|Dancing on National Day|
Sunday: Bhutan’s National Day
I have no itinerary so each day is an unfolding adventure. I’m happy to be in Bhutan on its national holiday, the 110th anniversary of this royal family.
King V rules the Kingdom of Bhutan. He's now 38 years old. In 2008, when he was 29, his dad, King IV, retired (aged 58). This king has a young wife and son, adored by the country. Their pictures hang in shops, public spaces, and in homes. They are a beautiful (and photogenic) family.
Traditional family structure prevails: the men do “manly” things, including traditional sports of archery, darts, and football. The women take care of the house and children, even if they work elsewhere.
Yellow signboards along the road share cultural values. One of them says, Don’t gossip; let him drive. Women drive, but if their husband is along, she's probably not behind the wheel. Other signs encourage slow and careful driving, cautious living, and harmonious relationships.
|Narrow neighborhoods in the capital city Thimphu|
This morning, we eat an early breakfast and I’m ready to go. However, just before we leave the restaurant, I find out that we are moving to a different hotel this afternoon. I run the steps back to my room. It takes 15 minutes to unplug the chargers, snag my PJs from under the pillow, and grab things from the safe. I toss everything – from the bathroom, from the closet, and the nightstand – into my suitcase. What a jumble.
|Blue sky overhead at the National Stadium,|
with the royal box in the middle.
Today is National Day (the equivalent of July 1 for Canadians and July 4 for Americans.) We are at the National Stadium at 8am. The King is not showing up today, so only the middle section is filling up. On the other side of the stadium, the royal box is flanked by foreign dignitaries on one side and the judiciary on the other.
"We must wear traditional dress to enter a government office," the guide tells me. "Many workplaces require it as well." The national dress for men is a skirted robe in traditional patterns, worn with knee socks and every manner of Western shoes. Here, the view is male knees, not female.
The women wear bright-colored jackets with floor-length plaid or striped skirts. Older kids and adults dress up for the day. Just beautiful. I opt for warm trousers, a down sweater, and a winter coat until the sun comes around and heats us up.
The dances and parades start almost on time. In the first round, a statue of King I is brought in and set up to "watch" the festivities in front of the royal box.
I am fascinated by the dance troupes: they are mostly slow-moving and imprecise. The lines wander here and there, and occasionally someone scurries from the participant area to catch up and enter with their group. Latecomers slip easily into line and participate with equal vigor and joy.
|Mountain horns in the shops|
Though the national brass band has many instruments, all the music is played in unison. The low drone of the mountain horn (similar to the Swiss Alpenhorn) growls off the mountains around the stadium. People hum or sing along with the variety of music.
|Huddled under a scarf and hat to ward off the sun.|
"You almost look like a terrorist," says the guide.
When I glance at my watch, it’s already 11:00. Time is flying by – dances, the king's speech via broadcast, encouraging his people to unity and harmony. And there's music. I love it all.
We enjoy a home-cooked lunch in a warm and friendly household with 3 lively sons. The food is delicious, with wind-dried beef, the ever-popular red peppers, vegetables, and the cheesy potatoes I’ve grown to love. It’s a feast.
We go back up toward the college, overlook the valley and the distant gold Buddha, and in the evening, drive to Paro, the airport town.
I’m booked at the Tashi Namgay Resort, but a group of Chinese tourists has stayed an extra night. The staff drags my roll-aboard suitcase into a room on the hillside. It’s ok and I sleep well. There’s only internet in the lobby, but I have a few books on my Kindle.
|Where we're headed - see that white dot on the right?|
At 7, I join the guide for breakfast. We’re climbing to the Tiger’s Nest monastery, a Mecca for Buddhists. It’s billed as a 5½ hour hike that many people undertake as a pilgrimage. The guide wants to leave at 7:30 to avoid the crowds and heat.
But I’m moving rooms again. I toss my luggage together and leave it for the staff to relocate. We are in the car by 8 and at the bottom of the climb by 8:45.
We go up and up. The ground is stone and dust. My Salomon snow moccasins are amazing, though I’ve worn most of the tread off them on our Indonesian walks.
|Homemade Buddhist wind drums|
(painted water bottles and plastic spoons)
The starting elevation here is 2200 meters (7200 feet) above sea level versus 900 m (3000 ft) where we climb each week in Lembang, above Bandung.
Today we are climbing to 3120 meters (10,240 ft). I’ve been running hotel stairs for a week (84 steps to my room in Thimphu, elevation 2300 meters) – and that’s helped. Mind you, I didn’t know that first hotel had an elevator, though I probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. With my heavy tote bag the first few days, I feel the burn in my lungs. That’s sorted itself out and I feel acclimated.
The hill … is … long. At the top, we look across the valley to the monastery. Wait – there are stairs, flights and flights of them, maybe a few hundred steps, down into the valley and up the other side. I feel my legs start to burn. The treads are uneven, both in width and height. (Indonesia is good prep for this!) I watch my feet and take photos when I’m out of breath.
Many Indian and Chinese tourists ride halfway on their pack horses. They dismount and start to trek as we arrive at Base Camp 3, but we leave them behind as they saunter and pant their way up the trail.
There are a few people ahead on the path ahead. “Oh no, doctor. They cheated!" says the guide, scolding the young people we meet at the top of the first hill. "They’ve ridden the horses up to the base camp. That’s not a real climb, like we're doing.”
|After climbing 900 meters, there's one more descent and climb across a deep valley|
At the famous monastery, we have to check our phones and backpacks. Apparently, there’s been vandalism in the past. In 1998, the monastery burned to the ground. The government offered early release to prisoners who would rebuild the site, and many accepted the challenge. It was reopened in 2005.
|Belongings and phones are left at the guardhouse|
The hollow where the second Buddha is supposed to have meditated is tucked into the back of one of the little buildings. There are statues, candles, incense, and donation boxes in every room on the site. Using the toilet costs about 13c (USD).
|Typical trail: stone and dust|
And then we step down the stairs, cross the valley, and trek up the other side to the top of the trail. We pass many exhausted tourists, who ask us how much further they have to go.
“You've achieved 80% distance to here, but you’ve done only about 50% of the effort." Actually, that last valley – especially coming through the second time, when you're already tired – is a killer. But it's worth it.
Halfway down, the day is quite hot. The sun is overhead. The guide asks if I want a tea break.
"What? Tea?! Where?" says this tea addict. "Yes please!" I finished drinking my water on the way there, so the tea is welcome hydration. I look across to where we climbed.
Coming back down, I'm surprised that it is so steep going up. I guess we put one foot in front of the other, just like on Thursday walks in Bandung.
When we're done, the phone records almost 16,000 steps, 150 flights of stairs, and 7 miles. My calves are burning, my knees feel a little achy, and my heart is pounding. It’s taken us 4 hours instead of 5.5. Yes, that was a good walk.
|Almost there ... partway back, I take a screenshot|
At the bottom of the hill, vendors line the entry/exit. “Much cheaper here, with no tax and direct sales,” the guide advises.
I would like a non-religious bell to hang on our guava tree to remind me of Bhutan. I find a three-bell set and the seller swaps out a non-musical bell for another I like better. (Back in my hotel room, I ring it many times, enjoying the clear tones.) I find pretty silver and stone rings and hairpins, too.
|What goes down must later come up.|
We stop in the village for lunch, a Chinese-Bhutanese buffet. Delicious. I browse a fabric shop but can’t make up my mind. We head back to the hotel for a foot massage and then have a hot stone bath afterward at an eco-farm.
A "hot stone" bath? What's that? Wooden tubs are filled with water and flowers. Hot stones, in a compartment at the end of the tub, heat the water. The first tub is cooooold! I sit and shiver and wonder when someone will bring heated stones.
"Oh, maybe move over one." I do. This one is so hot I think my skin will boil.
|A wind-driven prayer drum at the pack-horse base camp|
"Are you hot enough? I will bring the salt and pepper. Tell me when you are boiled." The tour guide jokes - and I'm feeling it, with a smile. After a half hour, it cools down enough for more stones. They hiss as they hit the water. I read and relax. It’s good therapy after our climb.
We eat a simple supper at the organic restaurant next door. Then we head back to the hotel. I’ve put my cap and gloves on my seat, and when I hop out to take a picture, I kick my fabulous gloves out the door. They’re black and in the dark, I don’t miss them until we’re at the hotel.
|The tour group has left and I'm in a nicer room|
The driver goes back, but they’re gone. I’m so mad at myself. They were a gift from a friend and they've kept me warm every day. Today, they kept my hands from blistering on the wooden walking sticks. I guess I won’t need them anymore. But I’m still sorry to see them go. Someone else may be very happy to find them. Not me.
The phone rings at 8am. I wake up but don’t answer. It takes me a while to get my tongue in motion. And the phone rings again at 8:30 while I’m in the shower. Last night, I arranged to have breakfast before the café closes at 9, so if it’s an emergency they’ll come to the room. I put every bit of computer, cables, socks, clothes, and souvenirs on the spare bed. Then I pack a suitcase and tote bag. I’m sitting down to an omelet and toast a few minutes ahead of the deadline.
|Bright local fabrics|
I drag my luggage to the lobby a half-hour before our 10:00 meeting time. It’s 10:30 by the time the guide checks out. We head around the curves hugging the mountain to the village shops.
Both the guide and I have the sniffles: it’s cold in the mornings. There’s a thick layer of frost on the windshield. (We’ve had the exertion of yesterday and who knows who else touched the railings along yesterday’s staircases.) He is miserable and heads off to a pharmacy while I look around the store.
I’m buying a length of cloth for a friend and one for myself. We ask for something under $50. I send her pictures via WhatsApp of the beautiful embroidered fabric. While she’s deciding, we go up the street to a few more shops. Prices range widely for the same items, many imported from India. Hand-woven silk is the most expensive; cotton embroidery on silk is next, and the most reasonable is all-cotton. The store I visited Sunday is closed for the local New Year’s celebrations.
We’re finally back to the first shop. My friend has chosen her favorite, but the seller rings it up for $250. What?! (They have apparently shown us expensive bolts, and there’s no way we can afford them.) It’s back to the search. The guide negotiates a 2-for-1 deal on hand-woven hangings. I hope they please my friend as much as they do me.
“I want to give you one more special treat before you leave,” the Ethne guide says. He consults with some women sitting in front of their shops before setting off down a side street. He pushes open the door to a very small café and waves me to the benches behind a hodge-podge of low tables.
|This little "hole in the wall" serves delicious dumplings|
A young woman brings a bowl of broth and five homemade dumplings for each of us, accompanied by hot chutney. The guide orders tomato sauce (ketchup) on the side and we mix the two – spicy and sweet. Oh my! They are delicious. The ground meat is tender, the pasta wrapper savory, and the mix sublime. It is comfort food against our colds.
It's time to fly away. The tote falls off the suitcase a few times: the support was severed this morning when we were putting down the handle. Ugh – from now on, W and I will be doing a careful balancing act rather than depending on good luggage design.
What's that? There's a car parked on the road under a yellow tarp. It's in the middle of the lane as we come around a corner.
Airport security looks in the back window and waves us through on the gravel road before we turn onto the main street. When I finally check my luggage – behind a group of 40 Chinese tourists, there are only rear seats available.
When I reach immigration, there’s no one in line. Except that the gal sends me back to another counter for a departure form. I fill it out in 2 minutes and head back … and have to stand in line. Oh well, I’m relieved to get through immigration and security, heading to the gate.
Besides five or six rows of Chinese tourists, no one is in the waiting room. We have just over an hour before boarding. Slowly, slowly, people trickle in. By the time we leave (20 minutes late), the plane is full.
I’m in the family section. There are lots of kids all around, but my earplugs filter their cheerful shouts and the roar of the jet engines. We can smell the toilets.
The first flight to India is just over an hour; we’re exchanging a few passengers. The next flight – to Bangkok – is bumpy and lasts a few hours. We’re ahead of schedule though.
We land at 9:30 – which gives me a mere 8.5 hours to hang around until my third leg. Though it’s nice to take off from Bhutan in the afternoon, the connections are lousy. Actual flying time is around 11 hours, but with all the waiting, it’s over 24 hours in transit, airport to airport. (I think I'd prefer to leave early in the morning to cut the sitting time in the airports.)
At 10pm, I find an empty row of 3 chairs and shiver my way through a stop-and-start nap until 2am. I give up. I’m wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, a thick sweater, wool socks, heavy shoes, and a winter coat … under a pashmina shawl that serves as my blanket. This is the draftiest airport ever! Time to write.
And then we continue home. The flight is only delayed an hour. Suddenly, I'm back in the tropics. I haul my tote down the steps off the airplane and across the taxi-way. Ah, home airport sweet home.
When I walk in the door of our house in Bandung, W gives me a big hug. The Christmas lights greet me and I'm back to where I belong, in the country we've grown to love so much.
*I hope for your salvation, O Lord. Psalm 119:166
*Woe to those who plan iniquity, because it is in their power to do it. Micah 2:1
*It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, he came into the temple. Simeon took the child Jesus in his arms and praised God. Luke 2:26-28
*Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” Mark 10:42-43
Moravian Prayer: God of humanity and humility, teach us the way of gentleness. May we be servant leaders. May we overcome iniquity by the power of your love.
O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light eternal and Sun of Justice: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Amen.