Day 7: Punakha to Phobjika Valley.
After breakfast I walk the road from the hotel to the valley. LeeAnn is busy sending emails to her boss who seems to think that her brain is still actively solving work problems while she is on vacation. What is he thinking?
A mist shrouds the paddies as the sun breaks through the clouds over the mountains. The air is clear but not too crisp. A cowbell can be heard in the distance. Kids are on their way to school. It must be a long walk as it is early.
This is such a peaceful place. The land, the people and their beliefs all seem to work together to create an inner and outer calm. It is soothing in some strange way to just be here. The endless chatter that is so prevalent in the west is missing. In this regard, LeeAnn and I inadvertently fit into the local pattern when we are silent most of the time in the car. I’m thinking it seems better to let Jaim Yong and Dorji concentrate on getting us to our next location rather than have either of them distracted by idle chatter. I’m happy just to hold on and look. Besides I am used to not talking. For the most part, it is my way.
Until 1955, Punakha was the capital of Bhutan. Punakha Dzong ( Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang), the Palace of Great Happiness , is said to be the country’s most beautiful dzong. Situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, its setting is dramatic. It dates back to the 17th century and was constructed under the supervision of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
Standing on the bank of the turquoise river, I look upstream to a most beautiful complex of buildings. They appear invulnerable but in fact they have been ravaged by flash flooding and fire. The river channels have been deepened and the embankments raised in order to protect the buildings and their treasures.
To enter the Dzong I cross the reconstructed cantilever bridge that spans the Mo Chhu. The original wooden bridge was washed away in the 1950’s and this new one was not completed until 2008.
There are many steps leading to the main floor of the dzong. They are so steep that they force one to assume a supplicant position just to keep from falling. Near the entrance an older monk moves a large prayer wheel. He beckons me to come closer but turns away as I try to take his picture.
This dzong is more active than the one in Paro. It is the winter residence of Bhutan’s Central Monastic Body and has many sacred relics including the sacred remains of Zhabdrun Ngawang Namgyal. Red robed monks move about the dzong. They wander the grounds and joke with one another when not fulfilling their duties.
I keep trying to integrate the lives we have witnessed in the community with what I am seeing in the monasteries. It is seamless. Belief directs life here and life is belief. Whether one is climbing a mountain or the steps to a temple, people are moving forward with effort but without complaint. Their dedication is exemplified in the plowing of fields as well as the turning of prayer wheels.
Jaim Yong is wearing his kabney over his gho. It is a handwoven shawl made of raw silk that is draped across his body and over one shoulder. This is part of the national dress for men when they are in dzongs, temples and government centres. Eight inch white cuffs that always seem to be immaculate, black socks and well-shone loafers complete the costume.
We leave Punakha and head for Wangdue Phodrang District. In June 2012, fire destroyed much of the dzong but as it was undergoing a renovation, most of the valuable relics were saved.
. Dorji squeezes the car onto the shoulder and Jaim Yong, LeeAnn and I start a hike across the valley to the Temple of the Divine Madman.
Now, this odd character keeps showing up in the myths, legends, and beliefs of the people in this country. Linda Leaming, in her book “Married to Bhutan” describes him as “ a Tibetan holy man who went around western Bhutan seducing women, drinking up everybody’s liquor, eating, sleeping and defecating to excess and generally making a nuisance of himself. Drukpa Kunley, (his other name), traveled with a little dog and gave blessings to the people by whacking them on the head with a big wooden phallus. He lived from 1455-1529..…He could swing his member like a helicopter blade which enabled him to get places really fast!”
…well that’s how the story goes!
We walk the edges of the paddy fields, all the time watching the wind move the prayer flags. There is a constant gurgle at my feet and it appears that the water is just running off between the fields as it is not needed to flood them at this time of year.
On the other side of the valley there is a long inclined lane leading to Chimi Lhakhang, the Madman’s Monastery. A government sign at the entrance reminds us that we are to be appropriately dressed and respectful. Monks rest under trees and a number of people are working to put together memorial prayer flags. Already their snapping in the breeze is making a satisfying sound.
This is a teaching monastery and inside young men learn to read the sacred texts. On the walls the escapades of the Divine Madman are painted in primary colours. Children are being drown in the river and over there, there is a scene that looks a lot like Jesus dividing the loaves and fishes. I am confused.
But hey, as we retrace our steps through the paddies, and climb the hill to get back to the car, we pass the Phallus Handicraft store. Its windows have rows of them….all sizes, all colours… and even bigger and better ones are painted on houses to bring good luck. Somehow I don’t think this will catch on back home. But seriously, it is a window on a different approach to sexuality. In this country polygamy for both men and women has been the custom. Today it still occurs in the hill country but is less prevalent in the more populated areas.
If you just stand still in this country, someone will bring you tea. Jaim Yong has our preferences down pat and just shows up at the lunch table with tea and water. We have been very fortunate as he is a very intelligent and well informed young man who seems to be moving into tour work such as our adventure and moving away from leading long treks. Earlier, while we were still in Paro, he spoke of his participation as a guide on the Snowman Trek. It is one the most difficult treks in the world. It follows some of the highest passes in Bhutan. Three are over 5000 m. This opportunity of a lifetime goes on for 24 days. Humm, …I think I am not ready. Humm again, …I think I will never be ready.
After a blissful morning and a satisfying Bhutanese lunch, it’s time to buckle up. Well I say that, but they don’t do it here. I guess it makes for faster escapes when the mountain crashes down or you become airborne on a curve. Its curious to me but there are actually signs that suggest one area is more dangerous than another. “Accident prone area” they say. Some curves have metal barriers that have been effective for something as they now extend out over the valley leaving a giant gape! Bridges have a meticulously built crenated edging. My mind says, why bother… they only seem large enough to slow a vehicle so the occupants have time to scream!
It’s busy. There is more traffic and its up, up, up. I lean towards LeeAnn. Something is my addled brain must think that will help keep us on the road. It’s slow going because of the construction. Narrow, becomes narrower. Pavement becomes fresh gravel.
A women appears out of nowhere and sets a fire to cook chilies. A tour group finds room for a picnic table and chairs on the cliff side of a blind curve. Oh to have such dedication to bird watching!
We are in for a couple of more hours of these hair-raising mountain roads before we arrive in the Phobjika Valley. Along the way prayer wheels spin where mountain streams spill through them. When the valley stretches before us it is bathed in evening light. The black-necked cranes return to this place every year and tomorrow we will go to the festival. Tonight we get to stay in a farm house.