Drukyul -Land of the Thunder Dragon. The native name of Bhutan poetically evokes its mystery and exoticism. If any country can claim the mythical legacy of Shangri-La, it is Bhutan. While we expected to find it interesting, we never expected to be so intoxicated by Bhutan and the Bhutanese (or Drukpa). Weeks after our departure, we still suffer from withdrawal.
Our journey began in Beijing. We originally planned to explore the remote Himalayan kingdoms of Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, but dropped Tibet to focus on Bhutan and Nepal, a decision we now unequivocally approve since there would have been insufficient time for all three. We kept Beijing in the itinerary because we hadn’t been there since 1995 and were curious to see how it had changed. We also felt that we didn’t have quite enough time there on the last trip. We arrived mid-afternoon and were escorted to the sleek new Grand Hyatt Hotel. What it lacked in old-world charm it more than made up for in sophisticated elegance. We had a lovely suite decorated in modern Asian style with a distant view of the rooftops of the Forbidden City, and access to the Club lounge.
Beijing was barely recognizable, transformed by the building boom sweeping China, whose beginnings we witnessed in Shanghai years earlier. While Shanghai chose futuristic designs, we were pleased to see that much of the new architecture in Beijing borrowed classical Chinese elements, such as the shapes of roofs, to link the old and the new in a more harmonious blend. While Shanghai looks like any modern city, Beijing is still unmistakably Chinese. There were many more cars and less bicycles than before and everyone seems to own a mobile phone with its tone set at ear-shredding volume.
We dined splendidly that evening at Li Jia Cai (Li Family Restaurant), a small family-run business renowned for its preparation of traditional Imperial cuisine. We entered via a wooden gate into a narrow courtyard where an old-style wooden house had been divided into a cluster of small dining rooms. A young woman led us into a low-ceilinged room with three tables. A Chinese couple and a local mom, pop and kid trio subsequently joined us. The menu is fixed, so we ordered mineral water and braced ourselves for the avalanche of food. We started with four cold dishes, cabbage, carrots, onion and thinly sliced pork, followed by a savory suite of hot meat, fish, fowl, vegetables and soup. Among our favorite courses were meltingly tender pork ribs, scallops with crispy spinach, spicy eggplant with garlic and pork, chicken with peanuts and red peppers, grilled prawns and Beijing duck. We finished up with candied tart cherries and vegetable chips with honey and sesame seeds. The family amused themselves talking and playing games on their cell phone and we observed that most of our fellow diners were drinking Coke. The rest room was evidently not just for guests as there was a shower and washing machine in it.
The weather was sunny and pleasant the next morning as we headed to Tianenmen Square to revisit the Forbidden City, the imperial palace occupied from 1421 to 1923 by the Ming and Ching emperors. The extent of the grounds and structures, over 183 acres, is no less mind-boggling on a second visit. Our guide recited the history as we wound our way through magnificent gates, opulent halls and vast courtyards. We took our time admiring the lovely ceramics in one gallery and ogled the extravagant gold and bejeweled objects in the Hall of Jewelry.
Our guide steered us to a Beijing noodle restaurant (Jing Web Mian Da Wang), a noisy, ornate place decked out with huge lanterns. The place was packed with hungry locals so we had to wait for a table. Our driver joined us and the guide ordered for the table, requesting noodles without raw vegetables for us. The food arrived quickly and was pretty good. Our favorite dish was string beans sautéed with garlic. The guide kept insisting that this restaurant was so much better than Li Jia Cai because it was cheaper, and that we’d wasted our money the night before. We disagreed, though we kept our opinions to ourselves. Though the four of us had lunch for about $12, the dinner was still reasonably priced considering the quantity and quality of the food (about $50) and we greatly enjoyed the intimate atmosphere. Our guide was a bit odd, he enthusiastically related tales in which he beat up other people for what seemed to be minor infractions. Maybe he thought that Americans admire violence and would applaud such behavior.
After lunch we drove to the Buddhist Lama temple, built in 1694, which was used as an imperial palace and lamasery. An 18-meter high Buddha statue carved from a single white sandalwood tree circa 1751 is the most stunning feature in the complex. We were supposed to climb the hill in Jingshan Park for the view but the guide skipped that and hustled us to the airport way too early, where we stood around waiting to check in. The new airport is stylish and modern but we would have preferred less time there. In retrospect, we realize we would have been far better off browsing around Beijing on our own, as we’d originally planned. Having a guide seemed more convenient but was not at all in this case.
We overnighted in Bangkok and caught an early morning flight to Bhutan via Calcutta on Druk Airlines - the national carrier and the only airline that flies to Bhutan. You need an approved visa before you can book seats on Druk, and with only 2 planes and a limited schedule, traffic into the country is effectively restricted. The flight over the mountains into the Paro valley is gorgeous, offering a clear view of the Himalayas. Visa issuance at the airport was fast and efficient and after collecting our bags and exchanging some USDs for Bhutanese ngultrums, we soon exited the airport. We were just starting to look around when our guide, Namgay, walked over and introduced himself. Later in the trip we asked him how he knew who we were, and he said that he saw our passport photos with our visa applications at the Yangphel agency office. That was the kind of personalized service we enjoyed for the extent of our tour. We also met our driver, Kencho, and boarded the sturdy white SUV that would transport us for the next 10 days.
Namgay and Kencho were both good-looking twenty-something men, appealingly attired in the Bhutanese national dress. Men wear a knee-length kimono-type woven robe with a deep back pleat, belted at the waist, with a shirt or sweater underneath and usually knee-high socks. The top of the gho, which contains inside pockets, bulges over the belt, lending the men a slightly beer-bellied aspect. Footwear ranged from shower shoes to boots, with every style in between. Kencho sported a funky pair of shiny black pointy oxfords with white lightening streaks bursting all over them. Women wear kira, a long belted skirt pleated at the side with a smock top over a shirt, topped by a short jacket. The kira consists of one piece of woven cloth skillfully wrapped around the body. Both men and women display deep cuffs. The men’s were almost always white, while the women’s cuffs were color coordinated with the fabric of their kira. The effect was graceful and attractive. While we saw some solid colored garments, the majority, in a variety of plaids, checks and colors demonstrated the talent of Bhutanese weavers. (by the way: Namgay was a wonderful guide, as you'll soon read. Heres a link to his tour company: www.journeytobhutantravels.com , and here's his email address: email@example.com.
While our guides generally speak competent English, drivers normally don’t, so we were pleased to find that Kencho had a good command of English, since it meant that we could include him more easily in conversations. We found out later that he owns a gift shop and was helping out his uncle, a manager at the agency, by filling in for another driver. We couldn’t have been luckier. He was not only a highly skilled driver, but a delightful traveling companion. We also hit the jackpot with Namgay, who we’re convinced must be the best guide in Bhutan. We became very fond of him during the trip and came to think of him as a friend as well as a valued leader.
As we drove away from the airport, Namgay taught us the two most essential phrases in Dzonkha, the standard greeting "kuzu zampo la" and thank you "ga dinchi la". Shortly afterwards, we saw a colorful stand of fluttering prayer flags atop a hillock at the side of the road. Namgay explained that prayer flags are placed in high and windy areas so that the wind will carry the prayers and drawings printed on the flags to the earth’s far reaches. The color of the flags is meant to symbolize the essential elements - yellow for earth, white for water and clouds, red for fire, green for vegetation and blue for the sky. There is a special type of white prayer flag, printed with text only that is mounted to offer prayers for the dead. Although most of the flags we saw in Bhutan were long and narrow, attached to tall poles, we also saw small, rectangular flags hanging from lines, often attached to bridge spans or housetops. The eloquence of prayer flags on the hills is an enduring image from the trip.
During the long drive from Paro to Punakha, Namgay educated us about the country. Both the secular King and the Buddhist central monk body govern the country, a constitutional monarchy. Guru Rimpoche (also referred to as Padmasambhava) brought Tantric Mahayana Buddhism to Bhutan during the 8th Century and it is central to the society. Outside the capital city of Thimpu, Namgay pointed out the first Bhutanese dzong, built in 1616. A dzong is a fortress that serves both government and religion, housing district administrative offices as well as temples and monks quarters. One of the most charming aspects of Bhutan is its consistent and exquisite architectural style. While there are differences in execution, certain elements are common in most structures throughout the country. Buildings, constructed largely of mud brick and wood, have peaked roofs raised for ventilation and are decorated with elaborately carved, painted and gilded wood designs around the roof, windows and doors. The dzongs are built without nails using perfectly fit tongue and groove joints. With only about 600,000 people in the entire country, towns and cities tend to be small, and the villages are an enchanting sight scattered among the valleys and mountainsides. The population is predominantly rural so even the capital lodges only about 16,000 people.
Although the distances are not vast, driving is extremely slow on winding, rutted mountain roads that are largely one lane wide. Drivers courteously pulled off-road to allow other vehicles to pass. Mercifully, traffic is light, consisting mainly of trucks, buses and taxis and a few private vehicles. Walking appeared to be the most common means of transportation for the populace. We’d left the U.S. just before the fall peak, but as we climbed higher up the mountains, we realized that we would not miss the spectacle of changing leaves this autumn. A profusion of prayer flags and a chorten marked Dochi-La pass, where we stopped for lunch. Though the sun shone brightly, fluffy white clouds obscured the view of the far mountains. Namgay settled us at a long wooden table and we had our first taste of the local cuisine, which consisted of small chunks of beef and chicken, a mountain of locally grown red rice, vegetables and chilies.
Fresh vegetables are scarce during the winter and dried chilies often serve as the sole vegetable. As we traveled through the country, baskets of chilies drying on rooftops were a ubiquitous and colorful sight. Namgay presented us with a small bowl of red chilies. They were hot, but not explosive, and added a nice zest to the tasty but somewhat bland food. We also tried emadatse, green chilies with cheese, the national dish that is served with most meals. We were surprised to find that, despite being devout Buddhists, most Bhutanese eat meat, though they leave the slaughtering of the animals to others.
We continued driving to Punakha, the capital of Bhutan until 1955, where we were able to squeeze in a quick visit to the Punakha Dzong before it closed to visitors for the evening. This magnificent dzong, built in 1637, is dramatically situated at the confluence of two rivers and serves as the winter residence of the Je Khenpo, the religious head of Bhutan. Punakha Dzong was the headquarters of the first king, Ugyen Wangchuck. Namgay told us that the current King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, married four sisters, and therefore has four queens. Born in 1955 he has been Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), since 1974. The whitewashed walls are topped with a burgundy decorative border punctuated with yellow circles. Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama who is credited with giving Bhutan its first written laws and establishing the system of dzongs, was buried here in 1651. We climbed a steep stairway to enter the vast inner courtyard. Monks in deep crimson robes and administrative officials in ghos moved briskly through the complex on official business. Large, intricately carved wooden windows punctuated the walls.
Zangdopelri Hotel is situated atop a mountain with a sweeping view of the river valley, which we were able to enjoy from the balcony of our wooden cabin. The accommodations were simple but at least had modern plumbing. We dined with Namgay that evening at the hotel. We started with richly flavored creamy tomato soup garnished with crunchy buttery croutons. It ended up being one of our favorite dishes of the trip. The soup was followed by chicken, rice, noodles, vegetables, emadatse and river fish.
As we were getting dressed the following morning, we heard birds chirping outside and took a look out the bathroom window where squadrons of small black birds with either brilliant red or yellow breasts were alighting in the trees behind our cabin. We enjoyed them as long as we could before we had to get breakfast in preparation for the day’s long drive. Namgay offered us the opportunity to revisit Punahka Dzong again before we headed out, but due to the length of the drive, we decided to get an early start.
Driving in Bhutan is delightful, provided you’re not too intimidated by the sheer drop-offs and the lack of guardrails. The scenery is spectacular, with extensive stands of blue pines and rhododendron trees, terraced rice paddies, aquamarine white-water rivers and picturesque waterfalls cascading down craggy mountainsides. People walking on the road, especially children, waved and shouted greetings enthusiastically as we drove by. Our cheeks became sore from grinning continuously. After a couple of hours on the road, we stopped at a handsome house perched high overlooking a river plain, belonging to Namgay’s in-laws. His brother-in-law invited us in for butter tea and opened round tins of puffed rice and cookies. The family had just finished breakfast and cleared dishes away from the low table in the living room to make room for us. His father-in-law soon came over to talk and we met a couple of other family members. The butter tea tasted odd to our Western palates at first sip, but is good once you get used to its slight saltiness. We were gratified by the warm hospitality of our hosts.
Back on the road, Namgay told us the story of his courtship and marriage and also a local parable about three men who place a wager on who can correctly identify where the soul of the fish resides, head, body or tail. Namgay asked if we’d like to walk for awhile, so Kencho drove ahead and we strolled past fragrant fruit orchards with peach, pear and apple trees, and lush fields of spinach, cucumber, mustard, radish and turnip. People trotted down the road burdened with bulging baskets of manure for the fields. Mothers carried babies on their backs in colorful woven slings and people swept with brooms fashioned of tree branches. Many houses had stones on the roofs to hold the tiles down due to the prodigious winds.
Namgay chose a scenic spot to stop for a picnic lunch and Kencho laid out a rug from the car for us to sit on. The weather was sunny and mild and we greatly enjoyed dining en plein air. As we continued in the car, Namgay pointed out the Trongsa Dzong, the largest in Bhutan, built in 1647. He said that we’d visit it on the way back to Thimpu. We took a bathroom break at the Puenzhi guesthouse and restaurant above Trongsa where we were scheduled to have lunch on our return trip. The restaurant and facilities were very clean and pretty and the owner spoke English exceedingly well. He told us he’d traveled a bit in the eastern U.S. and had seen the Adirondack Mts. We told him that compared to the mountains in Bhutan, they must have seemed like hills.
As we continued our drive, we realized that the white tombstone-shaped markers along the road were road signs, marking the mileage between towns. At first glance, we thought they indicated the site of a traffic fatality, like the small roadside shrines we find in other countries. Near a small bridge, we observed a front-loader working in a creek with a crowd of on-lookers watching the action. Girls hauled bags of cement and baskets of gravel for the construction.
A conspicuous sign outlining the laws of the region signaled the entry to the Bumthang Valley. Consumption of tobacco is forbidden and nationals can be fined for failing to wear the national dress in dzongs. We read that King Wangchuck is trying to eliminate smoking entirely from the country and hopes to develop the first smoke-free nation. We applaud his efforts. The Bumthang region is home to four beautiful valleys, Chumay, Choekar, Ura and Tang. Buckwheat, potatoes and red rice are widely grown and buckwheat noodles and pancakes are specialties of the region. We made a quick stop in Zugney to view how the local cloth, yatra, is hand woven from sheep and yak fiber.
We checked into the Swiss Guesthouse in Jakar, founded by a Swiss expatriate who runs several businesses, including a Swiss cheese factory, and has been a positive economic force in the region. Our room was rustic but charismatic with a black iron wood-burning stove for heat. The biggest inconvenience was the lack of closets or drawers to stow clothing, there were just a few wooden hooks on the wall, which we used mainly to dry laundry. The staff was friendly and helpful and they served some of the best food we had in Bhutan. At dinner we met a gregarious Czech woman traveling solo who is currently living in Java and who had gone on a mountain trek before arriving in Bumthang. She said that the trekking was very challenging and she would have liked to cover shorter distances each day and to have had more time to relax. She was taking a few days for a cultural tour prior to returning to Indonesia. A young woman came by to light our stove before we turned in for the evening. We met the Czech woman at breakfast the next morning but didn’t encounter any other guests, so we guessed that we were the only lodgers that night. The eggs at breakfast seemed to be freshly laid and we enjoyed a marvelous jam home made from tiny wild strawberries.
We started our day with a visit to Lake Mebartso, a sacred Buddhist pilgrimage site. A blacksmith named Pema Lingpa was called to test his faith by plunging into the lake with a burning lamp, proclaiming that if he was a true follower of Guru Rimpoche, the lamp would remain lit and he would find the temple in its depths and the treasures buried there by the Guru. He achieved sainthood by in fact finding the treasures, a statue of Buddha and a skull filled with a miraculous substance. The lamp was not extinguished. The lake is actually a deep pool formed by a rushing river. An austere rock altar graced by Buddha carvings attracts offerings and prayer flags flutter off the narrow footbridge fording the river. Namgay had brought incense to light on the altar while he prayed. Kencho had never visited this site before and Namgay encouraged him to crawl through a very narrow crack in the rock behind the altar. It is reputed that only the pure can fit through it. Trim and wiry, Kencho easily made it, clearly pure of soul, even if his clothes were now much less spotless. Then we all stretched out on a rock and meditated, peering into the holy lake to try and perceive the temple in its depths. Unfortunately none of us had achieved the level of spiritual enlightenment required to reveal it. The rocks around the altar were littered with small gray chorten-shaped offerings. We also left an offering in a crevice - a small clear and colored glass planet, symbolizing peace on earth and world unity. The glassmaker is getting people to place these planets all over the world. We thought this would be a perfect spot to leave one since it has such rich spiritual significance.
Next we parked at a trailhead and hiked up to Kuenzangdra Temple, established in the 8th C by Guru Rimpoche with statues carved by Pema Lingpa. We felt the effects of the altitude and took our time ascending, stopping often to admire the views and take a rest. We passed through a farm where the family was busy with the harvest. A rugged sweet-natured man was herding cattle up the steep path and greeted us warmly. When we reached the temple, we saw a couple of young monks hanging out and an elderly woman in a tattered kira with prayer beads clutched in her hand. She was circumnavigating the temple (always in a clockwise direction), turning the small prayer wheels arrayed along the wall. Namgay and Kencho also spun the wheels as we headed to the temple. Just like the flags, they are imprinted with prayer, which is sent out into the world when the wheel is spun.
In the temple, Namgay clasped his hands in prayer, raised them above his head, dropping to his knees as he lowered them, then prostrated himself on the floor, in one seamless motion, like a yoga practitioner doing the sun salute. He repeated this devotion three times before the altar with its imposing statues. He had brought a food donation and we offered a small amount of money. Special bowls are provided for offerings of water, which are normally bestowed in groups of seven. Since even the poorest people can bring water, it allows everyone the opportunity to make a donation. A monk poured blessed water into Namgay’s left hand from an elegant metal ewer, the bumpha. Namgay slurped a little water noisily then wet his head with the rest, passing his hand from his forehead to the back of his head with one smooth movement. He asked the monk to bless us too and we took the water, repeating his actions and quite pleased to be included. It was one of several times that we were so blessed.
After exploring the temple grounds a bit more, we began our descent, halting for a picnic lunch in a spot with a lovely view. There were no rest rooms in sight so Namgay encouraged us to take advantage of what he called "friendly bushes". We’re not sure how friendly they feel after being used in that way, but we had no other choice.
After lunch we drove to Tamshing Lhakang, a temple and monastery dating back to about 1005 AD. A group of pre-adolescent monks were busy playing, trying to hit wooden posts with rocks just outside the entrance. We entered a square courtyard via a handsomely carved gate where dozens of monks were going about their business. The temple was extraordinarily beautiful with glorious frescos and magnificent statuary. The altar was piled high with offerings of food, fruit and flowers. At Namgay’s urging, Kencho donned a heavy chain mail garment forged by Pema Lingpa and circled the temple three times to gain merit. When he finished I tried to pick it up and was astonished to find that I could barely budge it an inch. I teased Namgay about making Kencho do all the difficult tasks and he advised that he’d done them many times himself on former visits, but this was Kencho’s first opportunity. When they dressed in civilian clothes, we could see just how thin our companions were, so we were constantly amazed at their strength.
When we exited into the courtyard, a somber young monk began beating a drum to call his brethren to prayer. Monks poured out of buildings and through the gates, rushing to the temple. Namgay stopped a high-ranking monk who was visiting the monastery for a special blessing.
Kencho dropped us off at Keonchogsum Lhakang, an 8th C temple famous for its ancient broken bell. The monk caretaker was away for the day, so we were unable to enter the temple, though we strolled around the grounds a bit. Kencho had gone to run an errand so we started walking back towards the guesthouse, figuring he’d pick us up where he found us. It took him longer than expected so we had a nice long walk, which was fine with us since we were enjoying the surroundings and the brisk, clean air. We passed a field where a large team of people was harvesting buckwheat and were surprised to see that buckwheat becomes so red when ripe. It was lovely in the soft glow of the late afternoon sun.
When we returned to the guesthouse one of the amiable cats living on the property, a female with a hanging stomach who appeared to be pregnant, followed us into our room demanding our attention until dinnertime. That evening Namgay decided to take us to another hotel for dinner, a place called Mountain Lodge on the other side of the river. It looked fancier than our place and it was clear that all of the guests were traveling in a group. The food, served in a buffet, wasn’t nearly as delicious as at the Swiss Guesthouse and we’d come to appreciate the quiet cozy atmosphere there.
We awoke to the song of birds and spied a squadron of red-billed leiothrix, plump little chirpers with a yellow throat, green-gray back, black wings and a white eye-ring in the trees outside our window. We quickly washed and dressed and ran outside to bird-watch awhile before breakfast, following them down the road as they foraged in the bushes and trees. There is a beautiful view of the river and the Jakar Dzong high on the riverbank from this road.
At breakfast we met a Bhutanese woman working for the government who was with an Asian businessman in town to work on a hydroelectric project. Bhutan harnesses its mighty rivers to provide electric power internally and as an export to India. We had a full day planned, so Namgay petitioned the authorities to let us into the Jakar Dzong before the official opening time and was granted leave. A council of lamas in the 15th C chose the site of the dzong, which means white bird, when a white bird alighted on the cliff overlooking the valley, which was viewed as a good omen.
The dzong was gorgeous, decorated in burnt orange, mustard, yellow, white, black, blue, brown, green, gold and gray. As we strolled through the inner courtyard we asked Namgay about the courts. He told us that minor cases can be resolved at the dzongs in the districts, but major cases must be brought to the court in Thimpu. Murder, though rare, is punishable by life in prison and theft will result in several years of incarceration.
Before we entered the temple, Namgay donned his kabney, a white prayer shawl that must be worn in temples and dzongs and that he always carried. The color of the kabney denotes rank, with white for commoners, yellow for the King and Je Khenpo, orange for ministers and purple for officers. We observed how the wooden floors in the older temples have been worn smooth by all the foot traffic. The temple featured a resplendent carving of the Buddha in his terrifying form united with his consort in intercourse. The sexual component of Tantric Buddhism is evident in the temples, though whether sex is strongly encouraged or merely displayed as a symbol of the union of male and female (strength and wisdom) is debatable. Damdin, a ferocious red deity with the upper body of a man and lower body of a crocodile wearing a crown of skulls, glowers at the penitents. A canopy richly embroidered with green, blue and gold threads was suspended above the altar. Brightly colored butter offerings elaborately carved in a variety of whimsical shapes stacked in towers graced the altar. Namgay told us that every Bhutanese family has a temple or prayer room in their home.
Namgay performed his devotions and as we gaped at all the finery, two monks began dancing while beating small round drums. They twirled around gracefully, lifting the drums over their heads while raising one foot, then stomping the ground, symbolically subduing evil spirits. The perimeters of the drums are ornately painted and gilded and they’re held by an attached stick, resembling a big lollipop. The drumsticks were curved like a question mark. At the same time other monks began blowing long brass horns decorated with scrollwork, called dhu, that emit a deep atonal sound, and small high-pitched horns called ja lee. The music, though not melodic, was stirring. It was a magical experience.
As we traversed the courtyard on the way out, we watched a group of young men in ghos rehearsing dance steps for the upcoming Jakar festival (tsechu) in November. The annual religious festivals are meant to ward off evil through music, dancing, and rituals and to attract good fortune. Dancers in elaborate costumes and carved wooden masks perform dances with great spiritual significance in the courtyards of the dzongs. The dances can be performed by monks or lay persons, and some date back to before the Middle Ages. Although we visited Bhutan during a period between festivals, we had the great fortune to view some of the traditional dances. In addition, resources can be strained due to the unusual crowds at festival time, so it was a quieter time to visit.
We continued down the road to visit Wangdizholing Palace, built in the mid-18th C it was the home of the first King of Bhutan. Prior to the election of the king, Penlops, regional governors, governed Bhutan. Ugyen Wangchuck was the Penlop of the powerful Trongsa district before becoming the first King. The palace was largely in a state of disrepair. From the doorway of the palace we spied three handsome brick stupas with blue roofs topped with gold pinnacles. The stupas housed enormous exquisitely painted prayer wheels illustrated with golden dragonheads. Namgay had to climb in and use a bit of elbow grease to spin the wheels. A stick protruding from the top of the wheels rang a brass bell as the wheels turned.
We continued down the road to the hospital, Namgay had arranged for us to meet the District Health Officer for a tour of the facilities. He was called away on urgent business, so we just browsed around on our own. Both modern and indigenous medicine is offered and we enjoyed inspecting the jars of herbal remedies in the traditional pharmacy. The pharmacist saw us peeking in and invited us to come take a closer look. The hospital was clean and looked fairly efficient, with an obstetrics unit and operating theater. Private rooms cost more as they do in Western hospitals. Posters plastered on the walls encouraged polio immunization, AIDS prevention, contraception, smoking cessation, tooth care and provided sanitary guidelines. We were surprised that HIV might be a problem. Namgay claimed that businessmen traveling to other Asian countries could become infected. While seated on a bench near the dentist’s office waiting for the DHO, an old woman came over to talk with us. Although we couldn’t understand the language, we understood that she had a toothache and had come to see the dentist, who utilized modern, if not state-of-the-art, equipment. She pulled down the collar of her blouse to show us a web of thick, raised scars crisscrossing her neck and chest. It must have been a horrific accident. We made sympathetic noises and gestures since we could not speak her language. When Namgay came over, we asked what she was saying but he said that he didn’t understand her local dialect. Although Dzonkha is the official language, there are many local dialects, particularly in the rural areas.
As we continued walking down the road, we noticed that there were wooden objects hanging from the corner eaves of most of the houses. Namgay told us that they represented a sword and a penis, and are intended to ward off evil spirits. The penis is an image of power and protection and is often painted on the sides of buildings as well. We found one house with penis-and-swords hanging from all four corners of the roof - they must have felt they needed extra protection and didn’t want to take any chances.
Our next stop was at Jambay Lhakang built in the 7th C by King Songchen, Gompa of Tibet. A Swedish diplomat and his aide were posing for a photo with the head monk as we arrived. Four large prayer wheels were positioned just inside the entrance. The temple is dedicated to Maitreya, the future Buddha and features a huge golden statue of him draped with a white scarf. Three steps represented the past, present and future Buddhas. An enormous butter lamp in a silver chalice about waist high with three wicks dimly lit the ancient murals depicting 1000 Buddhas that adorned the walls. There was a lovely garden behind the temple, where penitents roamed, spinning prayer wheels and meditating.
Namgay needed to stop in Jakar town to make some arrangements for our tour, so we had an opportunity to wander around. The town consists of one main street lined with shops, an intersection where a colorful wooden sign pointed out directions and another short road with additional shops and a Himalayan pizza parlor. We guess that Himalayan pizza is made with yak cheese. We saw strings of dried yak cheese, pale yellow with a powdery white coating, hanging in the window of a food store. The streets were bustling with activity, women shopping, merchants carrying wares, trucks stopping to load and unload, dogs prowling in packs and children playing. Peeking into an alley we glimpsed a group of children teasing a very young puppy. Kencho walked along with us for awhile and we pointed out the local pool parlor. We bought post cards at a small handicraft shop, the only shopping place for tourists in town. We went back to the Swiss Guesthouse for lunch, relaxing over a fine meal on the outdoor balcony.
That afternoon we drove over the Ura-La pass at 11,800 feet to the town of Shingkar in the Ura Valley. Had the weather been less cloudy we would have had a view of the tallest mountain in Bhutan, Mt. Kungunpinsom, 24,783 ft. high, but we had no luck that day. Kencho cautiously drove down a stone track to the village and we parked outside the grounds of the temple. Boys were boisterously sliding down a steep hill adjacent to the temple on wooden wheeled carts. They smiled shyly as we greeted them and one posed for a photo as he carried his chariot back uphill. Then they must have figured that we were more interesting than the hill and a pack of them proceeded to follow us around as we visited the temple. At this altitude (over 11,000 ft.) it was chilly and the wind whipped around us as Namgay sent a boy to fetch the monk caretaker to let us in. He arrived bundled up in a full length down coat. The Ura Lhakang, built in 1986, was surprisingly large considering the size and remote location of the town and remarkably opulent with a 20-ft. statue of Guru Rimpoche towering on the altar. The many butter carvings on the altar were also extraordinary. We asked Namgay if the images of skulls were meant to remind us of our mortality and he said that when subduing demons, the Buddha takes their brains (which reside in a container under the left hand of the Buddha) leaving the skulls as the empty receptacles. On an upper floor of the temple, a wide variety of fantastic festival masks hung from the rafters in anticipation of the tsechu, which is in May here. While we were touring the temple, our young escorts thoroughly inspected our boots, which we had of course removed before entering.
After exiting the Lhakang, the boys bedeviled a farmer riding a tractor by trying to crawl into the cart he was hauling. He was not amused and we probably encouraged them by laughing at their antics. He yelled and tried to knock them off. The boys went back to their downhill racing as we continued our perambulations through the village. Of all the charming towns in Bhutan, this was our favorite, with its stone lanes and quaint houses. A handsome, well-kept horse stood in the courtyard of one small farm and a flock of horned mountain sheep grazed in a field. We also saw domesticated beasts that are a mixture of yak and cow. Three attractive schoolgirls in matching kiras invited Stu to take a photo.
On the long drive back to Jakar, we noticed road crews camped at the side of the roads. They didn’t share the more typical Tibetan style features of the Drukpa, and Namgay advised us that most of the road crews employ migrant workers from India. At one point we happened upon a bull actively courting a cow smack in the middle of the road - two tons of lustful pot roast blocking our path. Focused on the task at hand, he seemed oblivious to our approaching vehicle and madly honking horn, but eventually edged to the side of the road so we could pass.
While in Jakar, Namgay had arranged for us to visit a local farmhouse. Two women greeted us, inviting us to sit on a mat in the large kitchen and dining area. The farmer, apparently as lusty as the bull in the road, had two wives, several children and grandchildren, who popped in at various times to investigate us. One of the wives churned butter for the tea while the other cooked homemade buckwheat noodles in a heavy iron skillet and pancakes on a griddle. They showed us the implement used to make the noodles and once they were cooked, one wife mixed them with spices and chilies in a big bowl with her hands. They kept refilling our cups with butter tea while serving up the noodles and pancakes. The noodles were among the best we’d ever eaten, spicy and delicious. Kencho, feeling deprived of butter tea on the trip, eagerly downed several cups. Namgay produced a bottle of ara, the local grain alcohol and poured me a bit.
I raised the glass to my lips with trepidation, fearing firewater that might just singe my esophagus. To my great delight, the ara was smooth and aromatic with a faintly sweet taste. In Bhutan even the liquor is kind and gentle. I would have liked to drink more, but decided to err on the side of sobriety. We gave some money to the wives before we left for their efforts.
Upon our return to the guesthouse, we noticed the car of the Swedish ambassador in the lot. Namgay had ordered dinner for us, even though we’d just stuffed ourselves at the farm. The guys went to town to play pool and we picked at dinner, which included a very good potato pancake, while making the acquaintance of the new lodgers. They had also come on business but were enjoying some cultural activities as well.
We started the next day with a hike across the river via a swaying suspension bridge to Kurjey Lhakang. While walking on a dirt path, Namgay suddenly realized that he was treading on small white caterpillars that looked just like small twigs. You couldn’t tell they were alive unless you watched very closely to catch the slight movement. He uttered an expletive and jumped to the side of the road, visibly disturbed at injuring a living creature. Throughout the trip his kindheartedness and spirituality impressed us.
Kurjey, situated near the river, is an exceedingly sacred site as it boasts an imprint of Guru Rimpoche’s body imprinted in a rock while he meditated at the site in the 8th C. A majestic cypress tree on the hill above the temple is reputed to have sprouted from the Guru’s walking stick. There are three temples in this impressive complex, the main one built in the 8th C, the second built by a Penlop and a modern one built by the Queen Mother in 1980. The Queen Mother had just died when we entered the country and she was cremated here just a couple of days earlier. The site had been closed during the ceremony and even then we were not permitted to visit the temples, but settled for a tour of the grounds. On the road to Bumthang, we’d pulled over to allow convoys transporting the royal family and high-ranking monks and officials on their way to the ceremonies for the Queen Mother to pass. We even caught a glimpse of the Je Khenpo, though we did not spot the King.
During the drive to Trongsa for lunch, Namgay gave us each a cube of dried yak cheese to try. It was as hard as a rock, maybe harder. The idea is to suck on it until it softens and shave bits off with your teeth. The taste, once you could perceive it, was milder than we anticipated but it required a whole lot of effort. We noticed that Kencho talked much more with Namgay than he’d done previously and surmised that the guys had bonded further during their night on the town in Jakar. We discussed marriage customs. Namgay advised us that marriage certificates are now common but ceremonies or religious rituals are usually reserved for the rich. At such ceremonies, the bride and groom wear a special gho and kira made of raw silk. Women inherit the family wealth so families prize daughters. Namgay and Kencho each have infant daughters. Divorce is common and the wife usually takes the house and most of the money.
We stopped for a tasty lunch at the Puenzhi Guesthouse, but unfortunately the owner was not around, we’d hoped to see him again. We had our first taste of momos, Tibetan dumplings. The view down on the Trongsa Dzong, with its bright yellow roof, and its watchtower was stunning from this vantage point. After visiting Trongsa, we stopped at Chandibejee an 18th C Nepalese style chorten, made of whitewashed stone with eyes painted at top on all four sides, representing the eyes of Buddha watching.
When we’d passed it on the way to Bumthang, the royal family was stopping there for a ceremony relating to the Queen Mother’s demise so we couldn’t visit. The faithful visit chortens to leave offerings and pray and in some cases to perform religious rituals. It is customary to circumnavigate the chorten three times to gain merit. A friendly dog decided to adopt us and trotted along as we explored the site.
We were still not treated to a clear view of the Himalayas from Pele-La pass, however we were pleased to see a herd of hairy yaks, including a youngster, congregating at the top of the pass. We would have hated to visit the region without getting a close look at a yak. The more ubiquitous animal in Bhutan is the cow, which is as plentiful as the sheep in New Zealand. As we traveled across the land, we noted that chewing betelnut is popular. Namgay told us that it is often offered as a gift, as we’ve seen in other Asian countries.
Daylight was fading as we wound our way down a rough road into the Phobjika valley, at an elevation of about 2900 meters, to the Gangtay Guesthouse. The house was traditionally decorated and the walls of our spare room were brightly painted with the same designs typically seen on building exteriors. Vases of marigolds all over the house brightened the rooms. Marigolds feature prominently during some religious ceremonies and are commonly grown. The only source of heat in the house was a wood-burning stove in the living and dining room. Our bed was piled high with quilts and blankets but was otherwise unheated. We were the only guests at the time so at least we did not have to share the two small bathrooms down the hall, which had modern toilets and cold water sinks. Buckets of hot water were supplied upon request for bathing.
We sat in the living room to warm up prior to eating a simple dinner. We dressed ourselves in fleece and climbed beneath the stack of blankets. We couldn’t decide which was harder, our bed or the dried yak cheese we’d gnawed on earlier. Being bonier, Stu suffered more discomfort than I did, waking stiff and sore. Some dogs began barking loudly in the back yard for awhile but they soon quieted down and we eventually drifted off to sleep. Washing up the next morning was a misery - unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any way to wash your body without removing your clothes, though we tried awfully hard. Stu dubbed the guesthouse "Cold Comfort Farm", after the hilarious film of that title.
We huddled by the stove for warmth while waiting for breakfast. Kencho complained about the cold, which told us just how cold it must be. At other times when we were feeling chilly in pants, sweaters and jackets, he and Namgay appeared to be perfectly comfortable in their well-ventilated ghos. It was raining outside, adding to the overall chill. We were scheduled to take a day hike to Gogona Monastery, but didn’t feel like slipping around on muddy trails in the rain so we opted for a walk through the valley.
The valley floor is covered in short bamboo brush and as we tramped along, escorted by 3 affable dogs, we frequently disturbed small partridge-like birds huddling in them, who flew off with a loud burst of ruffled feathers. We visited a small, poor temple then headed over to the elementary school. Namgay hunted up the headmaster who graciously agreed to show us around the classrooms. Classes are co-ed and large. The students quickly rose to greet the headmaster as soon as he appeared in the doorway of the classroom, clearly well-behaved. We had an opportunity to see what the children were studying and ask some questions. English is on the core curriculum.
When we reached a room with younger students, the class sang for us, first the Bhutanese national anthem, then "If You’re Happy and You Know It" in English. They finished off with a traditional folk song and a precocious boy danced for us. It was delightful. Education is not compulsory but appears to be highly encouraged. While it’s free, it seems that parents must provide uniforms, which consist of the national dress in school patterns and colors. The children all look adorable in their well-kept outfits. They shyly peered at us and smiled.
The Phobjika valley is home to the rare black-necked crane, which migrate to the region each fall. When we booked the trip we believed that the main purpose of our visit to the area was to view them, but it seems that we were too early. We visited the Crane Observation and Education Center and were told that while it was possible that they could arrive this week, they typically returned around the beginning of November. While there we met an American who was conducting classes on use of solar power. Bhutan is very active in conservation and preservation of their environment and is apparently exploring this source of energy. He told us that solar panels work best in cold climates, which we hadn’t known, and that this was an ideal place for their use. We were unable to view most of the exhibits since a class was in progress at the center so we figured we’d return later.
When we returned to the guesthouse for lunch the cute young daughter of the proprietors was playing outside with a collection of bits and bobs - a spool, some string, etc. I had brought along a small Polaroid i-Zone camera so that I could give photos to people as a small gift. I shot a picture of the girl and watched her pleasure as the image developed before her eyes. This camera proved to be a great icebreaker throughout the trip. We were treated to a delicious dish at lunch consisting of a soft tofu-like cheese with vegetables. We read in the lounge for awhile to take advantage of the stove. After awhile it became clear that there wasn’t much more to do here, that we had no chance to see the cranes, and we weren’t looking forward to another cold night. We asked Namgay if we might be able to drive to some town between here and Thimpu (where we were supposed to head the next day) and spend the night there instead. He and Kencho immediately jumped in the SUV to find a phone. We decided to begin packing in case he was able to arrange an early departure. As we packed, the girl we’d photographed knocked at our door and entered, giggling, offering her two tiny kittens for us to play with. This is one of our favorite experiences of the trip and a tangible reminder of the kindness and generosity of the Bhutanese. We played with the kittens until Namgay returned to tell us that he’d arranged for us to overnight in Wangdi. We reluctantly left the girl and her pets and hit the road. As it turned out, it rained even harder the next day and it would have been a difficult drive to Thimpu, so we were smart to leave ahead of schedule. We got the impression that Kencho and Namgay were just as happy to move on as we were and we were glad not to inconvenience them too much with our change of plans.
We stopped at the Gangtay Monastery on the way out of the valley. Built in the 16th C, it is renowned for its fabulous murals and bronze prayer wheel. It was being renovated so we couldn’t visit all of it, but explored the open areas. Namgay checked us into the Dragon Nest Resort, a modern facility on the banks of the river. The room was clean and spacious with an outdoor balcony overlooking the river, and the temperature was practically balmy. The only drawback was a horrible smell in the bathroom, but we considered this a minor inconvenience considering the facilities we would have had.
Kencho had invited Namgay to stay at his home in a nearby town, so the guys drove off and we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. There was a TV in the room and we watched a nature special before retiring. TV is relatively new to Bhutan - the government tries to preserve the traditional culture as much as possible, but now people own televisions and are more exposed to external influences. Namgay told us that they can get about 48 stations, though we never found more than about six.
Saturday morning we visited Wangdiphodrang Dzong, built in 1638 by Shabdrung Nyamgal. According to legend, Mahagala (a protective deity of the country, associated with the raven) appeared to Shabdrung in a dream telling him to build a fortress where two rivers meet. The name supposedly came from a boy named Wangdi, who was building a sandcastle near the site - a combination of his name and phodrong, which means palace. Although all of the dzongs have common elements, they’re all different. This was yet another handsome structure, white with burnt orange columns and the customary attractive woodcarvings and paintings. When we entered the temple, we saw about a dozen young monks sitting cross-legged on the floor reciting from a religious text. They held the narrow, horizontal books in their laps and rocked gently as they chanted. Namgay said that they must memorize these texts and therefore spend many hours studying. We had noticed that the monks often wore a variety of tops under their robes, t-shirts, sweaters, even sweatshirts with logos printed on them, or were bare-chested. Namgay pointed out that the rank of the monk is indicated by the colors on the short, flared sleeved burgundy inner jacket that some wear beneath the robes. Teachers have gold detail on their jackets and the head monk also wore a big belt and prayer beads. The teachers asked us to take their photo so we stepped outside on a balcony since photography is forbidden inside the temples. The head monk, a good-looking man with Schwarzeneggerian muscles, came along right then and also posed for a photo. I gave them Polaroid shots, and we took their address to mail copies of Stu’s portraits. The temple was small but lovely with a statue of Maitreya (future Buddha) flanked by statues of the past and present Buddhas and loads of colorful silk hangings. Namgay told us that these silk hangings typically adorn people’s home temples as well.
We had lunch at the same restaurant at Dochi-La pass as before. It was much colder this time due to the inclement weather and we all warmed our hands by the wood-burning stove before eating. Small rocks were heating on top of the stove, that you could hold for warmth. Four Americans from Connecticut were there and we spoke with them awhile. They’d also visited Tibet and enjoyed it, though they said that they suffered from altitude sickness. Two men were busy sewing a huge magnificent silk thangka (religious painting) spread out on the floor that a Californian physician had commissioned. We grabbed food from the buffet and Namgay brought over a bowl of red chilies for us. By the car we spotted a hoopoe, a sleek bird sporting a pointy crest on his light chestnut head, black and white striped feathers on his body and a long skinny beak.
We went straight to a local outdoor market when we arrived in Thimpu. There were canvas canopies over the stalls to offer some weather protection, but it was still a bit wet. We always enjoy browsing around food markets and discovering local specialties. The merchants good-naturedly showed us their produce tolerating our curiosity. Stu asked permission to photograph one particularly attractive woman and she obliged by standing up, drawing a shawl across her shoulders and smiling for us. I gave her a Polaroid shot as well.
We were disappointed when Namgay brought us to the Druk Sherig Guesthouse since our trip materials indicated that we’d be staying at the Druk Hotel. We thought that it would be nice to enjoy slightly better facilities since there is a wider range of hotels in the capital. It was a small family-run inn and might have been preferable as a more authentic source of local character, however, they were in the middle of renovations and the facility wasn’t quite ready yet. The staff was friendly and they did a terrific job on our laundry at least. We were perplexed upon entering our room to find that it was cold and we couldn’t locate any source of heat. After Cold Comfort Farm, we really wanted a warm place to stay. Fortunately, the staff hunted up an electric heater, which served its purpose well enough. Probably the biggest problem at the place was that it was next door to a nightclub. The first night they played loud recorded music until about 1 am. The second night a live band played truly awful music until 4 am, often shouting to the audience via an amped up microphone. We had to meet the guys very early that morning so we got almost no sleep at all. We had a look at the Druk Hotel nearby and it looked very professional. There was another place called Jhomollari, after the mountain, that appeared extremely elegant, though we never saw the rooms.
Namgay needed to get some work done at his office so he left us to explore the town on our own. Though a great deal larger than the other villages we’d visited, it was still a fairly small town. There are no traffic lights in the entire country but there is a crisply uniformed traffic cop in a kiosk at the intersection of the two main roads in Thimpu. The father of the current king disrupted the country’s self-imposed isolation by joining the United Nations in 1971 and the U.N. building was lovely. We passed the Textile Museum, but figured that it would probably be on our tour itinerary, so we didn’t go in. We needed a few small sundries, so we stopped in a couple of supermarkets. They had a fairly good selection and prices were extremely reasonable.
That evening Namgay dropped by to discuss our itinerary. We were supposed to eat at the guesthouse restaurant but they were still closed. Namgay talked them into serving us, but the meal wasn’t very good and we probably would have been better off going elsewhere.
It was still raining the next morning as we headed off to see the Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 by the Queen Mother at the wish of the third king Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. Many people came to the chorten for morning prayers, circling the exterior and stopping to worship before each of the 4 doorways into the temple. Others entered as we did. It was an amazing three storied temple overflowing with statues, ornaments and offerings.
We continued our journey to the 15th C Changangkha Temple, a pilgrimage site for people who wish to pray for the health of their babies. Inside the temple a small band of monks were performing a ceremony, playing drums, horns, cymbals and bells. A gray-haired orange-robed head monk sat on a throne seat at the center of the musicians with butter candles and other implements on a table before him. Women carried babies to him, whom he blessed by touching their foreheads. While playing the monks uttered deep, guttural chants. Namgay told us that this was a special ritual for the 10th day of the 10th month of the lunar calendar. It was hypnotic and deeply stirring. Women are not permitted in the inner area of this particular temple so I remained observing the monks’ ceremony while Stu and Namgay crossed the threshold. Stu told me upon exiting that they had tossed dice while making a wish. Stu rolled 13, an extremely lucky number and wished for health. Namgay advised that you are not supposed to wish only for yourself but for all sentient beings.
We drove next to the Thimpu zoo, where the only inhabitant is the national animal, the takin. At one point the government decided that zoos were not humane and returned the animals to the wild. The takins just wandered around town begging for food, so they decided to dedicate the zoo to their care. Apparently takins are rare in the wild, so it was an excellent opportunity to see them. They’re hoofed bovines with shaggy dark brown hair on their stocky bodies, a blond streak on their backs and a dark ridge running the length of their spines. They have long docile faces with big soft eyes, small protruding ears and short, ridged U-shaped black horns. Herbivores, they must be thrilled with the vast grassy field in which they roam. There are high chain-link fences to contain them but they’re allotted acres of room to rove. Kencho picked grass and branches from the surrounding fields and fed them to the takins, who eagerly crowded the fence for a treat and allowed us to scratch their pelts.
We drove up the hill above the heart of the city to visit a nunnery. Like their brethren, the monks, the nuns had closely cropped hair and wore red and purple robes. Indigent people were being fed a meal in a vestibule outside the temple and within a large assembly of nuns were reciting holy texts. The group included an astrologer, the only male participating in the reading. Namgay told us that people consult astrologers to name their babies and to determine how many rituals to perform to assure the baby’s welfare. Astrologers are also consulted to choose the most auspicious day for important events, like buying a house.
There wasn’t anyone on duty at the paper factory to educate us, but Namgay showed us around, describing the process used to make teschu, beautiful paper from the Daphne tree embedded with leaves and flowers. We admire the paper so much that we bought some to take home. One of the things we liked about Bhutan was the almost complete lack of commercialism. There was no begging or hard selling. The salesperson in the boutique at the paper factory let us browse around at our leisure and only approached us when we were ready for help.
We devoured a superb lunch of mixed vegetables (broccoli, green beans and carrots) with black pepper, mushrooms, tomatoes and cheese, chicken in red sauce, beef with red chilies, red rice and fried noodles at Phuensum restaurant. The piece de resistance was a delicious sweet crepe for dessert with butter tea. This was probably our best meal in Bhutan
Satisfied from lunch we headed to the Folk Heritage Museum, one of the finest of its genre that we’ve experienced. The grounds are set up like a traditional farm with a small stupa to burn incense, prayer flags, a prayer wheel turned by water, a stone mill for rice and buckwheat, drying sheds, a vegetable garden, fruit orchard and a Bhutanese style house. Namgay and a museum guide took us floor by floor through the house, which was overflowing with marvelous implements and artifacts. We entered the courtyard where we found a log with an indentation for crushing corn. The ground floor serves as the stable for the cattle with stalls for the animals as well as yak, horse and mule saddles, bits, reins and hide saddle bags. The guide showed us how a T-stick can be employed as a walking stick then used to rest your heavy load along the way.
The first floor serves as a storage area for grain (called a barthog) and for household items (called phuna). This area was crammed with fascinating objects, horn and bamboo containers with brass ornamentation for ara, bows, arrows, quivers and targets for archery, soksum (javelin), khuru (darts) and doegou (discus).
The family living quarters were on the second floor. In the kitchen we saw how wheat is boiled to make ara on a cast iron wood-burning stove. There was a wooden mortar and pestle for grinding chilies and a wooden noodle press, both just like those we saw at the farmhouse in Bumthang. There were also butter containers, oval bentwood boxes and bamboo funnels. The baryap acts as living room and/or bedroom, with the family sleeping on mats and blankets. We were saddened to see a leopard-skin bag among the possessions. Leopards and a variety of other exotic animals still roam in the remote wilderness areas of Bhutan. Silver or zinc scrollwork containers are stashed in the gho to hold betelnut, betel leaf and lime, along with a knife in the belt and a cup in the pocket. A small jewelry chest contained koma, the round ornate silver or brass pins that women use to secure the tops of their kiras. Indigenous musical instruments included the chua, a stringed instrument with a bow, a flute and a beautiful guitar made of wood and skin with an ornamental dragon neck. Traditional Bhutanese mid-calf boots cobbled of wool and leather richly colored and textured were on display. They are still worn for important ceremonies. Namgay pointed out the wooden plates used to print the horizontal holy texts that we saw the monks and nuns reading. There was also a typical family prayer room, or choesam, which looked like a miniature version of the temples we visited. The toilet was an old-fashioned squat job, basically consisting of a hole in the floor surrounded by two raised footrests, a style we’d encountered not only in Bhutan but also in other more developed countries. Namgay told us that locals use sticks rather than toilet paper and we winced at the thought of splinters. The bath, outdoors in the yard, consisted of a rectangular wooden trough heated with hot stones. Namgay said that the water is usually blisteringly hot. The attic, or yangthog, beneath the raised roof, is open for ventilation and used to dry and store hay, vegetables, fruit and meat.
Kencho dropped us at the top of a hill by a monastic school, where the novices were romping just like any other rowdy schoolboys, shooting marbles, playing tag, huddling in tight circles telling tales. Below we viewed a cluster of houses on the edge of fertile rice fields. Namgay led us down a steep muddy path to his home. His grandfather had been a fairly high-ranking head of the Thimpu district so they owned 3 houses, but rented out 2 of them. His mother, striking and still black-haired, was busy working in the front yard and stopped to meet us. We entered the living room, a neat, low-ceilinged room comfortably furnished and decorated with two photos of the King. As the King shows remarkable care for his people, he is highly esteemed and his photo is found in both private and public dwellings. A fairly large TV was propped on a table at one end of the room. Namgay’s wife greeted us along with their precious 18-month old daughter. She runs a small shop while Namgay is leading tours. Before long, Namgay’s nephew, two nieces and young cousin (his uncle’s daughter) shyly sidled into the room. One girl asked if we were tourists, cracking everyone up. The kids ran around the room, sneaking looks at us but keeping their distance, while Namgay’s wife served us butter tea with tins of puffed wheat and puffed rice. Eventually they became bolder when I began giving them Polaroid shots, and let us play with them a bit. They were adorable. Kencho had parked the car nearby and joined us for tea. Stu took photos as well with his Leica, which produced fine portraits of Namgay’s daughter with her mother and with her stately grandmother. We had the best enlarged and mailed a bunch to Namgay after we returned home. The children waved to us from the porch as we left and Namgay’s mother went back to milking the cows. We had to cross a stream via a narrow wooden plank on our way to the car, and Kencho protectively gripped my hand to help me across. We didn’t ask Namgay if he brings all of his tour guests home to meet his family, but we were deeply touched by it. It was one of the finest and most memorable experiences we’ve had while traveling and we still can’t stop talking about it.
Namgay had made a dinner reservation for us that evening at Tandin Restaurant, located in a small hotel. It was a nice room and the food was delicious, with a distinct Indian influence. They served a wonderful chapati with the meal. The only downside was the presence of a huge tour group of Japanese youths. The smokers were clustered at the end of the long table near our booth so we couldn’t avoid the fumes.
Since we’d mentioned our deep appreciation of dance to Namgay in Bumthang, he’d been working with his office to arrange for us to see a dance performance while in Thimpu. It was difficult because of big groups in town for a special Japanese festival and the performances were mostly booked up. This is the type of thing I would have expected our U.S. travel agency to arrange before we left, since we’d advised them of our interests when we booked. Fortunately, thanks to our superior guide and local agency, Namgay advised us that they’d been able to squeeze us into a performance by the Royal Academy of Performing Arts the following afternoon. We were scheduled to do two hikes that day, so we decided to start very early in the morning in order to fit it all in.
To our extreme joy, the rain finally ceased and we awoke to a cloudy but dry dawn. The clouds would eventually dissipate further, revealing a gloriously sunny and pristine day. As we drove to the starting point of our first hike, we passed a huge swarm of children walking to school, wearing the most attractive uniforms we’d seen so far. The kiras and ghos were woven in a stunning blue and purple plaid. The young ladies’ kiras were accented with hot pink cuffs and collars topped with solid purple jackets and the young men wore the customary white cuffs. Along the road a divine gilded portrait of the Buddha was etched into a sheer stone face.
Kencho opted to remain with the vehicle so we ascended the steep and rocky trail to Tango Monastery with Namgay. The scenery along the way was as extraordinary as you’d imagine and it was a fairly easy path. The monastery, constructed from the 14th C to about 1688 was gorgeous, white buildings accented with burnt orange, gold, gray and yellow in a pleasing configuration. As we crossed the elegant courtyard, we observed a young monk in a long narrow carved wood pavilion pouring butter oil into rows and rows of brass lamps laid out on wooden counters. Stu asked Namgay to request permission to photograph him, which he cheerfully granted. I gave him a small shot to express our gratitude. He responded by ushering us around the grounds and relating the history of the monastery, translated by Namgay as he spoke in Dzonkha. Although we were not permitted to enter the temple, the visit was still wonderful. As we strolled down a path to a lookout, Namgay drew our attention to three plump langur monkeys perched in the trees curiously inspecting us. Langurs are handsome primates with black faces rimmed with fluffy white fur and white and light gray fur on their bodies. After having a good look, we caught up with Namgay and the monk who were discussing how the monastery was founded. In the 13th C an astrologer saw a fire blazing through the dense pine forest, except in the area where the monastery currently stands, and interpreted it as a prophecy to build a temple in the area. The name, meaning horse’s head, was chosen due to a rock formation, visible above us from where we stood. The perspective was breathtaking, with a view across abundant forest and green valleys to a distant white-capped ridge of mountains. As Namgay discussed theology with the monk, we spotted a variety of birds soaring through the skies below, particularly spotted nutcrackers mostly black and brown with white spots on their bodies and an unidentified bird with a gray mottled back, black head and golden breast.
On the walk back, we glimpsed a small rodent, resembling a combination of chipmunk and squirrel, with a striped back and long fuzzy tail. This facility is used as a monastic college and we saw several scholars bustling across the grounds as well as some lounging around enjoying the view from the upper windows.
When we descended, Kencho was catching up on lost sleep in the truck so Namgay crept up and roused him by pounding vigorously on the roof. We drove a short distance to another trailhead and climbed up to Cheri Monastery, built in 1619 by those who also established Tango. It is employed as a center of meditation. As we approached, a twenty-something year-old monk was washing laundry in a large square concrete tub with a water spigot. He had his robe hiked up to his waist to keep it out of the water and we were amused to see that he was wearing stylish cargo shorts underneath. Two stone snow lion statues guarded the entrance to the building. A monk, clearly deep in thought or meditating, leaned against the building, his eyes trained on the distant horizon. The faded painting on the monastery did not detract from its beauty. Once again we could not visit the temple, but explored the grounds, turning prayer wheels as we walked. An iron railing enclosing an outdoor courtyard was forged with the eight auspicious signs that the Buddha saw when he was enlightened. The monks, taking advantage of the vigorous wind, had hung some wet robes to dry on the railing. While Namgay was chatting with an exceptionally handsome monk, we were watching three wild mountain goats that were nimbly hopping along a cliff above to graze on the vegetation poking up through the cracks. The goats had short black horns, shaggy brown fur with a black stripe down the back and a cream-colored patch at the throat. Namgay told us that this was his first encounter with wild mountain goats. A wizened layperson caretaker greeted us and posed for a photo, joined shortly by his wife who wished to be included. People were unfailingly kind and amiable to us everywhere.
We spotted a lot of birds during the pleasant hike back down to the car, including another hoopoe, the white-capped redstart with rufous feathers on its underside, black back and wings and white cap, and an extremely colorful bird with a long black and white striped tail and orange beak. We were able to identify some birds in a book that Namgay loaned to us but we didn’t find all of the birds we saw. We had enjoyed Phuensum Restaurant so much, that we went back there again for lunch. While the food was not quite as good as on the first visit, it was still excellent and we were happy to be served the sweet crepe again at the end.
After lunch we swung by the Textile Museum, a remarkable collection of fine fabrics and fantastic clothing, including royal garments donated by the family of the king. The exhibits included interesting photos. We’d been seeing a lot of swastikas painted on walls and woven into fabric. We knew it had significance as a Buddhist symbol, not a Nazi emblem, and we learned that it symbolizes the unchanging, cyclical nature of existence, and therefore eternity. We also saw conch shell motifs and were told that the call of the conch is Buddha’s voice calling the faithful to dharma, the holy teachings.
Because of our early start, we still had time to visit the National Library as well as an art school. The majority of the books in the library were religious, and it featured ancient sacred texts on the top floor. There were informational tomes as well covering history and geography, but we only saw Asian countries represented, primarily China and Japan. The art school conducts an 8-year program in painting, embroidery, sculpture and woodcarving and the students produce skillful work.
The students seemed to enjoy demonstrating their skill and were crazy about the Polaroid. Everyone wanted me to take his or her picture. This was the most crowded tourist attraction that we visited in Bhutan, we saw more fellow travelers in this one place than in the entire previous nine days. On our way to our vehicle, we ran into the 4 Americans we’d met at Dochi-La pass. They had only traveled as far as Punakha and were finishing off Thimpu before leaving, having stopped in Paro on the way in. They also did the monastery hike that morning, though only to one and their guide did not take them all the way up to the monastery since he said they wouldn’t be allowed to enter. It was one of the many times that we really appreciated Namgay. They told us that when we visit Taktsang, to be sure to continue above the teahouse for the best view, but of course Namgay had already planned on taking us all the way.
We stopped at the post office to mail post cards and buy souvenir samples of Bhutan’s renowned stamps. It was late afternoon when we settled into folding chairs on the lawn for the RAPA dance performance we’d been so eagerly anticipating. Normally the performances are held indoors but the venue was being used for a fashion show showcasing Bhutanese textiles in association with the museum. We were pleased to spend the time outdoors since the weather was so fine and it meant having better light. The program described the nature and meaning of the different dances. While these are the same dances performed at the festivals, we would see only part of the full number. It was absolutely sensational and we were so grateful to have been able to attend. The costumes were exquisite, in a multitude of flamboyant colors, sumptuous fabrics and fanciful designs. The wooden masks, many with animal features, were fabulous. The dancing was graceful and athletic, clearly requiring great balance and prowess. In one ribald piece, clowns wearing crimson masks with enormous pendulous noses and striped togs run around mischievously harassing the other participants, including poking them with a large tumescent red dildo that they handled quite lasciviously. A band accompanied the dancers on traditional instruments. While many of the dances featured men alone, the opening and closing numbers were performed by a troupe of men and women. The audience was invited to join hands with the dancers at the end of the last dance. We cannot reiterate how much we enjoyed this and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Bhutan with an interest in folk dancing, particularly if you will not have the opportunity to attend a festival.
We finished off an action-packed day with a walk around Tashichhodzong (1641), which houses the offices of the King, the national government and the central monk body. Visitors may not enter the dzong except at certain times during festivals. Even the exterior is worth seeing, a magnificent structure surrounded by fragrant rose gardens and covered in masterful paintings. We had a pretty good dinner at Plum’s Café on the second floor of a building near the center of town. It was one of the few times we were given a menu to select from rather than being brought dishes from a set menu.
By now, in case it isn’t evident from the notes, we had fallen head over heels in love with Bhutan and the Drukpa and were sad to be starting our last day in country. Namgay brought a copy of Kuensel, the national paper, for us to read on the way. We hit the road early again since we had a couple hours drive to Paro on what is probably the best stretch of road in the country. The second largest city, Paro has a population of approximately 13,000 people. A magnificent view of the Paro Dzong across a crystalline river with a backdrop of white-capped mountains heralded our arrival. All the precipitation of the last few days had coated the high mountain ranges with snow.
Since the weather was so perfect, Namgay decided to postpone our hike to Taktsang in order to take us to Drukgyel Dzong for a view of Mt. Jhomollari (also spelled Chomolari).
At 24,040 ft. it is almost 4,000 ft. taller than Denali (Mt. McKinley), the highest mountain in North America, but it still doesn’t make the top 10 of the highest mountains in the world, 9 of which are in the Nepalese and/or Nepalese/Tibetan Himalayas and one (K2 - the second highest) in Pakistan/China. The town where we started our short hike to the dzong is the starting point of a mountain trek from Paro to Thimpu and we saw pack horses loaded up with gear. The Dzong, now in ruins due to a fire, was built in 1647 to celebrate Bhutan’s triumph against a Tibetan invasion in 1644 as its name (gyel means victory) boasts. The view was as outstanding as Namgay promised. As an added bonus, while returning to the car, we were lucky enough to catch three men practicing archery. Archery is the national sport and tournaments are held regularly. We couldn’t perceive the target even though Namgay pointed it out until we’d walked most of the long way to it. Unlike the huge round bulls-eye targets we normally see, it was a very small rectangle, placed at a great distance. Not only could the archers see it, they were hitting it. We were very impressed.
Our trip materials lead us to believe that the hike to Taktsang would be the most challenging but we found it to be far less difficult than our first hike in Bumthang. Due to the greater amount of foot traffic, the trail was well-graded with much less loose gravel than we’d been encountering and we were at a lower altitude. As on many of our hikes, sociable stray dogs accompanied us on the trail. Unlike our other hikes, where we only ran into locals, there were plenty of visitors making the trek, though, at least while we were there, we were the only ones who continued past the teahouse. Even crowds in Bhutan mean far less people than you’d find in other tourist areas around the world. Taktsang, "Tiger’s Nest", was established in the 8th C by the precious master Guru Rimpoche, whom legend tells, rode a white tigress to the site and within 3 months had converted the whole valley to Buddhism. It dramatically clings to the side of a sheer cliff high on a hilltop, an astounding sight, and is one of the most holy temples in Bhutan. It was destroyed by fire a few years ago and full restoration is well underway. Like everyone else, we stopped at the pretty teahouse for the view, enjoying tea and cookies on the outdoor patio. Then we continued upwards to a spot with an exceptional view across to the monastery, majestic in white, red and yellow with a golden roof. A guard came over and Namgay was shooting the breeze with him while we admired the view. Before we knew it, the guard was offering us the opportunity to visit the site without a permit, which is required at this time. Namgay didn’t bribe him, he just seems to know how to talk to people and be granted favors.
Unfortunately we had the choice of hiking the rest of the way to the monastery or visiting the National Museum, since we hadn’t time for both. We chose the museum mainly because the monastery was still under construction but also because we were interested in the collection. On the way we had a flavorful lunch of beef with mixed vegetables, potatoes with ginger and spices and a fiery emadatse at the Traveler’s Restaurant in downtown Paro. The main strip is neat and quaint, lined with small shops. A common sight along the roads in Bhutan was trucks tarted up with tinsel, colorful drawings, all kinds of hangings, writing, scrollwork and glitz, like gypsy caravans.
The National Museum, established 1968, resides in a round watchtower built in 1651 above the Paro dzong. It’s crammed with archaeological artifacts as well as more modern ethnic objects, including stamp collections, regional costumes, thangkas and other religious art. We were glad not to have missed it.
Rinpung Dzong, the official name of the Paro Dzong, means fortress on a heap of jewels. The complex was expanded in 1646 on the site of an earlier monastery at the direction of Shabdrung Namgyal. The dzong overlooks an aquamarine river, forded by an enchanting old-style covered bridge, white with a black shingled roof. As splendid as its exterior, with its traditional white, black and burgundy-trimmed walls, the interior is even more outstanding with a stunning temple featuring a statue of Maitreya, and glorious paintings. Among our favorites were depictions of ancient Mongols, one with a tiger and the other with a yak, an extraordinary image of the Buddha (Dumdin) with his consort and a contingent of tantric Buddhas in terrifying form, portraits of Shabdrung Namgyal and Guru Rimpoche and the two brothers who founded the monastery, and an exquisite wheel of life.
The wheel of life is a significant icon in Buddhism, symbolizing death, karma, reincarnation and the causes of suffering. In it, the lord of death, Yama, wearing a crown of skulls grips the wheel in his fanged jaws and clawed fingers, symbolizing the inevitability of death and impermanence of existence. The rim of the wheel is bordered with scenes representing the twelve links of dependent origination - ignorance, karma, consciousness, name and form, the six senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell and thought), contact, feelings, desire, grasping, existence, birth and aging & death. After death the endless cycle of suffering, called samsara, begins again. Enlightenment, which breaks the cycle, is symbolized by a serene Buddha in the upper right corner above the wheel pointing to the moon (symbol of liberation), and can be achieved by following the path of his teachings. The next layer in the wheel illustrates six higher and lower realms, the 3 upper realms of humans, demigods and gods. The realm of the gods is distinguished by happiness, but this is temporary, as the gods must return to the cycle once their karma is exhausted. The lower realms belong to the animals, characterized by ignorance and base instincts, hell beings in a state of extreme heat (anger) and cold (hatred), and hungry ghosts, humans obsessed by their own needs and greed, in a constant state of thirst and hunger. An inner circle, divided in half, demonstrates actions and karma, one side moving into the upper realms as a result of virtuous actions, the other side moving down into the lower realms due to immoral behavior. The hub of the wheel depicts the three root delusions, or poisons, that are responsible for all suffering and keep the wheel in motion - greed, represented by the pig, hatred in the form of the snake, and ignorance or delusion symbolized by the rooster.
We took a walk down a tranquil, tree-lined boulevard until Kencho retrieved us and drove us across the river to the Kitchu Lhakang. The original temple was built in the 7th C and the Queen Mother added an extension in the 18th C. A group of high school kids were socializing outside the entrance when we passed through an arched gateway into a small courtyard with a lovely orange tree. The windows were screened with metal scrollwork, rather than the typical carved wood embellishment. We noticed cords on the handles of the prayer wheels to ease the operation for the elderly. The simplicity of the exterior belied the elaborate and inspired ancient temple within. Imaginative statuary graced the inner sanctum with images of Maitreya, Guru Rimpoche in eight manifestations, and Avalokidishera, an imposing 11-headed deity. The new temple was equally sumptuous, if not quite as mystical, with a massive gold statue of Guru Rimpoche arrayed in a gold and red robe, and a smiling Tara, worshipped by women. The altar abounded with intricate butter sculptures. After performing his ritual prayers Namgay discussed the temple with the monk caretaker, who benevolently presented him with a large, crisp offering wafer from the altar that he generously shared with us.
As Stu was sitting outside the temple pulling his boots back on, one of the temple cats jumped into his lap and snuggled up to get her ears scratched.
We drove up a fairly steep hill, arriving at the Dechen Hill Resort for the night. Guestrooms clustered in small two story cottages among lavishly landscaped gardens with breathtaking views of the river valley and the Rinpung Dzong. The rooms were simple but lovely with comfortable beds covered in local textiles and an unusually large bathroom with both shower and tub. As seems usual, there were no closets or drawers, so we stacked some clothes on a cushioned bench. The owners appeared to be Indian and served excellent Indian cuisine for dinner and a satisfying breakfast. Our flight to Kathmandu the following day had been pushed back two hours, the plane schedules still impacted by the three days of rain earlier in the week. We tried to take advantage of the later start to sleep in, but we still woke up absurdly early, so we birdwatched around the hotel grounds before breakfast, then sat outside reading and enjoying the view and our last precious hours in Bhutan. It was with heavy hearts that we bade farewell to Namgay and Kencho at the airport, which Namgay made even harder by sending us off with a deeply moving speech about friendship and peace between people of different nations. Hot tears stung my eyes and I had to restrain myself from giving him a big hug, since I guessed that it would be considered inappropriate conduct in his culture. We settled for the warm Bhutanese two-handed handshake. We haven’t forgotten Namgay and to our extreme gratification, he apparently has not forgotten us either. He emailed us a couple of weeks after we got back to make sure we’d arrived home safely and to give us a new email address. He also sent us holiday greetings, though he hasn’t received the packet of photos and book that we sent to him yet since he’s been busy touring away from home.
It’s a short but spectacular flight from Paro to Kathmandu, following the towering ridge of the Himalayas. Though our U.S. agency had promised us right-hand seats to catch the view, we did not get them. This is one of several reasons, including the disappointment in Beijing, that we won’t be using that agency again, since they charge a substantial service fee but fail to deliver exceptional service. In addition, our agent had talked us out of taking a mountain flight to see Everest, claiming we would see it on Druk Air. Fortunately, we were able to arrange this with our local agent in Kathmandu so it was not a complete loss.
Circling above Kathmandu, a sprawling metropolis of about 2 million inhabitants, we were immediately dismayed by the thick, brown pall of smog suspended over the valley. Perhaps we would have appreciated Kathmandu better had we not just visited Bhutan. While Bhutan was unpolluted, pristine, peaceful, uncrowded, friendly, uncommercial and esthetically appealing, Kathmandu was dirty, noisy, congested, brusque, mercenary and esthetically challenged with a hodgepodge of shoddy construction in discordant styles. In all of our travels we usually can find redeeming virtues in even the most downtrodden places, but we never shook our initial impression that Kathmandu was a pit despite occasional glimpses of grace. The most apparent beauty lies in the people, who are on average exceedingly attractive, with dark Indian features. The Indian influence in Nepal is immediately obvious with the proliferation of Hindu structures (though Buddhism is also practiced) and the predominant style of dress. Women were mostly swaddled in saris and men sported topi, the envelope-shaped Nehru hat, and long tunics with vests, though Western dress was also fairly common, particularly among the men.
A trip coordinator met us at the airport, whose name we never caught though he escorted us at other junctures in the trip as well, with a young driver named Ganesh, whom we immediately liked owing to his good sense of humor and congenial nature. They brought us to Dwarika’s Hotel where we reviewed our tour materials and received vouchers. We asked if they could arrange a mountain flight. Maoist terrorists have been wreaking havoc in the country for years, targeting governmental employees and buildings, but aside from extorting money, had never harmed any tourists. While in Bhutan we heard that they’d escalated the violence, hitting some tourist areas previously left alone, and now also claimed to be targeting U.S. tourists to protest U.S. government interference. This caused us a bit of anxiety, but our contact assured us that we would be perfectly safe where we were visiting and recommended no changes to our itinerary. We asked the trip coordinator to see if he could arrange a mountain flight to see Everest.
Dwarika’s is a very special place, founded by Dwarika Das Shrestha, a businessman who wished to preserve the cultural heritage of Nepal and the ancient Newari art of woodcarving. He realized that much skillful antique woodwork was being destroyed as old buildings were torn down and replaced by modern structures. He began collecting pillars, windows, doors, lintels and other decorative wooden carvings from these buildings. Owner of a travel agency, he established a small guesthouse in an old family home to finance his art acquisition. Instead of setting up a museum, he decided to use the pieces he’d accumulated to expand the hotel into a living cultural monument. Soon he was having brick manufactured in the traditional way and building a modern hotel that preserved the traditional style. Since restoration work was often required, he also established a woodcarving school and workshop to revive and sustain the bygone craft. The hotel funds the school, which is expanding to create awareness of the importance of the Nepalese architectural heritage and to assist owners of privately-owned houses to establish bed and breakfast inns to fund restoration and preservation of woodwork.
The result of all this care is an amazing establishment with a unique sense of place. Even the door handles are attractive bronze sculptures. Flowers and fruit trees add a splash of color to the tasteful terra cotta and wood structures. Our room was spacious and comfortable decked out in Nepalese textiles with a four-poster linen-canopied bed. We couldn’t imagine staying anywhere else in Kathmandu, an oasis of tranquillity in a chaotic city. It was without doubt the finest place we stayed during the trip, combining excellent facilities with local character. The only negative thing we could say about it was that the tap water smelled awful, but we suspect that all of the water in Kathmandu must smell bad. Lacking running water in their homes, many Nepali draw water from spacious outdoor public pools, which look absolutely pestilent. We were advised that the locals boil this water prior to consumption. We think we’d want to boil it before washing with it as well. We have to admit that we enjoyed staying in such a luxurious place after the basic lodgings in Bhutan, especially sharing one huge bed instead of enduring forced separation in two narrow ones, however, all things told we still preferred roughing it in Bhutan.
We had time to unpack and wash out a few things before our guide, Tulsi, and Ganesh picked us up for our afternoon tour of Patan. There are three royal cities in the Kathmandu Valley - Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Each has a large square, called Durbar Square, where the royal palace, temples, baths and shrines can be found as well as smaller squares with holy structures and pilgrimage centers. The style in all of these squares is consistent, with terra cotta brick, statues, multi-level temples and detailed woodcarvings.
Our first stop was at a handicraft center, where we observed a few woodcarvers plying their craft, but which was more about dragging us through Tulsi’s uncle’s shop. The commercial thrust of the tour was established instantly. Most guides will at least show you a few attractions before they start taking you to the cleaners. We advised him that we weren’t ready to shop yet and tried to get out as quickly as we could, though he dawdled. He redeemed himself a bit by offering to take us to meet the Patan Kumari (there’s one in each of the 3 royal cities). The Kumari, meaning unmarked, is a living goddess venerated in the Nepalese religions. A committee selects a young girl, who must satisfy 32 specialized criteria of perfection, and who will then reign until puberty, when a new one replaces her. The Kumari’s feet may not touch the ground and she is carried everywhere, leaving home only for religious ceremonies. Supported by the government while Kumari, the king and queen visit once per year and she receives a pension after her term is over, as well as cash offerings from worshippers during her tenure. Kumaris supposedly live a normal life once they hit puberty, but you can imagine how intimidating it might be for a young man to ask a former goddess for a date. Stu later riffed on the concept of a Nepalese TV sitcom, "I Married a Living Goddess", with the wife, a bored, gum-chewing spoiled American-princess-style ex-Kumari, demanding worship and expecting to be carried around everywhere, and her hapless husband trying to please and fearing the wrath of God. The Patan Kumari is eight years old and heartbreakingly beautiful. We had to remove any leather goods (purse, belt, boots) before entering her room since cows are sacred. Seated on her throne, she calmly watched us through lowered eyelashes as we paid tribute, bestowing a red dot on my forehead as I knelt before her, a blessing for health, prosperity and happiness. We gave a small contribution to her mother on the way out. The Kathmandu Kumari is only five years old but we were told that she is seeing no visitors now, not even coming to the window of her famous courtyard to greet people. Apparently her family is demanding a share of the tourist revenues. Extremely spiritual lot.
One of the activities we most enjoyed was wandering with Tulsi through back streets and courtyards to see how people live. He showed us how houses are clustered around an inner courtyard, the center of social activity for the neighborhood. Children play, women chat or dry grain, men play cards. Since doorways traditionally featured a carving or painting over the top, they were purposely built low so people entering would be obliged to bow in tribute to the artist. We passed through dark low corridors connecting one courtyard to another or to the street. We saw a young potter rapidly hand turning small shallow bowls for everyday use. We were surprised to see young girls and even infants heavily made up. We smiled and greeted people we encountered with a respectful "Namaste", clasping our hands and bowing slightly. Some returned our greeting; others ignored us, or just stared. We’d gotten spoiled in Bhutan where even the dogs and cats were always happy to see you and made you feel welcome.
We eventually wound our way to a square with a 5-layered temple dedicated to Shiva, symbolized by the statue of a bull, then to nearby Durbar Square. Tulsi took us to see a photo exhibit in the same former palace that now also houses the Patan Museum. The collection looked intriguing, but he said that we didn’t have time to visit before it closed. We couldn’t help thinking that Namgay would have taken us to the places with early closing hours first, since we could still walk through alleys or browse in shops later. He left us to wander around the square on our own and take photos while he went off to have tea and confer with his cronies, of which he has legions all over town. While the square had some attractive elements, on the whole we found the overall style to be less pleasing and a bit drabber than we’d envisioned.
In addition, not being Hindu, we were not permitted to enter the temples, which reduced the interest somewhat. We most enjoyed observing the people as they went about their business. Tulsi kept continuing to take us to shops along the way. At first we tried to tactfully advise him that we weren’t interested. Finally we bluntly told him that we didn’t travel to shop and didn’t want to visit any more stores. He replied that we weren’t obliged to buy and five minutes later was herding us into another shop. By this time, we were fed up - we pay a premium for private tours to avoid wasting time on activities we don’t enjoy, which is a drawback of group tours. We had also specifically told the NY agency that, while we appreciate an opportunity to view fine crafts now and then, we don’t like frequenting tourist traps. We think they did a poor job aligning us with a guide who matched our requirements. On the way back to our vehicle, Tulsi left us on a crowded street corner to wait while he did some personal shopping. Earlier we were also disappointed to find that we’d been booked into the continental restaurant at the hotel for dinner, even though we requested their Nepalese restaurant and asked if we could change. The trip coordinator told us we’d eat there the following night. We didn’t travel thousands of miles to eat Western food, but fortunately they had a Nepalese Thali (set dinner) on the menu that was good. Once again, we had specifically told our NY agent that we always wanted local food when dinners were arranged.
The next morning we drove to Bhaktapur, "City of Devotees", slowly navigating through unruly, clogged traffic. The scenery became prettier as it became more rural since 70% of the population farm. We passed fields of cauliflower, spinach, onion, broccoli, white and red potatoes, yellow expanses of mustard, and rice. The schoolchildren wore institutionalized uniforms with gray or navy pleated skirts for girls and slacks for boys, and white tailored shirts with neckties for both. We discussed marriage customs and Tulsi told us that in the cities both a marriage certificate and ceremony is customary. By law, people are bound to take only one spouse, but in hill villages men often take multiple wives since there is a shortage of men. He said that divorce is rare, but we got the distinct impression that men get action on the side, though the women seem so conservative, it’s hard to imagine where they find mistresses. We were told that women wear white dresses for one year to mourn a deceased husband and presumably do not remarry during that period.
Before Bhaktapur, we stopped at Changunarayan Temple, built during the 4th-5th C. On the walk up to the temple complex, we were sad to see souvenir stands and shops lining the road. Otherwise the town was quite pleasant with brick buildings and bright yellow ears of corn hanging from window ledges and roofs to dry. Women were busy drying grain on large woven mats. We were the first tourists to arrive at the site and it was tranquil, except for a large, exceedingly randy and shaggy Billy goat who kept trying to mount all the does within striking distance, sending them racing away loudly bleating in protest, with the buck in hot pursuit. Tulsi provided some information about the various structures and symbols, but appeared to be reading it off a souvenir brochure that we could just as easily have read.
He took us for a stroll through a family farm to catch a smoggy perspective of the surrounding hill and dale. When we entered the property, three women were busy working in the courtyard and hurriedly scuttled into the house when they saw us. An adorable little girl kept her seat on the front stoop, curiously inspecting us with her big soft eyes while her mother, in a ruffled red shirt, leaned out of an upstairs window. We tried to amuse her and I finally pulled out my Polaroid and offered a shot to her.
Shortly afterwards, the women emerged from the house smiling at us and chatting with Tulsi, clearly pleased about the photo. They told us the girl was named Rasmi and that she had a fever, though she looked more dazed than ill. We exchanged some more small talk and then left them to their chores.
After parking in Bhaktapur, we stopped at a factory where paper is handmade from papyrus. A young man with excellent English demonstrated the whole process. We learned that royal edicts and legal documents are always printed on papyrus, which appears to be immune to insects, assuring longevity of the documents. The tour ended in the factory gift shop where both Tulsi and the guide pushed paper products at us. We’d just bought a bunch of paper in Bhutan, however, we picked up a small notebook. As we continued down the street, Tulsi pointed out a handsome window with a peacock carved in wood. He directed us to a shop where he said we could get a good photo from the second floor. A fellow in the shop invited us in for the view. Stu told Tulsi that he had a good lens and could get a terrific shot from there. As soon as the guy in the shop realized that he had no chance of getting us to check out his wares, his attitude became hostile and he chased us away from his doorway. We figured that Tulsi must pocket a commission of some kind for bringing tourists to these businesses.
We started at Dattatraya Square, site of the 5-tier Nyatapola Temple (1702 AD), at 98 ft. it is the tallest temple in the Kathmandu Valley and was our favorite in the area. Dual statues of elephants, lions, griffins, wrestlers and goddesses line the steep stairway to the first story. Tulsi occupied himself elsewhere as we climbed up and explored. There was also a grand statue of the Garuda commemorating a temple to Vishnu. He brought us to the Café Nyatapola in the middle of the square for lunch. From a cramped table on the outdoor deck on the second floor, we had a view of the entire square and a good lunch of tomato soup and chicken biryani. We rejoined Tulsi after lunch and walked over to Durbar Square. The 55-window palace wasn’t terribly interesting, but the intricately carved Golden Gate was lovely.
Ganesh drove us to Boudranath Stupa, a gigantic whitewashed brick stupa constructed in the 5th C and topped with the ever-watchful eyes of Buddha on a golden tower. It looms in the middle of a circular concourse lined with shops. Brightly colored square prayer flags waved on lines extending from the peak to the base. It was a magnificent sight illuminated by the sun against a backdrop of deep blue sky. Pilgrims circumnavigated the stupa, turning prayer wheels lining the base. First Tulsi brought us to a rooftop café for a view from above, and probably to try to get us to buy something from his friends running the place, who at least were nice to us even though we didn’t buy anything. We entered a Buddhist temple across from the stupa. We spotted a monk bent over at the altar and assumed he was praying. As we approached, we realized that he was counting out a big stack of rupees piled on the altar. A photo of the Dalai Lama was hung over the altar. Tulsi left us to explore the site on our own while he went off to shop, which was fine with us since he contributed so little to our understanding of the places we visited. Sitting against one of the two handsome white elephant with rider statues flanking one of the stairwells up to the stupa, a crimson-robed monk spun a brass hand-held prayer wheel as he meditated. At the base of the stupa, beneath a row of metal stamped prayer wheels another monk studied a sacred text. We circled the stupa three times ascending a level on each circuit, then went to find Tulsi.
We couldn’t enter Pashupatinath Temple (6th C), situated on the Bagmati River, but we peeked over the walls from the outside. A massive gilded bull representing Shiva occupied a courtyard and a family of macaques groomed each other on a statue base.
The owner of the local Kathmandu agency we were dealing with, Tsheten Wangdi, came to meet us back at the hotel. He advised us that they’d arranged a mountain flight for us the following morning and we talked to him about our itinerary and experiences so far. We got the impression that he wanted us to have the best possible trip, and also that the NY agency had not passed on some of the info we’d given them and had failed to provide some of the details he’d given to them to us. That evening we dined at Krishnarpan, Dwarika’s traditional Nepalese restaurant, and enjoyed the finest meal of the trip. After removing our shoes, the hostess lead us through richly decorated rooms to a low table where we rested against cushy bolsters. Red tasseled menus customized with our names and our set menu was delivered along with a glass of the local firewater. It went down like rubbing alcohol, or at least what I imagine rubbing alcohol would taste like, having never imbibed it. We’d been set up with the 9-course feast (the other choices are 6 and 12-courses), which started with a selection of mixed hors d’oeuvres, followed by courses of roasted mushrooms, vegetables, fish, rice pancakes stuffed with chicken, scrumptious momos, pumpkin soup, curries with rice and ending with a sweet rice bread and coffee. Service was excellent and the meal was served at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately we hadn’t time for coffee since we had to arise so early the next day and we wanted to grab a few hours of sleep.
We had to arrive at the airport before dawn and contend with undisciplined crowds to check in for our Buddha Air flight. A group of hardy hikers sleepily awaited their flight to Lukla where they would begin a trek on the Everest circuit. Considerably less hardy, we settled for a view from a plane. We were so pleased not to have missed this - the air was clear and the views truly awe-inspiring. The flight attendant wandered down the aisle identifying the mountains as we approached and every passenger was allowed into the cockpit to view Sagarmatha (Everest) from that perspective. As we deplaned, the flight attendant handed out certificates commemorating the flight.
Ganesh was waiting to take us back to the hotel, where we had plenty of time for breakfast before continuing our tour of Kathmandu. We climbed over 300 steps up to Swoyambhu Stupa, a smaller replica of Boudranath over 2500 years old. Villagers bring babies here to pray for their health. We were disgusted to find souvenir sellers hawking wares all over the area around the temples and shrines.
Tulsi asked if we wanted to wander through back streets again on our way to Durbar Square in Kathmandu, but we were short on time and figured it was probably another excuse to drag us into souvenir shops, so we declined, which meant that he still lead us through alleys and courtyards, but only a few. First he took us to yet another café, ostensibly for a birds-eye view of the square, which wasn’t worthwhile. Then we visited the house and courtyard of the Kumari, but of course we didn’t get a glimpse of her since she’s on strike. There was a very interesting drum tower with two huge skin drums in it and a variety of other structures similar to those at the other royal squares. Sadhus, Hindu mystics with long beards, painted faces, orange robes and turbans wandered the square soliciting payment from tourists for permission to photograph them. Tulsi called them semi-Sadhus, and we dubbed them fake fakirs. He said that real Sadhus are hermit philosophers and would be living in monasteries teaching and meditating, not hanging out in public squares posing for pictures. That afternoon we waited a few hours in the airport for our flight to Pokhara, which was delayed a few hours for reasons we never found out. We arrived pretty late and went right to the Shangri-La Resort. The front desk staff was terrific, friendly and efficient.
We grabbed a quick dinner, which included a delicious tandoori chicken, on the outdoor patio, listening to a band of local musicians. Then we had to head right to bed since we had to arise extremely early again the next morning to fly to Jomsom in the Mustang region of the Annapurna range.
The flight was breathtaking as we zoomed through narrow passes surrounded by spectacular white-capped mountains, finally landing on a short, narrow airstrip adjacent to a river. The town of Jomson is charming, with small stone cottages lining a rocky road. Most travelers visit Jomson on a trek along the Annapurna circuit, which begins in Pokhara. A red tractor hauling a blue covered trailer marked "JMR Express Service" was waiting to transport us to the Jomson Mountain Resort, our home for the next couple of nights. A boy carrying a small basket via a strap around his forehead hitched a ride with us about half the way up the narrow winding dirt trail. Later we saw porters carrying extremely heavy loads by this means.
We were expecting something pretty basic and were astonished at how handsome the hotel was. The location is perfect, perched high on a hill overlooking the river valley with a knockout view of Mt. Nilgiri. Tall colored prayer flags flapped out front. The doorman, elegant in a long blue coat with a colorful textile sash and a tall fez-shaped colorful hat with fur earflaps, cheerily greeted us. The lobby was stunning with a soaring roof, large stone fireplace and cozy couches in bright woven fabric. Our room, on the second floor, was constructed largely of stone with handsome furnishings, a nicely configured bathroom and comfy chairs facing large windows exposing a killer view of Nilgiri and the valley. There’s an attractive pool in the hotel, but the manager told us that they only heat it when there are large groups in house, so the water was icy cold.
We dropped off a big pile of laundry before leaving. The kitchen manager asked us what we’d like to eat and packed a picnic lunch for us to take on our excursion. We mounted a pair of small ponies and a young Nepali lead us down the road to Marpha, a nearby village. We gulped lungfuls of crisp, clean air as we marveled at the spectacular scenery. Our guide spoke almost no English so we didn’t talk much, soaking in the peace and quiet. Jomsom is a perfect antidote to three days in Kathmandu.
Marpha is an exceedingly pretty town with narrow cobbled lanes, stone dwellings with wood piled on the roof and plenty of trees and plants. Rows of prayer wheels are stationed along the road for the pious. At the end of the village, the boy motioned for us to dismount and tied the horses up in a scenic spot near a stream. We figured it was time for a break and went off into the woods to find friendly bushes. After waiting around awhile, we asked if we should have lunch and he nodded. We bought a bottle of water at a nearby guesthouse and sat on a rock by the stream. The boy only had a couple of apples with him so we shared our ample provisions and even had an apple left over for the horses. We decided to walk back through the town. It seemed that every other building was a souvenir shop. According to our itinerary we were supposed to visit an orchard, since Marpha is renowned for its apples, and a monastery, but we didn’t find them on our own and the kid wasn’t much help. We continued walking back to the lodge. At one point, I decided to remount, but Stu’s saddle was configured in a painful way so he walked along rather than hop back on. A mule train clopped by hauling goods, the mules decked out with tall feather headdresses and bells on their gaudy bridles. It was still early afternoon when we got back to JMR, so we hung out in our room, listening to music, reading and enjoying the view as the sun faded and a pale moon rose above the mountain.
Later the vast Milky Way adorned the sky like a bejeweled tapestry. When the head of housekeeping, a handsome, affable young man, dropped off our laundry, he advised us that the heat is turned off at 10 pm and asked if we’d like an electric heater. We decided to take it and he came back shortly connecting exposed wires since it was lacking a plug for the socket. Shortly afterwards the manager called to tell us that the hot water was turned on for bathing (it’s only available for a couple of hours in the evening) so we hopped in the shower. That evening we ran into some other guests and joined them for drinks at the bar before dinner and then for dinner, a sociable Indian couple with high-powered careers and a well-mannered pre-teen boy, and a Nepali married to a British woman who were living in England. They told us that the orchard in Marpha was worth visiting and that they’d sampled the excellent local apple brandy there. I ordered some and agreed that it was very good. The kitchen was slow and we dined late. When we climbed into our turned-down bed, we were pleasantly surprised to find two hot water bottles tucked under the blankets. We can attest that they work remarkably well and stay hot all night if you keep them under the quilts.
The next day we were supposed to ride ponies again but decided to hike instead. After the hiking we’d done in Bhutan, some at higher altitudes and on much more difficult trails, we didn’t understand why the agency thought we’d need to ride up here, unless they thought that riding ponies was a unique experience. We spoke to the manager about our disappointment the day before at missing the stops on our itinerary, and asked if we could have an English-speaking guide who could point things out to us. He got the head of housekeeping to take us, which was great since he was very sweet. A young Indian couple with their adorable toddler daughter joined us. Though the trails weren’t very challenging, it wasn’t a smart idea to bring such a young child along. In addition, they didn’t dress very intelligently for mountain hiking with short sleeve shirts and no sweater or jacket; the wife was even wearing high-heeled open-back slip-ons. Not to mention, we had paid for a private tour.
We started out strolling through Jomson town, where we had to wait while the other couple bought permits to hike in the region (our agency had gotten ours issued in advance). We crossed the river and meandered along gravelly trails to the village of Thini, gradually winding up the mountainside. The day started out sunny and mild with cloudless skies and we had stripped off a couple of layers. The young couple was having trouble less than an hour after we started - we can’t imagine why they didn’t turn around then when the path was still really easy and it was a relatively short way back. We stopped frequently so they could catch up. They were surprised that we didn’t require a rest stop yet. Early on our guide took charge of the little girl and was carrying her in his arms. At first we felt sorry for him to have this added burden, until we realized that he was crazy about children and thrilled to care for her. He was even reluctant to hand her back over to her mother whenever she demanded her mom. He was wonderful with her thanks to lots of experience with his nieces and nephews. We told him he will make a wonderful father when he marries. He is a city boy from Kathmandu and greatly enjoying working in the mountains. He’ll return to town at the end of the trekking season when winter arrives. He was anxious to know how we rated the housekeeping service at the hotel and we assured him that we felt it was excellent, which was no exaggeration.
We came upon a fellow fetching water at a pump with two cute young children in tow. They were curious about us so I took their photo with the Polaroid and gave it to the old man, who gazed in amused astonishment as it developed. We viewed a small monastery in Thini from outside, but it was locked and no one was around to open it so we were unable to enter.
Surprisingly we found that the people in the mountains were even less friendly than in the city. In most places rural inhabitants tend to be more cordial than city-dwellers. Perhaps they’re fed up with the groups of trekkers passing through the area, or just very reserved. A couple of men, one middle-aged and the other much younger - perhaps a son - were herding a pack of horses down the trail. We moved aside and greeted them, upon which the young man grimaced and made a rude gesture. It wasn’t one of the standard Western salutes of ill-will, but its meaning was unmistakable. Before coming we’d heard nothing but how warm and friendly the Nepali are and I’d read a book of traveler’s tales that made me long to meet them, so it was a bit disconcerting. Perhaps we were doing something offensive without realizing it.
While mornings are typically calm, the wind picks up in the afternoon (which is why there are only early morning flights) and was whipping around briskly as we ascended further. The trails also got a bit steeper. The other couple decided that they would not continue with us on to Dhumba Lake and sat down to wait for us to collect them on the way back. We wished we’d kept our ponies so we could have let them ride. They must have felt chilly by then but at least our guide had left his jacket to wrap the child in so she didn’t have to suffer for her parents’ foolishness. We settled on a rock by the lake for a picnic lunch. We offered food to our guide, who had brought none, but he refused despite our repeated insistence that we had too much. We put some food aside for him and when we showed him how much we had left over when we’d finished, he finally ate.
We continued climbing up to Kutsab Ternga Goomba, a Buddhist monastery at the top of a high ridge with a vast perspective of the mountains, river valley and Marpha in the distance. Unfortunately, by then clouds had thickened and obscured our view of Dhaulagiri, the tallest mountain in the area (26,795 ft.) and 7th highest in the world. The monastery looked very poor and shabby but we still decided to pay an additional fee to enter the inner courtyard and temple escorted by a young novice. As we’ve found in other places we’ve visited, the austere exterior did not prepare us for the opulence within. The temple, constructed over 1100 years ago, was stunning. Shafts of light streamed through a skylight contributing to the mystical atmosphere. The altar was adorned with colorful clay carvings along with four large and ten smaller statues. Handsome drums hung from the rafters.
When we exited the monastery, we felt a few drops of rain. We were all concerned about the three we’d left behind and rushed to the spot where we’d left them. They had taken shelter in the humble home of a local farmer nearby who’d sent for a horse. The rain picked up a bit as we waited and we were glad to be wearing waterproof jackets with hoods. Weather is so changeable in the mountains that you have to be prepared when hiking. The woman, swaddled in a blanket and cradling the baby on board the horse, evoked the image of the Madonna with the baby Jesus. We descended past remarkable gaping limestone caves. The horse wrangler led the trio off on a path that would take them to a bridge to cross the river, while we descended a steep slope to visit a greenhouse on the banks of the river. We crossed the rushing rapids via a narrow wooden plank.
On the other side our guide insisted on waiting for the rest of the group even though they had a guide to assist them back as well as the horse. We wouldn’t have minded except that the squall had intensified and we were more comfortable when we kept moving. We knew how to get back to the lodge from there and said that we wished to continue on alone, but he insisted that we wait and go together, so we did. We knew that we could have completed the whole hike and been cozily ensconced in our room before the bad weather hit if we’d taken the hike without company. If the other couple hadn’t the good judgment to prepare properly, we felt that at least the personnel at the lodge should have advised them better about the conditions of the excursion and recommended proper attire. Though since we often saw Nepali porters hiking either barefoot or in shower shoes, perhaps they don’t think about it. Despite the drawbacks, we still greatly enjoyed the day and felt it was our favorite activity and scenery in Nepal. We relaxed in our room until hot water was available and descended early for dinner since we had an early flight the next morning. The food here wasn’t very good but served its purpose. We saw the husband and asked after his wife and daughter. He assured us that they were fine and in fact we saw them later and the little one was cheerful and clearly unharmed.
We were anxious about the weather, fearing that we might be detained in Jomsom for an indefinite period if our flight was canceled, as the only other way back to Pokhara was to hike for about a week. We therefore were relieved to awake to crystal clear skies and calm winds, as evidenced by the drooping prayer flags. The quick storm had dropped a fresh coating of snow on the mountain peaks intensifying their majesty. Our housekeeper/guide and the manager came to bid us farewell. There’d be no hiking for our guide today since housekeeping was busy preparing for a large Japanese tour group due to arrive that morning.
We rode the tractor down to the airport and waited patiently in line to have our bags inspected as other tourists rudely pushed ahead of us. There are no electronic security screening devices, so passengers must step into a room with a guard of their own sex to be manually searched prior to entering the boarding area. The giggling woman inspecting me spent the whole time going through my cosmetics kit, clearly not interested in security so much as checking out my makeup. She was greatly tickled by the small bottle of Opium perfume in there since it’s packaged with a small hanging tassel. When Stu and I met up in the waiting area, he told me that his guard had extorted money from him by claiming to collect foreign currency as a souvenir. Stu offered him a dollar but he insisted on a five. An attractive young German couple, taking a break from their 6-mo. job in a Nepalese hospital for a brief trekking holiday, told us that the male guard had taken some money from him also. The woman had no makeup with her (and frankly didn’t require any) so she didn’t provide any entertainment for the female guard. The male guard, svelte and dashing in his smart, well-tailored uniform, was clearly satisfied with the five because he came out to bid Stu farewell, giving him two fresh apples, and wish him a safe trip before we took off.
The scenery on the flight back to Pokhara was even more gorgeous than on the way in. A middle-aged British woman on the flight was hanging all over her Nepali trekking guide in an intimate way and we wondered how close they’d become during their trek. We’d heard stories about tourists sleeping with Sherpa, which might be one of the attractions of an excursion of this type for some of the unattached females.
A car was waiting to take us to the Shangri-La where the front desk staff recognized and warmly greeted us, assigning us to an elegant room on the second floor with a balcony overlooking the hotel gardens and the distinctive, jagged peak of Machapucchare (fish tail), 6,996 meters high, which we dubbed Mt. Pointy. The highest peak in the area, Annapurna I, towers over it at 8,900 meters (26,545 ft.). We got a call from our agency advising that we’d be picked up later for an afternoon tour of Pokhara, so I ordered some coffee from room service (which was promptly delivered) and enjoyed the balmy clime while reading on our balcony. Later we spotted the Indian couple and child from Jomsom, who must have caught a later flight, crossing the courtyard and we waved hello at each other. We had a good lunch on the outdoor patio before meeting our guide, Narain, who was with the trip coordinator from Kathmandu whose name we never caught. Like many locals, Narain was short, slender and very handsome with dark hair and eyes and long luxurious eyelashes. His English was impeccable. His family was from the mountains but had relocated to Pokhara to escape the harassment of the Maoist rebels who terrorize and demand money from both locals and foreigners in remote areas. He also leads treks on the Annapurna Circuit, which he’s traversed 34 times, and said that he worked as a porter for five years prior to graduating to guide. It was hard to imagine this petite man toting over 100 pounds on his back over rough mountain trails, but it just proves that great strength (whether inner or physical) is not always immediately perceptible. While we’re sure that the porters appreciate the employment opportunity, we hated seeing them burdened like pack animals on the trails, and often without any proper footwear or clothing.
We started the tour at Devi’s Falls, a dazzling underground waterfall, which turned out to be our favorite attraction in Pokhara. The water cascades through a series of caves and holes carved in the rock by years of water pressure. Next we descended into humid, stuffy Newly Cave, which features a natural religious stone statue - half Shiva, half Parvati, his consort. The faithful come to the Hindu temple established in the cave 380 years ago to wed, to sacrifice animals to garner favor and to offer 100 prayers. One hundred lamps dimly illuminate the cave, which is decorated symbolically with 100 bells.
We took a short stroll on walkways above the Seti River Gorge, bordered by lush cliffs carpeted with candy-cane red poinsettias, violet morning glories and a profusion of green plants and multi-hued wildflowers. The river originates in the lofty heights of Annapurna I and IV. Narain told us that the world’s deepest river gorge, Dana, was sculpted by the glacial runoff from Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri I.
We drove through a tacky commercial area where souvenir stands and tourist traps sprouted like hair in facial moles to reach Phewa Lake, 40 square kilometers in breadth and 150 feet deep. We boarded a narrow wooden rowboat and took a ride around the lake. We glided by small diving ducks clustered at the surface scoping out the action below. We made a brief stop at a temple dedicated to Vishnu on an island in the lake, then browsed along the far shore. The lake is a birder’s paradise. We spotted dozens of interesting species, but it was too dark for photography. We can only imagine what you could see early in the morning during prime bird activity hours. The skies were hazy so we failed to see the fantastic panorama of ice-capped mountains reflected on the lake’s still surface that makes such a pretty post card image. Narain lived nearby so we parted company at the lake and drove back to the hotel. At dinner that evening we met our hiking companions again. We were familiar to their daughter so she kept coming over to our table with her doll to play, ignoring her parents’ efforts to keep her at the table. We really didn’t mind and enjoyed entertaining her in this context.
We had an early breakfast and drove off into thick fog on the road to Chitwan National Park. Driving in those conditions was nerve-wracking since there don’t seem to be any firm rules of the road and most drivers didn’t bother turning on their headlights. Fortunately traffic was still light at that hour. Until this drive, we’d heard about, but had witnessed no signs of the political unrest in the country. During the drive however, we had to pass through many military and police checkpoints. The heavily-armed soldiers typically wore either green or dark blue camouflage. The road was well maintained until we reached a fork, one branch leading to Kathmandu, the other to Chitwan. This road was in terrible condition especially after the heavy monsoon and unusual post-monsoon rains this year. We eventually crept our way into Nagarkot, the largest city in the Chitwan region. It was a festival day and crowds of resplendently dressed mourners participating in funeral processions paraded through the streets carrying bowers of sunny yellow marigolds accented with blood-red blossoms and the cloth-wrapped body of the deceased on a bamboo stretcher. Some people waved leafy branches. Traffic was backed up for miles. We got out of the SUV and walked to a hotel down the road to use their facilities. They were the most disgusting of the trip but we were desperate after jostling along the road for hours. The car hadn’t budged an inch by the time we returned.
Our escort thought he knew a way to get to the park via back roads and directed the driver down a side street. We soon became lost on dirt roads among high fields of grain. We encountered more processions making their way to town. Fortunately our driver had no reservations about asking for directions and we eventually found the road we sought. Even with the brief detour while we found our bearings, we got there much more quickly than we would have if we’d sat entrapped by the stalled traffic in town.
We stopped at a small airstrip in a field, where a team from Tiger Tops waited to meet us. They had laid out a buffet in the open-air lounge and invited us to eat. Our escort and driver grabbed a bite then left us in the care of our new caretakers. We hopped into a covered SUV and drove a short distance to the banks of a river, where a shallow wooden boat was waiting to take us across. On the other side we boarded an open jeep, passed through a security checkpoint where the soldiers were extraordinarily friendly, and motored down a trail blazed through thick forest to the lodge. Thatched wooden bungalows on stilts surrounded the round thatched-roof Nepalese-style dining hall, called a golghar. A gregarious young British woman introduced herself and invited us to be seated in comfortable chairs on the lawn for an orientation briefing. She went to the dining hall, fetching refreshing glasses of iced tea and her associate, another young English woman, who delivered the briefing. We were distracted by a raucous troupe of langur monkeys congregating in a nearby tree and wished she’d paused to give us the opportunity to get closer. The monkeys had moved on by the time we had a chance to look for them. We had an elephant-back safari scheduled later that afternoon so we had time on our own until then. Our room was simple but comfortable with a stone-topped copper sink, shower stall and screened windows framing a fine view.
We asked our hostess to direct us to a bird blind on the property that she’d mentioned and she escorted us to it then left us alone. White-throated kingfishers with electric blue backs and wings and rust breasts hunted along the river that coursed below us. On the opposite bank we spied 3 chital (Nepalese spotted deer), a male with an impressive rack of downy antlers and two pretty does. As we made our way back to the golghar for our safari, we heard the unmistakable cry of a hornbill and spotted a pair of them with their extraordinary yellow beaks and black and white feathers.
We climbed up the elephant-boarding platform and slipped into a square padded howdah on the back of a small female. A mahout sat on her neck and the guide who’d met us at the airport stood behind us gripping the wooden railing of the howdah. Our guide was a Chitwan native with a deep well of knowledge about the local fauna. We took a trail to the river we’d crossed on the way in, astonished at how nimbly our elephant descended the steep, slippery clay slope into the river and hauled us all back up the almost vertical face on the opposite shore. Our guide pointed out an oriental honey buzzard, perched on a log in the river. Unlike the corn in Oklahoma, the six types of tall grass growing in Chitwan were even higher than an elephant’s eye, shooting up well above our heads. Our elephant plunged through the dense brush, snapping tree branches with her powerful trunk while the mahout used his stick to hold vegetation aside so it wouldn’t slap us in the face.
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first one-horned Asian rhinoceroses, a mother with a sizeable calf. The Asian rhinos, in addition to having only one horn versus their dual-horned African cousins, sported a thick gray hide that looked like giant steel plates welded onto their broad backs, like an armored tank. From behind their pleated pendulous skin made them resemble broad-beamed old men wearing gang-banger shorts. They swiveled their small fuzzy ears as they chomped on the sweet grass. We ended up seeing four more that afternoon. We heard low growling coming from an overgrown thicket and could tell by the excitement of our guide and mahout that they were after something. After an intense pursuit, we flushed out a sloth bear, a rare sighting. The bear and elephant caught a glimpse of each other and headed off in opposite directions, so we caught only the briefest look at the bear’s retreating hindquarters.
Tiger Tops is named for Royal Chitwan National Park’s most famous inhabitants, the royal Bengal tiger. We knew that our chance of seeing one of these elusive felines was minimal, but of course we hoped for extraordinary luck. After all, we had spun a lot of prayer wheels in the last couple of weeks and figured we must have earned some good karma. Apparently not enough though, because we left without spotting as much as a whisker, though the locals always identified tiger paw prints, which seemed to be everywhere. We figured that they probably danced behind our backs, thumbing their noses at us and ducking out of sight as soon as we turned around.
We arrived at the dining pavilion early for a slide show about the indigenous animals, drinking iced tea and munching on snacks as we waited. Our guide came over to chat with us. We really liked the guy and were sad to hear that he was going to the tented camp for the next few days. The female manager came over asked whether we’d like to join another pair of guests for dinner and we acquiesced. After the slide show, she introduced us to Charlie, a Merrill Lynch broker from New Orleans, and his brother-in-law, Ron, an orthopedic surgeon from Chicago. They’d decided to challenge themselves by trekking part of the Everest circuit. Although it was more difficult than they’d anticipated, and they ended up terminating the trek early, they felt that it was an inspiring experience and they got far enough for a superlative view of Everest. Our orientation guide joined us for dinner also and the company was so congenial that we lingered quite awhile after we finished eating to continue our conversation.
A V.I.P. military contingent was visiting the park that morning for a quickie tour so instead of a morning elephant-back safari, Charlie, Ron and an elderly Japanese couple, the only other lodge guests, joined us for a jeep safari after breakfast.
The jeep experience wasn’t even close to being as good as the elephant safari, but we still saw a couple of rhinos, including a colossal bull who blithely blocked the road, ignoring our attempts to move him aside by clapping, shouting and honking our horn. In his own good time he trotted off into the forest and we resumed our drive.
When we returned we had a choice of resting at the lodge or taking a nature walk. We opted for the walk through the sal tree forest, accompanied by a naturalist who is now studying herbal medicine. He seemed to be as interested in birds as we are and was skilful at finding them. Our favorite was a mating pair of great flameback woodpeckers. They had black bodies with white spots and the male exhibited a fiery red crest like Woody Woodpecker. We also saw velvet-fronted nuthatches with blue backs and red beaks, necklace laughing thrushes and a variety of other species. He also showed us various plants and roots and explained their medicinal uses, such as a vine used to control blood pressure and dysmenhorrhea. We enjoyed watching some langurs frolicking in the trees, though we never got as close as that original group was. We heard animal sounds in the bush and startled a small pack of jackals with golden fur.
Back at the lodge, we attended a lecture about the elephants at the elephant stable, learning much that we hadn’t known despite our previous experience with these fascinating beasts. The lodge had about 6 elephants, one male with long curved tusks and the rest female. The lecturer told us how the mahouts train their animals and build their special bond. He said that when female elephants are in estrus, they stick their trunk in their crotch then wave it around to spread their scent, advertising availability. Elephants in rut are extremely dangerous, even to their mahout, and they are not employed during this period. As we listened we noticed one small female who swayed rhythmically as she ate, as if dancing to music inaudible to human ears.
Our afternoon safari, a boat ride on the river, was largely uneventful. We spotted only a few birds, no animals and no gharial crocodiles with their long narrow snouts, which we’d hoped to see. A married couple from England had arrived while we were on safari and we pushed some tables together and all dined together, including the Tiger Tops general manager, sharing fine wine and spirited discussion.
We arose early for an elephant-back safari in the same general area where we’d roamed during our last one. We crashed through the thicket enveloped in early morning mist. We had no guide with us but our mahout pointed things out, though he wasn’t as good as our first mahout in holding back the branches and we got whacked a few times. We saw several rhinos including another protective mother with baby. We also got to see a mother langur with a tiny baby and an eagle. As we brushed by some bushes, a sizeable silk-spinning spider hitched a ride with us. It was very handsome with a long rectangular yellow back, white-spotted black sides and black legs and underbelly. The mahout assured us that it wasn’t a poisonous species but we hadn’t been overly concerned. After observing him for a while, Stu coaxed him onto a leaf and gently placed him on a bush where he could rebuild a web. We saw another jackal on the way back to the lodge.
Mercifully, our agency arranged for us to fly back to Kathmandu, driving both ways would have been tedious. Our escort from the lodge checked us in at the airport (not the airstrip), settled us in a lounge and gave us a box lunch while we waited. The flight was delayed a bit but not too long and we arrived at Dwarika’s in the afternoon.
We considered going back to Patan to visit the museum, but neither one of us wanted to deal with the traffic. Our room this time was even more luxurious than the last one, with a sunken tub and separate shower and huge bedroom with a beautiful carved wood desk. Our jackets were filthy after 3 weeks of traveling so we sent them off to be cleaned and I made an appointment with a masseuse. Stu went off to read email while I enjoyed an excellent deep tissue massage right in the room, followed by a relaxing bath.
That evening Ganesh came to drive us to dinner, but Mr. Wangdi had shown up with his car and driver to join us for dinner at Bhojan Griha, another traditional restaurant in a handsomely restored 150-year-old building. The multi-course meal was delicious and agile young dancers in regional costumes entertained us with lively folk dances. We enjoyed the company as well as the meal and performance.
We had an afternoon flight to Bangkok so we were able to sleep in and linger over a leisurely breakfast on the outdoor patio. To our surprise, Mr. Wangdi came to see us off, handing us each a shopping bag full of goodies - including a book of Nepalese recipes with packets of local spices. We had no problem with the flight and weren’t hungry for dinner so we turned in early since we had a 7 am flight home. The trip turned out to be quite a bit different than we’d expected but an exceptional journey all the same.