HAA, THE SECRET VALLEY
“Ha Chhu” our friendly guide, Mr. Pelden said, gesturing. But, unlike what most of my friends assumed, it wasn’t a sneeze, due to his cold, but the name of the river flowing through the intersecting hills of the valley we were driving through. In Dzongkha, the official Bhutanese language, Chhu means water or river and the unknown valley it flows through was charmingly called “Haa”, the smallest district in Bhutan.
Mr. Karma, our driver, while negotiating our Toyota Hiace through steep bends, kept us entertained with tales of his journeys around his country, and we enthusiastically enjoyed the meandering hilly road, lined with tall pine and cyprus trees, that led to the ancestral hometown of the Queen Grandmother of Bhutan.
An hour passed without us even blinking an eyelid as the landscape kept changing into newer tones like a slideshow. The air turned fresher, crispier, colder, and the emerald mountains grew bigger and denser, dotted infrequently with clusters of colourful wooden houses. After a considerable stretch of road and greenery, we would spot a quaint village, only to drive past it to another conglomeration of teal pyramids. Eventually, after crossing a picturesque Indian military camp, and
several fertile areas covered with wheat, potato, barley and millet crops, we arrived at our secluded resort, being greeted by the distant barks of Bhutia sheepdogs. Two pink cheeked girls in Kira dress, their national costume, appeared giggling, and welcomed us to our charming wooden cottages, that had sloping roofs and brightly painted walls.
Stashing our bags, we stepped out of our rooms, and for a couple of seconds we stood spellbound, gawking. Used to living in dry and emotionless man-made surroundings, we had almost forgotten, what it is to be like amidst nature’s bounty. The serene, unspoilt valley, at a height of more than 8500 feet, and populated with a mere 200 households, took us in its lap like a long lost child and the refreshing breeze caressed our tired souls.
Some of the farmhouses and homestays are located in the beautiful traditional village of Dumchoe in the heart of the Haa Valley, at the base of three sacred hills known as ‘Miri Punsum’, said to embody the three great Bodhisattvas: Manjushri, the manifestation of the Buddha’s Wisdom; Avalokitesvara, manifestation of the Bhudda’s Compassion; and Vajrapani, manifestation of the Buddha’s Power. The residents here have their ancestral roots in the Haa valley and are known as Haaps amongst the Bhutanese. Staying at these
farmhouses will provide one with a truly authentic Bhutanese experience.
As night approached, redefining silence as we knew it, a melodious chanting of mantras reverberated from the monastery perched atop one of the mountains that guarded the valley. Buddha’s mantras lulled us into a relaxing sleep as we snuggled inside our quilts after a hearty chat with our tour group, devoid of any technological distractions like TV or mobile phones and internet.
A beautiful dawn woke us up next morning, peeking through the slats of the green, wooden window doors. We were excited to find that clouds had descended to our bedside to befriend us. Playful as usual, they floated across the ravines, sometimes hiding behind a peak or two and sometimes creating whimsical images in the blue sky board.
Hypnotized, two of us decided to accompany the misty cotton balls and ran after them down the hill. Two very cute kids with puffy eyes, a lanky boy and a petite girl, joined us on their way to school. As we reached the main road, all worked up and breathing heavily, the two kids jumped effortlessly toward a bigger group of school kids waiting for their bus. A look at those cute kids in mini Gho and Kira, with their joyous faces and innocent little eyes, was enough for me to understand the meaning of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan’s mantra for national well-being. I felt a pang for our city kids whose innocence gets hijacked by huge expectations and lives encased in concrete.
This was my first visit to Haa, but my second to Bhutan. I had been here nearly a decade ago, and as I had stepped off my flight to Paro valley this time, I wondered if the spectacular beauty, simplicity, and the gradual pace had been compromised due to a surge in tourism recently. But I was amazed to find that Bhutan had perfectly maintained its Happiness index.
After cuddling the kids thoroughly we
bid them goodbye and turned to the Haa Chu river that lured us with its beauty, flowing beside the Indian Army base camp. Contemplating for a few seconds whether we should cross through the closed wooden gate of the Army camp, as it might be a prohibited area, we gave in to our curiosity. A beautiful golf course lay in front of us, by the side of a thin gurgling river stream. We met two smart army officers from India, playing golf, and they invited us to visit and tour the entire camp with our friends. Gladly we accepted the invitation and delightedly hiked to our resort to share the news. Butter tea, corn and rice crispies, toast, butter, cornflakes, milk, watermelon and bananas awaited us, along with the rest of our friends, at the spacious dining hall.
After a sumptuous but healthy breakfast, Mr. Pelden drove us down to Kasto village, where a milky shrine stood at the foot of the three holy mountains. Built in 7th century, the white temple called “Lhakhang Karpo” had a wide flight of stairs, giving way to a big courtyard. A part of the shrine was under construction
to enlarge it into a bigger monastery, with new monk cells and government offices. As we entered the dimly lit chapel, adjusting our sight, we found it lined with young monks chanting prayers in their red robes. I later found out that the robes were all made up of natural material and also were dyed with natural colors. Bowing our head to the deities at the altar we silently took our place in a corner to soak ourselves in the spiritual calm. The senior students, apart from chanting mantras from a thin rectangular loose book, held drums in their right hand and beat it with a stick on certain chants. At the end, the senior monk gave us holy water from a bronze cup to sip.
From behind the Lhakhang Karpo, ran a narrow hilly path up to a black shrine called Lhakhang Nagpo. A deep grey painted temple, supposed to be identical to the Jowo temple in Lhasa, welcomed us amidst tranquil woods and sounds of chirping birds. But the most amazing part was that though the White chapel had got damaged by an earthquake in the past, this black shrine, guarded by a holy oak tree at the entrance, had stood undefeated.
Though there are numerous legends about the twin black and white shrines, the most popular one is that a white pigeon and a black pigeon, emanations of Songtsän Gampo, flew to this place from Tibet and landed near the two temples.
Then we were off to Wangchulo Dzong, a grand dzong commissioned by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, the Grandfather of the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck. The Dzong structure resembles the Wangdicholing palace in Bumthang that was the seat of the 1st and 2nd Kings. It is the entrance of the headquarters of IMTRAT - Indian Military Training team, responsible for training The Royal Bhutan Army or RBA. The camp was maintained fabulously and so was a sprawling 18-hole golf course with sandy greens. Just opposite is a replica of India’s
“Ashok Stambh”, our official emblem, depicting the close relationship between the two countries. Another place worth visiting enroute to Haa is Dogar Dobji Dzong, the first model Dzong in Bhutan, built in 1531 AD by Ngawang Chhogyal, on a cliff facing the eastern wing to the narrow ravine of Pachhu-wangchhu River. Later, the Dzong and all it’s surroundings were destroyed in a great earthquake with the exception of the central tower.
There we were, five women, a rushing river, lunchtime and yummy packed food! Perfect ingredients for a picnic. Across a wobbling bridge, a few steps down to the meadow and just beside the bubbling river, we settled down to our open-air luncheon. The sun dancing through the pine leaves, damp scent of the river, grass pricking our clothes, the wide blue misty sky, reminded us of careless, school tiffin hours. We ate to our hearts content and roamed the grassy carpet dotted with tall trees, returning at nightfall.
Phurva, the resort manager, picked up a red hot stone boulder the size of a football, with a huge tong from the fire pit. Dropping it carefully inside an oak bathtub filled with fresh water from Haa Chhu that was placed inside a wooden cabin, he went back to collect some more. Five of us, excited at the new experience, watched him perform this tedious job, shivering in the cold but with a smile on his face, as if he was going to create a magic spa for us. The water sizzled and started steaming by the time five such river stones had been placed in the water
strewn with flower petals and Artemisia leaves. Once the water was hot enough, we sank into it one at a time, soaking in the warm pungent smelling water that had an amazing therapeutic effect on our tired feet. Not exactly unique to Haa, the hot stone bath is a well -established bath ritual in Bhutan. And after hiking up and down the mountains and surrounding valley, this is a must do for aching bodies of tourists accustomed to city comforts.
The day ended with a sumptuous meal of “Ema Dasti”, a Bhutanese repast made up of Yak cheese and green chillies, red rice, spinach and potato curry, with a glass of “Ara”, a traditional wine made out of rice. The Ara, though a bit strong, worked its way fine down our chilly bodies and turned the game of cards we played before retiring to our cozy beds into a jolly one.
Haa Valley is a very small, chilly and amazingly beautiful town. Though the whole town is just a street long it has amazing sights, both created by man and nature. The most notable ceremony that is performed in the Haa Valley is the annual ceremony to honor Ap Chundu, the guardian deity of the valley. Haa is regarded as a paradise for nature lovers because of the beautiful scenery it possesses. Next morning, Yaks, blue poppies, primulas, Daphne, bright red rhododendrons, mini waterfalls, tall pine and Cyprus trees, all accompanied us to the highest motorable road in Bhutan, the Chele la pass. As we neared the pass, we could see we were getting above the tree line. It was a clear sunny day and we got a spectacular view of Mt. Jumolhari, Jichu Drake and a bird’s eye view of Haa and Paro Valley. Numerous colourful prayer flags fluttered in the strong wind and we had to literary fight to stand up against the tempestuous breeze. Nestled in a craggy patch on the mountainside below Chele la pass and perched precariously along the rock face is the Kila Goemba Nunnery, home to many nuns who have renounced a worldly life and chosen the path to enlightenment. The Temple is about an hour’s walk through a magnificent wood.
Haa Valley is situated in the north-west of Bhutan bordering Tibet. It was closed to tourism until 2001. An ancient trekking route will take you through some of the most scenic views of Ha and Paro valleys over the alpine Kalila pass, as well as to Paro, Thimphu and Wangduephodrang for cultural pilgrimages to medieval dzongs, temples and monasteries. During the trip, we participated in the nomadic
life of the Haaps and watched them farm their crops, explored the Alpine valley’s vivid lakes and mountains, enjoyed its famous summer festival and many cultural traditions, and savoured the delicacies of the Haaps, especially the Haapi Hoentoe, a dumpling. Trekking revealed the legends of Nob Tsonapatra (highland lakes) and the yak herders’ livelihood. We rode Yaks and horses, competed in the traditional game of khuru, archery and soksum and tried hitting the bull’s eye. No one seemed to be in a hurry and everything seemed to move in slow motion. We were constantly overcome by the kindness shown by people, whether be it the grocer lady who graciously offered us peaches for free or the cabbie who gave us a free ride; compassion is part of their ethos. Almost all the places were very clean and rivers were sparkling, even inside towns. Some houses had the painting of a phallus on the exterior to symbolize fertility. The weather was perfect with just the right amount of sun. Every morning I got up, I would be in anticipation of what I would experience that day. Would it be the fabulous culture, a spicy new food, a hidden waterfall or those beautiful chortens with prayer flags fluttering? Bhutan had a surprise in store at every corner. On our last day at Haa, the hidden wonderland, we felt a pang of sadness descending. I wondered if I could apply for a teaching job at the Gongzim Ugyen Dorji Higher Secondary School? The purity and the serenity of the valley had such a calming effect on us. Apart from exquisite handcrafted souvenirs, we also took with us the priceless gifts of simplicity, innocence, contentment and sunny smiles, and generosity of the Haap people. We said goodbye to the land of the Thunder-dragon with loads of love and a heavy heart. ‘Tashi- delek’ (Thank you), Bhutan, we will miss you.
The three sacred hills
Dinner being cooked
Haa valley homestay in Dumchoe
Haa valley’s special delicacies
Meat dumplings or Hentoe
Enjoying the view in Haa
Ancient resident of Haa
Mother and child
Camping in Haa valley
Haa residents turning their prayer wheels
Chimi Lhakhang Temple of Fertility
The drums that accompany holy chants
Picture of King Jigme Wangchuk kept in the temple for worship
Young monks in Haa Children going to school in Haa
Summer festival in Haa Valley
Chortens in Haa Valley
Road to Haa
Dogar Dobji Dzong
Colourful Wangchulo Dzong
The White Temple
The Black Temple
Chele La pass
Lazing Yaks on way to Chele La pass
A tourist taking selfies among prayer flags in Chele La pass
Horse grazing in Haa valley
Misty morning at Haa
Steaming hot stones being prepared for our bath tub
Phurva, our resort manager