chilling feet

chilling feet

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan, land of the Thunder Dragon. What an auspicious place indeed! A mystical country tucked away in the Himalayan mountains, it is a place where a Buddhist kingdom has remained fairly untouched by the outside world for a long time.

Bhutan came on our radar when we were living in New Zealand a few years ago. Sarah came home talking about it. One of the other American doctors working with her there had traveled to the country and said it was his favorite place in the entire world to hike. Well we like hiking and the description he painted was a little too wonderful to not look into visiting. Then more recently Sarah worked with someone else who had been to Bhutan and this person also described a place we just had to visit. So the wheels began to turn more intentionally and we began to figure out how to make our way to this mountain country on the other side of the world.

It is not super easy to get to Bhutan. For one, they only let so many tourists visit every year and they charge a decent per day fee for anyone who wants to come. Fortunately this does not apply to volunteers - sweet. Sarah is volunteering in the hospital and I am working out the details of where I will be spending my time, which I should have figured out soon. I had hoped it might be arranged for me but I'll figure it! Stay tuned.

(Sarah's first walk to the hospital)
So here we are in Thimphu, Bhutan for just over five weeks to volunteer and see as much of the country as we can while here. It took us just over forty-eight hours to get to the country and this included some interesting airport experiences, but we made it. Our drive from Paro (where the airport is) to the capital of Thimphu was no disappointment (though the aftermath of my motion sickness meds put me to sleep after about fifteen minutes so Sarah had to tell me about some of it). Driving through a lush green valley in between towering mountains on weaving roads with prayer flags fluttering from every bridge and on the nearby hills was amazing. So far for me Bhutan is a place where the clouds creep in and hug the mountains as if to blanket them with shrouded mystery. Monks walk the crowded streets in the city and dogs are everywhere! It is a land untouched by time now slowly waking in a technological age. Monks carry cell phones, some people have abandoned the traditional dress, and one can feel the tension that exists between old and new. 

Well wouldn't you know it, our second day here we had a note on our door from some volunteers from New Zealand asking us to dinner. So we joined them in their apartment before heading out. As we talked they began to mention a weekend trip they were planning to go hike up into the mountains and then down to the Tiger's Nest. One of them mentions they had a person on their trip cancel and maybe we could join them! A few texts and telephone calls later, we were on for trying to join them in the morning for an overnight hike up into the mountains and then down to the most infamous monastery in Bhutan. We packed our bags, laid out our hiking outfits, and went to sleep with the excitement of our first excursion only two days into our stay.

And it was amazing! Challenging to say the least, especially in our acclimation attempts of getting used to the mountain living here (mostly just not used to hiking up such steep grades). And boy were our legs sore upon finishing but it was so worth it. Our hike started at a monastery in the hills outside of Paro where we were able to visit and tour the site. After some pictures and thanking the monks for letting us walk around their monastery we began our trek into the surrounding mountains. I knew it was going to be one heck of a hike when our guide pointed out our lunch spot. It was not close. But off we went and immediately the scenery shifted around us dramatically. There had been a forest fire (only three months before we were told) and the landscape was completely torched. Trees were darkened with ash. Undergrowth had only recently began to spring back to life. And where there would normally be plenty of shade there were just pitiful looking barren tree tops. It made for a strange but intriguing beginning. There was still a beauty to the forest as it willed itself back to life, though it will still be sometime before the trees can burst back to life.

As we worked our way up, always up, through the fire torn landscape, it was fascinating to see that in such a short amount of time the sacred prayer flags had already been hung back up, especially in the holy areas. Our group of seven folks slowly made our way steadily higher until finally we made it above where the fires had reached, and everywhere around us the forest was alive and bursting with floral decorations. Sarah kept stopping to look at all of the various kinds of flowers along the way - blues, crimsons, yellows, whites, and all other colors to greet us as we hiked. As we curled our way up the mountain, Paro kept sprawling out below us as it grew more distant. The view that was most interesting was that of the airport. Labeled one of the most dangerous international airports in the world for planes to land in, it was easier to see why as we hiked higher. There was simply not much room for a plane to maneuver in through the mountains before having to straighten up for what looked to me to be a relatively short runway.

And up we went, pausing for breaks, photos, and conversation. What a beautiful country. We were quite fortunate with the weather. As summer begins in Bhutan it brings with it a lot of rain, even described at times as monsoon. But we spent our entire first day climbing in some of the most picturesque weather imaginable. Then we finally made it to our lunch stop. That far off hill our guide had pointed to when we were beginning. Chicken, rice, a mango juice box, and our choice of coffee or tea - wonderful. We sat and ate our food with some of the best views a person could ask for during a meal, worrying only about whether or not we had put on enough sunscreen. And what a view it was! Eventually we had to get started again, but not without first thoroughly enjoying the wonderful vistas our lunch spot offered. This was glamping at it's best. We did not even have to carry or prepare our own food. Luxurious, goodness.

With our minds steeled toward the remaining few hours of our hike left, we left our lunch spot and headed further up the mountain. Fortunately the remaining part of the hike was easy in comparison to the first few hours. Having not known this ahead of time it gave us some nice hiking. When you're prepared for something tougher then what you get, sometimes you can enjoy it more. This does not mean our legs were not already somewhat spent from the first part of the hike. We certainly took advantage of all nice spots for a rest (as seen in the photo when we came upon a nice field in the middle of our forest trek), and the undulating hills were nice compared to the steep climbs we made earlier. Still part of our discussion revolved around whether or not we would do a two hour extension at the end of our day for some higher and nicer views. Our evaluation would have to wait for the end.

When we finally came around a bend and through a break in the canopy we could see our destination! So close. It is always nice to be close to the end of a long hike. The last little bit was more open as we made our way up a few more hills. A field of blue flowers, the view of a vast valley to our left opening up as we climbed, and more importantly a super amazing looking monastery looming in the distance - and just below that the tents we would be sleeping in that night. Yes, we paid a little bit extra for this trip to stay in tents already set up, which oddly enough had full sized beds in them! What? I'm talking wooden bed frames and everything. Quite comfortable and a little unnecessarily so, but I still enjoyed the comfort that night for certain. And what a fun little camp, which we made our way into and took a quick rest stop in some proper chairs.           

Once we had rested a few minutes some of our group decided to make the additional hike up. How could we not when we were told it was called the "sky warrior" trek. Supposedly a two hour round trip, we were encouraged that we could see the top of this venture. As this can obviously this can sometimes be misleading at times, it was still a boost to our morale to clearly see our goal in sight and to know it was not round some never ending bend of climbing. Being promised the views were well worth the extra trip, and of course wanting to claim the title of trek, we started off on the last burst of the day in the hopes of beating what looked like rain on the horizon. 

The hike up is splattered with prayer flags. From almost every hill to tree to rock there is some string of red, white, yellow and green flying about. Our guide took us on what seemed like a less used route and we made our way up isolated from all other hikers. It seemed we were the only ones on the mountain, which was a nice feel. This last climb of the day was rather tiring but it was completely worth the extra amount of effort it required. The views were stunning. Not only could we look back down towards the valley we had spent our day climbing out of, but we could now see out and into the further peaks on every side of us. Again we were lucky with the weather and our view was mostly unobstructed, outside of a few clouds that shrouded nearby peaks making them look mysteriously dangerous and appealing at the same time. We could just disappear in the clouds if we hike up one more ridge line. 

The peak of the mountain had a small monument surrounded by prayer flags on every side. What a sight. Prayer flags whipping in the wind, mountains proclaiming their majesty, beams of sunlight sheering off in the distance, our bodies enjoying the physical demands of the day, and those ominous clouds continuously begging us to stay longer so they could pound us with their gift of rain. It was quite the experience and I think each of us who ventured up were quite glad we had decided to go just a short distance further that day. We posed for pictures (even what Dave was calling our boyband photo with all of us in different colored jackets), drank what water we carried with us, took a few extra looks around, and then slowly began our descent. 

Camp was fantastic. Tea and cookies. Khuru. A tasty dinner prepared for us. Those beds! Warm tents. Views that went long into the night. A libation Dave brought and shared with the group. Horses wandering around. A few wonderful dogs. And rest, oh the rest was nice. REST. 

Ok, Khuru. Khuru is a game of giant scary darts. They are thrown around what seems to be around 35 to 40 feet away at a wooden post that is only around two feet high and about six inches wide. If a person is able to hit this wooden plank, which I depressingly missed in spite of trying a number of times, dancing is expected and follows. Between the few of us who tried non of us ever hit the mark, though we did come close a few times. The worst part was getting close only to miss by a vast distance on the very next throw. Progress was difficult. The game, though we had no idea how to play or score it, was fun to try. Sarah and I already discussed how much fun it would be to have it in a yard we might one day own to put it in. Bring home the Khuru darts! First get a yard. Second make sure it's a yard big enough to safely play the game of Khuru.

Well we played Khuru until it was really getting unsafe, though safe is not a word that really should be used to describe the game ever. Then we retired for discussion, dinner, some mafia (I fell asleep right as everyone was ready to play and I slept through the whole game), and then we all went to sleep. A nice rain lightly pelted the roof of the tent most of the night as we slept a well earned rest. I probably dreamed of becoming an expert Khuru player, though all I remember was instantly falling asleep with very few disturbances throughout the night and waking in the morning feeling very refreshed.

We woke to a beautiful morning and a most gracious rain that stopped as soon as we were supposed to be getting ready for breakfast - quite nice of the rain to be so polite really. We packed our bags and prepared for a day of hiking and then walked over to the dining tent for breakfast. Quite a nice layout of food to prepare us for a long day of going back down the mountain. Oh ya, down the mountain. Once you climb up one you have to go back down. Where are all the two mile long zip lines to transport a person from place to place? Several times during our hike down I wondered this as I could easily see where we wanted to go but could not easily get there. Nevertheless, we filled our water bottles, grabbed our packs and then made one important stop before heading down - the Bumdra monastery. We had slept under it's view all night long and it was now time to visit. 

(The Bumdra Monastery is up on the left behind us. Also our Goodr sunglasses have been working well over here in the high altitude. Can't wait to go for a run in them soon! Thanks +Breakawayrunning for helping connect us.)
(Looking back up at the Bumdra Monastery)
Visiting the monasteries along the way was a nice addition to the hike. They all offer different glimpses into the local religion and no two temples are built alike. There are plenty of similarities for certain but one can never grow bored exploring them - from small to large to built on the side of a cliff. The Bumdra monastery is built up on the side of a mountain and looks like a place an ancient war structure inhabited by monks. We had taken a few pictures of it and in front of it the night before, taking plenty of time to admire its beauty and peculiarity. As we approached it that morning we walked past monks going about their daily duties. One seemed to be cooking something down in front of the monastery, while others were off and about to head off on errands. Entering this monastery was unique as it was directly up a ladder. I am not sure how many of these monasteries were built to make it easy to defend from attackers, but this one would work nicely for this purpose.

(Prayer wheel powered by water from the stream
coming down the mountain. Pretty cool)
Once we had our shoes off up we went. What a cool experience. The monks were right in the middle of doing their chanting and a ceremony, and yet we were ushered in to sit down in the same small room with them. They chanted as the incense burned, reciting words off of small scrolls that would be flipped over and moved aside once finished. Then the monk who seemed to be in charge of it all stopped his chanting and organized his scrolls back to the proper order. Once done they all began playing musical instruments - the traditional long horns were being used (which were super cool to hear), cymbals and drums were in use, and a few other instruments I could not quite identify. When they finished we rose and paid our respects as we exited. They continued in their ceremony. I completely understand and appreciate why no photos or videos are allowed in such a situation, especially as a minister who has been disappointed when a sacred moment seems watered down by such behavior, but oh how I wanted to record it, mostly to share once back home! The memory will have to suit.

(There it is!)
Then we began our long trek to one of the most sought after locations in all of Bhutan - Paro Takstang, or a monastery built high up on a cliff referred commonly to as the Tiger's Nest. But we had a ways to go first. Our quads tired from the walk up were now in for a rude awakening as we were about to engage in a long and consistent down mountain experience. Despite the aches and pains we were feeling though, the hike was quite nice. We passed a few more monasteries, plenty of beautiful sights marked with prayer flags, a few small chortens, and plenty of wonderful views including peering down upon the Tiger's Nest from above at multiple locations. Only one or two of our photos quite get at how high up the monastery is nestled in the cliffs, but I think one of our last ones gets it a little bit better.
(Pausing to take a photo in front of the Tiger's Nest)
(Wind powered prayer wheels made out of old
gatorade bottles - not bad)
When we finally arrived at the entrance to the monastery my jaw dropped just a little bit, even if only metaphorically in my mind. The remaining walk to enter was down and up what seemed an uncountable number of steps. I paused for a moment as I looked at the steps and then I realized I was looking at them through the lens of tired legs. Really it was actually quite intriguing to think of however the Bhutanese built these crazy winding steps down the mountain and back up to the monastery. It's very beautiful if it was not for having to actually endure them, but all things worth experiencing seem to have some sort of price tag on them. This one just happened to be stairs, and I appreciated the religious significance for the locals who were visiting. Down we went, weaving our way along the opposite side of the mountain until we reached the point where the stairs finally started climbing back up towards Paro Takstang. Ah, we made it.

(You can see the Tiger's Nest far up behind us)
Visiting the monastery was nice. There were multiple religious sites to see within the confines of the monastery, again no pictures so you will just have to imagine them with your mind. There was a monk giving people blessings, a few different representations of the Buddha for people to visit, and then the cave down below which I believe is part of the original cave where original worship took place before the monastery was built. There are multiple tales about how Padmasambhava flew to this particular location on the back of a tigress before spending time in the cave to meditate. Feel free to search online for many of these legends and see which ones you like most. 

(The local dog and I enjoy the last few views of
the mountains before we lose all light for the
night. What sights we have seen!)
Once done with our visit to the infamous monastery, we again started on our way down the mountain. We enjoyed the fortune of good weather for a little bit longer until it finally started to rain as we descended the final few hundred meters of the trail to where our driver was waiting to pick us up. What a hike! And how lucky we were to meet some fellow volunteers who had already planned the entire venture. Thanks to them we have already experienced one of the most sought after ventures in all of Bhutan, and we were able to do it in a way we enjoy quite a bit - through hiking (you can get there more quickly than the round about way we went)! What a start to our Bhutanese adventure. This weekend we are hoping to crash yet another of our fellow volunteer's weekend getaways to yet another of the places we most want to visit while here in the country. No spoilers though. You'll just have to come back when I finish the next post, though I doubt some of the pics from that one will be suitable for all audiences (ok one spoiler if you're really up on your Bhutanese knowledge). 
 Mountain flowers. They were everywhere and demanded our attention. Sarah marveled over them quite a bit and I think you can see why.
 I do not know his name but this is the pooch with whom I shared the best views of the night with before the sun vanished for the day. Such a fluffy delight.
 One last pic of flowers before the next post. Till next time, go off and enjoy some nature!

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