Bleary-eyed, it’s another early rise and another long drive, this time to the almost far-east township of Mongar in the ancient region of Khyeng – the birth place of Bhutans blue blood dynasty, the Wangchucks. Bundling into the car we find it’ll be at least an eight hour drive on very dusty, bumpy, winding roads and that after Jakar the roads will get worse as the east is ‘very primitive’ - seriously the roads will be worse than what we’ve already encountered! We are a little speechless at the thought of the possibility. He also explains to us that there is not much to do in the east and the people here are very simple, that we might find it boring.
Settled in but not strapped in – we’ve been told not to use the seatbelts as it’s easier to jump from the car should it go over the side and plummet down - we don’t get too far along the road before we have our first stop at Mebar Tsho - The Burning Lake.
We're up early for day two of the oldest festival in Bhutan, the Jampalhakhang Drub - the consecration of Jampa Temple. The night before we'd attended the Mewang (Fire Offering) and Naked Man dance and became mesmerised by the trance-like dancing, while our necks crinked trying to find a vantage point to see the dancers and our butts froze on the ice-cold flagstone pavement of the temple courtyard when we did eventually find a front row squat spot. I'm determine to get a front row seat first thing in the morning for day two and encourage our guide to collect us from our hotel at seven-thirty am....even though the day's swirls, twirls and trance dances are due to start at nine.
We arrive early, along with a lot of other tourists, and peg out our perfect vantage spot. As the courtyard fills up I find myself feeling a little disappointed - most of the spectators are tourists - western tourists - there's barely a Bhutanese person among us. We all sit there with our tri-pods, fancy SLR cameras and for many, whopping great lenses. Lens envy starts to creep up on me when I see some of these expensive fancy-pants toys. The chanting soon starts and the festival comes to life and all thoughts of Ooh-la-la techno are soon gone as I am transported into an ancient time.
The second day of the festival is called the Tsukton (beginning) and is the 'proper' start of the festival - the dance circle has been purified by the Black Hat Dance and so now the mask dances can be preformed.
Over peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches (which I'm unable to eat due to an allergy) and French fries with a side of rubbery fried eggs for breakfast we vow to learn how to open a door again and work on our flabby arms by carrying our own bags. An hour later I'm stifling giggles as Mal luggage-wrestles again with petit house-keepers in crisp kiras of beautiful woven thread and high silk cuffed toegos.
We leave a mist covered Punakha early and begin a long drive into dust clouds and bone-rattling ruts all the way to Jakar. The national highway that runs through the middle of Bhutan is undergoing major construction, turning it from dual lane to four lane - all at once! We're told by our guide that the government has given the contract to a company who in turn has contracted the work out to many smaller companies; all of which appear to be competition with each other as to who can make the road the most dug-up, rubble filled, need-a-monster-truck-to-drive-it road possible.
We're off to meet a madman today, though the way I'm feeling, I'm not sure if the madman would like to meet with an 'off with the fairies' lady. It was a hellish night in our hotel at Thimphu with lots of groaning, banging of doors and running in and out of rooms - and that was just in our room. Outside in the hallway and stairwell it was all yelling, squealing and I'm sure, stair-master time.... judging by all the pounding feet up and down the endless levels of stairs. My earlier headache and unease back in Haa and Paro had morphed into full blown 'cranial crush', 'gut groan' and butt... well put it this way, I was visiting the little room more times than I cared too. As the sun rose, I emerged looking like I'd had a heavy night - grog-eyed and stumbly without the enjoyment of indulging in a glass or two.
Happiness appears to be all around, even the graffiti in Bhutan exudes messages of joy and positivity – soulful scribble. “Different is beautiful” and “Never let go of your dreams” whisper to us from the side walls of the shops. Around one corner I’m delighted to spy an advertising slogan of “get enlightened, read a book” in front of a small bookshop and then a few meters away a smiley face and rainbow with “lets all read”. . .
“Don’t hurry or your family will worry.”
“Mountains are pleasure only if you drive at leisure.”
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
There’s no such thing as a roadside advertising billboard in Bhutan, and as we drive along the ‘affirmation highway’ - as I’ve dubbed the road from Haa to Thimphu - we are given gentle reminders to slow down and savour life. It’s not until we realise that the country side we are viewing is absent of the garish bombarding of commercialism and oversized advertising signs that it dawns on us how open and free the countryside feels and the views of quaint mud-rammed houses dotting rice terraces that cascade towards a wide aqua-green river gives us a feeling of serenity.
“I think they should rename this place The Chilly Pass,” I say to Mal as I stand huddled next to a clay stove and try to garner some warmth. Me along with ten others – all Indian nationals – try to find the best spot next to the fire. In front we stare at the most incredible view, upright white flags on a forest of poles snaking along a ridge line to a peak, flutter against blue skies. Either side, deep plunging green valleys spiral into dark voids and all around a kaleidoscopic swirl of colour flaps and strains and whips in the wind – prayer flags for as far as the eye can see. We are at the top of Bhutans highest motorable pass – the Chele La at (officially 3,780meters, although the sign I’m standing next to says 3988meters and our vehicles altitude reader is spruking 4030meters. Whichever it is, it’s high! And I’m starting to feel some affects of altitude. A throbbing headache and a bit of a dizz, although, I think that might be from the hairpin corners.
“What instrument do you measure Gross National Happiness with?” we’re asked, ten minutes into our ride from the airport. I contemplate this question for a moment, trying to think of a profound and wise reply but Mal comes back quickly with “Why by the size of the smile on your dial. The bigger the smile the more happiness buck you’ve got in the soul bank”. “Then I hope you will feel like a wealthy man after leaving Bhutan” comes back the reply...
If smiles are anything to go by there was certainly a lot of deposits being made. The moment we entered the embarkation hall in Tribhuvan Airport at Nepal in readiness to board our DrukAir flight, the smiles were wide and the atmosphere filled with eager chattering and laughing. It was as if we were all about to head off on a big school excursion, the excitement palpable. We all knew we were going to the same place, possibly see the same things and most probably, bump into each other along the way. People were introducing themselves and asking ‘which tour company’ and ‘when are you hiking Tigers Nest’.
Hello! I'm Kerry
. . . a plan-nothing, have no idea where I'm going travelholic.
A daughter of the gypsies and the wife of a workaholic, I'm forever wondering 'What's over there?' and devising ways to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence of small-business ownership responsibilities and every-day life tangles to discover it.
and this is my book.
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