Friday, May 31 11:30am, Bhutan Mountains
This morning we walked to the Indian emigration and got those papers in order. We crossed into Bhutan to get our visas but didn’t have the required $20 American cash each. We went to the biggest hotel in town and met the owner, a member of the royal family, but they also could not get us any US currency. Kinlay made a call and found someone else in his travel agency who came over on a motorcycle and had the cash we needed. We did drive around a monastery in town for good luck. Many of the men here wear traditional clothing – a kind of wrap around dress or robe. As we headed up the mountain we stopped at another monastery and met the Lama that took care of the place. People bring flowers to these places so they will look beautiful in their next life. They bring incense so they will smell like that in their next life. They bring food also which is distributed to the poor. This monastery has three main images. Sakyamuni Buddha, Padmasambava or Guru Rinpoche (as he is sometimes called here) and a 3rd bearded 16th century lama who came here from Tibet at the invitation of the Bhutan king. The lama himself became King in time and was able to unite all of Bhutan. It was he who began building the fortress/monasteries that guard the main valleys of Bhutan. His name is Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. On the way up the mountain we learn that Bhutan’s main export is hydroelectric power and they have an additional very large project underway. After hydro power the most important industries are forestry, tourism and agricultural products. We also learn that there were no roads in Bhutan before 1960 and we are on the first road that was built. Before this road, it was a one week trek with horses to get to the capital city from India. Tourism started in 1974 with the crowning of the present king. We have been stuck at a severe rock slide for over an hour while they repair the road. Bhutan’s current king is their 4th in this dynasty. Tourism has grown every year, peaking last year at 6,500. This year there have probably only been about 1,000 so far. Such is the far reaching effects of Sept. 11.
Saturday, June 1 8am, Thimphu, Bhutan
The country seems sparsely populated. I think Kinley said 680,000 people is the population of Bhutan. Thimphu, the capital city, has some nice features. We are impressed with the prevalence and artistic detail of traditional Bhutanese architecture. The lodge we are staying at is beautiful.It is run by the tourism corporation. Lot’s of wood in the room interior. They are having a huge party on the back lawn around a bonfire and surrounded by large tents. We listen to traditional music and song into the night and watch them do traditional circle dancing. Dinner is great but they served us meat. We asked them to take back the fish plate, but we didn’t notice the small sliced sausages in the potato salad until we had each eaten one. Charlotte has a rough night with diarrhea – maybe the sausage or maybe the apricot brandy she had. We woke up and had a great breakfast.
Saturday, June 1 7:30pm, Thimphu, Bhutan
Today we twirl around the city. First stop was a giant stupa made by the queen mother in memory of her husband. Lots of great people to take pictures of but our batteries go dead and we left our spares at the lodge. So after a quick run back to the lodge, we are able to continue. The stupa is considered so holy that it might just rise up and fly away. So they have it chained down in each corner. Hardly any monasteries allow photography inside their main prayer room. The same is true here.
Next stop is the bank – which is open only 2 hours on Saturday. Basically everything will be closed tomorrow as it is not only Sunday but a national holiday (Coronation Day). We got enough cash to do some gift shopping so it was on to the government run crafts emporium. We found lots of items to choose from. We had been looking for a Wheel of Life tonka, but had no luck again. We met an artist who had painted two Wheel of Life’s on canvas. We commissioned them to stitch it into a tonka (wall hanging). Although the store will be closed tomorrow, we are to meet them there at 9am to get the finished product before we leave town. Next we toured an authentic Bhutanese farmhouse. It was really interesting. The 1st floor is more like a barn and it is where the cattle spend the night. The second floor is mostly storage for food, utensils, tools, etc. The 3rd floor (each floor reached by a steep ladder – traditionally carved from a single tree) opens into the kitchen. The living room/bedroom (which has no beds) is next to the kitchen. When everyone is ready to sleep, they roll out the sleeping pads on the floor. Each farmhouse also has a prayer room off the living room, which is also used as a living quarter for traveling monks. There is a special sitting, not squatting, toilet for the monks. Off the kitchen is a balcony and to the back of the balcony would be a little partition for the family toilet. The shit drops 3 stories to the ground. They use no toilet paper, instead they use these little flat sticks with an east-west rather than north-south wiping technique. I can only imagine. We saw how they used water power to do grinding of grain into flour. The best ones could grind grain all day unattended. They build something called a naga castle in their yard. It is to respect the local earth deities and keep evil spirits happy. They care for the land well and no shit gets near the naga castle as that helps keep them happy. We also saw how they build bathtubs in the earth outside the house. It is a rectangular box with a third of it blocked off by a board with holes in it. Hot rocks are put in the small partition. Water is poured over the hot rocks, heating the water and the water flows through the holes to heat the space where people take their baths. Next we go to a paper making factory. No chemicals used here. We saw the plant they grow for the fibers used in making paper. They soak it, they cook it with soda, they mash and strain it. They add some glue – to keep it from sticking – yet, I know that doesn’t compute. Then they press the moisture out of a large stack of paper and dry it on devices heated by electricity. The paper is very pretty and is made in different thickness and colors (using vegetable dyes). On the way up the steps to the paper factory, I thought I saw a marijuana plant. A few steps later, a few more plants. As we were leaving there was a huge patch by the parking area. Charlotte asked about it and was told it grows wild all over Bhutan. The farmers feed it to the pigs. They have found if they get the pigs high on it, they will just lay around and not be a bother to the cash crops. So using this technique they can let the pigs out of the pens. Next we had lunch. It was a fine restaurant, but almost everywhere we have eaten, the places are nearly deserted. In the hotels and in the cities. More evidence of the dramatic drop in tourism. We got to visit Dipendra who was our main contact in getting the trip organized. We notice they have less than 10 groups scheduled for this month. He gave us some nice maps of Bhutan. They were auctioning off three cards and had a room full of bidders outside his office. We visited a textile museum, which would be fascinating to a weaver or sewer. Charlotte was still having intestinal trouble so we took her to a pharmacy for medicine. There was an internet café/ Nintendo parlor nearby so we caught up on e-mail. It was at this point that we found the state department was requesting all 60,000 Americans in India to leave immediately. Our concern about this is our 12 hour layover in Delhi on June 6th. It may be difficult to feel safe there. We began setting up a system of getting regular updates on the situation with India and Pakistan as well as making initial inquiries into changing our return route to go through Bangkok. We’re back at the lodge now, resting after dinner. Every meal they serve us is 6 or 7 courses and we have never come even close to eating all the food. Also I don’t know if I mentioned it earlier but few roads have markings showing the middle of the road. When the markings are there – they are ignored anyway. They drive like Americans would play chicken. They drive straight at each other and in the last moments work out a way of passing each other with neither person forced entirely off the road. It doesn’t seem possible to get use to it but after witnessing it 10’s of thousands of times we now take it in stride.
Monday, June 3 7:30am, Punakha, Bhutan
We met our tonka artist at the crafts emporium. He showed us what he had sewn for us and it was just beautiful. From there we went to the market and listened to a couple musicians play short horns. We saw some vegetables including jackfruit that we hadn’t seen before.
From there we hit the archery tournament finals between the agriculture commission team and a private sector group. They used the best technology bows available and shot at a small target about 200 meters away. Occasionally they would even hit the target. An army officer came up to me and had me remove my hat. The archery teams did great ceremonial dances after their good shots. Next was a long ride over a couple mountain passes to Punakha.
The big deal at Punakha, which use to be the capital, is the dzong. It is the winter home of the head lama and his 350 monks. They have been rebuilding it for the past 10 years and have completed much of it. This was by far the most impressive place we visited. We crossed a hanging, swinging bridge to get there. The main building inside the fortress is 5 stories tall. No other buildings in the country are allowed to be taller. As in all dzongs, part of the fortress contains government administration offices. All religious buildings also have a dark red strip painted around the building near the top. There was a large courtyard with a big stupa and one tree – a bhodi tree – the kind the Buddha gained enlightenment under. The dzong was the first one built in 1637. It is where two rivers come together. The pochu (male) and the mochu (female) rivers. The main temple area was almost completely restored. It had huge sculptures of Buddha, Padmasambava and the lama who founded the dzong. We were trying to guess how tall these sculptures were and I guess they might have been 30-40 feet tall. With all the work freshly done, it made us feel like we were in a time hundreds of years ago. After the dzong we went to the lodge where we are to stay for two nights. It turns out to be empty like most of the places we’ve been. Our cabin is beautiful. Lots of great woodwork and a balcony overlooking the valley. We have a new dish for dinner – butter fried fiddle head fern stems. They’re good.
Monday, June 3 6:30pm, Punakha, Bhutan
Today we set off on a long journey to the east. The pavement ran out and we got to a mountain pass of over 3,000 meters. The landscape changed dramatically. We saw a huge open field of very small bamboo. It is the favorite food of yaks. But the yaks are at a much higher elevation in the summer. They well be here in the winter. Traveling on we reached the monastery. It was a very old monastery, just being prepared for renovation. More urgently they were decorating and raising prayer flags in anticipation of the Queen mother’s visit tomorrow.
This monastery is the only one it its sect. It was founded by a high Tibetan lama whose 16th reincarnation was currently the head of the monastery. We turned a zillion prayer wheels as we walked around the monastery. We walked back to the car and had a picnic on a hill with a good view of the monastery. There is a 4 day trek that starts from this "hidden valley" as they called it. Two ridges over they are considering building an international airport. This area is about to change. We are told that currently they have decided to keep electricity out of the valley so electricity and the light will not bother the native wildlife. On the way back we stopped to walk around a marijuana hillside. Further toward our return we stopped at a monastery which is the most traditional and closed in Bhutan. Foreigners are only allowed to view it from a distance. We spent some time with school children in the nearby village and returned to the lodge. Sitting on our balcony, realizing we have seen no billboards nor air traffic the entire time we have been in Bhutan. Even the signs on the businesses are small, simple and somewhat uniform. It’s like the Marin county of the third world. A fragrant plant below the balcony contributes to the peaceful scene.
Tuesday, June 4 7:40am, Punakha, Bhutan
Getting ready for our last long car ride. Charlotte gets some food to some of the area dogs. During the night it rained very hard for many hours. This is how they described the monsoon here. As we started our trip to Paro we found people trying to clear downed trees, rock, rubble and mud from the roadway. Back near the capitol, we visited another dzong. This one was a place for about 70 young monks to study. We stopped at a drawing of the "Wheel of Life" and Kinley gave us a good, detailed explanation of it. We walked all the way around the center building of the dzong and there were hundreds of slate carvings of Buddhist figures and deities. This dzong like so many others is about to undergo renovation. Continuing onto Paro, we saw the 2.5km runway we will be taking off from. We made it to the lodge where we will be spending the last two nights here. It is the largest and most comfortable room we’ve had yet. We had lunch and listened to some businessman from Mali on a state visit try to convince the Bhutanese officials about the need for some high speed internet access service. Next we toured the national museum. Its in an impressive circular tower building several hundred years old on a hill above the Paro dzong. We also stopped at a small temple of unique design (made like a stupa). It is at the base of a hill and its main purpose it to sit on the head of a local naga serpent deity and keep it contained. Next we walked through the main town section of Paro looking for a modern metal tea strainer. They had the main street torn up to put in a good storm sewer system.
Wednesday, June 5, Paro, Bhutan
Last day. We head out 18km to see the ruins of an old fortress. If you’ve read this far – I’m impressed. You must be as "dzonged out" as we are. At any rate, our guide told us about the paintings of animals on the outsides of farmhouses. They are for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. We have also seen 6-10’ penises, some shooting sperm, on the outsides of buildings. It was explained to us that this was for fertility. Ok. I asked about the practice of placing rocks on top of rocks along trek routes and it was explained that this is believed to help with altitude sickness. We went to another very old temple dating back to about the 8th century. It is one of 108 such temples across this part of Asia whose purpose is to pin down a very large demon. This temple was holding down the left knee. The Portola in Lhasa, Tibet is one of these 108 and is holding down the demon heart. All of these 108 temples feature Maitreya Buddha most prominently. We have turned thousands of prayer wheels by now. I use it as a small meditation of wishing well. We catch a glimpse of Bhutan’s most famous landmark, Tigers Nest, as the clouds start to lift. Tigers Nest is a dzong built high above a huge sheer cliff. Back in the time of Padmasambava, he took on one of his forms (Guru Rinpoche) and flew on the back of a tiger all the way from Tibet and landed on that spot. He used the location for meditation practice. Hundreds of years later, the dzong was built on the site. In 1997 a fire destroyed the building and it is currently closed for renovation. At the base of the mountain we saw all their construction materials assembled. They use a cable wire to get the materials to the top. We walked up for about 1.25 hours and reached a small restaurant operated by the tourism commission. Another hour and a half might have gotten us to the same height as the dzong near a stupa on an adjoining cliff. That is as far as the trek guides take anyone. The dzong itself is closed to foreigners. The last 1.5 hours trek to the dzong is very dangerous with just very narrow rock crevasses and steep descents and assents. We came back to the lodge for lunch and a brose on the internet to make sure our flight out of Delhi was still on. After lunch we went to the main dzong. In Paro valley where over 160 monks reside. This is where monks who care take other temples are trained. The dzong had a traditional wooden covered bridge leading to it. These bridges could be quickly destroyed in the event of an invasion. The dzong was built around 1648. The last invasion was about 1649. Charlotte had a near accident – needing a restroom badly. Kinley helped her find a public restroom. He cautioned her that it would clear out her sinuses. From the dzong we got a good look at the royal residence for when the royal family comes to visit at Paro. The king who built it called a meeting of the farmers who owned the land he needed. He told them what he wanted to build and showed them a full Yak skin and said he only needed enough land that could be measured by the Yak skin. They agreed. So he promptly cut the Yak skin into almost thread wide strips and measured out a nice chunk of land. Which reminds me of another story were the head lama at the main dzong in another valley had a small statue that was very valuable and armies from Tibet were invading trying to get the statue back. He had an exact replica made and in a big public ceremony (that has been replicated every year since), he appeared to point to the statue and said it was the authentic statue and as he stood on the bridge over the big river, he threw the statue in the river so people would quit fighting over it. Well, the traditional men’s wear here, called a go’a (I think) has huge arm cuffs and the lama had hid the real statue in his cuff and was really pointing to it when he said ‘this is the authentic statue’. In the modern version of the ceremony they throw fruit, like oranges into the river and people dive in to get them. Back at the lodge now trying to organize everything for the flight out in the morning.