Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bhutan: Punakha to Bumthang

4th April 2013

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Majority of tourists limit their travel to Western Bhutan covering the districts of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha. Only a small minority head towards Central and Eastern Bhutan. One reason is that the tourist facilities get limited as we go deeper into east. And it involves long road journeys for several days.

We decided to continue our journey towards central Bhutan. We started little early at 8AM as the journey would be long. The road goes next to Puna Tsang Chhu River.  The vehicle traffic thinned down after we crossed old Wangdue town.  It was mainly trucks carrying supplies for the construction of hydro power project in central Bhutan. The road was spoiled because of these trucks. At many places road widening was in progress that slowed our journey.

After two hours we reached a village of Nubding. We had to wait here for the JCBs to clear the debris of road construction. After the town, climb to Pele La started. Unlike the monster passes that we see in Ladakh, the passes in Bhutan are very gentle!! And it is surprising that even at 11,000 ft we do not find snow . It was still beginning of spring.

Somewhere during the climb, the road to Phobjika valley diverges from the main road. Phobjika valley is home to vulnerable Black necked crane. Winter is the best time to see them. White bellied Heron which is almost close to extinction is found in this area. There are only about 27 – 30 of these birds left in Bhutan (and possibly few more outside Bhutan). The series of hydro power projects in central Bhutan might seal its fate.

On top of Pele La was a stupa. It was very cold on top of the pass. My daughter’s clothing and expression tells it all!!

While going down Pele La, we also see another Stupa on the right side. This is a big one with Nepalese architecture.

We had our early lunch at a restaurant near the stupa. At 11:30AM, it was too early to have lunch but it was a wise thing to have food when it was available!!

Once down from Pele La, we can see the “Black mountain” ranges on the right side. The jungles looked extremely dense with a snow capped mountain in the background.

As we proceed further, the road gets narrower as it passes though steep valleys. On the other side of the valley is the road leading to the hydro electric plant.

At 1PM, we were nearing the town of Trongsa perched above a gorge. It looked very near on the opposite hill but then we had to meander through the hills to reach the end of the valley, cross the river and then climb to Trongsa. The great views of Trongsa and the Dzong can be seen from a view point.

At Trongsa, the highway diverges where the other route goes southward to the town of Galepu at India-Bhutan border.

Trongsa is exactly at the center of Bhutan. The main attraction of the town is the Dzong that rises above the gorge of Mongde Chhu River.

We spend some time in the Dzong before proceeding to Bumthang.

From Trongsa, the road climbs to Yotangla Pass. At 11,000 ft this is the highest pass we will be crossing on the stretch of our journey. Early April and we do not see any snow at this height. This is strange.

Top of the pass was fully covered by mist. Prayer flags hang on top of the pass.

The road after the pass climbs down to Bumthang. Bumthang encompasses four valleys: Chokhor, Tang, Ura and Chhumme. The road first enters the Chhumme valley. Small villages start appearing and the road is lined with Apple and peach trees. It is blooming time and flowers are seen everywhere.

From Chhumme we enter Chokhor valley to reach the town of Jakar. We are welcomed by rain as we enter into this quite town. Our hotel Wangdicholing resort is at the beginning of the town. Built on a bluff it overlooks the valley and the town.  And we will be the only people in the resort for next two days. Superb!! 

Jakar is at the altitude of 8500 feet. It feels very cold even before the sunset. Thankfully, the room has fireplace which keep us warm.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bhutan: Punakha

2nd April 2013

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Today, we would leave Thimphu and head to Punakha which is 75 km away. It would normally take 3 hours to cover this distance but we need to visit few places on the way. Our guide gives his extra SIM that would ease the process of making calls to Home. ISD booths are fewer in number and calling from Hotel is expensive. And it is not easy to buy SIM card for non Bhutanese people (Update: It looks like the information I had was wrong. It is possible to get a SIM card by producing a copy of passport and entry permit). So this extra SIM would help as Bhutan has extensive cell coverage and the call rates from cell phone are nominal.

At the outskirts of Thimphu, we see Simtokha Dzong on the other side of the River. Constructed in 1629 by Zhabdrung, it is the oldest Dzong in Bhutan. Zhabdrung is known as the unifier of Bhutan.

The road from Thimphu meanders round the hills to climb to Dochula which is about 10,000 feet. At the top of the pass are 108 stupas built by the Queen Mother of the current king (5th King).

On a clear day, we could have seen the highest peaks of Eastern Himalayas. But we were not fortunate enough to feast it as the pass was covered by mist. A small consolation was that we would be coming back on the same way and hoped for a better weather (that never happened!!).

There is a story behind these 108 Stupas. Few terrorist organizations of North Eastern India had put up their camps in Southern Bhutan. Bhutan Government efforts to move them out peacefully went in vain. With pressure building up from India, Bhutan Government had little choice. In December 2003, Bhutan Army conducted operations resulting in destruction of all terrorist camps. Hundreds of terrorists were killed in the operation. These stupas were built in memory of its victory in 2003 military operations. 

The road from Dochula continuously winds down to Punakha valley situated at about 4000 feet. The area was dry and thanks to hot weather the extra layers that we had put on at Dochila were removed.

As we get down to the valley, we see a River to our left. On a hillock next to the River was Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery from 15th century. To reach the Lhakhang, we had to walk for about 30 minutes along agricultural fields. The monastery was established by Buddhist saint Drukpa Kunley. More popularly known as “Divine madman”, he adopted crazy methods of teaching which included sexual overtones. It is hard to understand his way of working but looks like he had lot of influence during those days!!

It is said that he subdued a demon of Dochula and trapped it in a rock. The rock is kept in the monastery.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we left to Punakha Dzong. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and the Dzong was an important administrative center.

It is situated at the confluence of Mo Chu and Pho Chu rivers.

Bridge across the river to connect to the Dzong.

Like in any Dzong, Punakha Dzong is also divided into administrative and religious sections.  All Dzongs and monasteries in Bhutan maintain dress code. Bhutanese people must be in their traditional dresses. Tourists are required to wear collared shirts and full length pants or skirts.

While coming out of Dzong, a lady from security section asked whether I could exchange my INR with Bhutanese currency. She was planning to visit Kolkata and was collecting Indian currency. Though both currencies are equally valued, one might have to pay commission to exchange currency. I obliged to her request and exchanged some money.

Our hotel was at Wangdue, few km from Punakha. As we neared the town, we could see the ruins of Wangdue Dzong. It was burnt down by an accidental fire a year ago. Efforts are on to restore the Dzong.  When we look at the history of Bhutan, there are frequent incidents of fire accidents.

Our stay was at Puna cottages situated next to the River overlooking new Wangdue town. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Bhutan: Thimphu

31st March - 2nd April 2013

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From Paro airport we head towards Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. The distance from Paro is about 50km which normally takes an hour and a half to cover. The first part of the journey is along the river Paro chhu until Chhuzom where the river is joined by Wang Chu River from Thimphu. The rest of the journey is along Thimphu River. The journey was exciting because of the calmness and serenity of the area.

Thimphu is the only capital city that does not have a traffic light. A traffic light was installed once but was removed when people were not happy with it. Population is less than a lakh but consider the total population of Bhutan itself is about seven lakhs.

Parliament building
Our stay at Thimphu was at Hotel Phuntso Phelri. According to our plan, it was supposed to be a rest day. But it cannot happen considering we still had half a day to spare!! We decided to visit Tashichhoedzong. It is opened for tourists only from 5-6PM on weekdays while on Sunday it is open from morning till evening. That would give us lot of time to spend there.

Dzong is a fortress with administrative and religious sections. The Thimphu Dzong is one of the biggest one in Bhutan. Only religious section is allowed for public.

We can also see Parliament building from the Dzong. Kings Palace is also very near to the fortress but people are not allowed to photograph it.

From Thimphu Dzong, we headed to weekend market. We had no plans of buying any stuff but just wanted to experience it. Good to see a clean and well maintained market.

Handicrafts market was next to weekend market. The prices were exorbitant but later we find that Bhutan is an expensive country. The local currency Ngultrum is pegged to Indian Rupee for equal value. Indian currency is widely accepted. In fact we find that people are more eager to accept INR than local currency!! But denominations of 500 and 1000 are not accepted in Bhutan.

We strolled on the streets of Thimphu. While it was a pleasant walk, my daughter became cranky. Lack of sleep for past two days was showing its effect. After spending some time at clock tower (supposed to be the most happening place in Thimphu), we headed back to hotel.

Next day started with visit to National memorial chorten. It was erected in memory of the third king of Bhutan in 1974.

Prayer bells at Stupa complex.

Since the weather was good, we decided to visit big Buddha statue on top of a hill. It provides nice view of Thimpu and its valley.

The Buddha complex itself is under construction.

It would have snowed during previous night!!

Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. Since the chance of meeting them in wild was remote, we decided to have a look at them in the zoo. 

The view of Tashichhoedzong while coming back from takin zoo.

We went to National Institute for ZorigChusum more popularly known as “painting school”. It provides courses in 13 traditional arts of Bhutan.  From close quarters, we can see people learning various skills in painting, stone carving, sewing etc.

I was bit hesitant to take students photo but my guide I was told that they would not mind it!!

Next stop was the nearby folk heritage museum. Here one can have a look at a typical farming house in remote Bhutan. It was interesting to see how water flow is used to run prayer bells (a typical scene in Bhutan), various utensils and the house itself.

My daughter did not find it interesting to spend time inside the house. She headed outside to play in the gardens outside. Things seemed normal until we heard her crying. She had fallen and had slight injury on her knee. Nothing serious but it scared her a lot.

Institute of traditional medicine was nearby. For Indians, it does not look that attractive as we know (or at least heard) most of those stuff.

Post lunch, we headed to textile museum which had good collection of traditional dresses and also the tools used for their manufacture. There was a documentary about the dress culture of Bhutan. Very informative one, I must say.

Archery is the national game of Bhutan. It is common to see people play archery in many villages of Bhutan. In Thimphu, people practice at Archery ground. While in Olympics, the distance to target is 70 meters but here they practice keeping the target at 130 meters. It was quite fun to see this game. Each time when the target is hit, players sing a traditional song.

The last place we visited in Thimphu was National library. “What is so great in that?” you might ask. It houses the largest published book in the world. The name of the book is “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey across the Last Himalayan Kingdom“. It weighs about 60 kgs!!