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How I Ate My Way Across a Himalayan Kingdom
I have not traveled to anywhere new for a long time. Now facing 65, the official age of the beginning of the twilight years, I have a bucket list--not written down, of course, since that would hasten The Inevitable End--nevertheless a very real list that I recite to myself while shaving every morning just to prove to myself that I am not yet senile. Near the top of my list has always been Bhutan. And for the next ten days I finally have a chance to experience the Land of the Thunder Dragon, where all things are measured in Gross National Happiness. Thanks for joining me on this journey.
Where/what is Bhutan? It is landlocked kingdom about the size of the U.S. state of Iowa with a population of a mere 700,000 sandwiched between India and China. It is a constitutional monarchy that observes centuries-old Buddhist traditions yet is, in many ways, one of the most progressive of Earth's countries. It was the last country on earth to get TV and the first non-smoking country. Now, I call that progressive.
February 18 - She'll be comin' round the mountain. Up at 02:30 and out the door at 04:00 this morning for Drukair's flight from Bangkok to Paro, the kingdom's only international airport. No Champagne in business class (the flight attendant seemed shocked when I asked for a glass), but the flight was nevertheless quite nice.
If you are squeamish about flying sit on the left side of the plane on trips to Paro. If you are a former pilot or enjoy a cheap thrill sit on the right. Landing in Paro is like almost nowhere else. At about 1200 feet above the ground (which is already 2200+ meters above sea level) the plane makes a steep 45 degree bank for a 90 degree right turn around a mountain before it glides down into a long valley. "You can almost count the needles on the pine trees" as it turns, said my traveling companion Lou.
Paro is a funny little town with the world's most beautiful airport. It is spread throughout a long valley and up adjacent mountain-sides that may immediately remind you of the Switzerland. You will soon notice the unique architecture of traditional Bhutanese dwellings; the livestock live on the ground floor, people live on the second, Buddhist shrines on the third, and hay in the attic. Every building here is intensely decorated, even those that have been recently constructed. Most people wear traditional garments, which is a nice change from the ubiquitous jeans and tees in most of Asia. Men wear a "goh," which was designed by a Tibetan spiritual leader of yore to be strictly Bhutanese. (I could not resist later buying enough lovely hand-loomed wool fabric to have my own made some day.)
It's also pretty chilly--beyond my San Franciscan threshold. A few minutes ago I warmed my feet on the keyboard of my notebook. Yeah, really.
That's me in front of Paro Dzong just to prove I am not sitting in a bar in Cambodia.
My guide Jamyang is one of the best I have ever met. You know I'm picky, so that's saying quite a bit. He's bright, attentive, good looking and knows his stuff. I routinely test guides I might hire by putting them through an ordeal of demanding and obsessive behavior, temper tantrums and sexual harrassment. Jamyang took control of me immediately. He glides me up and down the seemingly-endless steps here. This is not a place for anyone who needs both knees replaced as I do. Jamyang almost takes the pain out of stairs.
Paro Dzong (a dzong is a fortified temple/monastery) is huge, photogenic and dominates the valley from its hillside perch. However, the stop I liked most today was Kychu Lhakhang, a 7th century temple said to be built on the left knee of an ogress. Her elbow is somewhere in Tibet, if I remember correctly. Temples here are full of colorful and often ancient relics and butter lamps. Bhutanese prostrate themselves in front of altars and important shrines. Kamyang's knees are in much better shape than mine.
Stayed tonight in what had been the Paro district governor's palace. It's only marginally palatial. But the staff are cheery and I was happy to get a table for dinner right next to the wood-burning stove in the center of the dining room.
Fog in Bagdogra/Siliguri, the flight's intermediate stop in India, kept Lou's flight from leaving Bangkok on time. Two other flights arrived, including one transporting the King from a state visit to Singapore. We waited. Since it was cold outside Jamyang took me through an unmarked airport corridor to a commissary for guides and airport employees. There were about 15 other guides waiting there, drinking tea, gossiping, eating fried rice and instant noodles, and trying to stay warm around a large oil heater that also functions as the stove for tea kettles.
I doubt that many--if any--western visitors had ever found their way into this commissary. I felt like an awkward outsider, so I plunged in and proved my right to be there by ordering a plate of fried rice with a large helping of chili paste on the side. I asked for more of the chilies. Bhutanese love their chilies, and my relish for all things chili did not go unnoticed, so I eventually made some acquaintances who I would see here and there throughout the trip.
The eleven o'clock delayed arrival became noon, then one. I watched the Airbus make the 45 degree bank around the mountain at about 13:30. If you have ever flown airplanes this turn is as elegant, poetic, and as thrilling as a figure skater spinning at around 300 rpm at the end of a routine. Passengers did not begin to emerge from the terminal until about two, all carrying a bright yellow paper. Everyone who had checked luggage arrived without it "because of fog in Bagdogra," Drukair said, which made absolutely no sense to me. We would have to return in the morning since they don't deliver delayed luggage. So much for our drive to Punakha.
So off we went to Thimpu, the capital city, on the best highway in the country, with signs saying things like "Safety First," "Please do not drink and drive," and "Please do not drive too fast." Surprisingly, most road and shop signs throughout Bhutan are in English. The trip takes an hour, even if you stop along the roadside to gawk at some of the wonders along the way.
We arrived just in time to see Thimpu Dzong before it closed, then a night at Pedling Hotel, where I was accidentally put into an enormous suite. Lunar New Year began today and a mob of Chinese in the dining room made a celebratory pile of a bit of everything from the buffet, then yelled at the pile. The less I know, the better. No New Years Champagne there either.
20 February - A happy but unnecessary round trip and too many steps. First, the story of the dead ogress. In the 16th century (or was it the 14th?) a Tibetan noble took a Chinese wife, whose dowry included an immense Buddha statue. For some reason the statue would not fit in any of the temples in Bhutan. A sage was consulted and the nobleman was told that a huge, invisible ogress was making the installation of the statue impossible. So in one single day, the fellow built 108 temples in Bhutan and Tibet, thereby crushing the poor ogress. I was assured we would later visit a temple that rests upon her left elbow.
In the early morning light we turned around and returned to Paro to collect Lou's luggage. Apparently there was an even earlier flight from Bangkok, so baggage was ready for the claiming. Along the way we made a wayside stop to collect holy water that gushes from the side of a hill, and to admire a couple of local women selling snacks and some beautiful red chilies. Having consumed said holy water and splashed some on my head, my sins have been cleansed. I had seconds.
OK. I'm not a youngster, and after two days of torture up and down endless stone steps, my knees are on strike today. Our first stop was lunch, followed by a "trek" from Metshina Village to Chimi Lakhang, a fertility temple. Already being far too fertile for my age, I decided to save what precious little cartilage I have for the next stop. Instead of the trek, I sat on a stone wall beside the trail unsuspecting tourists took to the temple and back so that I could admire it from far and enjoy those who passed. Fourteen different people and four dogs stopped to chat, including a few of the guides I had met while waiting for Drukair. One twelve-year-old girl, who spoke perfect English, asked my name and, with comic sadness asked "don't you have any friends?" I explained that I did have friends, but that they walked much more slowly than I do.
Punakha is a home to what many consider the most spectacular dzong of all. We stopped to behold it from the confluence of the Pochu and Mochu rivers. Bhutanese consider them male and female respectively. A place where two rivers meet up is considered very unlucky. In this case, however, it is presided over by a magnificent dzong, which we stopped to admire from two more vantage points.
A covered wooden bridge crosses the Pochu to enter the dzong. From the courtyard inside I counted about 50 stone steps leading to a landing where a very steep wooden staircase/ladder of about 40 steps began. I decided that I would probably not make it to the top without embarrassing myself, so I waited. Jamyang can climb 100 steps without breaking a sweat, even if he is dragging me along.
Late in the afternoon we drove to Wangduephodrang for a night in a hotel that I can't wait to tell TripAdvisor about when I am having a really bad day.
21 February - the King's birthday and the best day so far. Bhutan's monarch celebrates his birthday today, along with a loyal nation. I asked Jamyang how many steps he would torture me with today and was told that that it was a day of mostly driving. "Through an enchanted forest," Lou added.
We did indeed drive through beautiful forests for most of the day, with some stops. Apparently 70% of the country is covered by dense old growth forests. Only one road connects Central and Western Bhutan, and it winds, climbs and falls over pavement and rocks. If you easily get car sick this is probably not the best place to spend your vacation, but that will soon change.
Eventually we reached a high mountain pass with a shrine-covered hill. The air was cold, but crisp, clean and clear. In the distance we could see what was probably a 100 mile long ridge of towering, snow-capped Himalayan mountains. I don't use "breathtaking" recklessly, but it certainly fit the view. It is often foggy there, so we were doubly lucky.
From there we continued to Gantey, a winding detour off the main east-west highway. We made an unscheduled stop along the way to annoy a group of endangered Grey Langur (monkeys) in the trees along side the road. They hissed. We snapped photos. Jamyang has become wedded to my camera, and he has a great eye. I am happy not to see an entire country through a camera lens, so I have gladly let him have his fun.
We saw patches of snow and a frozen waterfall on the way to Gantey, which is located in the picturesque Phobjikha Valley. The valley is dotted with buildings and is the location of a temple with a golden roof. Gantey Gompa, the monastery that is home to the temple, was our first stop. There was not a single person in sight there besides us. As soon as we entered the courtyard it began to snow. This blizzard lasted for only about two minutes, but was a dramatic welcome. The temple itself was closed since it is private, but the architecture and its many carved decorations were impressive.
Gantey Valley is the winter home of the endangered Black-Necked Crane, majestic birds that stand about one meter tall and have the wing span of a small Cessna. After lunch in a charming restaurant with a very warm wooden stove we stopped to use the binoculars in the local visitors center to watch nine birds squatting and pecking in a huge paddock lower in the valley. People living in the valley use solar power for electricity to prevent harm to the birds. It is said that when the birds arrive on their annual migration they circle the golden roof of the temple three times before setting down on the valley floor.
From there we continued to Trongsa, the ancestral home of the royal family, and the one-time capital of Bhutan. We spent the night at a hillside resort that really needs to buy a golf cart. However, the view of Trongsa Dzong lit at night was very special.
22 February: An Idyllic Fortress and a Nomad Festival.... This morning we set for the lovely little town of Trongsa, which is little more than a steep hill with a few streets and a magnificent dzong. My knees have returned to their normal stiff, dull pain, so I grabbed Jamyang's warm hand and marched bravely up and down about 90 stone steps. The Dzong and its treasures are worth the hike. Like most dzongs, it is divided between a monastery and a secular administrative half. The monastery was buzzing with monks and we took a detour to gaze out upon the town from a somewhat-hidden passageway that the monks use to get to their sleeping quarters.
Later we continued to Bumthang, another valley surrounded by dense forests. Lunch was in a funky little restaurant in town. That's when our culinary melt-down began. Stay tuned.
Close to Bumthang we made a stop in the village of Gaytea to pay a call on Jamyang's grandparents. It was a fabulous and very unique experience. They are farmers and their rustic home is full
of things that would sell for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in toney galleries or antique shops in New York or London. Their home has a hand-made clay oven and stove that burns wood, but also a microwave. The massive wooden altar in their prayer room is a museum piece. Jamyang's grandmother poured us some of their homemade hooch, and Jamyang explained that it is positively indecent to refuse seconds. That warmed us up for the rest of the drive to Bumthang.
.... And a Meal Time Revolution. Bhutan has a reputation for really bad food and virtually every one of our customers who have returned from adventures there have something unpleasant to say about meals. Most meat comes from India, where Hindus do not mind butchering animals, which is quite contrary to conservative Buddhism. As Lou and I ate lunch I poked at something on my plate and said "I am not entirely sure this is chicken," which Lou found to be hysterically funny, perhaps due to the altitude (Bumthang is about two miles above sea level). I have cut thousands of chickens into pieces in my lifetime. Bhutanese chicken was something else. I cannot understand how a chicken can be cut up in such a way that all the meat disappears, leaving a tangle of little bones dripping in sauce.
In previous blogs I have mentioned a film called Groundhog Day, in which a TV weather man (Bill Murray) lives the same day over and over. Meals have been like this in Bhutan--chicken bones, potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, red rice, and something called chili cheese, which is sliced chilies, onion, and garlic boiled in water before adding processed, factory-produced "cheese" that makes Laughing Cow look like a gourmet product. Lou and I had reached the end of our gastronomic rope half way through the tour, which was beginning to look, cuisine-wise, like a trip through Siberia's gulags.
Temporarily not having any writing projects aside from this blog, I was hoping that a food story would find me in Bhutan. Decades-long friend and celebrated foodie-journalist Stan Sesser gave me a copy of a story he wrote about Bhutanese cuisine when he first visited in 2003. He suggested that visitors take along peanut butter and Alka-Seltzer. To that short list I would add salt, maybe fish sauce, and definitely decent coffee if you can't stand instant. Stan's story ended with the revelation that true Bhutanese gastronomy actually did exist, although most Bhutanese either know nothing about it or think tourists only eat chicken bones, vegetables and mushrooms from a can. Maybe that's the story, but I was really looking for something more meaty (sorry). Will it be "Bhutan Wants to Feed Visitors Slop," or "Renaissance of Bhutanese Cuisine Thrills Visitors?" Time will tell.
Bumthang is a two-night stopover at at a cute little hotel called River Lodge, where there were only two other guests. This is a badly needed "laundry stop." Living in Thailand I own only three pair of socks, and they needed washing. Clearly I was not prepared for the climate. I left gloves and scarves at home and should have bought heavy socks.
After checking in we were off to a nearby national forest to witness a small local festival. There were glad-handing politicians, speeches, dancing groups, hundreds of kids in traditional garb, pageantry, and ceremonies. But I most enjoyed a row of booths selling local products, including some lovely textiles, which I bought in bulk. I especially enjoyed the booth occupied by a group of wild mushroom gatherers, who displayed posters showing the abundance of fungi that can be found in the kingdom's forests, including what looked remarkably like porcini, chanterelles and truffles. About three people die every year in Bhutan from misidentifying poison mushrooms, I was told. Yet the very existence of this group and their booth gave me hope that perhaps all mushrooms served in Bhutan did not come from a can after all. I later learned that there is a wild mushroom festival here every year.
To our surprise, dinner at the hotel was positively glorious. Aside from the ubiquitous chili cheese, which I have to admit that I am actually beginning to enjoy, every dish that came to us was new, different, remarkably tasty and presented with the panache of a Michelin star restaurant. We made it a point to applaud the cook, who turned out to be a girl in her early twenties who has never attended a cooking school. I'll stay at River Lodge again just to eat her cooking.
23 February: A dog chorus, another "trek," and two bottles of K5. In Bangkok I often take a break from sleeping at about 01:30 and hear traffic, the whistles of the demi-cops who often make the traffic even worse, sirens, occasional rain, and the temporary sidewalk restaurants near my condo packing up for the night. In Bhutan you are more likely to hear dogs barking at each other.
I have a theory that one single Bhutanese dog starts this nightly chorus almost precisely at 01:30, and that neighboring dogs stretching from one side of the country to the other join in for about half an hour. It seems conceivable that every dog in Bhutan is barking at the same time in the middle of the night for no reason at all, and that they may even be joined by canine vocalists in neighboring India. Just a theory, but prove me wrong.
Fearing the worst, we returned to the same restaurant where the food revolt began yesterday. From the kitchen came an epic meal of pork in a very complex sauce, buckwheat pancakes, battered and fried eggplant, snapping-fresh green beans lightly sautéed, and a hand-made local pasta dish, served cold. We were astonished. I asked the cook why other visitors did were probably never served such an unexpectedly wonderful meal. "We did not think you would like it," she replied.
Today's agenda includes a hike beginning at one temple and ending at another across the river that runs through Bumthang, with several intermediate temple stops. I decided to enjoy the beginning and the end, then explore sleepy Bumthang town with Tandin, our diver.
The first stop was Jambey Lhakhang, an eighth century monastery, where we encountered monks making colorful ritual ornaments of butter, flour and water. This temple was quite different from all of those we had visited before. No stairs! Its sanctuary was very lavishly decorated, and surrounded by a corridor lined with flaming butter lamps. All temple visits are made walking clockwise, which accounts for the walkway around the center of the temple. About half way around we encountered a "blanket of steel," made of very thick steel chains nearly a meter square. Jamyang explained that those who circled the sanctuary three times carrying the "blanket" on their back would be absolved of sins, avoid being a dog in the next life, and maybe win the lottery. Huffing and puffing, Lou made the trek. I didn't. (Surprise, surprise.) I have enough conversations with dogs to know what lies in store for me next life around.
While Lou and Jamyang took their long walk, equipped with my camera, Tandin and I drove through Bumthang. We visited an ATM, which efficiently dispensed Ngildrum with my Bangkok Bank card, poked around some shops, bought enough green and pink plaid wool to make a goh for me, followed by visit to a purveyor of libations next door to a pizzaria. Really, a pizzaria. I have fallen in love with a local whiskey called K5, named in honor of the dynamic, young fifth King. We met the guys at another very old and equally-fascinating temple across the river. It was being circled by several very elderly people who turned every prayer wheel while counting prayer beads in the other hand.
More surprises were in store at dinner. The cook at the hotel outdid herself with an astonishing meal that included yak cooked two ways--one silky and soft, and a second of dried yak meat that had been simmered in a lovely sauce until softened, potatoes roasted perfectly, and glazed baby carrots cooked to a perfect al dente. I'm ready to move into River Lodge for good. Unfortunately, it's too damn cold. The hotel owner was kind enough to install electric blankets in our rooms. Lou apparently spent the evening under the covers. I might have, although writing a blog on a notebook under the covers seems unnecessarily challenging.
24 February: The Road to Wangduphodrang. Today was a knee-pleasing drive back to Wangdue and our longest day in our comfy SUV so far. While the guys hiked yesterday, Tandin and I passed by Bumthan's little airport. They are building a grand entry gate and a wide, paved road to the little terminal, complete with street lights. From here you could easily fly back to Paro, avoiding a long day on the road. However, we have one last big event tomorrow, so I enjoyed the ride, even though there were several roadblocks due to the massive renovation project for this road. The highway is being widened and straightened to accommodate those who are in a hurry or suffer from motion sickness. All along the way you will notice boulders along the side that have been marked for demolition with white paint. I should have started counting at the beginning of the trip.
25 February: "Punakha Drubchen." We returned to Punakha Dzong this morning to experience one of the most important of all Bhutanese festivals here, the Punakha Drubchen. While Lou ascended the steep front steps, the amazing Jamyang took me through a hidden back door that avoided a perilous ladder and half the stairs.
The place was buzzing with excitement. Although I really did not understand everything going on in the central courtyard of the dzong, it was still fascinating. Masked dancers performed to dramatic and dissonant background of hum of reed instruments, drums, symbols, and long horns. Equally interesting were the local people, dressed in their best outfits and equipped with big Thermoses filled with butter tea. I was dazzled.
We left for Thimpu in late morning. I was supposed to have a meeting at the Tourism Council of Bhutan in the afternoon, but we missed the noon road work closing time by a couple of minutes. We were the first car stopped at noon and the parked traffic snaked back along the winding road behind us for a couple of miles.
We arrived in Thimpu in time for a little bit of shopping and poking around the city, including a visit to the world's largest Buddha statue overlooking the city.
We are staying in Migmar Hotel tonight. It was probably the best hotel in Thimpu until a spate of glam luxury hotels were built, including the barely-open new Le Meridien. Migmar has seen better days, but I enjoyed the king sized bed and the heated bathroom floor. The service is exceptional. I phoned the front desk to get the WiFi password and it was delivered on a slip of paper by a smiling bellboy to my room.
Lou needed a hamburger tonight. We were joined in a funky pub by the two brothers who run the tour company we partner with in Bhutan. We enjoyed some local beer, some pleasant chit-chat, and plates of French fries. I have had several conversations with Jamyang about his future and tonight our partners agreed that he will be assigned to all Purple Dragon guests in Bhutan in the future. I also plan to invite him to Bangkok for a week or two. Or maybe a month. He has never left Bhutan, never been on a train or above the fifth floor, never seen the ocean or a MacDonald's, and has never traveled by air. He and some of our senior guides can learn a lot from each other and it will be nice to see him in jeans and a t-shirt.
26 February: The End is Near. We left Thimpu for Paro early this morning on my enviable fourth trip between these two cities. Before I even left Bangkok I had decided that I was not fit to visit Tiger's Nest, the iconic monastery that clings perilously to a cliff 900 meters above the valley. You can ride up on horseback if you like, but you have to walk down. I sent a camera instead.
Tonight we had dinner in a farm house. It's not really a farm house, of course, since it's just for tourists, but it was an interesting experience anyway. Jamyang lead me to the kitchen for a lesson in chili cheese making. He made the tastiest, creamiest chili cheese so far. I will dream of it for a very long time.
27 February. Tashi Delek. We left. Predictably, it was sad, but I'll be back. I have a plan to help Bhutanese cuisine retake its rightful place as an integral part of the culture. Besides, I can't wear a woolen goh around steamy Bangkok.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventure. Bhutan is one of the most beautiful and authentic places I have ever visited. I get to add some new pins to my personal travel map on Tripadvisor. I hope you will remember us when you need a priceless adventure and want to add some pins of your own.
"Tashi delek" is the way Bhutanese people say goodbye. I could not manage to say it at the airport.
The next blog: Jamyang's Excellent Adventure in Bangkok.
Photos Copyright © 2015 by Douglas Thompson and Jamyang Dorji. All Rights Reserved.