Gangtey – Trongsa, Bhutan
I awoke with the roosters (literally) as the sun rose. Then the cows started their mooing shortly after that so there was absolutely no reason to continue to lie on my mattress with the sun rising. I got up, did a quick wash up and headed out for a walk around the neighborhood where the farmhouse was located. I passed a number of cows meandering along and on the roads (that seems to be the norm here) as well as the occasional neighbor out for a morning walk.
By the time I came back to the farmhouse, everyone was up and breakfast was being cooked. As with the night before, we sat around the wood stove for breakfast. We were served rice (yep for breakfast), an egg mixture (delicious) and a chili mixture (think salsa without the red sauce). The chili mixture was wonderful and made eating rice at breakfast somewhat palatable.
By 8:00 a.m. we were saying our goodbyes to our lovely hosts. The family was really very nice and they even let me take picture as we were leaving. The entire experience had been throughly enjoyable. And as our car was moving down the driveway, the little boy even waved to me. (Yay! I had been trying since I arrived the day before to get some response from him and until the wave, he had completely ignored me.)
So we were in the car less than five minutes before pulling off the road to our first stop of the day: the Black Necked Crane Information Center. As I mentioned in a prior blog, the Phobjka Valley is the winter home to the highly endangered black necked cranes and the government of Bhutan is doing a marvelous job protecting the cranes starting with the information center that educates not only tourists, but locals about the importance of preserving this rare bird.
The visit to the center included a short film on the black necked crane, its migration habits and the predators in the Phobjka Valley that endanger the cranes. The film was really well done, but the absolute highlight was seeing an actual black necked crane. This majestic bird had been injured in 2016 and the center was able to rescue the bird and care for it during its recovery.
Unfortunately, the injury (probably from an attack by a ferrel dog) resulted in the loss of the crane’s right wing so the crane can never be released to the wild. On the plus side, the crane is being cared for, and the locals (as well as tourists) have the opportunity to see the crane up close.
After the visit to the Black Necked Crane Information Center, my guide and I went for a one hour hike through the valley along the Gangtey Nature Trail Hike just across the road from the information center.
The trail took us up the hillside high above the valley allowing me to have a wonderful view of the snakelike river splitting the valley. It was a lovely warm morning (not too hot yet) so the hike was a nice respite from the 5 hour car ride we were about to undertake on the way to Trongsa.
So we left the lovely valley, passed back through the forest we had driven through the day before and then made a quick assent to Pelela Pass, which at 3,420 meters, was the highest point in our drive during the day.
Now before we left, every guide we ran into had the same comment when they heard we were leaving for Trongsa …. “you think the road from Punakha to Gantey was bad …. just wait.” Now I found it hard to believe that after the roller coaster ride we took the day before there were roads that were worse than what we had come through the day before. But oh how wrong I was.
The first couple hours were very similar to the road from Punakha to Gangtey so I was actually lulled into a false sense of security. Sure there were the narrow roads and sheer drops only inches from our car, but the bumpy gravel road was not THAT bad. We passed through high forests and waterfalls before eventually dropping back down into small valleys dotted with little villages and lots and lots of cows.
By noon when we stopped at the Chendebji Chorten (stupa) I had been lulled into a false sense of security that all the guides had exaggerated the tough road conditions.
Now the stupa was actually a lovely little break from the driving. The stupa had been built in the 1800s by Lama Shida to ward off the evil spirits which continued to haunt the area after apparently being killed at the site.
The weird thing was that as soon as I saw the stupa I recognized it. The stupa reminded me of the stupa at Boudanath that I had just seen in Kathmandu, and when I mentioned this to my guide he smiled and informed me that the stupa had indeed been patterned after the Boudanath stupa. Well yay for me for remembering something!
Anway after the visit to the stupa, we stopped just down the road for some lunch. During lunch I commented to my guide that the road really had not been too bad at this point. All I got was a smile and a “just you wait” look.
So after lunch, we were back on the road and starting to climb again and then around 1:30 the fun began. We were literally driving through a sea of mud. I was rattled and shaken back and forth and up and down with my head hitting the ceiling of the car at least twice. And to make matters worse I was sitting on the side of the car abutting the drop off the face of the earth with no guard rail in site.
Now the road was so narrow that every time we came face to face with another vehicle (or God forbid one of those huge buses or trucks) we would have to do a dance around the vehicle. Inch forward, turn to the left a bit, inch forward some more and slowly, slowly pass. And all the while, we were still driving in mud.
At this point, I was longing for the bumpy, pothole filled roads. The drive through the mud continued for the better part of an hour before we finally reached the Trongsa View Point. I was exhausted at this point, but could not imagine how my driver was feeling or dealing with this.
We pulled over at the viewpoint and all I was thinking was thank goodness we were almost done with the drive for the day. After all, I could see the Trongsa Dzong (fort) and the little town surrounding the fort just across the valley. Uh think again. My guide informed me that we were still an hour and more mud driving away before the respite. WHAT??
Yep, apparently there were no shortcuts across the valley. We had to drive all the way down, across a bridge and then back up the hillside to reach Trongsa. So after the short break, I steeled myself for one more hour of hellacious road conditions. I have been on a lot of bad roads, but nothing and I mean nothing was as bad as this. As we drove along, I silently wondered how many tourists had been lost to a spinout in the mud that sent a car plunging down the hillside. I shut my eyes, held on to the hand ring above the car door and hoped for the best.
Once we reached the lIttle bridge at the base of the valley, my guide informed me we were home free. And while the road conditions still were not that great after that, we were finally out of the mud and bumping along on what I can only describe as some asfault with potholes.
We finally reached Trongsa where we made our way to the Trongsa Dzong for a little tour. It was actually nice to get out and stretch my legs. Now the fort was built on huge cliff overlooking the Mangde Chhu (river) and resulted in probably the most spectacular setting for any building I had seen in Bhutan.
The Dzong had first been constructed in 1543 and since that time, various rulers and Kings of Bhutan had added to the fort resulting in a meandering assemblage of buildings connected by a series of courtyards and staircases. And like other forts I had seen in Bhutan, this one had an administrative side and a monastic side. I was an interesting visit and as views go, it was second to none, but for my money I still liked the Punakha Dzong the best.
The last stop of the day was the Royal National Museum, which is housed in a former watchtower. The museum is dedicated to Bhutan’s Wangchuck Dynasty, the Dragon Kings of Bhutan, and before wandering around to see the exhibits, I was ushered into a room to see a 15 minute video about Bhutan’s royal family. It was actually quite interesting.
When the video was over, we wandered up the staircase and took in a number of exhibits including personal effects of the Kings of Bhutan (the Fifth King is presently reigning over the kindom) as wells as Buddah statutes, paintings and artifacts. Before we could finish looking at the displays, the lights in the museum went out. So we made our way back downstairs in the dark and just as we got to the last floor, the lights came back on. When we arrived on the ground floor, the entire staff was waiting at the front door for us.
As we left, I turned to my guide and said, I think they turned the lights out on us. It was 4:30 and they wanted to go home. My guide agreed and said he would makes some inquires. Fortunately, before the lights went out, I did get a chance to see the Raven Crown, which is worn by the King of Bhutan and may possibly be the most unique crown you will ever see. Now while I was not permitted to photograph the crown, I did find a picture so you can see what I mean.
Once we left the museum, we checked into the hotel for the night. I was surprised to learn that the hotel I was supposed to be staying in was not the hotel that the folks had booked for me and instead had booked me at a much inferior guest house. I was not particularly happy (not my guide’s fault) and when I showed my guide the confirmation from his boss for my hotel of choice, my guide got his boss on the phone. I was then told, with apologies, that there had been a mixup and they could not get me into my hotel of choice. Mmmm that sounded strange since I had a confirmation.
Anyway, with no choice but to spend the night in a very substandard hotel, I decided to let it drop, suck it up and get some rest. Apparently I was going to need it because our drive from Trongsa to the Bumthang Valley was supposed to be the worst of the three days. Good grief!