information centre. Of course the birds have flown, to quote one of our late kings, but there were plenty of interesting boards to read and a superbly filmed documentary which explained the conservation methods the government and the RSPN are carrying out. However we did not miss out entirely on the birds. One unfortunate specimen broke his wings in 2016 and is now kept in captivity until he is well enough to join his friends on their migration north to Tibet.

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In the morning I had read about a temple further up the valley dating from the C14th. Unfortunately I did not get the name quite right and Mr Numgay spent some time tracking it down. However track it down he did. It was about 1 km off the main village road and proved well worth a visit. From the outside at the back it did not look much, although it’s front entrance was beautifully painted. It’s position was impressive with great views down the valley. We entered and climbed two very steep sets of stairs to the third floor, where we ducked under a cloth over the door and into a stunningly painted room. A solitary priest greeted us, although normally there are three looking after this temple. The main altar was covered in beautifully painted butter cakes, and behind it sat a statue of the second Buddha and others of lamas or holy men. The pillars and ceiling were a riot of colour. The holy man, Longchenpa had built 8 temples in the valley. Our guide and driver seemed delighted to have the opportunity to visit this special place and carried out their prostrations and took some holy water.

On our way home we passed a government primary school and Sunam asked us if we would like to visit. We of course said we’d love to and we’re immediately walked across a field and over a bridge, the younger children forming a guard of honour as they were on their way home. We went into the older children’s classroom where 21 were bent over their books. The classroom was quite well appointed with posters on the walls, a blackboard and good classroom furniture. As we left we discovered it was scouts after school and pupils appeared in the playground wearing scarves and woggles. There they were drilled by the master and a pupil.

The library was impressive with most of the books in English and of a good quality. Lots of ladybird books and classic stories like Treasure Island and Great Expectations. Clearly education is important and pupils are keen to learn according to Sunam.

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The sun had now come out and the Phobjika Valley looked stunning in the evening light. We were glad to get back after a full day to a log fire and a warm room. Tonight Christine is going to try a massage offered in the hotel spa. I shall settle for a hot shower! Let’s hope there are potatoes for dinner!

 

Bhutan – Day 4 Thimphu to Gangteng

I am sitting in an enormous bedroom, with an enormous bed, looking out one of the two large windows over the beautiful Phobjikha Valley near Gangteng. Below is a world renowned wetland where black cranes come in winter, however by now they have flown north, so we are unlikely to see them. Our hotel is luxurious but homely. We have a wood burner in our room and in the dining area.

We had a bad night’s sleep as it was a Wednesday in the big city and Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are party nights. The party seemed to be in our room but apparently was in the street outside and the night club opposite. Eventually it was all over bar the shouting which went on for some time. We managed a few hours, had breakfast and were on the road by 9.00.

Mr Numgay has my measure and stops were frequent for photographs. We climbed steadily on well made roads. As we drove from one province to another we had to have our visas checked! I think we should introduce this for travel between Suffolk and Norfolk! We reached a pass where the Queen Mother had had built 108 stupas in thanksgiving for victory over some Indian insurgents in 2003. From here there are spectacular views over the Himalayas and a board showed where each peak is located. We had to use our imaginations as fog rolled up the valley and enveloped us. The place was clearly a popular tourist stopping off place as the car park and cafe were busy. We wandered amongst the stupas and then crossed the road and followed a stone path up the hillside through fragrant rhododendrons and other flowers.
Back at the cafe we were given some sweet tea and biscuits, before heading off once more. We dropped down into the valley where the road heads north to Punakha. We stayed on the main road and went to Wagdue Phodrang. By now the quality of the road had deteriorated, with much of it now just stone with the occasional patch of tarmac. We passed a number of stone quarries and clearly that stone was being used for the road. Road builders were hard at work in places, most of them Indians who come over the border to find work.
As we looked down into the Dang Chu valley we could see cranes and dredgers at work extracting sand for building. The river is dammed for hydro further downstream, so I assume this also helps to reduce sediment build-up behind the dam.

We stopped for lunch at another ‘tourist restaurant ‘ and had a very good lunch with cheese momos, some excellent cabbage in soya sauce and ginger and a delicious green chilli in cheese sauce. We drove on, stopping to look at views and to get our first look at some yaks grazing in a small valley.

Pressing on we climbed up and up and then hung a right up what seemed to be a vaguely tarmacked path. At the summit there was a stupa and a dramatic view down a valley where a herd of yak were grazing. The herders yurt was below us and they had set up 3 roadside stalls selling produce and gifts – very enterprising, although traffic must be a bit limited. I was given some yak cheese to try by Mr Numgay. Imagine eating a small angular pebble which tastes vaguely of milk and which will stay your companion for a good hour or so. It was an interesting experience!

The broad, glacial, Phobjika valley spread out before us and Sunam showed us where we will walk tomorrow. We arrived at a local monastery built in 1630. The Ganga Goemba has some 600 monks, some of them very young. As we entered some of the monks were tending a large fire blazing on a platform in the courtyard. We walked around the temple while Sunam explained that this was a particular Buddhist sect which followed slightly different rituals. Today was a special day and as we went inside the monks were chanting and drums and horns were being played. Photos are not allowed inside any temple very sensibly. The walls were covered in paintings and there was a large statue of the second Buddha who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. The chanting stopped and butter tea with crispy rice was served to the monks in what Sunam called ‘an interval’. How very civilised!

The monastery was beautiful and in a very beautiful setting overlooking the valley on two sides. Crows were everywhere, because the monks sacrifice butter cakes in their rituals and then throw them out for the birds. The crows are no fools!

A short drive along the valley side and we came to a small settlement and our hotel perched above. It really is a spectacular setting with pine forests rising up behind it. Tomorrow we get a chance to stretch our legs, although the pace may be leisurely as the air is a bit thinner at 3,800 metres!

Bhutan – Day 3 – Thimphu

Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and nestles in the valley of the Wangchu at 2,600 metres above sea level. Its population is about 100,000 but growing as more of the 700,000 population of the country move to the city. Rural-urban migration is a real issue here still. New buildings are going up, but these are mainly hotels or government offices. Built of concrete labour has to be brought in from India as there is a lack of local skills in concrete engineering. These Indian workers are housed on site in shantiesif corrugated iron. They do not have to receive the national minimum wage of £800 a month!

Today has been a cultural day in Thimphu, learning about Buddhism, traditional arts and crafts, the traditional Bhutanese house, traditional sport and, of course, the royal family. I am now fairly confident that we’re I to bump into any of kings since 1907 I would be able to bend a knee instantly! Mind you 3 have passed away, so I might not recognise their current reincarnation!

The day dawned bright and clear so we headed to a large stupa or chorten in the town. This was not particularly old, but was beautiful. As we entered the courtyard we saw the prayer wheels and a number of elderly ladies who pass their days praying on their rosaries at the base of the wheels. After a quick spin, we entered the Stupa and climbed up the stunningly coloured interior. Susan explained the significance of various gods. Once outside he pointed out the gods of east, south, west and north and their symbolism. The god of the south holds a sword as evil comes from his hands.

A short walk took us to the National Stamp Museum. Bhutan has some very beautiful stamps, bu5 in all honesty it did not hold us for long (sorry John!)

A short drive and we were at ‘Simply Bhutan’ which is a small heritage museum. We entered a recreation of a reception room and our young guide gave us some rice spirit which was very pleasant and about 40% proof! A good start to the day! She showed us the method used to make mud walls where the clay is pounded until it becomes rock hard. In the garden phalluses grew like mushrooms and above our heads a flying phallus swung in the breeze. She took us around a typical Bhutanese kitchen and showed us where the chillies were dried. We were offered butter tea with toasted rice, both of which were surprisingly pleasant. While we drank 8 young people performed traditional dances.

Outside was a man with cerebral palsy who has learnt how to carve using only his feet. We watched fascinated as he wielded a hammer and chisel held between his toes. We gladly bought one of the dhama wheels he had carved.

 

We were invited to try our hand at traditional archery using bamboo poles and arrows. Christine went first and hit the target every time. I followed on and …..well let us say I did not trouble the scorer!

We walked from there to the National Institute for Zorig Cusum, where young people, from 16 onwards, learn traditional arts and crafts. It was very impressive. The students worked in near silence and with fierce concentration as they outlined a design, carved wood, embroidered or painted. Clearly the state is determined not to lose its heritage as each student gets their training free as well as board and lodging. How unlike our own students!

37AF0FF8-13AC-45C3-AB88-14EA51BB582EThe National library is quite something. As you enter the building your eye is drawn to the altar at the end of the room where Buddha presides and the usual 7 bowls of water are placed. The books are all religious texts and you quickly realise that to be a god Buddhist, you need to do some serious reading. The basic Buddhist teachings run to over a 100 large volumes! The library also boasts the world’s largest book at a staggering 5 feet square.

Lunch today was a very good vegetarian selection including momos, a kind of dumpling parcel with vegetables in it, and some vegetable balls in a gingerish sauce.

At the national Textile Institute we learned about traditional weaving and costumes. This was a very impressive modern building with two large galleries. The textiles were stunning as were the costumes. Weaving is done mainly on backstrap looms, in which the weaver sits and provides the tension by leaning back into the strap.

We were then given a ‘shopping opportunity’ by walking down past the row of government provided arts and craft stalls in the centre of the Main Street. Again there was some lovely work at very low prices, but how exactly we would get home a sculpture of a demon with antler horns I do not know. Luckily Christine settled on a couple of scarves.

Archery is the national sport and so we were taken to the local archery ground to watch a competition. It was fascinating. The teams shoot over a long distance at a very small wooden target. The odd time someone hits the thing there is jubilation and a dance by his team mates. Every time he misses they all tell him where he has gone wrong. Each archer has two arrows and ther are about ten a side.

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I had spotted a large Buddha on a hil some distance away and asked Sunam about it. Immediately Mr Namgay asked if we would like to drive to  see it. Well, of course we would! We climbed steadily along very windy roads and then walked up to the 51 metre high bronze figure. It is still being completed. Inside there are thousands of small buddhas and still many more to be placed on the shelves inside. A covered platform outside is where, at a certain time in the lunar year, the chief abbot will sit and read Buddha’s teachings to the massed pilgrims in the enormous square in front of the statue. We climbed back down vertiginous and clearly unfinished steps, Christine gripping my arm!

We returned to our hotel for a brief rest before being taken to the local dzong. This houses not only a monastery but also the state offices, including the king’s office. His ‘palace’ is just across the river and is no more than a large bungalow. Couldn’t help thinking our royal family could take a leaf! The parliament building lies near by, an altogether grander building. There are two chambers, both elected. The upper chamber has 45 members, one for each province and the lower chamber has 20, one for each region. It all seems rather cosy.

Back to the dzong. The courtyard was beautiful with a magnificent central tower and beautifully painted woodwork. We were only allowed in the monastic zone. As the sun set, red lights came out all around the building. Christine said it looked magnificent. I said it was just a dzong at twilight!

Time for bed I think. We have to be on the road at 9.00.

 

Bhutan – Day 1

A very early rise as we had to be at the airport by 6.30 for our 8.30 flight to Bhutan. Got there in plenty of time as there was little traffic. Interesting to watch India waking up, a few people still asleep on the pavement, others starting fires and cooking breakfast, stalls being opened, queues forming at bus stops etc..
Got to the airport in plenty of time, but had some problem locating the check-in desk of Bhutan Airlines – apparently they move about! Checked in, quick cup of coffee and our sandwiches from the hotel, abandoned the curry which neither of us could face at 7.00 in the morning, then through security and into the departure lounge. The female announcer here sounds like she once worked for the Wehrmacht- I dread to think what she would do to you if you missed your flight! Joined in the departure lounge by a couple of opportunistic sparrows hopping along the carpet.

Our plane arrived at about 7.45 and we were called not long after. It was already quite full having come from Bangkok. We left spot on time. It was an airbus A319-100 and quite cramped but for a 52 minute flight that didn’t really matter!

As we flew in through the mountains, the sky cleared and the sun shone. In fact it was positively hot with that lovely clearness to the air that you get in mountains. Our driver and our guide were there to meet us and both a delightful. Sunam, our guide, suggested that as there was a festival at the Paro dzong we should visit.

So we drove from the airport to the town and then strolled over the Parochu (river) on a very old covered bridge and up to the dzong. It was packed as people come from miles for the festival and of course there were a lot of visitors as well, including the inevitable Japanese!

The festival takes place in a courtyard with monk# dressed in elaborate and beautiful costumes. Three men with masques were the jesters, but also made sure the dancers kept to the correct steps. They are in the tradition of the wise fool. The press of the crowd was phenomenal and while I could see over their heads, Christine struggled. We extricated ourselves and then went in on the other side where we could see a little better. We shall be returning to the dzong on our way back, when it will be a lot less crowded.

We wandered into the town and went to a restaurant for lunch. Clearly it was a tourist restaurant, but the food was fairly local and tasty, although Christine did not like the rice! Our guid3 took us into a market set up for the festival which was not dissimilar to Bury market in terms of the goods it sold. Then he showed us an outdoor cinema with 6 screens showing Bhutanese films. Again this was a tented structure set up for the festival. Both his parents were in the film industry and he knows many of the actors.

Back in the car we drove through stunning scenery, stopping every so often to look and to take pictures. Now we are in the capital of Thimphu, which has a population of 100,000, but is clearly growing rapidly. Our hotel is modern but with traditional features near the centre.

After a brief rest and unpack we walked up the Main Street of Thimphu, the only capital city not to have traffic lights. However there is quite a bit of traffic! Still there are some lovely buildings and lots of interesting things to see. Tomorrow we will explore some more with Sunam.

Bhutan – the journey 2 – Calcutta

 

What a fantastic afternoon! Although exhausted we met our guide Depak at 2.00 and asked if we could avoid the usual sites and head for the Howrah bridge. We also asked for a walk as we are very tired of sitting down! He came up trumps.

We began with a visit to St John’s church next to the sit3 of the infamous ‘black hole’. This was built in 1787 and is muc( associated with Warren Hastings and 5he East India Company. It is very similar to St George’s in Chennai. There is a large portrait of the Last Supper with a female lean8ng on Christ’s shoulder and only 11 apostles. Reputedly their faces are those of local dignitaries of the time. In the graveyard is a memorial to the ‘Black Hole’. When the Nawab of Bengal captured the British fort in 1756 he imprisonedover 100 British inhabitants in a small airless cell and 123 died only 23 being found alive in the morning. This was a favourite horror story of the Raj. We also visited an epitaph to a remarkable woman. It is worth a read if you click on it and get it full screen. Look carefully at the dates!

From there Depak took us to the Howrah bridge which is quite a structure. Built in 1943 it was for a long time the only bridge over the Hooghly (Ganges). At times it could take over 3 hours to cross it! Now there are 4 bridges, but it remains very busy.

There are 15 million inhabitants in Calcutta and about 4 million commute in and out each day. Many come by train which is in Howrah the other side of the bridge. We walked down to the Ganges and then through the flower market. People come here to buy flowers fo4 the shrines and temples in the morning and evening, so it is very busy. The flowers are stunning and we watched them making garlands which sell for about 300 rupees each (£3.00) – some for even less. Then we looked at the edge of the spice market before climbing up the steps onto the bridge.

We walked across (photos not permitted for some reason) then down the other side towards the 23 platform main station. We walked down the side of a very busy road and then joined the queue for the ferry. This took us under the bridge and up river some way. It was wonderful and we watched a young boy jumping off the boat and then travelling down its side before grabbing a rubber fender and hauling himself back on board. Unbelievably dangerous, but he was having a great time.

 

When we docked on the other side, Depak took us over the railway line and into a district of small factories. Cloth and clothing figured highly to start with and then we moved into an area that made statues of mud and straw for festivals. They were stunning and the skill was quite incredible, at all stages of the process. The statues end up in the river at the end of the festivities and the whole process starts again.

Our last stop was a Jain temple, which was beautiful and inspiring. The gardens were very attractive, but the temple itself was covered in beautiful mosaics and pieces of mirror glass. No photos allowed inside, but it was breath taking. Our guide said that Jainism arose out of a need for greater equality that Hinduism with its caste system did not offer.

From there we battled through the traffic to our hotel. Calcutta is a beautiful, fascinating and very green city. I think we have both fallen in love with it. It is not really on the tourist map and we have only seen one other white person all day. LHowever we have had a brilliant start to our holiday and we are looking forward to coming back here after Bhutan. Tonight an early meal and an early night is called for, as we have to be away from here by 5.30 a.m.!

Bhutan – the journey

An interesting start to the journey! Having arrived safely at Gatwick in plenty of time for the flight we left the car and went up the first escalator. We turned onto a second, sleeper escalator and somehow I fell over my bag and ended up travelling upside down towards the top!  I was fine but a bit embarrassed as a woman had spotted my predicament and had come up the escalator to rescue me.  Christine was unable to help as she was surrounded by bags at the bottom of the escalator. I eventually sorted myself out and left the escalator at the top, the right way up.  I was unhurt, but my pride was injured.

After that the two flights, the first to Dubai and then onward to Kolkata were pretty uneventful. The flight was late into Dubai, so we had to walk pretty swiftly to get to our departure gate for Kolkata. It was a long way, but we were glad to stretch our legs.

We were met at the airport and an air conditioned car drove us through the rush hour traffic (our guide called it rush day!) to our very pleasant hotel in the city centre. We are allowed 3 hours rest before we are taken on a sightseeing tour. I think a nap is called for……………