Many Dzongs and a Tigers Nest

Thimphu – Bhutan.

Bhutan is certainly the kind of country that will keep your average mountain goat entertained. There is an abundance of trekking to be had although you cannot scale their highest mountain as it is strictly forbidden (as is any peak over 6,000m in the country), thus making it one of the highest peaks in the world not to be summited. But I wasn’t on a trekking holiday and with only five days to soak in as much himalayan fresh air as possible, what else is there to do? Well, if you like a good ode Dzong look no further as Bhutan has plenty of them.

A Dzong, or Dzong architecture is basically a fortress which looks more like an ancient palace or even a type of monastery. In fact I would suggest they are a little bit of everything. Interestingly, every new building in Bhutan has to be built in the traditional way or at least end up looking like a traditional building by the end of it’s construction, hence why every building has the same but wonderfully styled roof. Pretty much all Dzongs in Bhutan are impressive and the one in the countries capital of Thimphu is just that. More of a fortified monastery, it comes with a compliment of monks and just so happens to be the home of a lot of official parliament stuff and the summer seat of the king if I remember rightly. Fun fact, the people of Bhutan voted for a monarch at the beginning of the twentieth century. Before that time there was no royal family. Now I don’t want to sound a kill joy but I am only (just) 33 years old, I have seen my fair share of temples, forts and palaces and so an hour of history and looking around usually suits me just fine and as luck would have it we had a lot more to get in with. Hitting the road we wound our way through the mountains stopping for mid morning smoko and a chocolate eclair. A few more hours of stunning scenery flew by and we stopped for a yummy lunch. An hour or so after that we arrived at a monastery in the Phobjika Valley. Tea breaks, great no nonsense food, 8% beer, long but spectacular mountain drives, monasteries and Dzongs. This summed up Bhutan for me and I bloody loved it. The valley that neither you or I can pronounce is the valley I mentioned before. Perfect for an international airport although it has already been claimed by the black neck cranes. We took a walk around the valley and spotted some of the cranes chilling out in a field. Not being an avid bird watcher that is all I have to say but apparently they are a big reason for visiting the country. Don’t get sad if you don’t get to see any cranes though because the peace and beauty of the valley is simply pure bliss.

It was a cold night in the valley yet that didn’t deter us from heading out into the pitch black village in search of a bar. Although the village couldn’t have been home to more than a few hundred people, we had passed at least three ‘restaurant cum bars’ (apparently Latin for ‘restaurant with bar’) on the way to our accommodation earlier in the day. Everywhere appeared closed but we chose a bar and piled through the door into a cold, dark, empty room but no fear a surprised lady walked through a side door and started to take our orders. Before we had chance to pour our wetties, our tour guide and bus driver appeared from the same side door and pretty much herded us into what can only be described as the owners living room. Here a log burner sat in the middle of the room blasting out the heat and in no time we found our beer glasses constantly topped up and plates of food being handed around. We had clearly gatecrashed our tour guides quiet night in with some local friends but their hospitality towards us was second to none. Several hours later around 11pm we called it a night and fumbled our way up a dark hill back to where we belonged.

The following day we began to trace our steps back towards the capital but not before visiting the local fertility temple. It’s hard to explain a village with cocks drawn all over the walls and replicas in shop windows without sounding unnecessarily crude but that was the scene that we faced. Walking through the village and resisting the urge to buy a keyring we ended up at the fertility temple aka Chimi Lhakhang. Long story short, a chap thought that Buddhism could be practiced in it’s entirety while also enjoying the pleasures of life such as alcohol, sex, singing and just generally having a laugh. Unsurprisingly this caught the imagination of some people and to this day phalluses (I’m guessing Latin also?) are painted on houses as a source of protection from spirits or something to that affect. How seriously this taken now I’m not so sure but one thing that is certainly taken seriously is the ability for the temple to assist with couples who have struggled to conceive. So forget IVF, make a trip to Chimi Lhakhang, make an offering, a fiver should do it, say a few prayers, get blessed and have fun on returning to the hotel. In this instance I had to make do visiting another Dzong yet nevertheless we had been blessed for it was simply stunning. Heading back to Thimphu there lies the Punakha Dzong between two large rivers that meet. I wouldn’t be exaggerating by saying it is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Accessed by an equally wonderful bridge over the crystal clear river, even with a few tourists knocking around the place it maintained it’s peace and beauty.

Our penultimate day was an expected tour highlight day. These days more often than not meet expectations but sometimes you can end the day feeling a bit cheated. On saying that, anything that requires a bit of effort to get to usually ends up being epic and today was not going to be an exception. We were warned it would take a good two hours of uphill hiking to get to the Tigers Nest, an ancient monastery perched on a cliff 900 meters above the valley floor. We love a challenge and made it in under ninety minutes despite sudden gusts of wind that came from nowhere, sweeping up clouds of dust and at times trying to blow you off the trail. Walking through pine forest almost to the top, the Tigers Nest was never far from view as you would probably expect from a building stuck to the side of a mountain. Built several centuries ago around a cave where a monk meditated for a wee while, the whole place actually burnt down back in 1998, killing one unlucky monk. I almost felt a bit cheated upon hearing this as I walked around the current reincarnation of the monastery. Then I suppose that is quite fitting for the religion, and also the builders had managed to retain the centuries old look, as I’m sure you would appreciate such a building would take quite a battering from the elements. As delightful as the building is, it is obviously the location that makes the whole event rather epic. It looks impressive from below, even more so head on, and when you look beyond the monastery and out across the Himalayas one can’t help but be a little awe-struck.

Even the end of the trek had something to offer. As I was nearing the carpark nestled in the woods, a huge gust of wind came down from the mountain, tearing through the trees sending branches flying through the air in a cloud of dust. Even the locals were running away from their wee curio stores, afraid a tree may fall on their heads. This was a justifiable response considering the sounds of large branches falling off trees and I swear I’ve never seen full grown pine trees bend over quite so far without snapping. I almost reached concern at one point but the wind disappeared as fast as it arrived. Turns out it had left a trail of destruction as our bus driver repeated the phrase ‘Oh my God’ and pointed out all the fallen trees and torn off shed roofs as we headed further down the valley. Thankfully he stopped at someones house/bar and ordered us beer before heading back up the mountain to ferry down the rest of the group that were coming down form the Tigers Nest at a more leisurely pace. That was fine by me as I caressed my beer in front of the log burner in the afterglow of a very memorable afternoon, lost in my thoughts. The perfect end to the perfect trip.

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