Bhutan: Bumthang Valley
They say things happen in threes. While in Bhutan I got a stomach bug, I was nearly gored by a yak (see me shriek in video below), and I was ‘sling-shotted’ in the face with a walking stick. So the rest of my year will be all good luck, right?!
My tour in Bhutan with Exodus Travels was a mix of hiking, camping, and general bus sightseeing. While it’s a tiny country, driving distances are long thanks to the mountainous terrain. The roads are all actually quite good and well marked compared to other nearby countries. Considering they didn’t really have paved roads until the 1960s, this is pretty amazing. Right now, riding on a tour bus is really the only way to see the country (since tourism is limited and restricted to having a tour guide). You may know from reading this blog that ‘bus tours’ are typically not my thing. Besides the ‘insulated’ feeling, it’s also very hard to be in a small bus all day on twisting and turning roads. And even for this seasoned traveler who never gets car sick, well, I got car sick. Blech.
So, I was pretty thrilled when we arrived in the Bumthang Valley, an area in which we would stay for 3 days of hiking and camping.
The Bumthang district is the most historic dzongkhag (state) when you measure it by the number of ancient temples and sacred sites here. This region is the spiritual heart of the kingdom. It’s a bucolic scene full of farms, rice fields, small villages, and some great mountain vistas. It is said that it was here that Guru Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher and philosopher, also known as the second Buddha, cured a local king of some “spirit-induced ailment” in the 8th century, an event that resulted in the king, and finally the whole country, embracing Buddhism.
We stayed at a lovely home, which was essentially a B&B. It was nice to have more of a “home-cooked” meal as opposed to all the hotel buffets we had been eating. While all the food was very fresh and good, I was craving some variety beyond red rice, fiddlehead ferns, and potatoes. Plus, now that I had suffered some sort of stomach bug, the food smells started to bother me (something this hearty eater has never experienced before!). We watched the owner here make us ‘momos’ from scratch (dumplings native to Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan that resemble Japanese gyoza) – which were delicious.
Hike Day 1
Our first day, we did a very easy primer hike right from our hotel that linked a few monasteries and temples. From one of the oldest temples in the kingdom, Jambay Lhakhang, a monastery built in the 7th century by a Tibetan King to Kurje Lhakhang a large monastery consisting of three temples, it was here that I started to get “templed-out.” They were lovely, but were all starting to meld together in my brain since we were seeing so many in such a short time.
Festivals in Bhutan
Bhutanese festivals are steeped in Buddhist religion and culture. The “tshechu” is a religious festival meaning “tenth day” held annually in various temples, monasteries, and dzongs throughout the country with Paro Tsechu and Thimphu Tsechu being the largest and most famous.
While we’d just missed the Paro festival, we did get to experience something I’d never seen before. The Domkhar Fire Festival happens usually in April or May and lasts three days. We were able to go the first night and watch some masked dancers dancing around fire in the temples main courtyard. It was here, that while filming, I was slapped in the rear by phallus-wielding jester. The atsara, is one of the most revered folk figures in Bhutanese culture. He kind of looks like a clown in his big red mask painted with a permanent chesire grin. More good luck? I hope so. You can read more about these guys and their larger purpose here.
Suddenly the show ended with a bang and there was a loud explosion and fireball. The crowd immediately jumped to its feet and dispersed to a field outside. We high-tailed it uphill in the dark – stepping in all kinds of funky, malodorous cow patties along the way. It was here that an even larger bonfire was created. It was like nothing I’d evet seen before. Thatched baskets, dried grass, and branches were lit on fire, basically creating a huge, blazing archway. And then…regular people started to run through the fire; literally running into a burning wall of fire. Everyone from children to couples to townsfolk and even our guides and some of our group ran into this inferno. Many donned hats so their hair wouldn’t be singed off in an instant. Some came out with burn holes on their jackets.
I wanted to do it, but fear got the best of me – I had no replacement clothes, I didn’t have a hat and kinda like my hair, and worse, what if I tripped and fell right in the middle of it? There was no dress-rehearsal. And there was no ambulance waiting in the wings. So I just stood by in the cheering crowd and gaped at everyone purifying their sins.
Hike Day 2
The first day of our official camping hike started out with pouring rain and mud. As a group, we debated, and the consensus swung from us just staying in our cozy b&b another day to starting the hike and seeing how it went. It went…wet. It rained most of the time, but it was the mud that was maddening. It was a bit slippery. And more than once, I was stuck, calf-high in the muck. The terrain was pretty neat though – varying from big, rocky fields, to mossy streams, and wooded valleys. We were hiking up the valley from Thangbi Goemba to Ngang Lhakhang. Along the way, we passed many a happy “free-range” cow.
And in just under three hours we had already reached our campsite. By the time we got there, I felt good actually, and enjoyed the hike and conversation with Chris, one of my fellow tour mates. Although, if it wasn’t for keeping up with him (whom I lovingly dubbed “Daddy Long Legs” as he was about 6’2” tall and took very long strides), I’d still be stuck in the mud and I am sure I’d have taken at least another hour to arrive.
And what a campsite it was! Our guides called it “5-star” camping. Everything was already set up when we arrived. I had my own tent, complete with area rug and a raised cot with a thin air mattress. I’ve never NOT slept on the ground when camping before. When we arrived there was coffee and tea waiting for us plus biscuits and some fun salty popcorn. It’s the little things out in the middle of the wilderness that make me smile. And there was even a toilet tent – virtually a tent covering a toilet seat on a folding chair that covered a hole in the ground. I’ve had issues peeing in the outdoors before (although I got pretty good at it during my two-week cycling adventure in Vietnam) and have to admit, I was happy with this makeshift loo. We had supper in the “dinner tent” and then sat around a big campfire (one that slightly melted my new Merrel hiking shoes—ugh!). Time for bed.
The best part? They gave us each a hot water bottle at bedtime to put inside our sleeping bags which warmed them up amazingly well which resulted in a good night’s sleep.
Hike Day 3
This was the l o n g day. Too long for me actually. From what we were told, we thought it would be about a six to seven hour hike. It ended up being nine. When you are hiking and “in your own head” a lot, it’s good to have an idea of what your day will bring. The fact that psychologically, I thought I’d be done 2-3 hours before I was was a bit frustrating. Plus, you have to remember we were hiking at very high altitudes. And while we had a few days to acclimate to the elevation here in Bhutan, it was still a tough hike uphill to and around 12,000 feet. It was a great workout, but I was definitely very fatigued and a bit shaky by the end.
In the morning at 7:45, after breakfast, we hiked for about an hour from our campsite along a pastoral and flat and gently sloping uphill path. That was the easy part of the day. Soon it turned into a two and a half hour hard uphill slog through forests of rhododendron and bamboo and of course it started to rain again.
We got to the “lunch site” around 11:30am and it was pouring. Somehow I managed to be in the first group that arrived and we huddled together under a tree, getting cold while we waited for the others for lunch. But since they could’ve been an hour behind, we ate some rice, fruit, and vegetables and continued on our journey. It was here, we were told it would be about 3 more hours of hiking until the campsite (and even possibly two once we hit a farm road and our bus ‘might’ come by…which I planned to happily board). I spent the afternoon hiking alone, enjoying it, cursing it, and toward the end, just ready to be done. The first hour after lunch was the toughest — straight up a rocky river bed to the mountain pass.
The next hour was more downhill through a wet forest, and over streams and through pastoral farmland. Despite being cold, wet, and cranky (and creaky!) it was great to see the diversity of the landscape and also to feel so alone and in nature. We passed yaks, colorful birds, and dozens and dozens of blooming rhododendrons along the way.
What was to be the final hour turned into three more hours of up and down and undulating paths, fields, and riverbeds. Also, bear in mind, these were not marked trails. Our guides and faster walkers ahead (i.e. our amazing eldest hiker, and the most in shape, Eleanor) made arrows in the dirt with sticks to guide us along.
It was also about this time I was nearly gored by a yak. Yes. Gored. I was shooting some video of this lovely long-haired bovine as it nibbled on some leaves and didn’t seem to care at all about me gawking at it like a paparazzo. Until it did. He suddenly reared up and lunged at me. I turned and let out my best girly-girl shriek as my adrenalin kicked in making my heart immediately pump like crazy and my breath rate quadruple. I narrowly escaped the beast, but was told later by Chris and our guide, Sonam, just how very close it came to possibly adding another hole into my rear end, one that I just don’t need.
See my scream like a girl (hey, I am a girl!) here:
Click here if you can’t see the above video.
Hot Stone Bath
When we finally arrived at our camp I was wet, tired, and a kind of miserable. But then, I stripped off my damp clothes and lowered myself into a hot stone bath. Ahhhhh. Locals literally heat large stones over a campfire and then place them in a wooden bath filled with water. They were so hot that they had to cool it off by adding cold water. They threw in some herbs and I was like a tea bag floating in a nice herbal chai. While the rain continued to fall outside, Hillary and I enjoyed our soak…and the only shower we had had for 3 days or so.
I really shouldn’t complain though. This trek was probably nothing for seasoned hikers let alone our guides who also do the famous Snowman’s Trek. It is known as one of the world’s toughest hikes as it takes about 25 days and goes over 12 mountain passes, all of them more than 14,500 feet!
I’d be remiss to not mention is the plethora of phallic symbols that adorn Bhutanese homes and shops….especially in the smaller villages. And when I say ‘symbols’ I mean huge ejaculating penises. Here in the States, of course, we have our own society-based views of what this would mean (something along the lines of vulgar pornography), but in other cultures things are different.
The belief that this symbol brings good luck and drives away evil spirits is so ingrained in the psyche of the population in Bhutan that the symbols are routinely painted on outside walls of new houses and carved wooden phalluses are hung outside, on the corner eaves of homes.
These phallus paintings have their origins in the Chimi Lhakhang monastery near Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. The village monastery was built in honour of the “Divine Madman” (Lama Drukpa Kunley) who lived in the 15-16th century and was popularly known for his unorthodox ways of teaching. Admittedly, it was hard to see past my own ingrained societal norms and not just see big hairy penises on these folks homes.
Stay tuned for the Bhutan Video!
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