My solo trip towards central Bhutan started at the Thimphu bus depot. After getting the necessary route permit for Bumthang and purchasing my bus ticket the previous day, I had anticipated this journey and felt it would show me a different side of Bhutan. I am a big fan of long bus rides (something I’ve inherited from my grandma), especially if they involve going through magnificent scenery, so I was looking forward to this 9 hour journey. I was lucky to get an excellent window seat right behind the driver, it was so good I asked for the same seat on the way back.
My fellow passengers were very friendly (even at this early hour) and they kept offering me sweets and water. A lot of people were chewing Dolma which is a combination of fresh beetle nut and lime paste neatly wrapped in a leaf and chewed. It is similar to the Indian Pan (except it’s made with fresh beetle nuts) and has the same reddening effect on the teeth. The effect is a slight high similar to one coming from chewing coca leaves (another cultural similarity between Andes and Himalaya! Incidentally, “Koka” is the name of a popular instant noodle brand here that is also taken dry as snack). It also heats you up which is great in high altitude mountain areas. The taste is famously bitter and there is a numbing effect on the tongue and lips. I have tried this concoction a few times and like its effects but can have it only once in a long while!
Once we started the journey, our driver started DJing, playing an eclectic combination of old Western (including Modern Talking!!), some Dzongkha (including an alternate version of Gangnam style) and Hinidi songs. It was mostly fun, except the songs would repeat once in a while, which is understandable on a long bus journey.
The road snaked out of Thimphu and climbed high into hills filled with apple orchards and blue pine, reaching the village of Hongtsho where my permit was quickly scanned and stamped. For someone who is used to spontaneous changes in travel plans, having a set itinerary can be stifling but I was impressed with how efficient the procedures were once the paperwork was in order.
After the village, the road went higher and higher until the Dochu La (3140m) pass which is marked by many prayer flags. All along the road there are chortens that have to be passed from the left side, our driver drove the bus one whole rotation around most of the chortens before continuing.
Once we passed the high pass, the road started descending into the valley. This whole area is a Royal Botanical Garden and there are many different species of trees around. At times, the scene unfolding in front of the bus looked like a Zen painting.
The scenery and movement helped me go into a meditative state and think about my life. In recent years, I have had a lot of different experiences but what draws me to them is not only a need for achievement or novelty (which my ego sometimes strives for these) but a maddening desire for a feeling of suddenly being really alive. At the best of times, I feel I am truly serving the purpose for which I was created. When this happens, here and there become one and past and future disappear; suddenly there is no other way but this path as it unfolds is the essence of freedom. My path is not one of pleasure or pain but truth.
Suddenly, our bus came to a halt. Trees were being cut in front of us and we waited a surprisingly short time before the road was cleared. During the pause, I chatted with some of the passengers and the driver. He said he drove this same route 5 days a week: going to Bumthang, staying there for the night and driving the next bus after that. As he was driving, he would lean back and point out the different cities and monuments to me.
After the pass, we descended into the warm Punakha valley. This is the winter residence of the monastic body who move to Thimphu every summer. The landscape was markedly different. Although, we were soon again going up another mountain, on the way to central Bhutan.
The road was full of bends and turns and at times, we had to really slow down and drive beside another passing truck or bus, just centimetres away. At around 11 we stopped for lunch and the driver asked me to join him in a separate room where we had ema datsi, dhal and huge plates of rice. After the lunch, the very friendly assistant driver bought a large number of candies from the restaurant and offered it to all the passengers. I got a “medicated cough candy”, after a moment of hesitation, I popped it in my mouth, it was an interesting desert. By the end of the trip, I accepted two more of these medicated candies!
All along the path, people would hand the driver parcels to bring to someone at the other end of the road. These ranged from letters to big boxes and rolls of paper. In Jamie Zeppa’s excellent memoir, Beyond the Earth and the Sky, I had read that these buses used to be affectionately (I think!) referred to as “vomit comet”. I think things have much changed since the 80’s and the quality of the transport is very good (at least in this part of Bhutan). However, the road has lots of twists and turns and for a long time I could see the head of a child propped out of the window of the bus in front of us, throwing up on the road.
After a few hours, we got to Trongsa, which is right in the middle of Bhutan. From here, the road became surreally beautiful. Each scene could be an amazing poster. I remembered travelling in Peru one time and meeting a photographer who was touring the country, taking pictures for a photography book. That would be such an amazing thing to do here too! Despite all the movement on the bus, many people were sleeping. First, I was surprised and then fell asleep myself!
Arriving in Bumthang, I checked into a beautiful guesthouse (Kila Guesthouse) that my friends in Thimphu had recommended. The guesthouse had a large courtyard and reminded me of old Japanese movies (especially the Oshin TV series). My room was immaculate, with a nice Bukhari (wood stove) that I asked to be lighted that night. After a large meal at the hotel restaurant I slept to the pleasant sound and smell of burning wood!
Next morning, I woke up at dawn and started walking up the Chokhor valley. There is a large Dzong (fortress) and many important temples and monasteries in this area and I visited many of them including the very old and sacred Jampey Lhakhang and Kurjey Lakhang. The sound of chanting combined with the smell of incense was mesmerizing in the morning. I sat for sometime at Jampey Lhakhang, taking in the atmosphere and watching the many elderly people who were praying and turning prayer wheels in its courtyard.
My morning walk took me up the Eastern side of the Chamkhar Chhu river and back from the West side to the Bumthang brewery. This establishment setup by the Swiss a number of years ago is a centre for producing Bhutan’s (arguably) best beer (the Red Panda) as well as honey and cheese in the nearby Swiss farm. Here, I met a serious and self-made young man who gave me a tour of the brewery describing that most of the process is done by hand and that the output is very small (about 1000 litres per week). In the short break I took there, we chatted about many things and I tested the fresh final product (excellent!).
During our talk, I watched the Swiss gentleman who has established the farm tend to a number of beehives. Herr Fritz Maurer, established the first Swiss farm here many years ago and brought modern beekeeping to this part of Bhutan (there used to be traditional beekeeping in the South involving making a hive out of a hollow tree trunk and cow dung). He is a serious hard working man and when I complemented his establishment, he smiled and ambiguously said, “yes, there is a lot of work!” From a man with a strong work ethic, that comes as a happy statement.
I bought some fresh cheese at the store next door that tasted divine, especially after sharing the road with cows all day! After the walk, I went back to the guest house and met it’s owner Mr. Kaila Tamang, who told me he used to host Christmas parties for Canadian teachers in the 80s. After a brief rest, I pondered the idea of catching a taxi to the famous Burning Lake but decided to walk there and back (about 10 km one way). While I wanted to see it, the important thing was not to reach the destination but take the journey. The idea of spending so much time with myself was both thrilling and slightly worrisome.
The Burning Lake is the site of the discoveries of two famous treasures by Pema Lingpa the 15th century saint. Once he dived into the lake, finding a sacred statue and scroll in the dakini script that he managed to translate (an enormous task since each dakini word stands for a 1000 human words!). The lake got its name from an incident in which he went in the lake with a lighted lamp and returned after some time with the lamp still burning and with new treasures in hand!
I started the 5 hour walk through beautiful pastures and mountain passes at 2. I was slightly worried about it getting dark and at the midway point almost turned back, but a few steps forward and my worries were gone. During the walk, slowly my mind started to quiet down and my heart started singing a song of longing:
“I search for you in the mountain and the metropolis,
I search for you in the dancehall and the temple,
I search for you when I am praying and when I am drinking,
I search for you in my lover’s hair and in my companion’s smile.
They warned me don’t act the fool! I became your joker, your performer: It’s better to be misunderstood than stop longing for you.
I became the madman, the drunkard, the seducer, the loner, the freak: I became everything and nothing, in my path there is no sin other than forgetting you!
They warned me: “don’t try too hard, don’t go too high, your fall will be painful, your down will be deep”,
if I don’t use my wings to fly towards you, its better if they are broken,
and if my eyes don’t thirst to see you, I’d rather be blind.
If I don’t spend my life searching for you, dreaming of you, loving you, I might as well be dead.
My heart is in my hands, my life is all I can offer. If you want me to love, I will love and if not, I will die waiting for you!”
When I got to the lake, I was ecstatic! There was nobody there and the water was flowing and making dreamy patterns and small whirlpools here and there. I could not stop smiling, I felt safe, protected! Once you see the path, there is no other way.
After a few minutes I headed back, still singing in my head and feeling as if I was flying. Back in my room, I looked wild-eyed and wild-haired! After a shower, I went for a huge dinner (I had skipped breakfast and lunch). Mr. Kila was impressed by my walk and kept telling everyone in the room about it.
There was a kindly gentleman sitting at the other table who had studied in Washington, DC in the 80s. He told me some funny stories of his experiences in America and also said that he knew the man who put fish in the highland lakes at the request of the king. He said when he was a kid he used to see this man carry a big earthen pot full of small trout on his back to the lakes and release them there.
At the end of the day, I went to bed with a good companion, the famous travelogue by Peter Matthiessen, “Snow Leopard”. A few days later, I saw two hunted and taxidermic snow leopards in the National Museum in Paro (along with a small but absolutely amazing collection of objects that mix mythology and history including a horse egg, a unicorn horn and some thangkas dating back to the 15th century).
When I arrived back in Thimphu, after dining at a restaurant the owner suddenly produced a beautiful book full of pictures of Bhutanese deities and sacred places and gave it to me saying, “my uncle is the reincarnation of a famous saint and he has written this book, instructing me to give it to someone who is interested in these things!” “Thank you!”