Dearest Reader:
During the “big” trips I keep a diary for the entire group – what we did, what we saw, the jokes, the things that went wrong, the things that went right. I refuse to pretend that everything always goes smoothly on all of my trips, but we always learn and we always have a good time. Skim through this synopsis – blemishes and all – it isn’t sanitized but I think it will give you a flavor of my trips and the wonderful people who go on them.
Michael Ellis


With Michael and Sonam

Quiz 2006

Take this before you read the trip synopsis.

What part of Bhutan was Sonam from? How long did it take to walk to Jakar with his family?
How many species of birds did Don count? How many was he striving for?
What is the biological claim to fame of Brachen fern?
What is yub? Yum?
Who went night hunting in our camp?
What is a dakini?
Name three traditonal Bhutanese foods we had.
How do you identify Nepali women?
Name three conifers that we saw.
Name the two rivers that join in Panakha.
What are the two greatest problems facing Bhutan according to Sonam?
What is a cobra plant?
What does Nema mean? Sonam?
Who spent the most money on helping the GNP of the country with the GNH (gross national happiness?)
What does the Snake, the Boar and the Rooster represent?
Where was Tksang?
How many Yaks left in the wild?
Which guy has the moustache? The goatee? The half closed eyes?
How many nuns at Kila Gompa?
How much does one blanket cost?
What was the highest elevation we drove to?
What was the final score in the USA vs Bhutan invitational Ura basketball game?
What hikes did Greg go on?
What is a manny? What is a Mani Wall?
Who is the corporate guy and why was he called that?
What does Tashi Delek mean.
How many valleys in the Bumtang Region?
What do the five colors on the prayer flags represent?
What does Tantra literally mean?
What century was Buddhism brought to Bhutan?
What does Rhododendron literally means,
Where did we have geezer switches.
What is a sky burial?
What is an annelid? Name one Mark found er that found Mark.
What is Ara made from?
What does the word Himalaya mean?

28, 29, 30 April into May1, 2.

We begin by converging on different days to Bangkok. Some of have some time to sightsee in the hot, humid bustling city. This is a stark contrast to where we are going. Tak tak drivers take some of us for a ride. Jewelry factory anyone? Most of us are at the Miracle Grand Convention Hotel. Modern and convenient is the word.

May 3.
Wake up calls at 3 AM. Way too early but since we are so jet lagged it doesn’t really matter. We get to the Bangkok airport at 330 AM (this is actually 430 PM in San Francisco if that makes it any better) for our 530 flight to Paro, Bhutan on the kingdom’s national carrier, Druk Air. W meet Manny/Patty and Craig/Sally all now present and accounted for. Airborne at 615. First we fly to Calcutta. Airbus 319 about 1 1/2 hour away. Mamie showed up for this flight yesterday thinking we were leaving on the May 2nd. Her only mistake of the entire trip. Soon we will find out we are traveling with the Queen of Bhutan! Bfast of sorts. Then back in the air for a 45 minute flight to Paro. On the left side of the plane we are lucky and have glorious views of the snow-capped Himalayas. Druk Air flies over eight of the ten tallest peaks of the world . We see both Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga sticking up above the clouds. Except for Greg who changed seats and missed it. AUSPICIOUS is the word we will use over and over. And we start dropping and dropping. The remarkable and steep descent into the Paro Valley is an awe-inspiring beginning to our adventure. The pilot does a fine job and we give him a round of applause when we are safely on the ground. A very memorable plane landing.

The air is wonderful and refreshing esp. after Bangkok. 61 degrees, light wind, our lodge is 7400′.

After immigration slight problem with Mamie and Craig’s passport numbers. But what are they going to do? They have to let in the country now. We get our bags and meet Sonam (Auspicious), Palden and the bus driver Nema (sunshine). We will meet our luggage driver Uygen a bit later.

3rd largest city in Bhutan 10-15k population in Paro, 700K in all Bhutan. Himalayan Blue Pines on the hillside. Red billed cough (Crows). The prayer flags mark the sacred spots or places where monks meditated, slept, walked. The messages are carried by the wind. We are 27 degrees north which is the same as Tampa.

We pass through Paro and continue up river. We pass our lodge and follow the road all the way to the end. Indian laborers working on the road, paid by the amount of work they actually do in a day. Lady pounding rocks with a baby on her back. What karma and luck that we are in this bus and she is out there.

Out the window we can see our first prayer wheel with an old man and woman praying. These spinning wheels multiply the prayers sending hundreds of thousands of them flying outward.

” In a hundred ages of the gods, I could not tell thee of the glories of the Himalaya”…. from the Puranas.

There are essentially three ranges of the Himalaya (Sanskrit for “abode of snow”) in Bhutan. The one to the south is like the foothills – sub Himalayan range. The ones that we will be in all of our trip range to 18000′ and are called the Middle Himalayan Range. Then there are the farthest northern ones – the biggies to 25000′ and more- the Great Himalayan Range! Keep going and there is the Tibetan Plateau, the highest human occupied region in the world. In short, 25 million years ago the Indian Subcontinent broke off the east side of Africa and went running north-north east and slammed into the Asian continent. The Himalayas are still rising as a result of the powerful collision.

There is an extremely close relationship between Indian and Bhutan. At the end of the paved road several of the well-known trekking routes begin. 8202′. We park and climb up the last Dzong built in 1647 by Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel (aka The Great Unifier) to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders led by Mongolian warlord, Gushri khan 1644. It was featured in a 1914 National geographic article. Drukgyal Dzong means the Fortress of victorious Bhutanese. It burned down in 1951- another alleged yak butter fire.

We circle the lower part of the Dzong. Himalayan cypress (the national tree, which we always find around temples and Dzongs), blue pine, walnut, Osmanthus suavis is a Jasmine relative and a very common flowering white shrub we will see throughout Bhutan, wild roses, strawberries, very tiny gentians, ferns, terraced slopes below, high mts. to us but with no local names because they are less than 12K’!, simply divine. There is coffee and tea and snacks waiting for us. We will come to expect and always enjoy this. A flacon is teasing us- we cannot quite identify it. Probably a Common (Don) Kestrel. A bit cloudy slight spit of rain but it holds off. When the sun comes through we can feel the heat and the elevation. Sonam tells us that the current King rejected his palace and built a simple log house in the forest full of flowers. Each of the four queen sisters has her own house in Thimphu.

Starting to fade we are and so back down the valley to Paro Kichu river lodge where we will spend the first two nights and will return to at the end of our Bhutanese journey.

We check into our delightful rooms on very pleasant grounds. The nice sound of the Paro Chu (river) flowing nearby. Then a buffet lunch influenced by the cuisine of India and proves to be a great improvement the entire trip over my last time here three years ago. Then we have a brief orientation by Sonam and me. At 2 we all fade into naps and much needed rest.

Some of us meet at 5 for a stroll through the grounds of the lodge. Good birds- redstart, wagtail, black bulbul, russet sparrow. The light is nice. Palden our presumed expert on plants and animals of Bhutan comes with us. He is from the eastern part of the country. 2 kids one 6 and one 2. Lives in Thimphu. His wife made his gho. Wove and dyed the cloth!
Prayer flags in five colors- Red for fire, white for ether or air, Blue water, green- nature yellow-earth.

White flags are put up after someone dies. More the better esp. for the first three days. 49 days of mourning. We are just beginning to get a sense of the complexity of the religious and social customs of this country.

Dinner is shortly after 6. The food has definitely improved since I was here in 03…
There is a light rain tonight but we are bushed and ready for sleep. There are toads hopping all over the grounds- must be Himalaya toads.
May 4 Paro (altitude: 7,400 feet)

An apparition passed me early in the morning with white gloves, brown hairy legs and very short shorts. I prayed that it was not one of my group, but alas Manny was out running. A lot of us up early. Watching the children head to school. Birds along the river – ibis beak, river lapwing, oriental turtle dove, white wagtail, plumbeous river redstart, Craig walks to Paro and gets bitten by one of the “friendly” dogs of Bhutan. The dog got rabies and died soon after- that will teach him to bite an American… After breakfast we are off right at 9 the whole group in the bus on time, wow!!! That will happen the rest of the trip and Sonam and I greatly appreciate it.

Bhutan is a biological hotspot.
From Conservation International:
Two factors are considered for hotspot designation. Hotspots are regions that harbor a great diversity of endemic species and, at the same time, have been significantly impacted and altered by human activities. Plant diversity is the biological basis for hotspot designation; to qualify as a hotspot, a region must support 1,500 endemic plant species, 0.5 percent of the global total. Existing primary vegetation is the basis for assessing human impact in a region; to qualify as a hotspot, a region must have lost more than 70 percent of its original habitat. Plants have been used as qualifiers because they are the basis for diversity in other taxonomic groups and are well-known to researchers. Typically, the diversity of endemic vertebrates in hotspot regions is also extraordinarily high.
The Indo-Burma hotspot encompasses about 2 million square kilometers of tropical Asia east of the Indian subcontinent. The region includes all of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and nearly the entire territories of Thailand, Myanmar, and Bhutan. In addition, the hotspot covers part of Nepal, far eastern India, and extreme southern China, as well as several offshore islands such as Hainan Island in the South China Sea and the Andaman Islands in the Andaman Sea.

We backtrack and then go west of the airport climbing the hill. Photo stops in perfect light. Carefully terraced and tended fields below with rice and wheat. We wind up and up and up. 46 sp of rhododendrons in Bhutan and at 8200′ we begin to see the large red one. Our first bush stop – which Manny requests. Little do we know…. We can see Mt. Jumolhari (24,500 feet) – the most sacred mountain in all of Bhutan. It was only climbed once and now it is forbidden. It offended the yak herders.
We are on the primrose path. Pieris formosa in full flower. Piptanthus is the common bright yellow legume that looks a bit like broom but is a native plant. Our first yak stop.

Bhutan Yak.

While there are over 12 million yaks in the world, most of these are domestic. Unfortunately, their wild counterparts are becoming increasingly rare. The yak is one of the most important domesticated beasts in Tibet, where it provides transportation, meat, milk, even its dried dung is used as fuel.
Bos (Latin) an ox. Grunnio (Latin) I grunt, hence grunniens, grunting: yaks are unable to moo.

Most domestic yaks of Tibet, and central Asia have black-brown, dense, woolly, and extremely shaggy coats. The wild yak of the Tibetan Plateau has a black-brown coat with patches of white. They have horns that grow up to 20 inches long in females, and 40 inches in males. The curved horns grow out from the sides of their heads and curve upwards. They use their horns to dig under the snow for food. Their bodies can grow up to 11 feet in length, their tails can grow up to 24 inches and are very bushy. The males’ weight is usually 670-1,210 pounds. The females weigh about a third as much. Yaks are wild undomesticated ox who live in Tibet and central Asia. The wild yak has adapted to living in harsh and barren areas of the Himalayan alpine region. They are one of the few animals that live at these high altitudes. Their coats have long outer hair and dense underfur to keep in their body heat. Even their digestive tract helps keep them warm. Food in the rumen ferments at 104°F, acting like an internal furnace. Their hooves are formed from two enlarged toes and spread the yak’s weight in deep snow and gives them a good grip on bare and rocky slopes.
They inhabit areas where there are lots of lichens, grasses, and tubers. The yak’s stomach can’t digest grains, so herdsman have to keep moving their domestic herds to fresh pastures.
Most of the year yak travel in single sex herds. A herd can consist of 20 to 200 animals. In the fall a bull will join a herd of females and stay with them through their breeding season. The cow will be pregnant for about eight months and give birth to one calf every other year. Their babies are born around June. Female calves stay with the herd, but the bulls move away after three years to join a bachelor herd. Their average life span is about 23 years.
They spend their summers on the high plateaus above the snow line to get away from the heat. Wild yak can easily live in temperatures of -40° F because of their dense coats, but will move to the lower plains before the freezing winter weather arives.
Yaks help to prevent grasslands from growing too tall by eating the grasses. They move around so they don’t overgraze any area. Their dried dung is used as fuel, which is very important in the treeless regions where they live.
There are over 12 million yak in the world; most of them are domestic. The wild yak was domesticated about 2,000 years ago. Unfortunately, the number of wild yak is decreasing very quickly, due to uncontrolled hunting, and by their pastures being taken over by domestic yak. There are probably only a few hundred wild yak, and they have been categorized by the IUCN as endangered. Wild yak are now officially protected in China.
Main Predators: Tibetan wolf.

At 10700′ the larches start showing up. Viburnum, dogwood, strawberries everywhere. At 1111 we arrive at Chelela Pass. We have passed though a mixed forest of blue pine, fir, maple, oak and larch, five or six species of rhododendron. Chelela is one on the highest passes (12,400′) attainable by road. The sky is blue, sun bright, light winds, perfect conditions. Prayer flags fluttering.

Passes are powerful places possessed by demonesses, so the chortens are built to counterbalance them. There are “swords of knowledge” which perched on the top of the poles. Cutting through the air.

Ha Valley to the west. Keep going and we get to Sikkim.

AD 1930 -1950’s
Pilot Officer Crown Prince Paljor Namgyal takes up bomber duty in the Royal Indian Air Force and is killed in action during World War II, while on the home front some disgruntled Sikkimese start a peoples movement to do away with the feudal system and are successful. The king takes refuge in the Political Officer’s residency and asks to be reinstated to his throne. Conceding to certain demands of the P.O., Sir Tashi Namgyal’s throne is restored and the 30-day republic annulled. In 1949, the Indian government installs a Dewan from its side to serve as the state’s chief administrative officer.
AD 1962
China attacks India. There is a massive build-up of Indian troops inside Sikkim.
AD 1963
Crown Prince Palden Thondup Namgyal marries American debutante Hope Cooke in a spectacular fairytale-like ceremony covered by Time/Life and National Geographic capturing world attention for a moment.
AD 1965
Death of Sir Tashi Namgyal. Palden and Hope succeed to the throne as Chogyal and Gyalmo.
AD 1973
Lhendup Dorji Kazi, a former Sikkim Council member leads a peoples-agitation against the monarchy making demands for a one-man one-vote system. To maintain parity between the Bhutia-Lepcha minority (25%) and the Nepalese majority (75%), a single Bhutia-Lepcha vote was equivalent to six Nepali votes. The palace administration collapses paving way for Sikkim’s merger to the Indian Union and for Kazi Lhendup Dorji to becomes it’s first Chief Minister

Dali llama has never been to Bhutan due to China. Bhutan is cautious not to offend the giant and powerful neighbor to the north.

My handy gps says we drove 28 miles and took 1′ 45″ to do it. We begin our hike fully prepared with a Ugyen “leading’ the way with our lunches. The bus will drive down below and meet us at the end of our hike. So it must be all downhill right?
We hear about Sky burial which is just two hills over where children that die who are less than 2 yrs old are laid out on the ground so the vultures can take their spirit away. They have not had time on earth to gain merit.
Start our descent only 1 1/2 hours down hill all the way says our trusty guide Sonam. Will we ever believe him again?? More sp. of rhodies showing up, ephedra, small buttercups, bluer primroses, larches up close, spruces, hemlock, blue whistling thrush, Himalaya griffons 3 fly over very high, spotted nutcracker, red billed chough and more little birdies that we will not sit still long enough for Don to id.
We headed down hill a bit too far and hit the yak herder’s shack. Whoops Uygen has lead us astray. We backtrack up and scramble back up hill. This is only Sonam’s second time on this trail!
This is a tough hike for our second day at 12 to 11K’. Finally made it to some nice prayer flags for lunch. Greg is a funny color. But everyone is being a trooper. We only hiked 1 1/2 miles but it felt longer.
Sonam says it is only 30 or 40 minutes to the Nunnery and it is all downhill..ha! But the trail leads through a magnificent rhododendron forest that is in full flower in good light. We are all overwhelmed by the beauty. Blessings of Bhutan indeed. It is really perfect in every way.

Several species of the rhododendron, clematis, lily, primula and poppy, were bred from plants and seeds collected in the Eastern Himalayas by legendary plant hunters like Joseph Hooker, Kingdom Ward, Jay Taylor, and Ludlow and Sheriff. The Chelela area is one of the best region to see the country’s rich flora.

We have the first of wonderful moments of silence. We hike quietly for 15 minutes crossing through the forest and even a bit of snow still left on the ground. The trail is steep and rocky and we are careful as we go…

By 215 we are at the chorten with the nunnery in sight. Nun sightings through our bincos and then some of the nunlets show up to haul 1 x 10’s back up the hill for a work project and these are 12 years old. Way cute. They think Mamie looks like their queen!! They are happy to let us take their picture and some speak very good English. They tell us they are studying the classics.

Kila Gompa. A private run nunnery with 41 nuns and a lama present. But first the bird of the day- long tailed minivet a brilliant red bird with a yellow females nearby. Unfortunately it is a common bird. There are also some tits. And a warbler according (greenish?) to Don.

We continue UPHILL to the nunnery. And visit our first temple. Here since the 17th century. A reincarnate hiked up here to meditate. When he died his disciples built the monastery and it has been here since. One of the few nunneries in the country and one of the few private ones. It is also most sacred nunnery in all Bhutan and very few tourists ever come here. We are very very happy. What a view looking down on the Paro Valley. A glimpse of the modern airport from a building 400 years old. Old and very new. It must get cold here in the winter we imagine. Later we will find that we can help buy some blankets for the nuns. A small gift from us directly to some in need. Compassion is the word.

Into our first temple shoes off, heads down quietly we enter a sacred space. Sonam gave us a little teaser talk on Buddhism and promised us more. Local deities still exist in the temple. We see this mean looking guy to the right on the main alter.

Guru Rinpoche (most precious teacher) brought Buddhism to Bhutan and convinced the local people that their demons would be downgraded and made to be protectors instead of scary beings. They are now linked to the well being of all the powerful local places.
Bells= wisdom. Vajra= compassion
Mark the Catholic lit a candle for all of us. Thank you.
Down we go. One of the older nuns saw how Laura was having trouble walking and gave her a beautiful walking stick. Compassion indeed!! We finally made it down at 430 except for Greg who was 25 ” later accompanied by his dutiful wife who is in much better shape.

Coffee and tea and snacks (corn flakes and cookies) waiting for us at the bus.

WAHA we scream we hit the target. We all agree it was a great start to our trip. By far the best hike for rhodoendrenons I have ever had in Bhutan. The light, the flowers, views, temple, nunlets, bright red minivet, the silence…..all perfect in every way.

Down we go back to the lodge. Russ and Blythe Carpenter join us for dinner and add immensely to our dinner conversation. Geezer switch for hot water. Rain abit at night again. Toads galore.

May 5 Punakha/Wangdi

Getting you going a bit earlier this am but there is always a reason for our madness. Off at 745 right on time whatta great group! The best I ever had. Said goodbye to Russ and Blythe Carpenter, what nice people.
We drive down the valley as I pointed out from our lunch yesterday. The vegetation changes becoming drier as we descend following the Pa Chu heading toward the Thimphu River and the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal.

Must be in a rain shadow; it is so dry. Across the river is the Temple of the Unmounted Horse. Privately owned and has been restored. They had an iron chain bridge. The only one left from the time of the great Tibetan bridge builder of the 15th century. The govt has decided to pay to restore that bridge as part of the cultural heritage of the Bhutan. We see many buildings on the hillsides that have just been left to decay. Wood and windows salvaged but there were good spirits who still want to live there.

We arrive where the Thimphu River joins the river Paro. We see the three style of chortens aka stupas side by side. Nepali, Tibetan and Bhutan. Sonam explained that Buddha’s disciples wanted to erect a statue of him but he said no I am just a teacher. He did relent and let them built stupas in his honor. Great painted trucks. We are now on a major freeway – the east west road and let’s go east. Mark sneezes and I say “sailing naked” which means long life and no diseases. This is very amusing to our guides especially Palden. Later that day some will say “naked sailor” instead.

Up river we go climbing higher and it is getting warmer. To the left we see the new 4 lane road heading into the capital, WOW impressive. Thimphu now has 70K inhabitants.

We pass the HQ of DANTAK, the Indian company that has the road concession. Workers are called dantaks. As we enter the Thimphu Valley we pass by Simtokha, the Dzong built in 1629 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who unified Bhutan. Simtokha is the oldest of the dzongs, originally serving as a fortress to protect the region, an administrative center and the center for the monks’ religious activity. Simtokha now houses a language school where scholars of all ages study Dzongkha, the national language.

Climbing and winding up the vegetation changes. Cottonwood (alamo), aspen, maples, mistletoe, blue pine, apple orchard in flower. Up into the clouds. We have a mandatory stop for Manny to pee, no that was a police check. While here we have some great birding experiences- those pesky minivets again, white collared blackbird, plumbeous river start, oriental turtle dove. But the best is the Korntos bought by Sonan, made in Bandagdesh, eaten by all. Surprise Craig! there is corn in them. Overcast and cloudy now but OK we are on the bus.

By 1120p we arrive at . Dochu La (la means “pass”). Here we’ll see 108 special chortens (stupa) surrounded by thousands of prayer flags, dedicated to the Kingdom’s Peace and Gross National Happiness. The prayer flags on mountain slopes, bridges and high passes, transmit prayers to the Gods and keep up a constant communication with the heavens.

Nepali kids not in school are picking wildflowers and give then to us. The sun breaks through there is little wind and all is lovely. From here we all walk down to the restaurant. Buff breasted warbler. Bird highlight Red bellied woodpecker. Plant highlights – fantastic large white magnolia flowers. Good lunch. Off at 1245 we walk down hill for a bit until the bus catches up with us. wild cherry, alder, maples, many evergreen oaks, more rhodies in bloom. Birch, chestnut, Dropping quickly lovely forest, lush and full of moss, lichens, vines, we will notice the dramatic change in vegetation.

A voice from the back- I won’t mention who- but he is originally from Panama, needs to stop. Actually we all like his suggestions. Some get to pee and others bird and pee. Bonneli’s eagle, white tailed nuthatch, fork tailed swifts, Cicadas are singing as it warms up. It has rained abit and the world smells good.

At the lower elevation of the valley floor, cactus, banana plants, poinsettia and other semi-tropical plants dominate the developed landscape. Chir or long needled pines show up. Long way down. After a few hours, we come to the green terraced fields of Punakha Valley, where red rice and winter wheat are the staple crops. In the village of Lobesa is Chimmi Lhakhang – a temple dedicated to Drukpa Kuenley, who as a favorite saint of the Bhutanese people is known affectionately as “the Divine Madman”. The temple is on a hillside in the middle of rice fields and has become a pilgrimage site for childless couples.

It has begun to rain just a bit as we start our hike through the village. Common myna birds are everywhere. Ashy drongo, chestnut tailed starling seen. We walk down thorough people working either threshing the winter wheat (planted in November) or cutting it down for the cattle to eat. People work very hard here. There is even one peal of thunder. The sun is shinning as it rains, fortuitous, auspicious says Sonam. No rainbow is seen. We hike up to the temple. Big fig tree. It is a monastery now as well. monklets abound. Jacaranda in flower. Sonam gives us a little talk about this libertine monk. Shot an arrow that landed here. Born 1455.

The Tantric Buddhist Master Drukpa Kunley is one of Tibet’s foremost saints and yogis and the patron saint of Bhutan. He belongs to the Drukpa (Dragon) school of Tibetan Buddhism established by Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa. Well known to common Tibetans through the oral tradition of legends and songs, as well as to scholars and mystics through his biographies, he is greatly loved by all the people of Tibet as an enlightened master and an exponent of ‘crazy wisdom’. He taught through outrageous behavior and ribald humor in order to awaken the people he met to a higher awareness free from conventional morality and self-obsession. In particular he took his female friends and disciples along the path of sexual desire and relationship to free them from attachment to the illusory world and to awaken their buddha-nature. He would constantly taunt the monks with jest and insult to dissolve their hypocrisy and hidden faults. He was a Dzogchen yogi following the highest path of Yoga-tantra and his Dzogchen songs are some of the best in the Tibetan language.’
The wandering ascetic who combines preaching religion with sex and liquor. He takes them as they come his way. As a matter of historical fact homeless purveyors of faith and sexual delights were known to all religions: Rabelais has written about lascivious monks consorting with nuns; Islam has its mast-qalandars and pagal babas. Of the same genre were yogis of Mirabai’s hymns from whom Indian housewives sought spiritual and sexual gratification… Drukpa Kunley’s anecdotes are ribald beyond belief. Wherever he went he carried his ‘divine thunderbolt of wisdom’ (his penis) before him. It penetrated the mysteries of life as it did willing virgins. The bawdy tales of fornication and copious intake of chung wine are interspersed with words of wisdom, advice on how to square one’s karma, escape the vicious circle of samsara (birth, death and rebirth) and attain nirvana. The god-fearing but high-living Lama Drukpa Kunley sums up his philosophy: “The best chung wine lies at the bottom of the pail / And Happiness lies below the navel.” ‘ Khushwant Singh.
Big fig tree – the Bodhi Tree in the courtyard. We back track to the bus and then continue to our guest house. Perched on the side of a hill. Nice landscaping. After check in and a rest we meet at 630 for official introductions. dinner. What tedious food? Things have changed.

May 6

Grey treepie, oriental magpie robin, chestnut tailed starling, raven, myna, red vented bulbul- all common here. Great morning overlooking the river with mist rising in the mountains. Far down below the new city of Panakha and the river heading toward the Ganges in Bangladesh and then Bay of Bengal.

At 730 we meet for Sonam introduction to Buddhism class 1. Lotus bud open that bud. 4 noble truths, compassion for all sentient beings, Tantric means teaching and you need a teacher. Dangerous to practice it without one. Too much energy and powerful that can get negative.

The Four Noble Truths
1. Life means suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

1. Life means suffering.
To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things and the ignorance thereof. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. The reasons for suffering are desire, passion, ardour, pursue of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, or in short: craving and clinging. Because the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. Objects of attachment also include the idea of a “self” which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self. What we call “self” is just an imagined entity, and we are merely a part of the ceaseless becoming of the universe.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
The cessation of suffering can be attained through nirodha. Nirodha means the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by attaining dispassion. Nirodha extinguishes all forms of clinging and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering. Attaining and perfecting dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in the state of Nirvana. Nirvana means freedom from all worries, troubles, complexes, fabrications and ideas. Nirvana is not comprehensible for those who have not attained it.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering.
There is a path to the end of suffering – a gradual path of self-improvement, which is described more detailed in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence (hedonism) and excessive self-mortification (asceticism); and it leads to the end of the cycle of rebirth. The latter quality discerns it from other paths which are merely “wandering on the wheel of becoming”, because these do not have a final object. The path to the end of suffering can extend over many lifetimes, throughout which every individual rebirth is subject to karmic conditioning. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.

Prayer- May all the sentient beings have happiness and may that be forever. Let there be no suffering only happiness. No higher being in Buddhism.

I followed only some of his talk but I believe I gained merit just by listening.

Breakfast of eggs and then we are off at 9. Pass the Saturday vegetable market. Too bad we cannot stop but must keep going. New temple on the left built by the queen’s father. Huge Chir pines on the left right on the road sometimes have Scops owls in them but not today.

Then we come to the most beautiful Dzong in the world. Photo stop for the joining of the two rivers, Punakha Dzong, the “Palace of Great Happiness” built in 1647 by Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel, the man who unified Bhutan. The Dzong lies between the Po Chu (male river) and the Mo Chu (female river), and is the winter home of the central monk body. It is believed that the Mo Chu and the Po Chu were once lovers, flowing in the same bed. One evening, after a quarrel, the Mo Chu left silently during the night, moving to the next valley. Ever since, the Po Chu has been rushing down to the confluence, trying to catch his estranged lover.

When the Shabdrung arrived in Punakha, he set up a camp at the confluence of the two rivers and that very night had a dream in which he heard the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche. He then built a Dzong on that spot and placed the Rangjung Kharsapani there, the most sacred relic that he brought with him from his monastery in Tibet.

A devastating flash flood in 1994 washed away a major part of the Dzong. Flood caused by an ice dam breaking up the Himalayas. His Majesty the King personally supervised the reconstruction of the Dzong, a project that has occupied thousands of skilled craftsmen and builders during the past twelve years. The results of the restoration are amazing. It was just consecrated in an elaborate ceremony in May, 2003. I was there then by luck…way cool.

We keep driving up along the Mo Chu Passing another one of the Aman Resorts (there are 5 in Bhutan) that apparently cost $1000/night.

At around 10 am we have stopped by a bridge that leads to Khamsum Yuley Namgyal Chorten (Stupa). This is a good introduction to Tantric Buddhism in all its complexities. It contains some of the best Tantric art in Bhutan, and a visit there will serve as a balance to the more traditional Buddhist statuary and wall painting visible at the Punakha Dzong. The shapes and forms of the Tantric statues may surprise most visitors. Many penises everywhere. The terrifying divinities are manifestations of peaceful gods, which assume these forms to subdue evil spirits that are hostile to Buddhist doctrine.

The nudity of most of the deities show that this world’s conventions are of no importance on higher planes, and the persons being crushed by the wrathful deities are either spirits hostile to Buddhism or primordial negative concepts such as ignorance, jealousy and anger. In Tantric Buddhism, numerous statues and paintings are also in the form of sexual union, which represents the union of knowledge and wisdom that permits the attainment of sublime state of enlightenment.

It is 4139 feet above mean sea level; our hike will climb 606′ in .82 miles. How is that for exact info? The hike follows a small creek through cultivated fields of pole beans, buckwheat, Chile peppers, some corn, eggplant, cattle grass. We see folks working the fields. 70% of the people of Bhutan work in ag. There are chir pines on the hill as we begin the climb. The trail is well maintained. This is the Queens chorten only finished in 2001. There is a beautiful orobanche (broom rape) growing everywhere. Semi parasitic plant related to Indian paintbrush. Oregon grape aka Berberis. I catch a lizard and hypnotize him.

Name: Indian Gooseberry
Biological Name: Emblica officinalis; Euphorbiaceae family
Other Names: Indian Gooseberry, Emblic myrobalan, Amla, Amalaki;
Parts Used: Fresh Fruit, Dried fruit, the nut or seed, leaves, root, bark and flowers. Ripe fruits used generally fresh, dry also used.
Description: The bark of Amla is gray in color and peals in irregular patches. Its feathery leaves, which smell like lemon, are of linear oblong shape and size 10 to 12 mm length and 3 to 6 mm width. Its flowers are monoecioius having greenish yellow color. They grow in auxiliary clusters and start appearing in the beginning of spring season. Amla fruit, depressed globose with six vertical furrows, start developing by the middle of spring and the fruit ripen towards beginning of autumn. The color of the fruit is pale yellow. Amla has been regarded as a sacred tree in India. The tree was worshipped as Mother Earth and is believed to nurture humankind because the fruits are very nourishing. The leaves, fruit and flowers are used in worship in India. In Himachal Pradesh the tree is worshipped in Kartik as propitious and chaste.

We arrive at chorten at 1125. It is warm but not hot and the hike was not a problem for anyone. Oh yea except for Greg who did not get in shape for this trip and is hanging out at the river right now. But I should not mention the fact that Karin was encouraging him to start walking in SF but alas. His excuse- “I had to work to pay for the trip”. And that is true.

Up on the grounds waiting for us is Ugyen w/ some tea coffee and goodies. Population control in Bhutan is by monkhood says Sonam. Many boys and some girls enter monasteries.. Only 8 % of the land is arable. Family planning is encouraged and the population increase has declined a bit in recent years,.
We enter this amazing temple. The coolness and incense is immediately calming. It is wonderful to be in a holy place. This is a good country to be in during these trying times Especially for Americans who have to deal with our country’s horrible foreign misadventures.

Sonam’s first explanation is about Vajra kila who subdued demons and incorporated them into his body. He looks very scary but is actually a good guy. He has taken their power and made it his own and turned it to good. Evil does have power and the Buddhists recognize that.

Next we have our local deity lecture. The Queen attempted to seduce a holy man but he would have none of that royal jelly. She of course being spurned, clawed her face, ripped her clothes and cried RAPE to her daddy. They grabbed the spiritual guy and buried him up to this head for week. Dug and him up and then decided to stab him with spears. He was doing OK for a while, a lot of compassion but there was this little bit of anger left. That then expanded like an atom bomb. Eyeballs showed up in every pierced hole in his body and he got PISSED OFF. Destroyed the kingdom and crushed everyone. Guru Rinpoche however was able to convince him to become a good guy and there he is shown- nice and painted in the Queen’s Chorten..

Up we go onto several more floors until we reach the roof with the talking Buddha. Now the views are superb, the midday sun beating down and we have our 10″ of silence. Don et al see a Black Eagle; I chill with my eyes close and just listen to the sounds. I feel like they must be the sounds that have been heard here for 1000 yrs except for that chain saw!!!

Garuda is the mythical bird above Buddha.

Time to head down to lunch off to the southeast side to go down. Blue capped Rock thrush seen very well on top of a pole on top of a building gorgeous birdie. To the bus to Greg, cows, dogs, lunch and then leave.

No such thing as a stupa question.

Back down river to the Dzong. No other buses but ours, that is rare. At 230 cross the bridge and see big brown trout. The jacarandas are in full flower, Wind is blowing, and temp is perfect. Just before we enter the temple Sonam tells us the cups thrown under the Kings Throne story. The massive Dzong, was built in 1647 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and is the winter home of the Central Monk Body. The monk body moves from Thimphu to Punakha during the winter so, depending on the time of year, we may or may not be allowed access into the courtyards of this fortress.

THE FOUR FRIENDS greet us upon entry
Seed. Bird, Rabbit, Monkey, Elephant, fruiting tree
cooperation story.

Large Bodhi tree growing the courtyard. As luck would have it we are just in time for a prayer ceremony. Lucky us to witness the chanting. Bells, drumming, horns blessing of food (mostly prepackaged junk food- good though!) We witnessed this for about 30″ or so. Some of the little monklets were falling asleep. Sonam said this form of Buddhism does not have quite as much compassion; there is more discipline here.

1000 Buddha’s. The Bhutan trinity: Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal the great uniter (he has a goatee) , the Historical Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava aka Rinpoche (he has a fine little mustache) who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. We will see these three guys over and over again. 20 dzongs in Bhutan all built in the 17th Century.

Afterward we get an overview of the WHEEL OF LIFE, just outside the main temple. Newly painted and looking good.

Round balls = wish fulfilling jewels.

Then into the temple we go prepared to know what we are looking at. Sonam does have faith in us! The paintings are all new. In this very peaceful place I hear the ring tone of a monk’s cell phone as he checks his instant messages. Bizarre.

We are done around 4 PM. A BIG WAHA!!!! Sonam says that we are an auspicious group. Gee I bet he says that about all his groups!!!

The chief Abbott passes us going home. We stop and watch some guys doing archery. We are impressed and give them a big WAHA!! Crested bunting. And we are checking on the status of Sally’s underwear hanging out side on the fence. It appears to be ok and dry.

Our lodge is called Meri (fire mountain) Pen (joining)’ the fire mt is in the Ha Province where the owner is from. Free Time until 630 when we get a little overview from me of the Himalaya. Geology etc.

More fun times at dinner and good food. Showers are great. Laundry was not too expensive.

May 7 Punakha/Wangdi to Jakar, Bumthang

Early and longest day of driving today so bfast at 7 (raise your hand for boiled eggs) we give the lovely staff an unexpected tip and thank them for all they have done to make us comfortable. Off at 750 right on time as usual.
We back track a bit to the east /west road and then continue east.
At Wangdue we walk across the bridge and barely avoid getting hit by dough balls tossed from above by little monklets no doubt. Don and Palden spot a mallard, heading for 100 sp of birds!!!
Up we go through the bustling little town of Wangdue following the Dang Chu River. A DEADBODY passes us in a funeral caravan and this of course is auspicious. All obstacles are removed and it is said that you may see monkeys later in the day when this happens.
The redbud looking small tree is Indigofera sp. quite lovely and the diversity of the trees is striking. Eicher trucks are everywhere.

Eicher Motors is a part of the Eicher Group. It was founded in 1982 to manufacture a range of reliable, fuel-efficient commercial vehicles. It is one of the leading manufacturers of commercial vehicles in India. It manufacturers and markets trucks, buses, automotive gears, motorcycle and deals with the exports vehicles, aggregate and components. It began its business operations in 1959 with the roll out of India’s first tractor.

Albizia in flower looks like a mimosa tree. Smell of skunk reminds Mark of home.
TSA TSA are the little chortens we see along the road. Sonam says there are two kinds. One is associated with specific prayers. The other more common are created with the ashes of a cremated loved one. You put a little ash in them and distribute to places that are holy or that the person liked.
Yet another BUSH stop and this one yields some very good sightings. But this was not a coincidence we were looking for this spot. A troop of 35 red Macaques foraging on the cliff eating raspberries among other things. A very large wild bee hive totally exposed on a cliff and very active. Above it is one very rare bird- the yellow rumped honey guide. Last year Sonam searched with a birding group 1/2 day to no avail. Many people and cows on the road.
The only primates with a broader geographic distribution than rhesus macaques are humans (Southwick et al. 1996). Rhesus macaques are found ubiquitously throughout mainland Asia; from Afghanistan to India and Thailand to southern China (Rowe 1996; Smith & McDonough 2005). M. m. vestita, M. m. lasiota, and M. m. sanctijohannis are found in western, central, and eastern China, respectively (Groves 2001; Smith & McDonough 2005). Another Chinese species of rhesus macaque, M. m. brevicauda, is found on Hainan Island, off the southwest coast of China. The Indian-derived rhesus macaques are separated by region with M. m. villosa found in the Kashmir and Punjab region of India (the northern part of the country), Pakistan, and Afghanistan and M. m. mulatta found in India, Bhutan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam Rhesus macaques are exceptionally adapted to coexisting with humans and thrive near human settlement, in both urban and agricultural areas. It is impossible to characterize their “natural” diet without considering the impact of humans. Because they are found in higher densities in areas of human disturbance compared to forests, in some areas rhesus macaques derive, both directly and indirectly, a substantial part of their diet from human activities (Richard et al. 1989). In fact, up to 93% of their diet can be from human sources, either from direct handouts or from agricultural sources (Southwick & Siddiqi 1994). Rhesus macaques are omnivores and feed on a wide array of plant and invertebrate products. By raiding crops, they have access to a huge variety of cultivated fruits and vegetables, and in highly urban areas, they forage by picking through garbage (Goldstein & Richard 1989; Richard et al. 1989). Throughout their range and especially in India, they inhabit temples and are fed as a form of worship by local people (Wolfe 2002). Some of the most common foods given to rhesus macaques in temples include bread, bananas, peanuts, seeds, other fruits and vegetables, and assorted miscellaneous foods like ice cream and fried bread (Wolfe 1992). In less human-influenced areas, they focus on fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, gums, buds, grass, clover, roots, bark, and they supplement their diet with termites, grasshoppers, ants, beetles, and mushrooms. Rhesus macaques also eat bird eggs, shellfish, and fish (Fooden 2000). During the driest parts of the year, they may even eat the dirt from termite mounds (Lindburg 1971).
Green backed tits singing as we walk up a bit to join the bus. Good to stretch our legs. A pair of Kalij pheasants seen right in the road. Common, says Don disappointingly. White capped water redstart flitting around small mountain streams. Blue whistling thrushes very common. The forest is so beautiful as we keep climbing and climbing heading for our first pass. Then we see a yellow billed blue magpie. Great! another chance for a bush stop. We are getting good at this. White orchids growing epiphytically. Coral bells heather tree – Maples with nice red stems and fruits. As we continue up the rhododendrons really begin to get big 30 and 40 feet height and in full flower. Now at 9K we are in a forest of massive hemlock and fir trees. Finally the pass Pelela (10, 825′) a
we yell Lha jalo! Pronounced ha jay low. MAY GOD WIN! This is a traditional shout at a pass. Himalayan dwarf bamboo and yaks. Cross a yak and cow to get a YOW. I tell you a bit about those endangered animals.

But did stop for food at Dochala Restaurant called Chendebji. Very good food; once again I am proved wrong. We look down on the nomad village Rukubji, where there is a large long field and a temple which was built on the head of snake demon which had been terrorizing this area, powerfully evil spirit. We are now going along the Nikka Chu river. Drove over bamboo placed on the road to be flattened by bamboo weavers whom we saw working alongside the road making mats. We pass on our right the Chendebji Chorten, a Nepalese-style chorten & has eyes painted on it. It was built to subdue a demon so that it could not rise again; it is a copy of the main chorten in Kathmandu, Nepal. We pass a haunted forest to the right, very steep and full of very large trees. The local people don’t enter this forest. It is too spooky. It is the Black Forest National Park.

Kay wants to know when we are going to see the longest Dzong. I explain the laughter to Sonam when we stop for the view of the Tongsa Dzong, the largest in Bhutan. It is right opposite us across the valley. But the road winds another 12.5 miles before we’ll actually get there. It was built in 1647 (all of the dzongs were built in the 17th cent). It has a round watchtower (the only Bhutanese structure that is round) above it on the hillside. The crown prince was sworn in as controller of all 8 eastern districts on June 2, 2003. It is tradition that each king must be leader of this Dzong in order to become king. Magnificent views around every turn.

We go a bit out of town to top off with gas and the ascend ascend ascend and ascend into the clouds. Yutong La (11,155′) pass

More pee stops! Poor Nema has never had a group with the tiniest bladders before us. At least we are drinking plenty of fluids. We really are getting tired of this drive. My GPS lost the signal so I am not sure of the total distance traveled Best guess is 130 miles and 8 hours of driving. Feels like it

We enter the Bumthang province, there are 4 valleys here. We are now in Chumey and soon have a straight road for about 3/4 mile! We will visit the Ura Valley (higher with nomads -sheep and yak) and Chholing (agricultural). the other one is Tang (nomadic) which we will not visit. Here they grow barley, wheat, potatoes and apples in this productive valley. There are scarecrows in the fields and very regularly spaced cow poop waiting to be spread. Flying phalluses hanging from the eaves = fertility. The Bhutanese air force.

We finally get to Jakar, the central village of the Bumthang district. Once in Jakar, we will settle into our lodge for two nights. Check in around 6 into our rooms in a brand new building. Now I feel we are in Bhutan, still striving for the tourist comfort. Wood stoves are burning, making Craig real nervous. To dinner and for the first time we have traditional Bhutanese food – chilies as a main dish, fiddle neck fern fronds. We like then. We pass on the ara for tonight. Much laughter. We keep seeing the same folks we saw on the plane flying in and I guarantee you we will see them at Ura. Gee it’s 815 time for bed…

May 8 Jakar

aus•pice `’s-p©s n, pl aus•pic•es -p©-s©z, -—s‹z [L auspicium, fr. auspic-, auspex diviner by birds, fr. avis bird specere to look, look at more at: aviary, spy] (1533)
1) observation by an augur esp. of the flight and feeding of birds to discover omens

Bumthang is one of the most beautiful and sacred areas of Bhutan, known for the visits of Guru Rinpoche, when he was bringing Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. Guru Rinpoche is considered the second Buddha and the founder of Tantric Buddhism. The open and wide valleys filled with fields and farmers, and the gentle slopes of beautiful mountains dotted with many sacred temples and monasteries, make for an unforgettable experience.

Dogs barking last night but the pleasant sound of the Chaumkaur Chu flowing below helped a lot. For breakfast we have our first buckwheat pancakes – heavy and full of tiny pieces of the grinding stones. We leave right on time as usual. Laura fails recognize the crossed phalluses.

This valley known for apple juice, honey and Swiss cheese. Jakar means black necked crane vision of Guru Rino that he saw a white bird and built a temple here. Our first stop is at the oldest temple in Bhutan from the 7th century. The temple of the future Buddha. Statue landed on the ogresses’ navel and they could not lift it. Tibetan head guy said to build a 108 temples on the body of the ogress under the Himalayas. Kichu is one of the temples in Paro that was built. The one we are visiting is on her left foot.

The steps into the temple are slowly sinking and when the final one sinks the next Buddha will come. This Buddha’s eyes are closed but will open at the coming of the future one. The caretaker unlocks the inner sanctum and we go in. We are not used to things this old in CA!

Bhutan had a record 9k visitors in 2005.We see alot of constriction going on and yesterday we passed a new building that is going to be a training school for the construction trade. This may take some of the concessions away from the Indian companies.

We drive to the end of the road bearing left. At 905 we begin our hike up to Shukdrag Gompa, an ancient meditation monastery built around a sacred cave. This is where Guru Rinpoche meditated during the 8th century. This is a place for us to be thoroughly “off the beaten track”. We leave Greg with Palden and drop down a muddy path to see our first jack in the pulpits aka cobra plants. Lithocarpus (tanbark oak) and cross the bridge with many planks rotten or missing and enter the Thangbi Valley. 8791′ The rain that we thought may come has held off, the temperature this morning was about 58 and it is very pleasant hiking weather today. There are beautiful traditional farm houses, smiling children and moms and grand moms, and hard-working farmers of both sexes weeding the potatoes fields. AN acre of land = the amount of land that can be plowed in one day with an oxen.

There is a new bridge across the river connecting the road we are on it goes to Ngang (Swan) Village. We pass our first Mani Wall -like a chorten but longer. Comes from Tibet. These walls are built to invoke a blessing from Buddha about compassion. We chant Oh Money Pay Me Home. Or at least that is Michael’s rotten interpretation of the sounds.
Five colors on the prayer flags Blue = water, Red = Fire, Green = nature, Yellow = earth. White = ether.
We meet an Englishman helping with a soil analysis of all Bhutan. This is a rich valley for Bhutan. We are on elevated river terraces maybe 10 K old.

A cuckoo heard and seen in a tree and it is the Eurasian cuckoo. The classic one from the clock and quite surprising. We see a hoopoe feeding in the field as well.

We bear left and begin to ascend the hill through cows and primroses and past a school. Up gradually we climb. On the way we pass a small hut with a stone grinding wheel, turned by water and used by the local people to grind buckwheat. From five sacred springs associated with dakinis. Buckwheat ground here is considered fortuitions. Craig takes a face dive into the creek. Sally yells “is the camera OK?” Patty N. rescues Craig.
A dakini is a Tantric Buddhist concept particularly prevalent in Tibet. The Dakini is a female being, generally of volatile temperament, who acts as a muse for spiritual practice. Dakinis can be likened to elves, angels, or other such supernatural beings, and are symbolically representative of testing one’s awareness and adherence to Buddhist tantric sadhana.
Many stories of the Mahasiddhas in Tibet contain passages where a Dakini will come to perturb the would-be Mahasiddha. When the Dakini’s test has been fulfilled and passed, the practitioner is often then recognised as a Mahasiddha, and often is elevated into the Paradise of the Dakinis, a place of enlightened bliss. It should be noted that while a Dakini is often depicted as beautiful and naked, they are seen not sexual symbols, but as symbols of natural humans. There are instances where a Dakini has come to test a practitioner’s control over his or her sexual desires, but the Dakini itself is not a being of passion.
The Chinese and Tibetan terms for dakini literally mean “she who travels in the sky”; this is sometimes rendered poetically as “sky dancer”. Invariably, their bodies are depicted curved in sinuous dance poses.
Now we climb steeply up to the temple. A black eagle flies right below us. We enter the small temple and each of us lights a candle to dispel ignorance in the world. I am in particular thinking of the right wing Christians in our country, George Bush and the Muslims who were destroying Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan. We could all use less ignorance and more tolerance. Our chant is OM AH HUM VIARJA GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM. Taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We are being witnessed by an old lady and a young monk.

We have our 10 minutes of silence only hearing the wind and the large billed crows cawing- timeless sounds similar to the ones that Guru must have heard so many years ago. Some things do not change. We all feel very very blessed as we quietly offer a small donation and leave the cave.

Ugyen has, as usual, carted our lunches all the way up on his back. He is 22 and his wife just gave birth to their second child 5 days ago. Sonam said he did not have to work but he wanted to. Probably needs the money no doubt. I think he was recently in the Army, he has legs of steel. Eating on top of the world. Mark realizes he left his binocs up at the temple and goes to retrieve them. Good to remember now and not later.

We head back down and it only takes us 1 hr and 30 minutes to cover the 3.12 miles one way and 800′ elevation gain. Girls in the field are yelling and laughing at us and Sonam interprets a bit of it is about night hunting which you will learn about later. Back to the bus and the little store there is tea and goodies waiting for (we are spoiled and liking it).

Quick drive back to the lodge by 4 or so. Many micro wavers coming home from school. Showers and rest time. They come to build a fire for us in our rooms.

We meet at 615 to hear Sonam’s story about his life, we have all been waiting for the tale. It is a good one. But first. I give you a brief overview of Betelnut use.

Areca nut is the seed of the tall, slender areca palm (areca catechu), native to the fringes of the Indian and west Pacific Oceans. With its husk off, the nut is a little smaller than a walnut. It is solid throughout, has a marbleized grain, and is as hard as a knot in a pine board. Its active principle is the alkaloid arecoline. In pharmacological terms, arecoline stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a contraction of the pupils and an increased secretion of tears and saliva.

The areca’s sister in crime, betel leaf, comes from a tree-climbing vine (piper betle) of the pepper family. The shiny green leaf is heart-shaped, and about the size of the palm of your hand. Its essential oil contains a phenol (betel-phenol) similar to the aromatic eugenol found in the oil of cloves. Betel-phenol probably contributes stimulant properties of its own, but scant information is available on its pharmacology.
Like the coca-chewers of the Andes, betel users somehow discovered that the addition of lime helps to extract the vital essence of the plants into the saliva (and from there, of course, through the mucous membranes of the mouth and straight into the bloodstream). The catalytic lime is either powder (calcium oxide) or paste (calcium hydroxide). In either case, it is typically made from kiln-baked seashells.

How these three substances were ever married together as one drug is a question whose answer is lost in prehistory. Archeological evidence from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines suggests that they have been used in tandem for four thousand years or more.
The traditional form, betel quid, consists of chopped areca nut, lime paste, and various spices, folded up neatly inside a betel leaf. The quid resembles a Greek dolma, only bigger, and it makes for an awkward fit inside your cheek. Size notwithstanding, a fresh quid is betel in its most charming and potent form.
Anyone who’s ever dined at an Indian restaurant is familiar with mukwas: the bowl of anise-flavored seeds and candy placed by the door as an after-dinner treat. Betel mukwas is just what you would expect: mukwas mixed with chopped areca nuts. It is a pleasant dessert chew, but a little too sweet for regular consumption. Like the fresh quids, betel mukwas is made by hand, and is only rarely seen at the local market.
What is it like to chew betel? Enthusiasts recognize three delightful aspects of the experience: the exhilarating lift; the mysterious flavor; and the cleansing, compelling salivation.
In the rare instances where scholarly literature mentions its subjective effects, the news about betel is uniformly good: “It imparts the… repeatedly described sensation of well-being, good humor, excitation, and comfort…The consciousness, of course, remains unimpaired, and the chewer’s capacity for work is in no respect affected.” (Hesse). “It creates a feeling of energy, appeases hunger and assuages pain.” (Henry Brownrigg, Betel Cutters from the Samuel Eilenberg Collection).
These authors don’t lie: betel makes you feel strong. Your chest feels broader, your inhalations deeper, your back straighter; and an almost electric invigoration seems to run through your bones. This is a good, healthful, and positive sensation.
On the other hand, some first-time users claim to experience no stimulant effect whatsoever; but they are probably expecting too much. Betel is not an amphetamine, after all. It is a complex of dilute plant alkaloids absorbed slowly through the mucous membranes of the mouth. The result is subtle and “natural,” and offers none of that teeth-clenching, palm-sweating, eye-bugging overstimulation so familiar to users of stronger drugs. Betel is less jarring than espresso, and it never leaves you feeling “jangled.”
How long-lasting is this lift? Because the feeling is a relatively subtle one, and because it wears off so gently, there is never a distinguishable moment of now-I’m-up/now I’m not. But it would be fair to estimate that betel has a duration comparable to that of caffeine. A morning chew will usually have worn off by mid-afternoon.
Betel, or specifically areca, is an acquired taste; but for those who have acquired it, the flavor is darkly fascinating. Behind the spices, candy, or menthol, the primary essence always comes through. It is spicy, though not hot-spicy like cinnamon or ginger. It is tannic, but without sourness. It is sweet, though in no way is it sugary. It is a little reminiscent of chocolate, and a little reminiscent of dirt. But these contradictions all fall miserably short. One betel novice, yet to be won over by the habit, says sneeringly that it reminds her of chewing incense. Above all, the flavor of betel is exotic; and maybe it’s best left at that.
The most unusual (and visible) aspect of betel chewing is its effect on the salivary glands. You don’t just salivate, you pour; and the saliva emerges from your mouth tinted a deep brick red. It is not at all uncommon to spit four fluid ounces of “betel juice” in a single session. And spit it you must; swallowing is not recommended, since it may cause an undesirable sensation of heartburn.
Perverse as it may sound, betel-drooling is quite pleasurable indeed. There is an almost orgasmic satisfaction to be found in the experience of saliva-ducts open to full throttle. Delicious above all is the aftermath: when the chew is finished, your mouth is left astonishingly fresh and sweet. You feel uniquely cleansed, drained, and purified.
Despite its charm for the initiated, however, this saliva-rush is probably the greatest obstacle to betel’s acceptance in the West. Salivation is just too “primitive” for the sanitized First World. Travelers to India are frequently shocked by the red splotches that cover the streets and sidewalks; clearly this secretory excess strikes many Westerners as not just unaesthetic, but downright filthy. But how do those sidewalks really differ from our own, studded as they are with flattened gray globs of chewing gum? At least betel spit doesn’t stick to the sole of your shoe.
No discussion of an exotic drug would be complete without some consideration of its potential dangers. In the case of betel, the most commonly-voiced concern is a cosmetic one: the issue of teeth blackening. The few Americans who have ever heard of betel ask almost invariably, “Oh, isn’t that the stuff that turns your teeth black?” From all available evidence, the reassuring answer is that it won’t happen to you – as long as you remember to brush your teeth once or twice a day. Apparently, the concern about teeth-blackening stems from the fact that Western-style dental hygiene is looked upon as a silly pretension in certain betel-chewing cultures of Southeast Asia. In these cultures, not surprisingly, older people’s teeth do stink and turn black. Whether this is the result of betel build-up or just general decay is hardly relevant to an American with a toothbrush.
Then there’s the more serious accusation brought to bear by the US Food & Drug Administration: that betel contains “a poisonous or deleterious substance [arecoline]” and that habitual chewing may be linked to oral carcinoma. Despite its authoritative tone, the FDA does not provide any medical data to support its allegations, and an examination of the available literature indicates that no conclusive studies have been carried out. Hardly half-a-dozen articles on betel chewing, areca, or the alkaloid arecoline have been listed in the Index Medicus during the past 15 years, and none offers compelling cause-and-effect evidence of a connection between betel chewing and cancer.
Some medical authorities even contradict the FDA. Dr. B.G. Burton-Bradley wrote in The Lancet that “Betel chewing is practised daily by no less than 200 million people, the vast majority of whom do not have oral carcinoma;” German pharmacologist Hesse stated that, “Chronic excesses [of betel] do not cause any permanent health disorders;” and Sushruta, the “father of Indian medicine,” went so far as to claim in the first century AD that betel “acts as a general safeguard against disease.”
And what about dependence? Sad to say, almost every source makes mention of the addictive nature of betel. If a persistent craving defines an addiction, then even personal experience confirms this. But as addictions go, betel is not a very cruel one. Nowhere will you find a description of physical withdrawal symptoms, and it appears that as soon as the user’s supply is cut off, his urge for betel simply dwindles away. The contrast to a popular American addiction is telling: often I go months without chewing betel, but I never go a morning without caffeine.

Sonam begins his story. Father made to marry his father by the King, Middlemost child. Granddad is a lama, monastery, cow herder, 22 days walking to Tongsa, failing school, Army Uncle with influence, bridge without water, boarding school, top of the class, government job, married, father in-law business, one son, saw mill, divorce, remarry, 2 kids, tour business.
We get Ara delivered to us. The kick comes late, TASHI DELEK! Greg likes it.
Downstairs for dinner and we shall get the rest of Sonam’s story later.

Craig, Heidi and I try some betel. We drool and get red tongues and maybe think something is happening. Could be the combo Heidi says – company, Ara, betel, Bhutan, mediating. Anyway we are having dinner near the CIRCUS people, as Laura calls the nearby table. Gee it is 830 time for bed.

May 9 & 10 Ura Bumthang

Up real early and pay our bills eat bfast and I ask if we will be ready to go in 10 ” the problem is, As Patty D points out, it is only 8 and I said we were leaving at 9. Whoops! Sonam is off getting some candles for our later ceremony so we walk to town looking for the bus and Sonam. It is a chance to see a typical Bhutanese small town waking up. We walk across the bridge and get picked up.

At 9 we are on our way for just a few moments and then we stop at the national HQ for Bhutanese beekeeping that Greg and Palden went to yesterday. I give you an overview of bee natural history. Beekeeping was introduced by the Swiss. Some of the honey has the smell of old socks. We will eat some bananas in honey that is definitely weird. Then we continue east climbing up and we keep seeing Jakar Valley for a very long time.

By 9445 we get to Membartso or “Burning Lake.” This is actually a beautiful gorge along the Tang River. Pema Lingpa found several of the treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche in the water here, and, as a result, Pema Lingpa is known as a terton (a discoverer of religious treasurers). We walk the short distance uphill to the river Tang. There are big yellow peonies in flower. Dropping down by many tsa tsas and we cross a rickety bridge one at time.

Down by the water we each make a wish and float a lighted candle, mounted on a piece of wood, down that sacred section of the river. No competition according to the proper Buddhist thought but MINE did kick some ass!

Continuing through Spruce, blue pines at 8500′. We cross the Ura La pass actually 2 passes at 11315 and 11600′ . We did not see magnificent views of Gangkhar Puensuum (24,800 feet), the highest unclimbed mountain in the world as promised in the intinerary.

We stop for a bush stop. Which has become known by now as a “Manny stop”. More yak photos as some of us hike down the hill along the road, then an overview of the URA Valley. I read a quote from the Lonely Planet Guide on the old and new Ura valley.
This is the old and the new story right now in Bhutan and many places in the world that have been “untouched”.

Ura is the highest of the four smaller valleys that make up the Bumthang Valley. Ura, unlike most Bhutanese villages, is made up of closely clustered houses. The people of this region are primarily sheep and yak herders. Recently, the introduction of potato farming has helped to increase the local people’s prosperity.

We arrive at our delightful camp at 1250 after a drive of 28 miles and 1′ 50″ of driving. We stopped a bit. We are amazed at the lycopodium (aka ground pine) lined gate and the carpet of pine needles that grace our camp. Stones making the boundaries for foot paths. Great touches. A perfect view from high above the village. Much better than Geo Exp I tell Sonam. That makes him feel good because GeoEx are the big operators in Bhutan and do very expensive trips that do not always deliver. We keep seeing our friend Professor Steve from SAC State and his two traveling companions. They are telling me a few things wrong with their GEOEX $$$$ trip. Tea and goodies offered us and then lunch. Yummy.

We move into our tents and then walk down into the village. We will be visiting Ura during the height of their annual Yak festival. The Gaden Monastery is right by our camp. We are in this perfect place because Sonam is related to the lama of this village. It is nice to know people,. Camp is 10460′.
At 230 we walk right from camp following the route that the procession will take tomorrow. Children surround Craig looking at the pictures he has taken of them. Boogers and snot galore. Human petri dishes as our two doctors refer to the sickly children. M and P tell me that maybe one out of every three people on the planet may have TB. That is an astounding statistic.

At the temple in Ura we get the story of the history of this celebration. Lepers, snakes, relict. Guru Rinpoche, the usual. Don is working on this DOGS OF BHUTAN calendar for 2007. We enter the temple and watch some fellows make some yak butter candles. Green Tara (Queen Mamie’s favorite) is to the right of Guru Rinpoche – the guy with the moustache. Local scary deity on the left. The astrologer will come late tonight and let them know what time to bring the relict down from the upper Monastery temple. That time will determine the rest of the activities for the celebration here.

On our way back to camp the old Americans, wheezing and struggling for breath, did their best at playing the younger Bhutanese at a pick up game of basketball. Craig (the fool) wanted to play full court. We did very well up to 5 points and then we ran out of oxygen. They finally beat us 10 to 8. None of us died so we considered the game a success! Thank god we have 2 doctors and a nurse in the group. It was really fun and exhausting at this altitude.

Back to camp for campfire and light rain and Sonam tells us the amazing story of his now 8 yr old son being discovered as a reincarnate. By coincidence in Jakar I happened to be at the festival with 10,000 monks, the lama from India and Sonam’s son. I probably have a photo of him! Small world.

Next we get the low down on night hunting. Though not all of us heard Paden’s good stories; I did hear the laughter from the back of the bus. We eat around the fire and some actually pretty good jokes are told.
The moon is over half full and trying to peak through the clouds I tell you a few moon facts when it is visible but we never really get a night sky talk on this trip. As the rain stops and we head back by the fire. The dogs are barking as promised and you get to wear all those clothes you carried 7000 miles, halfway around the world.

May 10 it must be the Ura Valley.

Dogs last night finally stopped barking around 3 and then it was so quiet I woke up wondering what had happened. Rain on the tent is most peaceful. Apparently Craig went night hunting in Greg and Karin’s tent. I am pretty sure he was looking for Greg (Rufous).
There is hot water available for a “shower” Just splashing on your face and other places but it is nice. Breakfast is tasty. We have a mandala lesson at 8 and then some free time until we walk over to the nearby monastery. We have a meeting arranged with the son of the current lama. His name is Thinley. 37 yrs old university trained and speaks perfect English. He has been in the secular world in business but about 5 yrs ago returned to this village to begin his training to take over from his dad. We can see the container that the relic is in, but you can never see the actual relic.

Mandala is Sanskrit for circle, polygon, community, connection.
The Mandala is a symbol of man or woman in the world, a support for the meditating person.
The mandala is often illustrated as a palace with four gates, facing the four corners of the Earth.
The Mandala shown here is connected with the Buddha Vajrasattva, who symbolises the original crystalline purity.
In the centre is a lotus blossom with eight petals, resting on a bed of jewels.
In the next place are the walls of the palace with gates towards the four corners of the earth.
The gates are guarded by four angry doorkeepers.
Before the meditating person arrives at the gates, she must, however, pass the four outer circles: the purifying fire of wisdom, the vajra circle, the circle with the eight tombs, the lotus circle.

Thingley has found the same teacher in south India that recognized Sonam’s son as his spiritual advisor. This is the guy who is the incarnate of the destroyed the Tibetan monastery. We drink some Ara made by Tingleys wife, Karma just three days ago because their cousin Sonam was bringing guests. Wheat, rice and maize smooth as silk.

Laso lasso means OK. We get a great talk from Thingly about Buddhism. Three lineages – teacher to disciple (mainstream)
Incarnate lineage (master dies and he is reborn)
Blood lineage (father to son)

Basic Buddha’s teachings are called Sutra. Orthodox is basically moral teachings. Tantra began after Buddha died. Prophecy is that we are coming to a dark age and then we enter a time when no Buddhist lessons are learned. Right now is the window for the Tantric Buddhist teachings. Very important time now. Ground path fruit

This temple founded in the 13th century Drukpa Kargyu school. About 7 generations ago there was a lama that died early and only had a daughter so they went to another region and brought a son to marry the girl. The son came from the Nyingma school. So the two schools are linearly combined now. GEE this is confusing!

Thingly has 3 sons. We connect to enlightenment energy and it becomes us. We are sitting cross legged the best we can. And trying hard not to point our feet at the Buddha.


We do our prayer chanting mandala ceremony. We practiced after breakfast holding our hands the proper way. We are doing the best – we can – 4 planets, Mt Meru. We toss the rice up into the air. Wishing wishing wishing. Next butter lamps are lit for us, dispelling darkness into the whole universe. We are feeling very peaceful and content. I let a small irritating thing from my California life go away at this moment of lighting the candle. It really worked!

Next it is shopping for the group,. This money goes directly to the temple they are not supported by the Government. Kay finds something she really likes for $1k but alas Mark doesn’t buy it for her. Karma is a sales woman capital S. Prices are very high for things but it does go to a good cause.

Now back to camp for darts. Fun fun fun. Don is determined to get a WAHA before the day is done and he does (eventually late in the afternoon after 6 hours of continuous playing and many curses under his breathe).

The procession comes up to get the relict while we eat lunch. They have prayers and tea. By the time we are done and Don is still playing darts – no waha. They go back down to the village. Many tourists following behind and taking many pictures. We follow the parade down to the temple. We are in BST right now Bhutanese Stretchable time. So who knows when anything will actually start? But this is their celebration, not ours.

They come out around 3 and dance a bit without the masks. They are practicing for tomorrow. Many tourists have already left. The rain has stopped it is a peaceful world. Back to camp, we walk through the concessions and we see gambling and smoking. We almost lose Craig to the evil sins of betting. Palden has met an old friend and is doing bettelnut and gambling. The sinful ways of youth.

Back to our fire and Don plays more darts.

We officially meet the staff
Kanchi – the cute female office staff
Dawann Lama – carpenter
Tenzin (help set up)
Karma (helper set up)
Nawang (camp setup)
Kado (meals) very good!

Sitting around the campfire words like pumpernickel, scuttlebutt. Palden played his pleasure flute. Which is not quite built to the right specs so it could fit in his pack. We enjoyed it immensely. Then the staff came and sang a few songs for us. That too was nice.
Don asked Sonam what were some of the problems facing Bhutan? Unemployment and the change to democracy esp. with powerful and corrupt India so nearby and so influential.

We were so content that we did not go down to see the fire ceremony. But Prof Steve said it was great.

May 11 Tongsa

This morning the horns begin blaring at 4 am. The temple was all lit up. The dogs esp one persistent one disturbs our sleep all night. The rain began just before dawn but stopped as we awoke. We took our group photo. Lucky we did too as it was raining later. The n at 845 we walked down to the temple. A rosy pipit was displaying high in the air. Don, Patty and Palden ided it.
There is scattered sun, even some blue sky. Nga is the water and snake spirit. Manny tells me they get naglyhide from them.
Down at the temple it was definitely BST as we patiently waited for something to happen. The lama and monks were having breakfast. Finally some dancing began and then we were called up to have tea with the lama. This was yet another grand experience that Sonam arranged for us. Nice to be in the presence of a holy man. I felt I gained merit just by being there. We also had our scarves blessed by him. Another consideration by this best of guides. I am getting to actually like yak butter tea because it has now such spiritual connotations.

Elaborate, spellbinding masked
Dances at the festival are performed by specially trained monks. From the roof of the temple, monks blow on a pair of long horns, and the sound of cymbals, drums and trumpets fill the air. These dance festivals revive the people spiritually and in many ways refine them culturally because the dances communicate moral lessons, and both the performer and the observer benefit from the exchange The Bardo dances, the main event of the festival, serve as a reminder to people of their future destiny depending on their past and present deeds. The dance of Noblemen and Ladies tells the story of flirting princesses who are punished for their indiscretions. The dance of the Stag enacts the tale of a hunter who was converted to Buddhism and gave up hunting.
This festival is also an occasion for seeing people and for being seen. In olden times it provided the most important opportunity for unmarried men and women to find their life partners. People dress in their finest clothes and wear their most precious jewels. Men and women joke and flirt.

We watched more dances esp. the Black Hart dance and then the village girls doing their thing. Rain began so we hightailed back to camp which was being dismantled before our eyes. Our last very good lunch at camp and then we give the staff their well deserved tip.

Off at 1245 to the Park HQ for Don and Patty. No one home but we went in anyway. We left and begin our very winding drive of 4′ 32″.

Mithun bred cows and yak along our route. We stop at the promised wool shop and have a shopping extravaganza.

There are two stores to choose from:
Woman’s cooperative or mean Tibetan businessman; one with no bargaining or be prepared to haggle; One with a toilet or none?

Perked up the GNP just a bit. Craig keeps apologizing but it is a very good way to transfer wealth from one region to the next.

We have a new experience driving in the dark on winding curving dangerous roads in the fog and clouds. Nema does a fine job and we arrive safely around 730. All looking forward to eating, showering and drinking, Craig buys drinks for us because we had to wait soooo long for him in Jakar.

The Falkenhagens get a hold of their verbose boy. Yea mom dad fine sure good, OK, love you too gotta go, bye.

It is 6976′ here. We go to bed soooooo late for us must be after 9 here in Tongsa at the Yangkhil Hotel, located on a ridge overlooking the Dzong.

May 12th.

Nice shower hot water. I find out that some children I photographed three years ago are the kids of the cook here. I give him and his wife the photos and they are tickled pink. Our lodge is owned by a Tibetan business man who lives in LA. Go figure. and we are off at 8. Back track a bit to visit the Tongsa Dzong. Built in 1647, it is the largest Dzong in the country. It is also the ancestral home of the Royal Family, and both the first and second kings ruled the country from Tongsa. The Dzong sits on a narrow spur that sticks out into the gorge of the Mangde-Chu River and overlooks the routes east, west and south. It was built in such a way that in the olden days, it had complete control over all east-west traffic. This helped to augment the strategic importance of the Dzong which eventually placed its Penlop (regional ruler) at the helm of a united country when His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck became the first king of Bhutan. To this day, the Crown Prince of Bhutan becomes the Penlop of Tongsa before ascending the throne, signifying its historical importance.

We see our first Verditer flycatcher a brilliant blue bird that (guess who?) Don spots right below the bus. Some are wishing they had taken my advice on the nice binocs. Heidi is thoroughly enjoying hers. Some local village girls are carrying very large rocks on their backs up to the Dzong. This is payment for taxes due. The rocks are big, the girls small. Kay is delighted we are finally going to the longest Dzong in Bhutan. Greg is happy because there were apparently two Englishmen held captive her in the Duar War
Their arms were cut off and they are supposed to be somewhere around.

The Duar War was a war fought between British India and Bhutan in 1864-1865.
Britain sent a peace mission to Bhutan in early 1864, in the wake of the recent conclusion of a civil war there. The dzongpon of Punakha — who had emerged victorious — had broken with the central government and set up a rival druk desi while the legitimate druk desi sought the protection of the ponlop of Paro and was later deposed. The British mission dealt alternately with the rival ponlop of Paro and the ponlop of Tongsa (the latter acted on behalf of the druk desi), but Bhutan rejected the peace and friendship treaty it offered. Britain declared war in November 1864. Bhutan had no regular army, and what forces existed were composed of dzong guards armed with matchlocks, bows and arrows, swords, knives, and catapults. Some of these dzong guards, carrying shields and wearing chainmail armor, engaged the well-equipped British forces.
The Duar War (1864-65) lasted only five months and, despite some battlefield victories by Bhutanese forces, resulted in Bhutan’s defeat, loss of part of its sovereign territory, and forced cession of formerly occupied territories. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sinchula, signed on November 11, 1865, Bhutan ceded territories in the Assam Duars and Bengal Duars, as well as the eighty-three-square-kilometer territory of Dewangiri in southeastern Bhutan, in return for an annual subsidy of 50,000 rupees.

There are great vistas from here of our hotel and the river far below. The biggest Himalaya cypress we have ever seen growing patriotically on the grounds of the Dzong.
Done at 9 and we are off. Continuing west retracing our steps. We walk across the Japanese bridge made of Cortine steel our resident container expert tells us. The river is flowing harder. We bomb countries, the Japanese build bridges and roads. The sun is breaking through. Driving by the Black Mountain NP is simply incredible. The trees are glorious.

Pass the restaurant we had lunch in. But soon we need a “manny” so we stop for the bushes. Ascending the hill past the serpent. Himalaya dwarf bamboo getting thick as we head into the clouds. Back to yak country. The Nikka Chu is the river we are following now. Finally after 2’25” of driving we reach Pele La at 11061′ or so after traveling for 38 miles. We walk down the old road birding and flowering and watching the light play on the mountains far below. A mama yak intimidates the group but we muscle past. Gotta remember who is the dominant mammal on the planet.

Many birds seen – rufous vented yahina and Mrs. Gould’s sunbird are highlights. Back to the bus for a HOT lunch. Yummy it is good and we are hungry. The clouds come and go and the temp rises and falls but it is actually pretty warm for 11k feet. Down the hill we go at 2 and I give a brief but fascinating talk on cattle. I run on until I notice quite a few of you nodding off. White capped redstart. More Indian and Nepalese road crews.

Dropping down under the clouds it is warming up and the vegetation is definitely changing. We reprise the honey guide stop and have some tea while we are at it.
To our lodge by 415 after a total drive of 4′ 15″, 67 miles, we stopped along the way for 2 1/2 hrs to hike and eat and pee. Elevation here is 4687. We are happy to relax in the lovely gardens. Barking deer mom and babe are seen on the hill opposite the lodge, half way up. Hikes are taken up the road and across the foot bridge. Nice temp., rooms, ambience. The food here is vegetarian.

May 13

Great to sleep by the very loud sound of the Dang Chu. It began to rain in the morning but in keeping with our superb luck stopped at sunrise. Granola and porridge and bread for breakfast. Not quite enough for the power hike that 10 of us are about to make. At 8 all but Greg, Sally, Mamie and Laura hop on the bus with our snacks. We drive back up the road for just a bit and turn left and follow the Sha Chu. There is actually some old asphalt from a formerly govt owned shale quarry, now private. We cross the river and ASCEND the mountain on a very narrow, winding muddy road. Good work again Nema!
This hike is called the “hanging gardens of Bhutan” hike. We insist on a photo op and find our first native rodent of the trip. A chipmunk like critter on a chir pine. Cute. The Himalayan striped squirrel.

Finally not quite to the top of the mountain but about 55″ of driving and we are at 5800′ we begin our hike. Following irrigation ditches. The Egans suffer their first but not last BLOOD EVENT of the day. We clean Kay’s barb wire wound at a little village. Craig takes some photos which he promises to send. Very cute family. The day is overcast. We are tromping along terraced fields of wheat, buckwheat, and hay for cattle. I find a terrestrial leech to show all of you….later….

Today is one of three auspicious days of the month and people have been going to the temple to light butter lamps. They are dressed in their finest kiras. Eurasian cuckoos calling. Bulbuls out the Yazoo, crested bunting. We can see the temple and village buildings. They sure are far away. It is a challenge to keep balanced on the ditches. This is actually the first time we have gotten muddy feet. There is a full moon today. We find a spot to stop and eat our cliff bars (thanks Manny and Patty) and rest for a while. Then we finally get to the temple. no wait!!! that is not it!! we still have 20 minutes to go.
We can see Ugyen waving to us amid a flock of little red robed monklets. We reach the base of the temple amid large quantities of Cannabis sativa. We have walked 4.4 miles and it took 2 hours and 15 minutes of walking. But of course we stopped alot on the way IT is 12:15. Bush stop and final assault. It is warming up at midday. To our lunch we climb. The top is 6680′. Great view from the Sha Gompa built in the 18th century. Tasty lunch and great pictures from up there.

This Gompa has one of the finest historical Buddha in all Bhutan according to the Chief Abbott. .We go in with our shoes on. Ugyen has carted some yak candles up there as well as our lunch. We light them and make a wish. 20 young monks are here.

Meanwhile down in the valley at the Wangdue Dzong the others in our group are watching young monks learn their lessons or get whacked.

We start down at 105 in 40 minutes down a very steep trail the bus has driven up the valley to get us. We have dropped down to 5776 in one mile. That was pretty steep but fast. Nice irises just starting to flower. It still takes a half an hour to drive back to the lodge where our 4 buddies are waiting and so are tea and cookies. Mamie is looking good, thank god for Cipro, good genes and good vibes from the fellow travelers.

Suddenly there is a cry! a shout! a ripped off sock and blood. Mark has given some of his life force to another sentient being. I am sorry that this will have to go in the alternative journal. In the real trip with Michael Ellis and Footloose Forays, this did not occur.
Off we go at 3 retracing our route and it begins to rain. Aren’t we lucky? As we go west the traffic increases.
I make us stop in a hemlock forest for the most amazing Asarum aka Jack in the Pulpit. Looks like an elephant. Great chance for a bush break as well.

Many of the hoarded snacks are passed out as we realize we need to lighten our loads and the no reason to take all this stuff home. We arrive at Thimphu after driving 50 miles for 3 hours and 10 minutes with only stopping for 10 minutes a record for us!!!

7600′ in Thimphu. We are at the Pedlilng Hotel right next to the Swiss bakery and very convenient to town.
We go for a quick shower and then meet for dinner at 7 downstairs. We are the only dinner guests which is very nice since we are so loud. We give you our plan for the morrow, our urban experience. And our local guides head home to be with their family.
Dogs barking how unusual.

May 14 Thimphu

Major Dog fight last night but some of us slept well. The noise kept the Dogs of Bhutan calendar maker awake though. Off at 9 right on time with Palden in charge up the hill to see the takins.
Game enclosure overlooking Thimphu to view Takins (Bhutan’s national animal). We also see the musk deer and Sambar deer. Pretty depressing sight so we head down.

Takin Budorcas taxicolor tibetana
Classification and Range Little is known about the takin in the wild. There is only one species of takin (Budorcas taxicolor). It belongs to the subfamily Caprinae. The Mishmi takin (Budorcas taxicolor taxicolor) is distributed from Bhutan, Assam, northern Myanmar to the Chinese province of northern Yunnan
Habitat Summer: uppermost limits of treeline, reaching elevations ranging from 4,000-12,000 feet (1,219-3,658 m) Winter: forested valleys at lower elevations Size Male length, head-to-tail: 42-98 inches (105-245 cm) Male height, shoulder: 27-55 inches (68-137 cm) Weight Male: up to 880 pounds (400 kg); Female up to 550 pounds (250 kg) Life Span Life span in the wild is unknown; in captivity takin have lived for nearly 16 years Diet In the wild: Takins primarily forage in early morning and late afternoon hours. During summer months, they browse in alpine environments on a variety of herbaceous plants and the deciduous leaves of shrubs and trees. In winter months, takins feed on the twigs and evergreen leaves of a variety of woody species. At the zoo: Alfalfa, herbivore pellets, seasonal browse and some fruits and vegetables. Reproduction Little is known about the reproductive behavior of takins in the wild. They most likely sexually mature at about 2 years of age. The seasons for mating and birth of young may vary between subspecies. A gestation period of 200 to 220 days has been recorded in captivity. Birth is usually given in March or April to a single offspring, which is referred to as a kid. Captive birth weights range from 11-15 pounds (5-7 kg). Within three days of their birth, a kid is able to follow its mother throughout most types of terrain, which is critical when attempting to evade predators or traveling long distances to food sources. Life Cycle Takins appear to seasonally migrate to preferred habitats. During spring and early summer months, they begin to gather in large herds of up to 100 animals at the uppermost limits of treeline. During cooler autumn months, when food is less plentiful at higher elevations, herds disband into smaller groups of up to 35 individuals, and move to forested valleys at lower elevations. Groups mainly comprise females, subadults, kids and some adult males. Older males usually remain solitary throughout most of the year, but gather with females during the rutting (breeding) season. Although takins are mostly slow moving animals, when angered or frightened they can move quickly over short distances. If required, they possess the ability to leap from rock to rock on steep slopes as a means of escape. Takin Talk Takins use a variety of different sounds to “talk” amongst themselves. If danger approaches, a takin will emit a loud warning cough, alerting other takins in the herd. During the rutting season, males are often heard producing a low bellow as a warning or challenge to other competing males. Although takins have no skin glands, their entire body secretes an oily, strong smelling substance that is said to have a burning taste. It is believed that this smelly, thick substance serves as a moisture barrier on the animal’s coat, protecting it from moisture caused by fog and rain that frequents its grazing grounds. Golden Fleece – Impressive Horns Greek mythology tells of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts, who sailed the high seas on the ship Argo in search of the magical Golden Fleece. Jason may very well have been seeking the long, shaggy coat of the takin, which can be golden in color. Takins appear much like an ox, with strong legs and broad, round hooves. Their coat is dense and shaggy, with a stripe along the back. Coat color varies from whitish-yellow, reddish-gray, darker brown or gold. The tail is short and bushy. A bull’s face is often dark, while only the nose is dark on females and calves. All takins have an arched nose and hairy snout. When looking at a takin, the first thing likely to catch the observer’s attention is their impressive horns. Carried on both sexes, the horns arise from the midsection of their massive head, quickly curve outward and then sweep backward and upward to a point. Horns may reach up to 25 inches (64 cm) in length. Fascinating Facts Using their weight, takins often push over saplings to reach tender vegetation that would otherwise be out of their reach! Takins often travel long distances to naturally occurring mineral deposits “salt licks” to replenish minerals needed in their diet! China considers the takin a national treasure and affords the animal full protection under law!
Although takins are not currently considered an endangered species, increased human activities in the takins’ natural range are having a negative effect on their populations. There are less than 5,000 Sichuan takins and about 1,200 Shensi takins left in the wild. Less than 10,000 wild Mishmi takins remain. Deforestation caused by logging and agricultural expansion is reducing, or eliminating altogether, habitat required by takins during their seasonal migrations. Poaching is also having a dramatic effect on their numbers. Local native peoples hunt takins for their highly prized meat, which is contributing to their decline.

Sonam catches up with us. I guess he has been conjugating with his wife. We go back up the other side of the valley to the paper factory. Not working today but we get the overview and get to help the GNP of Bhutan, right Sally? It is a gorgeous day blue sky sun and warm bordering on hot.
Next to the handicraft store called Sangay Arts and Crafts. Golf excitement is really building. Mark and Craig hurry down to get a shirt at least but to no avail- all should out. More nus and tc and $$$$$ spent. Fixed price but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

We swing by the hotel and drop off the goodies and me, Patty and Don. We go have lunch at the Hotel Jumolhari with some government officials. Sangay the head of the Parks, a botanist and two women who run environmental education programs. The food is good (even the coffee) and the conversation stimulating. No birds seen however. Don refused to wear a gho but looked good in hisas coat and tie.

Meanwhile there is even more shopping, market viewing, archery watching. Craig and Laura go play golf and are very nice to the little caddie (let them play) and have a grand ole time. Manny and Patty watch archery and Manny gets to close. Some of us see them hit the target WAHA and do their little dance. Back for clean up laundry arrives and we are off at 5. LIFE IS GOOD!!!!.

We go up the hill to Sonam’s sister’s house. She is a master weaver and we watch some of her students do their weaving and then we buy buy buy buy. Much talent and work goes into this handicraft. Sonam’s sister’s husband is a former champion and I think the national archery leader. The park guy can pull the bow and eventually the corporate guy could as well. The tour guide however cracked some bones.

Good food and a national dance troupe came to entertain us. They are heading off to Holland soon. They dance the dances from each region of the country. We meet many interesting people mostly in civil service since the private sector is small here. We end the evening by dancing. Don thinks that the American male can’t dance but I think Manny was pretty good!! Of course he is half Panamian and half French. Back to the hotel way past our bedtime, pay our bills and tomorrow our last full day in Bhutan. Hopefully those bags are not too heavy with goodies!!

May 15 Paro

More dog fights, really big ones. They rule Thimphu! Early departure at 730 to drive back to Paro. Beautifully sunny day perfect for Dragons Nest. I saw my first Bhutanese snake but it was a road kill! As we were driving into Paro the plane flew right over our heads! Way cool. We can also see the nunnery we visited on our first day high up on the mountain. Quick stop by our hotel for a pee and then we continue up to the trailhead. By 1010 am we are on our way. Begin at 8500″

In one hour or so we have climbed 1000 feet in 1.5 miles to the tea house. Hurray! Everyone makes it. The path takes us through a forest of oak and rhododendron, arriving at a small chorten surrounded by prayer flags. With a little more effort, we will reach a teahouse and a spectacular view of Taktsang. Sonam tells us the story of the tigress and Guru Rinpoche.

We have some tea and goodies and then continue. Lunch may be a bit late on this day but many of us are stocked up on Manny and Patty’s cliff bars. Mark is out of Snickers, time to go home. Up we go… In the sun plenty of rhodos and a Dutchman’s pipe or pipe vine, vibrunusm, clematis, Hemlock, blue pine, To the overlook WOWOW Christmas card shots taken once again. Kay is glad she has some more film. Forktail swifts gliding around. This is spectacular! Now for the final event. Down the steep steps to the waterfall, prayer flags everywhere, Borage in flower. And then more up all the way to the temple where a guard checks our papers to make sure we have our permits. Of course we do Sonam is in charge. Thunder fills the valley, the weather is changing, The temperature coming up was a bit warm, and now the world is pregnant with rain. This huge rock wall does not appear to be granite to me.

We are at the Dragon Kingdom with a hike to the magical temple known as Taktsang (the “Tiger’s Nest). Taktsang is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan World. The temple itself is perched on a granite cliff that drops 2,000 feet to the valley floor. The name is derived from a legend that Guru Rinpoche flew across the mountains to this spot on the back of a tigress, reaching a cave in which he meditated for three months, converting the people of Paro Valley to Buddhism during his stay.

In 1998 there was a fire that burned a lot of this temple. It was a wake up call as Sonam tells us for the country. Many people cried because they had not made the pilgrimage. It has been rebuilt within the last five years and just reopened recently. We start with the first or uppermost temple the biggest. It has the largest roof on it. The tigress is here and fierce. The next one below has the most sacred relic in it that was not burned in the fire a stature of Guru Rinpoche. We see the sexual embrace of Yub (male) and Yum (female). The scary figures are different aspects of the same embrace. The disciples are on the wall directly painted onto the rock wall which bulges into the room. Finally to the third and the lowest as the thunder resounds; all is perfect. The most sacred spot in all of Bhutan the man responsible for bringing Buddhism to this country mediated in the cave here. We can peek into it and make a wish and drop a small offering of money. A monk is here and he blesses the beads of a young man who comes in with us. We are lead in chant again by Sonam and then we have our 10″ of silence in this most holy place. Another powerful spiritual unexpected event on our trip.

Down we go takes about 20″ to get back across to the overlook. Rain is spitting but never falls. The lucky club we are! From here to the teahouse is .8 mile takes 25”. Around 3 we have our lunch, one of those late ones I told you about. White throated laughing thrushes below us. 1000 feet down to the bus, Laura can’t believe she did the hike.

To the lodge to see our friends Mamie, Karin and Greg relaxing in the peacefulness of the Paro Chu. We meet at 7 in very poor neon light for our closing circle. This is our chance to share how the trip has affected us and our highlight.

Our shared sentiments-
Tea with the lama was very powerful, Queens Chorten esp. the silent time at the top. Need to all work to the common good, Dogs of Bhutan. Expecting little got much. THE LEECH. Kind and caring staff and fellow travelers. Tough to be sick in a foreign land. Wonderful Bhutanese people. Guides sharing their passion. The first day to the nunnery and the last day to Tigers nest. Roommate Heidi was great. Sonam did a superb job. Camping in Ura. The lama-to-be and our tea and conversation with him. The Queens’s chorten. Lighting the yak butter candles the first time. The group was fabulous. Meeting all of you. Felt sorry for other travelers that weren’t with us. Lama was great. Spiritual part of the trip was a surprise. Meeting people at the party rounded out the experience. Trip was well lead (except for MJE). Best group Sonam every had including Blythe and Russ groups. No problem clients! Insider Bhutan origin. The boss is right on every account. The whole place is a national park deserves our support to preserve.

Then we pass an envelope around for the blankets to buy for the nuns. We are a very generous group. We also donate many things that the people here can use. Next our last dinner together in this particular combination. You are a great group…

May 16 Paro to Bangkok

Another beautiful day in Bhutan; sun is shining, clouds clinging to the hills. Off at 830 we give the Sonam, Pelden, Ugyen and Nema their tip while we are still in the bus at the airport. This is an appropriate place considering how much time we have spent there.

Through security into the airport and then to the ticket counter. Window seat on right is supposed to be the best. Off and maybe we see some tall mountains. To Calcutta 90 and humid in the northern flats of Indian along the Ganges River. We stay in the plane and then continue or our 2 1/5 hour flight to Bangkok. The party breaks up here with 9 of us heading toward the Miracle and the rest scattering. Patty and Manny have 3 more days in Bangkok.

May 17th

I fly to London and the rest of you fly home. This was a great trip.

Tashi Delek



Posted on

August 6, 2009