Thimphu to Haa Valley
Having recently read about the Doklam issue, a bordering area between Bhutan and China, we were curious to witness this vastness on the other side of Bhutan. Little did we know that we were entering the quietest and most well kept secret of Bhutan. Haa valley is a quaint little village on the Western-most part of Bhutan with very few options to stay. We found our stay in the comfortable quarters of Ugyen’s homestay.
Sonam dropped us off and went over to his wife’s maternal home to spend some time with family. We were welcomed by Ugyen’s nephew Dechen who was also our translator from English to Dzongkha (That’s what Bhutanese language is called). Up the steep, wooden staircase, we were shown a cozy room with two heaters (Absolutely Necessary).
Ugyen’s homestay had an open kitchen with cushioned floors and Ugyen’s favourite cozy TV corner. We had another guest from Japan who had joined us with her guide. When we told the group that we were at our last leg of travel and had journeyed from the far west to the east of this country, they were curious to hear of it. Of course this meant a few extra servings of the delicious food we ate, seated around the heater. After a few episodes of a national reality dance show, we were ready to retire for the night.
People in Bhutan are ever so friendly and welcoming but when they speak to you despite the language barriers, welcome you to their kitchen, feed you the same food as their family and go out of their way to make you feel comfortable in their very distinct land, you cannot help but feel a bond far special than any other.
Haa Chhu, is a calm river along Haa Valley dotted with pebbles, reminiscent of the Beas River in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. We sat by the river collecting oddly shaped stones, mesmerized by the views of the snow-capped mountains. We had, both, started to enjoy this solitude, quiet and peace that followed us everywhere in Bhutan. The cold wasn’t that bad either, or may be we were, just, getting used to it.
Our first stop after Haa Chhu was the Haa Dzong, housed inside the Indian Army base. There is something about meeting a fellow Indian outside of India, even if it is our neighbouring country. India and Bhutan have for long shared the friendliest of relations. Given the strategic location of Bhutan vis-a-vis China, particularly so close to the Doklam area, it is no wonder that the Indian Army stands guard at the nearest border town.
Indian Army Cantonment, Haa Valley, Bhutan
A friendly Indian army personnel was more than happy to spot us in Bhutan and that too in such cold corners. It isn’t often that he bumps into one of his own there! After a quick chat and exchanging some laughter, we wished each other well and were off to explore the Haa Dzong. The Dzong seemed to be less religious and more administrative. It housed offices of the Indian Army, supplies and artillery, most of which were out of bounds for us. We beamed with pride at the various plaques outlining India’s contribution to Bhutan. On the behest of the army personnel we also stopped by at the multi-faith temple in the premises. It is truly is a feeling beyond words, being in a corner of Bhutan, in a complex that houses a temple, a mosque, a church, a gurudwara and a Dzong.
We carry our faith where we go not because it is housed in an idol, book or structure, but because of the familiarity it brings in unfamiliar places.
Next on our plan was the mighty Lakhang Karpoo (White Temple). We were told that local Lakhangs are smaller than Dzongs. Arguably they are. But this beautiful Lakhang, whose picture adorned as my mobile wallpaper was, let’s just say, not small! It had a huge courtyard, that can host the King’s coronation ceremony and a back drop of the tallest trees like a throne. Pointed in pristine white with colourful surroundings, it was a photographer’s treat.
We bid goodbye to this corner of Bhutan with the excitement of spotting one of its highest and most sacred peaks – Jomolhari.
Haa Valley to Paro via Chele La
Chele La pass is Bhutan’s offbeat (not so much anymore) pride. It is the highest motorable point in Bhutan, at an altitude of about 13,000 ft above sea level, between Haa Valley and Paro.
The winds made the white prayer flags flap in unison, creating a fluttering melody. By now, Mridula and I had become accustomed to the calmness that the fluttering prayer flags brought. The thought of leaving Bhutan soon was making us hold on to everything Bhutanese! We had a few furry friends for company as we walked towards an incline to catch the valley-views. Mt. Jomolhari made a dramatic entrance as she peeped from parting clouds, clad in all white. We both watched with wonder promising to trek the ranges in summer.
Sonam drove through a treacherous, snow-ladden, winding road where we came to an unplanned stop. The vehicles had started to slip on the icy roads, worst being the truck ahead of us which decided to stop. A passing driver told us that this was just a patch and we could get away by covering the snow with some mud until the next turn.
On the way from Chele La Pass to Paro
After a couple of hours of winding roads, we reached Paro. Paro is probably the most visited part of Bhutan, mainly because of the airport and the icon of Bhutan – ‘The Tiger’s Nest’.
Hills creating a periphery, river cutting through and the holiest of monasteries looking over the city. Picture Paro as a the beautiful gateway to Bhutan, only we arrived here to sum up our journey.
Paro is where you will see everything there is to see as a tourist. It houses Dzongs, Lakhangs, a museum and a main street where you can shop and eat. But we weren’t going to skip Paro for those reasons! There is no tourist or traveller who is leaving Bhutan without making it to the Tiger’s Nest – the sacred monastery situated on the cliff of a mighty mountain.
We had chosen a beautifully done up apartment in Paro, owned by one of the pilots of Druk Air. It was a little away from the hotels and hustle of the town, nestled in an apartment building on top of a cliff. After a quick run to the market where we picked up stuff to cook for the night we settled into the apartment with a our stock of local beverages which we had collected through out the journey. The plan was to relax through the evening and gear up for the trek next morning. Half way through the evening, the owner buzzed on our phone asking if we wanted to check out some popular places in town! Last night in Bhutan, why not?! He fixed us a ride for the night who turned out to be a fireman by day, a taxi driver whenever he is free and a bouncer at the local dive at night!
Park 76 Pub, Paro, Bhutan
He was seated at the bar while we chilled on the couch by the band’s stage. He was keen on showing us how Bhutan parties and we were in denial of it being better than the scene in Mumbai (of course, that is debated by many in Delhi!) Being the bouncer of this very place, he took us to the basement where the music was booming! Should we count that as a night out in Bhutan??
The cleanliness, civility and innocence of Bhutan will intoxicate you. When you leave, you will miss the air that is Bhutan, the Mountains that are Bhutan, the strong tradition-in-modernity that is Bhutan and the People that are Bhutan.
You will want to go back and one day, you will.
We woke up fresh as the morning rains tapped on our window. The day looked overcast, yet pleasant enough for a trek. Ready to load our bags onto Sonam’s car one last time, we sipped our morning coffee, had a quick sandwich and were off to conquer the mighty mountains.
Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to the cave in the mountain on a mythical tiger. But us mortals need to make our way up on foot. For those who trek only on vacations, we’d suggest picking up bamboo sticks from the start point which you return once you’re back down. We found it particularly handy on the way down during steep slopes. Surrounded by groups of tourists from many parts of the world, we too made our journey up to personally witness this one-of-a-kind monastery.
We started with layers of clothing and excited faces, taking pictures along the way and getting awed by the beauty of the valley below. As the altitude increased, the oxygen decreased and we were regretting those layers! The opposite mountain on which stands the Taktsang Palphug (the Tiger’s Nest) was calling out to us, so onward and upward we went. You are rarely on your own on this trek and there is enough and more motivation to keep you going.
There are hardly any barricades at the edges and there have been deaths reported by people who have slipped while taking pictures. So safety is key!
Once at the top we had grey skies, the purest of air and peace that touched our every inch. 2 hrs of climb had been worth everything. The sight is one of the holiest in Buddhist culture and visiting it is a very special experience. No matter how touristy it sounds, it is worth the hype.
Tiger’s Nest, Paro, Bhutan
The way down had us avoiding the slippery path thanks to snow fall. We were lucky to have carried the sticks. 2 hrs more and we were back to the base. Some last minute curio shopping from the flee market at the base and off we were downhill back towards the border town of Phuentsholing. We made a quick stop at a local brewery…one for the road 😉 and a round of gourmet burgers!
Bhutan did not bid us a usual goodbye though. It left us with something we will long remember. The first snowfall of the season had followed us from Tiger’s Nest and we witnessed a view of snow capped trees and mountain tops all through our drive back. Of course for Sonam this meant low visibility. But it was oh-so-beautiful!
We reached Phuentsholing after sunset, bid a heartfelt, thankful goodbye to our driver, guide and travel companion, Sonam and called it a day.
For until there is no sunset, there is no sunrise….
For until there is no winter, there is no spring…
For until there is no goodbye, there is no return…
How a country sandwiched by two mighty neighbours has never been colonised, nor given up its identity or even diluted it, is something one has to experience oneself. Both men and women have a dress code, you cannot smoke in public and there may be no commercialisation of their entertainment, food or clothing, but rules on littering, no honking and managing without traffic lights are strictly followed. A constitutional monarchy with both the King and the Prime Minister working for its people, measuring success on the basis of Gross National Happiness and the only Carbon Negative country in the world, that is Bhutan for you.
This was our ode to a beautiful country that both of us absolutely and unconditionally have fallen in love with. Two years hence, we still keep up with the local news 🙂
And finally, presenting our camer-shy Sonam! He preferred staying behind the camers, vlogging in Dzongkha on his phone during the whole trip.