Trongsa – Bumthang Valley, Bhutan
We were up at 6:00 a.m. for breakfast before our very early 7:00 a.m. departure for the drive to the Bumthang Valley. Now the distance from Trongsa to the valley was only 68 km, but the guys were telling me the drive was going to take four hours. Whaaaat?
Now up to this point I have been repeatedly saying that the drive could not get any worse. The trip from Punaka to Gantey had been a bounce fest over rough gravel roads and a lot of potholes. Then the next day, the drive from Gantey to Trongsa, had been even worse with more of the same rough gravel roads with some muddy washed out roads thrown in for good measure. However, nothing and I mean nothing, could or ever will compare to the drive from Trongsa to the Bumthang Valley. I told my guide and driver, that the road had reached number 1 on my hit list. That got a bit of a laugh.
Anyway, for two days, my guide and driver had been telling me that we had to pray for good weather and fortunately, when we left the hotel, the sun was poking through the clouds and there was no rain in sight. As we left Trongsa behind, the fun began almost immediately as we ascended up the road above Trongsa back and forth around a series of curves. Now what made the trip absolutely terrifying was that the road was complete mud. No gravel. No asphalt. Just mud. And oh yeah, the road was about as wide as the car with a shear drop to nothingness. And no guardrails in sight.
Now I cannot begin to describe the incredible driving skill it took to maneuver through the mud on this narrow road. More than one time, I thought we were going to end up stuck but every time, my lovely driver managed to shift the gears and coax the car forward. I really have no idea how he did it.
And just when I thought the road could not get any worse, we would encounter land slides making the road even more narrow. At one point the road was so narrow I could not even look as we bounced back and forth precariously on the edge of the cliff. I can honestly say that for about ten minutes I literally turned my back on the car window to my right, shut my eyes, clenched my hands into fists and hoped for the best.
This delightful journey continued for over two hours! Yep that’s right two terrifying, death defying hours. When we finally reached Yotong La pass at 3425, I thought the fun would end, but nope the road just kept on giving. Even as we descended, the road did not get any better. In fact at one point, we reached a fairly wide point in the road and we pulled over as a minivan and two cars went past. The guys in the minivan yelled something to us that we could not make out, but less than two minutes later we knew what they were yelling to us about. The mud was covered by an enormous pond of water. We made it through, but it was another one of those Holy Crap moments.
Now why is there is ridiculous mudfest? Well first of all, the government of Bhutan is widening the roads so there is construction everywhere and the original gravel roads have all been dug up. Then the summer months in Bhutan is monsoon season so the rains left the torn up roads in a complete mess (uh which is putting it mildly).
Finally, after more than two hours my guide said we were through the worst of it as we began to descend into the Chhumey Valley. Now the drive became really enjoyable. Instead of passing through a myriad of gorges and trees, which I was too terrified to really appreciate, we began to dip down into the valley past little villages, temples and farms. The scenery was really quite beautiful and the road, while gravel and bumpy, was actually enjoyable. (I guess anything would be after that sh*tshow we had just gone through.)
As we were passing through yet another village in the valley we came across an archery tournament. Since archery is the national pastime of Bhutan I immediately asked if we could pull over and watch for a view minutes. As it turned out, our timing was perfect. Just as we got out of the car, the first archer at our end nailed the target. Now this may not seem that unusual, but the target was approximately 145 meters away (476 feet). It seemed impossible to hit, but nevertheless, the fellow nailed it.
I quickly learned that there are two types of competitions in Bhutan: the traditional bamboo bows and the carbon-fiber bows. These guys we were watching were using the carbon-fiber bows, and the arrows literally flew through the air at the most incredible speed. And to top it off there was entertainment after a target was hit. All the men on the team would gather around a little circle and begin to sing and dance.
While we were standing there another gentleman nailed the target at which point I yelled out “YES” and thrust my arms into the air. The fellow immediately turned to look at me thrust his arms into the air and began to dance. It was hilarious and a wonderful respite from a very stressful morning.
And oh by the way, as we were standing there my guide and driver started laughing. What the? They were pointing at the back end of the car. Oh. My. God. Somewhere along the way we had lost the back bumper. We were all laughing. What could you do but laugh.
Anyway, after the lovely break, we made a quick stop down the road at a wool shop (the area is renowned for its wool products) where I found a lovely wool tapestry for a ridiculously low price. After the purchase, we were off and driving again. We encountered the occasional mud road in place of the gravel, but for the most part the exhausting, terror filled drive was over.
We made our way through the valley past fruit trees and forest finally catching a glimpse of the Bumthang valley in the distance. And unlike Trongsa, it did not take another hour to reach the valley. About 15 minutes later we were descending into the town of Jakar and our final destination for the day.
By now it was 11:00 a.m. and the plan was to visit the four main temples in the village, then head to the hotel for lunch. Unfortunately for my guide and driver, the day was only beginning after they dropped me off. They were going to be driving all the way back to Paro through the craptastic roads where they would meet me tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. I would be flying back to Paro on a quick 25 minute flight. I felt incredibly bad for these two, but they insisted they were used to it (although at one point my driver said during the drive he was not doing the Bumthang drive again until the road was completed). I am sure they were being kind and were actually dreading the return trip.
Anyway, we drove across the Chamkhar River that splits the little town and down into the Chokor Valley (and through some more mud) to our first stop of the day: the Tamshing Temple. This actually turned out to be my favourite of the day. It was constructed in the 1501 and the inner walls of the temple contained original murals that were perfectly preserved (probably because the inner temple is kept completely in the dark). On top of this, the entrance was simply lovely. The only thing I found strange about the temple is that the inner portion of the temple containing the primary statutes was completely screened off. While I could peak through the screen, the view was difficult. And this was unfortunately because the eyes on the Buddah statute were downcast. Highly unusual.
Anyway, we left this lovely old temple for an entirely new temple: the Kenchogsum Temple. The original temple had been destroyed by fire in 2010 and so a new temple had been constructed in its place. The façade of the temple reminded me of the monastery in Gantey. While the new temple was colourful and certainly magnificent, it did not have the charm of the Tamshing Temple.
After the second temple, we made a quick stop at the Swiss Farm Store where I picked up some local honey (the area is well known for its honey). I also wanted a Red Panda hat, which is the name of the local microbrew, but the store did not have the hat. I told the owner (who also owns the brewery) that they were missing out on some marketing.
Anyway, after the brief stop, we retraced our path across the Chamkhar River, back through town onto the last two temples on the west bank of the river. The first stop was the Jambay Temple, which had similar charm to the first temple we had visited. It was believed to have been originally constructed in 659 AD in an attempt to subdue a demon.
The primary import of this temple was the three stone steps leading to the inner temple. The first step, which was not visible, represents the past and was covered by a wooden board. The second step represents the present and was level with the ground. The third step represents the future. It is believed that when the step representing the present sinks below ground level, the world as we know it will end. Ok then.
And the Jambay Temple, like the Tamshing Temple, had beautiful old murals and a lovely little courtyard (where a monk was spinning a prayer wheel). It was clearly my second favourite of the day.
The final temple visit was to the Kurjey Temple, which is best known for housing the imprint of the body of Guru Rinpoche inside a cave in the oldest of the three buildings that make up the temple complex. I strained to see the imprint, but never could see it. Maybe you have to be a believer.
After the temple visits, we went to my absolutely lovely hotel overlooking the valley (my room even had a porch swing). We had a quick lunch and then my guide and driver said their goodbyes. I would meet up with them around 1:00 p.m. on Friday in Paro. I wished them a safe journey and told them if I had white scarves I would give them to them (white scarves are given to people embarking on a journey and the scarves are a symbol for safe travels). In the mean time, I would explore the little town and get some much needed rest. I was going to need it because on Saturday I was tackling Taktshang Goemba aka Tiger’s Nest Monastary, which required a 3 hour climb up and a 2 hour climb back down.