As a prelude to our Nepal trip, Judy and I scheduled a seven-day trip to Bhutan, a country that was until recently an isolated kingdom seldom visited by outsiders. Today it bills itself as "the last Shangri-la," a tourist destination that features Himalayan natural beauty and a culture and lifestyle that is unique. But like any country, it faces the challenge of the global economy. Bhutan is strenuously trying to adapt to its new status as a constitutional monarchy and to modernize but yet trying to maintain its special focus on "Gross National Happiness" and its Buddist-based way of life.
What follows are the daily log entries that Judy and I wrote each evening after the day's activities and emailed to friends and family before turning out the lights. As such, they represent the immediate impressions we had after what was always a busy and often strenuous day on the tourist trail, not necessarily a 100% accurate or complete description of what we saw. I included a few snapshots with each email to give the folks back home a taste of what we'd experienced; these pictures are included in each day's posting in this blog. At the end of each blog I've included a slideshow that provides the highlight photos for that day. (While in Bhutan I took 1,541 photos; the highlight selections total 125 images.)
For those of you who wish to "cut to the chase" and see the highlight pictures without the words, click on the slideshow below:
And if you're a real brute for punishment you can see all "keeper" shots from Bhutan, some 453 images. Click on the Travel link at the very top of this blog page, then click on the Bhutan folder, and then on the Bhutan By Day folder.
Day 1 - On Our Way
February 24, 2014
Judy wants first dibs on our Bhutan/Nepal journal effort but first a brief outline of the trip:
Days 1 and 2 - We flew from Tampa to Newark this afternoon. Tonight we take off for Delhi at 8:40, arriving around 9:20 PM tomorrow, which is 10:50 AM (Tuesday), if I've got the 10 1/2 hour time difference figured out. We stay overnight in a "transit hotel" in the Delhi airport doing as Richard Snowden did, never entering the country, and thereby avoiding Indian customs. We sleep for six hours or so and catch the 6:30 AM Druk Air flight to Paro, Bhutan, arriving mid morning Bhutan time (an 11 hour difference from EST). That brings us to Day 3.
Days 3 - 8 are spent touring in Bhutan, including Paro, Thimphu (the nation's capitol) and Punakha
Day 9 - We fly to Kathmandu and meet Jeff at the airport. Jeff is jumping off the cruise boat and onto the flight to Delhi and Kathmandu.
Days 10 - 22 will be spent touring Nepal, including sights around Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan National Park. Chitwan includes riding elephants to find tigers, something Nana thinks will be the highlight of our trip, assuming we survive the ride and aren't eaten by any orange-striped cats.
Days 23 - 24 we reverse course, flying Kathmandu-Delhi-Tampa, arriving in Tampa March 19 in the afternoon.
Day 25 - Sun, sleep and golf with friends from Minnesota. Three days later Rebecca and family arrive for a week.
We will try, as usual, to do a daily log with picture but the Internet connections in this part of the world may not be universal. We'll see. And if these messages get to be too much for you and your inbox please feel free to let us know and we'll drop you from the list. Or, you can just hit delete every day, thereby sparing our tender feelings.
The picture of the day shows us leaving Sun City Center. Please note that we're both traveling with only a carry-on and backpack each. It will be interesting to see how we survive 24 days with 27 pounds of luggage each. But avoiding checked baggage makes international travel a whole lot easier!
Now, here's Judy to give you her perspective of our trip:
I just wanted to say that we are excited but a little anxious. This trip is going to be different from our other trips. Nepal is a third world country and they like very highly spiced food as I understand it. I keep wondering how I am going to do with the food so I have brought some soups. Luckily we have Jeff who has been there before and tells me he can take me some places where I can get food I can eat! I remember Jeff's first trip and he said there were rats running in the streets and monkeys got into the office building. He now tells me it is not so bad and he stays at a better hotel now. I am sure it will be different from any country we have visited so far. In Bhutan we will have a guide and driver and the country sounds beautiful but we really do not know what to expect. In Nepal we will get the itinerary set when we meet up with Jeff and meet with Deerwalk people.
We have only carry on bags----don't know how we did it? We have a 14 - 15 hour flight and stay overnight in Delhi airport thanks to Jeff. I am glad he has paved the way for us. I will be sure to let you know how it works out.
I am not sure about the Elephants. I have been on one before and it was not that pleasant and only for a short time. I think this trip maybe challenging??? We will see.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Re: Day 1 - On Our Way
February 25, 2014
I guess it's the end of Day 2; it's 11 PM and we're in bed at the Delhi airport transit hotel after an almost uneventful trip per plan and schedule. Things went dark, however when Jon the electrical engineer plugged in his power strip to charge his iPad. There was a loud snap and flash of light followed by total darkness. Three hotel employees and a half hour got the breaker tripped back on and we're off to blissful sleep until our 4:30 AM wake up call for the 6:30 flight to Paro, Bhutan.
Here's Judy playing Candy Crush in the dark:
Day 3 – Paro
February 26, 2014
Well, we made it. The uncertainties of travel and being met by someone who can guide us along the way are behind us. Now we can get down to the serious business of sightseeing, which we did today upon our arrival in Paro.
I slept well at our Delhi airport hotel (thanks, Jeff, for the tip) after the aforementioned blackout - at least five hours until Judy, who didn't sleep well, tried to turn on the bathroom lights but instead hit the master switch that turned on every light in the place at 4 AM, 30 minutes before our scheduled wakeup call.(To clarify: I, Judy, tried all the switches several times and debated showering in the dark, but the only way to turn on the bathroom lights was to have the master switch on. To further clarify: I, Jon, was awoken at 4, good intentions notwithstanding! But 4 AM is 5 PM back home, so who's to say what's right and wrong.) She couldn't sleep, was hungry and didn't want to miss breakfast. So off she went to what had been advertised as a 24-hour dining room. Tea and toast was all they could muster but that held her together until we got breakfast on the plane. You ought to come to Bhutan if only to experience the great service provided by the national carrier, Druk Air.
The flight into Paro was uneventful until we began the letdown and approach to the only international airport in Bhutan. What an approach! The pilot had to weave his way through valleys, turning left and then right, wingtips seemingly scraping the sides of mountains until we reached the relatively broad Paro valley and the runway.
Our seatmate turned out to be a civil engineer who works for the government of India. He was on a weeklong trip to work on some hydro projects that the Indian government is funding and constructing in Bhutan. Much of the power will be transferred back to India. Hydropower is the largest source of income for the Kingdom; tourism is second.
Our guide, Hem (phonetic spelling) and our driver Jewon (hopefully phonetic) were waiting for us outside the customs hall. Nice young fellows with excellent English and good knowledge of all the stuff tour guides are supposed to be knowledgeable about. I won't bore you with the names and details of the sights we visited but suffice it to say we felt as if we were back on the Rhine River touring one castle and cathedral after another. Except this time it was dzongs and Buddhist monasteries and temples. Wherever you go, the powerful and the religious people can force a whole lot of common folk to make incredible piles of stone turn into some pretty fantastic buildings which, a few hundred years later, become major tourist attractions.
Hem with a prayer wheel:
Bhutan, like many places, started out in ancient times as a collection of small fiefdoms and kingdoms usually defined by the mountain valleys in which they resided. And like many places the kings fought each other on a regular and continual basis, trying to increase their kingdoms and settle feuds and quarrels. Invaders played an important role and in the formative stages invaders from Tibet brought culture, language and most importantly the Buddhist religions. I use the plural form of "religion" on purpose: there are, even today, a mind-numbing number of variants on Buddhism and it took hundreds of years, and ultimately a single leader for the people of Bhutan to settle on a common version of Buddhism.
I won't even begin to explain Buddhism, except to say the granddaddy of all Buddhas lived around 2,500 BC and defined a way of life in which one struggles to do good in one life time and, upon death, is reincarnated so as to have another crack at rising to a higher level, ultimately breaking the birth-death-incarnation cycle to reach a high state of understanding which is (or leads to) Nirvana.
Another confusing part of Bhutan's history is that there are few written records prior to European (mostly British) accounts. That's due to an unfortunate series of fires over the years. So many of the stories about important historical figures are shrouded in myth and legend. Guru Rinpoche came from Nepal to Bhutan in the 746 to introduce Buddhism to Bhutan. His statue appears in virtually every temple in Bhutan. He is considered the second Buddha (although the counting is tricky). He turned himself into all eight of his manifestations so as to subdue all of the local deities. On another occasion he flew into town in one of his manifestations, riding on the back of a flaming tigress. We will, next Monday, make a three-hour climb to the Tiger's Nest, the spot where Guru Rinpoche landed. As the Lonely Planet guidebook suggests: "When reading Bhutanese history, it's easier to let your imagination flow. Try visualizing the spirit of the happenings rather than rationalizing events as historical truth. This will, in part, help prepare you for a visit to Bhutan, where spirits, ghosts, migoi (yetis), medicine men, and lamas reincarnated in three different bodies are accepted as a part of daily life."
And based on what we saw today, and what our guide Hem told us, Buddhism in Bhutan is not just a one-hour-on-Sunday kind of religion. There are prayer wheels, prayer flags, stupas, temples and Buddha statues and images everywhere. I watched two schoolgirls walking home this afternoon who both paused to touch two prayer wheels not as a schoolgirl lark but as a part of their regular daily routine. Our guide makes no bones about it: he and his fellow countrymen and women believe in reincarnation and the teachings of Buddha and practice Buddhism every day.
An interesting sidelight that gave some insight into Bhutan was the large-scale building projects underway virtually everywhere. Bhutan is on a major program to leave behind its past as an isolated kingdom to become a modern constitutional monarchy while retaining its heritage and culture. Our 45-minute drive to our first dzong was over a road under construction from one end to the other. The work was incredibly manual in nature. We saw hundreds of workers - men and women - handling pick axes and shovels. It turned out that the workers were Indian. I asked Hem why Bhutan workers weren't employed. He pointed out that there are fewer than 700,000 people in Bhutan and so they simply lack the manpower to do all the work that is on their plate. India, after all, as over 1.1 billion people, compared to Bhutan's 0.0007 billion people.
Our guide wore a traditional Gho - a full-length robe that is gathered up and tied around the waist so as to form knee-length garment. He does so, partially at least, because it is required by law that men involved in official business, which includes tourism, to wear traditional dress. The equivalent for women is the Kira, a usually colorful getup that is best described, at least by me, in pictures. It's part of the kingdom's policy to preserve Bhutan's unique culture - almost a branding strategy in the context of tourism.
The Kingdom of Bhutan prides itself not in its Gross National Product, GNP, but its GNH - Gross National Happiness. Environmental consideration is given top billing in making decisions about development projects. Bhutan prohibits mountain climbing expeditions in its part of the Himalayas because they don't want to disrupt the natural environment. Hem, our guide, put it this way: "Traditional yak herders in the highlands fear that mountaineering might anger the mountain deities, causing them to leave or disrupt life in the Himalayas. So out of respect for the yak herders the government has prohibited mountain climbing expeditions." He delivered this explanation without any eye rolling; he and the rest of Bhutan believe in it.
Enough. The really good news is that lunch was a delight, even if it was a tourist version of Bhutanese cuisine. So Judy's fears have been put to rest at least for now. We're ready for dinner (it's 7:30 PM here, 8:30 AM back home) so we'll see if our luck holds out.
Judy chowing down at lunch:
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
P.S. Dinner was fine, a typical tourist buffet. Turns out our hotel, the oldest hotel in Bhutan, was built in 1974 to house guests attending the fourth king's wedding at which he married four sisters all at once. It's a heck of a lot cheaper to hold one ceremony and one reception than four separate affairs. The current king is 34 and his only bride (so far) is 24. His old man, King IV, abdicated in 2008 to further the transition to a constitutional monarchy, which so far has been successful. Hem told us King V spends lots of times visiting commoners in the urban centers and in the hinterlands. He is apparently much beloved. But like I say, the Kingdom knows how to treat the tourist trade.
Here are the today's highlight pictures:
Day 4 – Thimphu
February 27, 2014
We hit the road this morning, traveling along the Paro River to Bhutan's capital, Thimphu, a trip of about 60 Km (36 miles). It took us about two hours including stops to see the sights. The road is two lane with lots of curves that conform to the path of the river. This is truly a valley country. Every inch of reasonably flat land is cultivated or settled. The rest are steep mountainsides that are uninhabitable. Paro and Thimphu exist only because the valley widens enough to allow for a few rice paddies and buildings.
Thimphu is certainly larger than Paro with lots of new construction and roadwork but the town is still small; certainly smaller than Concord, NH for instance. During the day we visited:
- The Buddha Dordenma, a 169-foot-high steel statue of Buddha, high atop a hill overlooking all of the Thimphu valley. It's still under construction although the Buddha seems complete. It's said that it will be the largest Buddha in the world, which is interesting since we saw what was said to be the largest wooden Buddha in the world while in Japan last year. This Buddha is being jointly funded by the Kingdom of Bhutan and some wealthy Taiwanese businessmen.
- Memorial Chorten, a park-like complex with a large Tibetan-style chorten (sometimes called a stupa; pagoda in Japan), a several stories high tower, around which many people, young and old, walk clockwise praying and meditating and spinning their prayer wheels. A chorten is based on the pile of stones that followers of Buddha constructed on his remains after he died. Part of the complex is an open-air building in which a number of large prayer wheels are located. Old people come to the prayer wheels every day and do nothing but spin the wheels, meditate and pray. The belief is that this sacrifice builds credit toward their eventual reincarnation to a higher level.
- Motithang Mini Zoo where we saw the Bhutan national animal, the wild takin, a stocky ox-like creature. The takin, along with a few stray deer and goats are the only animals on display. The fourth king released all other animals; the takins were too domesticated and stayed in Thimphu, wandering around and getting in the way. The zoo was reopened to give this endangered species a home.
- Drupthob nunnery temple. Yes, Buddhism has not only monks but also nuns who live a cloistered life of prayer.
- An artist school (painting, sculpture, wood carving, etc.) that unfortunately was closed for a long winter break. We did however tour a shop selling the output of the school. Nice stuff but expensive; we went away empty handed (for once).
- We weren't so lucky at another gift shop. The purpose of the stop was to find a CD with traditional music that Judy could use to accompany her video covering this trip. She selected two, which still didn't meet the 1,000 smacks hurdle for a credit charge. I found a small desk-top-sized prayer wheel (I'm going to keep it on my desk and spin it whenever I pay the bills, praying for enough money to cover the bills that month). By then Judy found a tee shirt she just had to have. We more than doubled the 1,000 smack hurdle.
- A handmade paper factory where we not only observed but walked around on the production floor watching them do the work, at great risk to our shoes and clothing as the vats were stirred and paper squeegeed flat.
- Lunch and dinner at good restaurants with food that kept body and soul together without burning the house down.
- Tashichho Dzong - A huge 17th century fortress that today serves as an administrative office for the Kingdom. Tourists are allowed in only after working hours, at 4:30 PM, for one hour. We saw nearby the parliament building (quite nice looking) and the president's living quarters, quite modest by kingly standards.
Today turned into a continuation of our Buddhist instruction. Some of it is starting to come together. There are many parallels to Christianity: both provide a set of ethics, moral precepts and rules by which one should lead one's life; both offer a reward: heaven and nirvana. Where Christianity offers a loving God who forgives sin, Buddhists believe that, if they are good they will be reincarnated to a higher level, so sinners have another crack at moving up the ladder and eventually reaching Nirvana. Both expect the principal figure (Christ/Buddha) to come again to save the world. However, Christianity is monotheistic; Buddhism doesn't include a god per se (Buddha isn't a god) but there are numerous deities and gods floating around the edges.
Enough of that. I had a beer with dinner (two, actually; it was a big bottle) and so my ramblings are a bit fuzzy and we still have to transfer pictures before going to bed.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Day 5 – The Road to Punakha
February 28, 2014
Imagine a mountain road that connects two towns roughly 25 miles apart.
Imagine that the road starts at an elevation of 6,000 feet, climbs to 10,000 feet and descends to 4,000 feet through incredibly steep mountains covered by dense forests of enormous pine trees.
Imagine that the road consists of S turns every 100 yards or so with no straightaways at all.
Imagine that the paved portion of the road is a continuous series of bumps that cause your passenger car to buck up and down with never a smooth section.
Imagine that the road is under construction with large earth moving equipment digging into the sandy soil of the steep mountain side to widen the road, creating sections of single-lane travel over a rutted dirt path.
Imagine that the construction causes the road to be closed for the entire day except for three one-hour breaks, which have to accommodate traffic in both directions.
Imagine while waiting for your turn, which takes over one-and-a-half hours, that you join a group huddled around a bonfire for warmth (50 degrees?) and strike up a relationship with a boy of perhaps three or four who is fascinated by your Canon camera . . .
. . . and snaps off a dozen pictures, including ones of his mother, himself and Nana leaning over the fire.
Imagine bumper-to-bumper traffic after the road is opened, vehicles racing down the hill at breakneck speeds of up to maybe 30 mph - cars, tanker trucks, dump trucks, busses, taxis - passing each other on the one-and-a-half lane road whenever the road is clear for 25 yards, trusting that the occasional barriers will correct for any misjudgment or loose soil at the edge of the cliff.
Imagine the comfort facilities being a bag of popcorn you bought at the weekend farmers' market before leaving Thimphu that morning and a statement by your guide: "I'm going to visit nature for relief." "How long until we reach a restroom?" you ask. "About an hour." "Let's go," you agree.
Imagine that when you finally reach the restaurant four hours later you are served by a cute little seven-year-old, assisted by her sisters and mom, who breaks out into a huge grin when you present her with a 50 Nu (85 cent) tip for a 50 Nu bottle of water.
Imagine what travel must have been like before the road was constructed in the 1970s - on foot over the same mountains with horses and mules to carry the load.
Imagine at the end of the trip you can say, "Boy, that was fun!"
Before leaving Thimphu we visited a the Trashi Chhoe Dzong (fortress/temple/administrative center) within which was a Buddhist temple. There we saw a group of young student monks, chanting from sacred texts and playing drums and four-foot long horns. You could cut the incense with a knife. Quite an experience.
That was our day today, with the farmer's market in the morning and a stroll through downtown Punakha (population of a few thousand) that was the Capitol of Bhutan from 1641 until 1954. We.'re now settled in for the night in a nice hotel up the hill from town, having yet another nice tourist meal of broasted bone-in chicken nuggets, red rice, spinach, mixed vegetables and a peppers-and-cheese dish (the Mac & cheese dish of Bhutan) that brings tears to your eyes.
Tomorrow we take a four-hour drive up into the mountains, hike through the forest for about 2.5 miles and return to Punakha. Good thing we have a great driver!
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Here are today's highlight photos:
Day 6 - The Phobjikha Valley
March 1, 2014
No big excitement to report, just another nice day. The anticipated four-hour one-way car ride turned into only three hours. That's good!
We took Bhutan's main (and only) east-west highway, the same sort of one-and-a-bit lane mostly paved but a good bit dirt road that we experienced yesterday.
We climbed to about 10,000 feet and had spectacular views of the nearby snow-capped mountains. Not the Himalayas, just the foot hills, but breathtaking nonetheless.
Along the way we saw a herd of Yaks preparing for their migration to higher elevations for the summer. With all that hair I'd look for a cooler climate. They usually are gone by now but we were lucky. Later on we saw some black-necked cranes that were supposed to have high-tailed it to Tibet by now. Lucky again.
We reached the town of Gangte, a small village but the largest of several hamlets in the Phobjikha Valley, a broad, sweeping valley different from the relatively narrow gorges we've become accustomed to. This is an agricultural region, specializing in potatoes, much of which is exported to Bangladesh.
The town also has a Buddhist monastery, which we of course toured. It's called the Gangte Goemba and it's construction was foretold in the 16th century by Pema Lingpa, a Tibetan iron worker who had a vision of the Guru Rinpoche, an 8th century Tibetan who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. Pema Lingpa was told by Guru where to find some "treasures" (scriptures) he had buried for future generations. The fame of this discovery converted Pema Lingpa into a celebrity monk, which in turn caused him to make the prophesy and to do other monkish things. His grandson Gyalse Pema Thinley actually built the place in 1613. So the monastery features a larger-than-life statue of Guru Rinpoche. There is also a photograph of the current head monk who is said to be the latest reincarnation of Gyalse Pema Thinley. Don't believe me? Google it yourself.
The most interesting thing about this monastery, like yesterday's, is that there were as many as 80 teenage monks-in-training chanting, wandering about in the courtyard, playing soccer, etc. In the old days a decree by the king required every family to send at least one son to become a monk. Today, it's voluntary.
One additional tidbit: we frequently see seemingly wild cows roaming the road. Upon closer inspection they turn out to be all bulls. Why? They raise cattle in Bhutan but only for milk. No slaughtering for beef allowed (they eat beef but it's imported from India where of course the cow is sacred). What can the bulls do? Plow the fields, of course. But clever Bhutanians have figured out how to hook a garden tiller to a wagon that hauls stuff including the family. Kinda the Bhutan version of the minivan. So get lost bull, you're on your own.
That's enough from me for tonight. Another one of those man-sized beers has done me in again I'm afraid.
Since Jon is tired tonight I’ll add a note. We also went on a lovely hike, which I loved because it was all down hill and the driver picked us up at the other end. We hiked down a long hill to a small area with a few houses, then through a beautiful pine forest, which reminded me of Maine and then we came out into a beautiful wide valley. The last part was over marsh so there were wooden planks for about ¼ mile. The hike was 4 km or 2.4 miles and about 1.75 hours. I seem to have some difficulty, dizziness, at these elevations (10,000ft) when I am going up hill and trying to keep up with the men. I am a little apprehensive about the hike up the Tiger’s Nest day after tomorrow. This is supposed to be a 2.5 hour hike up hill and then back down. Luckily there is a cafeteria half way up and I have already told them we will need to slow the pace. I know I will do it and be fine.
Once we finished the hike we went to another very small hamlet. It has been interesting to see how the rural people live. There a few cars in these towns but bus service several times a week to Thimphu is available. They cut stones into bricks, and lumber to make wood for their houses as well as farming. As Jon mentioned they get around on their garden tiller.
Today was Saturday and they have only a half-day of school so many families were coming into Gangte, from the smaller hamlets, and the monastery as a gathering place. They were also playing soccer, outside darts and Bhutan’s favorite sport, archery.
I asked our guide about how they pay for their health care; he says the government pays for it. They pay a tax on their land or living space with urban being more expensive. I then asked where the government gets the money and he says the taxes, tourism and subsidies from India.
Love to all,
Jon & Judy
Here are today's highlight photos:
Day 7 - Happy New Year!
March 2, 2014
Today is New Year's Day in Bhutan. It's celebrated according to the lunar calendar, which is why it's different from ours. Why it differs from Chinese New Year that occurred a week or two ago is a mystery to me; must be a different moon. Nonetheless, there were families out picnicking and going to temples for special blessings and to make offerings to the deities. Lots of fun.
Our first stop was the Dzong (fortress) in Punakha. It had served as the nation's Capitol until 1954, was the site for coronation of all five kings and was the wedding venue for the fifth king (the young kid with the drop-dead gorgeous bride). It serves as the winter headquarters for the chief monk for Buddhism in Bhutan. It is a magnificent structure, the best of the many we've seen by far.
Because it was New Year's the monks were gathered in the main temple to chant sacred texts. These were not the youngsters we heard the other day. These were seasoned pros who know the texts by heart and know the meaning of them as well. No instrumental accompaniment but the chant was highly musical and heartfelt; real experience for us Westerners trying to make sense of Buddhism.
On our way out of town we stopped at Chimi Lhakhang the "No Dog" temple, and therein lies another medieval Buddhist story. A really smart monk, Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman, was a fifteenth century Tibetan who was recognized as a monk with exceptional understanding of the teachings of Lord Buddha and an unconventional way of connecting with common folk so that the would understand his message.
For instance, when traveling, he would shoot an arrow into the air and set out in that direction. Before leaving he sent a messenger ahead to tell the townsfolk to prepare their prettiest girl and their strongest spirits for his arrival. Once he came to the site of this particular temple and learned of demons that inhabited the place. He tried to lure the demons with a cow; they tried to lure him with a pretty girl; Drukpa chased the girl who, fearful of losing the race, transformed herself into a dog. He destroyed the dog and hence the demon. Later one of his cousins erected the temple on the spot where he did the deed.
While there, Hem (our guide) Judy and I received a blessing from the local monk who anointed us with a bow, arrow and wooden phallus, symbols of Drukpa Kunley. That was ok, but I'm a bit worried because this temple is a spot where women come for fertility blessings, not something Judy and I are in the market for right now.
We stopped for lunch at the mountain pass on the road that returned us to Paro. Here one of the fourth king's four wives erected 108 stupas to commemorate the 108 Bhutan Army solders killed while fighting Nepali rebels who we're hiding across the border from India in Bhutan. India told Bhutan, "Go get 'em boys” and Bhutan, loyal vassals, did just that.
Last stop: an iron bridge crossing a river that was originally constructed in the fifteenth century; the one I crossed is a replica. The homestead is still owned by descendants of the original bridge builder.
Now we're all snuggled in bed ready to climb to the Tiger's Nest tomorrow. In the afternoon we will visit a farmer's home, which will include dinner and a dip in the hot stone pool. We'll have to wait and see on that one!
Love to all,
Jon and. Judy
Here are today's highlight photos:
Day 8 - We Made It!
March 3, 2014
Today, out last day touring in Bhutan, we started off at 7:30 to make the pilgrimage to most holy site in all of Bhutan, Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger's Nest Monastery. It's the one on the front cover of all the travel guides; you may have seen it somewhere (my pictures are, of course, attached).
This is a significant little jaunt, and we were worried about it because Judy wasn't feeling very hot the afternoon before. She slept in the car coming back from Punakha, before dinner and went to bed early. Headache and upset stomach. In the middle of the night she realized the problem (which Rebecca would have been quick to diagnose): dehydration. She slurped water all night and by daylight was OK to go.
For the statistically minded, the trip is about 2.8 miles each way and climbs about 800 meters (2,400 feet) starting at 7,100 feet, topping out at 9,500. The grade is about like the road going up to Borestone, for those familiar with Onawa, and is about twice the distance and twice the altitude gain, starting 6,000 feet higher in elevation. Thank goodness we did this at the end of the trip when our lungs have had a chance to adjust.
For the culturally inclined, here's the story about the Tigress Nest and its importance to Bhutan. Back in the mid 700s AD a central Bhutan king was warring with his neighbors to the south. The king's son was killed leading his army in battle. The king blamed the local deity who was supposed to be guarding the place. He destroyed all temples honoring the deity; the deity got mad and the king became ill and close to death. The king sent a messenger to Guru Rinpoche who was meditating in a cave in the Swatt Valley in what is now Pakistan. The Guru came to the King and requested the service of one of the king's daughters. The Guru found the deity hiding in a cave. The Guru sent the daughter for water to be carried in a golden ewer. The Guru assumed his Wrathful manifestation (one of eight) and did a dance to lure the deity from his cave to no avail. The daughter returned with the water. The Guru caused her to assume five identical manifestations. The Guru then caused sunlight to bounce off the water into the cave, thereby luring the deity out into the open. The Guru then turned himself into a large bird and caught the deity, thereby subduing him. The daughter then turned into a flying tigress and transported Guru Rinpoche to the site of the Tiger's Nest Monastery.
Whew, what a story. Sure it's a myth but Guru Rinpoche is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The actual temple was built in the 1600s and burned in 1951 and burned to the ground in 1998, to be replaced in 2005.
It was a beautiful day and the climb, although challenging, was doable and the monastery itself was interesting and worthwhile to visit.
After a brief nap it was off to our final event in Bhutan - the Farmhouse Visit. Now you, like us, think of a farmhouse being out in the countryside, far removed from the city center. Not so in Bhutan. In Paro, where we are now and Thimpho, the capitol, the center of the city (which is also the center of the valley in which the city is located) is given over to terraced rice and vegetable plots. The farmhouse we visited is no longer connected to an active farm but rather is a tourist attraction. But it seems to be representative of farmhouses in the neighborhood and is adjacent to the rice paddies for this village (really a section of Paro).
We first headed for the hot stone bathhouse. As the name implies, stones are heated to red hot and then placed in one end of a good-sized wooden bathtub. Each compartment has two such tubs. Part of each tub extends outside the bath wall and is where the bath attendant places the hot stones. Think of a one-person hot tub with the heat coming from the hot stones. See the attached picture and no, you needn't worry, no selfies of us in the tubs.
Dinner followed with typical Bhutan fare: red rice, potatoes, a beef dish, spinach soup and, of course, cheese chilies. While the menu was almost identical to the other dinners we've had this week, this one was prepared to include a hint of spices. And for once our guide, Hem, and our driver, Jiwan, joined us for dinner. We had a great time talking with each other and our hostess.
So now we're packing for our 7:30 AM flight to Kathmandu where we will meet Jeff for our next adventure.
So bottom line - what's up with Bhutan? It's a country going through the growing pains of adolescence - a country that is trying out its new situation and learning what is possible and what is not feasible. It's a country with lots of potential - a relatively homogeneous population, a prevalent religion, Buddhism, that provides the country with moral and ethical standards, natural beauty and natural resources, particularly hydroelectric power. Its government is relatively stable but brand new, thanks to the fourth King's abdication and establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Two elections have been successfully held and the rule of law seems to be operating properly.
It has its challenges too. The government is fighting hard to maintain Bhutan's cultural identity, requiring traditional dress to be worn most of the time but only time will tell if the gho and kira will succumb to blue jeans and tee shirts. And where will money come from to provide for government-funded health care and pensions? India is a benevolent financier of many projects, but will Bhutan lose its identity as an independent state? It will be fun to check in again in five to ten years and see how this teenager has developed.
Love to all,
Jon and Judy
Here are today's highlight photos: