Thursday, 17 May 2018

Enter the Land of The Thunder Dragon

Surrounded by the mighty Himalayas, shrouded by the mystical practices of Tantric Buddhism, cloaked in a time warp struggling to emerge into the new age, this land inhabited by worshippers of the Phallus is an enchanting and fascinating country.
Druk Yul - as it is known within the country by the locals, means the Land of Thunder Dragon.
Our journey took us through winding roads, misty mountain passes, strikingly clean rivers, crisp unspoilt air and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.

Entry from India to Pheuntsholing - Day 1
We started our journey in the Western part of Bhutan - entering through Pheuntsholing (the border town of Bhutan with West Bengal - Jaigaon is the last Indian town). We landed at Bagdogra airport (Siliguri) and then travelled by road. We had our friends riding a Royal Enfield while we were in a Maruti Ertiga. We needed to get the entry permits including for the vehicles which is valid only till Thimphu.
In Pheuntsholing, with enough time to kill we went for a relaxed drive to the banks of the magnificient Torsa river followed by a visit to the nearby crocodile park, idled around for a while in a couple of cafes and generally chilled out.
Torsa river

View of the town - Torsa in the background
Pheuntsholing to Paro - Day 3
This route was picturesque with clear blue skies and white puffy clouds. Along the road are beautiful waterfalls and viewpoints that serve as good places to take breaks. In Paro, we stayed at a wonderful and cozy homestay. At night the Paro Dzong is beautifully lit up and is visible from all parts of the town. The night skies were clear and filled with stars and the milky way galaxy. 

Paro river
Paro, settled along the banks of the river Paro, also has the only international airport of the country. Flights from India and Kathmandu land here. The well known town is famous for its Taktshang (Tiger's Nest) monastery. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava - the founding father of Tantric Buddhism in Bhutan flew from Tibet on a tigress to meditate in this cave. The tigress is believed to be his spiritual consort - Yeshe Tsogyal.
Tiger's Nest Monastery
We trekked up to the monastery - an arduous 4 hour trek (not including the various stops / breaks for tea & lunch). It was an exhilarating experience to climb up to an altitude of 10000ft to see the legend but even more so to get a bird's eye view of the beautiful landscape and mountainscape.
Paro is one of the more commercial towns and we spent an evening shopping for souvenirs and then going to a Karaoke bar to celebrate our Birthday. Trekking, shopping, music and drinks, contemplating - could there be a better way to celebrate life:)
Paro to Thimphu - Day 5
At Thimphu - the capital of Bhutan and the only city in the Country,we needed to get permits for the rest of Bhutan (Central and Eastern). Early in the morning we first drove towards the Haa Valley to visit the Chele La - the highest mountain pass in Bhutan. Here we also saw the 2nd highest peak of Bhutan - Jomolhari. From here we returned to Paro and continued towards Thimphu. 
A view of The Himalayas at the Chele la Pass
A relatively crowded place as befitting the capital, this city is situated on the banks of the Thimphu river. Thimphu is the third highest capital city in the World. The striking feature of Thimphu is the gigantic statue of Buddha Dordenma which is one of the largest in the World (height of 162ft) and was constructed to commemorate the 60th birthday of the 4th King of Bhutan - Jigme Singye Wangchuk.
Buddha Dordenma
The Motithang Takin Preserve is a conservation centre which houses the endangered Takin (a Goat-Antelope). It is the National Animal of Bhutan.
Thimphu is also opening up to a vibrant social lifestyle with coffee shops and cafes. The nightlife is also coming up in a major way - with local talent getting exposed to the external world.
Thimphu to Punakha - Day 7
Our next halt was at Punakha but enroute, we stopped at the majestic Dochu La Pass - popular because of the 108 chortens / stupas constructed by the eldest queen mother. These chortens are called "Druk Wangyal Chortens". It was drizzling around the pass when we reached, as a result the whole scenery was shrouded with clouds and it was chilly! We also stopped at a bird sanctuary on the way where we spent about 1.5hrs taking in the peaceful and serene atmosphere.
108 Chortens
Punakha was the earlier capital of Bhutan and has two major rivers - Mo Chu (female) and Pho Chu (male). The Punakha Dzong (monastery) is the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan and is situated at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu. We rafted a 12km stretch in the Mo Chu and walked on the famous Punakha suspension bridge.

Rafting in the MoChu
It was at Punakha that we had the fortune of getting dressed in the traditional attire of Gho (for males) and Kira - Taego (for females) thanks to the staff at our hotel - Pema Karpo.
We were also fortunate to experience Khuru - a local game similar to darts but played in groups with a lot of singing and ritualistic dancing. The Khuru's (darts) are bigger and heavier and the distance they are thrown across is around 50mts. A milestone kind of slab with a metal sheet is placed on the ground which acts as the target.
The Khuru
Punakha to Phobjika - Day 9
Our next stop was Wangdue Phodrang (Phobjika valley), where our objective was to catch the migrating black necked cranes. These cranes migrate from Tibet and northern areas of China.
Last year around the same time, the cranes had arrived but due to rains a couple of days earlier, the migration this time was delayed. Fortunate for me and unfortunate for Karma (the injured black necked crane), I got to at least see a representation of the species - shy but curious birds.
Another reason for stopping at Wangdue Phodrang was because of the long journey from Punakha to Bumthang. Fortunately we also got to do the famous "hot stone bath" here which was very relaxing.
Our stop over here was the shortest but we managed to get some of the most beautiful views of the earth and the sky here.
As we crossed over from Phobjika to Bumthang via Trongsa, we had our chance to see Yaks grazing at Pele La pass
Phobjika to Bumthang - Day 10
The drive from Wangdue Phodrang to Bumthang / Jakar was a 10hr tortuous one, passing through Trongsa - which has the longest Dzong in Bhutan. The roads were terrible and slushy in many places but the scenery was mesmerizing. We had stop overs for a couple of man made land slides which prolonged the travel time, not to mention the flat tire we had to entertain but these stops gave us some beautiful photo opportunities. By the time we reached Zero point (near Jakar) it was dark and started to drizzle.

The actual severity of the cold hit us as we reached Bumthang. The temperature went down to 4 degrees centigrade whereas until then we were experiencing pleasant weather in the range of 12 to 14 degrees centigrade. At Bumthang, we had a leisurely 2 day stay. Although we missed the Jakar festival by a day, we did get an opportunity to watch the traditional dance preparations. The Santoor like instrument is Yangjin and the Lute like instrument is Dangyan. The dance form being practiced below is the Thechu dance.

We also had the opportunity to see amongst the most beautiful Dzongs - Khurje Lakhang & Tamshing Lakhang. The next day we drove down to Tang valley carrying a nice picnic breakfast and visited Mebar Tso - The burning lake. 
In the early 16th century, Pema Lingpa, the disciple of Guru Rinpoche, recovered some sacred religious treasures diving within the deep pool that too only with a lit butter lamp. When he returned he found that the lamp was still burning. From this happening, the lake got its name as ‘Burning Lake'.We were able to sample Ara - the local rice wine and visit a local bee keeping facility.
Bumthang to Mongar - Day 13
Our next travel was towards the Eastern part of Bhutan towards Mongar. This was again a very beautiful journey as we passed through misty mountains and pretty waterfalls which delayed us due to the innumerable stops to click pictures

We had the opportunity to cross the second highest pass in Bhutan - Thrumshing La.
Before this pass, we managed to get a glimpse of Gangkar Phuentsun - the highest peak in Bhutan.
Passing through Thrumshing La National Park - famous for the Red Panda, the Red Blooded Pheasant and the Himalayan Monal, we also hoped to see Rohododendrons but none of these were visible. However this was the most romantic journey with misty mountains, curvy-snaky roads, waterfalls, viewpoints, butterflies fluttering about and the sound of birds chirping and flitting around. 
Mongar to Trashigang - Day 15
From Mongar to Trashigang - the journey took us through some bad roads and it took us about 5 hours to reach as due to road work, vehicular movement was restricted only to certain times at certain places. We stayed at one of the most beautiful places - Lingkhar Lodge. With views of the mountains beyond a valley, these cottages were facing an Orange Orchard within the premise and we were lucky to witness an archery display by the local people.
Trashigang to Samdrup Jhongkar - Day 16
We were finally nearing the end of the journey through Bhutan when we traveled from Trashigang to Samdrup Jhongkar. The hotel where we were staying was bordering a wildlife sanctuary and we got to witness the great Indian Pied Hornbill.
We ended our 15 day Bhutan trip exiting out of Samdrup Jhongkar into Darranga in Assam, India.

Observations and understanding -
- The contrast between India and Bhutan is starkly visible in the cleanliness, the discipline and the
absence of beggars and road side hawkers in the country.
- Tobacco is banned in the country although discreet usage of cigarettes is seen amongst the youth. Punishment is heavy with fines upto Nu2000 and imprisonment.
- The Bhutanese are strongly bound by their tradition but the youngsters are now trying to break the mould and be more progressive.
- Most people have no expectations from others and this we realised contributes to less disappointment thereby making the person more happy The Gross National Happiness is measured by the Government based on 9 pricinples of well bring which is not just financial but emotional and health aspects
- There are no traffic lights across the country and people follow rules without any monitoring
- There is hardly any manufacturing facility and the rivers are not used for any purpose including fishing, washing, bathing thereby keeping them clean and pollution free
- It is easy for vegans to travel across Bhutan as the Indian staple of rice and dal is available at all places. Red rice is something that we really enjoyed. Potato is a favourite and chillies are used in abundance. Remember to mention your spice tolerance when ordering the national dish Ema Dashi (chilli and cheese) or Kewa Dashi (potato and cheese)
- Bhutan is an importer of most products from India and an exporter of HydroElectric Power due to the abundance of natural water in the form of Himalayan rivers
- The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) plays a significant role in building roads and hydroelectric projects across Bhutan under the name of Project Dantak
- While shopping for souvenirs, look for "Made in Bhutan" label on items or else you may end up buying items from China or India
- Indian currency is accepted in Bhutan but only denominations of 5,10,20,50 and 100.

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