Downhill ride

Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),

Unidentified ground orchid, Bhutan

On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?

A strange caterpillar, Bhutan

At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the primitive animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I guess that this was the larva of a Geometrid moth.

Dendrobium fimbriatum orchid, Bhutan

Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.

Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: "I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected."

The story of Dinesh

Coincidentally, today is the 9th anniversary of the day we started our trip through Bhutan. So it is also nine years since the six of us met up with Dinesh, the man who would drive the car for us. He met us at the airport in Paro with a Toyota Innova which he’d driven up from Hashimara,Russet sparrow, Passer rutilans, Paro airport, Bhutan the Indian railhead for road trips to Bhutan.

Dinesh was quiet and reserved when we met. The youngest in our party was The Joy, a bubbly birder, stopping at every sparrow (Passer rutilans). We halted thrice before we left the airport, and The Parent of Joy wondered how Dinesh would cope with this.

I sat in the seat next to the driver’s and tried to chat with him. He was from Bihar, and had left home to look for work immediately after he passed school. He learnt to drive, although he left the details vague, and soon found employment with a travel agent, driving in Bihar and Bengal. A few jobs later he was in Hashimara working for the travel agent I’d dealt with.

He opened up when I told him that I’d grown up in Bihar. It turned out that his parents were in their village, and his wife and children lived with him in Hashimara. "And school?" The Family asked. He would usually direct the answers to me, even when questions came from others. His older child, a girl, was going to school in Hashimara. "So she knows Bengali", I guessed. He said that he did too.

A decade ago few people would have thought of Dinesh as a migrant. After all, The Parent of Joy was a Tamil speaker who grew up in Kolkata and now worked in Mumbai. The Sullen Celt had family in Goa and grew up in Mumbai. Over the last decade, a new political story has grown to separate the seven of us who drove through Bhutan then. The six urban middle class professionals are seen as pan-Indian by some political parties, and are therefore invisible to their bigotry. Dinesh, unfortunately, is seen as an immigrant by the same parties, and reviled for taking away jobs from locals.

As we travelled through Bhutan, Dinesh began to take an interest in birds, and started spotting them very efficiently. The featured photo was taken soon after he spotted his first scarlet minivet (Pericrocotus speciosus) on the road from Mebar Tsho to Ura.Scrlet minivet, Pericrocotus speciosus, Bhutan I remember The Family trying to get him to smile as I took this photo.

The six of us were on a holiday, enjoying the ten days-long break, but Dinesh was at work. He had not elected to stay away from his family. Sometimes, when we met in the mornings, he would remark on the bad mobile reception. This meant that he had not managed to talk to his wife and children at night. At the end of the trip The Family asked him how long he would stay at home. Dinesh said he would be off on another trip after one night at home.

He was a very good driver, and I could see why his services would be in demand. One afternoon we decided to go off-road for a picnic lunch by a stream. It started raining hard soon after we’d opened up our backpacks. We ran back to the car. It continued to rain hard. Dinesh decided to drive back to the road, before we were stranded. The mud was so slippery that the tyres would not get a good grip. We helped him to ballast the car with rocks, and he drove slowly upwards over the undulating terrain until we got to the road. Later when The Father of Joy and I discussed this, we were both sure that this kind of driving was beyond us. When we got back to the road and congratulated him on his driving, he smiled.

As we left the usual tourist route of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, he began to suggest little detours, interesting things to see on the way, and hotels which we could try out. He had us figured out, because his suggestions always appealed to us. He remained in this relaxed mood when we drove to Phuentsholing, crossed back to India, and he dropped us at the railway station in Hashimara. We shook hands, and never saw him again. Sometimes, The Family and I say to each other, "I hope Dinesh is doing well"

Pema Lingpa’s stamping grounds

Bumthang district is associated with the founding stories of the Bhutanese state and religion. The first kings arose around the Trongsa region, and defeated the Tibetan kings in the White Bird’s Castle. Padmasambhava is said to have come to Kurje Lhakhang to meditate, and left many treasures which are said to have been found later by Pema Lingpa.

View of Kurje Lhakhang, Tang, Bhutan

We arrived at the massive complex of Kurje Lhakhang late in the day. In the photo above you can see this complex, and in the background you have a view of the nearby Jambey Lhakhang. The two massive buildings you see on the right were built in the 20th century CE. The older, low, building on the left is called Guru Lhakhang, and dates from 1652. Apparently the local king, called Sindhu Raja, called Padmasambhava to help him when he fell ill. On arriving, the Guru meditated inside a cave (now inside the Guru Lhakhang), and realized that the illness was due to a local demon. An imprint of the Guru’s body is said to be found on the stone of the cave. A carving of a Garuda fighting a white lion in the building is said to depict the story of the Guru subduing the deity. The king recovered, converted to Buddhism, and the deity is now supposed to guard the religion. Unfortunately the building was closed when we arrived.

Mist in the Tang valley from Kurje Lhakhang, Bhutan

We had a lovely view of the surrounding valley from the Lhakhang. It was evening and mist was settling into the valley. There were occasional gusts of rain. We walked around the complex and met a young monk who could speak Hindi well. He told us the story of the place. He told us that we could walk either to Jambey Lhakhang or to Tazhing Lhakhang. We’d not read about Tazhing Lhakhang. When he realized this, he told us a little about the place, and about Pema Lingpa.

The Bhutanese name Pema is a cognate of the
Sanskrit word Padma, meaning lotus. Men and
women can have this name.

Pema Lingpa is one of the biggest names in Bhutanese Buddhism, next only to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddha’s teachings to the Himalayas. He was born in the Tang valley of today’s Bumthang district in the year 1450 CE. I learnt that he practised as a blacksmith till he was in his mid-twenties, and then turned to discovering religious scriptures. He is now known as a terton, a treasure hunter, because of such discoveries. Numerous sites in Bumthang district are connected to him. We’d already visited the Mebar Tsho the day before.

View of Tamzhing Lhakhang, Bhutan

Tamzhing Lhakhang was built between 1501 and 1505 CE at the behest of Pema Lingpa, who lived and taught there until his death in 1520. Following the monk’s advice, we crossed the river and walked to this Lhakhang. This was also closed, and we did not see the paintings which are now, a decade later, apparently in dire need of restoration. Our two days in Bumthang resulted in three hits and four misses. I thought that was not very good. But The Family looked at our bird list and declared that it more than made up for the art work that we missed. Not so bad, I guess. This gives us a reason to go back.

Where we had a good time without getting anywhere

The Sullen Celt and I had independently read about the Ogyen Chholing museum in Tang village. In our drives through Bumthang, we arrived in this village to look for the museum. This was a repeat of our experience in Ura: we never found anyone to talk to and we didn’t even find the museum.

Dinesh didn’t know anything about this museum. He came to a halt in the middle of the village. We stood undecided until The Sullen Celt pointed at a group of buildings across the fields on a small rise and declared that those must be the museum. There was no way to drive there. One of the others raised a feeble protest, "There should be a road to a museum." "Why waste time looking for a road? We can walk there", argued The Sullen Celt.

A butterfly mud pooling, Tang, Bhutan

The first barrier was a wide pool of mud on the side of the road. I saw a butterfly mud pooling there, and took a photo. It is probably the Common Yellow Swallowtail (Papilio machaon). I’d not seen it before, and probably never saw it later, since this is the only photo I have of it. In the northeastern Himalayas it is only found at a height of above 3000 meters. The description "common" is perhaps misplaced for this butterfly.

Blue bottle fly, Tang, Bhutan

I’d already noticed that small villages in Bhutan have makeshift drainage. Drains spill into low-lying fields. In climbing towards the ridge we had to pass through some of these sodden, and not too clean, fields. We tried to stick to trodden paths as far as possible, but I was surprised by the variety of flies we saw. The blue-bottle flies (photo above) were as common as in India, but they seemed larger. (I realize only now that I have taken a self portrait in the body of the fly.) In a flowering bush I seemed to see movement, but it took a while before my eyes could focus on the well-camouflaged flies which were pollinating the flowers (featured photo).

Coppery fly, Tang, Bhutan

When I saw this copper coloured fly resting on a muddy red stone, my day was done. I knew I would get a tremendous photo out of it. The Sullen Celt was a trekker and she’d missed walking in the last few days. We realized that barging up a ridge was not the simplest way of getting to the museum, but just walking. We did not try to keep up. The Joy and his parent were lost in spotting birds.

The Family watched the village and the huts with interest, while I photographed flies. Grisly scarecrow, Bhutan, India So she saw this grisly scarecrow before I did. Both of us are city slickers. When we get away, we are usually in forests. We seldom walk through villages. So we were quite taken aback by this sight. Later we were told that this kind of a scarecrow is common enough, not only in Bhutan, but also in India. I wonder whether it works. Behind the carcass you can see a pile of chopped wood. Are they piled up for use in winter? It seems a little early to start stocking up for winter in the spring, so I guess it has a different use. Also visible is part of the fretwork on buildings. We saw village houses later which had even more intricate fretwork.

The Bhutanese keep their homes well.Fern unfolding, Tang, Bhutan Even along the unfortunate route we had chosen, there were the same beautiful wild flowers which we had seen elsewhere. The Family and I stopped to look at this fern unfolding. It had broken through the lacy covering of the parent shoot as it budded, and now was an elegant unfolding spiral. Was this the kind which was made into a wonderful curry by the Bhutanese? We were not sure.

I saw a butterfly sailing above a little wall of mud next to the path. Vanessa cardui, painted lady, Tang, Bhutan I clambered up it, and found it basking in the sun. It was a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, one of the commonest of butterflies. It seems that this Lady can be found on all the continents in the world except Antarctica. Maybe, the way the world is going, in a hundred years the Antarctic will see its first flowers being pollinated by a Painted Lady.

Soon we saw The Sullen Celt coming back. She’d reached the top of the ridge and found that the museum was not there. We turned back, and drove around the village for a while. There were no signs, and no people. We were defeated, but we had a great day.

Now, almost a decade later, the museum has a website, and it should be easier to find. Perhaps we will go back. Bhutan’s Bumthang district is beautiful enough.

The White Bird’s Castle

In the mountains and valleys of Bhutan every major spot has a story associated with it. We were told the story of Jakar Dzong by a gentleman we met at dinner in our hotel. When the first king of Bhutan, Lam Ngagi Wangchuk, came to Jakar from Trongsa he looked for a place to build a temple. His monks saw a white bird circle in the sky several times before landing on a ridge. This was taken to be a sign, and the king built a temple here in the year 1549 CE.

When we drove to the Chokhor valley from nearby Ura, this large Dzong dominated a ridge, but was itself dwarfed by the high peaks behind it (see the featured photo). It seems that the Dzong was constructed in the year 1667 CE.View of the garden in Jakar Dzong, Bhutan It was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1897, and was repaired.

From the distance we saw that the central tower of the Dzong is part of the external walls, unlike all the others that we had seen till then. It is said to be the largest Dzong in Bhutan. The car had to be parked a little below the walls, and we walked up over a stone-flagged pathway.

We had earlier visited one of the famous monasteries in Bhutan and been disappointed there, since it was under restoration, and the woodworm infestation was being rooted out. Woodwork in Jakar Dzong, Bhutan This Dzong showed what the intricate woodwork may have been like. The sequence of square butts above the windows looked like lap joints from several cross beams or a single finger joint from a wide piece of wood. I would have liked to go in and look, but the rooms were closed. We admired the beautifully painted woodwork and moved on.

The Dzong is huge inside, and we passed the various buildings and looked at the gardens within the walls. This particular monastery-fort played a role in the wars against Tibet, and was the site of a significant military victory in the 17th century CE. Tower in Jakar Dzong, BhutanIts official name, Yuelay Namgyal Dzong, celebrated this history. The watchtower which you see in the photo alongside has a clear military purpose. A tactical asset was the presence of fresh water inside the walls. We walked down to see the spring and had a view of the beautiful valley outside the walls (see the photo of the gate above).

The wars of previous centuries seem to be forgotten now, and the Dzong and its surroundings look very peaceful. Later, during dinner at the hotel we started talking to Bhutanese traders and bureaucrats, and realized that there is still concern about the stability of the border between Tibet and Bhutan. But Jakar Dzong’s contribution to military history is quite definitely done.

The Burning Lake and other Stories

The day we visited the enigmatic village in Ura, we collected a few local stories. One of them was of Mebar Tsho, a name which translates as Burning Lake.View of Mebar Tsho, Bhutan From the name I imagined something quite different from what it is: a widening in the river Tang, as you can see in the photo here.

Dinesh knew that there were caves around here, and took us off the highway at the correct place. The last bit is a little climb. One thing I like about Himalayan Buddhism is that you have to walk to these holy places, so they retain their air of calm and peace. We were the only people at the “lake”.

The road led up, and we followed. It was an easy climb, but soon we had a lovely view down into the gorge which the Tang Chhu had cut for itself. View of Tang Chhu ner Mebar Tsho, Bhutan We reached a little clearing at the end of the road, where there was a cave. This was full of offerings left by visitors, which you can see in the featured photo.

The story of this place is famous in Bhutan. In the 15th century the holy man Pema Lingpa dreamt of hidden treasures in the lake, as Padmasambhava had prophesied before. The Tang king did not believe this. So Pema Lingpa took a burning lamp in his hand and dived into the dark water. He searched the waters with his lamp, and emerged holding a scroll and a chest of treasure, with the lamp still burning. Pema Lingpa is known as a terton, loosely translated as a treasure finder.Prayer flags at Mebar Tsho, Bhutan He is believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava.

The “lake” was festooned with colourful prayer flags. I’ve talked about this before. They are made of flimsy cloth and have prayers and other holy writing on them. There is a magical belief that as the flags fray and disappear in the rain and wind, the prayers and good wishes are released into the flowing water and wind and are carried into the land. The belief is enough to keep Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness high.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

The other story from this region was something we heard from the women who gave us lunch in Ura. The Ura temple dance, Yakchoe, carries a little relic around the valley. It is not owned by the Dzong, but by a family there. Once an old woman was at home when a beggar came asking for water. She asked him to sit and went into her house to fetch water. When she came back, the man was gone, and there was a little sack left in his place. She opened the sack and found a little figurine of a yak. This holy relic is the centerpiece of the temple dance.

An empty village

We reached Ura around noon. The air was just beginning to warm up as we drove into the village. Horses grazing around Ura, Bhutan The surrounding fields were green. We saw cattle and horses grazing nearby. Some of the fields were tilled. Although we didn’t pay much attention to it, we did not see anyone out on the fields. The houses were clean and well painted, but as we passed by, we did not see anyone. We could hear music playing somewhere, either a radio or the tape recorders which were common here at that time. But there was no sign of a person.
Dzong in Ura, Bhutan

Someone voiced the most practical course of action, “Let’s go to the Dzong.” At breakfast in Bumthang we’d been told about the paintings in the Dzong, and we did want to see them anyway. The monastery occupied the highest point in the village. We drove there and parked outside. The large courtyard was empty. The doors were locked. We wandered around looking for someone to talk to and eventually a young villager appeared. Communication was difficult, because we did not speak Dzongkha, nor did he speak Hindi or English. Calf spotted in a field in Ura, Bhutan Even our concerted efforts at charades did not convey the message that we wanted to enter the Dzong.

Defeated, we walked back. Dinesh drove back to the highway, and we followed on foot. The houses were very neat, but the road was covered in dung. Villages in remote Bhutan do not have much drainage. Waste water from houses flows through gutters alongside roads and peters out in some fields. Ura was no exception.

Walking through the village we saw women in a couple of houses. They were friendly and waved out at us, but we couldn’t find anyone who knew the languages we could speak. Maybe all the Indian movies which are shown here are dubbed in Dzongkha. There were cows in the fields.Beetle on a fence in Ura, Bhutan Bhutanese villagers seem to tend cows as well as yak.

The fences between properties were made of wood and bamboo. They were weathered to a lovely grey colour, as you can see in the photo here. It made it very easy to spot the colourful insects which were everywhere. Of course, there have to be many insects to feed the enormous numbers of birds that we had seen on the way.

It was time for us to think of food. We walked back to the highway. Parathas being rolled in an eatery in Ura, BhutanIt was getting warmer, but at the pace we walked, a sweater was still comfortable. When we reached the highway we saw that Dinesh had located a little eatery. The women who ran it were very welcoming, and spoke a little Hindi. We got a lovely meal with fresh made parathas, and two wonderful dishes made of fresh vegetables from the fields. The meals we had in Bhutan were not particularly different from what we are used to, but everything was made with absolutely fresh ingredients which left a remarkable impression on me.

I remember the dining hall as full of local artwork, some hand-made, others printed. The calendar was Bhutanese, and there were a couple of large posters, at least one of which was the kalachakra. Masks were hung along the rafters. These are used in the temple festival. One of the ladies told us that during the festival a dance starts at the Dzong and comes past their shop and returns. The central part of the dance is a black yak, and there are others in various masks. I’d seen most of the masks on display, but the tiger mask (in the featured photo) was new to me.

I guess winter is the time to go back to Bhutan to see the temple festivals. All except Ura’s, which is in May. We seemed to have just missed it.

The Road to Ura

Ura was not a long drive, so we decided to start late. We were not in any hurry to reach our destination, since the purpose of the day’s journey was to spot as many birds on the way as possible. My memory of this trip is jogged by the many photos I took on the way. The road rose quickly from Bumthang. In the mellow sunlight of mid-morning, we saw a patchwork of farms behind us. The featured photo shows a little farm surrounded by tilled land. The white flags of mourning signify the death of someone in the family in the recent past. The flag poles are surmounted by a small disk with a pointy thing above it. The disk is a representation of the sacred lotus flower, and the part above it signifies a dagger of wisdom which cuts through ignorance. The prayer flags are never taken down.Scarlet Minivet on the road to Ura, Bhutan The wind eventually erodes it to nothing. This signifies the impermanence of everything, even memory. That’s a lot of meaning to pack into a little cultural artifact.

We passed by, and soon reached higher ground with lots of conifers lining the road. Dinesh, who was driving, had initially been very sceptical about bird watching, but now he began to point out birds. My camera had a 10X optical zoom, which today sounds like a toy, but was a wonder then. A farmer's hut in Ura, Bhutan In the photo above you see a Scarlet Minivet, which, along with Verditer Flycatchers, were The Family’s favourite birds at that time.

I have a distinct memory of the farmer’s hut in the photo here, and of being able to spot and identify a Grey-backed Shrike for the first time. Memory being terribly fallible,View of a pine forest near Ura, Bhutan it reassures me that I have a photo of the bird with a time stamp seconds after the photo of the hut.

I remember this morning’s drive as a calm and unhurried time. We stopped once when Dinesh spotted a bird which turned out to be the bright yellow female of the Scarlet Minivet. The sun was warm and the air was cool. We seemed to be the only travellers on this route at around noon. The mixed pine forest around us was full of birds.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

Soon after this the view opened up to a lovely sun-dappled valley. We had arrived within sight of Ura. This was to be furthest east we travelled in Bhutan.

Wandering through Bumthang

Past Trongsa we had entered eastern Bhutan. It had been a while since we had seen any tourists.Bumthang, Bhutan Our experience in Chakhar Lhakhang told us that there are seldom any Indians who venture this far east. Dinesh was now our guide. He said he knew a hotel in Bumthang. We drove there, found three rooms, dumped our bags and decided to take a look at the town’s market before it closed down. We’d spent the whole day in the car and a little walk was welcome. Also, since we were going to stay in these rooms for two nights, we could eat in the market today, and try the hotel’s dinner the next day. Our rooms came with balconies. I opened the door, went out and took the photo you see alongside.

Shop window in Bumthang, Bhutan

The market was close to shutting down. The evening’s last shoppers were hurrying in to finish shopping before dinner. We had a leisurely time doing some window shopping. Shoes were clearly in demand. So were recharge cards and SIMs for B-Mobile; strange considering that along most of the road we had no mobile signal. DVDs were another hot segment of the market. Most offers were current Bollywood hits, with a dash of very well known older ones. Children at the Bumthang market, , BhutanI could see a few Nepali movies, but there were no Bhutanese movies on display.

The Family and I watched two children for a while. They were busy jumping into a puddle, with their school books in hand. Their father came out of the shop behind them to tell them to sit and do their work. He had quite a few customers, so as soon as the two sat down he went back in. Instantly the girls were up and at the puddle again. We laughed, and I tried to take a photo. They realized this immediately and sat down in a big show of studying their books.

We turned round and realized that the Sullen Celt had disappeared. As we walked around looking for her, she emerged from a store with a brown bag in hand. It was a brandy from a smaller Bhutanese distillery. Bag in hand we began a search for a place to eat in. A small restaurant just off the main square had rainbow trout on the menu. This is another atrocity that the British left in this part of the world; they seeded trout in the local rivers, created a disaster and a class of people who love to "conserve" this monster for future generations of fly-fishers. Quite as much of an atrocity as the industrial product that passes for brandy in this part of the world. We had a satisfying dinner with two things which the Himalayas would have been better off without.

An unexpected welcome

Dinesh had been very silent during the few days of the trip. But now, he was the local expert and began to talk to us. On the way from Trongsa to Bumthang, he said we might want to stop on the main road to look at a very nice monastery. Since it was on the way, we agreed. I thought we had seldom made a better decision on this trip.

Reading about the place later, I think we had reached Chakhar Lhakhang. It must have been close to five in the evening, because a large crowd was leaving. The mist rising from the valley behind, and the deep calls of ravens in the gathering dusk gave the place a wonderful feel.

The novice monk at the gate told us that the main shrine was closed, but we could still walk around the garden if we hurried. The place was small, and there seemed to be little to do. Monks were busy closing up, and we turned to go. As we were stepping out of a gate, a novice came running and told us that the master wants to talk to us. Anything for the master, of course. We followed the monk to an upper floor of the building, where a fairly young master waited for us.

He asked us where we were from, and when he heard that all of us were from Mumbai, he nodded. "I thought you were Indian", he said. "The Guru came here from India. Would you like to see more of the monastery?" We were happy to. The master told us that we could not take photos of what he would show us. We passed through galleries with paintings dating back from the 15th century: beautiful panels in luminous blue and gold showing the Buddha meditating on a lotus, interspersed with those of Padmasambhava on a tiger.

We passed through the passages connecting the monks’ quarters to the main shrine. The shrine had a statue of Padmasambhava, the original Rinpoche, and his wife, Tashi. She was the daughter of the local King who had called Padmasambhava to Bhutan. The hall was lined with masks and hats used in the tsechu. When I started to ask him about the masks he seemed a little annoyed. I realized my gaffe, and let him tell us about Padmasambhava.

He offered tea which we declined, saying we still had to go and find a hotel. He gave us his blessings, and we walked out feeling we had left the last homely house.