Day 6: Paro to Punakha
Even though dog choirs serenaded us all night, I had no trouble sleeping. My mountain of blankets weighed me down and kept me from sliding off the narrow bed.
This morning, we head out of Paro towards the north end of the valley over the road that we took yesterday. As we climb, the road degrades into something more like a paved cow path that winds back and forth as it makes its way through the pines. Bush sized rhododendrons well past their blooming season are the undergrowth for the spruce and larch. This route would be stunning in the springtime.
We will travel a lot of mountain roads today and this trip up to Chelela Pass is just a warm up. My grasp on my seat lessens as my body gets used to the car’s motion. We are constantly moving to the right to pass and the left to avoid a collision with a downward moving vehicle. There is a fringe of frost on the roadside grasses and icy patches on the pavement where water runs down the mountain and over shaded parts of the road. Dorji seems in his element. I am thinking back to my quamatik experience in northern Canada. Go with the motion. Don’t try to resist. My mind has the drill. My body hasn’t totally gotten the message.
Chelela Pass sits at 3988m and looks down on the Haa and Paro Valleys. It is swathed in prayer flags. Their messages are taken by the wind until the sun and the wind and the weather deplete them. The remnants of the colorful, inscripted fabric cling to the strings. White memorial flags as well as multicoloured ones hang layer on layer. Through their gossamer folds the paddy fields of the Haa valley are visible. On the other side the snow-topped peak of Mt Chomolhari sits clearly on the border between Tibet and Bhutan.
Today the air is clear and the sun is warm as I walk the road edged with flags. It is a moving and magical spot. Too soon we start our descent.
We are heading for Punakha. We cross the Paro Valley and follow the river out towards the airport. We cross over the Paro Chu on the metal bridge and by some miracle find ourselves on a two-lane highway complete with a white center line. We begin to climb.
As we hug the mountain, Dorji answers his cell phone while pulling off to the left. He yells into the receiver in Dzongkha. The words might not have been understood but the message was clear. His son was calling. He needed money before his father left town. Dorji gets out of the car and goes to the vehicle that has pulled up behind us. It seems the needs of adolescents are universal.
We pass Kyichu Lhakang with its distinctive Chorten. Jaim Yong says we will visit it on our return to Paro.
The first of hundreds of blind curves are upon us. It seems like we are flying but the speedometer says 35 kph as we weave from left to right, onto the shoulder, back onto the road and around another curve.
Rice paddies stretch along the riverbank far below. We conveniently grind to a halt in view of a group of people who are working cooperatively to frail the rice and stack the straw. While the men do the former using a leg-operated machine, the women winnow the rice throwing it high in the air to separate it from the chaff. Cows munch on the straw left behind in the paddies.
But that’s not the only place one finds cattle. If the blind curves and gulches, the size of the Grand Canyon, are not enough, cows or goats in the middle of the road when we come around a blind curve pretty much finish us off. LeeAnn is happy behind the driver, as we hug the centre line. I’m on the passenger side in the back seat. That’s the cliff side! I have never seen four story trees before!
We drive through Thimphu without stopping and head upwards toward the pass. We will stop and explore on our way back to Paro. Thimphu lies in a large valley. There seems to be a lot of building going on. Monasteries dot the surrounding mountains creating a protective spiritual ring.
There is only one road and we continue on to Dochula Pass. On the way, we stop and Jaim Yong reports to an immigration station. He shows our papers and we are quickly on our way again. The location of the station is half way up the mountain in the middle of a forest. It seems odd that we have to stop until Jaim Yong informs us of the infiltration of Indian refugees in this area. The government asked them to leave. They did not. Then the government built the station to process them. These Bhutanese are beginning to sound very polite… like Canadians!
There are a lot of Tata Trucks on this road as it is the only one over the pass and into Punakha. With no domestic air service, this is the only way for goods to reach the eastern parts of the country. These trucks transport both goods and people and have impossibly top heavy loads. They are decorated with folk art and religious symbols and are painted in garish colours. Over the head lights there are eyes. If the dents and rust could talk, it would be quite a story. It is alleged that the drivers are accompanied by “handi-boys” as young as eight who act as a second set of eyes and hands when the truck has to complete a tight corner. The boy beats a rhythm on the side of the truck and when the sound stops, the truck stops.
We pass the Dzong and the memorial Chortens on the top of the mountain. Ashi Dorji Wangmi Wangchuk , the eldest Queen Mother built the 108 stupas on a knoll at the top of the pass. They are white adobe with red and gold roofs. They are a monument that honors all sentient beings, both the Indian and the Bhutanese who died in 2003 when Indian insurgents were hiding in the jungles of southern Bhutan. The existence of this monument is a testament to the character of the Bhutanese.
We stop for lunch. There are only a few steps from the parking lot to the restaurant and I am doing much better today. The view across the valley goes on to the Himalayas. Jaim Yong finds tea and a table by the fire for it is cool in the mountain air. There is a good size craft centre here with fine silk scarves and classic embroidery. The work is very beautiful and each piece represents hours of work.
As we start our descent the trees change but the twisting nature of the path and the “Thelma and Louise” turns go on and on. We bump along over roads that have been cleared of fallen rocks and sections that are being repaired using the most primitive of methods. There is little evidence of heavy equipment. New retaining walls hang off the cliffs and are cemented on the valley side and backfilled by hand with precisely fitted stones. These cribs form the foundation for a second lane of traffic. Wheelbarrows are used to move gravel. Tar is heard in 50 gallon drums and then spread and tamped by hand. These are hard working Indian people.
People are walking along the shoulders. Some sit roasting corn in the hope of selling it when cars stop to let others pass or when there is a delay because of construction. Occasionally there is someone sitting in the dirt talking on a cell phone! It seems bizarre. Where did they come from? Eventually I catch on when I see someone disappear over the edge of the cliff and as we round the next bend see that there is a house and small garden in the valley, not far below.
At Punakha, we pull up into the grounds of the Zangdhorelki Hotel. The bikes leaning against the front wall put me over the top. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Just being in this amazing country is like a day long trip to the gym. I’m not ready for a bike. I’m still on the stair master!