Punakha – Gangtey, Bhutan
So we were up and off by 8:00 a.m. heading to Yambesa, a little village a few km south of Punakha. The plan was to hike to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, which sits high on a hillside overlooking the valley.
By the time we reached the beginning of the trail it was 8:30 a.m. and already hot and muggy. The hike took us over a suspension bridge down through rice paddies paralleling a creek, up a set of stairs to a pagoda and then up, up, up to the top of the hill. It took us about 45 minute to reach the temple at the top of the hill and by the time we arrived I was already on water bottle number 2. Now the beginning of the hike should have been fairly easy as the incline was minimal, but what made it hard was that the path paralleling the creek was made up of huge, uneven rocks that were used as stepping stone with us hopping from one to the next.
The middle part of the hike was just plain tough because there was simply no shade and so zero respite from the sun. The last part of the hike was actually pretty easy. Although the last third was the steepest incline, the path was made of smooth inlaid stones making it much easier to walk and it was through the forested part of the hillside.
Now the temple at the top was nice and all (it had been completed in 1999 and honours the present King of Bhutan); however, the real attraction was reached after climbing an additional 92 steps up to the top of the temple where you could stand outside and see a 360 degree view of the entire Punakha Valley. The word “spectacular” did not do it justice. And on the plus side, we left so early for the hike that there was virtually no one at the temple when we arrived.
And as much as I enjoyed the hike up, the hike back down was far more enjoyable, although a little tough on the knees. We passed a myriad of tour groups heading up, and I was surprised by the number of people who were completely unprepared shoe wise for what lay ahead. (Flip flops, sandals, and even one woman with patent leather shoes…. What the hell are these folks thinking.). My hiking boots were caked in mud by the time we got back to the car, and I am certain the sturdy footwear prevented a turned ankle.
Anyway, once we were back in the car we began the drive from Punakha through through the Black Mountains to the Phobjikha Valley and the town of Gangtey where I would be spending the night.
The drive to Gantey can only be described as a bone rattler. The road started out ok, but it did not take long for the pavement to give way to rocks and potholes. As we climbed through the Black Mountains, the road became narrower and steeper, with little water falls cascading down the rocks and the road literally carved out of the side of the mountain. With each turn it seemed like we passed yet another landslide. They were huge boulders lining the road, piles of dirt that have given way from the mountain and uprooted trees encroaching onto the already narrow road. It was a ride to remember.
By around 1:30 p.m. we turned off the main East-West Highway (yes the road we were traveling on was actually described as a highway) and about ten minutes later we reached the highest peak of the day, the Lowa La, at 3360 meters and marked by a stupa. From here, we began our decent through a forest into the beautiful Phibjikha Valley.
Now a little bit about where we were going. The Phibjikha Valley is the winter home of the black neck cranes, a highly endangered species and so the valley is considered one of the most important wildlife preserves in Bhutan. In fact the area is so important that underground wiring was installed through the valley in order to protect the black neck cranes.
From high above you can see that the valley is bowl shaped and because it sits on a former glacier the soil is extremely rich. This results in some of the finest potato crops anywhere. In fact, as we drove through the valley, we saw huge trucks being loaded with sacks of potatoes. It was, after all, harvest time.
We bounced along the road (this road was a slight improvement from what we had been on) through a forested area, all the while catching peaks of the Phibjikha Valley below. We finally arrived in Gangtey around 2:00 p.m. Now the plan was to visit the Gangtey Goempa (monestary), but we had arrived on the first day of a festival. Apparently every main temple in every town in Bhutan holds a festival and we were arriving in Gangtey on day one of a three day festival. So rather than tour the monestary, we were going to sit in the courtyard of the monestary with the locals and watch some more dancing.
Now this festival had a much different feel than the Thimphu festival. This one was very local. No grand stands, no VIPs. Villagers sat on the ground around the exterior of the square while the dances were conducted just a few feet away. All around us people picknicked while the dances went on. And while these dancers were very entertaining, there was a clear difference between the Thimphu dancers and these dancers … sorta like the major and minor leagues. Nevertheless, the visit was lots of fun with a real local vibe.
We spent about an hour watching the dancing and then moved on for a walk around the various stalls set up by the locals. Most of the stalls were selling clothes and housewares, but the biggest draw seemed to be the gambling stalls. Men, and a few ladies, were crowded around table with wheels similar to roulette. The gambling was ferocious with lots of yelling, laughing and backslapping. It was hilarious to watch.
So after the gambling entertainment, we drove down into the valley to my homestay at a local farmhouse. The family who were my hosts for the night were made up of a grandma, two grandchildren and a daughter and son-in-law. The accommodations were surprisingly cosy with a nice clean bathroom and cushions to sit on around a wood burning stove. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with tea, biscuits, popped rice (red and white) and a corn mixture.
I was joined for the night by a couple from France, who are now living in Shanghai. They turned out to be absolutely delightful. Around 7:30, we all took up cushions around the wood burning stove and enjoyed a dinner of chicken, greens, rice, and cheese and peppers. Simple, but really very good. After dinner, our host opened up a carafe of local rice wine … it was similar to sake, but not quite as bitter. I begged off a second cup despite the fact that our host really wanted to pour me another. Uh thanks, but one was plenty.
While we were sitting there “enjoying” the after dinner drink, the power went out. Candles were immediately pulled out and lit (apparently this was a regular occurrence). The power remained out for about an hour and just as we were all turning in to bed, the power came back on, which made getting ready for bed much easier.
My room for the night was as basic as you get …. mattress on the floor with a pillow and a comforter …. and the local cows mooing. It had been a long drive, and I was exhausted. So I put my ear plugs in, pulled the comforter over me and off to sleep I went. Tomorrow was going to be another tough drive.