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Bhutan - Land of the Dragon 2

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Trip report of a magical three weeks spent travelling through Bhutan in October/November 2009, originally posted on the Slow travel Forum.

As there are so many pictures, I have decided to break the trip report up into three parts. The
first part covers background information, Paro and Thimphu. This one covers the drive from Thimphu to Punakaha, the Phobjika valley, Trongsa and Jakar. The third part covers the drive from Jakar to Mongar and then Trashigang and Trashi Yangsi, before leaving Bhutan by road at Samdrup Jonkar.


Thimphu to Punakha and the Narlanda Buddist Institute

It is a long but pleasant drive from Thimphu along the sides of the valley with scattered farms with small fields and terraces with orchards. There were stalls on the roadside selling bags of red and yellow apples.

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The road climbs through open blue pine woodland to Dochula Pass at 3149m. There is a huge car park and the newly built Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. Clouds obscured distant views of the snow covered mountains.

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In the centre of the road is a small island with 108 small chortens surrounded by a wall, with steps leading up to the tallest chortan at the top. Cars go round this clockwise. These were built in 2005 in thanksgiving for the victory of the Bhutanese in flushing out Assamese militants from the south of the country and as atonement for the loss of life. Each chorten is painted white with an orange band. A carved slate is set into the wall with a painting of a lama. The stone slab roofs have gold painted carved wood round the edge.

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There were lots of prayer flags on the hillside above the road road. We started to walk up through woodland hoping to reach the ridge for views. After 15 minutes walking, we gave up. We later realised we would have needed to climb several hundred feet...

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After the pass, the road dropped steeply through lots of hairpin bends down a very narrow valley with streams and waterfalls rushing down the hillsides. Several had water driven prayer wheels. People were using water from these to wash cars, as the water is considered holy and to give protection from danger.

The valley gradually opened out with villages and steep terraced hillsides. This is an area of temperate forest with rhododendrons and magnolia which bloom in March and April.

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There were stalls selling persimmon and mushrooms Roasted corn cobs were being sold from a small canvas tent with a wood fire. The leaves were peeled back and the cobs put on metal supports and roasted in the hot wood ash embers. They were either eaten hot (excellent) or else rewrapped in their outer leaves to take home and eat cold later.

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As we continued to drop the temperature increased, becomimngs semi-tropical. Poinsettia covered with bright scarlet flowers were growing wild in the hedgerows.

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There were temples and houses up hillside with the older settlements on the flat hill tops. Newer settlements in the valley bottoms were surrounded by terraced rice fields.

We were booked for 2 nights in Meri Puesum Resort, half way up a hillside looking over the Punakha valley. It was a lovely setting.

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It was a very stylish building surrounded by beautiful gardens with Poinsettia and Bougainvillea. There was a large outside sitting area shaded by passion flower with small stone building with bar. The main building housed the reception area and dining room with lounge above. Rooms however, especially in the main building were basic. Dinners were good, breakfasts average.

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We saw a poster in the hotel reception asking for volunteers to join ‘advanced English speaking classes at Nalanda Buddist Institute and asked our guide if this could be arranged for us. The institute was about 10km drive up the valley. By local standards it was a very good road as it lead to the Queen’s village. It was a lovely climb through open woodland past small settlements with farmhouses set among terraced fields. Schoolchildren walking home along the road stopped to look at the car and wave. There were women washing clothes in a stream and cows grazing along the roadside.

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We parked and walked down a rough track to the Institute where we were met by one of the monks who took us into the garden to sit under the trees. We hadn’t realised it was a monastery. There are about 120 monks studying there who are split into 3 groups. The Lhakhang with a large teaching room above was used by the oldest monks. There was a smaller building down the hillside with more classrooms used by the younger monks.

I was with the oldest group and was taken up the stairs into a large dark room above the main Lhakhang. There was white board and red marker but no other resources. About 40 monks (from about 12-25) arrived with books and pens. They sat attentively on the floor in front of me cross legged with their books open ready to write. They were used to formal lessons where they listened and wrote.

We always take pictures of family, our house and garden and town to show to people. I was very pleased to have them as an ice breaker and to start a conversation. They liked names and kept repeating Eleanor, Michael, Louisa (daughter) and Dana (son in law’s dog). They were highly amused when I told them we lived on top of a hill - all of 50m above sea level. I did most of the talking. A few brave souls asked questions. There was a long discussion why we had a queen but not a king, what we liked about Bhutan and they were amazed when I said we didn’t grow enough food in UK for our population and had to import food. I was asked about our cities and their names which led on to a discussion about football as they all knew the names of the big teams. I had to confess I didn’t know much about football and and even less about pop music...

I must have talked for about 90min and was getting aware they were beginning to lose interest and several were getting bored and starting to fidget. I suggested I finish and was taken to see other classroom where Michael was soldering on with a younger group with less English. I think he managed the football and pop music questions better than me.

We were offered a cup of tea with biscuits under trees before we left. It was a fascinating and very worthwhile experience and chance to see working monastery.
 
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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Punakha valley - Khamsum Yul le Chorten

We spent a day exploring the Punakha valley. We began by driving up the valley to visit Khamsum Yul le Chorten. It was a lovely drive up the Mo Chhu valley beyond Punakha. The area is very fertile and can grow two crops of rice a year. There were lots of farms and small settlements. We noticed quite a few small houses made of bamboo matting which were used as summer settlements. All the land is terraced as far as the steep wooded slopes.

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Once the rice is harvested, horses and cows are allowed the graze in the fields.

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The Chortan was across the river from the road and reached by an iron chain suspension bridge (a lot more substatial than it looked) decorated with prayer flags and a steep climb up a rough path through open woodland.
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Khamsum Yul le Chorten was built in 2004 by the Queen for the protection of the country and to ward off evil spirits. It is on top of a small hillock part way up slope with marvellous views of the valley from the roof. It is a typical Tibetan style Chorten with 3 floors with statues and tankas on each. It is surrounded by a white wall with delightful gardens walled by smaller chortans. There is no monk presence here, just Caretaker Monk from Punakha Dzong.

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The inside of the chortan is remarkable for its paintings designed to subjugate enemies and harmful influences as well as spreading peace and harmony.

On the way back down the valley, we stopped at Dho Jhaga Lam Lhakhang to see a juge boulder split in two in the garden of the Lhakhang. A C7th monk from Bangladesh was meditating on the other side of the river when his mother died. He was convinced his mother came back as insect and was trapped in the stone. He flew across river and used a thunderbolt to strike the rock, splitting it in two to release the insect so his mother could fly away into Heaven....
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Punakha and Punakha Dzong

After visiting Khamsum Yul le Chorten, we drove back to Punakha village, which has only grown up over the last fifty years. It is connected to the Dzong by a traditional bridge.

The Dzong is built on the flood plain above the confluence of the Phochhu and Mochhu rivers. Much of the Dzong has been rebuilt at different times following fires and floods. It is now reached by a steep flight of stone stairs.

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This is the winter residence of the monks from Thimphu, as it is a lower altitude and has less severe winters. It takes them two days to do the journey and the route is lined with locals who have come to see the monks.

It is a large and important Dzong and was the second to be built in Bhutan in the early C17th, on the site reputedly blessed by Guru Rinpoche in the C8th. It served as the seat of government until the mid 1950s, when it moved to Thimphu. All the Kings of Bhutan have been crowned here and the present King got married here. It is still the winter residence of the Dratshang, the official monk body.

The dzong was fortified with a defensive wall and steep wooden entry stairs designed to be pulled up at night along with a very heavy door which is still closed every night.

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It is unusual as it has three courtyards inside instead of two. The first courtyard entered is surrounded by the administrative buildings. In a corner is a Naga shrine to protect the Dzong from evil snake spirits.

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Beyond the Utse is the monastic courtyard with the main temple, which has exceptional murals decorating both the outside corridor and inside.

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Beyond is a smaller courtyard with a temple which holds the remains of Pema Lingpa and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (two highly revered religious figures). Apart from the two guardian lamas, only the King and Head Monk can enter to take blessings before they take up their offices.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Punakha valley - Chimi Lhakhang and Lobesa village

Leaving Punakha we visited Chimi Lhakhang which is described as the ‘Fertility Temple’ and is a revered place of magic and mystery. The Lhakang was built by a cousin of Lama Drukpa Kunley in the C15th who had subdued a demon with his magic thunderbolt and trapped it in a rock close to the chortan outside the temple. While searching for the thunderbolt, Drukpa Kunley chanced upon a young girl and spent the night with her, ‘blessing’ her with his offspring.

He was a charismatic teacher and known as the Mad Monk or the Divine Madman for his unorthodox methods of teaching Buddhism. He was reputed to work overtime by spreading enlightenment through a very active sex life. The phallus or Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom, was his symbol, signifying both fertility and enlightenment. Illustrations of penises became a common sight on the walls of buildings and were believed to ward off evil spirits.

The temple is visited by childless women wanting to conceive. As part of a fertility ritual, hopeful women carry a large phallus sculpture around the outside of the monastery. A wooden effigy of the lama’s thunderbolt (phallus) held in the lhakhang is then used to give childless women a wang (blessing or empowerment) from the saint by tapping them on the head with it. The women then roll a pair of 300 year old bone dice and after much deliberation and thoughtful analysis, several monks conclude their chances of conceiving. Donations to the temple are said to improve the odds.mNewly born children are brought for a blessing.

The Lhakhang is small with a small structure with a chortan, prayer wheels, monk’s teaching area and the temple. The walls inside the main temple are covered with pictures telling the story of the Mad Monk. We were blessed in temple by small monk. We had to cover our nose and mouth to stop evil vapours and were tapped on the head by a bow and arrow belonging to the Mad Monk.

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Chimi Lhakang is set on a small mound and reached by a 30 minute walk through the small and very traditional village of Lobesa and across the fields. Many of the houses had paintings of penises on the walls. As well as being a good luck symbol against evil spirits, it also helps stop malicious gossip.

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The rice harvest was finishing and stooks of rice straw could be seen in the fields. Cows were grazing in the fields to fertilise them before before they were ploughed using a wooden hand ploughing using 2 oxen. Progress was slow and steady as the oxen stopped at the end of the field to graze before turning the plough. The ploughman in supposed to sing to encourage oxen.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
To the Phobjikha Valley

Leaving Punakha, it was a full days drive to the Phobjikha valley, a vast U-shaped valley, set in the Black mountains of Central Bhutan and winter roosting ground for the rare population of black necked cranes. This is a very rural area and the way of life had hardly changed.

The road followed the wide river valley and began to climb. there were views across to Richengang village on the opposite hillside reached by a steep path but still with no road access.

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We made a brief stop in Wangdue, a small ramshackled town of wooden shops and houses. The main street was lined small single storied wooden buildings close together. The corrugated metal roofs were held in position using stones. At the front were small shops with living quarters behind. At top of town, houses were larger with two storeys. The authorities consider the wooden buildings to be a fire risk and there was talk of relocating the town, although this is not popular with townsfolk.

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It was market day and very busy with people and cars everywhere. Women were doing washing using taps beside market.

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Leaving Wangdue, road begins to climb valley, narrow and steep sides with little land on valley bottom. Cactus covered with yellow flowers was growing in the banks along the roadside. This was the only place we saw them.

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There is little flat land in the valley bottom so all settlement is well up the hillside with terraced fields falling away below houses. The road was narrow with a lot of bends and steep drops. Streams were rushing down the hillsides. This is not a road for the faint hearted.

Climbing towards the pass, the hillside levels out and there was more settlement and fields. We lost the blue fir forest, which was replaced by deciduous forest with with rhododendrons. Mountain tops were grassland and clear of forest. The road went through the new town of Nobding, which was built on flat land above the valley. It is renowned for the quality of its chillies.

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The road was only built in the 1980s and frequent earthquakes of floods can close the road for several days. There are permanent Indian road camps alongside the with their well tended gardens. These house the families of those employed on permanent road repairs.

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The Phobjikha valley is down a side valley. From the road junction the road continues to climb through the trees to Lawala Pas at 3360m. The road climbs up through open woodland with Yaks grazing to the pass.

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Dropping down into the Phobjika valley, the trees are lost and are replaced by very short bamboo ‘grassland’ which is kept short by Yak grazing.

The Phobjikha valley is completely different to the rest of Bhutan as it is one of the few glacial valleys and has a flat bottom which is often wet and marshy. Much of it is not suitable for agriculture and used to graze cattle. Land is not terraced and fields are large and square with wooden fences.

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The main crops are potatoes, millet, buckwheat (stooked to dry when we were there), rape and turnips. Potatoes were being lifted by hand and put in huge sacks waiting to be taken by lorry to sell to India.

The valley is not suitable for rice, explained by a local legend. The valley has two rivers, Nakay Chhu (black water) and Gay Chhu (white water) which represented a snake and a boar. The two animals once raced each other with an agreement that if the snake (Nakay Chhu) won, the Phobjikha valley would be able to grow rice, but if the boar won, then rice could never be cultivated in the area. The snake lost.

We stopped two nights in the valley at the Dewachen Hotel. This is a large stylish stone building set on the hillside overlooking the valley. The central circular building houses reception, small craft shop and the restaurant. There are two wings with bedrooms reached along an outside passage. Each bedroom has a wood burning stove which was lit on our arrival using large quantities kerosine sprayed onto the wood. It burnt fiercely for about 90min and then went out unless more wood was put on. During the evening staff came round to add wood and put hot water bottle in beds. During the night the fire goes out unless you get up regularly to put more wood on. It was impossible to relight and the room did get cold. Electricity is supplied by a generator which is turned off 9pm. You are given 5 minutes warning of this by a bell sounding.

Large wood burning stove in dining room and toast done on this for breakfast. meals were good. It was a delightful hotel and we loved it.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Phobjikha School and Lusa

Phobkika iis a tiny settlement with a few simple wooden houses. Unlike elsewhere in Bhutan, the woodwork was not decorated by painting. Cows and chickens were running around.

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We visited a small shed below the hotel to watch carpets being woven by hand on a small loom A carpet can take 2-3 weeks to complete, depending on the complexity of the pattern.

We had arranged to visit Khew school in the morning. When we arrived all the pupils were standing in classes in the playground for prayers before going to their rooms.

The school was a long low U shaped building around the playground. There was no artificial lighting and rooms were dark and old. The school day is made up of eight 40min lessons. There are 2 periods of English, maths and Dzonka (Bhutanese); 1 period of science and 1 period of Social Studies. All lessons are taught in same room - even science.

I was taken to the oldest class for their English lesson. There were about 40 very well behaved children sitting in rows. They stood when head came in and stood when answering a question. I showed them our pictures and talked to them about England and answered questions. Some of the children had good English. Their teacher said they were not allowed phones in class. There were giggles when I said English children weren’t allowed phones either but some still brought their phones to school and texted in class.

I was then taken into the youngest group who sat in groups round tables. There were no obvious resources in the room except for letters of the alphabet strung up on wall. The children had only just started to learn English and had problems understanding me. They were used to English spoken with a Bhutanese accent. Their teacher had to translate what I said into Dzonka. They had just finished their English lesson. They had been reading a book about rain and then filling in the missing word in sentence in their exercise books. They lacked confidence at this age to read aloud individually so the book is read by the whole class in a sing song voice - a bit like monks chanting.

The children were getting tired of English and there were increasing mutterings about missing their next lesson which was dzonka and obviously much more popular than English. I finished up by singing ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ to them - at least their teacher recognised the song.

Michael struggled with his group at first. They had limited English and he was left on his own with them. They had a book about food which they read aloud. He then wrote the names of vegetables on the board which the children spelled out as he wrote. They love doing this. Once he had exhausted all the vegetables he could think of he moved onto meat and the animal the meat came from. This regarded as great fun when he asked what sound the animals made. He wrote the name of the sound on board for the children to spell out and then make the sound with lots of noise. It was enjoyed by all, but possibly bad for discipline.

We thoroughly enjoyed our morning and were sad to leave the children.

Later that day, we many of the children walking home from school, who recognised us as all waved and said ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. Several asked ‘what is your name’ and ‘how are you?’

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Further up the valley from the hotel was the delightful small village of Lusa, a collection of unpainted beaten earth and wood houses on the hillside above the road reached by a rough, narrow path. Narrow paths and tracks linked the houses which were surrounded by small yards and sheds. None of the houses had window, just wooden shutters. Cows were coming down from hillside for night and making their way to the individual houses to be shut in cow shed for night.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
A day around the Phobjika valley

We spent a day exploring the Phobjika valley.

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We followed a nature trail across the valley bottom to Khewang Lhakhang, a small local temple built and maintained by the village. A wall surrounds the single temple which has statues of the past, present and future Buddhas. The original temple was built in the C16th to ward off evil spirits and protect the valley from famine and disease.

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After the harvest had finished, the villagers had began work on a new block to house 25 monks. This was being made from beaten earth. Soil was dug straight from the ground. The largest stones were removed and it was put into sacks to be carried to building site. Wood was used to make the framework for mud sections. The soil was poured from the sacks into the wooden frames and then beaten hard using large hand held sticks. This releases water from the earth which binds the soil into a hard brick.

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Inside the monastery building there were three small monks in the kitchen cooking lunch of meat and potatoes in a huge cauldron boiling over wood fire. One monk was watching this as the second peeled potatoes. Lunch was going to be late as they had been playing and forgotten the time.

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We had a picnic lunch by the river before following a path up through open woodland on the side of the hill before rejoining the road up the valley. This was a lovely walk above area black necked cranes overwinter. We passed a little boy with a big bundle wood he was taking home for winter fuel. He had collected the wood in the forest and chopped it to size. He had already made 2 trips. He couldn’t go to school as he was needed at home.

We visited the White Crane Information Centre where we watched a video about the cranes. The birds spend the summer on the Tibetan plateau and overwinter in the Phobkika valley. The first birds arrive at the end of October or beginning of November and leave again in mid February. Unfortunately they were late arriving the year we visited, so we missed seeing them.

The birds are one of the rarest of the crane family and are revered by the Bhutanese as representing the spirits of long gone ancestors. Their arrival signifies longevity, peace and prosperity.

The Royal Society for the protection of Nature in Bhutan has established a reserve here to protect the cranes and has paid farmers to encourage them to expand the wetland favoured by the cranes. when electricity arrived in the valley, power lines were buried underground so as not to interfere with the cranes flight paths in the valley.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
The Phobjika valley - Gangtey Gompa

Gangtey Gompa
is built on top of a hill overlooking the valley and surrounded by a small village. Locals had collected rhododendron leaves which they had dried and were then beating to make incense to burn to please the spirits.

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The monastery dates from the early C17th and was founded by the grandson of Pema Lingpa. It had been newly restored and painted in 2008. It was built using local timber and stones and a guardian deity was supposed to have created a landslide to give better access to stones.

it is surrounded by a wall with courtyard, quarters for the monks and central payer hall which is one of the largest in Bhutan. Less than 40 monks are based here, from nursery to 4th standard. Older monks from Himanchal Pradesh come here to study for 9 years before returning to teach in India.

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We watched a monk preparing a ritual cake. These are unbaked cakes are made by kneeding roasted barley flour (tsampa) and butter and built up round a wooden spar for support. The finished articles are very elaborate and coloured using different dyes. They are offered to the gods during worship.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Drive to Trongsa

We were sad to leave the beautiful Phobjikha valley. We drove back over Lawala Pass on a beautiful clear morning with views of the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas.

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The road continued to to climb to Pelela Pass at 3423m and marked by a chortan and prayer flags. This is considered to be the boundary between western and central Bhutan. There was a small craft stall with women spinning the tail hair of yaks to make rope and belts. There were strings of dried yak cheeses for sale.

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The road drops down from the pass through winter pasture for the yak herders who lived in small bamboo built shelters surrounded by close grazed bamboo. As the road dropped the valley became wider and crops were grown in large fields on the slopes of the valley.

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The road became narrow and very windy, running on a ledge cut out of the hillside. There were many blind bends. There was little traffic, apart from taxis with a death wish coming straight at us.
Rukubjeg village is a large settlement built on an huge alluvial fan. There were extensive fields where mustard, potatoes, barley, wheat , turnip and buckwheat are grown. Their main source of income is from the sale of potatoes, yak’s cheese and butter. The potato crop had been harvested in September and and sold to India. The fields had been planted with mustard and the yellow colour of the flowers provided a splash of colour on the hillsides.

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We stopped to watch bamboo fences being woven on roadside. These are either sold to passing travellers or taken to Wandue to sell. The farmers have to pay to cut the bamboo. Fences only last a few seasons.

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We stopped at Chendepji Chortan. Three rivers join here and it was considered a bad place so the chortens were built as a protection against the demon who had been terrorising the valley. There was a Nepalese and Bhutanese style chorten as well as a chorten wall, with stones carved with Buddhist scriptures. These were traditionally built along the side of roads.

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The scenery became increasingly mountainous with deep wooded valleys. Cherry trees grow here and in autumn are covered with pink blossom. The road was built half way up the hillside passing scattered farms and crossing streams.

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After a big bend there was a splendid view of Trongsa Dzong.

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The old road dropped down the steep hillside across a bridge and climbed up to the Dzong. This is now a footpath. The newer road contours round the hillside for another 20-30 minutes before reaching Trongsa.

We just had one night in Trongsa, stopping at Yangkhil Resort, 5-10 minutes drive from the village. It is built above the road in an isolated setting with good views across the terraced rice fields and farmhouses to the Dzong.

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The main building is very stylish with reception and the dining room. Bedrooms which were large and comfortable, were in small blocks scattered around the pleasant gardens. Avoid the ground floor rooms have no view and may have people going past the window. There was a water wheel with a stream falling down small waterfalls under a bridge and into a small pond.

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There are good views from the gardens down the valley to Trongsa.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Trongsa and Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa is an attractive small town built on a ridge above the gorge of the Mangde Chhu valley and dominated by the Dzong. Much of it dates from the 1980s. It is a busy town with shops and a few hotels along the main street. There was a small forestry office where locals had to pay for wood they collect from the forest.

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The Dzong is a long narrow building, occupying a spur above the river, and reached across a traditional bridge.

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Strategically placed in the centre of Bhutan, the Dzong controlled routes to the south, east and west. Originally the main road ran through the centre of the Dzong and travellers were taxed to pass through it. It was an important administrative centre and the seat of the Wangchuck dynasty of Penlops (governors) who effectively ruled over much of eastern and central Bhutan, and from 1907 have been Kings of Bhutan. It is also an important monastic complex with over 300 monks living here although many move to Kurke monastery in the Bumthang Valley for the summer months.

In 1543, Ngagi Wanchuk, the great grandfather of Shabdrug Mgawang Namgyal, founded a temple here. He was meditating and saw a light at the far point of the spur. He interpreted this as an auspicious sign and a site for a temple. The Dzong was built in the mid C17th by Shabdrung Mgawang Namgyal and it has been enlarged several times since then. It became the base for the monastic community in the C18th.

The Dzong has a defensive wall around it with buildings built against the inside. Open corridors running along the walls give access to rooms. Because of the steep site, the Dzong is built on many levels with narrow stone stairs, alleys and corridors connecting the different courtyards and buildings. There are 23 separate temples along with the administrative buildings.

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Corridors with painted walls lead to the monk’s accommodation.

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A watchtower, Ta Dzong, was built above the Dzong. This has been restored and opened as a museum concentrating on Buddhist art and the history of the monarchy. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit this.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
To the south of Trongsa and Kuenga Rabten

We spent a morning exploring south of Trongsa on the road that ran along the opposite side of the Mangde Chhu valley.

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The drive was slow along a very winding road high above a deep and steep valley through forest with few views. We passed a long chain of pack horses with panniers full of goods heading to Trongsa.

The valley eventually opened out with lots of small villages with terraced slopes growing rice. As we dropped down the temperature became noticeably warmer. There were Poinsettia bushes covered with flowers along the roadside. Cows were being taken out to graze along the side of the road or in the harvested fields. There were small bamboo shelters for cows in the fields with threshed hay stored above.

The rice had been harvested and was being threshing by hand by hitting bundles of rice on a large stone. Bamboo screens provided shelter.

There were lots of bamboo panels for sale along the side of the road. Turnips were laid out to dry in the centre of the road.

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Kuenga Rabten Palace, set above the road, is about 23knm south of Trongsa and was the Winter Palace of the Second King. It is a large stone building dating from the C19th. As in all traditional buildings, the ground floor was used to store food. The royal attendants and army lived on first floor. The Royal apartments were on the second floor. The King lived in the right wing and his wives in the left wing.

The Palace became a monastery during the third King’s reign and houses the National Library of Bhutan. About 50 very young monks live here and move to Trongsa when they are older. The monks arrive at either 5 or 6 years old and often have problems settling into monastic life. They don’t know how to wash clothes, make beds, cook etc. and there are lots of complaints.

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The young monks were about to have breakfast when we arrived. They were sitting cross legged in a double line in the courtyard with the reincarnation of a great monk at their head. They were served a huge helping of rice in a wooden bowl with a spoonful of chillies on top. They chanted and made an offering of rice to the local deity before beginning to eat. Any remains were left on the ground for the birds. When the meal was finished they went for their lessons.

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In retrospect we wish we had allowed for a longer to see the valley, and to have had chance to walk along the road through the small settlements and watch the population at work.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Drive to the Bumthang valley

It was about a three hour drive from Trongsa to Bumthang, a group of four wide valleys with gentle slopes. Jakar is the main centre. The Chume and Chgoekhor valleys are mainly agricultural growing buckwheat, barley and wheat with potatoes as a cash crop. Rice has only recently started to be grown here. The Tang and Ura valleys are mainly pastoral with yak and sheep. The area feels different as houses are traditionally built from stone rather than rammed earth.

The road climbed out of the valley, to the pass at Yotongla, with a chortan in the middle of the road. At just over 11000’, this is one of the highest roads in Bhutan.

The only settlement along the road were isolated roadmens’ houses. The road climbed up through deciduous forest which was beginning to change colour, and was replaced by open coniferous forest with bamboo at higher altitudes. Much of the bamboo was dead or dying from disease and was a pale brown/grey colour. By now we were getting up into the cloud and it felt and looked very atmospheric.

Once over the pass we dropped down out of the cloud and it became clearer and cooler. The road dropped down through yak grazing areas and back into deciduous forest in the wide Chume Valley. There were square fields of buckwheat (harvested) surrounded by open weave bamboo panels.

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We stopped and walked through Gaytsa village along a narrow stony lane between tall stone walls and unpainted wooden houses. This is very much off the tourist trail and completely unspoilt.

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The road followed the Chhume valley to Chhume village with lots wooden cowsheds on the edge of the village.

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This famous for its weaving. Woollen cloth known as yatras, is hand woven on pedal looms and is used to make bed covers, cushions and even garments. There are two workshops selling goods but both had finished work for the day.

The road climbed to the pass at Kikla with chortan and lots of prayer flags, before dropping down through the trees into the Bumthang valley. At only 9500’, this is lower than Yotongla, but there were no views because of all the trees.

This is a very fertile agricultural region and is often referred to as Bhutan’s religious and cultural heartland. Guru Rinpoche first introduced Buddhism here in the C8th and the legendary saint, Pema Linpa was born in the Tang valley. It still has some of the oldest temples in Bhutan.

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The valleys remained isolated and poor until the arrival of the main east west road. Jakar is the main trading centre for the area and the main street is lined with small wooden houses with shops on the ground floor. When we visited in 2009, there were plans to move the settlement further up the valley. Work had begun on building a new town but was slow. There were a lot of big new hotels being built and we did wonder whether there would be enough tourists to fill them....

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We were booked into Mepham Guest House on the hillside above Jakar and owned by the Kharchu Monastery on the hillside above. The restaurant is in the main block and the rooms in a long, low side block, with views across the valley. It was very quiet and for most of the time we were the only people there. Our room looked across the valley to the Dzong. Rooms can best be described as simple but were a reasonable size and had an ensuite bathroom. There was a very effective wood burning stove with a good supply of wood and fir cones. We found the secret was to light the fir cones using a candle and gradually add the wood. What it may have lacked in facilities was more than made up for by the staff who were delightful and very keen to please.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Jakar - Jakar Dzong and Wanduecholin Palace

Jakar Dzong dominates the valley and has a very large utse built into the outer walls. It is the administrative centre for the area and has had a monastic community for the last thirty years.

After he had founded Trongsa, Ngagi Wangchuk came to Bumthang and built a monastery on a place where he saw a white bird perching. He took this to be a good omen. His grandson, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal repaired the monastery and it became a Dzong. Since then, it has been repaired and extended several times.

It is reached by a steep climb up steps from the road. There is a huge wooden doorway which leads into the administration courtyard. This is long and narrow with steps at the far end leading up into the Monks’ courtyard. The defensive wall was lined with buildings with the monks quarters on the top floors. 30-35 monks live here.

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When we visited, the monks were taking musical instruments - drums and horns - into the courtyard as they were needed for use in a service outside the Dzong.

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Wanduecholin Palace in Jakar, was the birthplace of the first King of Bhutan and was the Summer Palace of the first and second Kings. The third king was born here and it was his home until the royal court moved to Punakha in 1952.

The palace was built in the mid C19th and was the first palace in Bhutan that wasn’t designed as a fortress. It is a large wooden house inside a walled enclosure with granaries and servants quarters built against the side wall.

The palace has not been used by the royal family since 1971 and was given to the monk body by the fourth King’s sister in 2004 as the family no longer needed the building. When we visited, it housed a small community of young monks with a head monk. It had a feeling of decayed grandeur with faded and peeling paintwork.

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Since we visited, the Bhutan Foundation has begun to restore the building with the intention of opening it as a museum covering the history of Bhutan., with an emphasis on oral history
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Jampa Lhakhang


Jampa Lhakhang is a short drive from Jakar and is one of the oldest in Bhutan. The original foundation was C7th and is reputed to be one of the 108 temples built in a single day by Songtsen Gampo to subdue an ogress, believed to be thwarting the spread of Bsuddhism. The present building is C15th but with later additions. More temples were added in the C19th, forming a closed courtyard. The golden roofs and temple area were surrounded by a wall with lots of small prayer wheels. The complex is looked after by a caretaker monk from Trongsa.

When we visited, there were great preparations for the Naked Monk Dance festival which began at midnight the following day. The courtyard was being cleared of weeds using small knives. Stalls were being set up. Many old people were walking round clockwise with hand held prayer wheels and prayer beads.

According to the legend, a band of devils were obstructing the building of a nearby temple. In an attempt to distract the devils, Terton Dorji Lingpa launched a naked dance. The outrageous exploits of the performers spellbound the devils allowing the temple to be completed.

Now the dance is regarded as a fertility rite. Women who are unable to conceive or give birth come and believe if they can touch one of the monks they will conceive within the year. It is a popular with the locals who travel for miles to the event and also attracts many tourists.

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Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Kurje Lhakhang and Tamshing Gompa

These make a nice walk through the fields from Jampa Llhakhang.

Kurje Lhakhang is an important temple complex at the end of a paved road. There are three large lhakhangs set on the hillside facing south, surrounded by an 108 chorten wall. It is one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche meditated here while he subdued and defeated a local deity who was making the King of Bumthang ill. A temple was built around the rock where Guru Rinpoche meditated and had left an imprint of his body. The big cypress tree behind the lhakhang is reputed to have sprouted from the Guru Rinpoche’s walking stick. A second temple was built by the first King in 1900 and a third temple by the Queen mother 1984. This is not open for visits.

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There are views from the lhakhang down across the village to the river. and the wooded mountain slopes.

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From Kurje Lhakhang we dropped down the path to the river and across a suspension bridge and followed the path along the river to Tamshing Gompa. Parts are early C16th and were built by Pema Lingpa, who is believed to be a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche. It was the main base of Pema Lingpa and he was responsible for the paintings on the walls in the corridor around the main temple. These are probably the oldest paintings in Bhutan. Butter lamps were left burning on a shelf around the walls and offerings left.

In the vestibule in front of the sanctuary is a coat of mail made by Pema Lingpa. According to tradition, if a person walks three times round the sanctuary wearing the mail coat part of their sins will be wiped away.

The present Head Monk is the 11th reincarnation of Pema Lingpa although he is not normally here. His picture is left on his chair in the temple.

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