The Real Bhutan, The Long and Winding Road

In and around Thimphu, we spend our first full day in the country visiting the National Zoo, the craft and farmer’s markets, and walks through town to see the National Library and an Art School.  On the way to the National Zoo to see the Takin, we stop along the way to see the mountainside carving and painting of Padmasambhava.  Literally everywhere in the country, travelers find the signs of Vajrayana Buddhism.  If you look closely enough on roadsides throughout the country, you’ll find evidence of Buddhism.  It is, literally, everywhere.  One is immersed in the heart of Vajrayana.

Padmasambhava carved into the hillside on the road to Tango Buddhist University.

Around Thimphu, a visitor quickly discovers that the city, a bustling hub of human interaction and business,  is small, confined to a valley quickly filling with apartments and businesses.  A glance at Kuensel, one of the Bhutanese newspapers, reveals that people are moving to the city in droves.  The air of hustle and bustle is clear to anyone who travels to this distant capital city.  The population of Bhutan, around 800, 000 folks, work in primarily agricultural settings and the pull to leave the land and move to the city is strong.  As a money economy spreads across the country and into remote agricultural areas in the country, the push to make money, to have cash in hand, is a strong incentive for a move into cities.  While I am not a statistician and have not measured the change in numbers, the efforts to build more housing in Thimphu and the rise in population is obvious to any observer of Bhutan who has visited the country a few times.  Thimphu hums with activity and is driving internal immigration.  The impact will be, I imagine, profound on the country as the years progress.

In fact, in the evenings, walking around Thimphu you will find the whole town out and about.  The streets are filled with people.  Impromptu veggies stands pop up, stores are open and people are gathered in the street talking, laughing, going somewhere.  I talked to a group of what looked like high school young men walking with a soccer ball in hand, asking them about their night time activities.  They were all headed to a friends house to watch a match on TV (this friend had satellite TV and they didn’t).  Then they wanted to know who my favorite Premier League team was and I asked, in a joking way, if there were ANY good teams in the league.  They all looked shocked at my question!  Then I said that it didn’t matter anyway because Germany was going to beat everyone anyway.  They laughed out loud at this assertion and, as a group, walked away, arguing about the Premier League teams.

I stopped to talk to a woman selling what looked like turnips (or radishes) and asked about her produce.  She told me she was worried that I might draw too much attention to her as the sale of vegetables at night was not allowed.  I did not pry and asked about her crops…she grew them in her back yard and tried to make a little extra money.  I asked about price and she said she sold the plants for 1 ngultrum each…that’s 1/65 of a dollar. (about 2 cents or so).

Finally, a few students and I were looking for live music, to hear music in Bhutan.  We wandered in and out of a few clubs and asked folks about music.  They directed us to a very small room in the basement of a building.  With no markings on the door, we opened it only to find a group of guys sitting around a small table eating bowls of food.  I asked, “Are you playing music in here?”  They all laughed loudly.  I laughed and they laughed at my laugh.  I closed the door and moved on, chuckling along the way.

The road out of Thimphu winds slowly up to Dochu-la Pass at 3,100 m.  The climb takes you through a heavily forested landscape with an occasional hillside cleared with houses dotting the landscape and farmers plying their craft in fields just below their houses.  Some of these villages are perched precariously on these mountains and hills as the terraced fields surround the house.  Seen from a distance, these communities appear idyllic as white-painted walls offer a striking view.  The reality is much more challenging for many families as folks try to make ends meet growing Bhutanese red rice, millet, and other grains.  Many of these communities thrive on the crops they harvest, selling their wares in markets that pop up on roadsides and in villages.

Small Villages in the Distance

Bhutan travel is a trek along this single main road that crosses the country from west to east.  The black asphalt road contours around the mountainsides of the country, goes up and over a series of passes (like Dochu-la Pass) of over 3000 meters and into valleys scattered across the country.  Along the roadway are a wide variety of flora and fauna that includes everything from rhododendron forests to alpine heights stretching into the distance.  Houses dot the landscape along this road, as you can see, and folks are seen walking along the road for almost its entire length.  One of the jokes in Bhutan is that only one stretch of road is straight, a one mile or so piece of road in Bumthang.

Once at the top off Dochu-la Pass, a small temple, Druk Wangyel Lhakhang, and visitor center is situated along the road.  In the very center of the road on the top of the pass are a collection of 108 chortens in honor of Bhutanese soldiers killed in a battle against insurgents along the southern Bhutanese border with Assam.  The stop at the top of the pass is a welcome rest from the winding roads just below and to come.

Druk Wangyal Chortens on Dochu-la Pass
Looking down from the temple on the pass; notice the road is divided around the Chortens.

On our stop, we pause for tea in the small Druk Wangyel cafe.  We sit at tables outside as the clouds swirl around us.  A kind of fog engulfs the pass and we are surrounded by these tiny droplets of water.

Enjoying Tea amid the clouds of Dochu-la Pass
The Cafe







The long ride down the from the pass winds around the the mountain sides toward Punakha, Lobesa, and the Puna Tsang Chu river that flows through both Punakha and the Wangdue Phodrang districts in this part of Bhutan.  As the bus descends into the valley, temperatures rise and the valley floor, is much drier than the virtual rainforest of the slopes of the mountains above it.  Rice fields abound and these fields, irrigated by the various river systems in the area, yield bright green crops of Bhutanese red rice.

Looking Across the Valley toward the Temple of the Divine Madman covered in clouds.

Once on the valley floor, we make our way to Punakha Dzong, one of the most remarkable places in the country.  This former fortress protected Bhutan from raiding armies from Tibet.  The walls of the Dzong rise high above the valley floor as the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers merge just at the base of the structure.

Punakha Dzong above the Mo Chu river.
The winners of the race…below Punakha Dzong

Our day of driving and site seeing is coming to an end and we make our way back to Lobesa and the Lobesa Hotel.  We rest, relax, and share stories around the table of our adventures over plates of red rice and veggies.

A Meal at the Lobesa Hotel.


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