Bhutan is indeed a lost paradise, the last Shangrila on this earth. The simplicity of life and the people there is what makes this beautiful and serene land all the more enchanting.
We wanted to do this one-night trek to Phadojing and we started from Thimpu.
We left at around 10.30 from the Thimpu market area and we too had to get Xerox copies of our passport and visa stamp and a knapsack. We bought a simple one costing Rs.350 and got the required copies and then went to the Immigration services office. We needed road permits to some areas – Punakha, Trongsa and Bhumthang where foreigners cannot enter without the Govt sanction. This took a while and we were finally done by around 12. By the time we got down to our trekking start point, it was around 1PM. It was sunny and bright, a ‘glorious’ day with clear blue skies and lush green mountains all around.
We were planning to trek to Phadojing, a 15 kms to-and-fro trek, and started walking uphill, right from the beginning. It was tough initially on us city dwellers who are not really fit. All the laziness of taking elevators, sitting and working all the time, eating mindlessly; all this showed on the trek. Our lungs were bursting with the uphill climb but slow and steady, we started climbing up. After about an hour of trekking, we reached the first stupa and our first rest point. We sat for a few minutes, ate a packed lunch of cheese sandwiches and french fires and soon started walking again. We met a Bhutanese guy, walking down his mules and we asked him whether one of his mules could carry our luggage up. But he said he was going down to get some more material up and maybe he might take our luggage on one of the mules on his way up. We agreed and he asked for Rs.350 and asked us to wait for half hour. But we could not wait for so long and being one trail path for going up as well as down, knew that if he did come, we were sure to meet him on his way up. We resumed our trek up.
The gradient got a bit steeper and to make things more exciting, it started raining too. We were walking through dense forests and there were huge coniferous trees all around. A drizzle we could manage but it soon started pouring and it was accompanied with hail. We took shelter under some dense trees for some time and decided to wait out the dark clouds overhead. We were more worried about our fleece jackets getting wet as that would have made staying up there in the night totally impossible. But the rain just would not go and we deiced to walk up as it was also getting dark. Beyond a certain point at the top, we could see clear blue skies so we started walking faster to get away from this dark cloud. Rains had made the pathway slushy and slippery. But we walked on slowly, putting each foot ahead with a lot of care and focus. The rain simply would not go and Sandeep, our guide, decided to ask our three helpers who had gone ahead of us to put up the tents, to send someone down with two umbrellas. Being raised in these hilly regions , for them this trek was child’s play. And we soon saw them coming down, all three of them. With a lot of relief we handed over our luggage to them and they gave us umbrellas. But with no sweater to worry about, we decided to get wet and walk. We then reached the second stupa and rested there for some time. It had been over 3 hours since we had begun climbing.
We started the walk up again and this time, though there wasn’t too much slush, the gradient went up steeply and we struggled to climb up the last leg. We reached the top at around 5.15PM and it was twilight. We saw the monastery and asked one of the monks there if we could go in and see the monks praying at that time. They were gracious enough to allow us in. We removed our shoes and went in. It was like walking into another gone by era. Everything seemed to have stood still through all the changing times. Made of wood , there were lovely carvings and vibrant colors. We walked up the stairs, it was dark as the electricity had gone off. Students, who have given up all other things in life and vowed to live a life of celibacy and vegetarianism, never ever to return back to their homes, were all praying loudly. They were reading aloud from their Buddhist book of scriptures, rocking backwards and front as they read. It was so soothing and surreal. We sat for some time in complete peace and then walked down. All our aches and tiredness of climbing up for over 5 hours completely vanished like magic. The monks had also finished their prayers and they came down. All were young kids in the age group of probably 12 and 16. They spoke very good English, being taught by an Australian teacher. They were eager to talk to us, especially about Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and his family. We took some pictures with them and had such a wonderful feeling.
We then walked into a large barren barrack like structure, which had a medium sized hall and a huge kitchen attached to it. The electricity was out and we sat down for some tea and biscuits in the torchlight. There was a lot of activity in the kitchen and I (Ruma) went to check out what was cooking. This was the kitchen where the monks food was being made – Spartan meal of rice/moong dal with a vegetable stew. We could begin our cooking only after the monks had eaten. So we waited and soon all the monks came into the room, with their respective plates, a bowl and a spoon. They all sat on the ground and soon their food was served. They also had a mug in which warm water was given.
Once the monks had eaten, I decided to help our helpers with their cooking. Thus in the torchlight, I made dal, mutter paneer and the cook made karela bhaji and rice. It was a wonderful moment, with the food cooking, spreading its warmth and aroma and we all sitting around. The main llama or the head teacher also came and he sat talking with us for some time, explaining how these monasteries work and how the students study and graduate. It’s a tough and austere life for these monks and our respect for them only went up further. The gracious Llama left and our food was also ready by then. We all – me and husband, Sandeep and the three helpers sat and ate food together. After the Spartan meal of the monks, ours was like a feast. The darkness, the warmth of the kitchen, the low voiced conversations, the cat coming in and out, the overall atmosphere of the place – it’s a memory of a life time. A completely unexpected but a treasure of a memory.
After our dinner, we walked down to the toilets used by the monks and then proceeded in the light of two torches towards our tent. It was pitch dark and we had never seen a sky full of so many stars. It was like a twinkling thick carpet laid out in the night sky. We could also see lights shimmering from the Thimpu city far down below us and a white blanket of cloud covering the city, like a white blanket. A camp fire was lit, keeping us warm and then by 9.30 we retired in our cosy camp beds. The night temperature in the tent was around 1 to 2 degrees celcius. It was brrrrrrrrrrr cold to say the least!
8th Oct, Tuesday
We woke up early by around 5.30am and lazed around. The view outside the tent was breathtaking, with Thimpu city yet to wake up and the thick blanket of white cloud over the city. The sky at the camp was unreal blue, clear, pristine. We had tea by 8.30 and after some walking around there, started our descent by 9.45AM. The climb down was arduous to say the least. Major downward descent and the pressure on the knees, toes and heels was immense. We walked for over 5 hours and reached down, tired and completely exhausted by the over bright shining sun. We picked up our lunch from an Indian restaurant, Chullah and checked in back into Bhutan Suites. We bathed in hot water, all tiredness seeping out and then just relaxed. Had tea by around 6 and then went to just stroll around the city. We checked out a few handicrafts shops and then went to Sandeep’s small café, where we met his mother and father and had a good cup of masala tea. We were dead tired by then. Reached the room at around 8.30, ate the leftover dinner of the afternoon and then hit bed by 10. A lovely day, a very satisfying experience to have trekked to such heights and the views of the camped is all that we dreamed about.