Thursday, July 25, 2013

Summer Break in Bhutan

          Many folks would consider 17 days traveling in Bhutan to be a full vacation worthy of note. How to explain, justify, even imagine living in Bhutan for a year and having 17 days off in the middle to explore the country? During the school year we are tied down 5½ to 6 days a week, so having a block of time to travel is quite an opportunity. During my two trips to Bhutan I have seen a fair amount of the western portion of the country but had never travelled east to the mythical heart of Bhutan. So east is the direction I wanted to point myself. Fortunately, a BCF colleague, Sarah Shmitt, felt the same way.
My journey began here in Gaselo with four friends who had come the night before. We went to meet our taxi and he had left us, fortunately some of the faculty were out and about that morning and one of them called another driver and we were all headed down the mountain to Bajo about an hour behind schedule. Fortunately the bus which we were meeting was on something close to our schedule and we all loaded up and headed east. The way things worked out that morning is a testament to what often happens when I can let things flow in the way of Bhutan and at the same time a premonition of how things might work out for our summer vacation. We were feeling like tourists in a rented bus picking up BCF teachers along the way. It was a pretty festive air by the time we rolled up in front of the River Lodge in Bumthang. Most of the BCF teachers were there including our compatriots from the east who were avidly heading west. The evening was fueled by Mark’s generosity culminating in many wonderful conversations and a few bleary eyes in the morning. The agenda for the first day of the BCF summer “retreat” was a tour which included Burning Lake, one of the many holy places in this area which is perhaps the spiritual heart of Bhutan, and then on to Uggen Choling which is an old “palace” of one of the landowning families of Bhutan. The buildings have been preserved by the family as a museum after they lost their large landholding in the property redistribution which occurred as reforms began to shape the Bhutan we see today.
The second day of the retreat was a business meeting covering all the necessary topics since this was the second of three times we would all be together during the year. The following day several of us explored the environs, some on a hike to Tarpoling Monastery, some on an excursion up the valley to some of the major Lhakangs in the area. Finally, the following morning 5 of us loaded up in a taxi and headed east. Our first stop was only a couple of hours down the road in Ura, a village which was home to one of the teachers Sarah worked with in Punakha. A visit to the local Lhakang was followed by a village tour where Sarah spotted and old woman moving a large pile of large rocks to her house. The 5 of us pitched in and made a good dent in the pile which concluded with the obligatory toast of ara. We then headed to the home of Sarah’s colleague and were treated to a full meal followed by the obligatory toast of ara. Throughout all these escapades we were accompanied by our taxi driver who seemed to be enjoying the outing as well. Then it was time for some serious travel time. Several hours later after cresting the cloud shrouded high pass on the national highway, Thrumshing La (3780m, 12,400ft), we arrived in Mongar. Driving speeds on the main east west highway in Bhutan are in the 25mph range so it takes a long time to get where you are going. Even at those speeds the excitement is ever at hand, huge cliffs on one side, landslides covering portions of the road, oncoming trucks which take up the vast majority of the roadway all add to the interest level. In Mongar Sarah and I left the other three as they headed north to Lhuntse and we continued ever east, a final 2½ hrs to Trashigang and we called it a night at the local BCF hangout, the KC motel.
In the morning we reconnoitered the town, did a bit of shopping, and arranged a taxi to Phongmey, the end of the road, almost. In Bumthang we had met with a BCF teacher who invited us to use her house in Phongmey while she was away in the west. We managed to find the house, get our gear rearranged, connect with the VP who put us in contact with a student to be our guide, procure a permit for the wildlife sanctuary, and set up a vehicle to drive us as far as possible toward Merak, the first of the two roadless villages we hoped to visit. The morning came with rain, steady rain, the vehicle driver said he did not want to drive in these conditions, we were left with our young guide and a big decision. In the end we headed out. Eleven hours later, much of it in the rain and where the new road construction overlapped the trail we were in mud that was unbelievably miserable. However, the last couple of hours were rain free as we climbed to Merak (3517m, 11,540ft). The last rays of the sun were actually casting shadows as we arrived in Merak. We were really tired, quite soggy, and pretty hungry. The Principal of the local school gave us permission to sleep in a classroom for the night, we then went to his house for tea and dinner which was huge. Sitting around the bukhari and letting the dry heat soak into our beings was bliss. After dinner we retired to the wooden floor of a class room where sleep was overwhelming. In the morning I met three Bhutanese who were travelling the same itinerary. They had arranged for a horse to carry their load over the pass to Sakten, we joined forces and added a second horse to our group. We also located the guest house and the caretaker and moved into a place with beds, bathroom, and bukhari. That meant we could spread out and dry things out in earnest. The villages both have covered tent sites and guest houses which were built for trekkers 10-15 years ago. Since that time the route has been closed to tourists and has only opened up in the past couple of years so these facilities have seen very little use. One of the fellows in the other party was a tour operator and he was doing the trek as research for marketing in the future.
After a wonderful rainy morning spent inside drying out we ventured into Merak, an ancient village whose people are Brokpa, a distinct cultural group within Bhutan. Their dress, language, and customs are all unique to this area. The Buddhism practiced here seemed to be very Tibetan in many ways. At the Lhakang the final day of a 5 day, 100,000 prayer, ceremony was happening. We showed up around lunchtime and were immediately given four huge fried dumplings along with esay so salty I could hardy eat one of my favorite things. Following that we visited the temple and the watched as they demonstrated one of the local dances so that our tour operator friend could get some photos. Quite a day as we poked into one of the shops and concluded that given our limited cooking utensils dinner would have to be instant noodles with the last of the veggies.
Morning dawned with intermittent rain and soon we were sitting on the floor of a local home enjoying tea and warmth. After a bit the horses were packed and we headed out toward the pass, Nyuksang La (4140m, 13,580ft). Several ladies of the village
accompanied us to the first chorten where we were toasted with ara and sung to as blessings for a safe journey. What a send off and what a trail, steadily up through broken cloud and into the mists of timberline and above. A solitary stone hut at timberline with the family out front to check us out is evidence of how hard many lives are in this area. Yaks wander the hillsides as we near the top of the pass, under a rhododendron bush Sarah spies a blue poppy, the rare national flower of Bhutan reputed to have great medicinal qualities. A short way up the trail we see a few more, that is quite a treat. The summit is shrouded in cloud but our elation is unfettered. As we head down past more yak we find a lower elevation version of the blue poppy, clearly a different plant. Down and down, lunch break, and down some more. Up along a ridge through a lot of mud, as we top out we look down into Sakten, a welcome sight after almost 10 hrs on the trail. Once again we locate the guest house and settle in, 7 of us this time as the two horsemen are with us as well, the communal room with the bukhari is cozy indeed.
The next day, our rest day in Sakten, is rainy and the bukhari is stoked with various pots on top cooking all day long. The bukhari here is a cast iron stove about 2½ ft long by 1 ft wide and sits on the floor. There is no door, no flue, and no covers for the two cooking holes, so it is essentially an open fireplace indoors. The eaves are open as well as a raised part of the roof and that is where the smoke is supposed to go. Late in the day the weather pattern holds and the rain stops. We venture out to explore the village which is a muddy mess. Flip flops with frequent washing at outdoor taps or knee high rubber boots are the ways locals deal with the mud. We use our crocs and wash often. The villages are still roadless, so foot traffic and animals are the only things in the narrow alleyways and paths between the houses. That night after dinner we walked under starry skies, nice to know they were still there.
Our final day of hiking dawns grey with a bit of rain. By the time we head out the rain has stopped. We had engaged another student to walk with us to Phongmey, his English was pretty good and he told us a lot about his village. The walk down the canyon was beautiful. The trail was the ancient route used for centuries, the weather was turning almost sunny, traffic on the trail was steady. Many pack trains as everything is brought into Sakten along this trail. The villages did get electricity a few years ago along with cell phone service, the roads are the last link to be completed. At the end of the day we cross a footbridge and come to a roadhead where we have arranged for a vehicle. Across the valley we can see the road being built which will lead to Sakten, these roads will certainly change the complexion of this area. The residents are understandably interested in the roads being completed, access to markets for buying and selling goods is very important to them.

We returned to Phongmey and then to Trashigang. We purchased tickets for a flight from Yonphula to Paro. This airport, the farthest east in Bhutan, has a runway which is bumpy, runs uphill halfway through, and is perched along a ridgetop in the foothills of the Himalaya, the far end drops away very steeply all the way to the valley. Summer, the rainy season is always hit and miss for the biweekly flights. We waited for several hours as the sun played with the clouds over the valley floor thousands of feet below. After a 4 hr wait the flight appeared out of the clouds right at the level of the runway, an amazing landing between two small hills and we were in business. The following day was election day, nothing open which chased us into a cab on homeward to Punakha, the circle completed.


  1. Awesome recount of your holidays Brick! I didn't realise what an adventure you and Sarah had, it sounds amazing (and wet and muddy).

  2. I heard this first hand from Sarah but am green with envy for the second time reading it. Not sure how I would have enjoyed the rain. . . Sarah did add comments about her pack being really bothersome after 10 hours and a tractor ride at one point. Great story. thanks