10/2015 - Himalayan Kingdoms Part 3
Our flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Paro, Bhutan took us through the spectacular Himalayan Mountains, including Mt. Everest (at 29,029 feet). Though the cloud cover was dense, we had some great looks at the peaks. The pilot continued the journey, skillfully banking to the left & right to make the steep descent between the mountains approaching Paro. This was the part of the trip I (Kathy) was dreading, having read about how the Paro landing was one of the most dangerous in the world. Only 8 pilots are qualified to fly in & out of this airport. The planes cut very close to the mountains & the houses built along the slopes. Then they land on an unusually short runway. Flights are only allowed during the daytime & under conditions where the pilot can make judgements by eye rather than by instruments. We were so thankful for the pilot's skill as we landed safely! See the video in here for a birds-eye view of a landing.
The country of Bhutan was absolutely beautiful. It is mountainous & green, with clear skies & stunning views. The country is so clean & well cared for. Prayer flags abound on the windy mountains & across the many rivers. Colorful red chilies lay drying in fields & on rooftops everywhere. There are only 700.000 people in the country & the government measures Gross National "Happiness" rather than "Product". The Royal Family seems to rule in concert with the elected officials & is very well-loved. We were greeted (Kuzu zangpo la) at the airport by our friendly Bhutanese guide, Kesang, & an outstanding van driver, Don. Right away our guide explained the traditional dress the men wore - the gho. It looks like a knee-length belted robe & is usually made from handwoven wool or cotton. Almost all of the men & boys we saw wore them, but they are required to wear them when they visit government offices. The women's traditional dress is called the kira. It is an ankle-length dress made from a rectangular piece of woven fabric wrapped around the body & fastened with brooches. A short jacket, called a toego, is worn over the dress. Again, most of the women & girls we saw were wearing kiras. At one point in our trip we visited the National Textile Museum where we saw many examples of the intricate woven designs & outfits.
Though we landed in Paro, we set out immediately on winding mountain roads for the capital city of Thimpu (the only capital city in the world that has no traffic lights!). Along the way we stopped at the gigantic golden Buddha Dordenma statue. It stands at a height of 169 feet & when completely finished, will hold over 100 thousand smaller buddha statues inside. The following day we visited Choki Traditional Art School where we could watch students practice drawing, painting, weaving, embroidery, wood-carving & sculpture. We also stopped at a paper factory where "handmade" took on a new meaning, as there was no automation of even the most rudimentary processes. Our guide took us to an archery match as well. Archery is the national sport, so every village has an archery field. The targets (1 on each end of the field) are only about 3 feet tall & 1 foot wide & are positioned 475 feet away from each other. The teams take turns shooting arrows in one direction then in the other direction. When a player hits the target the teams shout "wah-hah, wha-hah, wah-hah" & dance around while they sing a celebratory song.
We moved around to several hotels in this country because the mountain-crossing to get from one place to another took many hours. On our road trip from Thimpu to Punakha we stopped at Dochu La Pass (at 10,223 feet). The Queen Mother had 108 chorten (stupas) built here in honor of Bhutanese soldiers. We added prayer flags to the many that flew here in the strong winds. We later had a wonderfully lavish "picnic" lunch of traditional Bhutanese food in a field near a monastery, with tables & chairs set up for us, & even our own portable outhouse. Some teenaged girls & 10 yr-old boys stopped by on their way home from school & entertained us by singing & dancing to popular & Bhutanese songs. In return they asked that we sing a Beatles song to them. Another day we hiked through rice patties & woods to reach the Khamsum Yueley Namgyel Chorten. Though the hike was grueling for some of us, the views from the top were spectacular. When we visited the Punakha Dzong, at the confluence of the Mo & Po (mother & father) Rivers, we crossed over a charming covered wooden bridge.This dzong (a fortress used to protect cities) houses many sacred relics & was at one time the seat of government.
For our final day in Bhutan we had traveled back to Paro to climb to Taktsang Lhakhang, the Tiger's Nest Monastery. This monastery is one of the most holy sites in the kingdom of Bhutan. It clings to a vertical cliff almost 3000 feet above the valley floor. The steep hike look us through lovely woods to a tea house at about the halfway point. Along the path we found "tsa tsas" tucked under boulders. They are cylindrical cone offerings about 2" tall, made out of clay & ashes collected from cremation pyres. They serve to memorialize those who have passed on. The tea house was as far as we got, as the altitude (about 9000 feet) again took its toll. About half of our group continued on for another steep hike, ending with 700 steps going down then up again across a gorge to reach the monastery. No matter where we all ended up, each of us felt satisfied with our accomplishments on this special hike.
Bhutan was my (Kathy's) favorite place during this trip, for its breath-taking scenery & deeply-ingrained culture.
Before returning to the U.S. we stopped for one day & night in Bangkok, parting ways at this point with our fellow travelers. Our local guide, Ta Ta, hurried us around this enormous city (11 million people) to visit a few places of interest. We stopped at the Grand Palace (along with thousands of Chinese tourists on holiday). The high temperatures & equally high humidity made for a very uncomfortable visit among the crowds, but we wandered though the courtyards & buildings gilded with gold that used to house the Royal Family. We also got a glimpse of the Emerald Buddha, a small (26 inch tall) statue made of jade or jasper clothed in seasonal gold robes, housed in a small chapel on the palace grounds. At Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's oldest temples, we saw the Reclining Buddha, at 150 feet long & 49 feet high. At Wat Arun we saw buildings covered in mosaics of pieces of broken china. It is said the china was originally used as ballast on Chinese trading boats. We passed through the busy flower market where prices were astonishingly low, as well as the amulet market, on our way to take a private longboat canal tour. We boarded our flight that night, eager to escape the heat, humidity & bustle of this metropolis. Our return flight was not easy, traveling for 34 hours & awake for 50. But what a trip of a lifetime it was!
As a post-script, I asked all of our guides to help me identify the birds we came across. I was fortunate to encounter Tibetan Snowcock, Indian Vulture, White-throated Kingfisher, Little Egret, House Crow, White-capped Water Redstart, Common Myna, Red-vented Bulbul, Eurasian Tree Sparrow & Alpine Accentor as life birds for me. Additionally I spotted Common Raven & House Sparrow.