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.

SAM_1614

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.

SAM_1624

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.

SAM_1615

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

SAM_1617

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.

SAM_1640

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.

SAM_1659

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.

SAM_1648

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

SAM_1663

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.

SAM_1803

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.

SAM_1670

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.

SAM_1682

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.

SAM_1684

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.

SAM_1691

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.

SAM_1703

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).

SAM_1714

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).

SAM_1709

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.

SAM_1747

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.

SAM_1723

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.

SAM_1752

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.

SAM_1728

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.

SAM_1772

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!

SAM_1793

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.

SAM_1789

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.

SAM_1794

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!

SAM_1800

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, …”

Image

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.)

Image

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.

Image

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).

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

ImageImage

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.

Image

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.

A Historical Picnic

Today was election day in Bhutan and everything was closed. My Bhutanese friends organized a day hike to two amazing monasteries: Cheri and Tango.

SAM_1370

For the lunch picnic, I executed my one Bhutanese recipe (mentioned in a previous post):

Image

and packed it in my backpack with some oranges and bread.

After a short car ride (about 30 mins), passed Bhutan’s only golf club and the construction sight of the new high court, we got to the head of the Thimphu valley and parked beside a beautiful bridge over a flowing river.

Image

We had some hot delicious milk tea here and I managed to dip my toes in the water. In a nearby chortren I spotted some mini-chortern’s that I had seen before. My friends explained that sometimes when people have a wish, they have to built several of these and place them in a sacred place for their wish to be fulfilled. I find this externalization of inner wishes and beliefs present in many objects from the prayer wheel to prayer flags fascinating.

At the head of the mountain trail up to Cheri monastery, I couldn’t help notice a very prominent painting of a phallus on the wall of a hut. This symbol is associated with the Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), a saint known as the bearer of crazy wisdom who combined his outrageous actions with miracles, and is believed to ward off evil:

Image

After walking for about half an hour through beautiful pine forest scenery, we got to Cheri Monastery. Tame mountain goats greeted us as we reached the monastery:

ImageCheri Monastery is Bhutan’s first monastery and was built in 1620. It’s fort like structure is simply breathtaking:ImageOnce there, we had a short break, where my friends proceeded to change into the national dress as a sign of respect. Once inside, we climbed unto a serene temple where a monk was playing drums and bells quietly and chanting. The amazing thing about Bhutan is that if this was anywhere else, visitors would have climbed on each other’s back to take pictures and see things, whereas here, we were among a handful of visitors and it really felt like we had stepped back in time.

Surrounded in this sacred temple with detailed psychedelic images, my friends consulted a monk by throwing three big dice and having him read from a sacred text. The main shrine contained a sacred statue and on the two sides were two small elephant tusks. My friend told me that the tusks were only collected from elephants who were already dead.

There was a small room next to the temple that the monk told us contained the body of a Tibetan warrior who had come and was trapped in the room. No body has ever checked to see what is in that room (not even the highest lamas) but many people have had visions of people being taken in there by the spirit of the warrior. Hearing this story inside the room with the small locked door had a chilling effect.

There are many sacred sights in Bhutan and the belief is that if these places are disrespected, they can turn on visitors and harm them. An example is the Burning Lake, a faraway sight where the water looks like it is on fire. There must be no drinking, smoking or throwing of garbage in this area and there’s a story that some visitors did not follow these rules and throw garbage in the lake. The lake proceeded to rise up and swallow them.

Next to the temple, there is a steep stairway that is believed that if climbed without resting can fulfill your wish.

Image

At the top of the stairs, we met a group of monks who took a picture with us: Image

and then climbed more stairs to (I think) their residence:

Image

After a delicious potluck lunch close to the monastery, we climbed down to the car. Next, we decided to visit another monastery called Tango (or Ta Go, meaning “horse head”, named after a stone that resembles a horse’s head).

At the base of the walk, I saw a burning station with chimney that reminded me of our local Harvest Festival’s site:

ImageTango Monastery is also breathtaking and is home to the Tango University of Buddhist Studies:

Image

Here is a sacred water well, where there is pure and tasty water coming from mountain streams. After the walk up, the cool water was a miracle:

Image

After walking around the Monastery, we headed down, taking in the beautiful mountain sights as we did. We ended this amazing day with tea and chocolate. Thanks team 🙂

Image

Red rice, wild mushrooms and local cheese!

I had a classic expat experience today. After visiting the weekend market, buying the ingredients of my first proper Bhutanese dish (after trying a failed poached egg masala and eating lots of organic asparagus!) and getting soaked in weekend rain, I ended up at the Swiss Bakery, an institution in Thimphu.

SAM_1336

A cozy alpine chalet style interior houses a cafe with European style pastries and cafe. Although I already had a weekend brunch of cheese momos and milk tea in the market, I couldn’t resist the coffee and a deliciously deep fried doughnut called The Berliner.

SAM_1337

Also, looking at the other food for sale (specially the plastic wrapped hamburgers!) was fun. It was a great experience!

SAM_1338This is a weekend post, so I will talk a little about one of my favourite subjects: Food!

Last night I tried my first take on a Bhutanese style dish: Ema Datshi (or chili and cheese). Aiming for authenticity, I used very red hot chills I had bought from the market which made me cry with joyful tears later on! Also, I added yummy local wild mushrooms and a local cottage cheese that is a cross between cottage cheese and the Persian Kashk.

SAM_1291

 

This was all good and fun but got even better when added on top of Bhutanese red rice which is a sticky rice, rich in nutrients and with a nutty flavour (that I like a lot). I think this rice would be exceptionally good for puddings and such.

So anyway, here’s a link to a recipe for Ema Datshi: http://www.food.com/recipe/ema-datshi-bhutan-477883

 

First Day in Bhutan

The flight from Kathmandu to Paro is one of the most exhilarating I have every taken. It’s a very short flight (about an hour) but within minutes of leaving Kathmandu’s polluted skies, majestic mountains appear in the horizon and soon you are surrounded by the world’s highest mountains. I was lucky to have a window seat on the left side of the plane with excellent views of the elegant peaks. There was a flurry of movement in the cabin as soon as the names of the peaks including Mount Everest were announced on the PA system and many cameras (including mine) tried to capture the magic of the view. I immediately thought of Malory and his intrepid colleagues who ventured here in the 1920’s. I could feel the addictive allure of the mountain.

Image

The descent into Paro is a great adventure in itself. The plane has to make many turns and twists in the middle of narrow valleys with views of remote Monasteries and houses surrounding it before landing on a short airstrip in front of a beautiful building that serves as the immigration and customs offices.

The driver from the TechPark I will be working out of for the next six weeks was waiting for me with a sign and friendly greetings. The drive from Paro to Thimpu takes about 45 minutes and passes beautiful rivers, traditional houses and makeshift stalls that sell … asparagus! There is one point where two rivers meet: one coming from Paro and one coming from Thimphu. At one point we passed many rosy cheeked children coming back from Saturday activity day at school. There were endearing signs on the road saying things like “inconveniences regretted!” and “It’s not a rally, enjoy the valley!”

Thimphu is by far the biggest city in Bhutan and yet feels like a large town. There are on going construction on the outskirts. As I heard later there are strict rules that buildings must follow traditional Bhutanese style, a style that is very beautiful and exudes a timeless quality, although having a explicit restriction might be an impediment to creativity.

Image

My apartment is very spacious and clean and has a Swiss lodge feel to it. There are two bedrooms and many balconies with views of the city. I have a flatscreen TV with many English, Bhutanese and Indian channels including BBC and Al-Jazeera. I have to turn on a water heater to prepare for a shower which immediately reminds me of my aunt’s old house in Iran where I had many fond memories and was fascinated by the process of preparing for a bath by heating the water first.

After leaving my luggage at the apartment, I meet the CEO of the incubation centre that I will be working at. Dr. Tshering Cigay Dorji is a courteous and friendly gentleman who welcomes me to Bhutan and invites me to a lunch of Bhutanese and Indian dishes in downtown Thimphu. Dr. Dorji has studied in Australia and Japan and has a PhD in Computer Science. He gives me information about the history and mission of the incubation centre as well as general life in Bhutan.

After lunch I come back to my apartment and although it’s 2pm in the afternoon, can’t help but fall sleep to the hypnotic sound of children playing, dogs barking and night descending on the city. I wake up a few times but stay in bed until 5 next morning!