25 October 2019
Today we leave the modern capital Thimphu and travel to the ancient capital of Punakha. Our first stop is the castle-monastery of Simtokha Dzong, the oldest in Bhutan and the first built by Zhabdrung from Mongolia (in 1629AD). It is said to guard against a demon that escaped into the nearby rock. Inside we listen to monks having a lively debate about religion.
Then we climb the winding Dochula Pass (3,100m) through beautiful tropical forest and sparse villages. We stop to investigate roadside stalls selling fresh seasonal apples and walnuts. Chengha tells us that Bhutan is not just carbon neutral, it is carbon negative. Bhutan has 71 percent of the country under forest cover. Over 800 million trees are estimated to be found in Bhutan. The constitution mandates the need to keep a minimum of 60 percent of country’s land area under forest cover for all times to come. We see lots of signs about protecting nature, not harming animals, helping animals that are hurt, hunting and fishing are not allowed.
The pass itself is marked by 108 chortens or stupas – built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed fighting Indian insurgents in 2003 – and gardens of colourful prayer flags. On a clear day we’re told that we can get magnificent views of the Eastern Himalayas, including Gangkhar Puensum, the world’s highest unclimbed mountain (and it is prohibited to do so). But it is misty and cloudy for us and we only get tantalising glimpses of the nearer hills. But we enjoy the walk around and realise that the hillsides are covered with rhododendrons so it must look spectacular in Spring. We have a hot drink and a chocolate eclair at the cafe before heading off again.
About 30 minutes later we stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant that also has a range of handcrafts. Several of us purchase baby yak wool scarves and wraps that are the softest we have seen on this trip. I also buy a dragon mask for my ‘mask wall’ at home.
We continue on our journey, stopping at various vantage points to photograph the picturesque valleys. We stop at the village of Sopsokha that has become famous for its ‘fertility temple’. Chimi Lhakhang, is a Buddhist temple built in 1499 after the site was blessed by the “Divine Madman” the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley. Lama Kunley was known as the “Mad Saint” or “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism by singing, humour and outrageous behaviour, which amounted to being bizarre, shocking and with sexual overtones. The temple is the repository of the original wooden symbol of phallus that Kunley brought from Tibet. It is said that he used his ‘flaming thunderbolt’ to subdue the demoness on this site. This wooden phallus is used to bless people who visit on a pilgrimage, particularly women seeking blessings to have children. We see a woman carrying this 3 times round the temple before being blessed.
We hike through the fertile countryside where people are out harvesting their rice fields, winnowing the rice and stacking the straw up in large rounded haystacks. We pass many houses and stores decorated with phalluses of every description and you can even purchase one as a souvenir should you so wish. You can have your photo taken inside a giant one. We are a bit concerned about what the ‘live painting demonstrations’ might entail.
Then we head on to our hotel in Punakha that was the capital of Bhutan until 1966. The scenic Punakha Valley is drained by the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu (meaning ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ Rivers) and has a temperate climate which is ideal for farming. We stop to photograph the spectacular Punakha Dzong that sits at the confluence of the two rivers. We will visit this fortress tomorrow.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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