Bhutanese rural life on the westward road to Paro

Bhutanese rural life on the westward road to Paro

We are entering the final week of our itinerary around Bhutan. From Tashingang back to Mongar over Thrumshing La pass toward Jakar, we are retracing our steps on the only main road that runs the breadth of the country and will ultimately take us back to Paro. On the second day of this westward drive, we turn onto a side road that leads to the highest valley in the Bhumthang district and the village of Ura (altitude 3,200 meters or 10,170 feet), where we will be the overnight guests of a local family. The people in this remote rural community are mainly sheep and yak herders, and believed to be the descendants of Bhutan’s earliest inhabitants.

The valleys where time stands still – Part two

Bhutan - Ura home

The home of our local hosts in Ura.

While our hostess prepares the evening meal, our guide Kezang encourages us to explore the village, partially to pre-empt any offer of help in the kitchen, I suspect. The ensuing walk is one of my most memorable moments of the entire trip. Time seems to have forgotten this cluster of ramshackle Himalayan farmhouses scattered along narrow cobblestone lanes and dominated by a modest temple. Under a crystalline blue sky the high altitude air is thin and crisp. A light breeze carries the sound of a nearby rushing stream and a faint smell of wood fires. We pass a few villagers, a woman bringing in her cows, a young boy carrying on his back a large bale of hay. Soon the pale sun drops beyond the mountain range and dusk instantly engulfs the village.

Bhutan - Hymalayan rural life

The remote village of Ura offers a glmpse of Hymalayan rural life.

Suddenly the air vibrates with the soaring baritone wail of Dungchens, the giant horns used in Buddhist ceremonies, punctuated by the deep beat of drums coming out of a nearby barn. Male voices join in. The sound stops abruptly, only to start again an instant later. We stand still, mesmerized by this unexpected gift of music from what we surmise to be a rehearsal, until a rumble of hooves gives us notice to get out of the way. Four long-haired yaks, squat and powerful, barrel by on their way to the river. I am awed by this fleeting experience of the essence of Bhutan.

Bhutanese rural home kitchen.

Our Ura host family’s kitchen.

We share a traditional meal of red rice, dry yak meat stew and hot chilies in a cheese sauce with our host family, all of us sitting in a circle on a floor mat in the center of the kitchen, exchanging questions about each others’ world under the vacillating light of a small light bulb. Kezang translates. We are in the home of a local state official, one of the most spacious and best kept in the village. However creature comforts as we westerners understand them are still a relative concept. Other than the warmth from the woodstove in the kitchen, the house is unheated, and the temperature has dropped precipitously at nightfall. In my room, a glaze of ice is forming on the window panes. I gratefully burrow in the low temperature sleeping bag I have (needlessly until now) dragged around the country. Plumbing is symbolic here, with a common water closet consisting of a sink, a commode and a large drum of (ice cold) water with a scooper. All and all a unique opportunity to experience authentic Bhutanese village life.

Bhutan -Gangtey Gompa monastery.

Recently restored Gangtey Gompa monastery features exceptional wood facade details.

We continue our exploration of the high valleys and rural life with a stop in Phobjkha Valley. The weather is clear and we get exceptional views of the Black Mountains range along the way, with several snow-covered peaks rising above 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). Phobjkha is a vast U-shaped glaciated valley known as the winter habitat for black-necked cranes. Unfortunately we are a couple of weeks early and the famous Himalayan migratory birds have yet to return from Tibet. Absent cranes notwithstanding, we enjoy sunny nature hikes in the valley, and visits at various times of day to the nearby Gangtey Gompa. This monastery, one of Bhutan’s oldest was recently the object of extensive renovations. The woodcarvings of the façade and the vivid murals inside are exceptionally beautiful.

Back to contemporary life

We go over Dochu La pass, once again cocooned in thick clouds. We are now inexorably on the road back to Thimphu. The capital of Bhutan is a mere 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of here, with Paro only one hour farther via the best stretch of blacktop road in the country.

Bhutan - Paro Gangtey Palace Hotel

Inner courtyard of the Gangtey Palace Hotel, once a royal residence in Paro.

In Paro, thanks to Karen’s determination, we stay in glorious splendor at the Gangtey Palace Hotel. The palace was built over a century ago for Dawa Penjor, uncle of the first king of Bhutan and governor of the Paro Valley. It was also for a time the residence of the king when he visited the city. In addition to its traditional décor and gorgeous antiques the palace offers a stunning view of Rinpung Dzong (or “fortress that sits on a heap of jewels”). More commonly known as Paro Dzong it is itself a jewel of Bhutanese architecture with its high inward-sloping walls rising high above the Paro River.

Bhutan - Tiger's Nest Monastery

The Tiger’s Nest monastery overlooks the Paro Valley.

On our last day in Bhutan, we visit the Taktsang Palphug Monastery. Better known as the Tiger’s Nest, the temple complex was built in the late seventeenth century on the site of one of Guru Rinpoche’s meditation caves. This sacred site clings to a vertical rock face about 900 meters (3,000 ft) above the upper Paro valley. The eight century holly man is said to have been transported here on the back of a flying tiger. With no such conveyance at our disposal, the only option is to hike up, with the possible assistance of a sturdy Himalayan pony for the lower half of the trek. Jan takes off on foot. Karen and I opt to admire this iconic architectural wonder from afar.

Good to know

  • Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/plan.
  • We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks http://www.bluepoppybhutan.com for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

I want to express my profound gratitude to my friends Karen and Jan Abadschieff who planned this amazing adventure in the Land of the Thunder Dragon down to its smallest detail and welcomed me to share it with them.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Paro, Bhutan

White-knuckle road travel in Eastern Bhutan

White-knuckle road travel in Eastern Bhutan

As the tiger flies (in Bhutanese lore, tigers do more than their fair share of flying. Why should crows have all the fun anyway?) the distance between Jakar, capital of the Bumthang district in central Bhutan and Mongar, gateway to the eastern part of the country, is approximately 57 kilometers (35 miles). For humans however, the only option is a 200 kilometer (125 mile), daylong roller-coaster road trip that includes a steep ascent to Bhutan’s highest pass, Thrumshing La (altitude 3,780 meters or 12,402 feet).

Driving into the clouds

Thrumshing La National Park roadside shrine.

Roadside shrine near mountaintop Thrumshing La National Park,

Before entering the Thrumshing La National Park, we make a quick stop at a roadside teahouse. A small adjacent one-room temple is aglow with flickering butter lamps. Considering the road conditions, it seems a wise idea to make our own offering.

 

 

 

 

Bhutan - Thrumshing La Pass

Thrumshing La is the highest pass in Bhutan.

As we near the pass, the stunning panorama of distant snowcapped mountains vanishes. By the time we reach the top, we are deep in shifting clouds that go from gloomy gray to gleaming white as they part to allow us glimpses at the bottomless valley below. Hundreds of prayer flags snap in the cutting wind.

 

 

Eastern Bhutan Panorama.

Eastern Bhutan Panorama.

 

The landscape is breathtaking, the ride hair-raising. We leave the Thumshing La Park area to emerge into the upper Kuri Chu valley. The narrow road has been hacked into the side of a vertical rock face streaked with waterfalls that thunder straight down for hundreds of meters and sometimes spill onto the road. Then there is the occasional rockslide. We stand by and watch while our driver Tshering takes the van at crawl speed over whatever rock and dirt are obstructing the way. He once explained that he had grown up in a monastery. I hope he accumulated enough divine protection in his youth to see him through. He has. We get back into the van and continue on our way.

Bhutan - transport truck.

These bright trucks move all of Bhutan’s freight around the country,

Other than local busses, we mostly meet the ubiquitous huge, brightly painted trucks used to move every imaginable kind of freight across the country. Crossing path with them is always a tight squeeze, and guardrails are still a remote concept in these parts.

 Panda Country

Eastern Bhuthan roadside market.

Local farmers sell their produce at an impromptu roadside market.

We wend down an endless succession of sharp turns. The vegetation becomes lush with giant bamboo and ferns. “This is panda country,” our guide Kezang volunteers, but the legendary bears are nowhere to be seen. The temperature warms noticeably as we continue our descent through cornfields, rice terraces and tropical fruit orchards. At an unusually wide curve in the road, local villagers have lined up to sell their products. We stop at this impromptu roadside market for a bag of juicy persimmons.

Bhutan - Rice harvest

In the valley below local women harvest the rice .

 

We finally reach the valley floor (altitude 570 meters or 1,900 feet) and the Kuri Zampa bridge that takes us across a white-water river to start the hour-long, 25 kilometer ascent to Mongar (altitude 1675 meters or 5500 feet). This fast-growing, unlovely modern town is notable only for the medical facility built a couple of decades ago to serve the people of eastern Bhutan.

As far East as it gets

Bhutan -Tashi Yangtse prayer drums.

In Tashi Yangtse, we join the villagers at the Chorten Kora.

The next morning, we are on our way to Tashi Yangtse, as far East as one can travel and still be in Bhutan. Very few western Bhutanese and even fewer western visitors make it this far. There is no tourism infrastructure here, so we are welcomed for the next two nights in the home of a lovely elderly woman, where guest quarters have been arranged, complete with basic modern plumbing. This small rural town near the border of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh is gathered around the large white-washed Chorten Kora, a serene sanctuary on the bank of the Kulong Chu river. At dusk, we join villagers and a handful of pilgrims in their daily perambulations around this revered site. The next day, we enjoy a hike in the countryside, a visit to the local monastery and a welcome rest before departing for nearby Tashigang in the morning.

Ancient devotion tiles at Gom Kora temple.

Gom Kora temple is built around a sacred cave.

We stop on the way at the temple of Gom Kora, built in the seventeenth century in front of a rock where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated and left his body imprint. The temple is home to 30 monks and what are considered to be some of the most beautiful paintings in the country.

The eastern-most point on the main road, Tashigang is a bustling city. Area residents come to trade here, and there is a busy station where busses leave several times a day for Thimphu and Paro in the west, and for India only a few hours to the southeast.

Tomorrow we start our own long journey back to Western Bhutan.

Good to know

  • Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/plan.
  • We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks http://www.bluepoppybhutan.com for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Trumshing La National Park, Bhutan

Thrumshing La National Park, Bhutan