|4 Apr 08, Friday 8:30 am, San Francisco Airport, International Terminal
Why Bhutan? It was something of an opportunistic choice. After settling back into a routine following last summer's almost back to back bike trips, I realized that if I was going to take advantage of my GI Bill (USAF educational) benefits (which expire ten years after retirement), I better make a decision very soon. My best bet would be to start in the fall of this year giving me almost three full years to complete a masters degree, if that's what I wanted to do. Knowing my proclivity to procrastinate such decisions, I did not allow myself to make travel plans (i.e., the fun stuff) until I had come to grips with the college decision.
About a month ago, I decided on a course of action for college, choosing to enroll for a masters degree in water resource management, which placed a travel constraint beginning in late August. This alone scuttled a couple of nascent plans: Tour D'Afrique's Silk Road Tour (Istanbul to Beijing) and a more attractive tour of Poland to be led by Piotr, our mechanic and route marker extraordinaire from the Orient Express tour last summer. Quite a few new friends from that tour have already signed up for Poland.
So I did a bit of checking with TraveLearn (a non-bike trip), David's ibike African trips (my Tunisia guide from last spring), Spice Roads, and a few other companies. I found a promising non-biking Borneo trip in April, but then found it was filled. However, they were opening up another session in June. By this time, my summer calendar beginning in May was filling up with domestic trips, none of which were firm as to exact dates. Since these took precedence over my bike trips, I reluctantly blocked out the summer as "no go." This left April and the first half of May as the workable period for an international trip.
Luckily, this Bhutan bike trip was offered by Spice Roads (I had ridden through Cambodia and Southern Laos with them a couple years ago) to nicely fit in the gap. Though the most expensive per day trip I've taken yet (explained below), I was (miraculously based on recent experience) able to book a round trip flight to Bangkok using frequent flyer miles on United. So here I am.
Bhutan, locally known as Drukyul or "land of the thunder dragon," is a Switzerland-sized country wedged between China (essentially Tibet) to the north and India to the south and is nestled at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains at a latitude equivalent to Atlanta, Georgia. To locate it on a map, find Nepal which is similarly situated, and go east. Most westerners have not heard much about Bhutan, but then I suspect most easterners haven't either. The tiny Buddhist country hasn't played much of a role on the world stage by choice. Until very recently Bhutan's government and people have been happy to remain a sleepy, backwater country. Until the 1960s the country had no national currency, no paved roads, no electricity, no telephones, no postal service, or even motor vehicles. The people's situation would have been considered feudal and the king ruled. The capital Thimphu still has no traffic lights, though to be fair, one was tried but failed due to popular opinion.
These changes, among many others, were instigated at the prompting of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the third king of the Raven Crown (which celebrated its centenary in 2007). He seems to have been prompted to action by China's takeover of Tibet and other threatening actions. When he died in 1972, his son Jigme Singye Wangchuck vowed to continue his father's lead. In fact his coronation on 2 Jan 1974 was a watershed event for the country as the international press was allowed in for the first time. Several hotels were built to accommodate the invited guests and these became key components for a future tourist industry.
After laying the foundations for the transition of Bhutan's government from a monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy, the king abdicated to his eldest son, the Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck earlier this year and on 26 March 2008, just over a week ago, this transition smoothly came to pass. Now is certainly an auspicious time to be visiting Bhutan!
From what I have read, the people of Bhutan were somewhat reluctant to make this transition. They point to problems that arose when neighboring countries moved to democracy and, besides, they love and trust their king, so why is it necessary? To this, the current king's father replied that now, during a benevolent dictatorship (my words, not his) is exactly the right time since a transition can be made without the violence of an enforced revolution. Sounds like a wise man to me.
Nonetheless, news reports described the new king traveling throughout his kingdom prior to elections trying to convince his people of the need to vote. Based on their trust of their king, even if not recognizing the need for the change, they apparently did their democratic duty.
A few more tidbits about Bhutan before I end this preface; I will add more historical and cultural notes as I go. A 2005 census set the population of Bhutan at 634,000 though I've seen other estimates topping the one million mark. While Buddhism is the primary (not national) religion, Hinduism is also prevalent. All religions are tolerated, though proselytizing is not. In fact, tolerance seems to be a national theme. From my readings so far, celebrations are endemic. Fish and foul are often consumed, but not much beef, pork or lamb and vegetarianism is prevalent <however, throughout our trip we were served more beef than any other meat maybe it's a tourist thing>. For much of the population, magic and science are much the same thing as are history and mythology.
Women in Bhutan are considered the equal of men and although polyandry is still accepted in some rural areas, polygamy is not (however, the fourth king's marriage to four sisters in 1988 seems quite contradictory to this assertion). <When I asked our Bhutanese guide, Kinga, for his take on this, he said the general rule does not apply to the king because if he married just one sister and she was elevated to queen, then it would leave the other sisters in a sort of social limbo. The only solution was to marry all of them.>
With such a small population, the country is still largely rural with some villages unreachable by road. One estimate states that 72.5% of the country is forested (a fact, by the way, not lost on the king and government as they bargain with other countries); the country is subtropical in the south and mountainous in the north.
I mentioned above that this is an expensive trip. Well, when the king opened the country to visitors, he did not want it to become another Nepal crawling with backpackers, hippies, and druggies (sorry for the negative stereotypes - after all, many of my friends are B, H, and D types - but you get the idea.) Therefore, the only way to visit Bhutan is to join a tour group by a company recognized by the Bhutanese government or to deal directly with the government who will put you in touch with one of these groups (as I understand it). Each visitor must then pay something over two hundred dollars a day for the privilege of visiting Bhutan. This, they believe, will help keep out the "riffraff."
One further piece of information before I quit for the time being During his reign, the current king's father decided Bhutan needed a measure of national health other than GNP. He decided on Gross National Happiness. This is not a warm, fuzzy euphemism, but it includes a series of measures of aspects of life that constitute happiness: health, education, infrastructure, environment, etc. Again, I ask "why Bhutan?" This time I answer, "How can you not want to visit a country with Gross National Happiness as its primary measure of prosperity?"
5 Apr 08, Saturday 4:30 pm, Narita Airport, Tokyo
My luck was good for the trans-pacific flight. At check-in I asked if they had a window seat available. To my surprise, I was reassigned to an exit row (lots of leg room), but a middle seat nonetheless. On boarding, a large man on the aisle had appropriated most of the armrest between us. I settled in as best I could, but could tell it would be a close flight. Then, very unexpectedly, an attendant came to tell me everyone had boarded and that I could take the window seat with an empty in the middle, a rare occurrence in my recent experience. I had another nice surprise as we taxied to the terminal at Narita as the runway was bordered by cherry trees all abloom, a pretty sight.
My luck turned about halfway through my four-hour layover in Narita. In rechecking the flight board, I noticed my Bangkok flight has been delayed three hours! I now arrive at 1:30 am on Sunday. Coupled with the news I received via e-mail at the Albuquerque Airport that my flight to Bhutan had been moved up an hour and fifteen minutes to 4:35 am, and it looks like I should just forfeit my hotel room in Bangkok.
I'm back. Oh, didn't know I was gone? I got to thinking (even in my muddled state of mind - hey, it's late according to my "body" time) that it's several hours earlier in Bangkok and I could e-mail my contact and have her cancel my hotel room for tonight. So I walked down the terminal and found two computer terminals, but they take exactly one 100 yen coin for ten minutes on the internet. Not having scoped out the yen to USD rates, I swallowed my pride and asked the nice currency exchange lady how much I would need to exchange to get a 100 yen con. The answer was 1 USD buys 99 yen, so 2 USD got me 199 yen. I e-mailed my contact and still have 99 yen in coin rattling around in my pocket. Isn't the combination of globalization and technology wunnerful?
Since I have plenty of time before my flight, I'll fill you in with a brief history of Bhutan: As with most civilizations, early Bhutan is steeped in mythology and even its later history claims its share of miraculous events. Unfortunately, much of its written record was destroyed in cataclysmic earthquakes and the almost inevitable temple fires given all the yak butter candles burned throughout the years.
Bhutan was probably first inhabited as early as 2000-1500 BC by nomadic herders migrating with the seasons between high pastures and low valleys and there is indication that it became a route between India and Tibet. Both the animistic Bon religion and Buddhism seem to have been introduced between AD 2 and 6.
A tantric master, Guru Rinpoche, was summoned in AD 746 to Bumthang province in central Bhutan when the local king became possessed by a demon. The guru exorcised the demon and converted the king and his main rival to Buddhism. The guru is said to have visited Bhutan perhaps twice more leaving relics and hidden sacred texts called terma. These texts were discovered centuries later by tantric lamas called tertons who used them to enhance their own status and to establish monasteries and monuments.
Not long after Guru Rinpoche's visit, a Tibetan ruler outlawed Buddhism causing a large influx of lamas into Bhutan eventually bringing a type of Buddhism called Drukpa Kagya (where druk means dragon) that became well established in Bhutan.
Between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, Bhutan had numerous ruling clans and local chieftains in the different valleys each separated by significant mountains. By the sixteen century the various local chieftains were feuding as were the numerous Buddhist monasteries, each jockeying for ascendancy. This changed when in 1616 a twenty-three-year-old named Ngawang Namgyal left Tibet, ostensibly under advisement of a protective deity in the guise of a raven, but more likely in response to a challenge to his professed reincarnation of a great holy man. In any case, the raven pointed him south and he traveled throughout western Bhutan gaining influence and followers. It probably helped that he had relatives in Bhutan who had migrated there earlier. Regardless, he soon became the established religious leader in Bhutan and was called Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the first of the zhabdrungs. It was he who incorporated a monastic body and administrative offices in dzongs (fortified monasteries) which had previously been primarily for defense. This combination of functions became the model for future dzongs throughout Bhutan.
Zhabdrung Rinpoche's rule was not peaceful. A coalition of Bhutanese gurus gathered against him and soon attacked him, first alone, then with Tibetan allies. The Zhabdrung and his followers withstood each onslaught, and he was soon recognized as the supreme authority in Bhutan. Following this, the Zhabdrung extended his influence even beyond Bhutan to communities in Nepal and Tibet as well as consolidating his authority in Bhutan.
Late in his reign, Tibet was invaded by the Mongols and together they pushed south into Bhutan. The Zhabdrung's troops repelled the invaders (with natures help - the northerners had a difficult time in the warm jungles of southern Bhutan) several times from 1644-1649. During the rest of his reign, the Zhabdrung consolidated Bhutan into a country. He created a code of laws including taxes, compulsory labor for the construction of bridges, trails, dzongs, etc. - essentially, he created a feudal society that lasted almost unchanged until 1956! He also separated the spiritual leadership or zhabdrung from the administration of the country which was led by an elected official called a desi. The Zhabdrung maintained the final say though.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal disappeared into retreat in 1651. Although he probably died soon after, his death was not proclaimed until 1705, probably because the desis felt news of his death would destabilize the country and embolden its enemies.
For the next two hundred years there was much infighting and intrigue as various leaders vied for power. Much of this was due to the belief that the Zhabdrung was reincarnated in three parts: body, speech and mind. Another opening for conflict was the fact that many years passed before the reincarnated one was old enough to exert his influence. During these periods while the young zhabdrung grew up, the desi reigned supreme. It made for a muddled and often violent change of power (e.g., twenty-two desis were assassinated during this period).
In 1772, the Bhutanese made a tactical error in invading Cooch Behar, an Indian province to their south. This move awakened the British to the presence of Bhutan. The East Indian Company accepted a deal from the Indian province whereby they would chase out the Bhutanese for a price and by 1773 had accomplished their aims. In 1774, the British and Bhutan signed a treaty whereby Bhutan would respect East India territory and give them access to their trees. During this time the British also became more acquainted with Bhutan during expeditions through Bhutan to Tibet.
While continuous internal conflict raged in Bhutan, the next hundred years also pitted them against the British primarily over the territory called the duars. The duars (duar means "door" or "gate") refers to the southern plains of Bhutan up to and including the lowest hills leading to the Himalayas. The conflict over the duars culminated in the Duar War of 1865 when the British stripped Bhutan of its most productive land. It was said at the time that Bhutan's southern border is where a rock rolls downhill and finally stops.
It was during this turmoil that Ugyen Wangchuck rose to become the Raven Crown's first king. Born to a powerful desi who had already consolidated power through much of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck continued this trend by becoming penlop or regional governor of Trongsa in the middle of the country. In 1907, he was elected as heredity ruler of Bhutan by a unanimous vote of the principle chiefs and lamas and was crowned Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King.
Ugyen Wangchuck recognized the benefits of having the British as an ally and fostered this relationship, even with helping the British fight Tibet. He was rewarded with honors and, more importantly, with the Treaty of Punakha which stated the British would "exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan."
Jigme Wangchuck seceded to the throne in 1926 and ruled until 1952. During this period he consolidated his power and, when India won independence from the British in 1949, gained sovereign recognition from India as well as some of the lost duars territory.
The third king, Dorji Wangchuck, had been educated in India and England. When China took control of Tibet in 1959, he recognized the need to break out of Bhutan's self-imposed isolationism in order to protect Bhutan's sovereignty. He instigated broad changes in Bhutanese law, abolished serfdom, created an army and police force, and established a High Court. Bhutan joined the UN in 1971. He also began a system of planned development including the construction of a huge hydroelectric project.
This leads to the fourth king's coronation and rule which I described earlier, so I'll end the history lesson, but might add some tidbits now and again.
6 Apr 08, Sunday 5 pm, Paro, Bhutan (elevation: 2,200 m or 7,260 ft)
The flight to Bangkok went off on the new time and felt long (over five hours), but was glitch free. We landed at the new Bangkok airport around two am and after a bit of blundering in the nearly empty airport, I finally found the check-in counter for Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline and the only one to fly commercially in and out of the country. Druk Air's was the only one of maybe a dozen counters that was staffed at this early hour.
Check-in was painless and I ran into a fellow Spice Road rider (Melanie from Boulder, Colorado) while there. We proceeded to the gate which was completely abandoned for almost a half hour. Before boarding we met the other six riders and our Spice Roads guide, Jon. It seems my sign-up had made Jon's trip possible, his first to Bhutan, as eight is the number of riders a tour must have before Spice Roads sends one of their guides to supplement the local, in-country staff. Besides Mel and I, we are a married couple from Brisbane, Australia (Paul and Fran), their grown daughter (Jacqui), Ken from Johannesburg, South Africa, and two other Americans who became known as Seattle Bob and Florida Bob. So far the mix works well.
As expected, the plane to Paro was a bit smaller, and things went smoothly including a very nice in-flight breakfast. Shortly after take-off an attendant requested the services of a doctor. It seems someone fainted and was laid out in the rear of the plane. Later I heard that a tourist had fainted, but I think he was okay. We made a planned stop in Kolkata (old Calcutta), Indian before flying into Paro. The approach was unusual. After dropping through the clouds, we wound through a river valley banking heavily first one way and then the other with valley walls seemingly not far off our wing tips. Landing was smooth as silk.
After going through customs (my new passport got its first stamp) and exchanging some cash just in case (60 USD bought me 2,361 Bhutanese ngultrums or Nus), we met our local guide, Kinga, and our van driver, Tsedup, both of whom speak decent English, before driving to our hotel for tea and a rest until lunch. <Later, in Thimphu we added Dorgi, our truck driver who speaks no English, to round out our staff.>
What struck me first upon landing after Jaro's beautiful, wide river valley was the standard look of the buildings from the common houses to the stately dzongs (fortified monasteries). At first glance they reminded me of Swiss chalets, but this notion is dispelled upon closer inspection. The buildings all have elaborately carved and/or painted cornices, many depicting mythical guardians or figures from Bhutan's Buddhist-steeped past. Many of the roofs are composed of corrugated steel, but we did see some that had traditional wooden shingles held in place by large stones to protect against the strong winds in the valley.
Our hotel was once the residence of the penlop (regional governor) of Paro and it has that feel. My room is well appointed with a very hot shower and two hard-matriced double beds along with firm pillows - all of which I immediately availed myself of.
For lunch we drove into town where we dined on a buffet meal with some local foods, but no chilies which I had read are very hot here. Kinga told us we would be eating mostly western foods, but with chances to try local dishes. The meal was very tasty. My favorite dish was fiddlehead ferns (or nakey) cooked in a mild cheese sauce. My tour book says ferns are usually served with ema datse, a cheese sauce with very hot chilies - I suspect they just omit the chilies when serving tourists. Other dishes included Bhutan's red rice (in texture midway between our white and brown rice), a pork and mushroom dish, an eggplant dish, a noodle dish and one other. If all our meals are this good, I will be well pleased. <I later came to believe that when Kinga said we would be eating mostly western food, he meant that we were eating local food with more meat and fewer chilies than the locals eat.>
We visited two dzongs after lunch. The first is the pride of Paro, called Rinchen Pung Dzong or the short form, Rinpung Dzong. Sitting high on a hill overlooking the Paro valley, Lonely Planet writers consider it one of the country's best examples of classic Bhutanese architecture. The thick walls hide an open courtyard with a central tower or utse dominating the scene. The dzong, like many others throughout the country, has evolved to hold both the district government offices on one side and the monastic living areas on the other. Kinga explained the traditional deities of the four directions to be found prominently painted on the walls within each dzong. He also described many of the figures and scenes on a giant painted mural showing the mystical spiral of the life of Buddha. In the lower part of the mural, a depiction of a sort of Buddhist purgatory reminded me of a Hieronymus Bosch painting with its demons and heinous tortures.
After removing our shoes, we next entered the main altar area where Kinga donned his prayer shawl and performed his prayers. He then explained several of the unique features of such a temple area. I can imagine his confusion at visiting a Christian cathedral and being regaled with the various iconic images and stories because I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the new information.
From here we traveled to another, smaller dzong not far away. Here a ceremony was in progress that Kinga told us occurs only a few times each year when the monks present food to the congregation. The dzong was full of people sitting or kneeling and praying. Some spun handheld prayer wheels (that reminded me not a little of New Year's Eve noise makers) and others spun larger prayer wheels built in rows on all four sides of a square structure. Yet larger prayer wheels, like oversized barrels, were also in evidence, but I did not see anyone spin them. Kinga gave an interesting analogy: he said turning a prayer wheel (always clockwise) releases a thousand prayers with each revolution and a supplicant might walk around the square structure many times spinning each prayer wheel again and again just as a person with rosary or prayer beads moves from one bead/prayer to the next.
I felt as if we were intruding as Kinga led us through the crowd, though I felt no hostility or even disapproval, only a slight curiosity or surprise from the participants. Even this, I felt was tempered by the parade of tourists they have seen pass through since the country opened up. Someone said today that Bhutan limits tourism to just 8,000 visas every year. <However, the number of tourists we saw on this trip makes that number sound low.>
We walked into the inner courtyard where more people sat, squatted or stood praying as chanting emanated from within the temple. Others chatted or just hung out soaking up the ambient spirituality. A couple of small boys scooped up rice from the ground into plastic bags. Bits of food were everywhere under foot both here and in the outer courtyard. Kinga pointed out the orange tree growing in the courtyard. He had told us before arriving that it is the only one of its kind in Bhutan since oranges don't grow here, but that this one has fruit all year long - a sort of miracle. And, indeed, the tree did have maybe a dozen smallish oranges or maybe tangerines in the upper branches of the tree. Kinga told us no one picks the fruit, but they wait for the oranges to fall naturally.
At this point, we took off our shoes to enter the main ceremonial room or altar. However, a monk spoke to Kinga telling us it was too crowded so we viewed a side altar instead.
We headed back to our hotel for tea and a rest before supper. I felt I had perked up some, but found myself falling asleep after writing a sentence or two in my journal. Even now, after another nice buffet meal, I am ready to crash.
Tomorrow, we ride the van to Thimphu, the capital, to do some sight seeing in the morning, and then we bike to a small park north of the city in the afternoon. For some reason, Paro has banned bicycle riding which is probably the reason we don't bike from here. It is now 9 pm, and I am well and truly nackered. I can hear the canine chorus my tour book says takes place nearly every night in the towns. The book recommends earplugs, but we are a ways from Paro and I don't think they have a chance of keeping me from sleep.
The Paro dogs lived up to their reputation and sang to each other all night long. During one stretch when I awakened around 3 am, a general intermission had been called and the honor of keeping silence at bay was given to a lone mutt who comported himself admirably. By morning the concert was again in full swing. Our hotel is far enough from the village to dampen the effect, but I still slept most of the night with earplugs.
The morning dawned clear giving the valley a very different mien. Yesterday, clouds hung low and it sprinkled off and on from the time the plane touched down to when I turned in for the night, never hard enough to make you run for cover or break-out an umbrella, but it did dampen my hair and shirt a couple times. This morning when the sun finally struck the 21,000 ft snow-capped massive at the head of the valley, it was a glorious sight. When I got up to stretch a bit before 5:30 am, it was already light, but the sun didn't breech the valley for another hour or more. The birds were definitely awake, though, and I can hear a variety of them as I write this. Yesterday, we spotted several varieties including a dove very similar to our mourning dove, but with more brown, and a back bird with long, bright orange-red decurved bill that Ken, our South African compatriot, declared a red-billed chough after consultation with his bird book. He is our most adept birder or "twitcher" as the Aussies call him. The chough calls its name and I can already identify it by its distinctive voice. It seems common here in Paro.
7 Apr 08, Monday, 9:30 pm, Thimphu (elevation: 2,300 m or 7,590 ft)
After breakfast this morning we loaded up the van and drove to the Bhutanese capital since 1961, Thimphu. Our route followed the Paro Chhu (or river) as it winded its way down the valley and then, about halfway to Thimphu, we turned up one its tributaries and followed it to town. Along the way were many interesting sights: Paro's terraced rice paddies in their spring greens, haystack-sized piles of pine needles mixed with dung that is used as fertilizer, and of course hundreds of prayer flags. These latter are placed anywhere the wind blows. So bridges are usually well adorned and, as I've read, mountain passes (we hit our first tomorrow).
Much of the road between Paro and Thimphu is being repaired. The laborers are guest workers from Indian or Nepali-Bhutanese who primarily live in southern Bhutan. Whole families move from place to place depending on where the road work is. The Indians are not allowed Bhutanese citizenship and must leave when the work is done. We passed what are essentially shanty towns with crude huts where the Indian workers live, but we have also seen some housing developments that the government has set aside specifically for the guest workers. I guess the situation is somewhat spotty in this regard.
When asked about the large Nepali population in Bhutan, Kinga told us that in the 1960s, the third king invited Nepali workers into the country to build the connective roads because Bhutan had no expertise. Later, in reward, he gave them land in the south and Bhutanese citizenship. According to Kinga, violence, primarily Nepali on Nepali, began to occur because of the caste system the Nepalis brought with them from Nepal (he was keen to point out that Bhutan has no caste system). Because of this violence, the Bhutanese government began sending Nepalis back to Nepal where they are settled in UN monitored refugee camps.
This version fits the facts as we know them, but the Lonely Planet Guide on Bhutan gives a very different version, one in which Bhutan doesn't come off as well. The Lonely Planet talks about a migration of Nepalis to Bhutan early in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, the Bhutanese government began integrating the Nepalis into Bhutan's mainstream by giving some of them citizenship, teaching the Nepali language in schools, giving the Nepalis representation within government, etc.
Until the 1980s, things went smoothly, and then the Bhutanese government began pushing a program to protect and enhance the Bhutanese culture. The new rules required all citizens to wear traditional dress to formal functions (school, etc.) and it eliminated the Nepali language from schools. Under these new restrictions, some Nepalis grew recalcitrant. On top of this, the Bhutanese government conducted a census used to find out who could prove residence prior to 1958 (because of the porous southern border, Bhutan's rich southern land attracts many undocumented aliens). Violence broke out and a general exodus (tens of thousands) of Nepalis occurred. Nepali residents began forming dissident groups and protesting against the restrictions. The tenseness has not been resolved yet and the refugee camps in Nepal are still full of people trying to return to Bhutan.
We also passed a house under construction where women were standing atop one of the walls each pounding pine needles and wet sand into the wooden form holding up the wall just as I have read about. I thought it was an old method of building houses, but I stand corrected. When the wall dries, the wooden forms are removed. I read that the women sing songs and joke, sometimes crudely, with passers-by while working on these walls; when asked, Kinga agreed with the description - evidently, this activity gives the women greater license to act up a bit. It is a very communal job. The pine needles act as a sort of primitive rebar to provide greater stability. In addition, we passed many buildings that appear to be slowly disintegrating. When we asked Kinga about them, he told us that, when all of the people living in one house die, regardless of the reason, the house is left vacant and eventually just rots away; it is some kind of local superstition.
When we arrived in Thimphu, Kinga's hometown, he pointed out that major construction was occurring all over town, and we could see clearly they were in the middle of a building boom. After checking into the hotel and finding our rooms were not ready, we walked to two cultural displays. One was a museum (of sorts) showing how people lived in an earlier Bhutan. The museum was basically an old home filled with the traditional trappings of everyday life. Kinga did a good job of explaining how people in Bhutan lived and I suspect in some circumstances are still living. The four-story home itself is something of a marvel as it is constructed entirely without nails.
Just down the street we visited the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, a craft school teaching young people traditional Bhutanese handicrafts. We were able to enter classrooms filled with what I would guess were mostly teens practicing painting, sculpting, carving, silk screening, etc., maybe a dozen crafts in all. The students were industrious and, although fully aware of us, were not disturbed by our presence as the institute seems fully open to visiting tourists. Across the street, finished products from the institute are available for sale. Graduates have no trouble finding employment given that almost every building is elaborately decorated. In fact, this society is possibly the most decorated one I have visited. As noted before, every structure has been made into a work of fine art. You just don't see those bland, grey steel box-like business buildings or cookie cutter row houses we have in plenty in the States. Here, each home and office building is individualized with carvings and paintings. Many of the cars and trucks are also given the owners' personalized stamp. Kinga said that historically, no plan is drawn up when a building is built. It is all in the head of the head builder who directs the workers what to do. The head builder makes his decisions based on the situation of each building and, more or less, makes it up as he goes along. It sounds akin to the Chinese concept of feng shui that has become so popular in some circles in the U.S.
We had lunch on the way back to the hotel where we changed into our bike clothes and claimed and adjusted our rental bikes to fit. All the customers rented Spice Roads bikes. Jon flew his over and, of course, Kinga has his own. Our route was a 34-km out and back to Dodina as a break-in ride. Well, it was that! After a short ride through clogged streets (the city's ubiquitous construction has left the streets a mess), we crossed the valley's river, appropriately named Thimphu Chhu at the south end of town and then turned north to follow the river up a gradual incline that gave us a spectacular view of Thimphu which is stretched along the river maybe a couple of miles as the narrow valley constricts its width. There are some homes and monasteries high up in the hills, but the steepness of the valley will prevent urban sprawl in that direction.
After a short, but decent uphill that had the flatlanders chuffing for oxygen, we got our first indication of how to calibrate Kinga. He had told us we would only have two real hill climbs on this ride; the first was to be the worst. But at a break at the top of that first little climb, he laughed and said no, that is a flat ride in Bhutan. We saw what he meant when we did hit the first hill just a few meters later. Jon reckoned the grade to be 13-15% which is a serious climb for anyone. It wasn't long though and so not too much of a problem, though some people did walk a portion of it. The Aussie family members are not serious bikers and have never been on a bike trip before, and one of the Bob's had already had a touch of altitude sickness so they were naturally apprehensive on this first ride. All in all, for 34 km, it was a tough little ride. I suspect sore muscles will result.
The route itself was gorgeous. We were within sight of the river much of the time, but also burrowed through thick forests and were delighted with our first glimpse of bright red flowering rhododendrons. Kinga claimed we would see many more of all colors and varieties as well as wild magnolia in bloom since April is the month for it.
We occasionally passed near small villages and got long views across the river at the western side of this narrow mountain valley. We passed quite a few people on the outbound leg. Again, they struck me as very reserved. I decided to try greeting them both by waving, especially to children, and calling out a "hello" or "hi." Well, this was the key. Almost always this elicited a smile, a wave, a cheery greeting, or all three. This always makes the ride more pleasant. On the return we met many more people coming home from work and packs of children walking home from school. These latter needed no prompting I giving us a loud welcome as there is boldness in numbers. I slowed down more than once to ensure one of these lively kids didn't step out in front of me at the last moment.
The automotive traffic was light on this side road, and we were given room as soon as the drivers spotted us. We did learn on this first ride, though, that we will need to be extra cautious on these narrow roads, especially on the curvy mountain roads.
At Dodina I found out why it wasn't listed on my tour book map as there was no village I could see. The road dead-ended at a National Forest or Park named after the third king of the Raven Crown, the grandfather of the current king and the person who started Bhutan on its path towards modernization. Kinga told me that one of the treks begins here and ends a few days later in Punakha, our destination tomorrow. A covered walking bridge bedecked in fluttering prayer flags led across the river at this point to path that wound up a steep hillside to a monastery perched high above us.
The return ride was more downhill than up, but it still had a few steep uphill runs. Kinga told me that he and a friend bike this route every evening when he is not touring and then they do another stretch to get 60 km in. I followed him the last 5-10 km to Dodina and, watching him take the hills, I could see why his characterization of the route is so at odds with our group. He is clearly mountain born and bred. Just a side note: I'm surprised at how quickly riding on the left side of the road becomes natural. One would think it would be hard to make the switch, but not so.
At supper we got our first taste of Bhutanese chilies. A few of the dishes were hot, a bit hotter than I like but certainly edible. My tour book states that much of their traditional cuisine is fiery.
Last night I heard no dogs which surprised me. We are in the main part of town and I expected their chorus. Other than a bit of city noise early in the night, it was very quiet. I slept hard; our ride had been a good work-out. The hard bed, a two-inch matrice over a sheet of wood, felt very good. Oh, we have television in the rooms here which was a surprise. Flipping through the maybe forty channels, I found about half were in English and half probably Indian. Kinga told me that Bhutan gets both Bollywood and Hollywood movies. One older Denzel Washington - Gene Hackman movie was in English with English subtitles which I thought odd.
8 Apr 08, Tuesday, 9:15 pm, Punakha (elevation: 1,250 m, 4,125 ft)
Our route today from Thimphu to Punakha is the same one as that taken by the central monk body every November from their summer residence in Thimphu to their winter residence in Punakha. This royal procession takes two days and people line the roads to watch it pass. The Monks return to Thimphu in May. The route takes you over Dochu La at 3,140 m or 10,392 ft, our first high pass.
The day couldn't have been better for our first major ride, sunny and a bit cool. I was able to wear my normal summer riding attire all the way to the pass. We rode from town about five kilometers to the intersection with the main (read "only") east-west highway and turned east. From there it was a gradual climb all the way to the pass. The route was almost entirely through thick fir forest with a few flowering rhododendrons. We stopped to regroup about half way up which came much sooner than expected as I was deep in conversation with Mel on historical topics.
Fran, the prettier half of the husband/wife couple from Australia, had the rim of her rear tire separate where it had been weakened over years of brake use and then collapse part way up. Jon, the Spice Roads rep, gave her his back tire and then replaced his with a spare from the support truck when it arrived. (This was to be important for me, as part way down the other side of the pass, my rear wheel began thumping when I applied my brakes. When I stopped to investigate, I saw the same thing was happening to my wheel. Jon swapped rear wheels with me too and I had no further problem.)
After water and snacks we proceeded up the mountain. The grade was more comfortable than any other similar climb I've done. It got a bit steeper toward the end, but nothing too harsh. Of course, I live at altitude and that makes a huge difference in oxygen intake efficiency.
All the way up, our view was constrained to the forest with a couple of instances when you could see further down mountain, so the view when we crested the pass was a shock. The first thing that caught my eye were the 108 chortens (stone Buddhist monuments often containing relics) grouped together in the center of the roadway (according to the tour book, they are atonement for the death caused by fighting with Assamese militants in southern Bhutan in 1965.) But hearing Jon's exclamation I looked past the chortens to the steep drop down the eastern side of the pass over which hung a 180° view of the snow-covered Himalaya Mountain Range. The view sat you back on your heels it was so unexpected and so awesome. I don't believe I have seen such an imposing range. By contrast the U.S. Rockies usually have a few massives that stand out in stark relief to the lesser peaks like kings holding court, but this range, possibly because they were at such a distance, appeared to all be massing shoulder to shoulder, an impenetrable, forbidding crush of snow and ice. Even stranger is that they appeared to be hovering above the ground, a trick of light and distance. The lower reaches of the range or the foothills, whatever connected them to the valley floor, were indistinct, blurred, almost "not there" at all; there were no details to catch your eye, just a dull blue-gray shadow.
Jon and I did the mandatory clockwise pass around the chortens and then waited for the others while contemplating the view. The other riders soon rode up over the pass and were in turn confronted with the spectacle. I give full marks to the Aussies coming from the Gold Coast on their first ever bike tour. They took a spinning class a couple of weeks prior to the trip to get into shape. To complete a climb to 10,000 ft on their first go is impressive indeed.
After everyone was gathered, we rode a quarter mile down mountain to a restaurant with a gorgeous view for lunch. And then we started on a long downhill run that took us to an elevation much lower than the past two days (1,250 m or 4,125 ft). The downhill run after a long climb, perversely, often seems longer than the uphill ride, and this one certainly fit this contradiction. We seemed to be going down forever. The east side of the mountain was more fascinating and diverse than the west side had been. I was constantly craning my neck first at the long view of the Himalayas which was constantly changing as we lost altitude (at some point the foothills gained some definition giving the whole scene a different feel) and then up a narrow gorge when we swept around an inside corner. We passed chortens and stupas (an earlier form of chorten) and water driven prayer wheels on most of the small streams racing down almost every inside turn. The east side seemed to drain more water than the west side.
Also, the bird life on this side was much more prolific, probably because the forest was more diverse with considerable hardwood species. I bet I heard at least twenty different species of birds. Had I stopped to investigate each one, I would still be there instead of writing this. As we descended past the halfway mark we began passing villages with intricate terraced crop designs, intriguing when viewed from above. Several times I stopped for a photo op.
We had been descending so steadily for so long that it was a shock to hit the steep one to two kilometer ascent to the hotel. But here we will stay for two nights so I guess it was all worth it. Our hotel has a great view, a good buffet, hot water, firm beds, and even a small TV - what more could a weary traveler ask for? I did, however, swat a mosquito in the room so I need to remember to keep my balcony door closed.
Tomorrow we bike out and back along the Mo Chhu to Tashithang, a terminus for some of the treks and a National Park. It should be nice, little elevation gain except an even longer climb to the hotel.
9 Apr 08, Wednesday 9 pm, Punakha
I awoke very early this morning and decided to finish my history summary. The pre-dawn bird song was amazing in loudness and variety. It was hard staying inside, but I really wanted to finish the history; I promised myself that tomorrow morning I'll bird before breakfast. I could also hear the bats working the skies in the gray early morning. However, there were few dogs barking last night - none that disturbed me anyway.
Today is our out and back ride to Tashithang up the Mo Chhu valley. It's a narrow valley that climbs slowly toward the Himalayas in the north. At various times we would look up to see snow-caped peaks above a swath of high meadow looking very green. Kinga said nomads still migrate into the mountains in the summer with their yaks and back to the high meadows in the winter. He told me they have requested that the government build no roads for them - they are afraid of losing their traditional life.
The first half of the route was open so that we enjoyed a closer view of this beautiful river valley as it unfolded at each turn. We passed by the magnificent Punakha Dzong which we will visit tomorrow and a huge golden-topped chorten perched high on the opposite valley wall.
For the last half, we passed through some small communities and began to get more vegetation. The river also turned from a swift, but smooth flowing river to one continuous cataract. Paul, the Aussie dad, an avid fisherman, told me the river was off-limits for fishing to anyone other than the royal family. There was a note of sadness in his voice.
Our picnic area was within a national park. While we were there, tents were being erected to serve the trekkers who evidently were showing up later. Our staff turned out a good spread for lunch, but I wondered what happened to all our leftover food. We lounged and napped for the better part of two hours and even ventured a quick soak in the icy river.
We had been hearing a plethora of birds calling along the route so I was happy to spot a flashy bird at the picnic stop. Ken, our South African birder, called it a white-capped water redstart which certainly covers the descriptive bases. Just like the American redstart, this one continuous flicks its bright red-brown tail, a beautiful bird.
Coming back, we had three minor, one-person accidents with only a few scrapes and bruises resulting. When we got to the bridge across the river at the Punakha Dzong, Kinga led us across and then onto a dirt trail for several kilometers. There was nothing very technical, but for those on their first off-road experience, it must have seemed a bit extreme. One hill forced me into my granny gear and I still grunted my way up. We also traversed a suspension bridge, the downwind side covered in prayer flags. The wind was blowing so hard it forced us to dismount about half way across the bridge and whipped the flags into such frenzy that the atmosphere was thick with prayers.
The final hill to the hotel was every bit as challenging as it was yesterday and I arrived pleasantly tired. So far this ride has been tough. I just wonder how those not so used to riding are handling it - I know I would be sore had I not been riding regularly. I took a long nap before supper.
We had no fern dish tonight, the first big meal without it I think. It makes for a tasty dish. Yesterday it was mixed with fresh asparagus which was very good. Although I had been checking our farmer's market regularly before I left Albuquerque, the fresh asparagus wasn't in the store yet so it's been a treat getting it here.
Tomorrow we visit Punakha Dzong before biking a short way to Wangdue Phodrang, our next stop east.
10 Apr 08, Wednesday, 5 pm, Wangdue Phodrang (elevation: 1,240 m or 4,092 ft)
I was up shortly after 5 am and out birding. I picked up several new species and even learned the names of a few from an avid birder I met on my short hike. He said he had been to Nepal and that between here and there, he had seen over three hundred species, eighty new to him. I also met up with a pack of the friendliest dogs yet who followed me for awhile. The dogs here are generally lackadaisical, at best barely noticing you. We have seen hundreds of dogs, often in small packs, but few seem to have any inclination to give chase. Kinga told us that most of the dogs are street dogs, but that people still feed them. I've seen people scraping pots outside their houses or on the streets with dogs waiting for their meal.
After a breakfast buffet less inviting than I've yet seen here (severely undercooked bacon; steamed milk wilts corn flakes immediately), we clambered aboard the van to drive back down to the river to visit the Punakha Dzong. Built at the confluence of the Mo and Pho Chhus, the Lonely Planet Guide considers it the most beautiful dzong in the country. It is indeed impressive, more so when you realize it was constructed without the use of nails (though Kinga told us that modern renovators have not been as fastidious in their avoidance of nails).
Within one of the three courtyards stands a magnificent bodhi tree, the same type under which Buddha gained enlightenment. The tree has a massive trunk reminiscent of a strangler fig with cottonwood-like leaves. The central assembly hall contains 54 golden pillars and its walls are covered in beautiful murals depicting the life of Buddha. Kinga went over them with us, but it would take many lectures to explain all the symbolism and history behind them all.
While we were there, the monks met in a separate assembly hall for a group prayer session. The chanting acted like a tourist magnet drawing visitors to the upper storey where you could look down on the neat rows of monks in prayer. Rhythm is kept by the tapping of narrow drums held vertically on a stick. A master controller walks through the rows with what looks like a cat-o-nine-tails which he slaps on the floor to provide the tempo. I thought it remarkably similar to the role played by the master in a Whirling Dervish ceremony on the other side of the world in Turkey.
We next loaded up the van and drove to the temple of the "Divine Madman" (the Lama Drukpa Kunley) built in 1499. The Divine Madman is one of the most beloved teachers in Bhutan. He used unorthodox and often ribald antics to bring understanding of Buddhism to the common people. He is credited with "creating" the takin, Bhutan's national animal, by placing the head of a goat on the body of a cow. The good luck "flying penises" often seen painted on houses are in honor of him.
His temple, Chimi Lhakhang, sits on a windswept hill above a small village. We walked through cropland, where Kinga pointed out spinach, potatoes, wheat, and possibly oats growing in small plots, and then across the raised mud embankments of terraced rice fields before climbing a small hill to reach the temple.
It was smaller than some others we've visited, but we enjoyed Kinga's description of the Divine Madman's antics as he showed us the murals of Drukpa Kunley's life. Another beautiful bodhi tee grows outside this temple proving a comfortable, shady place to rest and reflect as you enjoy the expansive view.
After lunch in the small village, we mounted our bikes for the very short, mostly downhill and mostly into a steady wind, route to Wangdue Phodrang, called Wangdi by the locals and most everyone else. On the way, we looked down the hill on the first flooded rice fields I've seen on the trip, weird because these fields were near the top of a ridge high above the river. I'm not sure how they transport the water to the fields.
We could see Wangdi's impressive dzong long before we reached it. The city sits atop a narrow plateau carved by rivers on either side that meet just below the dzong. Since the confluence of rivers is often considered a "bad" or unholy place, I asked Kinga why we see so many dzongs there. He replied that the dzongs supposedly counteract the negative vibes of the confluence. When we were just opposite the city, we rode across a bridge and up a fairly steep road to the city in one long switchback.
It's strange how different cultures value views. We rode into town on the main highway (which is also the only way to get to the town). On a walk that evening, I realized the road was very near the plateaus steep edge, but you would never know it, as both sides of this route are lined with small shops selling anything you can imagine. They appeared to be part of one continuous building. However, I noticed a couple places where you can look through to the cliff beyond. Talk about split level! It appears that the store fronts sit on the level of the road and that the owners' homes are attached at the back and down to the next level which is held up by wooden poles. I wonder if they have rear windows and, if they do, whether they deign to gaze out of them into the deep valley below. I wouldn't wonder a violent earthquake, of which Bhutan definitely has its share, would take the whole line of shops down into the river gorge.
Continuing up the road, we rounded a corner as the main road makes a u-turn and heads down the plateau on the opposite side. I walked to the edge of town and saw the road winding its way down and then up the other river towards, I suspect, the Black Mountains where tomorrow we cross over on the toughest ride of the trip. This town is one of the most interestingly situated I have seen, but the way the buildings are constructed, you would be totally ignorant of its situation if you didn't look for it. Even outside the town no one seems to be taking advantage of the view with the possible exception of the dzong which sits high up over the confluence of the two rivers. I walked into what seemed to be just a vacant lot behind some houses right up to where the plateau drops off into the gorge. What a great place for a house with a view!
This is also the first time we have seen much of a market district other than a few vegetable markets. I counted twenty-four shops in about a block and a half, side by side, most sharing the same building, almost filling the entire block, all selling the same thing: candy, chips, etc. and all proclaiming to be "general" stores. How does a local possibly distinguish among them? I don't get it. However, it did remind me of Vietnam where anyone living on a main street had opened up the side of their houses facing the street and turned them into shops, also selling essentially the same things - like little convenience marts. At the time, I felt the Vietnamese must be the most entrepreneurial people on earth, but I think these Bhutanese might give them a run for their money.
Before I sign off for the night, let me add a few notes. I've been surprised at how many of the signs in Bhutan are in English; in fact, many are only in English. I think an English-speaker could probably get along very well here without a guide. I have not been able to get a feel for how many of the locals actually speak English though. Kinga told us that English is taught in the schools, but when I have spoken to children, which has been often since they gather around whenever we stop, most seem to understand nothing other than "hello" and "good-bye." Maybe they are just too shy, but I don't see recognition in their eyes when I ask them simple questions like "How are you?" Today, I did see two little girls singing together, "Oh my darling, I love you" over and over, but I got no feeling if they understood the words. Concerning the adults, I have sometimes found some, particularly in the hotels, who have a command of the language, but most, I sense, don't.
In any emerging society, you can have apparent contradictions. This becomes more obvious as technology moves into common usage. For instance, there was a monk in the central worship hall in the Punakha Dzong today kneeling in front of the Buddha text messaging (I'm not hinting he has found a new way to commune with Buddha, I'm just observing). Also, in a small room near the entrance to our hotel, there are two large screen TVs. When I passed earlier today, two young local men in traditional garb were playing one of those violent hand-to-hand combat games - very unlike Buddha it seems. This might have to do with what Kinga called "the middle path" which he used to describe the Buddhism that Bhutanese practice. With the phrase, he meant that the Bhutanese are not hard over conservative in their religious practices. For instance, many will eat meat, but most meat is brought in from India and not killed here (however, we have seen sides of beef, etc. that sure do not look like they have come all the way from India - I suspect there are not a few abattoirs here).
Concerning the national dress, most Bhutanese wear it. For men it is a knee length robe of some plaid design called a gho which is then gathered at the waist with a belt. One side of the top is often loose so things can be stored there. Kinga wears bike clothes when pedaling, but wears the gho at other times. Women wear a floor-length dress called a kira over a blouse with a short, open jacket called a toego over the whole ensemble. There was a flap over clothing when the king requested that all citizens wear traditional dress. Some of the large Nepali population in the south refused to wear the gho causing not a little ill will on both sides.
Tomorrow we ride over the Black Mountains to the Phobjikha Valley, advertised as the toughest ride of the trip. Several in our group turn the prayer wheels for good weather every day, so let's hope it works. It actually clouded over this afternoon and we felt a few drops of rain on our ride. I hope for fair weather tomorrow.
11 Apr 08, Friday 7 pm, Phobjikha Valley (elevation: 2,900 m or 9,570 ft)
A tough day by any biker's standard.
But first, last night we invited a lone gentleman to our table for supper since we were the only other customers in the hotel's restaurant. He is a Brit and a consultant for the country of Bhutan here for three weeks to assess the social impact of the new roads, not of the main west-east highway, but of the many offshoots from it, particularly the farm or non-paved roads. He has only been here a few days and so doesn't have much data yet, but it sounds like a fascinating job. He has spent much time in Nepal and has picked up that language which gets him around here pretty well he told us, especially in the south where many Nepali have settled through the years.
Basically he asks the common folk how the new road to their location has impacted their lives. So far, he says, they have many positive answers such as making it easier to get their produce to market. Some have already planted new-to-them crops, e.g., potatoes, in anticipation of this benefit. When asked about negative impacts, he said that, to a person, they think hard and then come up with the same answer: non-local folks, "strangers" can come to our village and they might steal things or something to that effect in other words the classic fear of "others" (I'm reminded that in my small Midwest USA town, the only time we locked our doors as a kid is when the circus or the fair was in town). When asked if the new roads might entice more of their youngsters to the city, they responded straightaway: now why would they want to leave when things here are now so much better? We have electricity and now roads. What more could they want? It will be interesting to see if they are being naïve or prescient.
Now to our day: after a decent breakfast, we got going about 8 am. It was a near perfect cycling day for a mountain climb: overcast and cool with little indication of rain. We did the climb to lunch in four stages with breaks in between. From Wangdi, we continued along the main (only) road through town at a 45° angle to our entry direction. We were headed straight toward the source of the Dang Chhu, the other river at the Wangdi confluence. The whole morning we forged deeper into the valley gaining altitude the whole way. After each of our little breaks, the road seemed to get a bit steeper. Along this main east-west highway we didn't meet much traffic, a blessing since the road was never wider than about one and a half times as wide as a single lane on a typical U.S. highway. Sometimes we had a shoulder and sometimes not. We came upon two or three groups of foreign birders either walking a ways from their van or intent upon a certain bird or, on one occasion, a gray languor. We also saw what I think was a band of macaques early on - the same type we had seen on our picnic ride two days ago.
The valley itself is gorgeous. Although we were often in dense forest we got plenty of clear views of the valley floor, the rushing Dang Chhu (and later its tributaries) and the opposite side of the valley with forest or cultivated fields. Higher up, we often caught glimpses of the Himalayas, aloof and mysterious.
For lunch, we stopped in a small village where our staff set out our lunch in a local restaurant. Again, the tastiest dish was sliced potatoes in a yummy cream sauce; we've tried several different potato recipes and they've all been delicious. (The Bhutanese have obviously learned the secrets of the potato after a British expedition in 1774 planted them wherever they went, something like the Johnny Appleseed in America.)
The road again canted a bit steeper as we left lunch, ten kilometers to a junction and then another two kilometers off the main highway to a pass leading into the Phobjikha Valley, winter home of the black-necked crane, the valley's claim to fame. I was first out of the blocks after lunch and winded my lonely way ever upward. More often then not for these twelve kilometers I was in my granny gear or one gear off of it. By the time I hit the junction where the slope cruelly got even steeper, I was nackered. I powered up the mostly dirt or broken pavement, finally sighting the summit sign and blessed chorten with multitudinous prayer flags.
From the pass, which is the only way in or out, the Phobjikha Valley lay spread out before me, as pretty as any picture. After topping the pass, my bike pulled me forward like a horse heading to its stable. I pulled it up short to examine the interesting ground cover that blanketed the upper regions of the pass. It looked to be about a foot tall and was very dense, not a good ground cover to be trekking through I suspect. I couldn't identify the plant, but I imagine a whole universe for small rodents and possibly their predators (shrews, weasels, etc.) inhabit this place. <I later found out it is dwarf bamboo or cham which never grows big enough to be useful, but which yaks and other animals will eat.>
I then let my bike have its head and I barreled down into the valley, braking often as the road surface was uncertain. The valley was open with little forested land below a certain level. The houses looked pristine and the fields were as neat as you'll find.
We were told our hotel was about five kilometers below the pass, but I had gone much further and still had not found it when I arrived at a junction. I stopped to survey the situation and noted the black-necked crane information center was nearby and so stopped in with my hotel query. Armed with new information, I eventually found the hotel at the top of a completely unmarked driveway that rated the steepest climb of the day.
As we arrived, our hosts served hot tea and biscuits which were most appreciated. The hotel has a grand view of the valley and the rooms are beautiful, all hard wood floors, furniture, etc. The generator comes on at 5:30 pm so the earliest we could have a hot shower was about 6:30 pm. I took a short nap in the meantime and then enjoyed a hot shower. I washed out my riding shirt, socks and neckerchief as we have a day off from biking tomorrow, and I could be sure they would dry. Lights out is from 9 pm until 6 am, a first for this trip, but candles are provided in the rooms. I am writing this section by candlelight now.
Supper was a set meal instead of a buffet and was quite good. A mild Thai red curry was the highlight - I would have been happy to have a bowl of the sauce with a bowl of rice and just pig out. Jacqui, the Aussie couple's daughter, turned 34 today and our local staff conjured up a nice looking cake to celebrate (having brought it from Wangdi). Overall a pleasant evening was had by all up until lights out. During supper it rained heavily with some hail. It has stopped now, but tonight should be great sleeping.
It's been a long time since I've worked by candlelight. While I was writing, a loud buzz began and I got up to se if I could find the fly. In the dark it was impossible and unnecessary as the buzzer found the candle and went down in flames as it were. It was a honey bee, not a fly.
Tomorrow will be leisurely. Kinga is leading a hike in midmorning to a local dzong. A day off from riding will be appreciated. By the way, the climb today was about 6,500 ft to something over 11,000 ft. We are staying at 9,570 ft.
12 Apr 08, Saturday, 5:30 pm, Phobjikha
I slept solidly last night in a very comfortable bed. When I pulled down the kivers, a good fairy had placed a hot water bottle in my bed. I had noticed that my small wood stove, which was roaring upon my arrival, had a large covered pot of water sitting atop with a metal cup, and I had also noticed a couple of empty hot water bottles in the closet, but I had not expected such a nice surprise. Although the room was still toasty, the rain had certainly cooled things off outside, and the warm bed was very welcome.
At breakfast this morning, the hotel's spacious view showed a valley full of cloud. A half hour later when I glanced out again, the clouds were completely gone and the sun was beating down. I wish I had paid more attention to this surprisingly rapid transformation.
Kinga took the bikers on a short trek up the valley to Gangte Goemba (or monastery) situated high on a hill. The monastery is currently under renovation, paid for by an American patron according to Kinga. My guide book said a beetle infestation was the reason for the work. The monastery was surrounded by stacks of large wooden beams and planks. Kinga told us they were cut with power tools, but the shaping was done by hand using a long, curved knife. I watched one of the men at work; the knife must be very sharp and the workman skilled as the beam was quickly cut to order. On the way to the monastery, I asked Kinga about the charcoaled patterns the children from the village had drawn on the road. They reminded me of hopscotch grids. From his descriptions there are two games, one that sound a lot like hopscotch and another called "Am I right?" in English. I got lost in his explanation of its rules.
We made it back to the hotel just in time for lunch which was very tasty. For someone who rarely eats lunch at home (except for my standard Wednesday lunch burrito date of course), I was surprisingly hungry. The sunny day had long since given way to partial cloudy and then overcast by this time and, shortly after lunch, a steady rain began. It made it all that much easier to put my feet up to the wood burning stove and relax with a good book. Today has been a nice respite from biking.
Tomorrow we climb back to the pass we crossed yesterday, down the hill to the junction with the main highway and then east over the Black Mountains from western to central Bhutan.
13 Apr 08, Sunday 6 pm, Trongsa (elevation: 2,180 m or 7,194 ft)
We had a bit of a surprise at breakfast this morning. It had gotten chilly overnight with the rain and now the distant mountains in a couple of places had a dusting of snow! Some of the riders hadn't packed for cold riding, but everyone tried to dress appropriately. I added my long riding pants, mittens and a cap for the descent to my knapsack and started out.
After coasting a short ways to the low point of the valley and crossing the Nakey Chhu that drains the valley, we had to climb back out Lawa La (3,360 ft or 11,088ft) through which we had entered the valley two days ago. The rest day did its wonders and I felt good climbing though it was steeper in spots than I had expected. I sure have gotten chummy with my granny gear this trip. After reaching the pass, we had a two kilometer descent on a bad road to the main highway where we again turned east and climbed three kilometers to Pele La, elevation 3,420 m or 11,286 ft, marked by a good-sized chorten and hundreds of prayer flags. I met a small group of yaks on the downhill and was to see more later in the ride. They certainly were not of the burly variety that stared so sturdily out of the "Y is for yak" page in my first alphabet book. These beasts had the shape of largish, bony cattle. The part that did fit the picture was the long stringy hair.
I stopped at the summit to pull on jacket and pants and to trade my bike gloves for mittens. I wasn't particularly cold, but I knew we had a fast, long downhill coming up and that makes for a cold ride as much as I had sweated laboring uphill. And then I set my speed to coast and headed down and down. Whereas most of our climbing and descending has been in heavy forest, this downhill was something of a treat as the vistas were unencumbered and magnificent. I was careful to work my hands to keep them from getting numb as the brakes were needed often.
Shortly after leaving the pass, fields and houses and then small villages rushed past. At some point our path merged with a tributary and then the main river draining the basin. I rounded one turn and surprised a troop of large brown monkeys (probably rhesus macaques) who lumbered over the brim and disappeared before I could stop and get my camera out. The views remained magnificent the whole ride. As much vista as we put behind us, that much more opened up at the next turn. We made numerous excursions into long side valleys only to hit a 20° turn and shoot out of it again to the main valley as we followed the contours all the way down.
After what might have been twenty kilometers of descent, I began doubting anyone was ahead of me. I was the first rider to start this morning, but I thought our van had passed me near the top of the first pass. Now I wasn't so sure, and I started paying attention to the road signs a bit more. Finally, after another twenty kilometers, I decided to stop and wait. After a bit, a tourist van stopped, and the driver told me the others had stopped for tea and should be along in about fifteen minutes. I was in sight of a large dzong and watched as two women first did their abeyances and then walked many times clockwise (always clockwise) around the dzong. A couple of times people walking here and there stopped to ask if something had happened or if I was looking for something. The sky, which had been completely overcast since we set out, sprinkled once and then again about a half dozen times followed each time by a small patch of sunlight as the clouds whirled and shifted. Finally, after maybe an hour, the other riders showed up and then the van. It seems some had gotten very cold on the downhill and a decision was made to stop for lunch instead of just tea.
We still had a good twenty-plus kilometers to go so, after a brief snack stop, we started down again. This down was leavened with a few mild climbs as we continued down this magnificent Mangde Chhu valley. In a short while, we could see the huge Trongsa Dzong complex in the distance. For the next several kilometers, the dzong would be hidden by a fold of the valley and then pop into view a bit closer. Finally, we were just opposite it across the valley, maybe a kilometer as the crow flies, but we still had fourteen kilometers to reach it.
At this point, we were high above the Mangde Chhu and the road took us on a fast descent up valley to meet the river some seven kilometers distant where we crossed a bridge and then ascended down valley so that we very rapidly were again high above the river. The valley at this point is more like a gorge, very narrow and very steep. It was the icing on the cake for this spectacular ride, the most scenic so far on this trip and that is saying something!
Our resort hotel is just before the dzong and the window of my room overlooks it and the spectacular valley it hovers over. What a great location. A large prayer wheel is mounted just without my cabin overlooking the gorge and periodically someone gives it a turn as I can hear the bright tinkle of the bell that sounds with each revolution, a comforting sound.
Tomorrow, we continue along this road to reach our eastern most point for the trip (Trongsa is right at the east-west midpoint of the country). Hopefully the weather will provide some sun, but clouds do seem to be rolling in already. We'll see.
14 Apr 08, Monday 6:30 pm, Jakar (elevation: 2,580 m 8,514 ft)
After a good meal, topped by apple rings fixed similarly to onion rings for dessert, I couldn't keep my eyes open to read and went to sleep very early for me. As a result, I awoke around 3 am and just couldn't get back to sleep so I finally called it quits and got up to stretch and read. I could hear we were getting a good soaking with steady rain that stopped early in the morning, and I also heard what was probably a member of the goatsucker family (e.g., a nightjar) sounding its plaintive and endlessly repeated call.
Because I was up so early, I walked to reception to check out their stash of The Indian Times English-language newspapers I had browsed through when we checked in yesterday. I ruffled through the lot and found that the latest date on any of them was 2 Apr 08 with some as old as December 2007. I should have suspected something when I had earlier looked at the funnies and saw xmas-related strips. I suspect whoever is charge with replenishment does not fully comprehend the term "news" paper.
By the time we had finished breakfast and were ready to go, the sun was out and the day looked fine. Kinga said if it rains here at night, the sun shines the next day. Our route began ever upward through town, past the beautiful dzong (we plan to stop on our return trip in a couple of days), and along the ever deepening and widening Mangde Chhu Valley.
After a stiff climb and one rest stop, we arrived at Yotong La (3,425 m or 11,302.5 ft), our highest point of the trip, with its characteristic chorten in the middle of the road and hundreds of prayer flags. An ominous cloud mass moving in from the west had long since blocked out the sun and brought with it a stiff breeze through the pass. In a word, it was cold. I had gone from hot and sweating to chilly in about three minutes. I quickly removed my wet shirt and pulled on a wool jumper, jacket, bike pants, watch cap, and mittens I had presciently tucked away in my knapsack this morning. As our group straggled in over the next half hour or more, it didn't get any warmer. Kinga attempted a very smoky fire in an old bucket and was finally successful when Dorgi arrived and siphoned a bit of diesel fuel from our truck. Some of the riders, who were waiting for their warmies on the van, snuggled in the truck cab for warmth.
When the van and the final riders did arrive, a quick decision was made to serve lunch in the van. Our efficient Bhutanese crew soon had a tasty buffet set up to include hot tea. It was a festive lunch in the cozy van.
But finally we had to face a cold downhill run. We were now entering the Chhume Valley. This descent reminded me more of home than any ride so far with its thick stands of evergreens marching up the mountains. Only when we flashed through a village was I reminded of where I was. I couldn't help noticing, though, that these forests had not a hint of the brown trees caused by the bark beetle that has so decimated our western forests.
Reaching bottom, we crossed the valley and climbed right back up to another pass, Kiki La, our entrance to the Chokhor Valley. At 2,860 m (9,438 ft), this was our easiest pass of the trip (our sixth). Descending through more pine forest, the view to the north toward Jakar, tonight's destination, suggested we would be riding to beat the rain. Kinga was waiting in downtown Jakar to instruct us to our Swiss Guest House which had the steepest climb of the day and rivaled our other hotel entrance climbs that have challenged us at the end of most of our rides. The hotel is nicely situated high above Jakar and the Chamkhar Chhu, and seems to be in the midst of an apple orchard if the heavily blossomed trees don't deceive. The rooms and furniture are all pine and we again have wood burning stoves; mine seems more efficient than the last one. The hotel makes its own honey, and the hide of a bear that tried to raid their hives a few years back used to hang in the reception room (I didn't learn what had become of it). Finally, according to the Lonely Planet Guide, this hotel is probably the only one in Bhutan that can honestly boast that foreign guests can drink their tap water which comes from a spring. I asked Kinga about this and he suggested not chancing it just to be safe.
Later Along with newspapers, I think I might add "dessert" to the "not understanding the concept" list. Tonight, after a good and bountiful meal, we each received a small, canned half pear. A day ago I got four cubes of a canned fruit cocktail. The hotel to come closest to my idea of dessert poured sweet cream over their canned fruit cocktail. Since sweet cream over anything makes for an elegant dessert, I reckon that hotel staff does "get" the dessert concept.
Now that we have completed most of the cycling, I thought I'd summarize biking conditions in Bhutan. The roads are uniformly narrow and the width fluctuates at a moment's notice, especially as you traverse the mountains. The road surfaces range from good (most of it) to dodgy. I was glad to have a mountain bike with hybrid tires as the road surface can become dirt in places. We ran into many road crews, Indian or Nepali working with handheld implements, two people carrying rocks and dirt between them on a length of blanket for instance. Overall though, the roads were very ride-able.
The traffic was light and most of the time was very light. Even on the main east-west highway, over which we traveled most of our miles, we often went a quarter hour without seeing a car in either direction. The cars and trucks approaching from the rear almost always sound a light beep to let you know they were there. This helped, as some of the cars were surprisingly silent. Not once did I notice a mean-spirited driver and whenever possible, even if they had to move two tires off the road, they tried to give us plenty of room. On the few instances when the mountain road was very narrow and no shoulder existed, the driver and I worked it out. If possible on the narrow roads, I moved to the dirt shoulder as a courtesy which is not a problem on a mountain bike.
Bhutan has a plethora of loose dogs and, like most dogs everywhere, they like to be on the road. Most times they barely deigned to acknowledge us as we rode by. Only twice was I chased and both times by small, yappy dogs, not the mixed breed, laid back street dogs. One little guy was very persistent and actually lunged at my ankle. I just hope the dogs here don't learn the fun of the chase, because it would change things considerably for the worse.
Bhutan is at the base of the Himalayas and, as such, doesn't have much flat terrain, and we seldom dropped below about 4,000 ft (if ever). All in all, it is a good place to cycle if you're fit.
One more cultural note: Kinga has mentioned at times that cigarettes, playing cards, and fishing are illegal. One supposes there must be other things to add to this list. However, as he put it, people still do these things "hidingly." So "hidingly" has become a catchword for our little group. Kinga also told us that the Bhutanese use wild bee honey medicinally, but do not use honey as a sweetener. However, they do process honey and sell it locally to tourist hotels, and, I suspect, abroad. All these little contradictions to the Buddhist way are part of what Kinga calls the "middle way" which he says is the way the Bhutanese look at their religion. In other words, they do not practice an ultra-conservative form of Buddhism, but instead adapt it so as to account for human nature.
15 Apr 08, Tuesday 6:20 pm, Jakar
Last night was very cool, but until my wood stove burned itself out, my room was toasty warm. Overnight it cooled considerably, but the bed had plenty of covers including a nice comforter. The hotel dogs began a racket and carried on most of the night. Nearly everyone complained of it in the morning, but I had slipped my earplugs in at the first chorus and they didn't bother me thereafter. However, around 6 am while I was reading, the two puppies moved onto our front porch and began yapping. This was a bit much so I got up, went out, picked one of them up and carried it to the main hotel building. The other pup followed, and the racket they continued there was not nearly as irritating. Someone at breakfast mentioned that different cultures have different ideas on what makes noise, and that maybe the locals aren't bothered by the dogs. I wholehearted agree based on what I've read, but that doesn't make it any less irritating.
About midmorning we all jumped into the van and drove back over the lesser of the two passes we rode yesterday to a small weaver's village a bit off the main road where a festival was in full swing. At the village we found a cluster of small shops had been constructed to sell all sorts of, mainly, store-bought goodies as well as some useful items. Each shop here seems, rightly, to call itself a "general" store as they have such a range of goods as to defy a different categorization. A few food stalls serving local delicacies were also in operation.
The main attraction of the festival, however, was not the shops or the food but the dancing in a large courtyard. When we arrived, the dancing was in progress with a good-sized crowd which seemed to be composed equally of locals and tourists, the most I've seen since we arrived. The dance consisted of about a dozen dancers, each wearing an animal head mask, moving in a stylized, but rhythmic way around a circle. The masks were worn on top of their heads with the dancers looking out through the mouth holes of the masks. Their lower faces were covered by a white cloth. I checked my tour book which describes a series of traditional dances, but I could not identify this one.
The long dance was followed by eight women singing a religious song, maybe more like a chant, while shuffling their feet and swinging their arms in a choreographed manner. During and between the performances, two costumed clowns pulled antics with the dancers and the crowd. Both carried large, wooden penises which figured prominently in their shenanigans. Kinga told us they represented unenlightened beings and are present at all the festivals to lighten the mood and make people laugh. One of the clowns held a penis with a condom partially attached which Kinga said was part of the government's AIDS awareness program. Throughout our trip we have seen many signs warning of the AIDS threat. It was interesting to see that both the dancers and the women in the chorus thoroughly ignored the clowns even when the clowns were at their most intrusive.
One unexpected sight in this Buddhist society was the number of toy guns (water pistols and rifle-sized pellet guns) which the young boys were brandishing with great abandon. Kinga saw this as no particular problem. I guess with a police force and an army, it could be seen as a natural inclination boys will be boys and all that.
On the trip back to Jakar, we engaged Kinga in a long discussion about sexual mores in Bhutan. Yes, he said there is a small amount of prostitution. Yes, there are single mothers. Yes, some babies do go up for local adoption. Yes, AIDS is a problem (but certainly nowhere near the problem as in, say, Africa). Yes, all this activity has increased since Bhutan's self-enforced isolation began being lifted in the 1960s. And, yes, he said young men do watch television and movies and think they can do all the things they see there. One "tradition" he called "night hunting" sounded like it has been around a long time. He said a boy will meet a girl while working in the fields and arrange a tryst. On the given night, he will sneak into her room. Kinga said that if the parents of the girl catch the boy, he will be forced to marry her a Bhutanese form of our shotgun wedding.
We also asked whether the average Bhutanese family still included from nine to twenty children. Kinga said this is still true in some villages, but that the government is beginning to look at birth control.
After lunch Kinga led us on a short ride that was advertised as a flat downhill along the river going out to a lake with some rolling hills. In typical Kinga fashion it was understated. In the middle was a fairly decent hill climb and then descent, both ways. And the return downhill turned out to be the most fun descent for me on the entire trip as it had very few sharp turns so you could coast without breaking for long stretches. Then, when we got to the mostly flat part, we had a strong tailwind so it was like an extension of the downhill - very pleasant. Of course, we still had to climb back up to the hotel, but such is life.
The "lake" Kinga took us to is called Membartsho or "burning lake," a very sacred place where sacred relics were found that had been hidden by Guru Rinpoche (the great master who had been summoned to exorcise demons from the local ruler). "Lake" is a bit of a misnomer as it is really just a deep spot on a mountain river, but it is a beautiful spot, now festooned with hundreds of prayer flags. The crevices of a nearby cliff are covered with tsha-tshas, small, clay replicas of chortens that often contain ash or human remains from the cremation of loved ones. Of several of our mountain rides we have seen these tsha-tshas tucked away in a crevice of the mountain.
Before our ride today, I was going to say we have seen very few bicycles in Bhutan, less than a half dozen. However, there were that many parked near the path to Membartsho. Most were in poor shape, but the young riders did them justice. One bike had no brakes so the rider pressed his knee to the front wheel to stop himself. Another small boy riding near his hill village on the way back was riding a bike with no tires, just the rims. Even besides this group, I've seen more bikes in Jakar than anywhere else in Bhutan. Also, I should note that just outside our resort, a group of young monks played a spirited game of soccer all afternoon.
16 Apr 08, Wednesday 6:30 pm, back in Wangdue Phodrang
Our supper situation last night was strange. Evidently before I arrived, our table was asked if we would like fondue; they said okay. Well, that's all we got (except for the two folks who don't eat gluten): hot cheese dip and bread chunks which was good as far as it goes. As soon as folks realized that was all, our staff brought it up with the kitchen staff which was evidently overwhelmed. That's when our Bhutanese staff sprang into action. They went into the kitchen and started cooking stuff for us themselves: dhal and rice, veggies, French fries. I really don't understand what went down, but the staff at the hotel has not been particularly accommodating.
This was not true for the dog problems, though. Last night I didn't hear a peep from a dog after 10 pm. As far as I could tell, they were all healthy enough this morning. We were all very grateful whatever the case.
Today consisted of a long bus ride all the way back to Wangdi or most of three biking days. There really isn't a way to do a big loop in Bhutan as they just don't have the roads. So we biked as far east as we could in the allotted time and are now heading back the same way (except for the side trips) to Paro.
We did stop to visit the Trongsa Dzong. Until about mid-century no town even existed here, just the dzong. It was a strategic location and the only path leading through the mountains linking eastern and western Bhutan passed right through this dzong. On our tour of the dzong, Kinga pointed out the two doors, one for the western travelers and one for the eastern and southern travelers, which opened into a small courtyard. It was here the Trongsa Penlop collected tax from all travelers. The father of the first Raven Crown king consolidated his power as penlop here as did both of the first two kings. Tradition now dictates that a future king must first serve as Trongsa Penlop.
The dzong is spectacularly situated and looks magnificent at a distance, but up close it looks a bit rundown. Kinga took us into one worship center that was under refurbishment. Most of the rest of the huge complex was off-limits to us. Outside the dzong grows a huge cypress tree which towers over everything. Kinga told us that trees always grow larger when planted near a dzong.
The only other stop was for a pleasant lunch at the same restaurant I had missed when we rode through a few days ago. Altogether we crossed three mountain passes and three valleys to get to Wangdi. Kinga and several friends once rode the distance from the capital to Jakar crossing four passes and about 250 kilometers in one day! They slept all the next day and on the fourth day made the return trip in two days. Some rugged bikers! It makes our accomplishment pale in comparison.
Riding in a van gives a different perspective than on a bike. For one thing I saw many more rhododendron trees from the higher vantage point. I could also take a longer look up those mysterious side canyons which almost always sport running water if not a full blown waterfall. On a bike I got some glimpses going uphill, but downhill my eyes were mostly on the road. I must say I felt safer on a bicycle than in the van. I'm not saying that Tsedup, our driver, is not an excellent mountain driver, but the roads are just so narrow.
In Wangdi we are staying in the same hotel as before with the same tiny ants everywhere. My room this time faces the street instead of the river valley so I might need my earplugs. Tomorrow a few of us will bike the last pass backwards from about halfway up, and the others will van to the top to ride the descent into Thimphu where we'll drop off the bikes and wander the city a bit before driving the rest of the way to Paro. We traded the third night in Jakar for an extra day in Paro so we can do some sightseeing there.
17 Apr 08, Thursday 9:20 pm, Paro
In Wangdi yesterday evening, Dorgi, our truck driver, learned he was the father of healthy twin boys back in Thimphu. We all gave him our hearty congratulations. Today when we arrived in Thimphu and had gotten the bikes taken care of, we said our good-byes to him so he could go off to see his new sons.
The dogs were quiet last night and I slept soundly. After breakfast we split into those who wanted to ride part way up Dochu La pass and those who would meet us at the restaurant near the top for lunch. We would then all ride down the other side to Thimphu where we would stow the bikes. The day was mostly overcast, very unlike the day we rode over the pass from the opposite side. The twenty-five kilometers we rode to the top was tougher than I had expected. The bird life was as active as I had remembered coming down, but I had little better luck spotting any birds. I did stop to view two different species of primates though. One was small, probably a macaque of some type that I saw just fleetingly as it leapt into space from one tree to another. The other was a troop of gray fringed langurs that crossed the road directly in front of me and took to the trees. I stopped and hooted a few times to keep their interest while I rummaged for my camera. One large specimen was sitting on a branch watching me within magnification of my camera, its long tail doubling its length hanging almost to the ground. He stayed put long enough to get the shot. This is an impressive species.
We lunched at the same spectacularly located restaurant just down from the pass, but today the clouds obscured that magnificent Himalayan expanse we'd seen last week. I had since read in my tour book that it is unusual to have clear weather this time of year so I count us lucky last week.
After lunch we topped the pass, skirted the 108 chortens in the clockwise direction and started down the west side. The western slope was sunnier and the glide down was very pleasant. Traffic was heavier than I remembered and, at one point, a large line of cars passed us going up. I later learned it was a funeral procession to a cremation ceremony (cremation is the norm here). Close to the bottom, a large weasel-like animal with dark body and white or light face ran across the road. I stopped and watched it climb up the steep hillside. Part way up it stopped to look back down on me so I got a good look. It was suggested when we got to Thimphu that it was a mongoose. I looked it up in a bookstore and couldn't find a perfect match. With its small head, cute face, and short snout, it looked more like a civet-cat. However, they are nocturnal while the mongoose is diurnal so I suspect it is probably some type of mongoose. It sure had no trouble negotiating that cliff face whatever it was.
In Thimphu we were given a couple hours to wander around. I was keen to visit the National Library where a copy of the largest book in the world is on display (it is called Bhutan). Reportedly, a new page is turned once very month. Unfortunately, Kinga told me the library is under reconstruction (like just about everything else in this city). It's a shame because in addition to the big book, the upper floors also contain very old Bhutanese books along with ancient printing implements. As it was closed, I just wandered around and found a nice bookstore to pass some time.
At about 4 pm we boarded our van and drove to Paro where we are ensconced in a nice resort hotel well out of town. We will be here two nights. There are two rooms per cabin with a nice common area, a great shower, and the meal tonight was pretty good, a shepherd's pie being the standout.
I thought of a few more general tidbits to pass on. We encountered lots of cattle and, at the higher elevations, yaks on the road. I carefully rode through several small groups of them over the last couple weeks. Both the cattle and the yaks seem to take traffic in stride and casually move out of the way. The bikes posed a new twist for them, but they handled us well. You just had to have some common sense when approaching them from behind so as not to startle them.
I have seen zero roadkill, not one dead animal, on the trip - a tribute, I think, to the care and attention of the drivers because, between the dogs and cattle and all the sharp, blind turns, opportunity for carnage certainly exists.
Unfortunately, Bhutan's entry onto the global scene has resulted in lots of trash on the roads and in the villages. We've seen signs asking folks to use litter bins, but the message hasn't sunk in yet. In towns, I have seen nice, large recycle bins for plastic, glass, aluminum, etc. all but empty, and the few items in the bins were just general junk. I hope they can get a handle on this problem quickly.
I mentioned earlier how vehicles give the bikers a friendly beep before passing. Well, they also use their horns when approaching a blind turn in the mountains to signal other drivers of their presence and so they can make a wider turn. Today I saw this work well several times.
The Australian eucalyptus or gum tree and the bottlebrush tree have been introduced here and are flourishing as they seem to do in many places around the world. Right now they seem to be mostly within the towns and not out on the open road. Prickly pear cactus is also in much evidence; we believe it was introduced, but I am not sure. Kinga showed us several instances where cactus walls were built around dzongs for added defense; they would prove an effective deterrent.
I've not expounded much on the food here so I'll remedy that now. In general, the food has been good and interesting, if not particularly varied; we have seen some of the courses many times on our trip. Of note, as I mentioned before, are the ferns, often fixed with the local soft, mild cheese, one of my favorite dishes here. We have had this dish in some form most lunches and suppers. We've also had many helpings of fresh, tender asparagus and a form of straggly broccoli, both very good. A couple times we were served a mild Indian curry always appreciated. I've mentioned the red rice already - not really different from what we have eaten elsewhere. We tried datse, the national dish, a couple times, but the chilies in cheese was a bit hotter than most of us liked. The locals evidently spoon it over just about everything. The local cuisine is evidently very hot. My impression has been that tourists, who generally eat in the tourists hotels, are fed local foods, but these are not fixed as the locals would eat them, but more for the western tastes; this probably mainly means that fewer chilies are used. We did have some moderately hot dishes at times, and you certainly couldn't tell by looking which would be hot, but these were usually not so hot that you couldn't eat them.
To continue with the food, we were served many more vegetable dishes than meat dishes and those meat dishes were usually beef. We ate very little chicken or pork. In fact, for a rural nation, we saw surprisingly few chickens and I don't recall ever seeing a pig or a sheep. Kinga told us that most of their meat comes from India where lower caste members are the butchers. However, we suspected that more of the animals are slaughtered here in Bhutan than Kinga would have us believe. We sometimes saw meat in the market that looked fresh. I suspect this is part of their "moderate way" Buddhism that Kinga said the Bhutanese practice. Concerning salad, we ate slaw a couple times and were served sliced tomatoes and cucumbers several times.
Most of our meals were buffet style, usually a majority of vegetable dishes with a meat dish or two. The meat was generally served in bite-sized or two-bite pieces and was often tasty if a bit tough. Paul, as an avid fisherman, seemed to like the fish we were served maybe a half a dozen times, but I was not particularly impressed with it. The potatoes, however, in all its forms were always very tasty, especially the potatoes served in cream sauce. French fries were served quite a few times and tasted like fries anywhere. Desserts were a disappointed most times for me, generally a piece of canned fruit or a small banana which tasted good, but still A thin noodle dish was often served and most of us liked it fine. We were also usually served a thin soup at the beginning of a meal; these were often very tasty, but occasionally pretty bland.
The hotel rooms were generally more than adequate. The beds and pillows were firm the way I like. Most rooms had a TV set. Showers were generally okay, occasionally very nice, and once so water stingy that I had to dance around to get wet. Most rooms had some type of central heat; a few had wood stoves and/or a small electric space heater. All rooms had western style toilets. I was able to avoid the Asian "squat" toilet until the last day in Paro. Oh, well, I'm better at it than at my first acquaintance with it. I don't have any idea what the average Bhutanese household uses, but I suspect that most rural folks use some type of pit toilet.
18 Apr 08, Friday 6 pm, Paro
I heard a group of dogs barking when I turned out the light last night, but they sounded so far away, they didn't keep me from sleeping well. After breakfast we dressed for a hike and took the van up valley to the parking area for the walk up to Taktshang Goemba or Tiger's Nest in English. It is Bhutan's most famous monastery and second holiest site according to Kinga. When you finally reach a point where you get a good view, you can understand why. It was perched like a magnificent cliff swallow's home seemingly defying gravity as it clings to a sheer cliff face.
The route to this first look-out is steep, but the trail gets even steeper until you are on a level with the monastery staring across a narrow gorge. It is only then that you can begin to see how you get to the place. By this time you have hiked from 2,600 m to about 3,140 m or 1,782 vertical feet. To reach the monastery you must descend to the back of the gorge, cross the nascent river cascading down the gorge on a beautifully constructed bridge, and then hike steeply back up the other side to the monastery. I marveled at how well the path in this unlikely place was constructed so that even someone with a touch of acrophobia (like me) was comfortable. All and all the hike took about one and a half hours which Kinga said was relatively fast (he told me he had a Canadian client last year and they rode mountain bikes up the trail to the tearoom - about half way!)
As is always the case in Bhutan, the history behind the monastery is liberally laced with myth. (Kinga told me they don't even make a distinction.) It is said that guru Rinpoche rode to this site on the back of a flying tigress to defeat a demon. The site was then considered a holy place and the monastery was built in 1692. Much of it was destroyed by fire in 1998, but it was rebuilt and reconsecrated in 2005, the first year visitors were allowed to visit. The monastery is in great shape and the fresh murals on the walls, similar to what we have seen in other dzongs, were especially vivid. The building is incorporated right into the cliff using the jutting rock as foundation. It is truly a marvelous place. Packs and cameras are not allowed within the monastery so you take away only memories.
The hike down seemed longer than the hike up which is often the case. Tsedup drove us to a quaint restaurant with a replica of a yak hair hut. When we noted that you can see right through the weave of the roof, Tsedup told us that only a few drops get through as the rain swells the hair fibers and the holes close up to the point that water tension stops any further flow through. We were again the only patrons in the place and had a pleasant lunch. Tsedup then drove us to the national museum which is located high above the city with a commanding view.
The museum uses Paro's original Ta Dzong or watch tower constructed in 1656 - a great place for a museum as the building is of as much interest as the contents. The exhibits made it clear how intricately science and magic are mixed in Bhutan and also how thoroughly religion permeates Bhutanese culture and individual lives here. One room held innumerable bronze, copper, etc. statues of Buddha, each in its own small case, which covered all the walls of the room floor to ceiling. Samples of ancient writing, cannons captured from an early, ill-fated attack by the British, a fish-scale hat, a large collection of old teapots, samples of traditional clothing, ancient weapons, masks, a whole floor of stamps at which Bhutan has been prodigious in producing since their postal service was begun in the 60s, and many other varied and interesting objects grace the museum's rooms. However, I think the nicely restored building itself was the star attraction here.
Before we returned to the hotel, we stopped at the archery field where maybe ten men were taking their turns shooting at a target 180 m (almost 600 ft) away. They were all using high-tech bows which one told us were made in Utah; none had the traditional bamboo bow. Kinga said the archery team has made a good showing in past Olympic Games. While the distances were indeed impressive, we did not see many hits on the small target.
This evening we drove to downtown Paro for supper where it appeared the streets had been rolled up for the night. Again we were the only diners as we enjoyed our last meal together. Tomorrow we will leave for the airport early as Druk Air is overbooked. We are all anxious to make the flight as the next one is three days distant. Oh, it is worth noting that in addition to the Spice roads t-shirt, Jon gave us all a Bhutanese "Gross National Happiness" t-shirt, a better gift to remember Bhutan by I can't imagine. He also gave us each a slickly produced copy of the winning party's "Manifesto" or how they will work towards Gross National Happiness. I haven't seen such an enlightened government document since our own constitution. I wish them well with their endeavors and will enjoy following their progress.
19 Apr 08, 6:30 pm, Bangkok, Thailand
Another sound night's sleep in our little bungalow, a quick breakfast and we drove to the airport where we were first in line to ensure we all got seats. Most of the group got free upgrades to business class and the three still in coach were in exit row seats so it was not quite so cramped. Druk Air, the only carrier flying commercially in and out of Bhutan, seems to be very safety conscious. Their scanner caught my tiny fold-up scissors I carry just in case and I had to check my back pack - that's a first for me. Also, the plane attendants will not allow any carry-on items to be stowed beneath the seat in the exit row - that was new to me also.
The flight was not notable except for an exceptionally long stopover in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The difference between high mountains requiring considerable aerial maneuvers on take-off in Paro and the table-top flatness of Dhaka is startling. The rains apparently have already started in Dhaka as many of the fields were flooded.
Once in Bangkok we had returned to the world of hustle-bustle. Their new airport felt as huge as any other international airport. We smoothly moved through customs, baggage delivery and immigration. The Aussies had stayed in our hotel on the way to Bhutan and we easily found the courtesy van. It was at hotel check-in I discovered I was at the wrong hotel. After the hotel's concierge staff helped me sort out the mix up (had I looked a bit closer at my voucher I could have avoided the problem), my hotel sent a shuttle over to pick me up. Just for kicks I checked out the price of a single room at the Aussie's hotel and found that a single room rate was almost five times what I paid for my room! I thought the hotel looked a bit pricy for my voucher amount.
So now I'm settled in and my room is more in line with what I've had in Asia before. For example, my bathroom has a shower that sprays right onto the floor with no curtains or anything; you just have to make sure you don't soak your TP.
20 Apr 08, Sunday, somewhere over the Pacific
I'm somewhere over the Pacific having taken off from Tokyo something over two hours ago. The hotel this morning was efficient at getting me to the airport where it took a good hour in three queues to get to my gate. The shortest line, surprisingly, was security as they sorted the crowd down to those going to just a few gates before passing them through security. I wonder how many security stations there are in this huge airport. The airport is certainly impressive, but nothing impressed me more than the seemingly endless walk to my gate as I passed what felt like a good-sized mall stretched out along one continuous hallway. I just can't imagine that the stores do enough business to remain open, but then I'm not much of a shopper so what do I know?
A flight on Thai Air is always pleasant (my flight from Bangkok to Tokyo): good food, good service, a very personal touch. I was able to score an unobscured window seat through which I was able to view the approach into Narita Airport. At first, as we approached the coast, I thought I was seeing echelons of factories or apartment buildings with metal roofs, but as we crossed over them, I realized they were flooded fields. The sunlight diffused through scattered clouds played tricks, making the fields look three dimensional. The regularity of the rectangular fields also threw me.
I've seen a lot of ground from the air because I always ask for a window seat, but I have not seen countryside quite like this outside Tokyo. Houses were grouped more like subdivisions than towns or villages, maybe twenty or thirty to a group. The groupings were separated by a large number of uniform fields. It could have been a scene in Europe or the Midwest U. S., except the housing groups (they just didn't look like towns or villages) were too close together. It was an odd scene.
Then, as we neared the airport, the fields got smaller and fewer and the housing groups got bigger and even closer together. In many of these smaller fields, rows were covered by sheets of white plastic, sometimes very thin, less than a foot across, and sometimes three or feet wide. I assume they use the plastic to get a head start on spring because none of the uncovered fields had any growth in them discernable from the air. Possibly the plastic will also protect the plant from the sun later in the year. Even closer to the airport I began seeing quite a few greenhouses as the fields got fewer and smaller.
Right now I am flying through a much abbreviated night. With all the hours I lose heading almost due east, I wonder just how many hours of dark we will have. At this point, I will end this narrative. I will land at LAX and, after a long layover, will take off for Albuquerque where I will arrive just in time to have a late supper at a favorite New Mexican restaurant. I hope you have enjoyed this latest narrative of my bike trip to Bhutan.