A driving day today along the road back to Punakha, a road described in the ‘lonely planet’ guide as ‘interesting and easy’. Interesting it certainly is, easy it ain’t.
We were sorry to leave our beautiful hotel this morning with its delicious food, most of it homemade and / or local. The view down the valley was obscured by mist, but as we drove up the valley side we came into brilliant sunshine with the mist lying in the valley below. At the stupa at the top of the pass a couple of beautiful ponies were grazing in the sunshine.
The road was fairly clear, but, as before we bounced from pothole to pothole, Mr Numgay, taking it very easy, but still giving our internal organs a thorough massage. We passed through beautiful villages with stunning views of the mountains and the rivers down below. We stopped briefly at the top of the second pass and then headed down into Trongsa, where we’d stopped for lunch before. Too early this time, although it was nearly 12.00. We stopped briefly to use a toilet and watch a monkey being chased away by women with brooms.
Onwards we went, the road becoming even worse, with a lot of heavy machinery working in places. We came to a stop when a JCB type digger completely blocked our way and watched fascinated as two men (one of them little more than a boy) rammed explosives into holes drilled in the rock face and attached the red fuse. It looked highly unsafe, but there it was. Eventually he made room and let us pass.
We were very glad when eventually we pulled off the road into a small hotel and restaurant where we were booked in for lunch. We entered through the back room, which is clearly where the locals eat. Off to our left was a general store which sold everything from prayer flags to shampoo, from biscuits to nails. We were shown through a curtain to a very nice rustic dining room with a wood stove and fine views. Coffee was served and then a succession of dishes arrived. Rice, noodles, cabbage, shiitake mushrooms and tomatoes came in that order, the latter two dishes being particularly delicious. There is no doubt that the vegetables in Bhutan and the way they prepare them, beats anything we can do back home!
Which brings me to the delicate subject of the phallus, which abounds and was brightly painted on the outside of the restaurant. It protects the place and the people in it from harm and ensures it is blessed. It is still rather strange to see, particularly with a ribbon around it and clearly ejaculating. I used to tell boys off for drawing these in their notebooks and here they adorn the walls of houses!
Further on, the road got better as we neared the top of the pass. We stopped to take pictures and I asked if we could walk for a bit. Mr Numgay said he would meet us at the top. We ended up walking over a mile uphill! The views were fantastic and we were glad to stretch our legs, we just hadn’t bargained on such a long walk in the sun. When we reached the summit Suman and Mr Numgay were browsing the stalls of the yak herders which cluster at such places. I was tempted to buy a yak wool belt for £3.00 woven on a hand loom. The woman who made it was spinning using a distaff and was very pleased to be photographed.
Now we were steadily descending in tight bends from 3,420 metres to 1,300 at Punakha. The views were wonderful, but the road varied between excellent to bone-grinding. You never knew what lay around the next bend. Even on a tarmac stretch you might find piles of stones or sand blocking one half of the carriageway.
As we dropped the temperature rose and paddy fields became more evident. Eventually we reached the river at Wangdue Phodrang. We stopped to take pictures of the bridge and the dzong on the hill above. A beautiful building built in 1638 it unfortunately burnt down in 2012.Since then there has been a national effort to get it rebuilt, with people offering money or labour. The town of Wagdue Phodrang is a new town and looks very unprepossessing.
It was now clear that the hillside above it and beyond was on fire. I thought I had seen smoke on the horizon earlier, and now it was clear that there was a major forest fire in progress. It has apparently been raging for about 36 hours and shows little sign of abating.
We turned off the road and up a steep slope to our hotel. Apparently Suman was due to take us to another one, but the local agent was unhappy with what they were offering so booked us in to this one. Bizarrely, this is the hotel we were expecting to go to. It is wonderful. We have a suite with a sitting area, large bed, and a gigantic bathroom complete with a stand alone bath of a Victorian design. Our balcony extends across the front of this suite, giving us unrivalled views of the inferno on the hills opposite as well as the corrugated iron workshop directly below. This really is the most amazing country as nothing seems predictable – we love it.
Let us hope that it rains tonight so that the fires go out. There seems little else can be done as access to the hillside is very limited.
Thinking of things unpredicted, I didn’t mention last night. At 6.30 the four of us set off to Chamkahr to get Christine’s jacket from the tailor. However we drove through the town and along the far bank of the river. We had been asking after a berry which the hotel used to make jam, called ‘sea buckthorn’. We hadn’t heard of it and as we are a long way from the sea, we wondered how they got it. Suman and Mr Numgay were on a mission to show us it. We parked on the road in the gathering gloom and walked along the top of the river wall. Suddenly they ran off and dived down an area of loose stone down to the dry river course and an island which clearly floods during the monsoon. Suman had the phone on his torch, but otherwise they were now working in total darkness. We stood on top of the wall and watched for the occasional flash of Susan’s torch. They went further and further away until we could no longer make out where they were. Suddenly they reappeared crashing through the bushes below us exuberantly brandishing some twigs with orange berries. You can see a picture below and read all about it on Wikipedia if you need to know more.
Now full of excitement at having achieved their quest we went back to the tailor where the jacket was waiting and proved a pretty good fit. The tailor was also back after his lunch, liquid or otherwise, and apparently none the worse for wear. Christine will be modelling said jacket on her return to the U.K. while I on the other hand will not be making sea buckthorn jam!
Sorry no pictures. Internet here is very poor.