We walk in the cold dark looking for a cab but the streets are empty. The capital is still asleep. We negotiate a fare at the taxi stand and as we drive out of Thimphu the darkness is just beginning to dissipate. Dogs stretch on the side of the road and the first signs of life stir in homes on the outskirts of the city. On the crest of Dochu La pass the sky cracks open revealing a robin's egg blue. The clouds simply can't resist opening to it. The sun yawns a bright orange through the mist, silhouetting the chortens as we round to the left. Whipped cream steam rises between the ridges.
Down we wind into the high alpine jungle to the song of tinkling voices and Bhutanese wind instruments. Ferns drape themselves over precipices and moss clings tenderly to the rocks. The fogs twists and curls itself amongst the trees, enchanting the eyes who relay a message of disbelief to the brain. Some of the leaves celebrate the change of season with jubilant displays or yellows and reds. This is my first fall in the jungle.
The road seems unlikely to stay in place but it is better not to look down (or up). On the roots of trees are we sustained. And on the whim of loose gravel.
Despite our early departure we are caught by the road block. (There is only one road in and out of Thimphu heading East. This singular road stretches the length of the country and is under perpetual construction for widening as it is can only accommodate one car in many places, hence the blocks. Supposedly there are schedules for the closures on each side of the pass but we have come to learn that no matter what time you leave you will inevitably sit and wait.)
|this lady makes her living off hungry people stuck at the road blocks|
We stretch our legs and drink a tea and walk the line of cars and trucks as curious faces stare back at us. A small Indian man lingers uncomfortably close and watches with viper poisoned eyes. I try not to make eye contact fearing an irreversible spell should he manage to catch a glimpse into my soul. Then, people are running and engines are revving. Tires dig into the dirt and we're off, passing cars around the curves to the front of the line. The mountains once again command all attention. In the distance, the only evidence of man lies in the terraced lines on the faces of the mountains- tiny chunks of farmland sliced out of a vertical pie. The houses look as if they're glued on- for them to stand alone on the steep slopes seems impossible. In the leveled fields, rice lays flat, waiting to dry. Banana trees mingle with cypress.
|Sunshine and Na Ja (milk tea). Welcome to Punakha!|
Descending into Punakha valley the rice is already cut and piled into haystacks with pointed hats. Workers slap huge bundles onto the ground, threshing the rice from its stalk. Cows mingle and swish their tails. A calf runs happily on its skinny legs. The Poinsettias are in full bloom, red lips painted on a green and tan quilted face.
|a bit of luxury at Hotel Drup Chu (Holy Spring)|
|Momo runs this place|
We stayed four days in Lobesa, a small farming village overlooking the Punakha valley. Many people migrate to Punakha for the winters, as the low valley enjoys milder temperatures, offering an inviting climate for humans and many species of plants that cannot survive the harsh elements of the higher altitudes. The mornings are cloudy as the sun sleepily stretched it's long rays to the earth. We drink Na Ja (milk tea)
and spedt the afternoons tracing the geometric shapes of the rice fields with our eyes. Horses graze on the stumps of harvested wheat stalks and villagers carry giant bundles of crops on their backs. Overlooking the terraced fields sits a new chorten built by one of the Queen Mothers. The structure is elegant and commanding. Ivy creeps along the stone walls and plants celebrate their longevity in the warm sun. I meet a little girl who calls me mommy and follows me around while I take photos of her playground.
|Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten|
|My little friend loved having her picture taken. |
|cows have to cross the river too|
Any trip to Punakha requires a visit to the Dzong, considered to be the most beautiful in Bhutan. Situated between the Pho Chuu and Mo Chuu rivers, the fortress hosted the coronation of the First King of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, in 1905 and served as the country's capital until 1955 when the government seat was moved to Thimphu. The Dzong remains the winter home for the Je Kempo (Chief Abbot) and the central monastic body. Surviving flood, fire and numerous restorations, the structure remains an imposing figure against the soft lines of the river and valley that surround it.
|The famous Punakha Dzong, built in 1637|
On the third morning, every family within a days travel is up early. The sun takes its sweet time to rise but the crowds are already dressed in their best attire and headed for the monastery. Today is the special unveiling of a new thondrol
(a large patchwork and embroidered wall hanging) for the Chimi Lhakhang. Throngs of people arrived to kneel in front of Je Khempo, the highest lama in the Bhutanese monastic order. A constant stream of kiras and gohs navigates its way along the ridges of the rice fields, through a small village and up the hill to the Lhakhang where they stack in snaking lines to meet the holy monk. We jump in the train of people and are swept along the fast moving current, those behind us having no tolerance for our photo taking. I didn't know the Bhutanese could walk so fast. The character limits know no boundaries; young and old, able bodied and decrepit crowd together with fervent determination to receive Je Khempo's brief blessing. It is a feast for the eyes, a carnival of people watching.
|good morning from the heavens|
|Waiting in line with their offerings of oranges and individually wrapped packaged foods.|
|gotta love Bob. pen drawing on goh|
|grandson helping grandma up the hill|
|longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, 200ish meters |
|108 chortens. Returning over Dochu La pass. |