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Travels in Central Bhutan

Oct. 23 - 26, written by Becky

We all made a trip to the district of Bumthang in central Bhutan Oct. 23-26. Bumthang is rural area, famous for its cheese and festivals, and its own style of food. We choose to go on a weekend to minimize absence from work and school. Only one of Bumthang’s many festivals was scheduled for a weekend, that of the village of Shingkhar.

We started by making the now familiar drive over Dochu La Pass into the district of Punakha, where it is lower and warmer than Thimphu. This time we saw a troop of macaques and a muntjac deer in the lower forest!


After a short drive south, we meet the Dang Chu River, with Wangdi’s impressive dzong stretched out along a ridge overlooking the river and the picturesque village of Rinchengang opposite it.



We proceed further east into the district of Wangdue Phrodrang and begin the climb to Pele La Pass (3,420m, 11,220 ft). It is during this climb, still in the forest, that I see my first yak!


There are many more yak in the dwarf bamboo pastures around Pele La. The top of the pass is marked with a chorten and a few villagers from the local towns of Pele 1 and Pele 2 (really!) have set up tents to sell their wool textiles.


Mike buys a scarf. Descending again, we eventually reach Trongsa, a town with no flat ground at all and another impressive dzong.


Then it’s up switchbacks again to another pass, Yontong La (3,425m, 11,235ft), the entrance to Bumthang District.
From Yontong La, the descent is gradual; there is even a 500m stretch of straight road, said to be the longest piece of straight road in Bhutan. The main town of Bumthang, Jakar, lies in the broad Chokhor Valley. A relatively small dzong sits on a hillside overlooking the town.


We make our way across the valley to our stop for the night, the Swiss Guest House. Just to show how small Bhutan is, we meet the father of one of Noah’s school friends in the hotel restaurant, sampling the locally made beer on tap. Before we leave we will buy 2 rounds of emmenthal-style cheese and some local apple juice. They also make a gouda-style cheese, but that is readily available in Thimphu.

The next day we begin visiting the local temples and monasteries. The first is Tamshing Goemba. Several young monks are in the large, green courtyard. The oldest are cutting up pineapples; the youngest appear to have just finished some cleaning.


We pass through an inner courtyard to the temple, built in 1501. In the small assembly hall are three thrones for the three incarnations (body, mind, and speech) of Pema Lingpa, the great terton (treasure finder). Guru Rinpoche is said to have left behind many hidden “treasures,” sacred texts that would be revealed when the people were ready to understand them. Pema Lingpa, a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche born in Bumthang, uncovered many of these. He also visited Guru Rinpoche’s paradise where he learned many dances from the celestial deities and taught them to the monks on his return. These dances are still performed at many of the tsechu festivals across Bhutan. An inner sanctuary holds a statue of Guru Rinpoche between statues of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and Jampa, the future Buddha. We walk around the inner sanctuary clockwise, admiring ancient murals on the walls. Before arriving back at the assembly hall, a large stone on the floor holds a pile of 500 year old chain mail made by Pema Lingpa himself (who was also a blacksmith).

A short way down the road, back toward Jakar, is Konchogsum Lhakhang, dating from the 6th or 7th century, and restored by Pema Lingpa in the 15th century. A weekend turns out not to be the best time to visit Bumthang; this temple (and many others we tried to visit) was closed. We could only admire the outside of the building and the nearby monk’s quarters.


Next we visit Jampey Lhakhang, the oldest temple in Bhutan, said to date to 659. At each corner of the temple is a chorten, one red, one yellow, one blue, and one white. Inside, the major figure is Jampa, the future Buddha, behind a curtain of chain mail made by Pema Lingpa. The alter in front of the Buddha sits on three stone steps; the lowest step, representing the time of the historical Buddha, is beneath the floor boards, and the second step (representing the present) is level with the floor. When the top step sinks to ground level a new age will arrive. The most unique and spectacular of Bhutan’s festivals (with a large component of fertility rites) is held outside this ancient temple each year.


Next, we visit the recently completed Zangto Pelri Lhakhang, which is closed, and the fabled 3-temple complex of Kurje Lhakhang. The oldest of the temples is built around a cave holding a body print of Guru Ripoche, left after a battle with a demon. But these temples too are closed. However, outside the fence of small chortens, are two women selling jewelry, brass religious items, and more samples of the local woven arts. We buy some more woolen items.



After a late picnic lunch, we head over another pass to the southeast into the lovely Ura Valley. We spend the night in a smoky room in the only hotel, on a slope above the town. The wood smoke is preferable to the cold. In the morning, we take a rough 8km road to Shingkhar, were a festival is to have begun the day before. The festival, with its unique yak dance, has been postponed. But the village is lovely. Most houses have a small solar panel on the roof for nighttime lighting. Each house has a fenced yard; the lower halves of the fences are made of stone, the upper halves of stacks of fire wood laid in for the coming winter.


We walk narrow paths between yards and outbuildings to find the village temple. Interesting, but locked.

Back in Ura, we wander around the town. It’s empty. Most of the people are out on the main road. The King has been out in the eastern part of the country, visiting areas damaged by the September 21st earthquake and speaking at the Sherubtse College commencement. He is heading back to Thimphu today and should pass by within a couple of hours. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of His Handsomeness (yes, he is young, unmarried, and attractive). Those villagers not on the road are out in the fields with oxen and wooden plows, turning under the remains of the harvest.


We return to Jakar to visit one last monastery and the Jakar Dzong. We expect the Dzong to be closed, but the gate is open and unguarded. It has an unusual long, thin shape, and the first courtyard is very narrow. We continue through each courtyard until we reach the last and largest. A group of well-dressed women are lined up, singing a folksong. They soon finish and file out. Then a single monk begins to dance to a drum beat coming from inside one of the rooms along the cloister. Mike and I, the only audience, watch with fascination. His dance is followed by four young monks dancing in unison; then by a pair of monks. They are practicing for the Jakar Tsechu, which starts the next day. Without their masks and colorful costumes, we can pay closer attention to their graceful, expressive movements.


After a last night at the Swiss Guest House (where there are hot showers!), we head back to Thimphu the same way we came. Now and then, there are small groups of people on the roadside, waiting for the King to pass. (He must have spent the night in in Jakar too.) We stop at a handicrafts shop and are hurried along by our driver; afraid that we’ll get trapped behind the King’s motorcade. As we pass Pele La again, I admire the fall colors appearing at these higher altitudes. Going through Trongsa again, we stop at the ta-dzong, the dzong’s watch tower, which has been restored as a museum. This turns out to be the best museum we’ve seen in Bhutan. It traces Bhutan’s history through the religious art objects found in the Dzong’s temples; the originals are in the museum and new pieces were made for the Dzong. Trongsa Dzong has served as an alternative capital, controlling the central part of the country, at several points in Bhutanese history. Today the crown prince is required to serve as penlop (governor) of Trongsa before he can take the throne. There are many objects from the time of the unifier of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (15th century), and the time of the first king, Uygen Wangchuck (around 1900). We learn that their religious advisors played nearly as important a role in Bhutan’s history as the temporal rulers themselves. It really brings the history of Bhutan together for us.

See more of my pictures of Bumthang and Pobjilkha at https://www.travellerspoint.com/gallery/users/rsherry/

Posted by rsherry 23:30 Archived in Bhutan Tagged family_travel

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As always a wonderful report and great pictures.

Steve Sloan

by Stephen Sloan

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