Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Farewell Tour

A year in Bhutan, an opportunity few will have and an experience anyone would cherish. How does one finish the year well? For me it was more than a month of time to explore and say farewells to people and places. The school year is structured such that my duties essentially
evaporated toward the end of the year. In addition I stayed in Bhutan ‘til Dec 27 in order to take advantage of being in a place on the opposite side of the planet which I am unlikely to visit again in this life.

Highlights of the farewell tour are many, I’ll touch on a few. Tucked high in a valley above Wangdue is Baylangdra Monastery. Many miles of “farm” road, the official designation for rough, rural roads, lead to the Monastery. I caught some rides in that direction after doing my typical 1 hour steep descent on foot to the Phunasentchu river from my home in Gaselo. The last ride began in a seriously overloaded van, I had an older man on my lap, the taxi driver and his friend, a teacher who had attended Gaselo HSS as a student, declared that I would stay with them.  The next morning I walked, 1½ hrs to the monastery and another 1+ hr steep climb to the newly rebuilt hermitage which hangs onto a ledge in the cliffs like so many temples in Bhutan. Winter vacation for students and teachers applies to monks as well, so the only two folks present when I arrived were a caretaker and a woodworker who had done all the carving and painting for the newly built temple. I spent several hours there, sitting and gazing at the view, having tea, communicating as best I could. The valley below looks like a bit of Switzerland and nary a car disturbs the view. Walking down made for a second pass of the HUGE cypress tree which is said to have grown from the walking staff of the Guru Rimpoche. A second night spent with the taxi driver and it is off to Thiimphu for an appointment with the dentist.

On my way home from Thimphu I stop on top of Dochu La and walk the ridgetop trail to Luchung Tse, a monastery perched upon a high spot on the ridge. Only a few monks present two of whom are partaking in a hot stone bath. Certainly a bonus for taking on the monastic vows. I beg for a place to sleep and am rewarded by a hot meals and a cozy bed. The next morning I rise just before the sun so that I can behold dawn from the stone patio which surrounds the temple and provides a truly stunning 360 ° of the Himalaya on all horizons. After an inspiring visit to the temple with the clouds playing a part in sunrise then disappearing to give an un obstructed vista and some breakfast I set off for Hingle La, the pass over which I had walked earlier in the year. After reaching Nahi I could say that I had covered the
whole distance from Gaselo to Dochu La and down to Hontsho on foot, very nice.

Another sojourn of note occurred following our final debrief in Thimphu. Three of us set out for the Haa valley on a beautiful blue sky winter afternoon. The drive into the valley is breathtakingly spectacular. The village of Haa is unremarkable in many ways but it is pretty high in the mountains and pretty chilly compared to other places. We sought out a bukhari (wood stove) to sit around as the sun was setting and the chill in the air became more than just noticeable. A specialty of the area turned out to be buckwheat dumplings filled
with saag and many other goodies, some of the best vege momos of the whole year. One day was spent on a short but exciting hike to a small hermitage in a cliff above town and then around and
through the cliffs to a monastery on the other side of the ridge in the morning and a bit of exploring in the valley that afternoon.

I had hoped all along that blue skies would bless my last few days in Bhutan as I wanted very much to see the big mountains. Once again, as had happened so many times, Bhutan provided. The skies were perfectly clear as we headed up Chele La, the highest mountain pass in Bhutan which is crossed by a paved road. The road was built in large part to serve tourists a spectacular view from the 13,120ft
(3998m) summit similar to Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. We had planned to meet a friend on top coming from the Paro side and the timing was perfect. Our driver, like most Bhutanese, was quite conservative and very nervous about driving down the Paro side which was protected from the sun and had many patches of snow covered road. After conferring with the other driver he was willing to give it a try, I suspect we broadened his horizons a bit that day.

We headed up through the forest of prayer flag poles and maze of prayer flags strung everywhere. After several bumps on the ridge, each progressively higher, we reached the summit where there was a small stone hut. Apparently this site is used for the sky burial of children. An amazing spot for so many reasons. The distinct
white pyramid of Johulmahari, Bhutan’s highest peak, was just off to our right. Off to our left on a more distant horizon was the unmistakeable Kachungjunga massive, third highest peak in the world. Behind us ridge after ridge of lower mountains filled the view as Bhutan ran into India. We continued along the ridge as it descended above a cliff sided valley. Some fortunate route finding found us walking a trail around the cliffs to the Kila Nunnery nestled into the base of the cliff. Apparently the oldest nunnery in Bhutan this is an auspicious spot indeed. A visit to the temple, tea with a few of the young nuns, and time spent to absorb all we could from the place completed our afternoon as we headed down the trail to find the road.

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