Hunt­ing the Thun­der Dragon

We ex­plore the be­guil­ing Bud­dhist king­dom of Bhutan

Food and Travel (UK) - - Contents - 58

On the wings of a raven, the dis­tance be­tween Thim­phu, Bhutan’s cap­i­tal, and the cen­tral re­gion of Bumthang is a mere 104km. The jour­ney by road is con­sid­er­ably more. I’m opt­ing for the slow route to an an­nual fes­ti­val where monks per­form spir­i­tual dances that pu­rify their tem­ple and bring pro­tec­tion to the com­mu­nity. It’s an epic pil­grim­age not to be taken lightly.

To get there, I’m tak­ing on the land­scape of the Hi­malayas, along a nar­row, bumpy high­way that links east to west. There are few straight lines along the way, save the plen­ti­ful pine trees and beau­ti­ful lo­cal ar­chi­tec­ture. The road winds de­ter­minedly through fer­tile moun­tains and pre­cip­i­tous val­leys that are of­ten blocked by rock­slides and land­slips or washed away in sec­tions by sum­mer mon­soons. It’s as treach­er­ous as it is spec­tac­u­lar.

Bhutan is a rel­a­tively young king­dom, filled with kind­ness and joy. It owes its cul­tural her­itage to Tantric Bud­dhism tri­umph­ing over the bar­bar­ity of fief­doms. This land­locked na­tion of just 750,000 peo­ple has been cau­tious about open­ing up to the out­side world. It wasn’t un­til 1974 that for­eign vis­i­tors were granted ac­cess to the coun­try.

The north­ern bor­der of Bhutan is marked out by mas­sive moun­tain peaks so high and re­mote that many re­main

un­tainted by the footsteps of man. Yaks cope well with the thin moun­tain air and pro­vide both cloth­ing and food for the Bhutanese. Their high-fat milk is used to make a very rich but­ter, with the re­main­ing whey col­lected to make chugo. By boil­ing the whey and skim­ming off the cheese, the chugo is set into lit­tle rec­tan­gles, strung to­gether on a thread and dried in the sun un­til it’s as hard as a rock. Bit­ing it will break your teeth. To dissolve it you have to roll it around in your mouth for an hour or maybe longer.

Just an hour from the air­port in Paro and home to 100,000 peo­ple, Thim­phu is Bhutan’s big­gest city and the seat of gov­ern­ment, roy­alty and trade. If they had enough flat ter­rain to build an air­port here they would but there’s barely enough flat land for its foot­ball pitch. The na­tional sta­dium hosts mar­quee events such as royal wed­dings and archery com­pe­ti­tions. Foot­ball is pop­u­lar here but nail­ing a tar­get set 145m away with bow in hand and quiver on back is the na­tional sport and verges on an ob­ses­sion.

Nearby, the farm­ers’ mar­ket next to the Raidak River is rich in sea­sonal of­fer­ings such as yak car­casses and blood sausages pre­pared from their in­testines. Sacks of rice are sold in hues rang­ing from brown to red. Wild mush­rooms and fungi come in from forest vil­lages and there’s enough chilli to fill a palace. One sec­tion of the mar­ket is devoted to the rau­cously pun­gent aro­mas of doma, fer­ment­ing areca nut sold with be­tel leaf and pow­dered lime. It’s a poor man’s nico­tine, eu­phor­i­cally stim­u­lat­ing yet ad­dic­tive and toxic in equal parts. Lo­cals chew on the mix­ture that turns blood-red and stains their mouth while prob­a­bly do­ing even worse to their or­gans.

The route out of Thim­phu takes us from a busy main street to a wooded coun­try road in a few min­utes. There is no sub­ur­ban sprawl to es­cape here, sim­ply a wind­ing path that heads west through wood­land and farm­steads. This sec­tion of road is ex­cel­lent by Bhutanese stan­dards, and my

driver warns me that only a lit­tle of the East-West High­way has been com­pleted as part of re­cent up­grades.

It takes us an hour to reach Dochu La, the most vis­ited moun­tain pass in the coun­try. On a clear day the views of Hi­malayan peaks from this spot can ex­tend all the way to the edge of Ti­bet. On a foggy day the twisted trunks of rhodo­den­dron trees and the lichen that hang from their bows are all that you can see.

It marks a mile­stone for trips head­ing deeper into Bhutan, where lo­cals leave prayer flags. When some­one you care about be­gins a jour­ney, it’s com­mon for the Bhutanese to raise th­ese flags in­scribed with kind wishes, a prayer for pro­tec­tion that is re­peated every time the wind lifts them. In my case, I have a guide who is a gen­tle gi­ant with a kind spirit. I feel un­fazed by any­thing the dif­fi­cult pas­sage ahead may present us with.

The high­way cuts a path down from Dochula and into the fer­tile val­ley of Pu­nakha. A mod­est truck stop on the high­way called Lobesa is a pleas­ant sur­prise for lo­cal food. A mar­ket­place sells fresh pro­duce on one side and Bhutanese fast food on the other. Chilli chop and river fish are al­ways on hand for im­me­di­ate con­sump­tion while the buf­falo mo­mos take just ten

min­utes to steam. A mix­ture of minced meat with onions, cab­bage and co­rian­der wrapped in pas­try are the ba­sis for a good momo in Bhutan. How­ever, a side sauce made of ground chilli and onion is what makes a good momo great.

In late sum­mer the rice fields of Pu­nakha are heavy with golden grains. Farm­ers make a lit­tle ex­tra money by turn­ing their har­vest into a crunchy snack. Rice is ground into a flour, mixed with wa­ter, flat­tened into sheets and fried in canola oil un­til the air be­tween sheets ex­pands to form a rec­tan­gu­lar rice puff. They have a gritty tex­ture from the coarse grind­ing and are best con­sumed with an ice-cold beer. The lady who sold me her rice puffs rec­om­mends Druk 11000, which she says is named so you know it’s bet­ter than the im­ported In­dian beer Hit 10000.

As we en­ter Pu­nakha Val­ley, the nar­row road passes a mod­est-look­ing town sur­rounded by rice ter­races. Chimi is known through­out the coun­try for its sa­cred power of fer­til­ity. The vil­lage tem­ple, Chimi Lhakhang, was erected on a site cho­sen by Drukpa Kun­ley, a 15th-cen­tury monk known as the ‘Divine Mad­man’ who taught that the phal­lus is a source of power. As a re­sult, phal­lic im­agery adorns every home here and a brisk trade in carved wooden penises has been ea­gerly em­braced by the rice farm­ers.

Plac­ing an 8ft pe­nis by the front door is one way to make your home stand out in the street but the ef­fect is lost a lit­tle when all the neigh­bours are do­ing it too. A bus­load of Chi­nese tourists are audi­bly im­pressed by th­ese bold art­works and are squeal­ing with gig­gles as they shop for me­men­tos.

Bhutanese women re­quir­ing divine as­sis­tance with fer­til­ity seek out help at Chimi Lhakhang, some­times re­quir­ing mul­ti­ple bless­ings be­fore suc­cess­fully con­ceiv­ing. My guide makes a lit­tle joke at this point: ‘If you want to be cer­tain your wife gets preg­nant, she can even spend the night at the tem­ple. How­ever, if you want to be sure that the baby is yours, maybe don’t do that.’

Pu­nakha Val­ley is close enough to Thim­phu and Paro to make it an easy in­clu­sion on short vis­its to Bhutan, and Pu­nakha Dzong is one of the most el­e­gant fortresses in all of Bhutan, dat­ing back to the early 17th cen­tury. When lo­cals talk about how old a dzong is, they will tell you when the site was first built and then tell you the last time it burnt down and had to be re­built.

Fire has been an en­dur­ing prob­lem for the dzongs and tem­ples. This is due to the preva­lent use of but­ter lamps and flammable fab­rics draped in­side them. Any cloth that catches alight can quickly get out of con­trol and their re­mote lo­ca­tions and lim­ited ac­cess to wa­ter means it’s not as sim­ple as call­ing the fire bri­gade.

Only a frac­tion of trav­ellers to Bhutan make it as far as Pu­nakha, and even fewer con­tinue any deeper into the heart of the coun­try due to the dif­fi­cult ter­rain. How­ever, Bud­dhism teaches you to ig­nore the easy path in search of greater re­ward.

An es­sen­tial stopover when driv­ing to Bumthang is Phob­jikha Val­ley, a high-al­ti­tude land­scape filled with small vil­lages and potato farms. Gangtey Gonpa, a re­mark­able monastery, sits on top of a hillock over­look­ing the val­ley. Every win­ter Phob­jikha is vis­ited by hundreds of mi­gra­tory black-necked cranes that have be­come the focus of con­ser­va­tion move­ments in Bhutan.

Dasho Benji, founder of Bhutan’s Royal So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Na­ture, tells me: ‘Mostly the cranes are wel­come and potato farm­ers have learnt to har­vest their crop be­fore the birds ar­rive so they can share the ex­cite­ment of Novem­ber’s an­nual crane fes­ti­val.’

If Phob­jikha is a quiet mo­ment in The Land of the Thun­der Dragon, the town of Trongsa is like step­ping in­side the dragon’s lair for a peek at the fam­ily al­bum. My first glimpse comes about an hour be­fore ar­riv­ing, when you see the im­pres­sive walls of its dzong loom across the val­ley. The view sug­gests we will be there in min­utes but the route turns down a side val­ley and away from our des­ti­na­tion. The Thun­der Dragon likes its vis­i­tors to work to find it.

In the 17th cen­tury a brief pe­riod of unity ex­isted un­der the rule of Zhab­drung Rin­poche, which saw the dzongs con­structed and Tantric Bud­dhism ac­cepted. Dzongs are uniquely Bhutanese, com­bin­ing spir­i­tual and ad­min­is­tra­tive ob­jec­tives. Every re­gion has one and no two in the coun­try are the same.

At Trongsa Dzong there are two large tim­ber gates at op­po­site ends of a square. In the past, all trade on the east to west trail would pass through the dzong, al­low­ing the ruler to col­lect taxes in the form of rice or salt. A watch­tower higher up the hill once strength­ened the for­ti­fi­ca­tion of the dzong but it has now been turned into a mu­seum with a fine col­lec­tion of arte­facts.

Un­til the Sev­en­ties you couldn’t reach Trongsa by car, and I’m start­ing to re­gard it as a mi­nor mir­a­cle that I have man­aged it my­self. My driver has been ex­em­plary in nav­i­gat­ing our lit­tle van through con­di­tions more suited to a four-wheel drive. For decades the nar­row strip of tar run­ning across Bhutan has of­fered a chal­leng­ing drive on a good day and a pile of rocks or mud on a bad one. In the next few years up­grades to the high­way will re­move most of the bumps, pro­tect against fu­ture land­slides and add a few new bridges – a con­sid­er­able im­prove­ment.

Our route out of Trongsa climbs up­wards to clear an­other pass at Yo­tong La be­fore rolling through the buck­wheat fields of Chumey Val­ley and fi­nally de­scend­ing into Bumthang dis­trict and the town of Jakar. Bumthang is famed for the wild be­hav­iour of its monks, strength of its lo­cal whiskey and fer­vour of its tem­ple fes­ti­vals. The ar­chi­tec­ture changes as you en­ter the val­ley, mov­ing away from white­washed walls to raw stone or earthen stucco

fin­ishes that re­flect the warms tones of the land it­self. Pine trees dom­i­nate the forests and cannabis plants run wild along rivers.

Buck­wheat has been the sta­ple of Bumthang for cen­turies, its pur­ple and or­ange stalks paint­ing patches of the land­scape dur­ing sum­mer and au­tumn. Puta (buck­wheat noo­dles) and khule (buck­wheat pan­cakes) are sta­ple foods in the re­gion, so we visit a lo­cal farm­house that shares the cui­sine with for­eign trav­ellers.

To make the noo­dles for lunch, our host Sherab Dema and her two daugh­ters grind the buck­wheat by hand then knead it with wa­ter and salt. Sherab sets up a wooden ex­truder, a ba­sic tool that re­lies on her phys­i­cal weight to force the dense dough into strands. The noo­dles are boiled briefly on the top of the stove then plunged into cold wa­ter. One of the girls fries up buck­wheat pan­cakes and then they pre­pare a dozen other dishes, all spiced to suit the Bhutanese taste buds. Ema datsi (chilli cheese) is hot enough to gen­tly melt your fork but it’s bang-on for flavour.

With a wry smile, Sherab tells me she had to eat the pan­cakes three times a day as a child: ‘The key is to use as much yak but­ter as pos­si­ble to smooth out the buck­wheat’s bit­ter taste. Some­times we get the sweet kind and we don’t need so much but­ter then.’

Later, in Jam­bay Lhakhang, one of Bumthang’s most sa­cred tem­ples, we en­counter a friendly archery com­pe­ti­tion. The men dance and sing old songs of vic­tory each time their ar­row is true.

Our next stop takes us back to Paro. Days of brac­ing for bumps along the high­way are re­placed by a pleas­ant 25-minute flight, thanks to the re­cently re­opened airstrip in Bumthang.

The flight gives you a bird’s eye view of Tiger’s Nest monastery, known to lo­cals as Tak­t­sang. It’s an stir­ring pre­lude to one of Bhutan’s most pop­u­lar but dif­fi­cult hikes.

In the 8th cen­tury the famed Guru Rin­poche is said to have rid­den a fly­ing ti­gress to a cave high in the gran­ite out­crops be­fore spend­ing more than three years here in med­i­ta­tion. The Tiger’s Nest tem­ple was built around it in the 17th cen­tury. In­side, I ab­sorb the spir­i­tual ded­i­ca­tion of the Bhutanese and al­low my breath to catch up.

Crowds typ­i­cally start ar­riv­ing on the higher sec­tions of the ver­tig­i­nous 6km trail in waves of ex­haus­tion by 10am. You can ride a horse as far as the tea­house half­way up but from there you have to walk (or find your own fly­ing ti­gress).

That seems to be the les­son with Bud­dhism in gen­eral and Bhutan, in par­tic­u­lar: only the very best trea­sures are un­cov­ered through hard­ship. If the roads here were any bet­ter than they are, the pris­tine moun­tains and Tantric tem­ples would not of­fer such re­wards. The great­est as­set of the Bhutanese is their de­sire to re­tain the cul­tural charms and chasms that make them unique.

As you walk back down the hill, your lungs fill with oxy­gen again and grav­ity pulls you for­ward. There is an easy route back from the wilds of Bhutan but there are no easy paths to en­light­en­ment.

Clock­wise from top left: jaw-drop­ping views of Tiger’s Nest monastery; na­tive birdlife; steamed mo­mos; prayer flags are tied to­gether; spicy lo­cal dishes; early morn­ing mist over Pu­nakha Dzong; cherry blos­soms

Left, from top: sun­rise over Jakar Dzong; a monk at Trongsa Dzong; an an­tique bell at the monastery; in­tri­cate fa­cades in Paro; ubiq­ui­tous prayer can­dles

Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: buck­wheat noo­dles; mak­ing the sta­ple in­gre­di­ent; men ar­rive home; lunch at Sherab Dema Farm­house; sun­rise over Chimi Lhakhang; har­vest­ing buck­wheat; prayer flags across the ‘Burn­ing Lake’ of Bumthang; lo­cal...

Left: black-necked cranes fly through the Phob­jikha Val­ley. Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: a warm­ing bowl of chilli; views from Ho­tel Dewachen; a potato farmer in Phob­jikha Val­ley; fam­i­lies gather to­gether in Prakhar

Be­low, from left: fam­ily life in Bhutan; fresh noo­dles in Trongsa; a stall­holder sells tex­tiles at Pele La; in­spect­ing goods at a pop-up mar­ket

Left, from top: don­ning gowns in­side Ngang Lhakhang monastery; monks in the court­yard of Trongsa Dzong. Op­po­site page, from top left: young Bhutanese at Gangtey tshechu (fes­ti­val); women watch over pro­ceed­ings; cer­e­mo­nial dancers per­form at the...

This page: cel­e­bra­tions com­mence in Phob­jikha Val­ley at the Gangtey fes­ti­val. Op­po­site page: a reveller wears the mask of Rak­sha Lango, the ox-headed min­is­ter of the Lord of Judge­ment, who serves as a re­minder to live a pious life

Clock­wise from top left: chill-laden aezey; a grand­mother sells her items; yeast parcels; rose­hips; the river runs past Pu­nakha Dzong

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