25 March 2018. The immigration formalities at Paro International are simple and fast. Outside the building a young guy is waiting with a broad smile: Tenzin, the guide for our discovery tour in Bhutan. He takes us to Sonam, our driver, who is waiting for us at a Hyundai Tucson car. Within minutes we are on our way to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan; it will be a 54 km ride. From the road, we enjoy the scenery we already know from the final approach to Paro International Airport with the Drukair pilot as our guide. Because of the high peaks of the Himalayas surrounding us, our pilot cannot take the Airbus to its final descent on a straight line as he would for any “normal” airport; the plane must loose altitude within the narrow confines set by the Paro Chhu river valley. Where else in the world can you see from your seat houses on the slope of the mountain‘s side, way above your plane? If you are lucky enough to have a window seat you can really enjoy this very special and spectacular flight where the pilot, specially certified for landing here, follows the curves of the river before landing at Paro International at an altitude of 2,200m after a last steep turn. We quickly get used to the absence of safety belts in our car. Tenzin explains that they are not installed in Bhutanese cars; the passengers, in the event of an accident, prefer to be ejected from the car than remain trapped within the car and fall several hundred meters into the valley. In a few days we shall understand what he means.
We meet our first cows walking on the road or grazing on the roadsides. Their owners let them free in the morning and they return home on their own in the evening. Free running cows belong to the normal street view in Bhutan, we shall meet them everywhere during our trip. We also see the first banners “long life to our beloved king”. While Tenzin explains that the Bhutanese folk venerate their king very much, Sonam suddenly parks the car on the road side. Have we noticed the black Toyota car that just drove past in the opposite direction, asks Tenzin? This was the king and when you meet the king on the road you stop your own car as a mark of respect. Respect is a word that came often in the mouth of Tenzin. Respect for the king and his family, respect for people, respect for animals, respect for nature.
Our hotel in Thimphu, the Ariya, is modern, large and clean, unfortunately somewhat far from the town centre. The room is very large, the bathroom cosy. Nevertheless we do not sleep well: in the streets around the hotel dozens of dogs are barking all night. In Bhutan dogs live free. Fed by whoever likes them they sleep all day long, along the streets, enjoying the sun. They become active at night. The food in the hotel gives us a preview of what we shall find during our stay in Bhutan: five or six different vegetables, all really excellent, and a little bit of chicken. The Bhutanese tend towards vegetarianism. The seasoning is adapted to Westerners but chili is available for those who like it hot! Bhutanese like it very hot! They eat chili just as we eat cabbage or radish, raw! The local beer –Druk 11000‐ is very good.
The altitude of Thimphu is 2350m, nevertheless the weather is warm. We wonder why our luggage is full of ski underwear and winter cloth. The cleanliness of the town contrasts with Calcutta where we were two days ago. No graffiti on the walls, but some slogans here and there like “kindness is not an act but a life style” or “you only fail when you stop trying”. The market offers all type of fresh and attractive fruit, vegetable and cereals. No meat but some dry fish. Thimphu is the only capital in the world without a traffic light. There is actually not a single traffic light in the whole country. At a central crossing a policeman regulates the traffic flow with choreographic gestures. We need a pharmaceutical drug so Tenzin takes us to a pharmacy. The drug we need is available here for just one tenth of the price charged in Germany for exactly the same product. No need for a recipe either. Timphu offers a lot to visit. This takes up a full day. In Bhutan it is strictly forbidden to take pictures or make videos inside a temple. A real pity because the interior architecture is really beautiful. We are lucky that the archery field is active today: shooting at 140m distance using traditional bows is a real performance! A match between two teams, one team located at each end of the field, lasts a full day!
On the 3rd day we leave Thimphu for Wangdu, district of Punakha. We pass a military checkpoint where Sonam must show our travel permit. When we stop for a coffee at Dochu‐ La pass ‐altitude 3,150m‐ we realize that our winter underwear will probably not be superfluous. The Dochu‐La pass features 108 memorial stupas (chorten). Tenzin explains that the number 108 is sacred in Bhutan but I am afraid that I have forgotten why. We can clearly see Mt. Gangar Punsum which, at 7,570 m, is the highest peak in Bhutan. Down in the valley, visiting the Fertility Temple is a must . The nearby Sopsoka village seems to live on the production and sales of phalluses in all sizes, colours and material. The houses‘ walls are similarly decorated with delicately painted phalluses. Another memorable stopover is the Dzong of Punakha, built in 1637, where the kings are crowned. Punakha used to be the capital of Bhutan. The bridge leading to the Dzong was destroyed by a flooding in 1968. It was reconstructed in traditional style with the help of a European expert team in 2008 just in time for the coronation of the present king, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. As usual when we enter a Dzong or a temple Tenzin wears the mandatory white sash (kabney) on top of his traditional gho.
On day 4 is the 185km trip from Wangdu to Bumthang. At the early breakfast we are the only guests. Tenzin and Sonam join us; we are amazed by the quantity of raw hot chili that they can eat. Soon after the departure we realize that this will be a memorable day. As we climb up the mountains the road becomes increasingly badly paved, or not paved at all. Dug literally into the mountain the road follows each curve of the terrain. Tenzin turns back to us on his seat with a big smile: “massage!” as the car bumps from one hole to the next. The road climbs up to Pelila pass at 3300m, dives down into the valley and climbs up again to the Yutong‐la pass at 3400m. Sonam drives very carefully and as smoothly as possible. There is no rail, the road is narrow, and we can see the valley 1000 or 1500m straight down, somewhat frightening. The landscape is breathtaking. I am pretty certain that no European made cars would have survived the trip. After 10 (ten) hours, a lunch break and 2 or 3 short stops we reach Bumthang late in the afternoon. The town of Bumthang lies at an altitude of 2600m. The heating in our nice and spacious hotel room is rather symbolic. We struggle to start the fire in the wood stove and eventually resolve to ask for the help of a young lady from the reception. The room is still cold so we decide to wear our ski underwear for the night. We are the only guests in the hotel. The following day we visit numerous temples, monasteries and Dzongs around Bumthang, remarkable by their paintings and decoration. Bumthang hosts some of the most sacred sites in Bhutan as it is believed that Guru Rinpoche, second Buddha of Tibetan Buddhism, meditated here in the 8th century.The temperature is low, the ski underwear and the winter clothes are welcome. We have a beer –Red Panda‐ in the only microbrewery of Bhutan, created by a Swiss man who lives there since decades.
On day 6 we drive back, 150Km are planned for today. We stop in Trongsa at the end of the morning to visit the impressive Trongsa Dzong built in 1648. After lunch we continue to Gangtey, located on a short diversion road from the main road leading to Punakha. So we follow in the opposite direction the road that we drove 2 days ago. As we climb through 3000m we must stop: the road is blocked. We have reached a worksite where the road is being widened. A bit of the mountain has just been sprung by dynamite and the road must be cleared of the rock blocks that have fallen down. They are simply pushed downhill into the valley 1000m below. A small queue of a dozen vehicles waits patiently. It is very cold and somebody has started a fire allowing a few of us to enjoy a symbolic heat. We talk to a man who happens to be the site manager. He takes us close to the action and explains that they are under time pressure: the water channels for the rice farming below in the valley are obstructed by the rocks that are thrown down. The channels must be free again within 2 weeks, otherwise the farmers will have the right for financial compensation. Therefore the site is active from 8AM to midnight, in the thin and cold air prevailing at 3000m altitude. After one and a half hour the road has been cleared and we can continue to Gangtey. Our hotel in Gangtey –altitude 3000m‐ is basic but offers everything required. As usual it is cold in the bed room. The dining room is heated by a big wood stone. The hotel staff (family members) stay close to it in turn to warm up. We are again the only guests in the hotel. Most of the village inhabitants work for the local monastery. Cows and dogs walk freely in the unique street of the village together with small groups of young monks.
The next day, after visiting the monastery, we drive a few kilometres down into the large flat valley 100m below the village. This valley, without any tree, is famous for the blacknecked cranes that spend the winter here before migrating back to Tibet in the early spring. From the information centre we can spot the only crane that has not yet left. Later we get out of our car as we see a number of kids active in the court of a school close to Phobjikha. We learn that the children are preparing for the visit of an important monk. They are very open, especially the girls. They speak good English. Their first question is always “what is your name?” followed by “how old are you?” A few kilometres further we leave the car again as we spot Yak‐herders. The woman is milking her yak cows next to the tent where she lives with her husband. She is very friendly and offers us some milk, we decline politely. The husband is away, searching for several yaks that have disappeared. We continue to Punakha, only 85Km away.
On day 8 we visit a nun’s monastery and have a look at farmers in their rice fields before continuing back to Paro. In the evening, in our hotel, the Raven‘s Nest, we are a little bit anxious. Tomorrow we shall live the highlight of our trip in Bhutan: the climb to the Tiger Nest, one of the most venerated site in Bhutan, a monastery that we can pinpoint up there in the mountain, like glued to the cliff side one thousand meters above us. This will be a difficult climb, 900m altitude difference to the highest point, from 2200m to 3100m, followed by 800 steps to reach the monastery; we wonder if we shall be able to complete the trip. Tenzin gives us a detailed briefing, his main advice is: walk slowly, do not hurry. He draws a sketch of the landscape and of our path, eventually giving us some confidence that the next day will be memorable and successful.
We leave the hotel at 7 AM: we want to take advantage of the morning cool air temperature for the climb. At the departure point we rent a couple of mules. For a few euros they will carry us for the first half of the climb. Tenzin and Sonam walk, carrying our backpacks. The mules know the way by heart; sometimes they climb it twice a day. They seem to enjoy walking close to the edge of the precipice. After one hour we reach the first viewpoint where a cafeteria has been built. The mules turn back and we carry on walking. We follow Tenzin advice and walk slowly. As Tenzin predicted, we are overtaken by young healthy people full of energy, only to find them 15mn later seating exhausted and breathless on the track side. A one hour climb takes us to the highest point, at 3140m. The monastery seems to be very close on the other side of a valley but we must still descend 400 steps carved into the rock, then climb further 400 steps before finally reaching the Tiger Nest, somewhat tired. A policeman checks that we do not carry any camera inside the buildings. The monastery contains beautiful paintings and sacred objects. The visit takes about an hour. A trip to the Tiger Nest belongs to any Bhutan visit. On our way back we stop halfway at the cafeteria for a typical Bhutanese lunch.
On day 10 we travel to the Haa valley, crossing the Chele‐La pass at an altitude of 3998m, on the highest tarred road in Bhutan. As usual many prayers flags float in the wind on the peak. The Haa valley is very picturesque and offers several interesting monasteries. We take many pictures of the interesting signs on the roadsides in the Paro area that provide good advices for the road safety and for the day‐to‐day life. On day 11 we visit Paro and its surroundings. We buy typical Bhutanese cloth, gho and kira, and a few kilos of excellent pink rice for our home cooking. At the end of the afternoon we take a traditional hot (very hot!) stone bath before having our last dinner in Bhutan, dinner that we share with Tenzin and Sonam. A Bhutanese dance show closes our last day in this fantastic country. It is still dark on April 4th when Tenzin and Sonam drive us to the Paro airport for our flight back to Calcutta. We cut the farewell short, none of us wanting to show how sad we are. We have had twelve days together, building a solid team. Tenzin will take a five hours bus trip to his father’s farm where he will help during the coming rain season. We have been impressed by his deep knowledge and his sense of humour. Sonam will return to his own farm close to Paro. He was a perfect driver, discreet, driving carefully, cleaning the car every morning.
Final remarks: All the hotels and many restaurants provide free of charge Wifi. The electrical sockets for the bedside lamps in the hotels are identical to our German electrical sockets so they can be used directly for charging the batteries of cameras and telephones. The food is healthy, no worrying about bacteria and amoebas. East of Wangdu there are relatively few tourists, due to road conditions, probably. Quite often we were alone in the temples with Tenzin. The government doesn‘t spare any efforts to improve the road to Bumthang. But the task is tremendous; it will take decades before the trip will be short and comfortable. We flew both ways through Calcutta. With the experience, we would next time choose to fly via Singapour in one of the legs. We still have to visit the east half of the country!
Our trip has been perfectly prepared by Bhutan Neo and beautifully managed in Bhutan by Tenzin and Sonam. A fantastic journey in an amazing country with warm and interesting people!
Jean Le Ber, Kunde von BhutanNeo