The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

The Odyssey Revisited – Delphi to Karpenisi

It’s Day Two of my Tripology off-road adventure through the mountains of Central Greece. We congregate in the parking lot of the Amelia Hotel in Delphi to carry on our departure routine. Yoav Barashi, the leader of our Tripology Adventures caravan, reviews the day’s itinerary, we eagerly pile our luggage and ourselves with into our designated cars (mine is # 3 and Tim Campbell is at the wheel today) and proceed with an all around radio check. The morning sun is dissipating the last of the early mist as we meander down a country road toward the sea. I marvel at the serenity of the bucolic setting, until Nikos Manolis, our lead driver (and a noted figure in the Greek rally racing community) leads us onto a narrow gravel road.

From Breathtaking to Hair-raising

Greece - Pindus - Lake Mormos

A first glance at Lake Mormos

This is Bauxite Way, Yoav explains, named for the aluminum ore mine on our right. And by the way, we are now on one of the best-known stages of the famous Acropolis Rally, which is part of the European Rally Championship schedule. The best time recorded on this 24 kilometer (15 mile) uphill, tightly winding trail is 13 minutes (that’s 110 kilometers-or 70 miles- per hour!). Mercifully, Tim takes it considerably slower but we are still stirring impressive clouds of red dust in our wake. Back on paved road high on the Giona Ridge, we catch our first sight of the turquoise waters of the Mormos Reservoir far below. We unanimously call for a photo op stop.

Greece. Pindus, Lidoriki wisteria.

In Lidoriki, main street balconies vanish under a riot of wisteria blooms.

The road snakes steeply downhill toward Lidoriki, a postcard perfect little village with just a few shops along a main street not much wider than our Jeep and lined with stone facades overwhelmed by riotous wisteria in full bloom. We stop for refreshments on the platia, the village square that is the heart of every Greek village before resuming our roller-coaster ride, uphill once more. The narrow rocky trail hugs the rock face to the right. The scenery goes from breathtaking to hair-raising as I consider the precipitous drop to our left and the conspicuous absence of guardrail. This is the wild, off-the-beaten-paths Greece I wanted to experience, but right now I wish for something a bit tamer.

Bonding with boulders

Greece - Pindus.Boulder.

Jessica telling the boulder who’s boss.

Greece - Pindus. Ridge view.

Picnic view at the top of the ridge.

A jarring rock-against-metal grinding sound interrupts my musings as our car comes to a decisive stop. The lead vehicle and Cars # 1 and 2 are already out of sight, Car # 4 has not yet caught up. I reach for the radio (as the non-driver in our car, I am the designated radio operator) searching for the appropriate words to admit that we have just bonded with a boulder. Deep breath. “Number Three to Lead. Do you read me?”. “Go-ahead,” Yaov prompts. “We have … hit a rock,” I squeak. Jessica, the unflappable Coloradoan in Car # 4 takes over with a businesslike “Getting out to assess and will report.” Within minutes Nikos’ big Land Rover comes to nose to nose halt with our Jeep (How did he manage to turn around and go past two cars so quickly?). The rock in question is firmly embedded into our front right wheel-well. Nikos and Yaov spring into action. A winch materializes from the front bumper of the land cruiser, the rock is lassoed with the capable assistance of Jessica and just as it is being dragged out of the way a nimble rally emergency vehicle zips to a stop behind us to offer a hand.

Greece - Pindus. Bee-hives

Tending hives under the Judas Trees.

We are off again in short order. When we reach the top of the ridge, we are greeted by Izhar, co-founder of Tripology Adventures, a copious picnic already laid-out and jaw-dropping mountain vistas to the horizon. An hour later, the camping stoves, plastic stools and assorted remains of our picnic stowed into his 4WD, Izhar zooms down the trail with a “see you tonight” wave. We start our descent at a much more sedate pace. Other than lots of goats, the occasional herd of shaggy sheep and now a pair of beekeepers tending to their hives in a roadside orchard, we have barely come across anyone on these remote roads.

Greece - Pindus. Sheep.

On these mountain roads, sheep have the right of way.

But by now I’ve realized that we are never left to our own devices. In addition to our leaders Yoav and Nikos, Izhar is always one step ahead of us, test driving our itinerary to make sure it is still passable (between weather and rock slides, conditions can change fast in these mountains), catering the occasional al fresco meal and checking that hotels and restaurants are ready for us. And there is road support at our back, ready to intervene in case of mishap. How else could the blue mosquito with its crew of two and the spare wheel strapped to its roof have found us so quickly? We didn’t need them this time, but it’s good to know they are here.

We dine and stay at the Elatou that night, a cozy country hotel in the mountain village Ano Chora surrounded by dense forests of fir and chestnut trees.

Into the clouds

Greece - Pindus. Agrafa

These remote mountains kept the Moors invasion at bay for four centuries.

The weather is drab and chilly as we leave Ano Chora the next morning, and even more so when we stop for coffee in Arachova, a village precariously perched on a mountainside. We are in the Evrytania now, a pristine region of steep, thickly forested slopes and rushing streams that have earned it a reputation for splendid scenery and the moniker of “the Switzerland of Greece”. But for now, clouds are blotting out the landscape and the going is slow. Yoav seizes the moment to tell us of the harsh history of the area and the fiercely independent people who left the cities to take refuge in these mountains; and succeeded in maintaining their autonomy and culture through the 400 year Ottoman occupation of Greece.

Greece - Pindus. Lake Evinos.

Lake Evinos fills a series of deep canyons.

The clouds finally part and we are treated to a bird’s-eye view of the brilliant green waters of Lake Evinos meandering at the bottom of deep canyons, and hills dotted with the bright fuchsia Judas trees in bloom. Our next stop is Krikelo, where after lunch at the cheerful Tavern Antigoni, there is time for walk across the platia to the village church. Behind its humble exterior of pale local stone, it is a treasure trove of gilded byzantine-style icons and dripping crystal chandeliers.

Greece - Pindus. Krikelo church.

Crystal chandeliers and rich icons light up the village church.

One more stop in Megalo Horio, a exceptionally picturesque village clinging so closely to the mountain that it appears to rise in layers from the platia, before heading for Karpenisi, a small town (population 13,000) best known for its popular ski resort. After two days spent exploring remote wilderness, there is something a bit incongruous to being greeted with welcome drinks at check-in and bellman service at the five-star Montana Hotel and Spa. But one look at my room with its king-size canopy bed and spacious seating area opening onto a large deck with a panoramic view of the mountains (plus an oversized whirlpool bath in my bathroom) and I am quite happy to re-enter the lap of twenty first century luxury. We have dinner in a tiny nearby village in a family-run restaurant where Izhar and Yoav are greeted like longtime friends. I never caught the name of the place, but I will long remember the warmth of the welcome and the freshly caught brook trout grilled to perfection.

The Tripology Fairies

We find our vehicles freshly washed and lined in formation when we leave the restaurant. It reminds me that we haven’t once had to stop to refuel since we left Athens. Tripology fairies must be servicing the cars while we eat or sleep. All this seamless planning and attention to details make our expedition feel so easy I would travel anywhere with these guys.

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravans across remote, culturally rich regions of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Karpenisi, Greece

Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

The Odyssey Revisited – Athens to Delphi

Blame it on Homer, my impression that Greece was all about the sea. Even before I ever set foot in the country I knew of its myriad islands and endless coastline. Accordingly, the Greece of my prior visits had mainly consisted of sun baked islands rising from aquamarine waters, warm sand beaches and gleaming white cubist villages punctuated by indigo domes. Add a plethora of archeological treasures in various stages of restoration, bountiful dinners of taverna fare and soulful rebetika music. I felt I had Greece covered.

An irresistible proposition

Greece - Pindus Mountains.

We are headed into the Pindus Mountains, the spine of the Greek mainland.

Greece - Triplogy Adventures driving.

Our itinerary wends up and down steep slopes on roads that are little more than dirt trails.

That was before I came across Tripology Adventures, an off-road travel company that has been leading self-drive caravans of four-wheel drive vehicles through Central Greece and other remote, history-rich areas of the planet for over two decades. The eight-day itinerary went from Athens to the Pindus Mountains, the southeast to northwest labyrinth of high ridges and deep valleys that forms the spine of the Greek mainland. The impenetrable forests of its central region, the Agrafa (Greek for unchartered), allowed it to maintain its autonomy throughout the four centuries of Ottoman occupation. During World War II it became a center of resistance against Italian and then German invaders. This wild, sparsely inhabited region remains relatively unspoiled to this day. And the roads that wind their way up and down its steep slopes are still little more than dirt trails.

This, combined with the self-drive bit causes me to pause. I am a highway driver, an erstwhile soccer mom. Although no stranger to off-road adventure travel, from the African bush to the Himalaya, I have always left the driving to local experts. But an opportunity to discover this other Greece I hadn’t known to still exists is hard to pass. Fortunately Tripology assures me that, while the driving on their itineraries is challenging, many participants actually want to drive. They’ll get no argument from me! There remains one last nagging doubt before I reach for my passport. We are talking group travel, my least favorite way to go. But this trip is so far off the beaten tracks that I could never undertake it on my own. Count me in!

In the beginning…

Greece - Athens. Ezvone changing of the guard,

Evzone Honor Guard march to Parliament building on Syntagma Square for the ceremonial changing of the guard.

Greece - Athens. The Acropolis.

The Acropolis glows against the Athens night sky.

We meet at our Athens hotel, the Alexandros, on the afternoon prior to our departure, fourteen of us ranging in age from thirty-something to twice that, three couples, the rest of us solo. After a short get-acquainted briefing led by Izhar Gamlieli, co-founder of Tripology, he shepherds us into the metro for an evening on the town. It’s just a couple of stops to Syntagma Square (Constitution Square), the modern heart of the city. We catch the ceremonial changing of the Evzones, the white-skirted honor guard in front of the Parliament building. Then, after a leisurely walk through the vibrant center of town and past the entrance of the ancient Agora, we settle at the terrace of Diodos, a popular Lower Adrianou Street taverna. Our reserved family-style tables are immediately piled high with the entire gamut of traditional dishes, salad topped with slabs of sweet fresh feta, hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant dip), tzatziki (cucumber with yogurt and dill), calamari, tiropita (cheese pie), spanakopita (spinach pie). It’s all just freshly prepared and delicious. But it’s only the beginning. Next come platters of grilled chicken, sausage and lamb chops. Our group is starting to connect. It’s impossible to remain strangers for long while tucking into succulent Greek mezedes washed down with hearty local wine, with the Acropolis glowing against the night sky in the background.

The level of camaraderie goes up another notch the next morning as we pile our luggage into our assigned vehicle, one of four shiny late model Jeep Patriots lined up in the hotel’s driveway behind the lead car, a massive land cruiser. I meet my Car # 3 traveling companions: Mary Bailey, a cookbook author, editor of The Tomato Food and Drink and all around foodie from Edmonton, Canada, and Tim Campbell, a travel writer from the U.K.

Lead car, do you read me?

Greece - Delphi, The Archeological site.

The archeological of Delphi sits on the Western face of Mount Parnassus

Delphi's Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Delphi’s Temple of Apollo overlooks the valley of Phocis.

Our cars have two-way radios with a frequency dedicated for our convoy. Yoav Barashi, our tour leader and a passionate grecophile who has been guiding here for a decade and our lead driver Niko Manolis (who turns out to be a national champion rally racer) give us a brief primer on the use of the radio and the protocol for convoy travel and we are off. The instructions are simple enough: follow the car ahead, keep your assigned place in the convoy and above all follow the directions Yoav is giving over the radio. Also, when you make a turn wait until the car behind you starts its turn before continuing on. That one is a real challenge with traffic lights, determined drivers and motorcyclists buzzing all around us. But somehow we all fall into formation again at the tollgate to Highway #1. We can relax now and congratulate Mary for seeing us this far. Nothing could have us bond faster than a narrow escape from the Athens morning commuter traffic.

Greece - Delphi. Archeological Museum.

The museum at the archeological site of Delphi.

The hills are getting more rugged, especially once we turn onto a country road toward our midday destination, a lovely seaside restaurant tucked in a secluded cove of the Gulf of Corinth. After another Greek specialties extravaganza we continue on to the archeological site of Delphi. Perched high on the southwestern spur of Mount Parnassus, it was decreed the Navel of the Earth by Zeus himself. Yaov has begun sharing tidbits of mythological lore over the radio during the quieter moments of the drive with such an irresistible blend of wit and erudition that we will soon be begging for more at every opportunity. But for now, we are getting our first taste of off-road driving, on a rough trail that is getting rockier and narrower as we zigzag toward the top of the ridge. There is a modern paved road of course, for the busloads of visitors to the site. But not for us the road more traveled, that would deprive us of the ever-changing panorama of hills fading into of the distant sea and our first glance at Delphi and the temple of Apollo from a unique vantage point high across the valley.

The Navel of the Earth

Greece - Delphi Archeological Site.

Guide Penny Kolomvotsou eplains the overall site.

Dedicated during classical time to the god Apollo, an overachieving multi-tasker variously recognized as the god of truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry and more, Delphi was a seat of the Pythia. This priestess was believed to channel the pronouncements of the Oracle (itself the intermediary to Apollo) that would then be interpreted by the priests.

Yaov introduces us to Penny Kolomvotsou, a licensed local guide and perfect English speaker, who makes the site and the adjoining archeological museum come alive for us. Tripology Adventures has arranged private visits with her for almost two decades. To book a visit, Penny may be contacted at +30 6944 644427 or kpagona@hotmail.com

We spend the night in modern Delphi at the Amalia Hotel, a smart contemporary four-star property with glorious vistas of the mountains and the Ionian Sea. Gazing from my balcony at the valley below, covered with olive groves all the way down to the sea, I reflect that, off-road travel notwithstanding, this Greece still feels quite familiar. Little do I know the adventure of traveling Tripology-style has barely begun…

Good to Know

Tripology Adventures is an Israel-based road travel company that has been leading 4WD self-drive caravan across remote, culturally rich areas of Europe, Africa and Asia for over two decades. Tripology Adventures, www.tripologyadventures.com, email:info@tripologyadventures.com, or call 888-975-7080.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Delphi, Greece.

Athens

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

Darwin and Me – A Galapagos adventure

It all started with a ship. How else could it start when the destination is the Galapagos Archipelago? One hundred and twenty eight islands, most of them just slivers of sun-baked volcanic rock, sprinkled over 45,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) to the west of mainland Ecuador. Of the 21 large enough to deserve recognition as actual islands, only five are inhabited to varying degrees. So, as Charles Darwin had already figured out, there had to be a ship. For him, a young man fresh out of Christ’s College (University of Cambridge) in 1831, the choice was simple. It was a berth as the naturalist on the Beagle, a 27.5-meter (90 foot) sloop with a crew of 74 men on a survey expedition along the coasts of South America, or nothing. He chose the Beagle. His momentous visit to the Galapagos has captured the imagination of adventure tourists ever since.

Royal treatment

The M/Y Grace at anchor against the vivid backdrop of Bartolomé's red lava cliffs.

The M/Y Grace against the vivid red lava cliffs of Bartolomé’s.

My own visiting options were less obvious. There are literally hundreds of crafts plying the waters of what is now the Galapagos Marine Reserve, vying for the attention of more than 150,000 yearly visitors. A tedious process of elimination ensued. Ships that could accommodate up to 100 guests (the maximum allowed by park regulations)? No thank you. My enthusiasm for following in Darwin’s footsteps did not include embracing his crowded cruising conditions. A further look at said regulations revealed that access to some of the most prized islands such as Genovesa, the ultimate birdwatchers paradise, and Bartolomé with its iconic black lava rock spur Pinnacle Rock rising from a tranquil aquamarine sea, was restricted to much smaller ships.

Galapagos - M/Y Grace.

The upper deck lounge was a favorite spot to enjoy cooling sea breezes.

The list of desirable vessels was dwindling fast. Then I came across the M/Y Grace, a striking 44 meters (145 feet) classic yacht with a crew of ten, that could accommodate a maximum of 18 passengers in its nine luxurious staterooms Visions of exploring Darwin’s Enchanted Islands in relative solitude were dancing in my head. I had found my ship. I was on my way.

Galapagos - sea lion and pup.

A sea lion cow faned herself as she nursed her pup.

 

The elegantly streamlined silhouette of the Grace gave me an odd sense of déjà vu, a disconcerting thought since luxury yachts have never been part of my universe. Further research validated the flash back: throughout the spring of 1956, the yacht had been front-page news on all the French magazines and movies screens and in the fantasies of a generation of schoolgirls. It was named Deo Juvante then (Latin for with God’s help), the motto of the house of Grimaldi, and its owner was Prince Rainier III of Monaco. The yacht was a frequent backdrop in the celebrations of his wedding to American movie star Grace Kelly, and the couple’s floating honeymoon cottage for a seven-week cruise around the most romantic spots of the Mediterranean.

Galapagos -al fresco lunch.

Galapagos al fresco lunch on the stern deck.

Now this glamorous vessel, renamed M/Y Grace in homage to its most illustrious owner was the property of Quasar Galapagos Expeditions, and I too could call it home for a fabulous weeklong exploration of the Galapagos Archipelago, princely matrimony not required. And best of all, its current owner Eduardo Diez, a man with a passion for classic yachts, had undertaken a complete overhaul of the vessel to include such twenty-first century amenities as a state-of-the-art stabilizer system for smooth sailing, a hot tub on the sundeck and air conditioning throughout. Darwin never had it so good!

The rarest wildlife on the planet

Galapagos - Nazca booby.

On Genovesa, a nazca booby shades her eggs from the searing sun.

My Galapagos cruise delivered on all my Darwinian fantasies. It began just as his had, on San Cristobal Island (then Chatham Island). By some fortuitous happenstance, we were only seven lucky passengers to enjoy the unfailing pampering of the crew. Our outstanding naturalist guide, Rafael Pesantes, Rafa for short, ensured that we hardly ever encountered any other visitors during our shore excursions. A third generation native of the islands and an ornithology graduate from San Francisco University in Quito, Rafa coupled an encyclopedic knowledge of the fauna, flora and geology of the islands with the familiarity of one who has explored from an early age the crystal waters of its most secluded coves.

Galapagos-green turtle.

Galapagos green turtles were frequent companions during our snorkling expeditions.

Our daily land outings were filled with close encounters with some of the rarest wildlife on the planet. We wandered on white sand beaches festooned with colonies of sea lions and hiked along black lava rock paths to observe at close range the courtship ritual of Nazca boobies and waved albatross. We rode our panga to the edge of vertical cliffs teaming with blue-footed boobies and tiny Galapagos penguins, and watched frigate birds and brown pelicans nosedive for their breakfast. For me, however, the highpoint of the day was invariably our snorkeling expedition. Island after island, Rafa led us to a dizzying abundance of exotic marine life. A few minutes into our first swim, we sighted a hammerhead shark (that mercifully showed no interest in us). We swan surrounded by so many giant sea turtles that it was a challenge to keep out of their way.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

On Isabela, the base of the cliffs were covered with bright coral formations.

Then there was the flightless cormorant that settled on my back, doubtless having mistaken the zipper pull of my wetsuit for a juicy eel, and expressed its disapproval by repeatedly pecking at my arm. Sharp beak!

Galapagos -Lonesome George.

Pinta Island giant tortoise Lonesome George was the last survival of its subspecies.

Toward the end of the week, I had blissfully lost tract of time by then, we stopped in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. With 15,000 inhabitants, it is the largest of the three cities in the archipelago and the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station where we paid a de rigueur visit to Lonesome George, considered to be the rarest creature on the planet. Believed to be over 100 years old, Lonesome George was the last known specimen of the Pinta Island giant tortoise subspecies. I was saddened to hear of his demise a few months after our visit.

Location, location, location!

Bartolome Island, Galapagos Island, Equador

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 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

The spiritual heart of Bhutan

The spiritual heart of Bhutan

It’s only 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Wangdi to Trongsa, the geographical center of Bhutan, but the drive takes a solid five hours of hairpin turns up and down a narrow and improbably steep road. Two-third of the way to Trongsa, on a rare stretch of flat road, we make a short stop at the Chendebji Chorten. A chorten, sometimes also called stupa, is a dome-shaped monument topped by a sharp cone, used to house relics or commemorate significant events of Buddhism.

Myths and Chortens

Bhutan -Chendebji Chorten.

The nineteenth century Chendebji Chorten is a replica of the Swayambhunath Chorten in Katmandu, Nepal.

Our guide Kezang explains in approximate English that this particular chorten was built in the nineteenth century, recenctly by Bhutanese standards, to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was overpowered on this spot. It is remarkable for its imposing size, and for being a reproduction of the Swayambhunath Chorten in Katmandu, Nepal. As Kezang has it, every milestone of Bhutanese Buddhism involves the subjugation of some seriously evil spirit by Guru Rinpoche (or Precious Guru, the patron saint of Vajrayana Buddhism that is practiced in Bhutan) or his disciples, sometimes with the cooperation of other helpful deities temporarily incarnated as flying tigers and such.

Bhutan - Trongsa Dzong and Da Dzong watchtower.

The Trongsa Dzong and Da Dzong watchtower overlook a deep gorge of the Mangde River.

Trongsa Dzong, the largest fortress in Bhutan, is built on a spur overlooking a deep gorge of the Mangde River. Its massive exterior walls hold a maze of vast courtyards surrounded by temples, administrative offices and living quarters for its 200 monks. Further up the mountain a watchtower, Da Dzong, rises from the treetops. The view goes on forever, from the sky-high mountain range to the bottom of the gorge, a striking reminder of the dzong’s original strategic purpose.

Demons begone

Bhutan - Musicans at the Tamshingphala Festival.

Musicans at the Bhutanese lingm flute as the Tamshingphala Festival.

The next afternoon finds us at the annual Tamshingphala Festival. In the courtyard of this small fifteenth century monastery, monks and a multigenerational crowd of area villagers are gathered around an open space where dancers in ornate robes twirl wildly to the sound of ancient horns and cymbals. Evil spirits and other ill-intended demons don’t stand a chance.

We are in the Bumthang district now, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. The landscape is dotted with legendary monasteries, temples and palaces. We are staying in Jakar, the district capital where there are unmistakable signs of development. Our hotel actually has, in addition to passable plumbing, a frequently operational Wifi in the dining room. And the owner is married to a lovely Indian woman who does the cooking, which means a nice curry break from the usual locally grown red rice and chilies (nb. chilies seem to be a food group in Bhutan).

The sacred cave of Guru Rinpoche

Bhutan - Kurje Lhakhang monastery in Bhumthang.

The Kurje Lhakhang monatery is build about a sacred cave.

Guru Rinpoche. In 747 A.D. the Buddhist saint came from India (where he was known as Padmasambhava) to Bumthang at the invitation of the local king who needed his soul retrieved from, you guessed it, a malevolent deity who had cursed him with a terrible illness. Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in Lhakhang, subdued eight classes of demons and restored the king’s soul. He then departed for Tibet, but left imprints of his body in the cave, which became known as Kurje (body imprints).

 

Bhutan -Kurje Lhakhang monastery interior.

The Kurje Lhakhang monastery is a spiritual in Bhutan.

Guru Rinpoche subsequently returned, set up his headquarters in Bumthang and Kurje Lhakhang (Temple of Imprints) became a major spiritual and historical site. There are three temples here, home to giant Buddhas and stunning ancient murals representing Taras (deities associated with wealth and fortune) and a 12-meter (40 foot) high statue of Guru Rinpoche that obstructs the Cave of the Imprints.

 

Places where time stands still

Bhutan -Tang Valley Farmhouse.

Farmhouse in the most remote of Bumthang’s valleys.

We take a side trip to Tang Valley, the most remote of Bumthang’s valleys, for a close look at rural life. This is a pristine agricultural area where the industrial age has yet to take hold. Farmhouses precariously cling to the mountain, and farmers work their land just as they have for many centuries. What starts out as a dubiously paved road soon stops all pretenses, and our van rocks gamely along the dirt trail until we come to a bridge. It’s on foot from here on, one hour uphill on a narrow path through fields and along a cluster of farmhouses.

Bhutan - Oxdrawn plow in Bumthang.

A woman leads an oxdrawn wooden plow in her Tang Valley field.

A woman guides a team of oxen pulling a wooden tiller across a terraced field. Others spread buckwheat out to dry or spin wool with a drop spindle. We eventually reach Ugyen Choling, a country estate built in the seventeenth century for a local noble family. Their descendants still own it and have transformed most of it into a museum. They have recreated traditional living quarters, including all the everyday objects necessary to sustain the household: kitchen and weaving utensils, tools, farming implements, weapons, as well as religious masks and a rich collection of printing blocks.

Ugyen Choling printing blocks.

Once a self-sustaining remote country estate, Ugyen Choling has fine collection of rare printing blocks.

It’s on foot from here to Tharpaling Gompa, a fourteenth century monastery (altitude 3500 meters or 11,500 feet) still home to 100 monks. The view of Bumthang valley from here is, quite literally, breathtaking. We then stop at the Burning Lake, which turns out to be a gloomy pool at the bottom of a narrow gorge of the Tang Chhu River. But great deeds are said to have happened here in the fifteenth century, involving a reincarnated disciple of Guru Rinpoche diving to retrieve a sacred scroll from the bottom of the pool and returning with his still burning butter lamp. Judging the thousands of Tsha-tshas (small prayer stones honoring ancestors) tucked under the ledge leading to the water, and the bridge disappearing under thick layers of prayer flags, the site is very holly indeed.

Our next destination is Tashi Yangtse, about as east as we can travel without ending up in India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. Apparently very few Western tourists make it this far.

Good to know

  • Religious Buddhist festivals (or Tshechu) are held yearly in each district of the country. Dates vary according to the Buddhist calendar.
  • 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!

Bumthang, Bhutan