There are times in your life when you are grateful for the occurrence of a series of events which have you find yourself in the place you are. One such time was sitting atop a cliff at 12000 ft at Chele La pass in Paro, amidst nothing but the sound of tall prayer flags fluttering violently and that of my own breathing. My own vacuum capsule this was, except that it stretched out to the vivid blue skies and the low hanging clouds casting shadows on peaks of the mountains below. The Universe was my vacuum capsule.
This was it. My moment devoid of any thought, any words, any feelings. Have you experienced that? Oneness with the Universe, floating around space without any tenterhooks. At peace with yourself and the Universe. Not to be mistaken with an epiphany. Some people will tell you of how they had a moment of 'realization' on a soul searching trip to someplace about how they don't want to do what they are doing anymore, how they want to quit their job etc. I'm not sure how many people experience this but I haven't had a chance to yet. Maybe because I was not actively looking for any answers. What I did experience though over a week of my stay in Bhutan, was an equilibrium with myself; mind, soul and body. A therapeutic joy, even if ephemeral.
The decision to set out on a trip to Bhutan was a hesitant one, I was going with a group of people I had not met before and with guide Nero who has only just started his 'experiential' trips. My phone conversation with him gave me a positive lets-just-do-this feeling and I booked my tickets from Mumbai to Bagdogra. Some might tell you that you will save time flying directly to Paro. Well I would say the road journey is highly recommended, with a stop over at Phuentsholing, the border town at Bhutan. The route has some incredible views of the landscape and takes you through quaint villages.
A very interesting observation on day 1 was the transition of the landscape as we left India and entered Bhutan. We were crossing Jaigaon through its narrow lanes and the locals were busy with Ganpati celebrations, dancing and singing joyously on the road. The place was loud and bustling, there were mandals on either side with adorned Ganpati idols and neon flashy lights to go with the vibe. As we drove away from Jaigaon the noise left us and we approached the gate to enter Bhutan. On the other side of the ornate gate that took us to our neighboring country, there is a stark contrast. It is far more quiet and orderly, the roads are clean and at an incline, the buildings look different as do the people! All in a matter of 5 minutes.
We spent the night at Pheuntsholing before heading out the next morning to Thimpu, which was a beautiful drive. Maybe not if you have mountain sickness though. We drove through dreamy white clouds, stopped to dip our feet in a freezing cold waterfall and refuel with some local cuisine. Because we made our way through our pitstops leisurely, we were behind schedule and reached Timphu after sunset. As we drove into the capital city, the sky transitioned from shades of blue to gray and twinkling yellow lights from the houses blanketed the hills.
One of the first things I loved about the place was its traditional architecture; the everyday variety and the dzong architecture which is more fortress like and used for the administrative buildings, monasteries etc. A typical house is made of wooden frames and earth material. The doors and windows have beautiful hand painted traditional designs. And phallic symbols. Something I wasn't aware of before going to Bhutan! Also, by royal decree, no plans are drawn up nor are nails or iron bars allowed in the construction. Pretty cool nay?
The stay at Hotel Norbluling was a comfortable one, a cozy room with wooden flooring, huge glass windows and a view of the mountains! Such staggering beauty.
People in the city and safe to say, the entire country, are mostly amicable and peace loving, with a deep reverence for the royal family. Another observation is most people are in their national attire at all times. A conversation with a local revealed that at work, college and school `the gho` and `the kira` is worn at all times and only the end of the day sees the young and old change into casual clothing.
We visited the Buddha point in Thimpu which is situated on a hillock and is visible from almost all parts of the city. The drizzle and cloud cover added a mystical charm to the statue and it looked splendid in all its golden hue. As i got closer to the statue, I rested against the wall close by and looked straight into the eyes of the Buddha. It had a slow building hypnotic effect on me. Everything around me slowed down till it came to a complete halt and the stillness was palpable.
The Tashichho Dzong (Thimpu Dzong) is an impressive Buddhist monastery overlooking the palace. The fortress structure has four towers alongwith the main monastery flanked by prayer wheels. The white washed buildings, the brick red doors and windows along with the golden roofs and a stone floored courtyard makes for a picturesque setting. We also visited the Memorial Chorten (read stupa) with its distinguishable golden spire. There were a few elderly Buddhists in the courtyard verandah chanting and turning the huge gold prayer wheels. It seemed to me like they were smiling and later I realized that’s just how their expression of zen was. I was pulled into an echoing trance as the chants of worship resonated while the monks twirled the prayer beads in their hand.
Later in the evening we visited a cozy dim lit pub called 'The Zone' and sank into its comfortable couches. They projected on a screen live performances of classical ballads and rock hits from the 70’s to the 90’s. If you like exploring different varieties of meat, you will be delighted at the options available in Bhutan. From yak burgers to beef momos and pork thukpa, my travel companions tell me the food is lip smackin’ good. A vegetarian like me would have to settle for limited options but can please the palate nevertheless.
After a two day stay in Thimpu, we headed to the beautiful river side settlement of Paro. It’s a valley town which is home to the International airport of Bhutan. Paro holds a very special place for me. My three days here were the best on the trip, this town had stories to tell. You could hear them when you wound your way up the hills and when you sat by the gurgling river; when the sun peekabooed through the clouds on the lush rice fields below and created natural vignettes; when you spotted rainbows in the sky from your window seat in the bus; in quaint marketplace where there was such little activity, it almost looked deserted; in the backyard of Karma's Nivanna lodge, where sitting on a wooden bench flanked by apple and peach trees, besides star lit skies (with a blusing halo-ringed moon for company); you could see lightening atop the moutains. Also Paro gave me this feeling of familiarity somehow, like meeting an old friend. Like you've heard these stories before. Stories common to the local ears but so special to a city dweller like me.
The highlight - Tiger's nest Monastery
Very close to Paro is the Tiger's nest Monastery (popular name for Taksang Monastery). It's the biggest tourist attraction in Bhutan, and with good reason. I was quite apprehensive of this trek having read of how 'ardous','strenous' and 'challenging' it is. Also I don't think I come close to the average fitness category. Nevertheless i didn't want anything to dampen my spirits so I took to positive self talk and believed that (as one of my friends rightly said) it's more about the mental strength than it is physical. Legend has it that a former wife of an emperor, known as Yeshe Tsogyal, became a disciple of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambahva) in Tibet. She transformed herself into a tigress and carried the Guru on her back from Tibet to the present location of the Taktsang in Bhutan. In one of the caves here, the Guru then performed meditation for three years, three months, three weeks and three days after which he emerged in eight incarnated forms (manifestations). This is how the place came to be known as the “Tiger's Nest”.
We took about 3 to 4 hours to get to the top and 2 hours on our way back down. Within the first twenty minutes, you'll have serious doubts on your ability to complete this (what appears to be) herculean task. The climb up has some pretty steep slopes and nasty turns too. To top that we had the sun beating down upon us in all its glory. I trudged along, slow and steady, concentrating on my breathing. Soon I could feel the blood rush in my ears and the signs my body was giving me pleading me to stop and take a breather. The trick is to not lose momentum and keep steady pace. After the first hour, when your body has accustomed to the terrain and the altitude, it isn't half as bad. The monastery appeared closer through every next nook and I started walking faster, with new found excitement and anticipation. At one point, it appears so close you'd think its a stone's throw away. Only takes a minute after, to realize that you actually have to walk right down to the valley and climb back up to the base of the monastery. At the base there was a sparkling waterfall where you cross a small bridge to start your climb. As I entered the monastery, I was enveloped into a whole other world. I felt like i had earned, through the physical climb and the wait, this solitude I felt in my heart and mind. There were prayer rooms with statues of Rinpoche and Buddha. We walked barefoot on the stone floor and explored the chambers, silently observing the monks and the visitors. A prayer found its way to my lips. I soaked in the good energy which I felt in abundance. While the sun blazed on our climb up, there was a furious rain storm when we were up there at 10000 ft. We could only see a white sheet of rain all around us and the prayer flags fading away into the mist in the distance. We marveled at the power of these natural elements and took refuge from the wrath of the rain in this cold stone fortress. The walk down was tricky as the slush and muck had made it's way everywhere. It was faster in any case, even though i could feel my knees shake in their sockets by the time i came to the base. I looked back with a smile knowing that here was one day and one place, that would stay with me forever. What.a.brillant.experience. Physical, mental and spiritual. Holistic in every way.
Che Le La pass
On the last day of our stay, we drove to Che Le La pass which is at 12000 ft, the highest point in Bhutan. The day after this we were to leave for Pheuntsholing and back to India the same route we came to Bhutan. With every passing hour, I was increasingly aware of the fact that i would have to leave this place i grew so fond of, sooner than i would like to. As we drove up long winding bends of the road, it rained intermittently. I stood at what became my favorite spot, the door! This feeling - standing there, singing bollywood road trippin music, light drizzle on your face, the wind in your hair and watching the world go by is just something else. It was liberating and defined the there-are-some-thing-money-can't-buy bliss. Shortly thereafter, my ears started to pop and nose and fingers began to freeze. It got coldddd! We reached the top, walked around and picked a few protruding rocks on the face of the cliff to park ourselves at. The view of the flags on either side of the mountain was stunning and their sound, reverberating. We spent a contemplative hour or two before we started our journey to the bottom. The rest of the day we explored the market and in the evening went to a karaoke bar. We also stopped by the archery stadium, wore the national costume and played the national game. Hey, being a typical tourist can be fun too!
It was pretty clear by now - their concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens' happiness levels and not the GDP. Basically it puts spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment before economic growth. Even schools have integrated GNH principles into their education system. In a world where climate crisis and environment conservation are our biggest challenges, recently more and more countries are starting to look to Bhutan as an alternative model of sustainable economics. Bravo, neighbor!
And just like that, a week's stay in Bhutan came to an end. I did not want to go back yet but was fully rejuvenated. I felt cleansed and satiated. I felt fortunate for being where I was and having experienced nature's bounty in the colors, the people, the culture and the landscape of Bhutan. The day excursions with our guide Nero (and his strange ways), intimate conversation with new friends around a bonfire, cacophonic karaoke at the local bar, huddled ghost story sessions, balmy nights of long walks in dim street light, feasting on momos and the local brew only added to pleasures of my holiday. Oh and the best part - no internet! For most of it.
That's all the romanticizing I have to offer. Now who wants to go visit the kingdom of happiness? :)