“If I’m a genuine terton (finder of treasures) then may I return with the treasure and my lamp still alight. However, if I am a devil, may I drown.” Saying so, he dove into “The Burning Lake” in Bumthang with a burning butter lamp. As the villagers began to wonder if he’d drowned, Pema Lingpa came out with a treasure chest of Guru Rinpoche’s teachings, some relics and the burning butter lamp.
“Madam, don’t go too close”, Sonam squeaked, as I got closer to the edge of the cliff, trying to spot the bubbles in the dark coloured, holy lake of Meber Tsho (the burning lake). We were engulfed by the mystery of this, otherwise normal looking, lake (more so a pond). A stretch of mud-patch and some stairs led us to a clearing with colourful and white tsa-tsa lining the rocky walls. Tsa-tsas are miniature shrine-shaped (or chorten-shaped) clay sculptures which hold ashes of loved ones or inscriptions on the under-side and are found in holy places in memory of those who passed away. A wooden bridge takes you over the pond from where you can look into the depths to try and spot the caves. (The caves are said to be visible only to the most spiritual people).
Legend has it that Bhutanese saint Pema Lingpa had found teachings of Guru Rinpoche in the caves below the lake. When the locals refused to believe him, he challenged them by saying that he would go down to the lake caves with a burning lamp and come back with the teachings and the lamp still burning. So he did! And since then the lake, has been held sacred. Sonam placed a miniature Tsa-tsa on a ridge, while we wandered around trying to capture the place in our minds.
Bumthang to Phobjikha Valley
Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
The landscapes changed drastically yet again. From the cold, barren town and flat lands to valleys and meadows with lazily grazing yaks and horses. The sun shone while the cold winds continued to bite. We warmed up in the small building housing the Black-necked Crane Information Center in Phobjikha Valley. These beautiful migratory birds fly in after October from the Tibetan Plateau. They are over 5 ft tall and their wingspan is a majestic 8 ft! We tried spotting them from the hi-tech telescopes at the information center. And the sights got us even more excited for our trek the next day.
The Black Neck Cranes in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
It is said that while descending into Bhutan each year, the Black-necked Cranes circle the holy Gangtey Monastery thrice as a sign of respect, before making a landing in the protected Phobjhika Valley. If there is a gem in Bhutan that anyone can easily access, it is in Phobjikha Valley. This is a must-do in your itinerary. We chose to watch the views from our luxurious hotel room and keep warm in the wood-laden rooms, with Bhutan grain whiskey for company.
Our day started with a spiritual morning spent at Gangtey Monastery, said to be the seat of Pema Lingpa’s school of Buddhism (Nyingmapa). This Monastery has influences of Tibetan architectural styles and has an ideal location. It is situated at the top of the mountain with panoramic views of the valley, surrounded by medicinal trees and adorned with paintings and carvings of religious significance and intricately carved wooden pillars on the inside. Sonam continued stories of Buddhist mythology as we quizzed him on one painting after another.
We exited towards a slope leading to tall pine trees for our much-awaited nature hike! Sonam was to meet us at the end point with his taxi. There was no one around and we weren’t sure of the trail. After a bit of confusion we spotted another guide who was leading his visitors on the trekking path across the valley. So we tagged along with the other guide for a distance before we lost them owing to our constant stops for exploring the flora. Pine cones carpeted the forest land and the wind blew in the vast marshy valley. It is in these marsh lands that the Black-necked cranes reside. On our first clearing we spotted these tall, beautiful birds flying high above us and slowly coming to a landing for us to spot them up-close. No one can actually enter their dwelling as the land is completely marshy, so they are safe by default, apart from it being a highly preserved area. The next part of our nature hike took us across a small hamlet and then to another clearing with prayer flags fluttering in strong winds. We stretched our legs and had our eyes on the sky. The last part of our hike took us over rivulets connected by wooden planks.
The Phobjikha Valley trek will take you through the woods, across rivulets and valleys
Here at Phobjikha Valley, we wished we could linger on for a few more days…Just breathe in all that pure air and lock it up in our lungs.
Capture the sounds of birds, winds, flapping prayer flags and only our breaths…….
But we will walk these valleys,
on a summer day,
with the greens too
and befriend these seasonal birds,
Phobjikha to Thimphu
The road back to Thimphu was a lazy one. Sonam’s taxi rocked us to sleep with cool breeze caressing our faces. The night called for an end to the year 2018!
An empty Thimphu square on the morning of 1st Jan
An early breakfast beckoned us on the 1st of January in a cozy cafe in an empty Clock Tower Square (clearly, the part went on till late!). After a change of cuisine from traditional Bhutanese food & Suja to some vegan burgers and chocolate shakes, we headed off to our much awaited touristy activity. We were to visit the Post Office where you can get stamps made with a picture of your choice. But with no print shops open, we had to give up and move on.
The Living Museum by Simply Bhutan in Thimphu
“Kuzuzangpo La!“, greeted our very enthusiastic student guide at the Simply Bhutan Living Museum. This is an experience one should not miss in Thimphu. It is a quick drive from the city center and is housed in the Nazhoean Pelri Youth Center. Right from receiving a traditional welcome with Ara, a tour of the typical mud houses, live performance of folk songs, to engaging in archery, sipping on Suja and participating in the traditional Zhungdra dance, this Living Museum, Simply does live up to its name!
But food and shopping apart, we were not done with our love for exploring Thimphu. So we spent the last few hours in Semtokha Dzong. Not as mighty as the Thimphu Dzong, but definitely a historic gem in the crown of Bhutan. The empty courtyard atop a ridge greeted us to this 1629 Dzong established by Zhabdrung Namgyal, the unifier of the Bhutanese kingdoms. As we entered the colourful halls of the Lakhang, we spotted some unique painting and murals unlike others in the rest of the country, the large painting of Sakyamuni Buddha flanked by the eight Bodhisattvas was so life like. We truly felt blessed in there. Walking the floors of one of the first and the oldest surviving Dzongs definitely brought our Thimphu chapter to a glorious end.
Semtokha Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan
But we were yet to explore Bhutan’s well kept secret which was opened to tourists only in 2002. We had also saved the most iconic Tiger’s Nest trek for the last leg of our journey.