Our Final Days in Bhutan

Greetings!

After my last post we spent 5 more days in Bhutan. Although they were altogether less eventful than the preceding 20, we were able to see a number of fascinating sites and make some wonderful Bhutanese friends in our dorm stay. Before leaving Thimphu, (my apologies for the typo in the last post, spelling it without the second “h”) we went on a quick afternoon excursion to visit a paper factory, the takin reserve, and a giant, giant Buddha on a mountainside overlooking Thimphu. I will put together a quick video showing how paper is made, but for now, still images will have to do.

Image

Image

Image

After the paper factory we made our way to the takin reserve. The takin is what the people of Bhutan call their national animal. It is considered a goat-antelope, and looks like a strange mix between a mountain goat, a bear, and a moose, depending on how you look at it. Some people thought it was cute; others thought it was strange. I’d probably say it was strangely cute, but who am I to judge? You can do that for yourself.

Image

From the takin reserve we made our way to the giant Buddha that overlooks the city. This, I have to say, was even more spectacular than I had imagined it would be. As a sign at its base claims, it is the biggest Buddha in the world. We can’t be too sure of that, but hey, it is pretty damn big. The base is still under construction, but the temple inside is open for business. We simply admired its grandeur from the ground, taking copious amounts of pictures from all angles, trying to get the sun just right behind this beautiful figure.

fImage

 

Overlooking Thimphu from the base of the Buddha.

Imagethe

After this day we had a “rest-day” to do what we pleased. For most of us, this meant sleeping in, reading, bingeing on internet, and buying gifts for ourselves and our families and friends. We left Thimphu on Sunday, March 23 for Paro, the small city in the west of Bhutan from where we would eventually depart three days later. Before reaching Paro we made two stops: the first was to visit a bridge and a monastery built in the 16th century by an Asian renaissance man. Indeed, it was one of the more precarious bridges I have ever crossed, but it was a pretty neat experience.

Image

Image

Image

Image

The second stop was at a dakini. Yeah, we didn’t know what it was either. Turns out a dakini is a person who has died and then come back to life. Thus, they have “been to the other side” and, with that experience, has special powers like telling the future. Each of us had our futures predicted, but none of us will hold our breath on that. Once we reached Paro we made our way to the Paro College of Education where we would stay the next three days. This time, instead of kicking-it in the guesthouse, we each were put with one, or two or three Bhutanese students. My roommate was so incredibly generous and ensured that I was comfortable and warm at all times. Our second day in Paro we left for a hike to Taksang, the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery poised on the sheer face of a cliff. At around 9,000 feet in elevation, Taksang is undisputedly one of the most sacred places in all of the Himalayas. It was built around the 16th century. Thankfully, we did not have to walk the whole way up – like the lazy Americans that we are – but instead had help from some wonderful, albeit temperamental, four-legged friends.

Image

I’m on a horse! (those are my feet…)

Image

 

On the way up.

Image

 

There it is, but it is still so far away…

 

Image

 

Trying to be artsy, but also drawing out the final reveal of what when I focus on the big picture.

Image

Here it is!

Image

 

And that, more or less, concludes our trip to Bhutan. It was an amazing three weeks, but alas! (sorry, I have been reading a lot of Dumas lately) we have returned to Nepal, the land of dust, honking horns, and our loving Tibetan home stay families. Although I shall not return to Bhutan anytime in the near future – and quite possibly ever – it was nice to come back “home.” I have made friends and seen amazing things while in Bhutan, and these memories are ones I will certainly not forget. At present, I am headed out the door of our program house to see my Tibetan family once again, and thus I close this chapter of my blog. I hope the pictures and words I have put on this page have captivated your interest long enough for you to read this far. As always, thank you for reading, and I will be speaking to you again soon.

 

 

In the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is a place where the landscape never ceases to amaze, where you receive a beautifully red smile from all, and the food burns with the intense sensation of flaming Bhutanese chilies. Our journey to Bhutan began with a flight from Kathmandu to Paro on March 5. We had the proper connections for securing our seats on the plane, thus the whole group was blessed with a view of the Himalayas that undoubtedly rivals any image you can find on the internet. Some of us might return to Bhutan simply to take the flight one more time. This imposing peak is the rooftop of the world. It is hard to believe we were flying at the same altitude as these mountains, staring into the snow-covered abyss of unpredictable weather and treacherous crevasses that draws the kind of thrill-seeker that some would say flirt with fine line between masochist and pure adrenaline junkie.

Image

 

After landing in Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan, we received our visas, put our baggage through security, then walked back out onto the tarmac to board the same plane. Druk Air is the only airline that flies in and out of Bhutan and their pilots are specifically trained to traverse this mountainous terrain and skillfully land on runways tucked deep inside the valleys. Feel free to look up “Landing in Paro” on YouTube for the full experience. Needless to say it was exciting as the plane wobbled back and forth. Thankfully the scenery was enough to distract most of us. The next flight was to a district in central Bhutan called Bumthang (boom-tāng), from which our journey would begin.

Image

 

This is us in Paro, experiencing the clean air and warm sun of Bhutan for the first time.

 

For the sake of clarity, I thought I would include a map of our journey. I have already mentioned Paro(1) and the district of Bumthang. We

were specifically in Jakar(2) for just a day or two. 

Image

 

 

Our brief stay near Jakar gave us a taste of Bhutanese food and hospitality. The guesthouse was more incredible than any of us could have guessed, complete with personal wood stoves, hot showers, and one complimentary hot stone, herbal bath. As I’m sure one can understand, we were reluctant to leave. 

Image

 

While in this part of Bhutan we visited a small Swiss brewery and were treated with a sample of their delicious Weiss Bier called Red Panda, as well as some of their very sweet apple juice. We really couldn’t have asked for a better way to start our stay in Bhutan. 

Image

 

The next day we headed to Öyen Choling palace and then the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies (ILCS) in a town called Taktse in Trongsa(3) district. Before getting to the institute we went on a hike that took us up to about 12,000 feet altitude. Some of us felt minor effects of altitude sickness (namely just bad headaches) and we were all quite out of breath. The views were breathtaking (no pun intended) and far worth the struggle. 

Image

This shows a few dorms at ILCS and the valley that it overlooks. 

Image

While at ILCS we had a few lectures and spent time eating meals and hanging out with the Bhutanese students. It is impossible to describe their genuine interest in our studies and our lives. Their generosity is incredible. Often times we were treated like royalty. But no matter how hard they tried to do our dishes or let us cut in line for dinner, we insisted on acting like regular students. By the end we made close friends over games of darts (pictured below), soccer, and light-hearted conversation. The soccer field was pretty rough, but the view was hard to beat. 

Image

 

Image

 

We were also able to try on ghos and kiras, the traditional dress for men and women respectively. This brought even more attention our way, especially when we went to prayer with the students. We left ILCS with bittersweet feelings after a rousing cultural show, put on by us and the Bhutanese students. Next stop was the College of Natural Resources (CNR). Like ILCS, CNR is a part of the Royal University of Bhutan, headquartered in Thimpu, the capital. CNR is located in Punakha at a lower elevation than ILCS and surrounded by more infrastructure (ILCS was on top of a hill with more or less nothing around it). Before getting to CNR we made a stop at the most beautiful dzong in all of Bhutan (and the world). A dzong is a fortress, and this is the second one we visited up to this point in our journey west. This particular dzong is significant not only because of its grandeur, but in more recent history it is the place of the 5th (and current) king of Bhutan’s wedding. He and his wife are some of the most beautiful people on the planet – picture a Bhutanese Elvis and Mulan, and you’ve got them. Another fun fact about this dzong is that it was built without a single nail. Like other traditional Bhutanese architecture, this dzong is built out of timber from the surrounding forests, stone, and mud. Houses and dzongs are well built and, according to multiple people, will stand for 80-120 years if treated well. 

Image

Image

Walking down the main walkway of CNR (it is very small). 

 

During our 5 days at CNR we had more lectures ranging from the importance of chillies in the Bhutanese diet (very important, by the way), to the significance of chicken in Bhutanese culture. On one day we ventured to a monastery that provided us with a great view of the gorgeous, emerald terraced fields and the river at their feet. 

Image

Image

I even managed to make it into a picture…

Image

That same day we had a little excursion to a local village where we were able, with the help of CNR students, to ask questions for mini research projects we are undertaking while in Bhutan. I am most interested in Bhutanese architecture and the social and environmental implications of such building, so I made sure to take pictures of a house under construction. This is the traditional method with locals helping to build in exchange for food and a local carpenter who was trained through observation and a master-apprenticeship style. (If you are interested, ask me more about this. I have too much to write here.)

Image

This is an example of a finished house, supposedly 50 years young. 

Image

Finally, before leaving CNR, we made a point to explore the phallic culture in Bhutan. To clarify, the obsession with phalluses in Bhutan is derived from the popular saint of Bhutan named Drukpa Kunley, who, as the story goes, subdued many demons (and women) with his “thunderbolt.” Thus, the “thunderbolt” is painted on buildings and placed strategically on houses and other buildings as a sign of protection and fertility. We were lucky enough to visit his temple and be blessed by a bow and arrow and a large wooded phallus. As the joke goes, Bhutan is the land of dzongs and dongs. These pictures are for real, but may not be suitable for all audiences…

 Image

ImageImage

Image

But despite the phallus art, we did see more beautiful fields and had an enjoyable, yet very humble, stay at CNR. The next day we left for Thimpu, the capital. This is stop number 5 on our map. We will be here, in rooms pictured below, until Sunday, March 23. From here we go to Paro(6) again to visit the Paro College of Education and explore a little more. The city is amazing and we are having a blast. We have met some very intelligent people who have helped all of us explore our interests more than we could have imagined. From Paro we will return to Kathmandu for out last official week of class before we all part ways to conduct our Independent Research Projects in various locations. There will be much more to come on that. 

 

Image 

I know this was quite long-winded, but I hope the pictures served as an aloe to the burn of my logorrhea (lots of word or word-vomit, if you will). Thank you once again for reading and please let me know what you think. All the best and I will update with more soon!