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These boys were part of a posse of kids who followed Tshe Tshe and me down the village road until I agreed to take their picture. Obviously they were going for 2 entirely different looks...

I’d been looking forward to returning to the Haa Valley since arriving back in Bhutan, and I was not disappointed by the few days I spent there. Lunch on the afternoon we arrived was at an uncharacteristically crowded restaurant where amidst a busload of Japanese tourists I ran into Tshering Tobgay (who I met on my first trip to Bhutan) and some of his fellow cycling aficionados for the second time in 24 hours. After stopping by the house that was under construction when I visited last spring and giving the owner prints of the photos I’d taken, we continued on to the farmhouse of Tshe Tshe’s wife’s aunt Tshering Wangmo, where we stayed for the next few nights.

During the daytime we went on hikes, once up a slippery slope to a monastery, and another morning across a pass to a neighbouring village. This second hike, which was supposed to have been a fairly easy and gradual climb ended up being a steep, muddy ascent up what appeared to be a deer track after we lost the little-used human trail. Fortunately that afternoon happened to be the one the family had planned to prepare the traditional hot stone bath, so all memory of the morning’s struggle was soon soaked out and scrubbed and massaged away by Tshering Wangmo’s kind hands.

The traditional hot stone bath experience came complete with passing village women stopping to wave hello as I soaked.

Evenings were spent enjoying Pem Tshering’s delicious cooking – he was also the cook on my spring Haa trek – which one night included a brook trout he’d caught the previous night, sipping arra, watching far too many Bollywood movies (that would be anything more than 1 for me :)), and laughing at all the phone calls Nima (who’s driven me around on all 3 of my trips to Bhutan) was getting, which we teased were from his girlfriends in each of the valleys we’d visited. Nighttimes I would drift off to sleep in the altar room by the flickering light of the butter lamp.

Tshering Wangmo and her family were incredibly kind and hospitable and despite the language barrier we had some good laughs together. By the time I left I felt like I had new friends who I’ll look forward to seeing again on my next trip.

On my last morning in Haa, Tshe Tshe and I set out to cross the Saga La pass and return to Paro by foot. Although much to my disappointment I struggled with the altitude up the last 1,000 feet or so, the 3,500 foot descent was much less steep, muddy and slippery than expected so that overall the hike was very enjoyable.

Yesterday could not have been a more perfect end to this trip. In the morning we had a relatively easy hike to Takstang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery which I’d also visited on my previous two times in Bhutan. A ritual was in progress when we arrived, and the monastery resonated with chanting, drums, cymbals and trumpets. The experience of sitting with the monks in the temples as they performed the rituals was powerfully energizing. After a delicious lunch at the restaurant just below the monastery, I had a relaxing afternoon at the hotel teahouse, and then went into Paro town with Tshe Tshe and Nima for one last delicious Bhutanese dinner and French/Dzongkha lesson. Tshe Tshe is expecting a large group of French Canadians in another week, and although they will have a lead guide who speaks French, since the opportunity was there we thought I might as well teach him a few useful expressions. I’m proud to report that he can say “chalice!” with a perfect Quebecois accent. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ve made as much progress with Dzongkha as he has with French, but I did pick up a few more words and phrases that I wrote down so I’ll remember them for next time. After dinner we were joined by Sonam and Karma, who despite not feeling well made the trip from Thimphu to say goodbye in person and to give me a gorgeous necklace, bracelet and earring set she and Sonam had made as well as a beautiful basket and box of tea.

All too soon I was saying goodbye to Nima and Tshe Tshe at Paro airport this morning. Although I’m not sure when I’ll be in Bhutan again, this time I found it easier to leave. From the moment I arrived, I knew I’d done the right thing by coming back (despite more than one person questioning my sanity for visiting 3 times in less than 12 months!), but on leaving Punakha midway through the trip, I had the feeling that whatever purpose this return to Bhutan had been meant to serve had been fulfilled. I also felt sure that I will be back hiking the trails with Tshe Tshe and meeting my other Bhutanese friends again many times more. So as the plane climbed out of the Paro valley and the Himalayan peaks gave way to the flood plains of Bangladesh I felt not sad, but grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to spend time in this unique place, and for all the wonderful people who have made it so special for me.

A few posts back I wrote how both Bhutan and the Western Alps had a similar quality of energy for me although wildly different in intensity: the first like a thunderous waterfall, the second like a gentle rain. Tonight I’m at a transition zone between these two worlds, in Bangkok airport about to catch a flight to Geneva to be exact, on my way back to Mont Blanc and Gran Paradiso…

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Late August in Bhutan: rivers are swollen with monsoon rains, valleys that were just-harvested or newly-planted dusty brown on my earlier trips are bright green with almost ready rice crops, and March’s blossoming apple and peach trees are summer-heavy with fruit. I’ve been to Thimphu and caught up with Karma, Namgay and Sonam, and to Punakha where I was very fortunate to be received again by the lama at Talo monastery and to have my guide/friend Tshe Tshe there to patiently interpret our Dzongkha-English conversation. Tomorrow Tshe Tshe and I will go to the Haa valley for a few days where we’ll stay at the farmhouse of one of his relatives and hike. It is an incredible blessing to be among the Bhutanese people and to be experiencing the energy of this special place once again.

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In Bhutan You Can …


In Bhutan you can wander onto someone’s house construction site unannounced, and with some interpretive help from your guide, they may well invite you up to look around and watch them work, let you help pound down the mud in the wood frames, joke around with you, and happily pose for pictures. There are no mills here: the timbers are mostly hand-hewn with some additional help from chainsaws. Men and women from the village help each other out in the rush to finish building before the monsoon starts.

Wandering through villages and visiting farmhouses was one of the highlights of this trip for me, which I did not get to experience so much my first time in Bhutan last fall. Some places we found a caretaker and were able to go inside the local temple, other places we just continued straight through exchanging greetings with passersby and house builders.

One night on the Bumthang trek (the first of two short treks I did) rather than stay in a tent as planned I spent the night in the guest room of the camp cook’s farmhouse after the luxury of a traditional hot stone bath in a wooden tub outside. As the name suggests, the bath is heated by red hot stones shoveled in from a large bonfire next to the tub, which release healing minerals when they crack on contact with the cold water. Sleep came quickly and easily after a 45 minute soak looking up at the night sky. Just before setting out on the Haa trek, we also visited the farmhouse of Tshe Tshe’s wife’s aunt, for afternoon suja (Bhutanese butter tea, which I love). She sent us away with a bottle of arra (home brew) and yak cheese for the trail. The yak cheese comes in rock hard chunks which are impossible to chew until they’ve softened in your mouth for some time – a good distraction, I found, while climbing some of the steeper sections of the trail.

In Bhutan you can show up at a restaurant with a half-finished bottle of whiskey and not only will they not throw you out, they will cheerfully bring you clean glasses. This I did several times since Jack and Karma generously sent me on the road with a bottle of the K5 I so dearly love, which I knew would be impossible for me to finish in two weeks without help. A couple of days ago Tshe Tshe and I stashed it in a bush at our final campsite on the Haa trek with a scant ounce remaining and a saucy note for Namgay, my guide the last time I was in Bhutan who we knew was 1 day behind us on the trail and is even more fond of K5 than me.

Despite the K5, most nights were early, with the exception of the evening Karma came to Paro with her younger sister and a friend, ready to dance. Although the bars close early (11 or midnight), a guides’ association fundraiser was in full swing a few doors down. There were only a few other chilips (foreigners) there, including a music producer from California with 15 foot long hair, which he uncoiled from his rasta cap at Karma’s insistence. He said he lived with 6 women who helped him look after it. I didn’t probe for details.

By 1 I knew there was no point going to bed since we needed to be back at the tsechu grounds at 3:30 to see the monks’ procession with the thondrol (a huge silk picture of the Guru Rinpoche unveiled once a year just before dawn on the last day of the tsechu). By 4, Tshe Tshe and I were sitting in the stands above the tsechu dance area, giggly with sleep deprivation and cold, marvelling at the thondrol and watching the monks perform their rituals below us. Tshe Tshe made fun of me trying not to fall asleep, and I laughed at him rubbing his bare knees to try to keep them warm. Tshe Tshe scored some betel nut to help him stay awake and tried to get me to try some, but I politely refused. This was the third time I’d turned down betel in 24 hours: the first offer came from an elderly lady sitting next to me in the stands, and the second came from a toddler, who had leaned on my shoulder for awhile to see the dancers better, and then with a sweet smile opened his hand and held out a nut to me. (His parents then grabbed him and said something in Dzongkha which I think meant roughly “chilips don’t chew betel”. Everyone else around including me just laughed.)

Around 5, it started to rain. As Tshe Tshe began to explain why rain at the moment was particularly auspicious, I nodded… and when I next opened my eyes he was laughing at me. He said something to the high school girl on my right in Dzongkha which made her giggle shyly. “I told her to stomp on your foot next time you fall asleep,” Tshe Tshe translated. “I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t,” she apologized. At 6 the rain suddenly began to come down hard, and we made a dash for it along with much of the crowd, as another crowd surged up toward us, made up of people afraid that the thondrol would be put away early because of the rain and that they would miss seeing it. We were drenched by the time we made it to the car, and it was well past 7 before I was back in my hotel room.

In Bhutan if you are very very lucky and the clouds clear at just the right time, you can wake up early on a frosty morning on a ridge just below 14,000 ft. to see in one direction the camp horses silhouetted against the clear dawn sky, and in the other direction the sacred Jhomalhari mountain on the Tibetan border appearing almost close enough to touch. Although the Haa trek provided the most dramatic views, the Bumthang trek was also spectacular in its own way, with blooming rhododendrons, sparkling streams and lush forest.
The importance of such natural treasures to the Bhutanese is made explicit in the very new constitution which places a high importance on environmental preservation, including provision for at least 60% of the country’s forest cover to be maintained, as well as assigning responsibilities to citizens. Unfortunately there is still a fair amount of litter blowing around, but at least there is no clearcutting or stripmining to be seen. The entire constitution, which I had the pleasure of reading while looking out at the Trongsa Dzong – the historic powerhouse in the centre of Bhutan from which the country was unified a few hundred years ago – is an innovative document well worth a read to anyone interested in environmental or constitutional law.

In Bhutan you can unexpectedly find yourself in an audience with a trulku (reincarnate) of a Chief Abbot. This happened to me when one afternoon Tshe Tshe went off the program and took me up to Talo, a ridgetop monastery which is not ordinarily open to tourists. Since he knew the Principal Abbot (and in fact, his grandmother has known 3 of his incarnations in her lifetime), he thought there might be a chance I could get inside to see the temple. When we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find religious dances underway, the final rehearsal for a tsechu to begin the next day. After we had watched the dances for awhile, a monk came to escort us to the Principal Abbot’s chamber, where we were offered tea, puffed rice and cookies. As he did not speak English, he and Tshe Tshe did most of the talking. When we left he gave us each a photograph of the King, a dose of religious medicine he had prepared himself, and a blessing by touching us on the crowns of our heads. Although I am not a Buddhist, the intent and energy behind the gestures far transcended any religious dogma, and I left feeling both tremendous reverence and awe.

And now for one of my favourite moments.

In Bhutan, I was told, most people don’t meditate – meditation is practiced almost exclusively by monks with years of training. That said, people do not mind if chilips sit quietly for awhile in their temples because they understand it is an entirely different practice from that of their monks. Again, although I am not a Buddhist, I sense a sacredness in many of these places that transcends religion, and whenever I can I take the opportunity to pause for a few moments to soak in their energy. In one such place, Chimi Lakhang, after being blessed with the iron bow and wooden and bone phalluses said to have belonged to the Divine Madman (one of many fascinating Bhutanese characters), I sat down in a corner and closed my eyes. Following a brief conversation in Dzongkha with Tshe Tshe, the two little monklets caring for the temple sat down next to me, and imitated my posture. Tshe Tshe told me afterward they had asked him what I was doing, and after he’d explained they’d said they wanted to sit with me and asked him if it was ok. Although they occasionally whispered to each other and the one next to me smacked noisily on his betel nut almost making me laugh out loud, I could tell they were trying very very hard to be quiet and still. When I got up to leave, I was surprised and touched that they thanked me, and I thanked them back.

And so, now I am back in Bangkok about to leave for Torino, Italy where I will spend the next 3 months, and preparing for the shift from Himalayan to Alpine energy. But I think even now I am not quite finished with Bhutan this year…

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Rhododendrons and Yak Burgers

March in Bhutan: skies are blue, rhododendrons and peach trees are blooming, and fields are full of winter wheat. Return visits to sacred sites in the Paro and Thimphu valleys have been different experiences and just as special as the first ones. I’ve already seen a few familiar faces, starting with the happy surprise of being met at the Paro airport by Nima, who was our driver last October. Last night in Thimphu, I had another fun evening with Jack and Karma who were kind enough to invite me over to their home again, where I met more of their interesting friends over yak burgers and the unbeatable K5 whiskey. My guide this time is Tshe Tshe, and we’re off to a great start. It is so good to be back here, and there is much to look forward to.

Tomorrow we begin heading east, first to Punakha for a couple of days, and then on to Bumthang for a trek…

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Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

Courtyard Punakha DzongFrom a single point on a vast slope, a rare beauty entices the eye, an improbable burst of delicate pink in a sea of conifer green. For reasons unknown to me, the Himalayan wild cherries, sometimes in stands of two or three but more often solitary, bloom in the fall just as the oaks, maples and other deciduous trees begin to turn and prepare to shed their leaves …

The days in Bhutan were graced with beauty of all kinds: views of the eastern Himalayas from a high mountain pass on a cloudless day, blue-green mountain rivers rushing to the Indian Ocean over roaring rapids, starry night skies, the impressive architecture of dzongs (fortress-monasteries), and the awe-inspiring religious figures of the temple in the Punakha Dzong, which thanks to Namgay’s thoughtfulness and the ease of changing plans when travelling in a small group, we were able to contemplate in unhurried quiet while other tourists were enjoying lunch.

The Bhutanese people initially struck me as reserved (which might be explained by the fact that I’d just spent a month in Bali), and I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get to know any of them. The impression I was left with at the end of the trip was that, although they will not ask about your age, marital status, where you’re going to and where you’re coming from within moments of meeting you (see earlier posts), the Bhutanese are a warm-hearted, gracious and self-possessed people who know how to have a good time.

Both men and women look very elegant in the national dress – gho and kira respectively – which is required for many occasions and entrance to many public buildings and sites, and is still more common than western clothing at other times. It’s appreciated as good etiquette for visitors to also wear the national dress, especially at religious festivals such as the one we attended in Bumthang, so with Namgay’s help, Wayne and I each picked up a new set of clothes before leaving Thimphu.

Monklets Watching Dances
The festival kicked off the first night we arrived in Bumthang with a rock concert-like atmosphere, complete with a traffic jam and a mosh pit when the crowd rushed to squeeze through a gate in order to have a chance to run through a fire three times to purify themselves. (I made it through twice only.)

The festival is not a show put on for tourists, a fact which unfortunately seems to be lost on some foreigners, but a religious occasion and a community event. There are spectacular dances which people crowd around to watch, and also food and merchandise stalls to browse. Our days at the festival were a leisurely opportunity to meet some local people, including a gaggle of giggly little girls practicing their English, and a pair of elderly betel-chewing ladies who helped adjust my kira for me.

One of the highlights of the trip was our second-last evening when the owners of the local tour company Namgay works for, Jack and Karma, invited us for dinner at their home in Thimphu. They had heard from Namgay that I was curious about the new constitution and political system (geeky, I know) and very thoughtfully also invited their friend, His Excellency Tshering Tobgay, Opposition Leader in the National Assembly. It was a great honour for me to meet him and to have a chance to ask my questions to someone with expert firsthand knowledge.

After a delicious dinner and lively conversation, the singing started, first some lovely Bhutanese hurtin’ tunes, and then Jack made an abrupt switch to lead us in some English language classics. No one could remember all the lyrics to “It’s Hard to be Humble”, so we moved on to “Rhinestone Cowboy”. I learned that country music is quite popular in Bhutan – just one more surprise and one more reason to love the place.

I’m not sure what it was that made me feel so at home so quickly in Bhutan. Certainly there are superficial explanations: the familiarity of the cooler, drier climate compared with the equatorial torpor of the previous month, faces which could have come from Kakisa or Taloyoak, logs crackling in the woodstove in my hotel room in Bumthang, a combination of granite outcroppings and pine trees that but for a prayer wheel and painting of a Buddha on the rockface could be mistaken for a bit of the Canadian shield, a community picnic by a river, a nighttime fundraiser concert with 20 or so plastic chairs placed around a bonfire for the spectators, a cup of tea to warm up on a chilly night, the generosity of hosts who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. But of course I could come up with as long a list of the unfamiliar, alien and unique. All I can say is that something about this tiny kingdom felt profoundly right to me, and after the privilege of experiencing an all-too-brief 12 days within its borders I do not pretend to know or be able to explain what that was.

I’ve now been back in Thailand for 2 days. Yesterday was a frenetic experience at the MBK shopping centre in Bangkok, getting a second fitting for a couple of new suits, replacing worn-out sandals, haggling over the price of a new suitcase, having my new cell phone reconfigured by a giggly but very competent young Thai man who spoke limited and incomprehensible English (still far superior to my Thai) yet somehow managed to understand my explanation of the problem and fix it. A manicure and pedicure squeezed in at the end of the day. Too tired this morning to argue with the taxi driver who charged me twice what I should have paid, but still got me to the airport for a fraction of what the hotel demanded for their limousine service. Early morning flight to Sukhothai, where I’ll be spending 3 days before going further north to Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai.
Himalayan Wild Cherries
While present in Thailand, I am doing my best to hang on to the magic from Bhutan. A single moment keeps coming to mind. We’re on the highway back to Thimphu, driving about 30 km/h because that’s all the narrow switchbacks will allow, and we pass a resplendent Himalayan wild cherry by the side of the road, blossoms lit by the sun against a background of azure blue sky. There’s no opportunity to take a photograph, so all I can do is enjoy the sight while it lasts. It occurs to me there are lessons embodied in this tree, a bit of a rhinestone cowboy in its own right (aren’t we all). That it is what it is, it blooms when it does, and that why and how aren’t important. That moments like this aren’t meant to be captured, but received with grace and then as quickly surrendered. That being willing to go through life at 30 km/h instead of 140 km/h means missing fewer such moments and makes them last just a little longer.

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Tiger's NestThe rest of the world might be more or less ignorant of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that measures its wealth in terms of Gross National Happiness, but the reverse does not seem to be true. This is apparent even from a quick glance through the national philatelic collection, which includes stamps commemorating the Apollo missions, the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, the 1984 summer and winter Olympic games, George Washington, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Egyptian sarcophagi and tropical reef fish. One gets the impression that all along Bhutan has been a quiet intelligent observer, while making a conscious choice to remain itself a land secluded.

Although it guards its culture, Bhutan is also a land in transition. Foreigners have only recently been allowed to visit in the numbers seen today (which, compared to other tourist destinations like Nepal, are still minuscule), and there are few ex-pats around. About 2 years ago the King had a modern constitution drafted, ordered that elections be held, and abdicated in favour of the Crown Prince. These actions resulted in protests. The new system of government is just getting on its feet now.

EverestI arrived here in the Paro valley yesterday morning on the flight from Bangkok, which provided dramatic views of Mount Everest and neighbouring peaks in the last 10 minutes before landing. The skies are a cloudless, smogless azure blue, the leaves are starting to change on the surrounding mountains (although there are only small patches of colour as the forest is mostly pine), there is frost in the early morning, the days are warm and dry, rooftops are red with drying chilis, and there is not a mosquito in sight. So far the altitude has not been a problem for me despite having spent most of the last month at sea level. Perhaps the sudden lack of oppressive heat and humidity is balancing out the altitude change.

My “group” includes only one other person, Wayne from Chicago, as the only two other people who had signed up had to cancel at the last minute. I’ve gotten to know some of the other tourists as well, as there are so few of us and those of us who aren’t doing remote mountain treks have similar itineraries.

We spent today climbing up about 2500 feet to the Tiger’s Nest monastery built on the site of a cave the Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan 1200 or so years ago, is said to have flown to on the back of a tigress. Inside, we stopped to receive a blessing from a monk, who had been praying and chanting with a Dzongkha text in his lap. Afterward, our guide Namgay spoke with him in Bhutanese for quite a long time, and at the end of their conversation, the monk wrote something down for him on a piece of paper. I imagined that they had been having a spiritual discussion of some kind and that the monk had written a prayer or mantra for him. No, in fact, the monk was an old family friend Namgay had not seen in some time, and they had been catching up on each others’ news. On the paper the monk had written his cell phone number.

Prayer Flags with View of Valley Below
….

A final impression… from outside, the Land of the Thunder Dragon seems remote, mysterious, forgotten by time, far away from important world events. But from up here, it somehow feels that it is the rest of the world that is far away from the things that matter. Like the sky. And the stars.

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