Mt. Huashan China
Guoliang Tunnel China
Hello from the land of the Thunder Dragon,
The Bhutan kingdom's mascot is the "Druk," an iconic fire breathing Thunder Dragon displayed as the central feature on the national flag and everywhere else as a symbol for the country's mythical heritage. The country is ruled by a very popular 28 year old king still known as the Dragon King. This became strikingly clear in conversations with many Bhutanese. A recent background article in the March 2008 issue of National Geographic provides entertaining details of His inspirational reign. Serving at the pleasure of the national parliament, he can be impeached by a simple vote of no confidence! Bhutan incorporates some of the best features of Plato's Republic. The Royal Bhutanese Airline is called Druk Air. The entire fleet consists of only two Airbus A319s! Each plane makes two flights per day, varying routes among Kathmandu, Dhaka, Calcutta and Bangkok with Paro Bhutan as the hub.
Arriving late Friday afternoon it seemed we would have hardly enough time to reach the first night hotel in Thimphu for check in. However, the printed itinerary listed a half dozen scheduled activities. My temporary substitute guide for the Paro Airport pickup, Jigme and his driver immediately put their grand plan into operation as we sped toward the capital city Thimphu some 25 kilometers away. Mile after mile of pristine pastoral landscapes placed on display the country's most attractive features: sparse population and respect for the unspoiled environment here in this 7000 foot high mountain kingdom. Along the way country folk in their T-shirts and bare legs tended the flooded rice fields planted on terraces, something clearly seen in the photographs taken from the plane as we approached the airport. The scene took me back to rural Missouri of my childhood where I can still recall lots of wonderful nothing... and a peacefully carefree childhood attitude that took me a lifetime to fully appreciate.
The English spoken in Bhutan has the same thick Indian accent which makes it so difficult for Americans to understand anywhere... especially on the phone with an outsourced customer "support" agent located in Bangalore. My guide, Jigme's use of the language and my deteriorating hearing made information exchange the first afternoon in the country totally impossible. Jabbering away in some strange language that he confidently insisted was English, Jigme kept up a nonstop monologue as he pointed out interesting features along the way. After begging him to slow down several times and speak each word distinctly, I learned the entire country has a population of under seven hundred thousand, most living in the two main urban areas located in the western part of the country around Paro and Thimphu.
On our arrival in Thimphu we went immediately to the Riverview Hotel to check in. What a glum disappointment that turned out to be; utilitarian architecture in poor taste, surly reception staff, confusing layout and a prison cell room on the third floor without elevators. Dumping my bag in the simple room with bare wood floors and hard lumpy twin beds I hurried to escape this first disastrous episode of my four day, three night Bhutan prepaid "adventure."
Leaving the hotel we drove through the center of town where a kiosk in the middle of a traffic intersection provided the stage for what Jigme described as the city's dancing policeman, presumably a highlight of the tour in his opinion. With no traffic lights, control of the occasional vehicular traffic is provided by a uniformed officer who stoically pivots one way and then the other swinging his arms in a semaphore fashion to direct the flow of traffic. I chuckled watching the performance as the few cars on the road clearly could have managed without him.
A short drive to the top of a hill at the eastern edge of the city got us to Sangay Gang (Telegraph Hill). Festooned with a million prayer flags and transmitter antennas, it provided panoramic views of the urban sprawl below. City lights twinkled on in the fading dusk and the edges of the city outlined by dark forest in every direction came clearly into view making it obvious the urbanized area is not very extensive in this largest of Bhutan cities.
One night in the Riverview Hotel is all I could tolerate; the place is under renovation with the dining room closed and no arrangements for breakfast. Outraged, I demanded my Evergreen Tour hosts check me into the other hotel listed in the itinerary and then take me to the Taj Hotel where I would be responsible for my own breakfast. What a delight that turned out to be.
The only guest in the opulent dining room, I enjoyed service from two gorgeously attired serving staff with perfect English and gracious manners, a live performance of traditional Bhutanese music on the dramyin and a satisfying breakfast extravagance: $13 for muesli, yogurt, fruit and coffee. After breakfast the alternate Hotel Pedling turned out to be near wonderful for the second night of my completely organized three-night tour, but the whole distasteful experience at the Riverview reminded me why I choose this mode of travel only as a last resort... in this case, the only alternative I could find after seven years of frustrating attempts to arrange for "normal" independent travel into the country.
After dumping the bag in the new hotel we started our 80 kilometer drive to Punakha Dzong, a massive fortified structure built in 1637 between the banks of the gently flowing Mo Chu (Female River) and the Pho Chu (Male River). The ornate decorations and endless arrays of Buddha statues inside the temple at the center of the fort would have made outstanding photographs, but cameras here as in all Buddhist temples are prohibited.
The highway connecting Thimphu with Punakha Dzong wound its way through Pine covered mountains. Shear drops at numerous sections along the road reminded me of the Bolivian Highway of Death I traveled last year. Here in Bhutan, however they posed no particular driving hazard as the highway speed limit throughout the Kingdom is only fifty kilometers per hour (about 35 mi/hr). On the way back we stopped to visit The Chimi Lhakhang Monastery flanked by a hedge of tall prayer flags. The place is better known as the Temple of Fertility. Inside the temple a monk insisted on blessing me with two ugly phallic replicas, ancient relics consecrated by Lama Drukpa Kuenley in the fifteenth century. Each is about a foot long! One is carved from an elephant's tusk and the other is a natural deformed segment of bamboo clearly resembling the erect anatomical member of a very large human male... or more likely a small horse! The Tibetan Buddhist saint popularly known as "the divine madman" is considered a folk hero in Bhutan for his unconventional ways. Sonan assured me this ancient ritual would guarantee increased fertility! I presume this can only apply to my mind and expect to see a dramatic increase in the volume of my writing, if not the quality!
Shortly after leaving the monastery we reached a cluster of houses, one of which had a crude graphic depiction of male genitals prominently painted on its exterior. The "art work" reminded me of drawings I've seen in filthy public toilets around the world. With some reluctance Sonan instructed the driver to stop at my request, allowing me to photograph the bizarre display. As I studied the painting I noticed a father and his four children carefully watching me in amusement from their second story balcony... and waving good-naturedly when I spotted them... something I suspect occurs quite regularly! Questioned about the unusual house decoration custom, Sonan revealed the practice is supposed to bestow increased fertility on anyone entering the house... and the wrath of evil spirits on anyone "back biting" the owners of the place; a double whammy.
The last full day after the second night in Thimphu started with a drive back to Paro. Reaching the trail head before 9AM for the four kilometer climb to a monastery built over half a mile above the valley floor, Sonan cryptically implied we would complete the trek before lunch. The Taktshang Monastery, more commonly known as Tiger's Nest hangs from the side of a massive stone mountain above Paro. Precariously perched on the edge of a high cliff, the monastery presents an impressive sight, and is one of the most commonly seen iconic symbols for Bhutan. Destroyed by fire in 1998, it has been completely reconstructed to duplicate the original ancient structures. The history of the site is full of myths and legends spanning more than a thousand years!
The monastery is located a dizzying 3000 feet above the valley at an altitude of 10,000 feet presenting a daunting physical challenge to those determined to visit it. Declining an offer to hire a horse for twelve dollars, my old bones took five and a half hours to make the round trip trek on foot; younger hikers do it in four or less. A constant stream of Bhutanese pilgrims included many families with small children passed me on the trail. Toward the end of the marathon climb lactic acid reached debilitating levels and muscles refused to contract without a few minutes rest periodically for rejuvenation. Heart and lungs performed like those of an Olympic athlete. As I struggled to keep up with my twenty-two year old guide Sonan, he finally insisted on carrying my half full water bottle... how embarrassing, but the gesture did free both hands to deal with any potential fall, so I reluctantly relented.
Fortunately, the physical challenge of the climb rarely interfered with my deep appreciation of the forest shade, the well maintained trail, the periodic glimpses of the valley below and occasional peeks at the ancient monastery structures in the distance. Slowly as we drew nearer our goal its mythical dimensions took shape and we soon stood at an observation point on the edge of a deep chasm no more that a few hundred meters across to the monastery. At the edge of a flat clearing an arched gate appeared to be the entrance to the final monastery trail. In your dreams... Standing under the arch Sonan pointed down the winding stone stairway and announced: "Four hundred and fifty steps down..."
As the monastery across the gorge looked to be somewhat below our vantage point it didn't occur to me more climbing still might be required to reach our destination, but at the bottom of the decent the monastery again loomed far overhead. Water gushing from a spring high above plunged into a pool creating a strong draft of icy cold air. Momentarily refreshed at the bridge crossing the pool's outflow, I now saw the upward flight of more stone stairs... "Three hundred and thirty..." announced Sonan in answer to my questioning gaze. Briefly contemplating the abandonment of this exotic quest, I stood staring at the new climb ahead. "Once in a lifetime; once in a lifetime..." reverberated through my consciousness and I attacked the 330 with renewed determination. But, the quadriceps had other ideas. After a couple minutes rest they would perform painlessly for only short bursts of exertion and then shut down again. So, dash up 20-30 steps and then forced rest for a minute or two... repeat. Finally, I caught up with Sonan busy with the police guard completing formalities for my visit. "Give him your camera." Sonan commanded and my tiny gadget joined the collection of other fancy photographic equipment lying on the officer's desk.
This is a working monastery and most of the visitors eagerly entered the several renowned temples to receive the coveted blessings of revered monks. As my group removed their shoes and proceeded into each of several sanctuaries, I gratefully used the time to sit and absorb the ambiance. Hoards of kids raced around the echoing stone hallways, becoming so excited their noisy exuberance shattered the quiet revere I would have preferred. A muffled drum throbbed somewhere in the distance, briefly a soft trumpet tone hung in the silence between unruly children screaming. Instant meditation practice allowed my mind to retreat into its own silence and I contemplated the devotion that motivated early seekers of silent devotion to undertake the construction of such an extraordinarily isolated retreat.
When we started our march back, those 330 down and 450 up again just about exhausted what little energy I had left, but somehow I willed my body step by step around the chasm to the high point of the main trail and started down, Sonan right behind me cracking his whip. Like a horse that smells water, he dashed ahead to make late lunch arrangements when we were within a few hundred meters of the parking lot at the bottom and the waiting car and driver. Lunch at 14:30; fine with me.
The country, wedged between two giants has chosen India to be its current protector, though the northern neighbor, China hardly seems much of a threat at the moment. Identifying so closely with India, many of Bhutanese customs mirror those of their southern neighbor. Cows wander everywhere (unholy Buddhist beasts, I presume, though the Bhutanese are mostly vegetarians like their Hindu brothers in India where cows are considered holy.)
All of the people I encountered during my tightly controlled 64 hour whirlwind tour of the kingdom demonstrated their desire to make foreign visitors feel welcome. Spontaneous smiles appeared at every turn and local people commonly paused on the sidewalks to chat with friends and strangers alike. Bhutanese believers swarm to the many shrines, stupas and temples to demonstrate their devotion and perform traditional rituals including that triple circumambulation thing I now recognize as a common religious practice in this part of the world. The country's predominant practice of Mahayana Buddhism distinguishes it from both Nepal and India... and of course from their officially nonreligious northern Chinese neighbor.
Public smoking has been totally prohibited in the kingdom since 2004. That makes defiant smoking all the more attractive to rebellious teenagers, a few of whom I watched flaunting their belligerent behavior along the main streets of both Thimphu and Pero. Travelers may bring up to two packages of cigarettes into the country for their private, non-public consumption, but no sales are permitted anywhere in the country.
Bhutan has its own currency called the Ngultrum pegged to the India Rupee. Both currencies are used interchangeably throughout the country, but in practice everything is priced in Rupees. That turned out to be a fortunate surprise for me as the only currency I could exchange my Nepalese Rupees for when I left Kathmandu was Indian Rupees.
Evergreen Travel, the agency that arranged my tour insisted only business class flights were available on short notice, so that is what I got. As the increased fare amounted to only $60 for each leg it seemed like a good time to pamper myself. The truth is both flights had plenty of economy class seats; about half were vacant on both the arrival and departure flights. In fact, only four of the twenty available business class seats were filled going and only two occupied leaving. The stewardess upgraded eight economy class passengers on the flight to Bangkok.
The government sanctioned tour package agencies have a monopoly and are free to select accommodations and meal venues which maximize their profits; travelers have no choice once the package is purchased and the agencies don't provide full specifics ahead of time! There are some excellent resorts and five star hotels in the Kingdom, but only the most high end packages use them, packages that cost upwards of $1000 per day! I think anyone willing to do more research than I did could find better deals. The Taj Hotel in Thimphu lists a $275++ rack rate ($330), and I was able to haggle that down to $180++ ($216) during this, the low season. A Taj waiter told me there were only ten guests in the 66 room hotel the day I took my simple ($13) muesli and yogurt breakfast there.
This Bhutan adventure produced more photographs per hour than any other segment of my international adventures... mostly because I never expect to be here again! Others may want to ignore the temptation to visit unless it is one of the last items on their Bucket List. While it is true that Bhutan offers visitors a unique cultural escape, similar experiences can be had in places like rural Nepal for a whole lot less money!
The first two days I took a total of 135 photos. The second two days I snapped 90 images. Flying into and out of the country I captured another 28 pictures of the landscapes over which we were flying. During the departure flight to Bangkok we made a brief stop in Dhaka Bangladesh; I snapped another 34 photos of the terrain around the city. Sorry to have created such an avalanche, but this is almost certainly the last time I'll ever be through Bhutan.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: I am back in Bangkok and booked into the fabulous $48 boutique hotel Baan Sukhumvit Inn tucked away in an obscure ally near the Sky Train line Asok Station. Once actually in the room it feels like a six star hotel, complete with good TV and a working WiFi Internet connection. Fast Internet access is provided free with a 24 inch display and color printer in the cheerful lobby dining room. I'll probably hang out here for a couple weeks and take my time getting the Chinese visa and making arrangements for the flight into China.
PPS: I am waiting for my Chinese visa that is supposed to be available on Monday morning, 21 July. Procedures now require both airline tickets into and out of China and hotel reservations for each leg of a travelers' itinerary! As I never make many advanced plans the immigration agent gave me a hard time with my application, finally accepting the paperwork with details only for my entry city of Xian and exit city of Hong Kong. My flight leaves that same Monday night, so that leaves little wiggle room. The next postcard might come from Xian... or some other less fussy country. Stay tuned. FB
Fred L Bellomy