Thinking of Bhutan brings back memories of a wonderful country with gentle and friendly people. As tourists we probably saw a larger proportion of monks than there actually are in the population. Also, we saw much more of the countryside than the city. Still, I hope the slide show below captures a not-unreasonable cross-section of the people of Bhutan. Click on any of the photos to start the slide show.
Is it really the flowers that are the sign of spring? In the plains of India it is the heat which announces that the brief winter is done and calendrical spring has begun. In today’s springtime Delhi I had to take a little walk on the road in a blistering 43 degrees. In Bhutan ten years ago the spring temperature never rose above 15 degrees. So the weather is not a sign of spring.
Nor are flowers. I saw enough flowers in Bhutan that year to make it seem as if it is. But then every winter gardens across India burst into colourful life. It is not the flowers, but the profusion of pollinators which announce spring. Winter’s pollinators seem to be only butterflies.
In spring every insect seems to jump into the role. Moths and wasps have backs dusted with pollen, just as much as bees or bumblebees. In Bhutan I even saw a fly pollinating flowers in spring!
The six of us struck off eastwards across Bhutan with no particular destination in mind. We had a vague idea that we would stay one night each in a valley. Phobjika valley was the first we came to. We made a turn off the forested east-west road, and drove for a little more than an hour until the forest opened up very suddenly. In front of us was a wide valley carpeted in green (featured photo). We took a second look, because the carpet of greenery was not grass. It was a stiff ankle-high plant, which was very hard to push through. We decided not to climb the first hills we saw, but to go on ahead.
In 2008 Bhutan was still in its last year as an absolute monarchy. You could not book hotels outside the Thimphu-Punakha-Paro triangle on the web. We knew that some tourists came to Phobjika, so we were pretty certain that we would find a few rooms. We drove along the road, and soon came to a little village. There was a family-run hotel, and they had rooms.
People in Bhutan are extremely friendly and informal. We gathered in a little dining room with the family. A baby was handed to us, and as we kept him entertained the table filled up with snacks. There was a mixture of dishes made with local produce, and simple packaged things like biscuits and tea. The long transport lines needed to bring them here made them extremely expensive. Dinner included a wonderful thukpa made with vegetables freshly plucked from the garden.
Layers of blankets and a wood-burning radiator in the middle of the room kept us warm through the night. Phobjika lies between 2900 and 3200 meters in altitude, but in the middle of May temperatures could dip down to 4 Celsius at night. In winter there is enough snow that some villagers move away to more comfortable valleys.
The next morning after breakfast The Family and the rest went off bird watching. I decided to take a walk down the valley. Bhutan is built from material laid down half a billion years ago near the Tethys Sea, and carried here by the Indian continental plate. The geological events that made Bhutan occurred mainly in the last 20 million years, and have been mapped extensively by the Geological Surveys of Bhutan and India. As the Indian plate pushes up the Tibetan plate, the sheets of ancient rock concertinaed and folded vertically along the east-west axis we were traversing. As a result the Tethys rocks metamorphosed into the minerals seen here today.
The gently sloping Phobjika valley lies over white granite rocks distinct from the geology of Paro to the west and Bumthang to the east. Glaciation in the last few thousand years may have initially started the valley. However, its present form is due to the action of monsoon, repeated frosts and snowfall, and the wind that constantly blows across the valley, carrying topsoil with it. Interestingly, there is evidence of pre-historic human slash-and-burn agriculture in the last two thousand years in the form of deeply buried charcoal. This ancient abuse is perhaps what cleared the valley of the forest cover which lies around it, and caused the soil to turn unproductive. I wonder whether the two rivers which wind through the valley today, the Nake Chu and the Gay Chu, flowed in those days.
I walked along an unpaved road with the valley sloping away to my left. The weather was mild enough, even with the breeze that brought clouds tumbling over the far hills. Along ridges I could see rows of flags: white for mourning and coloured for prayers. The Buddhist belief here is that the winds blow these prayers and distribute them over the valley.
The poor soil needs prayers. As I walked along, I noticed the rocky ground with a thin covering of red dust. Hardy wild plants straggled across it, and strange insects scuttled between patches of growth. Ferns grew out of the soil, hiding spiders in their spiral folds. In the distance I saw farmers at work. Once I passed a cow which turned to follow me with her eyes without interrupting her mouth.
A truck drove by and the friendly young driver leaned out to smile and wave. A young child scuttled away from me and then gathered enough courage to peer at me from around his door. The mother came out to investigate, and gave me a friendly wave. After a while I saw school children walking back home. This gang of four planted themselves in front of me and told me in their broken English to take a photo. They stood grim-faced for the photo, but immediately after that broke into smiles and started pushing each other. It was time for me to get back for lunch and find out which birds The Family had spotted.
It was evening when we reached Wangdue Phodrang; the name means Wangdi’s Place. The highway passed by a dzong high up on a cliff. In the evening light it looked forbidding, as the intention must have been once. A dzong is today the administrative headquarter of a district (called a dzonkhag) in Bhutan. The origins of the country are tied up to these dzongs, which once were the religious, military and administrative centres of a region. Even today a dzong has rooms for the Penlop (governor) of a province as well as monks. I hear that the Wangdue Phodrang dzong burnt down a few years after I took the featured photo, and is still under repair.
Soon after this we left the highway and turned into Wangdue town. It is the smallest town I’d seen in Bhutan till then. It population must have been a few thousand. The center of the town seemed to be the main bus stop, where you could take a bus to Punakha, Trongsa, Gasa, or Thimphu. There were a few people waiting for buses. Shops were open, and one prominent place was taken up by a phone center. Mobile phones were new in Bhutan, and connectivity was very poor. So the B-mobile shop also had booths where you could use a land line. At that time these STD/ISD centers were common in India too. I took a photo partly because of the policeman, the first I had seen outside Thimphu.
We wandered around the town center for a while. The Family admired the two-story wooden house whose ground floor was the town’s main general store. It sold everything from cooking gas to toffee. The Family likes to buy local sweets. She inspected the collection and found that most of them came from India, but a few were from Bangladesh. She bought a stock which would come handy during our long drives. We admired the traditional Kira (skirt) and Tego (jacket) that this lady was wearing. Bhutanese wear traditional dress to work. The men wear the Gho (gown) in public, tied at the waist with a Kera (belt).
Evening fell quickly. The warm interior of this tailor’s shop contrasted with the restaurant next door which had shut after the last bus left. We decided it was time to find accommodation for the night. Our driver, Dinesh, knew two options. The nearer one was ruled out, it had been completely booked by a company of people who were riding motorbikes across the country. The other had rooms for us.
Dhochu La is the pass to the whole of central and eastern Bhutan. We drove east from Thimphu and reached the pass in the mid morning. The road was sunny, but the view was obscured by dense clouds. When the weather is good one expects to see Bhutan’s highest mountain, Masanggang with its peak at an elevation of 7158 meters, from this pass.
The previous year we had seen a little pavilion hiding a small party of the royal family who had stopped here for tea and the view. This year we only saw the 108 khangzang chorten which were built in 2004. They commemorate the Bhutanese army’s victory in a fight against Assamese insurgents who launched attacks on India from a presumed safe haven in Bhutan. Travellers on the road stop here often, and one can observe a cross section of Bhutan wandering among the ranks of chorten.
The Emmet’s Inch and Eagle’s Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile
— William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
The road which descends from the pass is beautiful. It hugs a hillside full of deodar (cypress) trees. As we travelled along it we found ourselves looking at a beautiful rainbow over the road. I guess rainbows are not uncommon in spring, but to us it looked as if this was an augury of welcome: the weather had opened a gate for us to enter Bhutan. It turned out that this was quite an accurate reading of the weather for the next week.
We flew in to Paro on a wet and gloomy morning. This was the most wonderful weather that we could think of. The previous night in Kolkata was hot and sultry, like Mumbai. A place where spring means something was wonderful. Paro is at an elevation of only 2300 meters, so the local wild flowers are likely to be similar to Europe. I initially mistook the flower in the featured photo for a Forget-me-not. It is not that, but I don’t know what it is.
Just outside the airport we began to see flowers growing wild. This small but beautiful white flower was very common. I think this is some kind of a Himalayan wild rose.
When I saw my first Forget-me-not of the trip, I realized that it is hard to mistake it for something else. The problem is that you can mistake something else for it.
I saw this hardy little weed growing out of a crack in a metalled road. It was doing well enough to flower. Looking at the photo now, after almost a decade, I realize that the camera I had then was much better suited to macros than the one I have now.
This flower stumped me. All I remember about this is that it would grow into a small green fruit; the bush was full of them. I don’t know whether it is edible, or what it is called.
We had to wait in Paro for a day for the rest of our group to meet up with us. We took our car and drove up to Chele La. At a height of 3700 meters above sea level, this is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. On our trip to Bhutan the previous year, we came to Chele La on the last day of the trip. Now, more or less just off the plane, I realized that I was not yet comfortable at this altitude. No headache, but I had to move slowly.
A species of primrose called Primula denticulata grows widely in higher parts of Bhutan and Sikkim. The long stalks of the plant with a globe-like inflorescence could be seen in many of the meadows. It is a beautiful colour when it catches the sun.
The star of the season at these altitudes is the Rhododendron. You get it in all shades from white to dark red. Here is a close up of a pink rhodo. There were large groves of Rhododendron around the road as soon as we left Paro, and they came up fairly close to the top of the pass. We would see them again and again as we travelled through Bhutan than May.
I was happy, but The Family was very sad. The previous year we had our first view of Khaleej pheasants near Chele La. As we drove back down, we saw a pair run across the road and disappear. Now we were both equally happy.
I first heard about Paro airport from a friend’s son. When he was ten years old, he was addicted to flight-simulator games, and Paro was a legendary airport to him and his little group of enthusiasts. I first learnt from him of the extremely steep angles of approach and take off, needed because Paro is a deep valley, at an altitude of 2300 meters, surrounded by peaks which are over 5000 meters high. This was not all, he said, it had a short runway, and the approach had to wind through a safe path between mountains. Interestingly, since the beginning of civilian flights in 1983, Paro airport has not had a single accident.
A few years later, I was in a party of four who flew in for our second visit to Bhutan and saw all this first hand. On our previous visit we had taken the road up from Phuentsholing on the Indian border. The flight took off in the early morning from Kolkata. Later I realized why. The pilots make a visual approach, and have to return to Kolkata and be ready to try again the same day if the weather turns bad.
Our flight was uneventful. We had a clear view of the massive summit of Mount Everest. Auguries are part of the culture of Bhutan, and the calm and majestic view of Chomolungma augured well for our trip. The uneventful trip included a hair-raising descent to Paro airport. We could clearly see the mountain walls which seemed to hang just outside the windows of the cabin. The plane twisted and turned through the valley of the Paro river until it came down to a perfect soft landing at the airport. The small cabin broke into applause. It was well-deserved, the pilot was one of the handful who are qualified for Paro airport.
Bhutan, with its population of half a million, was a refreshingly informal place. We could stay on the apron and admire breathtaking views of the walls of mountains rising around us. Eventually we moved into the squeaky-new airport terminal, got our visa and moved on.
It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.
The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.
I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. In fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.
One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.
The inside was no better. The three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.
The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.