Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Seven Days Bhutan Trip - A Travelogue - Part IV

Day 4 – 24 Nov 15 – Thimphu – Pukakah and Punakha Sights

Travel via Dochula Pass

After a very enjoyable day at Thimphu visiting various sights and enjoying local food, bidding good bye to Thimphu we left for Punakha at 0900 via Dochula Pass, highest pass in Bhutan. First stop over was on the road at Immigration Check Post where the permit to move up from Thimphu to country side is checked. There are a few stalls available just short of the check post selling local apples etc. We also picked up some. The apples were tasty but some of them were spoilt.

Within a short time we reached our first Wow moment of the day by reaching Dochula Pass at 0945 hrs.  Dochula Pass has a reputation of being foggy, misty or cloudy around it. But today was different and we had, in front of us, majestic Eastern Himalayan (Bhutanese call it Gigme Singye Wangchuck Himalayan range) Snow Covered ranges in their full glory with neither mist, nor fog nor clouds obscuring them. Our driver told us that we are very lucky, such clear view of the Himalayan Mountain range has been seen after a considerable gap. We thanked our luck.
Wow Moment
At Dochula Pass

The Himalayan range was breathtaking and next about 30 minutes were devoted to just clicking the ranges and us with ranges by various cameras, our canon DSLR and cameras of all the mobiles I mean. See the result.

Panoramic View of the Ranges

One More View
Tari Gang Peak
Yet Another View

Can't have enough of it
The range has 10 major peaks and Gangkar Punsum (Mt. Masanggang) at 7564 m(as shown in the photograph below) is the highest peak of this range and it happens to be in the extremely right of the range.

Another solemn and important place to visit here is not ancient like most things in Bhutan. It is 108 memorial Chortens (the official name is Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens) a group of 108 Chortens(religious memorial cenotaph)  built covering three layers on a raised hillock to honour the Bhutanese soldiers killed in 2003 battle with ULFA rebels ( who had 30 camps in Bhutan) to flush them out. These rebels were carrying their attacks in India from these camps in Bhutan. They have been constructed following the local astrological and religious practices.

108 Chortens in their full glory
Climbing the hillock to visit the memorial had a additional advantage of getting a unhindered (by the trees) view of Himalayan range. Once we were done with visiting the Chortens we went down to the restaurant to have a cup of tea. Though the prices are on the higher side, it is a good place to have a cup of tea (and to eat if breakfast is due). One can sit indoor or outdoor in the bright sun (if the sun is up). 

Enjoying Outdoor Seating at the Cafe at Dochula
Indoor seating also is good
It is worth mentioning that there is a temple, Druk Wangyel Lhakhng, left of this café and on a raised hillock overlooking the valley below. We somehow did not visit it.
Druk Wangyel Lhakhng can be seen in the right corner
Post tea we left for Punakha. If the drive was uphill till Dochula, it was all downhill post Dochula till Punakha. There is widening of the road happening between Dochula and Punakha and hence the drive is dusty and uncomfortable, a price we have to pay for better roads tomorrow.

As we were heading for Punakha our driver checked up from his friends there  about closure timings of the Punakha Dzong (only place of visit in Punakha, though there may be things to see nearby or treks etc around Punakha) and somehow gathered a impression that it does not close during lunch time. We, therefore, decided to go to the Dzong directly.

The Punakha Dzong

The view of the Dzong as we approached it was impressive. Situated in the middle of the confluence of Mo Chu and Fo Cho (Mother river and father river) this structure looked big, imposing and colourful. We reached the Dzong crossing a bridge of traditional style of single span cantilever type (though it is of a recent construction). There used to be an ancient draw bridge(as gathered locally, however, Wikipedia says that bridge too was cantilever type) over this river but it seems it got burnt down in a fire thus this replacement bridge had to be constructed.
Bridge to Dzong
View from Across the River

Garden on either side (This one is left of the Dzong)
Flag post in the Courtyard of Dzong
Admiring the beauty of the surroundings and the flowers, etc . we enjoyed our time. The complex has many Jacaranda trees (two at the entrance and many more in the garden to the left of the dzong) which had their full bloom of flowers.

Jacaranda Tree at the Entrance of the Dzong (this one is on the left)
We climbed up the stone followed by wooden stairs, steep ones, to the Dzong, only to be disappointed to be told that it has closed a minute ago. The Dzong closes from 1300 hrs to 1500 hrs and opens thereafter from 1500 hrs to 1700 hrs). Obviously there had to be a change of plan.

Two Flights of Stairs (to get into Dzong)

Driving back towards Punakha we came across Yak Herder’s Club, a restaurant on the river bank. We decided to have lunch there. This place is interesting with the utensils and other articles of yak herders were used for decor. It also has good view of the river flowing behind it and area beyond it.

The food here is made on order and thus it takes a while, may be 20 min. The food that we ordered was tasty, well made and hot. We enjoyed our lunch and returned to the Dzong which had just opened post lunch.

Punakha Dzong is one of the most beautiful and bigger Dzong. Built in 1637, like all Dzongs, it is Religio-political HQ of Punakha district. In fact Pukakha was capital of Bhutan till 1955 when it was shifted to Thimphu. Dzong has administrative seat as well as a monastery where young boys learn Buddhism to become monks. There seems to be Mummified body  of Zhabdrung, first Rinpoche, who was instrumental in creation of this Dzong kept in there. Only the King and the head priest are allowed ‘Darshans’ of him that too only when they take their post

It is a big Dzong with three courtyards, a temple to Buddha of compassion in the last courtyard is equally beautiful. I will not write much about the dzong as enough material is available on internet. I will let the photographs do the talking.

Prayer Wheel at the entrance
 First Courtyard

One of the Building There
Worship going on in First Courtyard
Passage to other Courtyard
Ornate Building 

Buddha of Compassion temple

Courtyard of Temple / Chief Monk Area

Chief Monk's residence (as told by a Security Person)

Wall Paintings

Wall Painting
Hotel Stay

Post our visit to Dzong we came to our hotel which is little out of the town overlooking a valley through which a river flows. Hotel Vara immediately impressed us. As we parked our vehicle and asked the reception to send someone to pick up the luggage a big band of women power came to our vehicle. Each one picked up one or two pieces of luggage and laughing, smiling and making fun of each other they brought all the luggage into our rooms. It was so pleasant and different.

A Wing of Rooms of Hotel Vara with Campfire Site in Foreground 
The reception as also our rooms had ample use of wood. The rooms were big, tastefully furnished and comfortable. The bathrooms were also big and modern. Each room has a place to sit with cushions, etc, at the window that allows you to look at the valley. The hotel had a sit out and a camp fire area overlooking the valley. There were small things done differently like corridor lighting, rainwater drain from the roof, etc.

Hotel Vara Receiption (See the richness of Wood)
Sit in at Window in the Room

Innovative Water Drain System
Unique Display of the Board 
Unique Floor Lighting in the Corridor 

Camp fire is lit for bigger groups (or even a smaller group) for a payment. We rested for some time in the room. Did photography of the room and the hotel. Following Bhutan tradition, placed our dinner order by 1930, had our dinner by 2030 and retired for the day. A stroll outside might have been a good idea but outside was too cold.

PS - Though the parts of this blog are taking time, be rest assured that balance three parts would definitely follow.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Seven Days Bhutan Trip - A Travelogue - Part III

Day 3 – 23 Nov 15 – Thimphu Local Sights

Today it was to be local sight seeing at Thimphu. We started off around 0900 with first task being to apply for beyond Thimphu permit. We went to this office of immigration at Thimphu where our driver submitted the application for permit and I went in only to sign. The permit was to be ready post Lunch.

Not counting the stop for submitting our permit application, our first stop of the day was at National Institute of Zorig Chusum  or Arts and Crafts institute commonly also referred as Painting School by some. It is a government of Bhutan institute. A board on one of the buildings says “Get Skilled be Somebody. Be useful to Yourself, Be useful to Parents, Be useful to Community, Be useful to Tsa-Na-Sun (I have no clue what Tsa-Na-Sun means)”.
Institute Letterhead
The Motto of "Painting School"
As understood while talking to some students, people peruse their University degree, etc. However, those who can’t make  cut for university education are encouraged to follow training courses in traditional Bhutanese arts.

One of the School Building
There are courses that are offered for four year duration and may be one or two odd courses are of five year duration. It is obvious that these course are in depth and intense. The school offers courses in Painting, Wood Carving, Sculpturing, Embroidery, Weaving, etc. It is a visual treat and a photographer’s delight to watch, keeping silent,  these people going about their training. The eye for details and objective of attaining perfection is worth mentioning. It is a don’t miss place provided one can respect their work and maintain silence. 

Painting Class

They also have a shop selling the students creation. Entry fee to the institute for a visit, if I remember correctly, is Rs 100 per person.

In Their Store
Student's Work on Sale
After this visit we went to some local handicraft shops while walking to Folk Heritage Museum. Bought nothing much as felt the prices beyond our budget though our visit to craft school had educated us about the efforts in creating these handicraft.

Folk Heritage Museum is in a big compound where one enters through a gate, not very ornate but a simple one. After buying tickets (Rs 20 per person as I recollect) a flight of stairs takes us to this Three story country house built in traditional rustic Bhutanese style. As we entered the courtyard, we got to see demonstration  of a traditional Bhutanese snack “Rosted Rice” or Zaw Ngowni. In this, the rice is soaked in water for about 8 hours, pat dried on a cloth and rested on the cloth for about hour and then roasted in a  thick pan till fully crunchy. The roasting can be dry or with oil and Bhutanese seem to be using Mustard oil. It is an all time Bhutanese snack. We tasted it when hot  and fell in love with it.

Having polished some Zaw Ngowni, we proceeded into the house. The ground floor was meant for the animals of the household and it had related items for tending them, etc on display. First floor was mainly the cook house which had the kitchen utensils and gadgets like Noodle maker, Mustard oil extractor (yes they extracted their own mustard oil), etc. Since photography in the house is not allowed, I am placing some photos of the courtyard of this place.
Sitting Area of Folk Heritage Museum

In the Courtyard of Folk Heritage Museum
The top floor was house temple, living area (and the guest stayed in house temple) and a balcony. This floor thus had appropriate items of display related to living room. There is actually a fourth floor which is covered roof top used as a store house. Only issue I see in visiting this place is climbing up to various   stories. Those having problem climbing would feel bad that they can’t visit this place. This place also has a restaurant which serves traditional Bhutanese food for individuals and groups. We had lunch there (after finishing day’s sight seeing). The National Library was next place to visit but since it was only to view its two buildings, we decided to give a skip to it.

After finishing this visit we went to viewing point. As the visit to Thimphu Dzong and Parliament House is not allowed, only way to get glimpse of them is from this view point. The Dzong (from this height and distance also) looked big, decorated and grand. Made in Bhutanese style ( and that is my complaint, all the architecture is generally in one style, Bhutanese) it looks very colourful. The Parliament building right behind is also similar in looks and décor.
Thimphu Dzong from View Point
The main surprise came when our driver pointed very grayish looking single storied buildings in a forested complex right of the Dzong and stated that they are Palace complex of fifth (and current) King. Having been used to Grand Palaces of Rajasthan, we just could not believe him and reconfirmed the fact with a Tour Guide in the vicinity who confirmed it. We were told that the bigger and grander palace is outside the town where the fourth king lives.
Parliament House, See One of the Palace in the right front corner with green roof
Next place on the agenda was visit to a old Buddhist temple called Changangkha Lhakhang, a 15th century temple on a hillock. A highly revered place by people of Thimphu valley. All new born children are brought to this Avalokeshvara Temple (temple of Buddha of Compassion with 11 heads and 1000 arms) for their first outing after birth to either obtain a name from the priest or to have ‘darshans’ of lord Buddha. It is temple built in old style. Not as grand as other Dzongs it has its grandeur in the prayer bells, about 50 of them, along the periphery of the temple building. Though this place is on a height, it has both stairs and ramp to climb and hence is manageable for everyone to climb.

In the Courtyard of the Temple

Prayer Wheels Around the Temple

Another View

Big Prayer Wheel inside

 Another place the list (after we decided to skip Traditional Medicine Instutute) was Buddha Point at  Kuensel  Phodrang.  This place has a big statue of Buddha or Shakyamuni also called Buddha Dordenma Statue. In this over 51 m height statue gilded with gold lie over 125000 smaller Buddha statues (which of course we cannot see). Situated on a ledge of a hill this massive Buddha sits atop a throne placed on a two story platform. Devotees can do Pradakshina of Buddha at both levels of massive platforms. On the second level, right under the throne of mighty Buddha is a temple of Four headed Buddha with gold plated columns and other structure. This place is going to have a massive complex built around but it is still Work in Progress. Both the Buddha and the various sculptures and the temple at level two are worth making a trip.

The Buddha Statue with Aura (Courtesy The Sun Lurking behind the statue) 
Final destination was Memorial Chorten, a stupa like memorial built in memory of third King of Bhutan. This place is regularly visited by members of Royal family. When we visited this place, some kind of nonstop prayers were being rendered and the place had plenty of devotees taking rounds (Pradakshina) of the Chorten. We did visit it but soon left the place and returned to hotel. 

The Memorial Chorten

While my wife and other people choose to stay at Clock tower area to have lunch, me and my son choose to have traditional Bhutanese Lunch at Folk Heritage Museum. The museum has a restaurant which serves only Bhutanese food including Roasted rice and running snack. Their menu has all the typical Bhutan things, Ema Datsey, Potato Cheese, Red rice, Chicken and pork Bhutan style and other such things. The butter tea Suja is a constant companion. The food was good but three days trying out local food finished my enthusiasm after this lunch.

 After the Lunch we both decided to give a look to National Library buildings, to which we had given a skip. It was a good thing that we did. There are two buildings of National Library, the old traditional building and also new modern building but again constructed in Bhutanese style (how else one expects building to be done up in Bhutan). Both building were proportional from center line and very colorful. They were real photographers delight. We photographed them to heart’s satisfaction.

National Library New Building

Painting in the Lobby

National Library Old Block

Post this visit we walked back to hotel Shantideva and relaxed for a while. There was a cultural programme happening at Clock Tower and we could watch it from the room window. We enjoyed the programme but it got over at 1930 in true Bhutan tradition. Post this programme it was dinner and the sleep in anticipation of tomorrow’s trip to Punakha.