The Clear Air of High Places

Chele La is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. We drove up here, 3810 meters above sea level, on a clear day. There was a clear view of the conical peak of Chomolari (Jomolhari), 3506 meters above us. Below us we could see the sun-dappled valleys of Paro and Haa. We had driven up through a road that wound through rhododendron forests, and had seen the spectacular colours of Khaleej pheasants for the first time.

A raven comes to rest on a flag in Chele La, Bhutan

I love the sense of calm at such heights. The sun was warm on my face, but the wind carried a biting chill. The wind blew through the massed prayer flags. The crack of blowing flags was a constant sound around us. There was a deep call of a raven, and I saw one come down to rest with its claws on the dagger of knowledge, completely oblivious to religion and revelation.

Chorten at Chele La, Bhutan

I walked down the road. A little way down was a chorten and next to it a heap of stones. At this height, your rational self can recede behind oxygen depletion. The magical longing to leave a little mark on the earth takes over, and you place another stone on the growing pile left by previous travellers.

View of Chomolari from Paro, Bhutan

I look at Chomolari and remember the two expeditions: one of 1937 and another of 1970, both over the southeast spur of the peak. The 1937 climb is described in a book. Dorjee Lhatoo and Prem Chand never wrote about their 1970 climb. I will never make a climb like this, not even over the newer routes pioneered more recently. But I sit on a cold grassy mound and dream about it.

Prayer flags at Chele La, Bhutan

I’m walking closer to the sky than I usually do: thoughts like this arise with hypoxic magic. On another rise is yet another group of flags. I walk between them. The wind is made visible, audible. Magic surrounds you. The fraying flags are supposed to release good wishes, calm and peace into the wind. These wash over you in gusts of the wind. Bhutan is supposed to top the world in Gross National Happiness. Can you doubt it when you stand so close to the sky?

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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.

Memories of Phobjika valley

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. We stayed in this village in Phobjika valley, Bhutan 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.

View of Phobjika valley, Bhutan

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. Wild plant in Phobjika valley, BhutanAs 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. Beetle in Phobjika valley, BhutanThe 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.