2016 November Bhutan Trip

November 21, Taksang (photos of Nov 21)

gsb_bhutan_dscf2053_161121_paro_taksangNgawang Phuntsho picked us up at Gangtey Palace Resort at 8:00 am and we drove the base of Taksang (about 8 km towards Drukyul Dzong) – lots of tourists and pack-horses at the bottom. It took us about an hour and a half to climb to the top (including a stop for tea) – there are a total of 8 separate temples within the complex – Ngawang took us through each one and explained the main aspects of the different temples. We then walked part-way down and had a picnic lunch and then another coffee break once we reached the car. It was a perfect day for walking – sunny but not hot – we came back to Gangtey Palace to get cleaned up before going to Ngawangs’ for dinner. A few shots of the day can be seen here.

 

 


November 20, Bumthang to Paro (photos of Nov 20)

gsb_bhutan_dscf2025_161120_bumthang_paroChimi picked us up at the Swiss Guest House after breakfast and drove us down the hill to the “airport” – the flight arrived a bit late, so we were late leaving – short, beautiful flight to Paro where Nima picked us up. After tea at the Gangtay Palace Resort with Nancy, we went into town to meet Ngwang Phuntso for a momo lunch – he was an old student of mine and is now a teacher in Paro. He offered to take us to Kichu Lhakang after lunch (which was very busy as it was a holiday) – after a short visit, we went to Drukyul Dzong which is being rebuilt (it burned down in 1951). After visiting the Dzong, we stopped at Druk Secondary School where another former student of mine, Karma Tshering, is the principal – very nice catchup. We then got dropped at Gangtay Palace resort (ex palace of the first Prime Minister and father of Dasho Benji) – met Nancy, Karma Tshering, Mira and Pearl from the CDN Embassy – they were an advance party for the CDN Ambassador who is arriving tomorrow – Nancy left for Thimphu with Nima and we went for dinner with Mira and Pearl. A few pictures of the day can be seen here.


November 19, Yongkula to Bumthang (photos of Nov 19)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1905_161119_yongkola_bumthangWe left the Trogon Villa, Yongkhola at 8:00 am and drove up towards Sengor – beautiful clear day with unlimited visibility. We stopped briefly at Thrumsingla and then headed down the other side towards Ura. We had lunch in Ura and then took the “by-pass” to Chhumi (the first time I’d taken that road which cuts about an hour off the ride to Jakar.  Chimi dropped us at the Swiss Guest House and after we checked in Dort and I went for a walk in the bazaar before returning for a HUGE meal.  Quite cold here and the bukari’s were fired up in the restaurant and our room. Photos of the day can be seen here.

 

 


November 17-18, Autsho and Lhuntse (photos of Nov 17-18)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1844_161118_lingkhar_autsho_lhuntse_yongkolaNov 17: Had a bit of a late departure from Lingkhar – said our farewells to Am Dekki and Lynpo Minjur before leaving about 10:00 am – there were numerous road blocks and delays as we drove down to Sheri Chhu, where I bought some lemon oil while waiting for the road to open. On the drive up to Yadi, we stopped just below the village at a restaurant called the Monkey’s Shoulder, a place where Royalty were traditionally greeted. The Eastern Dongda’s were all gathered there for lunch and they invited us to join them (actually they invited Nancy, who they all knew) – the drive up to Korila through the Yadi Zigs and down the other side to Mongar was really bad and quite dangerous in places due to road widening activities. In Mongar we stopped for tea and as we were leaving met the King’s younger brother (Jigme Wangchuk) and his wife (in a Landcruiser with Bhutan 9 plates) – they were inspecting fire damage in the Mongar bazaar – they were very gracious and we had a brief conversation. The drive down to the Lhuntse turn-off at Gangola was a bit better but still not great – it was getting dark as we headed north up the Kuri Chhu valley towards Lhuntse – we drove for about 45 min before stopping in Autsho at a guesthouse for the night where the owner (former Gup) joined us for dinner.

Nov 18: Got up at first light and went for a walk through Autsho – it has a “wild west” look to it with a small bazaar largely consisting of rough wooden shacks with a dramatic backdrop of steep cliffs along a curve of the Kuri Chhu. A new central school has been built, and a few better stone building are starting to appear – saw cormorants and ducks along the river. We left at 7:30 and drove north along the Kuri Chhu for about an hour to bridge at Tangmachu where we crossed the river and drove up the hill for about 10 km to a massive statue (41 m high) of Guru Rimpoche – it is an amazing piece of work and includes a whole temple complex. We were provided a tour inside (3 levels) which is filled with beautiful statues, painting etc. After two hours we drove down to the rive and then headed north again to Lhuntse (about 15 km) – it is one of the more spectacular Dzongs in Bhutan and was recently renovated to repair earthquake damage. We drove to the Dasho Dzongda’s residence (Jambay Wangchuk) where his wife had prepared a large meal for us – his residence overlooks the Dzong. The Dasho Dzongda is a very kind and engaging man who has known Nancy for many years – we had a very pleasant 2 hours with him before leaving and driving back to Gangola and turning west towards Limithang. The road down to Limithang was also a mess and it was nice to finally cross the bridge and start the climb up to Trogan Villa (in Yongkola)- about 15 km up the hill towards Thrumsingla. It is a popular spot for bird tours to base themselves from and we met an American group doing that. Shawn from the Hazelnut project in Limithang drove up to have dinner with us. Very nice guest house with large rooms. Photos of November 17 and 18 can be seen here.


Nov 16 – Trashiyangtse and Bomdeling (photos of Nov 16)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1659_161116_trashiyangtse_bomdelingAm Dekki, Nancy, Dort and I drove up to Trashiyangtse, managing to leave before the roads were closed for widening. On the the drive up to Trashiyangtse we stopped briefly at Duksom, which apparently will be moved further up the hill to minimize risks of landslides and boulders falling on the small town. A massive hydroelectric project is being build on the Kulong Chhu – the main dam is up towards Trashiyangtse, but the powerhouse is near Gom Kora (connected by a 15 km long tunnel). The sides of the steep mountain slopes are already scarred by numerous access roads for the hydro-project, many of which are causing landslides – it was sad to see so much damage being caused in a previously untouched watershed. There are increasing concerns being expressed in Bhutan about the policy of damming every river in the country – hopefully some action will be taken before it is too late. The drive to Trashiyangtse took just under 3 hours – we stopped in town to visit Chorten Kora – a beautiful and important chorten at the entrance to Trashiyangtse. The town is in a beautiful setting and has developed significantly over the last 30 years. A poorly constructed 8 km farm road now goes all the way to Bomdeling – although Bomdeling is a national park and wildlife sanctuary, there has been a lot of (bad) development allowed within the park which will negatively impact wildlife, particularly the endangered Blacked-Necked cranes. We were fortunate enough to see 8 cranes, but were disappointed a the amount of garbage and general mess in one of the main feeding areas for the cranes that had been the site for a large (4,000 people) religious festival the month before. The RGoB needs to review its policies on what are appropriate activities to allow in national parks. After visiting Bumdeling we had an excellent traditional lunch at a friend of Am Dekki’s who lives in Bumdeling before driving back to Trashiyangtse so that Nancy and Dort could visit teachers in the lower secondary school (and also a BCF teacher from the USA) – I took advantage of the time to walk around town and visit Chorten Kora again. We then drove back to Lingkhar, arriving about 7:30 pm. A few shots of the day can be seen here.


Nov 15 – Lingkhar (photos of Nov 15)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1476_161115_lingkharToday was a quiet day – I got up early and went with Lympo Minjur down to his stone crushing plant just below Trashigang, towards Duksum. He started this business about a year ago to supply aggregate to builders throughout eastern Bhutan – he has 5 dump trucks and various front-end loaders, excavators etc. We also drove to his quarry near the Dremetsi turnoff – it is actually a part of the national road widening project and he will have to move location soon. We got back to Lingkhar around 9 and had breakfast with Dort and Nancy and then went for a short walk – the rest of the day we just relaxed reading, getting caught up with notes, and watching some archery (Lynpo Minjur was practising with the Kanglung gup for a tournament he will host this weekend). The archery range is right in front of the restaurant and the balcony provides an excellent view of the action – targets are wooden boards about 3 feet high and 6 inches wide and are set approximately 140 metres apart. A few photos of the day can be seen here.

 

 


Nov 14 – Khaling (photos of Nov 14)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1401_161114_lingkhar_khalingToday we drove south towards Khaling – the road up to Sherubtse is “under construction”, but once past the college, it was in excellent condition all the way to Khaling. We stopped briefly at Sherubtse college and went for a walk (saw a copy of the worlds largest book in the library) and the old quarters where Jamie used to live. The college has (like everywhere in Bhutan) grown significantly with new academic blocks, student residences etc. All the students were busy studying for exams. We then drove up to Yongphula where the airstrip is under “re-alignment” – it is an old military airstrip that is being rebuilt to meet code for civilian use – it is situated along a mountain ridge (since there are no valleys in this region large enough to accommodate an airstrip) – it is not an ideal location for a runway given the strong cross-winds and frequent fog/cloud – but will be a boost for tourism once it is operational. We then continued down to Khaling where I taught from 1988-1990 – we were met by the headmaster who had spent a couple of years in Canada. The only remaining staff member from my time was Wangpo who was the peon 28 years ago and is now the cook. Much to our surprise we were invited to be VIP guests (along with the Chief guest, the gup) for the annual award ceremonies (winning students are called “toppers”). Nancy, Dort and I were all asked to participate by passing out certificates to the toppers – the event lasted about 3 hours and was interspersed with singing and dancing – we left a bit early so that we had time to visit the Khaling weaving project before heading back to Lingkhar for the evening. There was a “super” full moon, so Lympo had arranged a bon fire for the guests and we sat around and shared stories while drinking ara under a brilliant full-moon. A few photos of the day can be seen here.


Nov 13 – Radhi to Bidung (photos of Nov 13)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1347_161113_trashigang_ranchikar_radhi_bidungSince it was Sunday, there were no road closures (DANTAK, the Indian Border Road Organization doesn’t work on Sundays). We drove up to Trashigang so that Kirsten could do some shopping for prizes for her school kids and also get some groceries/supplies that are difficult to get in Bidung. The Trashigang dzong is under repair (damaged during the 1999 earthquake) and one side is covered with bamboo scaffolding. We had tea with a retired Lopen from Trashigang school that Nancy taught with 30 years ago. At that time he was caught in a landslide and a huge stone shattered his pelvis which took many months to fix – he’s now in his 80’s and looks great and is mobile – all the repair work was done in Thimphu. We drove to Rangjung on a beautiful asphalt road (which actually goes all the way to Phongmey). Rangjung has grown into a major center with a central school and large centre for Buddhist learning. We had excellent veggie momo’s for lunch before heading up the hill to Radhi. Dort had a hard time orienting herself as the old school has been replaced with several, well built brick structures. Her old quarters and the original kitchen block still remained. The headmaster of 9 years and a history teacher of 1 year served us with orange fanta and coca-cola and gave us an update of all the changes that have occurred over the last 28 years since Dort taught there.
We then drove towards Phongmey just to look at the cut paddy and beautiful farms – of course somebody who recognized Nancy stopped us along the way for a talk – he knew many of the WUSC volunteers from the time we were based in the east including: Lisa, Larry, Barb, Ken etc. – he was the guy that got a horse to take Larry to Trashigang when he got typhoid.
We then drove back to Rangjung and took a road up to Bidung – it was still being paved, so we were delayed for about 45 min. When we reached Bidung, Kirsten showed us around the village and her school – Dort had a hard time orienting herself as much had changed, but the view was as spectacular as she remembered it – Bidung is one of the prettiest spots in Bhutan and Kirsten will miss it when she leaves at the end of the year. After dropping Kirsten we drove to Barsam and then down to Trashigang and back to Lingkhar, arriving after dark. A few photos of the day can be seen here.


Nov 11 and 12 – Lingkhar and Rangchikhar (photos of Nov 11 and 12)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1205_161111_trashigang_ranchikarRemembrance Day is a holiday in Bhutan, commemorating the birth of the 4th King. We drove up to Rangchikhar, about 40 min uphill from Lingkhar. Lympo Minjur and Am Dekki have a traditional farm house overlooking Lingkhar – the house has been upgraded with hot water, electricity, a modern bathroom etc., but the “bones” of the house are still very traditional and it overlooks rice fields and the small village of Rangchikhar. We were served a delicious lunch of red rice, radish curry, pak pa sha (pork) and vegetables with chillies. After lunch we walked up the hill for about 5 km to a gonpa that had been destroyed (and rebuilt) in the 1999 earthquake. We were greeted by a monk who served us tea while we waited for Nancy and Chimi – they met us at another gonpa a further 0.5 km up the hill that houses about 20 monks. Associated with the gonpa is a large Buddha statue with smaller statues surrounding it depicting the life of Buddha. We were invited for ara and dinner by the lama and his wife before heading back to Am Dekki’s house for the night. The following morning we drove down the hill to Limithang and spent the afternoon sitting on the deck reading. That evening, Kirsten, one of the BCF teachers stationed in Dort’s old posting joined us for dinner. A few pictures of the two days can be seen here.


Nov 9 and 10 – Tang to Mongar to Trashigang (photos of Nov 9 and Nov 10)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1069_161109_bumthangLeft early from Tang since the road was going to be closed after 8:00 am for widening. We had about 7 hours of driving to cover just over 120 km which is an indication of the state of the roads – we stopped briefly at Thrumsingla (the highest pass on the east-west road at approximately 3,800 m). We also stopped for lunch in Sengor where they had a TV and found out Trump had won the US election (oddly enough it wasn’t the headline, but about the 5th news item) – made us all glad we were not in Canada listening to the endless analysis. The drive down to Limithang was as beautiful as ever, dropping 3,200 m over approximately 84 km. Mogar (like virtually every town we’ve visited) has grown significantly since we left – we stayed at the Druk Zhongar Hotel which was fine. That evening we met one of Nancy’s BCF teachers called Valerie and went for dinner at a good Indian restaurant. The following morning we phoned Canada to speak with Nick who was at Laura’s celebrating his graduation as an engineer from UVic – we also had a chance to get caught up with Maegan. The first pass heading east from Mongar is called Kori La and we lit a butter lamp in celebration of Nick’s graduation in a small lakhang at the pass. There were numerous roadblocks due to road widening, and Dort and I would get out and walk ahead while the blocks were being cleared and the car would pick us up later. We stopped for lunch in Trashigang and then drove to Lingkhar Lodge, run by Lympo Minjor and Am Dekki, close friends of Nancy’s. It is a beautiful, 5 star resort in a spectacular spot overlooking rice paddies and will form our base for the next week or so. A few photos of the day can be seen here (Nov 9) and here (Nov 10)  – two galleries.


Nov 8 – Tang Valley and Ogyen Choling (photos of Nov 8)

gsb_bhutan_dscf1006_161108_bumthangDrove from Jakar to Tang Valley on a newly paved road – about an 90 min. Stopped briefly at Membartsho (Burning Lake – a famous religious site where Pema Lingpa made two of his most important discoveries) before dropping our bags at the Guest House (also owned by Pema Dawa). We then drove further up the Tang valley to Ogyen Choling – an old naktshang (country manor) owned by Kunzang Choeden and Walter who are old friends of Nancy’s. They are gradually restoring the family estate and have turned parts of it into a museum and guest house – we had lunch with them and also had a tour of the museum . The Tang valley is beautiful and special place and somewhere I always enjoy going back to. A few photos of the day can be seen here.


Nov 7 – Jakar Tsetchu (photos of Nov 7)

gsb_bhutan_dscf0723_161107_bumthangWe left the guesthouse around 9:00 am and drove up to Jakar Dzong that was established in 1667 – it was the first day of a three day tshetchu and (because of Nancy) we were greeted by the Dasho Dzongda and escorted to the VIP room overlooking the main courtyard where the masked dances are held (including the Black Hat dance which Dort hadn’t seen before) . We spent the morning watching the festivities and returned to the guest house in the afternoon after eating lunch at Kaila’s Guest house and chatting with him and his wife – I went for a walk into the bazaar while Nancy and Dort met some of the BCF teachers that were posted to this region (Laura and Beckie). Photos of the day can be seen here.

 

 


Nov 6 – Flight to Bumthang (photos of Nov 6)

gsb_bhutan_dscf0594_161106_bumthangNima picked us up at the Yeedzen hotel and then we got Nancy from her house and drove to Paro to catch a 11:00 am flight to Bumthang – the plane was a ATR-42, and only half full due to altitude/weight restrictions, so most passengers had a window seat. The flight was approximately half hour long (compared to between 12-24 hours by road, assuming you can get through). Views were spectacular with the Himalayas to the north and numerous deeply incised north/south river valleys. The airstrip in Bumthang is at 2,800 m and parallels the river.  Nancy had arranged for a driver to pick us up (Chimi was the drivers’ name and he walked with Peter Steele and his family across Bhutan in the 1960s – as per the book “Two and Two halves”) – we were dropped at the River View Hotel and had tea/coffee with the owner (Pema Dowa).  We then drove down to the bazaar and had momo’s for lunch at the “Momo Corner” before visiting Konchogsum Lhakhang which is largely restored after almost being destroyed by a butter-lamp fire in 2010. The new lhakhang is far larger/grander than the original one (remnant’s of which are inside the new building). We then went to Tamshing Goemba which was established in 1501 by Pema Lingpa. Dort and I then crossed the river on a foot bridge and walked through Kurji Lhakhang to Jampay Lhakhang where Chimi and Nancy picked us up for a drive back to the guest house. A few pictures of the day can be seen by clicking this link.


Nov 5 – Punakha-Wangdu Phrodrang-Thimphu (photos of Nov 5)

gsb_bhutan_dscf0509_161105_thimphu_punakhaWe left the Meri Phuentsom at 8:30 am and drove to Punakha Dzong after stopping at Khuruthang to get a kumi for Dorji so he could get into the Dzong. Punakha Dzong is the second oldest in the country and strategically located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu (father and mother rivers) that join to form the Punasang Chhu. Punakha served as Bhutan’s capital for over 300 years, and the current king received the Raven Crown here in 2008 prior to a coronation ceremony in Thimphu. We spent a couple of hours walking around the Dzong and then went back to Khuruthang for lunch. After lunch we drove to Wangdu Phrodrang to see reconstruction of the Dzong which burned down in 2012 – the Utse has been rebuilt and consecrated, but the main part of the dzong is still being rebuilt. The re-construction is a hybrid of traditional and modern techniques, including “floating” the Utse on ball-bearings to improve seismic performance. From Wangdu Phrodrang we drove south down the Punasang Chu to see construction of two massive hydro-electric schemes called PS-1 and PS-2 that will have a combined capacity of over 2,000 MW – these are amongst the largest (and most expensive) construction projects ever undertaken in Bhutan and involve a workforce of thousands. From PS-2 we drove back over Dorchu La and checked into the Yeedzen before taking a taxi to Nancy’s for dinner. A few photos of the day can be seen by clicking this link.

 


Nov 4 – Thimphu – Nobgang (photos of Nov 4)

gsb_bhutan_dscf0448_161104_thimphu_punakhaTobgay picked us up at the Yeedzen hotel in Thimphu and then we picked up Dorji on the way out of town (he has a house that overlooks Simtokha Dzong). We then headed up towards Dorchu La, first having to clear the checkpoint at Hongtsho. Dorchu La is the first major pass out of Thimphu heading east (3,100 m) -at the pass, 108 memorial chortens or stupas known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” were built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother. In addition to the chortens there is a monastery called the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple), built in honour of the fourth Druk Gyalpo (head of the state of Bhutan), Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The road up to Dorchula is still being widened (actually the road is being upgraded right across the country) and many sections are still in a state of disrepair. The views from  Dorchu La were spectacular with the high Himalaya in clear view, peaks that could be seen included Gangkhar Puensum (7,541 m) and Kulha Gangri (7,554 m) – Gaza Dzong was also visible in the distance. We stopped at lunch at Metshina where the road splits to either Wangdu Phodrang or Punakha.  We turned towards Punakha and drove up towards Talo/Nobgang.  When we reached Nobgang Lhakang, Dorji dropped us and we walked to Tobgay’s family farm which is being looked after by caretakers. Rice was being harvested in the valley – Tobgay said it is mostly subsistence farming (i.e. the farmers can grow enough to feed themselves, but not enough for market). We then continued along an irrigation canal until it intersected the road where Dorji picked us up again (about a 2 hour walk). From there we drove to the Meri Puensum Resort where we stayed for the night. The valley is quite warm with bamboo, bananas, cactus etc. Photos of Nov 5 can be seen by clicking this link.

 


Nov 3 – Prayers for World Peace – Thimphu (photos of Nov 4)

gsb_bhutan_dscf0394_161103_thimphuWe started our second day in Thimphu with a visit to the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu that was built in 1974 to honor the third Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972). It is a popular site for both locals and tourists to come and circumambulate in a clockwise direction (often while reciting prayers, whirling handheld red prayer wheels, or handling prayer beads). Later in the day we went up to Buddha Point (Kuensel Phodrang) where a massive golden Buddha has been constructed on a point that overlooks both Thimphu and Simtokha. Although the complex is not quite finished, its first major event was being held under the auspices of the  Je Khenpo – the multi-day event that involved thousands of monks and laypersons from throughout Bhutan and further afield praying for world peace – a very impressive event and something that other countries would do well to emulate. A few photos of the day can be seen by clicking this link.

 

 

 

 

 


Nov 1 & 2 – Arriving and seeing old friends

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On November 1, Dort and I flew from Delhi to Paro on Druk Air. The two hour flight is quite spectacular as you parallel many of the highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest, before turning north into Bhutan. Paro, main airport in Bhutan, is located in an agricultural valley wide enough to accommodate aircraft as large as the Airbus A319 (although the landing is quite dramatic given the sharp descent and steep turns required to navigate the surrounding hills). The imposing Paro Dzong overlooks the airport. Nima from the Bhutan Canada Foundation (BCF) picked us up at the airport and drove us to Thimphu, about 45 minutes away. This is a beautiful time of the year to visit Bhutan – the monsoons are over, but everything is still quite green and the harvests are being brought in throughout central regions like Thimphu and Paro. The days are typically warm (highs of 20 C) with brilliant sunshine and the nights are cool (around freezing). Thimphu ranges in altitude from 2,300 m to 2,600 m, so visitors from sea level can take a few days to acclimatize when walking around its steep streets. The city has grown enormously over the last two decades and now offers most modern amenities. A few shots of our flight into Paro and our first day in Thimphu can be seen by clicking on this link.