I’m always struck by how much one smiles on these trips to Bhutan. Pandora and Jade said it best when they both commented, “I haven’t smiled this much in years! My mouth hurts from smiling all the time!” If there is one thing I can say about travel to Bhutan and our interactions with folks here, it’s that it is joyous in a kind of fundamental way. Just being in this place changes your perspective. I’m not going to even try to describe why or how this change happens: it just does.
So here we are, like a bunch of silly folks, barreling down the road, smiling all the way. We are goofy, silly, and lively as we visit the National Library, the Zorig Chusum or school for the establishment of culture, and the Jungshi Handmade Paper factory, a place where sacred paper is manufactured for monasteries and nunneries around the country.
The photos tell much of the story of today. The internet connection is terrible here in Punakha, so you may or may not see some of the photos. I’ll post more as we get to a better connection.
I cannot tell you in words the experience of finally NOT being on an airplane. After 23 hours and 15 minutes of actual, in the air I’m not touching the ground flight time, we are so happy to have our feet firmly on the ground!
I wish I could express our deep, mind-numbing exhaustion and its best not to dwell on the negative when the place you made it to is so wonderful.
We landed in Paro, Bhutan at about 8:30 am local time and then spent the day at the National Museum, Paro Dzong, and the Giant Buddha. The weather was perfect: about 65 degrees F, cloudy, misting rain, very pleasant.
After a couple of meals and a little bit of riding, we are all off to bed to get the well-earned rest we all deserve.
Our morning started early with a 5:55 AM flight to LA and a pretty sleepy group of folks. The excitement, however, was palpable and we walked through the Sunport with a purpose. We, all 9 of us, carried on our bags and made the 1:45 hr journey to LAX.
As all travelers know by now, traveling is all about the hurry up and wait. Get to the airport, wait in line, sit in the waiting area, wait in chairs or on the floor, wait until the flight boards, wait in line…you get the idea.
Today, our waiting was extended by a delayed flight to Japan. Delayed by 30 minutes. The sleep is catching up to us and we are feeling the urge to crash, hard.
Luckily, we’ll have 12 hours on the plane to chill and another 6 1/2 hours to, well, chill some more.
Truly, if you have not traveled to Bhutan I can find no easy way to convince you of the magical qualities of this place. I come across as strange when I use words like “sacred, spiritual” and I tend to be dismissed when I say that this place and these people represent some of the most remarkable qualities in the world. Have I been everywhere? No. It’s just difficult to explain the feeling and capture the sensation of visiting this place.
Some of the photos included here are attempts at capturing the feeling in terms of weather, landscape, the smiles of people and the work many folks do in this country to make a living for themselves and their families. Anyway, here is a small collection of images with captions. Enjoy.
The bus rides high about the valley floors of central Bhutan as we wind our way along the mountains of central Bhutan. The forested mountains are often covered in fog. The mist seems to gather on the roads and in the trees, surrounding us in a sense of calm, quiet. If you listen carefully, you can hear, beyond the drone of the diesel engine, the deep quiet of the region. A stillness rests on the shoulders of these massive hills.
In a couple of places on the journey, one can see the road far across the valley. At one place in particular, not far from Trongsa, you can see the road contour around the mountain side, turning in the crook of the folds in the hills, rising up again on the other side of the valley. The road stretches for miles and yet, if you had a bridge or really long rope swing, you would quickly make it across, cutting hours off the drive.
Suddenly, on one side of the road, you notice a collection of houses just before you reach Trongsa. This small community, Tsangkhap, clings to the sides of the hills, fields cut out of the hillside below the houses. Dirt roads meet the main road here, with fields and farms dotted along these ancient tracks.
Here, in Tsangkhap, we stop at the Trongsa Central School, renamed for its now significant role in teaching students of all ages who live nearby. Year after year we come to the school to meet with students. The school grounds are humble and the mood is high as we walk onto campus. As soon as we are spotted an energy runs through the community and we gather in the open area in front of the school to hang out.
After our time at the school, we walk into the village, visiting our guide’s home. His mom is there preparing tea for us as we walk into the house. The fields surrounding the house are verdant with deep hue or green, the wind gently blowing the tops of the wheat.
We are served tea and sit on the floor, relaxing or a moment or two. The tea is black, with a little milk from the cow, and a small handful of rice, dried and baked. The drink is filling and the taste is sweet. We talk about the day, hear Namgay’s stories about the yeti who lived in the forests nearby, and the tale of a yeti who married a man. Our time in this place is all too brief as we head out again, walking deeper into the village.
From the dry valley of Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang, the main road east winds its way up to commanding heights of the foothills of the Himalayas. The altitude gains on the journey are impressive. The mountains rise sharply above the valley floor and the road turns and curves over and over again.
On this section of the drive, the landscape changes dramatically and quickly. In places, the road is well-maintained and the drive is easy. In some spots, the road is very narrow and in the event of an accident or broken down vehicle, things come to a stop. For folks used to moving quickly, making time on a tour to get from point A to point B, this road is not for those folks. Travel in Bhutan is more than just getting to the next view or stop; being in Bhutan is about accepting the pace of life that is about experience and what I call calm abiding….accepting what comes in whatever way it comes. Just remember, it’s all about the experience, the friendships and connections made and not about ticking off boxes of “been there, done that.”
Once above the valley floor, the winding, coursing track leads to small villages, many on the very side of the road. Houses are dotted along the way and, near the top of the climb, a cafe that serves black tea with milk (milk tea) and small biscuits or crackers. The place is comfortable and quiet even with a crowd. Tables inside and outside the building are scattered with some comfy chairs and places to just be. The moment out of the bus and in the cafe is a kind respite from the road.
As we pile back into the bus, we settle in for the road to Tsangkhap and Trongsa. The din of the bus engine whines as we travel around hills and through dense forest. Along the way is the turn off to the Phobjikha Valley and the absolutely stunning vista, winter home to the black necked-crane. If you are lucky, a mated pair will remain in the valley and a stay in the area will allow you to hike across the valley floor, seeing the vistas and mountains that rise sharply above the small stream that meanders through the grasses hugging the rolling hills.
Our hike through the valley was absolutely perfect as the weather had just cleared and we walked through the pine trees that dot the landscape above the valley. Our trail is roughly maintained and in places disappears into the pine needles below our feet. No matter, you can see the valley stretched in front of you as you wander.
A stay in the valley is serene and having the chance to visit the local Nature Center and learn about the migration of black-necked cranes is worth the effort to reach this place.