Saturday, November 28, 2015

Black Necked Crane Festival

Kuzu zangpola - it was 2 years since I was in Bhutan. I had heard about the Black Necked Crane festival, a major 'tsechu' on November 11 in the Phobjhika valley. I organized a group of 10 adventurous Canadians to spend a week in Bhutan with the highlight being at the Gangtey Gompa for this festival.

We had a day to recover from jet lag and walked the streets of Kathmandu before flying to Paro in Bhutan. The pilots say the landing is one of the more challenging airports but we had a very smooth landing with amazing views of Mt. Everest and the Himalayas on the way in!

Our guide Tshering and assistant guide Chimi met us at the airport and loaded us on the bus which was to be our transport for the next week. We headed to our hotel and enjoyed a delicious lunch before visiting the Paro Dzong (fortress). As the sun went down we crossed a beautiful wooden bridge (once featured in the movie The Little Buddha) and headed for a walk through the town of Paro.

Paro Dzong (fortress)

Bridge used in filming the Little Buddha

Taktsang Monastery

Next day was our 2 hour trek up a mountain side to the Tiger's Nest - the Taktsang Monastery where the legend of Guru Rinpoche rode the back of a tigress and landed here to meditate. I was a nice warm day in the sun and we had incredible views of the monastery and the valley below. It really felt like a pilgrimage and we spent some quiet time in many rooms of the monastery under the watchful eyes of the various Buddha's, detailed paintings, butter lamps and offerings.

Our next day was a drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. We stopped to cross the river to a small monastery on the way arriving in Thimphu at lunch. We settled into our rooms and then headed off to see the Dordenma Buddha, the tallest Buddha structure in the world at 161 feet high. Impressive as it reflected the afternoon sun on its golden shoulders. As it has not had the final consecration, we were allowed to take photos inside.

Dordenma Buddha

5th King -  Jigme Singye Wangchuck

Then we were off to the Memorial chorten in central Thimphu. What luck...we were also in Bhutan for the celebration of the 4th King's birthday. All the buildings were trimmed with gold and a festive atmosphere all around including monks chanting for the good health of the 4th King, who is the father of the current 5th King.

Chortans at Dochu La pass 3140m
Then were off on a sunrise start to drive many hours over rough, dusty roads which are under construction and repair to Dochula pass at 3140 meters. We had breakfast there and incredible views of the mountains and the Memorial Chortens the Queen Mother built to honour the soldiers lost in a skirmish in 2003.

Punhaka Dzong

At my request, we made a stop at Punhaka Dzong, the second oldest and second largest fortress in architectural marvel at the confluence of two rivers - the Mo and Pho.

Arriving after dark that night we were divided into two groups for a home stay in Phobjhika. The host families were wonderful serving us butter tea, black tea, red rice, yak meat stew and some delicious vegetables for dinner. After, they set up a traditional Hot Stone bath for everyone. This consists of dropping hot stones from a fire into one end of a wooden tub to heat the water. Herbs were sprinkled on the water and most everyone soaked and enjoyed washing off the dust in this unique bath!

Boardwalk through Phobjikha valley to the Gompa
On November 11, morning arrived clear, sunny and warm! We hiked for a few hours through the valley and actually spotted the first 13 black necked cranes that had recently arrived in the distance while making our way to the monastery - Gangtey Gompa where the local festival is held. We could hear the songs and dancing while making our way in up the hill and what a scene! Performers dressed like cranes, mask dancers and a type of entertaining clown danced to traditional Bhutan music. It was the highlight of the tour!

Gangtey Gompa

Over the next few days,  we visited the Chimi Lakhang, a monastery with an interesting history of the Divine Madman, Lama Drukpa Kunley a Tibetan saint who espoused some crazy wisdom to Bhutan.

We made our way back to Paro for a welcome celebration pizza dinner (!) and the flight back to Kathmandu in Nepal with more incredible views of the Himalayas.
Tashi Delek (good luck) from Bhutan

Druk Air flight back to Kathmandu

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Mountains of Bhutan

There are 3 major mountain passes in the west of Bhutan that afford the most incredible views of the eastern end of the Himalayan range. This photo taken from Dochu La 3115m.

It is little known, but China claimed a piece of Bhutan north of the town of Gasa, and the centre of the high mountain range including Gankharpunsum (7564m) which was the highest mountain in Bhutan (in the cloud to the right of this photo).

How they got away with this is unclear and the border is still in dispute as far as I know.

Manang Gang (7194m) and Tshendav Gang (6994m)

The white wedge is Jomolhari 7315m (sometimes spelled Chomolhari) which gives the Jomolhari trek its name! A camping trek passes the foot of it and 3 other near 7000 meter peaks before heading southeast to Thimphu, the capital. The trek crosses passes at 4900m.

Zongphu Gang - "Table Mountain" (7094m)  just behind the tree

This is a view of Kangchenjunga in Nepal on the flight back to Kathmandu from Paro. 
It is the 3rd highest peak in the world at 8586 meters.

We were also treated to views of Mt. Everest (8850 m) and Lhotse (8501 m)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I think to capture the essence of Bhutan, the best way is to view some shots of the landscape, buildings, Dzongs, and people. Check these out...

The classic photo for Bhutan - the Tiger's Nest - Taktsang Monastery - a 2 hour, 900 meter hike up a mountain, across a stream and up the cliff to the monastery itself. The legend of Guru Rinpoche, or known as Padmasambhava, is he rode on a tigress to this place to meditate. Deep inside the monastery is the cave he is believed to have spent three years, three months, three weeks, and three days meditating here in the 8th century. He is also credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan and made at least 3 visits to Bhutan. Legend and fact somehow seem to mix comfortably for the locals.

Paro National Museum

Typical farmhouse - the roof is suspended above the top floor. It is storage space and allows grains, hay and other items to dry in the warm winds.

My guide Karma and excellent driver Dorje!

Some school girls heading off to classes in Chumey.

Monks heading up the steep steps to Punakha Dzong.

Puhakha Dzong - a fortress at the forks of two rivers - the Mo and Po (mother and father) in central Bhutan. A Dzong is half fortress and half quarters for administration and the monastery. Monks and Lamas live and work inside the fortress. Punakha Dzong is the largest fortress in Bhutan.

The yak wool carpets are some of the best designs I have seen anywhere. Rich colors and traditional designs woven in the rural areas in central Bhutan (near Jakar, or aka Bumthang).

Monday, November 11, 2013

Land of the Thunder Dragon

After many years of travel to Nepal (and Tibet) I finally put up the cash to head to the once forbidden kingdom of Bhutan. I flew from Kathmandu to Paro, Bhutan's only international airport. Upon arrival one realizes you are in a very different place although the Himalayas and mountains seem familiar. The men all wear the national dress - the Goh - a knee length garment worn with leggings, and white sleeves. The women wear the Kira, an almost floor length dress with a short jacket. National dress is required for all citizens while working, at school or entering government offices.

Bhutan is known for a spicy chili cheese dish, buckwheat pancakes, yak wool garments and woven goods, cheese, butter and red panda beer. Being a Buddhist country, all meats are brought in from India so no animals are harmed in Bhutan. This kingdom is the size of Switzerland and became a democracy a few years ago. It is 99% Buddhist and there are many dzongs (fortress monasteries), gompas (temples)  and chortans in all major centers. Tourism is tightly controlled as they do not want the spoils that come with too many tourists. It also costs a fortune (upwards of $200 USD per day and much more if traveling solo) but it includes a guide, driver, all meals and accommodations and transportation.

Bhutan includes the eastern Himalayas, shares a northern border with Tibet, a southern border with India and several 7000m peaks including Jhomolhari (7315m). Thimphu is the capital - seat of government and home for the revered royal family. They love their King and Queen. The current King's father (the 4th king of Bhutan) abdicated to his son 4 years ago. The son recently married a pilot's daughter in 2011, a very popular wedding and produced much pride in the royal family.

The country is very mountainous and I see lots of opportunity for treks. The white peak above is Jomolhari, a beautiful wedge shaped peak. An 8 day trek can be started 16km west of Paro finishing up in Thimphu. However, unless you are trekking, one must travel between the major centers by bus, jeep or car.

As the weeks go by, I hope to provide a few photos to show what this kingdom in the Himalayas looks like through the lense of my camera.