Mountains in the clouds at the pass in Punakha
New Video Uploaded - The second image is actually a video of a ceremony we saw at the Dzong in Punakha where the monks were carrying the ashes of a monk to inter him inside of the temple. You can hear and see one of the monks whipping the ground to get rid of evil spirits. If you get motion sickness watching, blame the director (Cindy in this case...)
Sorry for the messed up entry for a bit - the photos were out of order, unfinished and the internet is really slow in Darjeeling where we are now.
Hopefully this is all fixed now and I am going to try to finish the Bhutan entry today. Remember, not all of the pictures show up inline so click on one to blow it up and click on the next or arrow buttons to view them all...
This morning, we drove out of Thimphu heading for Punakha and drove over the Dochula Pass at over 3000 meters. The drive was on a narrow and windy road that snaked it’s way up the mountains past old Dzongs and houses through dense pine forests providing gorgeous views of the Himalayas. There is a nice temple at the top of the pass with many Stupas and prayer flags blowing in the wind everywhere.
We stopped at a small tea shop that had some really nice Thankas and a Bell and Dorje (Buddhist religious implements) in a beautifully decorated silver and copper case but we kind of choked when we found out that it was $1,700. We passed on the purchase, even when the proprietor said she could negotiate…
The pass on the way to Punakha
We descended into the valley and walked through a small village with interesting houses with “fertility paintings” as in the picture and then on through rice and wheat paddies up to Chimi Lahkang, affectionately known as the “Temple of the Divine Madman”. Drukpa Kuenley was a monk who revolted against typical orthodox Buddhism, stating that religion was all about what one feels inside, not just about being a monk and all the requirements associated with monkhood. Supposedly he wore his Gho backwards, flirted with girls and generally acted kind of crazy for the day, thus inheriting his moniker.
The old Sadhu in the picture was sitting at the entrance and approved of his picture after viewing it on my camera. The prayer wheel next to him, like most, has a bamboo stick at the top that dings a bell as it spins around. We also really liked the shot of the two monks peering into the window at a television, no doubt watching re-runs of “The OC” or some other inane TV show (they also seem to like wrestling like the Lao…)
ummm - a fertility symbol that is painted all over houses in Bhutan
Local folklore has it that many childless couples come to Chimi Lahkang to be blessed and subsequently have kids. Considering that and the fact that when the monk blessed Kemcho and Tashi, he did so by bapping them on the head with a large wooden phallus, we opted not to donate less we be mistakenly blessed with a child at 50…
Incidentally, Kencho (the owner of Snow White) has been calling us on almost a daily basis to make sure everything is OK with our tour which is really thoughtful.
When we spoke earlier today, I asked if any hotels in Bhutan actually have a Queen or King sized bed and she explained that most were twins but she would see what she could do. When we checked into the Zangdo Pelri Hotel in Punakha, it was a much nicer hotel with a King size bed. The hotel is up on a hill out of town and really peaceful. Hopefully no barking dogs!
Old Monk at the "Mad Monk Monastery" outside Punakha
After lunch (another buffet with pretty much the staple diet of red rice, veggies, chilies and cheese and some meat dishes) we went to visit the Punaka Dzong strategically and scenically built at the confluence of two rivers, one male and one female.
We are still not exactly clear on what makes a river male or female but that’s what Kemcho told us. Cindy and I recently saw a documentary on this Dzong and the flood that damaged it several years back. It has been almost completely restored although the footbridge that you see the monks walking on is temporary as the original suspension bridge was washed away in the flood.
Prayer wheel and bell
The Dzong itself is large and pristine looking, reflected in the waters of the river with purple Jacaranda trees planted out front. Once you walk up the steep steps, you enter a courtyard with the main temple and lots of ornately decorated, typical Bhutanese windows. There is a small shrine dedicated to a Snake Goddess with the picture of her and a butter candle burning in the foreground. There is a large collection of rocks the locals have found by the river that have serpent-like shapes wrapped around them believed to be good luck and thus collected and deposited at the Dzong.
Monks watching TV through the windows
We stumbled upon a ceremony bringing a famous Lama’s ashes in a ceremonial urn into the temple and being placed into part of the altar. Cindy took a video that we will upload when we have broadband. Several monks wandered through the temple whipping the ground with leather whips, “cleansing” the temple before interring the Lama’s ashes. Sorry, no pix of that…
After visiting the Dzong we drove down the riverside and parked for a hike up to the Khamsum Yueling temple, built recently high on a hill overlooking the Punakha valley by the Queen Mother. The view from the top level was nice but somewhat marred by a forest fire burning out of control and filling the valley with smoke and haze.
On the way back to town, as darkness fell, a brilliant, blood red moon, almost full, arose over the Dzong. I tried to snap some shots but, apparently, my mini tripod is a bit to mini for my new Canon and “Frank-style” lens. Anyway, it was a really pretty sight, especially with the Dzong all lit up.
Wheat and Rice fields outside Punakha
Another buffet dinner and it was off to slumberland. Tomorrow is our day hike to a rural village. Actually, it ends up that it is Tashi and Kencho’s Uncle or some such relative that lives in the village. Kencho was surprised and a little embarrassed when I said something to her on the phone earlier about visiting her Uncle’s village - guess it was supposed to be a secret…
We headed out into the valley over a bridge and parked the SUV and this time I donned my trekking poles and we headed off into the hills.
Kemcho asked Tashi if he was sure we were going the right way several times over the next two hours as we wound our way up one ridge, down into a valley, up another ridge, lost the trail completely, scrambled through pine forest and shrubs and then doubled back and peaked the original ridge. Tashi kept bolting ahead of us and trying to make calls on his cell - hmmm perhaps he was lost. Well eventually we made it back to a trail that was probably 45 minutes above where we started and, this time, Tashi said we were on the correct path instead of his “shortcut”. We followed switchback after switchback up the hill and finally reached the top, but of course, we weren’t there yet, we were just at a schoolhouse.
The Punakha Dzong at the confluence of rivers
I did find a really cool old Bhutanese coin that Kemcho said was probably from the 1800’s just lying in the dirt on the side of the trail - see the attached picture.
If anyone knows if it is worth like a billion dollars so that I don't have to go back to slinging enterprise software for a living and just keep traveling, please let me know ASAP!Perhaps it will bring good luck. We walked for another thirty minutes on the flats, eventually coming to a traditional Bhutanese house that I think was his grandmother’s sisters place where we rested and had a cup of tea in a little room with the small temple in the picture. Then we headed for his uncle’s house, supposedly another “fifteen minutes” away.
The coin that I found trekking - if it is worth lots of money so that I don't have to go back to work, let me know!
Well yesterday, I mentioned that there was a forest fire blazing away in the valley and making things hazy. Guess where it was? Right in front of us! And I mean we were walking right through it (Paul Tafoya if you are reading this, stop shaking your head…) You can see in the shot with Cindy on the trail that there were still hot spots and that bush in front of her erupted in flames a second later.
The four of us literally ran down the trail past the fire, trying not to breathe too much smoke into our lungs. Quite exciting.
Monks crossing the temporary footbridge to the Punakha Monastery
Anyway, we made it through the fire and eventually to his Uncle’s house where we had some refreshing curd juice drink and tea followed by a lunch of ferns and chilies, dried beef, pork fat (based on Cindy’s Puerto Valarta episode with pork, we politely refused the pork fat), red rice, spinach and peas. After lunch, we all drank a fermented rice drink that had a little kick to it. The only bad thing about lunch was the unbelievable amount of flies buzzing around the room - they virtually blanketed the place which was a little less than appetizing. Being devout Buddhist’s, the locals just let them be - we tried not to kill them but just flick them away (which ended up being a full time job). It ends up that most of the family had been out fighting the fire with various other villagers (there isn’t really a village as these people are all farmers and have large plots of land with the occasional house here and there).
They were a really nice family and there are a couple of pictures here of them. The trek down was a lot faster than going up but a bit hard on my knees. The trekking poles made it at least tolerable.
Punakha Dzong and River
We had a celebratory beer after the hike in town with Kemcho and Tashi (Tashi drank coffee because he said drinking alcohol “makes me crazy”.)
When we got back to the hotel, Kemcho and Tashi said they wanted to go swimming in the pool and asked if I was a good swimmer. I told them I grew up swimming and going to the beach, so Kemcho asked if I could help teach Tashi to swim. The pool was relatively clean and refreshing and I dove in and swam a few laps.
Kemcho dove in and sort of swam from the deep end to the shallow end but Tashi refused to get in the deep end. In a moment, I realized why - he sinks and swam like a drowning four year old. Larry Arnold, where are you now? Bhutan needs your skills!! Kemcho was a better swimmer, but no Mark Spitz so I kind of gave both of them pointers and they improved over the next hour or so. Tashi can now at least swim from one side of the pool to the other (not lengthwise mind you, that would be the deep end…) without panicking and sinking. Just to be safe, I taught them both the “Dead Man’s Float” which seemed to make them more comfortable in the water.
Punakha Dzong Steps
Another buffet dinner at the hotel with the guys and some beers.
Kemcho told a couple of hilarious stories about past tours with foreigners including one about a gay man hitting on him (there is not much of a gay scene in tiny Bhutan and this was rather confusing for him) and another about a Spanish woman. Apparently, he was with a Spanish group and trying to pick up a bit of the lingo (he has a talent for that obviously, speaking Bhutanese and several dialects, Tibetan, Nepali, Hindi, Bengali, English, Japanese and probably a few other things) and the guys were joking around with him. He thought he said something like “Let’s go” to the woman, then followed her up to her room where she wanted more than a tour guide and had thought that had been his offer… He claims he didn’t take her up on it but we are not so sure - he is quite the flirt with the local ladies.
Serpent Goddess inside Punakha Dzong
Tomorrow we drive all the way to Bumthang which is supposed to be a very pretty series of valleys (and apparently a couple of high passes) and spend a few days there before we are off trekking.
Cool Dzong Doors