Wednesday 24 April 2019
Today we are heading out of Thimphu, to the east. We left around 9am, out of the city and into the mountains.
Round and round and round. Never ending winding roads. I felt a bit sick.
We passed through a check point. You are only allowed past if you have a permit.
Then after about an hour, we stopped for a rest at Dochu La pass, at 3,140m above sea level. Here there is a collection of 104 chortens (small rectangular stupas). If it had been a nice day, we would have been able to see the Himalayan mountains. But today it was cold and we were surrounded by cloud.
These chortens are a memorial site for the 104 people who lost their lives when Indian militants were removed from southern Bhutan after they would not leave.
After another 90 minutes, we had a tea break near Punakha, at a cafe looking across the valley. The cafe doubled up as a souvenir shop. But this wasn’t your usual $1 tat. No. They were selling tapestries for US$8,500. Prayer beads for $4,500 and other decorative steel pipes and shields for around $6,000. Madness!
More driving. Through valleys and over rivers. Through small villages and around winding mountain roads.
There was an occasional house here and there. Never breaking from the traditional style of elaborate decoration.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant looking out over the snow capped Himalayan mountains. It was good, a selection of vegetables including curly fern fronds, also known as nakey. First time I’ve had them!
More driving. More winding roads. We were high up. With a very steep drop on one side of us.
At one point, the road had just collapsed. A huge hole!
The first yak we saw was very exciting. Grazing by the side of the road. I don’t think I’ve seen a yak before. But before long, there were many yaks. And a whole field of yaks. And suddenly they weren’t so exciting!
We arrived into the Phobjikha valley around 3pm. And got out for a hike!
We wandered through a farming village. Through potato fields. Past large houses. Monks playing on iPhones. And rows of prayer flags.
The potato fields here are an important cash crop – and are sold on to India.
This valley is a wildlife reserve. In the winter, black necked cranes migrate here from Tibet. There is a viewing point for the cranes, but now isn’t the season for them. However, they do have an injured crane here which they are looking after. It was much bigger than I expected!
Locals place the birds in very high regard. There is a legend that when then birds were first spotted, they circled around the monastery three times before landing. Circling something three times is considered the correct thing to do.
We are staying in the village of Gangtey this evening. We were supposed to be staying at home stays, but the farmers have recently built a lodge for guests. The lodge was amazing. A very fancy log cabin, with a great view over the valley.
For dinner we went to a local house. We were given a short tour. The house only has a few rooms – traditionally everyone sleeps together in one room to stay warm. There is a log fire, a kitchen and a separate room which is kept as a temple prayer room. Every house has an elaborate altar!
Dinner was rice and vegetables, sitting around the log fire.
Thursday 25 April 2019
We had breakfast in the main log cabin. I had granola and a potato (probably from the surrounding fields!).
Then to Gangtey Goemba, a Buddhist monastery. This is a 450 year old building. However, due to a beetle larvae infestation much of the monastery was replaced from 2001. And renovations are still happening today.
Inside the centre is a three story atrium, again elaborately decorated. The stairs to go between the floors were extremely steep and very narrow (almost like a ladder). Whilst we were all struggling up and down, the locals were running down without even holding on.
Inside monasteries, butter lamps (now made from castor oil) are always burning. This has caused a lot of the elaborate paintings across all the walls to loose their colour and degrade. To prevent this from happening further, plastic and material hangings are draped over all the walls.
On the alter of each temple are offerings. There are various offerings, including liquid and food. This translates to anything from milk, coke, alcohol, crisps, chocolate, biscuits etc.
There are always elaborate, tall iced cakes on the alters. These are hard to describe (and obviously, cannot take photos of them as they are inside). They have a base, then the icing is a flat, tall, long structure, almost a meter high. It has 5 sections, each brightly decorated and painted. They are so clever and I didn’t even realise they were cake and icing!
Each monastery acts as a school. Boys can join from the age of 4. But they do not commit until the age of 22, so they are allowed time to decide whether being a monk for life is what they want to do. A monastery acts as a school and its possible to obtain a degree.
As well as teaching Buddhism, monks learn art skills – including painting and carving. And more recently, the head monk at this monastery had started investing in shares. This is to help monasteries become financially independent incase at any point in the future, the king decides that he will no long fund monasteries.
All the monks have mobile phones and are all connected to 3G, playing games and Facebook. It’s a strange mix of traditional and modern.
Just outside the monastery was a small village and a shop selling paintings. Some men were painting inside. This form of intricate painting is known as a thangka. They are religious paintings and very detailed.
Then driving. Back the way we had just come yesterday! Along all the winding roads.
Occasionally along the road there is a stupa, or chorta. Instead of just driving past, the driver would circle around it!