22 July 2016
Douglas Returns to Bhutan
It's gets better every time- Part Two
It took nine hours to make the three-hour trip from Phobjikha to Bumthang. We were caught behind (and once between) four different landslides. Every time we stopped the car was surrounded by mud so I had to "hold it" for about two hours.
The only place to stop for lunch was a hotel where we had stayed last time in Trongsa. Jamyang phoned ahead for lunch reservations late in the morning, then with a progress report every hour before we managed to get to the hotel around 16:30. The food was just as bad as I had remembered it, but we were so ravenous by then that it was actually very satisfying. The last two hours on the road were in the dark and we did not quite know what to expect, but our driver was courageous and focused.
At long last we arrived at Jakar Village Lodge, It was paradise...a gorgeous big room (with no stairs), hot water, and a cozy restaurant, pine paneling, a 32 inch flat-screen TV, reasonably fast WiFi, and, best of all a king size bed. Mostly because of the people who own the place, Jakar Village turned out to be so lovely that I considered moving in permanently.
There's a photo of the hotel at night above. They have beautiful gardens full of rose bushes.
I had been to Bumthang before and wanted to return, in part, because the food is so terrific. There were several things I had not seen on the last visit that intrigued me: The Flaming Lake and Ura Valley. I have an ongoing list of things that let's call the "I-somehow-survived-it-but-never-again" list. As the places on this list go Flaming Lake was not so bad. Half of the trail was a fairly level path, and then there were large rocks to climb down and up. Getting there was a fabulous nature walk. We found a lot of wild mushrooms, wildflowers and some wild thyme along the way.
At the end of the trail there are, for lack of a better word, improvised shrines. This is a place of religious pilgrimage and local people who take this nature walk stack smooth river rocks into which they deposit their memories of the experience. Elsewhere, in cracks in the huge rocks along the trail, people had carefully put hundreds of colorful amulets and tiny Buddha statues. Later, I noticed cracks filled with Buddhas along the highway that I had never noticed before.
The trail ends at a wooden bridge across a gushing river. It's the perfect place for selfies.
Much to my surprise, the "Lake" was not a lake at all, but a spot where the river widened temporarily. The story goes that Guru Rimpoche came to this spot because he dreamed that there were "treasures" (religious relics) waiting to be discovered below the water. The locals thought he was some kind of nut case. While holding a lit butter lamp in one hand, Guru Rinpoche jumped into the river. After a period of time that nobody could have survived below the freezing water he emerged with the treasures, his butter lamp still burning.
After lunch it was time to cross the second item off my bucket list---Ura Valley. This place was positively magical--just a beautiful green valley with a simple rural village. No shops. No Starbucks. Just sturdy people and rustic living.
We first stopped at the local Dzong, which was not open. In the courtyard some very old people and three kids were rolling balls from mud. Apparently, these were to be placed inside of a stupa (what Thais calla chedi).
So today was my birthday and the day the car died. Absolutely nobody in Bumthang knows how to repair a Kia. Let that be a lesson to you if you live in Bumthang. The car would not start, probably because of contaminated fuel, which comes by truck from India. The family that owns the hotel did not hesitate to chauffeur Jamyang and me around town and to the airport. Twice.
The lovely people who own Jakar Village (including the four year old ballerina) delivered us to Bumthang airport to check in four our flight. We passed through the metal detector and deposited our luggage on an extra large scale, then deposited ourselves in the waiting area. Bumthang airport reminds me of Siem Reap's airport when I first started visiting there. It was one a one-room hut with two very old school desks (carved initials+hearts and all) used for both security and check-in. The flight was to depart at noon, so we had an hour to kill. Fortunately, I had my iPad, loaded with a copy of Hail Caesar, an amusing Brolin/Cluney film that apparently had flopped. At 12:15 I switched to Flightradar24 and filtered Drukair flights. The only one in the air was on its way from Delhi to Paro. I smelled a rat.
No announcements were made. Passengers under ten years old were amusing themselves by going back and forth through the metal detector, setting off the alarm each time. It was cold. An impromptu buffet of momo (Bhutanese steamed duplings) and butter tea arrived. it was pouring outside. "Weather delay" was the only explanation. Shortly after 16:00 it was announced that the flight had been cancelled. That worried me since I was supposed to fly back to Bangkok the next day. I showed my ticket to the Drukair representative, who said "they're going to charge you quite a bit more for that," prompting me to invoke the name of one of the fine newspapers that publishes my stories. We were invited to the Drukair office the next day to fix things. It probably did not hurt that the Drukair representative went to highschool with Jamayang. In a country with merely 700,000 inhabitants, it's probably not unusual that Jamyang knows practically everyone. Those lovely owners of Jakar Village returned to collect us.
Would it fly or not? That was the question of the day when we learned that Drukair was putting on an extra flight late in the afternoon. We went to the Drukair office and hung around little Jakar town for a while and turned it into a little shopping and dining adventure.
We visited the cheese factory, had some lunch in a very unpretentious local restaurant (our favorite lunch place was closed), then visited the local bee-keepers cooperative to watch them extract the honey from the combs and bottle it. Bhutan honey is rich from wildflowers, and it is bottled uncooked and unfiltered. It's not just honey, it's medicine.
The car was still dead and the driver wassticking around to accompany it back to Thimpu on the back of a truck.
After lunch we said goodbye to Jakar Village one more time. The ballerina had become a princess overnight. We were off to the airport.
The weather in Bumthang changes about every fifteen minutes. I checked aviation weather online and the forecast was messy. We sat in the same place as the day before. Right on time, Drukair's ATR landed. Arriving passengers departed on foot into the muddy parking lot and our luggage was delivered to the tarmac in the back of a pickup truck.
Landing in Paro. I will absolutely never get tired of watching this, either from the ground or from the window. I wrote of this poetically in my first Bhutan blog. If you want a cockpit-view of descending through 45 degree S-curve banking, there is a video in our Club Sanook's December 2015 newsletter. The arrow is pointing to the runway. The few pilots who get to make this approach don't have the benefit of a big red arrow hanging out of the sky. They have to memorize every building, every boulder jutting from the hillside, and every bend in the river and curve in the road below to make sure they are in the right place, making the correct 45 degree bank and at the right altitude to get there, and they do it all with a joy stick and a keyboard.
That night I got to try on my first goh. It's English wool for a winter visit. I now see that I need one for each season. Honestly, it takes a committee to put this thing on. I don't know how Bhutanese guys do it alone. But you can see how it's done on Youtube. (Even if you don't want to know how, you may find the model very entertaining.)
Because of the cancelled flight two days ago, I missed my flight and was now staying in Bhutan illegally. We had to drive all the way to Thimpu and back to get a one-day visa extension. Its amazing that there is no immigration office in Paro.
"How many times have you been back and forth on this road?" Jamyang asked. Looks like this was the eighth. Or was it the seventh?
There was still one adventure left. Jamyang once mentioned a Dzong near Paro that was the first and oldest in Bhutan, but had been destroyed by fire. Since I have already seen almost everything in Paro twice it was an interesting half-day excursion.
Paro valley is quite long, and the farther you drive from the town, the more rustic, rugged, and beautiful it is. It took about half an hour before the four-hundred-year-old ruins perched regally on a hill with a commanding view of the valley below.
Drukygal Dzong was built in 1649 to protect Bhutan from the invading Tibetans. It was almost completely destroyed in a fire in 1951. Visiting there involves a hike up a trail and four hundred year old stone steps that are slippery in the rain. Oh boy. But there was quite a bit to see there, despite the "keep out" signs. In honor of the birth of K5's first child (the future K6), the dzong is being rebuilt.
After a stop to buy a kilo of green chilies for my addiction to ema datshe (chili cheese), it was over. After trying to explain four bottles of K5 and three bottles of honey locked in my checked luggage, to the security guard who Jamyang went to high school with, I had time to hang around Paro airport, waiting for the "gate" to open.
Tashi Delek! I will be back.
Photos by the author and Jamyang Dorji.