Back to Bhutan

by Amber Peterson, 13/07/2007

We are flying to Paro, Bhutan from Katmandu on Druk Air, the national airlines. Having been on this flight before, I know it is free seating and that you want to sit on the left side going out of Katmandu and the right side coming out of Paro, Bhutan, if you want to get a good view of Mt. Everest (I always have to stop and think carefully about which side is which since I never actually learned left from right very well). For this reason, I chose to purchase business class tickets on my trip back to Bhutan because the free for all to get a good seat is nerve racking.

Shortly after takeoff we are passing Mt. breitling replica watches Everest and a total of 5 of the world’s highest peaks. Incredible. All the peaks are peeking out of the clouds. This is as close as I will ever get to the summit of Mt. Everest and it is definitely awe inspiring. The pilot makes his announcement of the twisting and turning through the mountains to fly into Paro and how it will seem like we are really close. It’s more like driving down a mountain road than flying as the hills are sometimes above you and so are the tree tops on occasion.
Next morning we are off to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. We stop at Tacho Monastery on the road.

There is a bridge across the river to cross over to the monastery. Supposedly there is a deity monk/blacksmith that made the iron chains to hold this bridge. He is quite an important fellow in their history and pantheon of saintly monks. We cross the bamboo-slat bridge and climb up the hill to the monastery. The caretaker leads us into the monastery and an old lady follows in behind us and sits at a prayer wheel in the front and turns it while we are there adding to the mystique of the place.
Next we drive up the hill to the Takin preserve but they are not at the fence and of course we forgot our binoculars. Takins are their national animal and supposedly as dumb as a brick. Kinley, our guide, thinks there are none left in the wild but other accounts say there are. Supposedly these animals were made by the Bhutanese favorite mad monk who threw together parts of different animals to get the Takin. They have their own classification in the animal kingdom.

One of the sites to visit for locals and tourists alike is the memorial chorten (stupa) or Chorten Dam which is the chorten built to the last king. This place always has many people circumnavigating around the chorten clockwise, 3 times.

Next morning we are on our way by 7:30 A.M. leaving Thimphu past the traffic cop on duty. Thimphu is the only world capital city without traffic lights. I fear the day is coming when they will need them as Thimphu has almost doubled in size in 6 years. At one time in the late 1990’s they installed some traffic lights but everyone missed seeing the policemen on duty with their white gloves and hand dances so the town voted to take out the traffic lights and re-install the traffic policemen.

The scenery is incredible and the road likewise in a “drive 2 hours to go 30 km” kind of way. There are many washouts over the days from the monsoon rains. The roads are also rarely more than 1 ½ cars wide but they still have a line down the middle. We are passing with horn. The horn signals you want to pass, that you are passing, that you are finished passing or that you will allow someone to pass you. It is fine to pass anything that is slower than you are, be it a motorbike, bicycle, tractor, large truck, taxi, bus, other tourist car or pedestrian. This country drives on the left, like England, so we are usually passing on the right and also usually passing on a curve because that is where the road is widest
From the 108 chorten Dochu La pass; we drove down into the Wangdue Valley. So from 3150 meters, we dropped to 1100 meters. We are visiting Bhutan this time to attend the festivals held at several times during the year and are a colorful glimpse into Bhutanese culture and history. It’s also the only time westerners can get inside a dzong.

We went up to the dzong and into the festival. When we arrived the Black Hat dance was being performed. The costumes are quite elaborate. These dancers did not have masks but hats with tall ornaments. The costumes have huge skirts and many things trailing off of them. The dances all involve a lot of twirling and moving around in circles and bowing the head down while swirling and suchThere are jokers, in grotesque masks, who wander about the crowds and ask people for money and you are sort of required to give them some as part of the festival tradition. The jokers dance after a ladies dance. They make fun of everything and their dance is very graphic with gyrating hips and thrusting but supposedly the jokers are teachers who have stayed behind from a good afterlife to teach the local population.
From the festival we continued out of town towards Gangte which is where we would spend a couple of nights. We have to descend a long time into the valley but that’s just because the road is so windy and we pass through a very poor looking village to a fairly large and new hotel overlooking the valley. This valley is also famous for the black necked cranes that come here to winter from China and Tibet in late November. I thought he said black naked cranes at first and I didn’t know that bird but then we saw signs. This town is very proud of the cranes and had refused to get electricity because they were worried that the cranes might run into the electric lines. Power is run by generators but they are contemplating putting in underground electricity lines.

We take a walk around the beautiful Gangte valley. It may be difficult to get there but it is a beautiful place. As we climb a hill to overlook the back valley, we can see prayer flags fluttering in the breeze on many of the hillsides. I want to cross the valley to get among them but it’s about 3 miles of rough hiking from our side of the valley to the other side. There are rice paddies, cows, goats, trees garlanded with moss, and tiny orchids along the path. A magical place and we sit on the hillside and have a lunch of baked potatoes, a juice box, an apple, some fried chicken and hard boiled eggs with salt and pepper wrapped separately in tin foil. We can’t possibly eat it all ourselves but there is no one for miles with whom to share it.

As it is festival time in Bhutan the clothing is particularly colorful. As we start our drive out of the Gangte valley in a few days, most of the local people are climbing the hill to the dzong and wearing their finest kiras and ghos. The kiras are quite brightly colored, usually with a stripe pattern horizontally around the body and then a bright brocade jacket. The men have different patterned ghos and in a more subdued color than the women. They must also carry a prayer scarf or shawl which is tied around their shoulder on one side and at their waist on the other side.

We stop at Wangdue for the festival again. It’s the same festival but the dances will be different today. We worked our way back into the corner by a short wall that opens up to the valley vista. There is a strong breeze there that comes up the wall so kids were busy throwing things over the wall to see it get caught by the breeze then blown up in the air. This time there were also dancers with drums and a long curved stick to hit the drum. They moved into the crowd frequently to hit people on the head with this long curved stick. It is supposedly good luck to be hit with the stick but some people still tried to avoid it so not sure if we were getting the sanitized version of the stick. We were hit about 4 times on the head with the stick so we are 4X lucky? These dancers wore masks with skulls decorating them and ferocious teeth on the mask – looking like a demon to me but we have learned that sometimes the demon looking figures are manifestations of Buddha or Guru Rimpoche. Later, led by the ladies, were dancers with Buddha masks and religious figure masks and a huge Guru Rimpoche figure who was carefully led around the dance floor to sit in front of the monks. As we are slowly making our way through the crowd, we notice that people have formed definite lines. They are in the line to have the Guru Rimpoche bless them, even if he is a paper mache mask figure.

From Bhutan we slowly made our way into India to visit Darjeeling and Sikkim, two more fascinating and wonderful places. So many places, so little time.

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