Tea Bushes, Holy Mountains and the Odd Brahman (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India)

December 2008 - January 2009


At 6 AM the alarm clock rang and a motorickshaw to the airport was only a sad reminder that I was leaving. The small airport bar served the uninspiring instant tea, respectively 15 times more expensive pastry without a smile, while the attendant also tried to cheat with the prices, his total always going well over that of the maths I had once learnt. However the plane to Paro soon arrived and a short hop followed, with fine views to the Himalayas, including Mount Everest, as the sky was clear. I however enjoyed much more the wooden, partly rocky ridges the plane seemed to lay upon in order to land at Paro Airport, sandwiched in a narrow valley bordered by 4000 m.a.s.l. ridges. The scenery was more that I for one had expected: beautiful valleys and slopes dotted with houses featuring a simple elegance; beautiful patterns of floral symbols that covered almost every tiny spot of the wooden beams the houses or their decorations were made of; pleasant colours that perfectly fit the scenery, without sharp contrasts or bright tones. And, not least, the Bhutanese men and women, wearing their fine ghos and kiras with pride and dignity. They would but rarely approach the foreigner. However, if approached, they were friendly, helpful and always keen on talking about their traditions and heritage. THey respected the visitor and equally asked for respect in exchange; it all happened in a sort of mutual agreement I had not met before. Paro Dzong sort of topped this experience, with its fine frescoes introducing one to the Buddhist world, but also to the Tibetan and Bhutanese art. And then, apart from the scenery, it was probably that silence and peace of mind that hit and captivated me. It was only then that I realized how quiet Bhutan actually was, other than everyone's lowly singing a traditional song while working or simply walking. It was one of those rare moments in a lifetime where we realize how different this world's civilizations are, and how well this should make them live and let live (as it was shown in Paro Dzong's fresco depicting the "three friends"), but it unfortunately doesn't.

As the full package tour was a condition sine qua non for being grated a visa, I started trekking in minority of 1 to 5: there was a driver providing road transport, a guide to show me around monuments and especially for the trek, a horse man (actually the rather young son of the horse man, replacing his father during his winter holidays away from school), a cook and his assistant. And then there were 4 horses carrying large gas cartridges, tents, sleeping pads, food supplies, buckets, pots, cups, as well as my and staff's luggage. It felt strange at least at the beginning, until we broke the ice and I convinced them that we can all eat together, as I am neither a god, nor a king. Then, even though I usually avoid package tours (hmm, err, rather "always" instead of "usually"), I have to say everything was very well organized, people were both efficient and kind, never losing their dignity; their very doing so made it all a great, rewarding experience.

The mountain was dry and blessed with the autumn colours which made the climbing through the pine forest rather enchanting. After passing through the Jili La, we reached the Jili Dzong, a monastery beautifully located on the round ridge, providing fine views towards Chatarake, surrounded by dark clouds. Stepping inside the beautifully decorated and painted dzong gave one the feeling of great seclusion, that sense of leaving it all behind. After a dim snowfall during the night, I woke up in the morning with a clear blue sky that allowed impressive views towards the West. The  trail followed a mostly wooden ridge featuring quite interesting vegetation, from the big Rhododendron bushes, to the omnipresent, thorny wild rose branches that only had some rare carmine leaves at that time of the year. As one of the horses was very tired and could hardly go any farther, we had to camp by a stream at 2.30 PM. With a 900 m. elevation to climb on mostly rocky terrain the following day, we decided to let horses and the horseman go down the stream in the morning, while Tenzin, the guide and I go up to make the crossing towards Thimphu, weather allowing. It started snowing before dark; at first it was rather dim, then it ceased, just to start again, heavier this time, by the time we hit the sleeping bags.

The following day it was freezing, but the sky was clear and the not so thick layer of snow screeched under our boots as we started towards Janye Lake. The ridge we were to follow for about 3 hours was made of an agglomeration of rocks which rarely hosted glacial lakes. The clear sky allowed one to enjoy wide views, especially towards the Chomolhari Peak area. As there were several sections of ice-covered terrain and thick snow, Tenzin's idea of not taking the horses this way proved to have been a good one: they would not have made it for sure. About 4 hours after leaving the camp we reached Labana La at 4210 m. and after crossing Phune La too, we began descending to Thimphu, visiting the enchanting Phajoding Goemba, with its fine monk cells crammed around a small courtyard. Feet in our pockets, we descended to Thimphu; it looked as if it were to never end.

Lacking some "outstanding" (whatever that may mean) sights other than the dzong, the city had a fine atmosphere. It was the first place I visited where the many souvenir shops did not bother one: first, because they were almost always flanked by grocers', hair stylists or outlets selling cookies and CDs. And then because nobody came to "invite in" the obvious stranger or to do the typical Istanbul crappy show. With an average of USD 200 / day all inclusive package, Bhutan had managed to preserve its traditions, heritage, dignity and nevertheless it had remained a natural experience, even though it was not there for backpackers and low budget grads. The country is small, it has a variety of great historic places to see and an outstanding natural environment to explore. However many countries (Romania included) have that. Bhutan for one had succeeded to show itself to the foreigners at a high price and still not allowing those paying play God and do whatever they wanted in a Turkey or Czech Republic style. Quite to the contrary: mountains above 6000 m.a.s.l. could not be climbed (as local people believed they hosted deities), dzongs could be visited only in certain conditions and photography was not allowed inside. However the same country offered one an excellent, diverse cuisine, a well researched and set variety of trekking routes, people that respected the foreigner without being servile and that spoke excellent English. So much unlike countries boasting around about their "traditional hospitality" and going bananas when it comes to efficiency (such as Romania).

Other than with its as active as possible dzong neighbouring the king's headquarters, Thimphu did not show much to keep me visiting; its weekend market was colourful and interesting for one, just as it was the city's population, ranging from Bhutanese people coming from the East or South, all the way to Indian workers come to make a better living there or the not so odd tourist. And then, more than anything else, Thimphu was the best proof for the contrasts in the country, starting with highlanders coming from remote villages with their cheese, the rich ones involved in tourism or officials, and ending with the poorer than poor looking for anything of use in the heaps of garbage just off the cosy Clock Tower Square. The time to leave the capital had come, so we crossed the scenic Dochu La with its 108 stupas overlooking the valley I was coming from and the one I was going to. The way down towards Punakha had much more switchbacks and stretches going on next to steep slopes. Views were just as spectacular as the road was narrow or uneven, which made it all more interesting, giving one the chills from time to time, a good life boost.

I was to reach Punakha Dzong on one of the rare occasions when they showed the Rangjung (Bhutan's holiest relic, an image of the God of Compassion) to the public. This had drawn many people to the impressive dzong located at a scenic confluence of two rivers. Even more than visiting the structure itself, it was more interesting to see it come to life with the chanting, people queuing to see the relic and be given holy water, while all procession was filled by the purifying incense smoke. People had come from all over the country to give their smaller or bigger offerings and to get the blessing of seeing the relic for merely a second. The trip back to Paro went by Divine Madman's monastery (Lama Drukpa Kunley), respectively with the man that had had the guts of being different and for the sake of which many people still had happy, potent penises painted on their house walls. It was getting cloudy and foggy up in the mountains and winter was knocking on the door when I got back to Paro, which was overflowing with Indian tourists this time.

My last day in Bhutan began with a drizzle that turned into light snow as I was going up towards the Taktshang. The monastery appeared more impressive than in pictures, virtually stuck into a crack in the rocky wall. After descending back to the road while others were going up, it was the high time to move towards the South. A relatively short distance (about 170 km.) to Phuentsholing and the Indian border was to take over 6 hours. The narrow road was going high under cliffs and wooden ridges in order to avoid the narrow valley below. Tight turns, the road's being narrow and uneven for two vehicles to go in the same time (so that one had to go off road to make room for the other to pass), these were not the only impediments: they were working to have the road enlarged, which created traffic jams, pools of mud, rocky sections, respectively a road with a next to never secure shoulder towards the abyss ending with the valley bed some 400-500 m. below. In addition, driving was mere card playing with the gods, as everyone tried to overtake everyone else. The Bhutanese government had contracted the road works with an Indian company which had hired thousands of Indians to complete the project; thousands of people which were cheap and as little as possible equipment (as equipment was far more expensive than people). Hundreds of men hammering rocks with Stone Age tools, baby-carrying women shoveling dirt and gravel in a thick cloud of dust, children collecting branches and beams to make room for cars. Everything and everyone on the fragile, odd verge, where nothing was straight, where the newly created lane lacked any sort of reinforcement, being only sustained on the earth dislocated from above. Recent landslides (including the previous night's) made the work "quality" even clearer; one wondered how many lives this project would take, and whether this would be recorded somewhere, anywhere. Or whether it mattered at all to those preferring to pay peanuts to thousands of poor Indians rather than bring some proper equipment and do some sustainable works instead of this sand castle joke employing people which were treated like slaves. Eventually the road started going down and drivers rushed even more than before, as if being the first to reach Phuentsholing was a matter of life or death. We arrived there with the sunset. Getting off the car in front of the hotel I had been booked into, I realized how hot it was. I was off the mountains indeed; the air was filled with the so familiar fragrances and odours of the Subcontinent. The border was less than 50 m. away. The car race was over, but the life race was yet to continue the following morning, with yet more fury, as always in India.

Despite the good quality and relatively expensive, all inclusive form of tourism Bhutan exclusively promoted, it was great to see how many people the hospitality industry fed in the country, both directly and indirectly. Also, when walking through Paro during those long winter evenings, one could not but notice that some of the typical artifacts on sale in various souvenir shops were made on site by local women (mostly the weaving). Beyond the cons of such an exclusive form of tourism, as well as beyond the fact that there was always room for improvement, Bhutan was a success story: a country that dignifully showed itself to the foreigner, preserved its culture and traditions while still making money of it all. One could not help but think at neighbouring Tibet; however the situation in the two otherwise so similar areas (in terms of culture, people and nature) was so different. Because the world we live in is not perfect and yes, because some idiots had to interfere and play God in Tibet - which they still do under the impotent, fearful eyes of the day's big wigs.

Right after breakfast, we started across... (click here for the sequel)




I went to Bhutan exclusively for the mountains. Instead (or rather apart from that), I found a very warm, yet solemn and aware of its heritage society. A country that does not shock the visitor with Taj Mahals aiming to impress one at all costs, or with all mod cons in the world. Quite to the contrary: a country that welcomes one with its being natural, with its well preserved traditional living and with respect.