An Encounter

One day during the last days of my stay in Thimphu, I was walking through the market in a light drizzle after meeting with a poet, philosopher, meditator friend of mine (need I say, a lot of people you meet in Bhutan are unique?!). Suddenly, someone called to me “Sir, where are you going?” Anywhere else I might have walked on but I turned and saw a kindly older Indian gentleman standing under the cover of a shop front avoiding the rain and smiling at me. “Just walking!”, my standard response which is true most of the time, including this time: I am walking through life! “Where are you from?” and our conversation continued.

For all the random times I have met people on the street, this time I was blessed with having a conversation with a sensitive, caring, kind man, who shared some stories of his life: how his wife had passed away, how his children are grown up and married in India, how he has decided to devote the rest of his life to children and how the cold weather of Thimphu is a menace for him who has grown up in the warm climate of Kerala! I enjoyed listening to him but even more I enjoyed looking at his kind moist eyes and the sincere quivering in his voice when he talked about an orphanage he visits sometimes and how he loves the children there for whom he sometimes cooks and tells stories.

He said he loved the children in Thimphu where he is a primary school teacher, although the workload is heavy and the pay is not very good. He still enjoyed his time there and smiled and looked in the distance whenever he talked about his students, I believe imagining their inquisitive faces and open mouths as they listen to him tell them stories like this: “Once Socrates was walking down the street in broad day light with a lighted lamp. Someone asked him what are you doing? He said, ‘I am searching for real human beings!'”

He told me he wants to write a book about his life. That would be great but would it capture his kind gentle energy? Would words express his sincerity? Would literary metaphors and images be enough to convey the tenderness in his heart? Perhaps, but it would be a difficult task!

After a short time, we shook hands and moved on. No phone numbers exchanged, no Facebook adds. This was a different kind of encounter: a moment complete in itself, a coming together of souls appreciating the pain and love and beauty that is life!

Rain

I left from Bhutan on the first day of the monsoon. In pouring rain, one of my colleagues kindly drove me to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. Watching the beautiful valleys and fields of Bhutan disappear in the clouds as the plane ascended from the Paro airport, I could not help but also wash my heart in rain. I have travelled to more than 20 countries but none of my departures (other than leaving Iran for Canada) have been filled with such sense of nostalgia.

Words will not describe my feelings. I am looking forward to going back to Canada and seeing my family and friends which I have missed, but leaving Bhutan was like leaving a child that looks at you as you walk out the door, saying goodbye without knowing when and if you can come back, and knowing they will grow and change the next time you see them. The innocence, kindness and imagination of this land is enormous and I have felt it intimately and have to let it go now!

Coming into Kathmandu, I felt tired and without much energy but decided to do my favourite activity: take a long walk! My friend Sonam had recommended visiting Bodhnath, the largest stupa in Asia and a very sacred Buddhist temple which is about 5k from Thamel where I am staying. I started to walk and after dodging a few hustlers was soon in a more quiet area of town.

On the way, I came across the Pashupatinath Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River and was approached by many panhandlers, “baba”s wanting to pose for pictures and “pandits” trying to convince me to do a 1000 rupee puja. I left, leaving empty. Some places are best not visited, some mountains best not climbed.

As I was walking away suddenly I saw isolated stairs descending to the water, I walked down and suddenly I was beside the sacred river. It was quiet and peaceful. I stayed here for some time and looked at a monkey who like myself was looking at the river and enjoying the silence (I think!). As I turned to leave, I saw an old Sadhu sitting in a building looking at me. I waved at him and he did the same, kindly turning his head in a message that I felt meant “I know”!

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As I walked towards the Temple, the rain intensified. When I got to the temple it was simply pouring, so I decided to wait under a cover for sometime before continuing. Here, I met an old man who told me he was from Tibet and started complaining about health problems and how expensive it is to get medicine here. He said he comes to the temple to pray to get money for the medicine. When I replied saying I will try to help him, his eyes became bright and he started talking about how much money I can give him. I smiled and said, “no, that’s not how I can help, I will pray for you the way I pray for other beings so that their suffering becomes less!” He was not impressed and I walked away!

I have heard (and quoted) the saying that “the thief only sees the saint’s pockets”. I am no saint but on this trip I wanted to ask what does the saint see when he or she looks at the thief? I think a mixture of ignorance and obstructed misplaced love.

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The monsoon is also strong here and walking in the rain I was soon completely soaked. Many people looked at me in surprise but I enjoyed the warm rain on my body with the knowledge of having dry clothes back at the hotel. After all, we are 80% water!

Walking back to Thamel, I was confronted with children sniffing glue and playing with stones next to posh tourist shops. Thamel is full of beautiful things and I had planned to pick up some fun souvenirs from here but seeing this scene combined with many shopkeepers designing their stores only for foreigners who want to buy an cool image killed my appetite for any shopping and I decided to walk back to the modest hotel and read. It’s not that these things do not happen anywhere else (including Bhutan) but my state of mind was too sensitive at this specific moment.

Don’t take me wrong, Nepal is excellent for shopping and all the power to people who have the interest and patience (usually I do too) but this time I just was not in the mood for that at all. Also, the styles I was so attracted to (festival gear, psychedelic patterns, asymmetric outfits) are novel the first few years you discover them and then become more of a uniform than a creative expression of beauty. So I will have to discover new aesthetics for myself this summer.

My time in Nepal was too short: I’ve heard of majestic mountains and quiet beautiful towns that you can reach in a couple of day. Maybe next time I budget a few more days to visit Pokhara, a place I’ve been recommended to go a number of times. As it was, after the deep connections I had made in Bhutan and the way I had become used to its unique untouched fabric, it was hard to adjust immediately to the big city vibe of Kahtmandu.

Black-Necked Crane

When I first found these wings spreading behind me, I was surprised,

Just like the first time you lose yourself when you make love,

new feelings, new sounds, new life!

 

 

Who filled my eyes with dreams, my wings with feathers?

My legs are unsteady when I walk on the ground,

But in the sky I am like the wind: invisible, free, in my element!

At first, I stumbled, clumsily flapping my wings, looking at the trees, desperate to land.

But the trees became smaller, the wind cooler, I flew higher!

 

 

Like the sun, I am completely here when I am here,

But when the time comes,

When the air begins to warm and spring arrives at Phobdjikha valley,

I have to spread my wings again, fly once more over my winter home,

Circle the Chorten three times and fly away North,

Where my invisible wings are determined to take me!

 

 

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Note:

Black-necked crane is a popular bird from Tibet that every winter flies into its winter home in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley. Legend has it that each spring when the birds migrate back to Tibet, they circle the sacred Chortens (Stupas) in the traditional way (clockwise), before moving North.

Burning Lake

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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!

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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!”

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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.

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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!”

Subduing the Tiger

This weekend, we visited the Taktshang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) near Paro, perhaps the most famous mountain monastery in Bhutan. The name Taktshang is very similar to the Farsi “Takht-e-sang” meaning “Rock bed” which is actually appropriate as the monastery seems to miraculously grow out of a rocky mountain.

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Along with my awesome adventure buddies, Sonam and Susmita, our team included Dr. Cigay and Mr. Karma, two kind and knowledgable Bhutanese gentlemen who had arranged the day trip and shared many interesting stories and information about the site and surrounding area. A family of four guests from India were also hiking with us. I was impressed with the stamina of the two kids who were with us as the climb was at times steep.

Tiger’s Nest is built on the site of Guru Rinpoche’s landing in Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche was a sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. He is considered as the Second Buddha and is believed to have flown onto this spot on the back of a tigress that was a manifestation of his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. The tiger can be a symbol of desire and wild energy that is tamed by the mind and incorporated (not gotten ride of!) within the fabric of life.

The walk up to Tiger’s Nest from Paro valley is not long but very steep. The monastery lies about 900m up from the Paro valley. Upon arrival at the beginning of the trail, our friends rented a horse for the little boy who was with us. These gentle animals are in high demand at the peak of the tourist season but there were some available when we went there.

I had been warned about this site being touristy but like anywhere else in Bhutan there were few tourists which reminded me that after this trip it will be difficult to travel almost anywhere else! Bhutan has spoilt me by being so serene and untouched! If such a site existed anywhere else, there would be swarms of noisy picture snatching tourists and shops and sellers everywhere. As it was, the mind blowing site stood majestic and mystical on the mountain side and greeted us with spiritual energy.

There were prayer flags everywhere and I learned that these have to be setup in a place where they can flutter in the wind, thus their prayers being blown up to the skies. Also, ideally, they should have an open view of water. I remembered my bedroom in Toronto that is adorned with prayer flags I brought from India but not much breeze! I was also told how to distinguish between cotton flags (good), and synthetic flags (not so good). After some location hunting, we setup our flags, hoping for blessings.

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Halfway through the climb, we had refreshing milk tea with traditional pastries. It’s amazing how tasty everything is after a walk!

The views of the monastery are simply stunning and photographs can’t really capture its beauty. There is a flowing waterfall next to the monastery and to reach the monastery, there is a narrow path (with railings, thank God!) that should be passed.

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Upon arrival, we entered the monastery and started going to the several temples that are located there. But first, there was a big rock that had a small circular cavity on it. It is believed that if you walk to the rock and touch your finger to the circular spot with closed eyes, your debt to your parents will be removed. I was unable to touch the spot (although I think I wasn’t too far!).

Next, we went to the main temple, where to show respect we prostrated three times to the lama’s chair and three times to the alter, after which we received holy water. The first temple hosted the entrance to the cave in which Guru Rinpoche had meditated for three months.

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Moving on we went to a second temple that housed a beautiful statue of Guru Rinpoche. The statue was very large and it is believed to have been brought here by a mysterious strong man that appeared out of nowhere and took it from the team of men who were trying to bring it here through the narrow path. It is indeed hard to imagine how any of the building material was carried to this spot, let alone a large heavy statue!

Each temple and stone had an interesting story associated with it: one temple housed a wish fulfilling spring, while a large stone was said to have a treasure hidden inside. There was a large cave which is believed to have been the guru’s tiger’s nest during their stay. It was a steep slippery spot and I decided not to go too deep. This spot reminded me of another story about a nearby cave that will not allow you to pass through if you are a sinner.

After contemplating this magical spot for some time, we started heading down and had a tasty Bhutanese packed lunch in a scenic spot. From the monastery, we drove past the beautiful surrounding area that is covered with irrigated rice fields and surrounded by green hills. There was a gushing river beside us. I remembered seeing it when I was coming from Paro to Thimphu on the first day I came to Bhutan and being impressed by how clean and clear the water was.

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Before going back to Thimphu, we visited the Kyichu Lhakhang temple, which is one of the oldest (built in the 7th century and restored later) temples in Bhutan and is believed to have pinned down the left foot of a giant ogress who was thwarting the spread of Buddhism. Here, we saw specimens of an extinct gem, the Cat’s Eye.

Beside the temple is the memorial home of a celebrated spiritual teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. This master was born in Tibet but came to Bhutan and passed here in the early 90’s. The memorial house was closed when we arrived but the caretaker kindly allowed us in and we saw Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s personal effects (including candy holders and clothing items, he was a large man both in spirit and physically!) and his pictures that are the images of kindness and compassion.

On the drive back, we collected holy water from a stream and I couldn’t help but think about how much I am going to miss Bhutan when I leave!

Largest published book in the world

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Yesterday, I visited Bhutan’s National Library. It’s a beautiful building and in addition to an eclectic collection of English books (mostly books about Buddhism  and Himalayan spirituality), there was a very interesting collection of traditionally hand-written and bound Bhutanese and Tibetan texts, some on the pre-Buddhist Bon religion.

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One of the highlights of the visit was seeing the largest published book in the world, called “Bhutan”. I could not look through the large copy on display as it was closed and the person in charge said it’s pages are turned once a month. I checked out the small version and looked at the many pictures in it.

Choki Lhamo with BHUTAN, the world's biggest book

 

from: (http://web.media.mit.edu/~mike/fp/bhutan/im-book/bb1.jpg)

This book is conceived by David Salesin, a computer science faculty (yeay!) at MIT who decided to donate proceedings from it’s sale to further education in Bhutan. A printed copy costs $15,000 and weighs 133 pounds! Check here for more info.

After visiting the museum, walking down the main streets of Thimphu, I saw a couple of fun uses of phrase that I will include here:

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Pilgrimage to the Sky

Update: In 2016, I wrote an article in Farsi about this journey that was published in the Iranian periodical “Kooh (Mountain)”. You can access the PDF here.

Our journey to the mountain started on a Saturday morning. There was eight of us and we all had backpacks full of food, sleeping bags and extra clothing. The plan was to climb to the famous Phajoding monastery and camp there the night. Next day, we were planning to go up to visit a series of 13 sacred lakes, reaching heights over 4000m.

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Soon after catching a ride to the bottom of the path, we started our ascent up the mountain. It was a pleasant day and although we had to carry a lot of things in our backpacks, the climb was very enjoyable. My friends had kindly arranged everything for me: sleeping bag, space in a tent and a large backpack. Two of our friends had been procuring and preparing food for the whole company in the last few days and we were going to share the costs at the end of the trip. I was the only person not from Bhutan and felt very privileged having a chance to be taken into such a friendly group and having a first hand local experience.

There were scenic spots all along the way and we stayed in a couple of them to refresh and have snacks. My friends were joking that we should order lattes and cakes.

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Dzongkha, the main Bhutanese language, is full of surprises. At our first stop, I learned that the word for watermelon translates to “father’s head”. We had some of this delicious fruit before continuing to head up.

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On our way up, we encountered monks using mules to carry things up and down the mountain.

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After a few hours of uphill climbing we got to the Phajoding beautiful monastery. This was the first series of three monasteries built here by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, a 13th century saint who considered here exceptionally rich in spiritual energy.

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At this point, we could feel the high altitude (we were at 3690m) and breathing was a little more difficult. The views were stunning, however, and we could see Thimphu valley under our feet.

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Arriving at the Phajoding monastery, we met a group of young monks. Many of these monks are either from poor families or orphans. Unfortunately, these monasteries suffer from a lack of funds to maintain themselves and some parts of them are in urgent need of repair, especially after a recent earthquake caused damage to them.

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We stopped at a second monastery and had a “wet picnic” of cooked rice, some Bhutanese curries and greens.

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As we learned on the way down the mountain, this second monastery houses a special dragon’s egg. While we didn’t see the egg itself, a monk that lived there showed us pictures of it on his phone. It was a large yellow/whitish egg, roughly the size of a child’s head with black dots on it.

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Going a few hundred meters up, we got to a secluded meditation hut. The standard silent mediation retreat lasts three years, three months and three days. There was a water tap outside the hut and as we were washing a silent monk came out of the hut and with sign language gave us directions to camping ground and borrowed us a large container for water.

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We moved further up and reached a relatively flat area where a large group of Yaks were grazing. This was to be our camping ground for the night. The elevation was very high now (3950m) and we had a choice of staying at the monastery here (Thujidrag Goemba) or camp in the field right below it. We decided for the second choice. Two other groups of hikers we had met on the road up decided to stay at the monastery.

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There was a king monk at the monastery who offered us milk tea. It was one of the best tasting teas I have ever had in my life. Life is hard for the monks up here and they have very little but they are very generous and kind. We borrowed pots for cooking from them and a bucket to get water.

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On our way to setup our camp we met another old monk with long hair who said he was going to a nearby cremation site to meditate for that night. Right above the monastery, there is a sky burial site called skeleton mountain. The belief is that these mountains are closer to the sky and especially for dead babies provide a better chance to be reborn as higher beings.

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Setting up our tents, my friends started to make a fire using the wet wood we could find there. It was a very hard task and I was surprised that with much determination they succeeded to not only start a fire but also make noodle soup, rice and curry on it. I did not have much appetite at that altitude but the food was so appetizing that I ended up eating a few plates. The temperature started falling and it became colder and colder. We could hear the soft sound of sacred music playing over loudspeakers from the monastery.

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We gathered around a campfire and started singing songs. I seriously regretted not knowing the lyrics to many songs but really enjoyed my friends singing. The best part was when they were singing Bhutanese songs. There was one particular song that they kindly sang for me and had a very catchy chorus repeating, “come back” in Bhutanese.

After we had eaten and sang many songs, the temperature dropped even more. We crawled into out tents and tried to rest amidst the blowing winds and freezing weather. I could not sleep very much and in the morning saw the ground around us covered with light snow and everything frozen.

We went up to the monastery again and joined the two groups who were waiting for us to join them to go to the lakes and were worried about us because of the cold. At this point, feeling cold and tired, I wasn’t sure if I can climb up to the lakes. After a few moments of reflection, I felt an urge to climb further. I felt sleeping in the cold, the previous night would be rewarded with a special experience if I persisted. It seemed everybody in our group had the same resolution and we all climbed up after breakfast. I decided today I am going to eat very little to conserve energy for the long hike ahead and just had some tasty tea for breakfast. The monks had prepared a big breakfast of rice and curry for everyone.

There are a series of 13 sacred lakes in this area. There are seven high passes to traverse to get to the last pair of lakes. We were basically going through the last two days of the 7 day Druk Trekking Path, that starts from Paro and ends in Thimphu (in reverse).

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Once we were over the first pass, the views became even more impressive and going over 4000m, you could distinctly feel the air getting thinner. Most of the path was relatively easy to walk through although it was a very long walk. A funny excerpt from the book “Mild and Mad Day Hikes Around Thimphu” reads: If you are considering walking reaching the lakes and returning back to civilization in one day, “you have to be 1. very well acclimatized, 2. in excellent condition and 3. an almost complete lunatic.” We did not attempt to reach the lakes and go back in one day but still is was a trying day of almost 12 hours hard walking with an hour break (4 hours to get to the last lake, 4 hours to get back and 3 hours back to Thimphu from Phajodhing).

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The weather conditions up here are notoriously unstable and the belief is that if you are disrespectful towards the land and the lake and scream or throw garbage in the area or smoke, the weather turns for the worst and you might get lost. There is a story of six boys who got lost in a similar mountain (around Cheri Monastery) and only two of them survived.

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Partly because of these beliefs these areas are very clean and a pleasure to walk through. After walking for a while, I felt slowly going into a pleasant trance. The views were mind-blowing and I felt walking through a dream. The quick and dramatic changes in the weather, sunny one moment and foggy the next, made me feel the impermanence of life. You could not hold on to anything, you had to move, savour both sweet and painful moments and walk on. I was afraid to get too excited about the reality of this dream, walking through sacred passes in the legendary himalayan mountains, in case the bubble of my experience might burst.

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We slowly reached snow and icicles (which I helped myself to, to quench my thirst). The air was thin and there was dancing fog all around us, it was as if the mountain was breathing.

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Stone stupas setup by pilgrims were everywhere and blended well with the landscape: not a drastic change of nature, just a re-arrangement. Each of the lakes, had a name and story associated with it: this one was a fish and the two last ones male and female.

A similar belief in sacred mountains with magical powers exist also in the Andes in Peru since Inca times. Andean mountains are guarded by “Apus” or holly protective spirits. I, also, remembered travelling through Peruvian highlands I was struck by other similarities, especially in the colourful dresses and styles, between the two regions.

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I guess this might be true of most mountain culture. When I was growing up in Iran, we used to go to mountains a lot with my father and he always used to say, “you have to respect the mountain and it will protect you, but if you disrespect it and only want to conquer it, you could be in danger.” This is a belief that I happily carry with me to this day.

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Finally, after many hours of walking we reached our destination: Dungtsho, the 13th sacred lake. My companions started to talk in hushed voices and recite prayers, light incense and install prayer flags around the lake. There was some fog over the lake but it slowly started to disperse. I felt this place was truly magical and the voices inside started to quiet down. I saw a staircase right next to the lake going up to a meditation cave. Whoever has meditated there must have special powers!

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After staying there for a little while, we started heading back. On the way back, we went through hail and lumps of ice made the landscape white. I felt protected by the mountain and while I was concerned about it getting dark, there was a strange sense of trust that made me feel everything is going to be alright. Seeing the lake was truly a pilgrimage and it made every little step and cold and warm moment make sense.

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Over the few hours we had spent with the other two teams, a sense of comradery had grown between us. We were sharing snacks and stories and looking out to see if everyone was still continuing and no one was left behind. Finally, we got back to Thujidrag Goemba, where we had more tea and picked up our luggage. We filled cans full of holy water and started to walk down the mountain towards Thimphu.

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We were much lighter on the walk back but still had to be careful not to fall and co-ordinate our tired bodys’ movements. When we made it to the bottom of the road and to civilization, there was a strong sense of accomplishment and happiness. In the car, as we were driving back to Thimphu on the dark road on the outskirts of town, we saw His Majesty the Fourth King on his bicycle going for an evening exercise round on the road that leads to the trailhead. My friends drove me back to my apartment where I dragged myself to a hot bath and slipped into bed, immediately going to sleep. I dreamed I was walking higher and higher towards the sky!

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Guide for the Mind!

A few years ago, I got to visit the Louvre in Paris and one of the sections that fascinated me was the Russian Icon Collection. The icon painters would fast for many days inside dark caves in contemplation. At some point, they would actually “see” the face of a saint in the total darkness (“with their mind’s eye”) and would proceed to paint it using gold leaves. Andrei Tarkovsky has a masterful film about one such painter, Andrei Rublev.

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I believe many traditional Tibetan and Bhutanese paintings are depictions of spiritual experiences that people actually experienced. There are many techniques of exploring the mind and many of this art seem to be providing guidelines or maps for seekers to follow.

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Kind of like a Lonely Planet Guide to your mind!

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Them, dogs!!!

They woke me up again at 3:30 am. They are cute and docile during the day and form vicious loud packs at night. I’ve been warned about walking at night without a stick, in case you get bitten! So many nights I stay home and sleep early (sometimes as early as 7:30pm!!!) and wake up to their sound around 3-4 am!

I have ear plugs but am challenging myself to get used to the sounds. Someone told me, “Bhutan did not have a dog problem, until a foreigner, staying here for the first time said, ‘I think you have a dog problem!’, and that’s how it started!” True, I will get used to them and actually I am starting to like it when they wake me up and give me many free hours before having to get up: I read poems by the Wild Saint of the East, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay, and curl up in my bed waiting for the sun to break over misty mountains so I can go for my morning walk to Buddha Point. After all the “‘divine madman’ demonstrates that it is not necessary to sleep eight hours a day to feel good, or to eat three meals a day to maintain the body in a fit condition, …”

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This morning I listened to Pink Floyd’s Dogs!

An unusual animal

This Sunday, I met one a very unusual creature: Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin. There is a Takin reserve on the outskirts of Thimphu. A few years ago, this area housed a mini-zoo, but it was decided that keeping animals captive for entertainment was not in accord with Bhutan’s philosophy and the zoo was closed and the animal freed into the wild. The Takins, however, were so tame that they kept wandering around the streets of Thimphu looking for food, so they had to be put back behind fences. (In general, animals in Bhutan are very tame which is probably due to people following Buddha’s teaching of not killing.)

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There is a very interesting story related to the origins of Takin. Once Bhutan’s famous saint, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay (that I’ve mentioned in a previous post) was asked by his followers to perform a miracle. He asked them to first bring him a bull and goat to eat. After he ate both and left only the bones, he put the head of the goat on the bones of the bull, he then commanded the new animal to come to life and run to the meadow to feed! A bizarre fact, giving credence to the miracle story, is that, the Takin actually can not be easily categorized, as it is not related to any other animal and so  it is placed in it’s put in its own category, budorcas taxicolor.

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There are also beautiful deer at the reserve. The reserve is clean and quiet and there are many visitors. As I was leaving, a group of Indian dignitaries arrived in black Mercedes Benzes and accompanied by armed body guards (which is very rare in Bhutan).

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After visiting the reserve, I went up to the telecommunication tower (2685 m) that provides nice views of the city. There were many many flapping prayer flags everywhere. The belief is that these prayer flags have to be on high points as the wind will blow their prayers to the sky. As I was walking, I met a couple who had brought some prayer flags to install there. I did not ask them what they were praying for, but it was beautiful to see them among hundreds of dancing colourful prayer flags, looking for a suitable spot to raise theirs.

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I continued walking and at the entrance to the telecommunication tower (which is restricted and also should not be photographed), I met a father with two sons who were going for a hike to Wangditse Goemba. I asked him the directions and continued walking in the same direction.

Walking through a cool pine forest and a ridge, I got to the Goemba where on top of a hill, a young group of monks were playing soccer (a scene right out of The Cup!) and an old man was dozing off.

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Nearby, two old men were chanting “Om mani padme” and turning big prayer wheels. I sat in this meditative and beautiful spot for a little while and then headed down the hill.

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There was a small group of walkers in front of me, carrying a little baby wrapped in a blanket down the hill. After a little while, I lost sight of them and started making up poems and songs in my head as I was coming down the mountain.

I remembered when I was young and we used to go hiking every weekend with my father and brother in Tehran. I really enjoyed those walks. We had a small spot far from the crowds that we had dubbed “our peak”. We would walk there and have oranges and tangerines and then walk down to our house where we would have roasted chicken and potatoes (made by mom) or kebabs (made by dad). I remembered the smell of the earth when it rained, the feeling of small pebbles in my shoes and the taste of those dishes.

As I was thinking these, I heard strange but playful sounds behind me. I stopped a looked back. Three small kids were running down the hill in slippers with their hands stretched out, making airplane sounds (and spitting!). They ran past me and I remembered, I used to do the same when I was a kid.

Going further down, I reached the Dechen Phodrang monastery. Again, some monks were playing soccer.

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After a brief pause, I walked back to the city along a road that went through terrace farms and from which I could see the gigantic Thimphu Dzong.

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As I was walking, a tourist bus with windows full of hands holding cameras and iPads pointed at the Dzong passed me.

Walking into Thimphu, I saw a group of men playing the giant dart game (which is very similar to Bhutanese archery with teams dancing after the throws and singing teasing songs to each other). I was very thirsty after the walk and decided to go to a small local bar for a beer. A young friendly girl was tending to the bar. We chatted a little about life in Bhutan and suddenly there was a rain storm outside and all the men who had been playing, came in the bar wet and laughing.

There was a lot of animated talk about the scores and coloured scarves (signifying the scores) were distributed according to how people had performed. I sat there very content and chatter with a couple of the players and decided it was time to try the local arra, which is a rice wine not unlike the Japanese sake. I hear traditionally it is drank heated and also with a raw egg in it! I decided to try it without the egg and I liked its taste, although it would probably be better heated. After the rain had slowed down and after a second arra, kindly offered on the house, I headed out and strolled towards my apartment, thinking of the takin’s creation story.