Published: June 9th 2011May 21st 2011
My second Bhutan adventure was born over a long and well-oiled lunch Café Español in London’s Soho.
The starting point was the wish of my companion, Allyson, to go to Bhutan, a country that this most-widely travelled of my friends had not yet visited. But I didn’t take much persuading. I’d loved my first trip there in 2009, and now wanted to “do a coast-to-coast” of the country – in other words, to cross into Bhutan at one of the two land borders open to tourists (one is in the south-west corner of the country, the other in the south-east) and come out of the other, after traversing the country.
Over the next eighteen months, we collected a few other folks to join our adventure, all of whom I had met on my travels at some point in the past five years: Nancy from Seattle, whom I had originally met on the elephant project in Kaokoland and then travelled with in Bhutan in February/March 2009; Jeff from upstate New York, who had orchestrated that Bhutan trip; Lorraine, whom I had met when she was working and I was volunteering at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia in 2006; and
Steve who had given the history lectures on the incredible expedition to Antarctica in February 2008. (Allyson and I had met in Mongolia in 2007.) We would be in the extremely capable hands of Tshetem Norbu of Sacred Himalaya Travel who had led the 2009 trip, and his colleague, the ever-cheerful and obliging Dorji, who had driven us on that occasion and would do so again.
Apart from a common interest in travel, we were a fairly disparate group: a speech therapist who locums to fund her skiing habit; an administrator fresh back from teaching English as a foreign language in South Korea; a retired systems analyst whose IT career had started in the early days of modern computing in the 1960s; an early-retired Microsoft engineer now devoting his expertise in the service of the Snow Leopard Trust; a lawyer who locums to fund her travel habit; and a historian, newly retired from his role in the New South Wales State Library. The only other thing everyone had in common before we met up outside Paro Airport one sunny Wednesday morning was me, and I’ll be the first to admit that that is a very low common denominator!
Our route across Bhutan would describe, very roughly, a wide, upside-down “U”, albeit a very wrinkly one as we negotiated the valleys and mountain ridges of this Himalayan kingdom. This is a country with only two stretches of straight road of any length: one runs along the perimeter fence of Paro’s airport, and the other along a valley in Bumthang where speed-bumps have been installed lest half a kilometre of bend-free driving induce in local drivers any hereto latent Formula One tendencies. Throughout much of the most mountainous terrain, the road grips onto the valley sides with little more, it seems, than an overdose of good luck, defying the gravity that clearly still brings down many a landslide on a regular basis. The “good luck” element is being augmented by an extensive road building/improvement programme with financial and technical aid from India. In places, sections of the road are therefore only open at pre-set times. If you miss those, switch off the engine and enjoy the view, because you could well be there awhile. Where the road’s surface has been freshly done or re-done, it is fantastic – glorious smooth black asphalt. Where it hasn’t, prepare for bumps and mud
and bone-rattlingly slow progress. Border to border, we covered about 950 km, not a huge distance if countryside and road conditions permit, but here this involved many half- and a few whole-days in the car, culminating in a ten-hour marathon to cover the last 180 km to the Indian border.
The journey would incorporate what must be some of the great road-routes in the world. Leaving Phuentsholing, the Bhutanese border town in the south-west of the country, the road immediately starts climbing and, within an hour and a half, we found ourselves 2,000 metres above where we had started, yet still able to see the flood plains of West Bengal below, hazily through the pre-monsoon humidity.
As we began the drive up to the Chele La pass between the Paro and Haa valleys, we looked back over Paro, its impressive Dzong, the incongruously modern-looking runway, the pretty town, scattered farms and well-tended fields, before the road took us, slow hairpin bend by slow hairpin bend, to hypnotic views of Mount Jhomolhari and her snow-peaked neighbours.
The stretch from Paro to the Phobjikha Valley, east of Punakha in Western Bhutan, was road that I had travelled in February/March
2009. Some of it I remembered; the latter stretch as we approached the turning to Phobjikha Valley, I did not. In 2009, snow was falling, visibility was negligible and I was too concerned about what impact this weather might have on our forthcoming trek. This time we had beautiful weather and fabulous views of distant snow-capped mountains, as well as of the dramatic fall-aways below the road as the mountainside disappeared into the unseen depths of the valley.
The road from Ura to Mongar is reputed to be one of the most spectacular drives in the whole country. In the course of a slow and careful 84 km, the road drops 3,200m from the chilly mountain air of the Thrumshing La pass (at 3,750m, Bhutan’s highest motor-able pass) to the humid tropical climate of Lingmethang, before almost immediately climbing again, zigzagging up the hill to its destination. Here, more than anywhere else in the country, the road seems to defy the laws of physics to maintain its precarious grip on the valley’s sides. Waterfalls effortlessly drop huge distances both above and below the road dwarfing man’s incursion. Vegetation changes constantly – spruces and pines, rhododendron and magnolia, oak and
birch, bamboo and orchids, primulas and primroses – a silent commentary on the variety of Bhutan’s habitats.
Even shorter journeys, such as Trongsa to Bumthang, were not without their drama. From Trongsa, already a long way above the bottom of the Mangde Chhu valley, we immediately started climbing rapidly until the town was invisible in the distance below and we got out of the car to walk the last half-kilometre up to the Yotong La pass at 3,425m. Here we officially crossed into Central Bhutan and descended gently through firs, blue pines and bamboo to reach the Elysian Fields of the Chumi Valley.
Jakar to Ura was another relatively short trip, but we climbed once again, this time getting a better perspective on the several valleys that comprise the Bumthang Dzongkhag (district). We were leaving the Chokhor Valley behind us; over to our right, we looked back along the Chumi Valley with its backdrop of the distant snow-peaks to which we had climbed only a few days’ earlier; and we were crossing into the highest of valley of them all, Ura, with its neatly cultivated fields and pretty villages.
Bhutan does truly beautiful passes. Appropriate for a
country where Buddhism is inextricably entwined with daily life, the peak of each road over from one valley into the next is marked to give thanks for a successful journey, praise to the gods who kept the traveller safe thus far, and prayers for the road ahead. There will be at least one chorten (stupa) – there are 108 chortens at Dochu La in a touching memorial to those on both sides who died during the Bhutanese route of Assamese insurgents in 2003-4 – and sometimes a prayer wall adorned with tsha-tshas, tiny poignant clay-and-ash reminders of life. Streams of prayer flags will inevitably be fluttering their words to the heavens, some almost threadbare by now, others bright and fresh. More prosaically, there may be a detailed sign giving the pass’s altitude (although Nancy’s GPS didn’t tend to agree with any of the numbers given) and distances to nearest towns measured, with an odd sense of aspirational accuracy, to the nearest 0.1 km.
However, there is one constant at the top of Bhutan’s passes, if weather permits: stunning views. From Chele La in the west of the country, we looked straight over to the towering heights of Mount Jhomolhari
(7,314m) on the Tibetan border, regarded as one of Bhutan’s most sacred mountains. From Thrumshing La in the east, we gazed incredulously at almost 180 degrees of Himalayan snow peaks in distant Tibet. However, at Dochu La, the cloud was down and the ghostly spruces on the hillside above and below the pass itself looked mysterious and Tolkien-esque: a Dark Rider could not be far away.
As regards architecture, in this land of delightfully pretty buildings, from farmhouses and shops to petrol stations and hospitals, it is the dzongs that take the prize for scale, location and magnificence. Dzongs are imposing former fortresses which combine the central administrative and religious functions for their dzongkhag. Many still comprise the original buildings, dating back to the seventeenth century and the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s consolidation of the country’s religious, administrative and defensive functions.
As might be expected from erstwhile fortresses, many are fabulously located. The Paro Dzong gazes incongruously down on the country’s twentieth century airport from its all-seeing site on the hillside above the confluence of the Paro Chhu (the Paro river) and the Do Chhu. Punakha’s Dzong is situated between the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, and stares magnificently
down the valley. In the distance, the Trongsa Dzong seems to float above the trees on the improbably steep slope from which it dominates the U-bend of the Mangde Chhu. Like the Trongsa Dzong, the Tashigang (or Trashigang) Dzong can be seen from the far end of the valley. It lords over the Drangme Chhu, but also keeps a weather eye on the routes that leads east to Rangjung and north to Tashi Yangste.
Each dzong, although alike in purpose and design, is very different. The Jakar Dzong feels positively homey, with its long narrow dochey (courtyard): the presence of the resident dog, watching attentively for food to be thrown from an upper window, and the cat, playing Paddington-stares with a pigeon on the roof, only enhance this.
The Paro Dzong echoed to the chatter and laughter of the young monks. We found ourselves entering the main lhakhang (temple) to look at its fabulous murals while around thirty of them were sitting cross-legged on its floor doing their homework. Despite their long maroon robes, they seemed curiously similar to children everywhere: notes scrawled on the backs of hands, hushed confiding of answers, badges pinned to their clothes.
I’d last seen the Punakha Dzong during the annual Domchoe (festival); now I could enjoy its jacaranda-enhanced splendour without the crowds. Its scale is awe-inspiring and its central lhakhang incredibly ornate. With cameras banned inside Bhutanese temples, I could have sat and drunk in my surroundings in glorious, timeless tranquillity, for hours.
Going round the Tashigang Dzong was tinged with sadness: this was our last bit of sightseeing. The next day we would be entombed in the car, bound for the border. Nevertheless, when Tshetem finally tracked down a monk with the correct key, we relished seeing inside its Tara lhakhang, a rare chance to see a temple devoted to one of the female deities (and, even more unusually, a temple furnished with comfy armchairs).
All this dzong-viewing and landscape-imbibing requires stamina, and we were well rested and fabulously well fed to give us the necessary wherewithal (although, I must confess, to feeling the need for a siesta once or twice after a particularly delicious lunch – not quite what sightseeing requires).
The Bhutanese national dish is ema datse, a cheese and chilli mixture which had defeated me on my last visit. Here the chillies are the
vegetable, not simply the seasoning, and the result, not surprisingly, can be pretty powerful. Some hotels even place a staff member by the buffet table’s dish of ema datse to warn guests before they spoon too liberal a quantity onto their plates. But Lorraine was a swift convert and urged me to try it again when she came across a particularly good one at Punakha’s Meri Puensum Resort. This time I enjoyed it. Many other Bhutanese dishes are quite mild and a generous spoonful of ema datse in the middle of a plateful perks everything up nicely!
Mind you, that’s not to downplay the other food on offer. We had hit asparagus season. On the final stages of our journey from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, Lorraine and I had passed roadside stalls with large pots bristling with spears, and we were to find asparagus appearing at almost every meal for the first ten days. Further to the east, we encountered nakey, delicate young fern fronds that taste and are treated much like asparagus. No meal seemed to be complete without at least three types of carbohydrate and meat dishes tended to incorporate fatty pieces of beef/yak/pork, but, mindful of the
forthcoming trek, we didn’t let dietary niceties get in the way of eating our fill (although another popular Bhutanese dish, pork fat, had most of us declining politely). Red rice is another Bhutanese specialty, a nuttier form of the staple. In Ura, we met “yellow rice”, semi-pounded corn kernels which, mixed with a little rice, are the poor man’s rice equivalent.
The Tibetan dish, momos, small dumplings filled with cheese and/or vegetables, made a regular appearance, and we fancied ourselves experts after a while – plain or buckwheat pastry? steamed or fried? cheese or vegetable? – though Nancy never tracked down the source of the “best ever” momos, encountered on her first trip to Bhutan eight years’ ago.
For snacks on the road, little can beat the shut-up-the-passenger capacity of chugo, a yak’s milk cheese dried to such an extent it requires a rock to break it up. You see it sold on the sides of the road, hanging up in strings. Ask for a piece, and the seller smashes it off the string with a rock, and then hammers it into smaller bits for easier consumption. The only way for the uninitiated to attempt to conquer even
...from our room
a fragment is to push it into the side of your cheek and gnaw at it occasionally. A small piece takes an hour or more to consume (we timed it!).
Towards the end of the trip, we discussed our favourite hotels. Paro’s Tenzinling Resort won the prize for the most spacious rooms, with balconies looking down the valley towards the town and the Dzong. The Meri Puensum Resort had a delightful outside bar and lounge area which Punakha’s more gentle climate allowed us to enjoy both for evening drinks and morning coffee. Trongsa’s Yangkhil Resort fought off stiff competition to win the Room With A View award: we could gaze straight across to the Dzong without even getting out of bed. Nancy also nominated it for Best Shower Of My Life, emerging from the bathroom at 7 am saying, “I could have a cold beer there!” (We had had a heated debate earlier in the week about the decadent pleasures of a glass of wine or G&T in the bath, against those of a cold beer in the shower.) I loved the homey-ness of the Chumey Valley Resort, with its cosy rooms and the effervescent Pam, our hostess. Also
...shed outside the lhakhang when they went to do their prep
a lively host was Pemba at Jakar’s River Lodge who insisted on plying us every evening with arra (Bhutan’s national hooch, a homemade spirit made with rice, wheat or barley, and, depending on the particular home/distillery, remarkably agreeable). I have a soft spot for Mongar’s Wangchuk Hotel, its outside terrace having been the location for my birthday celebrations this year.
It doesn’t quite seem fair to add into the competition Rangjung’s guesthouse as this was a simple affair attached to the local monastery, though they did us well for Steve’s early birthday celebrations, and the early morning dawn-touched view down the valley and the accompanying birdsong were glorious. Nor Samdrup Jonkhar’s Tashi Gatshel Hotel, a more functional overnight stop before we crossed back into India the next morning, though that’s not to downplay how welcoming its showers were after a very long day on the road.
Of the main route’s hostelries, this would therefore leave Thimphu’s Hotel Riverview bottom of the heap, not so much through any fault of its own, but because the others each had such exceptional features. But when we were 4,000m up in the Himalaya with our boots wet through from all the snow
and slush we had tackled the previous day and sleep-deprived from a night spent on what can only be described as a cross between tundra and bog, the comfort of the Riverview, let alone the delights of the other hotels in Eastern and Central Bhutan, felt a very long way away…
Still, that, as they say, is another story…
There are more photos below