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!