Meeting the warrior kings


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October 8th 2006
Published: August 6th 2007
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Guru Lhakang BlissGuru Lhakang BlissGuru Lhakang Bliss

Located near Natsang La, this semeed a very peaceful place.
The night's sleep proved most effective, still I'm not doing too well. I wake up with a headache and a slight stomach pain, the voice is still out of order, the throat is soar and I keep sneezing a lot. Still, the climate here in Mongar is much warmer than in Bumthang and it doesn't hamper my mood. After a slow start we go out to take a look at the local dzong before moving on towards Trashigang. The Mongar dzong is a fairly new construction, built as late as in 1953. The original dzong was located in Shongar near Lingmethang which we passed through yesterday. The dzong is located above the city and the view from here is quite nice, blue sky with fluffy little white clouds. Compared to the historical dzongs the Mongar dzong itself is nothing spectacular, but as always, a treat to the eye.

Before leaving town we take a quick stroll through the city centre. There's not a whole lot to see, except for maybe the peculiar three story buildings with the shops on the top floor facing the main road located two levels higher. Leaving Mongar we continue along dusty mountain slopes passing through some villages along the way. Here and there Tshering points out some small kind of distilleries along the road. He explains the people are harvesting lemongrass, extracting the oil which is then exported abroad. I wonder if the lemongrass is also used in Bhutanese cooking, and when I explain to him that it is popular in for example Thailand he looks surprised.

The 92 kilometers between Mongar and Trashigang do not cross any spectacular mountain pass but still winds itself along a number of respectable hills that need to be climbed and negotiated. As you round a bend and come up on a breathtaking valley view where a river cuts through the mountains, you can be sure that you will be seeing most of this valley from a whole lot of angles, as you will be travelling down the slope on one side to cross a tiny little bridge in the valley and then start climbing the other side. Near the village of Yadi are the infamous Yadi loops, a typical serpentine road that can be viewed from above, and the way it snakes itself downhill almost makes it look like the whole mountainside is nothing but road.

The weather continues to be sunny and warm, and the road is largely quiet. We stop by Natsang La outside the small roadside temple Guru Lhakang to take in the bliss. Some red robes hang out in the sun to dry, but not a single person can be seen or heard. Apart from some ravens screaming at us the place is perfectly silent. As we ride into the village of Yadi I ask to leave the vehicle for a while and we take a walk through the main street taking in the sights. I notice an unusually high amount of motorcycles and cars here, and a closer inspection reveals a number of small satellite dishes on the roofs. Tshering says a number of government officials live here, and it would seem people here are relatively well off.

Once beyond Yadi we start to climb down to the Sherichu river. The large bailey bridge spanning the river can be seen from afar as a tiny little construction far below. Once crossed the road starts climbing again. The road continues hugging the slope high above the Gamri Chhu river. Twentythree kilometres from Trashigang we reach Thungdari village, a few houses on the hillside above the road, from where the dirt road to Drametse Goemba starts. When reading the roadsign that the monastery is only 18 kilometers along this road it might seem like a quick sidetrip but in reality these kilometers dragged on forever, as we slowly started to climb the mountain. The dusty road passes through a few villages and each bend offers a new breathtaking viev of the valley. Sometimes we would meet heavy duty trucks on this narrow road which led to tricky situations.

The Drametse Goemba is one of the most important temples in eastern Bhutan and has thrived on donations. The visit proves very interesting, as the caretaker gives us a tour through the main temple where a number of tormas are on display. I take the opportunity to ask a bit more about how tormas are created. Symbolizing different offerings, such as food, tormas are essentially painted sculptures made from butter and flour. They are crafted by hand by monks, a process that can involve up to 5-6 monks each working for a number of hours. The finished sculpture is then painted and will last for a few weeks before being replaced. Noticing my
Mongar town from the dzongMongar town from the dzongMongar town from the dzong

Notice the main road on the left side.
interest the caretaker offers me to take some photos of the tormas, something we had not expected. Normally photography is a big no no inside the shrines, and my camera is usually regarded with suspicion.

The caretaker then decides to show us something truly interesting; the hall of the local deities. Most dzongs and temples have one, but they are normally strictly off limits due to their history and character. Inside the room looks like yet another shrine, were it not for the three unusual figures guarding it. No, there are no mild looking figures of Lord Buddha or his wise companions here, instead three fearsome warrior kings stare back at me with cold eyes from behind their masks. The hallway to the shrine is decorated with a large number of shields, spears and old rifles. Once they were feared warriors that terrorized the people, but they were successfully subdued and converted by Guru Rimpoche, and now instead guard this temple and people from malicious spirits. However, worshipping the local deities is a form of heresy, but it is a tradition that has continued for centuries. Hence, their temple is concealed. The walls in the shrine are lavishly decorated with fading paintings and the caretaker explains that the shrine is in need of repairs and asks if we can help him find sponsors for its restoration. Tshering laments at the fact that some of the old paintings have been replaced by new ones.

After our informative visit we eat our late lunch next to the road overlooking the valley and the snaking dirt road which took us here. We're having Indian packlunch, with momos, daal soup, pork, white rice and chapati bread. As we are done we still have some food left when fate places us with an ethical dilemma. An old woman with a baby has walked up to us and we talk about what to do with the food. Of course the spontaneous reaction is to give her the remains to bring home to the family, but on the other hand we also do not wish to encourage begging, something which is a very rare occurrence in Bhutan. I hope we didn't set a bad precedent here. When we are done we pack up the remains and give the villagers a lift down to Zangkhar village, it must have taken her a lot of effort to
Inside the Mongar dzongInside the Mongar dzongInside the Mongar dzong

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance
climb up here. She explains she had went to consult the village head who lives up closer to goemba.

Back on the road to Trashigang we make a second stop at a sharp bend near the Rolong workers camp, Tshering has found a small stream and wants to take the opportunity to wash the car. The guys take very good care of the car, and will often dust it off with their scarves when I'm out shooting with the camera. While they park the car and begin to build a small damb from the rocks I decide to do some climbing. The cliffs are steep and dusty, and it is very easy to lose foothold. I manage to get about halfway to the crest before I have to give up, having slided down twice already and having set off a small rock slide in the process.

Daylight is already fading when we set off towards Trashigang again and now we can finally see the silhouette of the dzong staring down at us from above. Ten kilometers out of town the road crosses the river at Chazam bridge, where a checkpoint is located. This checkpoint manages traffic to and from Trashigang and Lhuentse dzongkhag, or to Mongar dzongkhag if you come from the other direction. Then we start the final climb towards the city of Trashigang. Finally here, in what is regarded the deep and remote east of the country a slight sensation of achievement overcomes me. As the sun disappears behind the mountains and the last golden light disappears I am brought back to reality by a heavy downpour. Suddenly a wall of rain crashes upon us and give us a very moody welcome. We drive into the main town centre where the hotel is located. A lot of houses are erected around a circular square with a large prayer wheel in a shelter in the centre. Cars are parked everywhere and lots of people are in motion.

As we get out of the car and dash through the rain I can hear a voice calling out. It is only a few seconds later that I realize that I am the one being summoned. I look up towards the balcony of the hotel and notice someone waiving at me. Where have I seen that face before? Ah yes, I recall, it is Mikako, the dentist we'd met
Tyger, tyger, burning brightTyger, tyger, burning brightTyger, tyger, burning bright

Mongol style wall painting at the dzong
in Trongsa dzong a few days ago. She's travelled here by local bus and found herself a nice room without running water. Lovely... When I realize that those are the conditions I can expect for myself as well I'm dismayed. Initially there is some slight confusion as to whether I have a room available or not, then Tshering explains that we now have two rooms available, one cheapo room here in the hotel which is like described, and another in the newly built annex on the other side of town. A room that has a bathroom with running water. Guess which one I picked...

We sit down in the restaurant and chat a bit with Mikako waiting for the rain to stop. Then the guys drive me over to the annex through a maze of roads. I try to memorize all the bends as I have decided I am going to walk back later. Over at the annex I am showed to a freshly painted room which smells of paint. The place is still under construction, with loads of buckets, wooden planks and tools strewn around the grounds, and the reception is a gaping black hole. As we arrive the power is offline from an outage and the caretaker lights a candle and melts its bottom end to make it stick to a plate and places it on the small table next to the beds. Tshering asks for a bucket of hot water for me. I tell Tshering that they can install themselves in their own room back at the hotel and that we'll meet again for dinner, no need for them to come pick me up.

As soon as everyone has left I begin by blowing out the candle. Next to the candle on the wooden table is a cloth and a paper bag. If this is the way people handle candles in this country there is little doubt why all the dzongs have burned... A few minutes after they left the power comes back online again anyway. Doing some washing up in the bathroom and smiling at the plumbing which allows for very little water or a very high pressure fountain of cold water that sprays all around I am once again welcomed by another power outage. I look out of the window; the entire city is black. This will make my walk to the hotel interesting. Fortunately I have a small flashlight in my cellphone which comes in handy.

I walk outside and lock up my room and begin the walk. It is impossible to see anything. Since the city is located in the hills there is not even a thin horizon line to help make out the buildings. It is a good thing I memorized the way, or it would have been impossible to find the way. People walk about as usual in the streets, never mind the fact they can't even see who they are talking to. Sometimes cars show up fast and require a quick dodge to the side of the road. There is one nice sight though; the starry sky is fantastic, and the milky way produces a heavy number of stars to lead the way. Finally back at the hotel the power has still not returned but I take a seat in the restaurant and chat to Mikako while we wait for the food to be prepared. The restaurant is filled to the brim and we are joined by a middle aged British couple with an interest in Bhutanese textiles also on their second trip to the country. I would keep bumping into them on a number of occasions in Lhuentse and Trashigang.

The power comes back and we have a nice dinner consisting of the usual buffet style plates before we break up and I return to the annex. I manage to begin my hot water bucket shower before the power disappears yet one more time...


Additional photos below
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The peculiar houses at the main streetThe peculiar houses at the main street
The peculiar houses at the main street

These houses have shops on the top floor which face the higher mainroad on the left side of this photo.
Construction boom : MongarConstruction boom : Mongar
Construction boom : Mongar

As with every other city in Bhutan, this is a city growing.
Empty courtyard at Guru LhakangEmpty courtyard at Guru Lhakang
Empty courtyard at Guru Lhakang

Eventhough this temple lies just next to the main road to Trashigang, it seemed a very tranquil place.
Eye to the skyEye to the sky
Eye to the sky

It was a very surreal experience to come across all these dishes in a village in the middle of nowhere.
Catching up with the local bad KarmaCatching up with the local bad Karma
Catching up with the local bad Karma

Next to the road just outside Yadi


28th April 2007

Congratulations for your blog
I plan to travel to Buthan from Kathmandu or Lhassa… Would you mind to explain which is the best way to enter into the country? Thanks heri1983@hotmail.com
29th October 2008

Reliving my memories
I lived in Mongar from October 1990 to May 1992, teaching in what was then Mongar Primary School. Recently I was telling someone about the Yadi loops and gave a google search and came across your site. Nice pictures. Shocking changes in the town. Wonder what my little school and my house in front looks like.

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