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Hike to Cheri, The Long Trip Home
More Sights in Thimphu

All images copyright to Kimberlee Adolph

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Blessed Day... Literally

 Over drinks on Thursday night Kinga’s friend Rinzin mentioned they had been having some Himalayan black bear sightings near the village of Bjeezum, just west of Trongsa. When they all saw me perk up at the mention of wildlife, changes to our program for Friday were quickly made. We would scrap the tour of Trongsa Dzong in the morning and go looking for the black bears!

As we got set to leave in the morning it was suggested we stop at the main prayer wheel and stock up on oranges for the hike; no one knew how long it would take to find a bear. Chensho even gave us a liter of ara in case it got too cold and we needed to warm up. When Gyalsten parked the taxi in front of the immigration outpost, Kinga noticed all the police had abandoned the building and were gathered around a small car loaded with luggage that was headed east to Bumthang.

I got my camera ready, loaded my pockets with oranges and was emptying my camera bag of the books and things we wouldn’t need when Kinga hurriedly called out to me. Apparently the car’s passenger was none other than the reincarnation of Pema Lingpa (read some of his story here). As a man who is believed to have attained enlightenment and discovered treasures from Membartsho, this was truly a holy man in the Buddhist religion. He gave each of us a card with a blessing written on it. There were seven of us and we stood in a line, each taking a turn to bow in front of him and have him give a personal blessing by placing a holy box on our heads. Our day hadn’t even started and it was already a raging success.

Kinga and Gylasten had an extra spring in their step as we crossed the bridge adorned with prayer flags to the remote village of Bjeezum. We asked every one we saw if any sightings had been made that day, but no one had seen anything. We walked for two hours, occasionally stopping at points that were particularly prime bear habitat, but apparently our luck had been used up in coming across Pema Lingpa. Our trek had taken us along the Wangdi Chuu and among forests of conifers. The day was clear and bright and I quickly was shedding layers. A few times we stopped, thinking we saw a bear, but it turned out to be a shadow or rock.

With many apologies the guys said we should head back and drive a little further up the highway to a different farm road. I was disappointed but couldn’t help but still be in awe that I was meandering in the alpine forests of rural Bhutan looking for Himalayan black bears. When we returned to the outpost, the police were excitedly speaking to Kinga in dzongkha. A black bear had spent the past few hours sunning and foraging on the slopes just behind the outpost. Of course it had!

The men had watched it lumber over a rocky outcrop but the place was visible from the riverbank and we were welcome to climb down to wait. Seeing as we had been walking for 3 ½ hours I wasn’t about to say no to a short rest. Plus, Kinga was determined to find a bear. So we sat in the blazing sunshine, staring at the side of a mountain. A police officer, a villager, and three school age boys joined in our vigil. It took about 45 minutes, but our black bear finally made his long overdue appearance.      

The long walk, the slight frustration, and the build up of anticipation finally culminated in a male, juvenile black bear snacking on grapes across the river. I had tears in my eyes as I sat with my feet dangling above the river rushing by, sharing oranges with the young boys, toasting my guides with the ara, and watching a wild Himalayan black bear. It had turned out to be a blessed day in every way. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Three Little Girls

Three little girls ended up taking a keen interest in the white lady among them. They had not yet learned English and couldn’t communicate with me, but they continued to inch closer and closer. When one of Gyaltsen’s sisters sat with me and began talking they clambered over and sat on her lap.

After awhile someone suggested they sing a few songs and do some dances for the older people still awake. That was all the prodding they needed and for the next 45 minutes or so I was treated to dances, songs, and chants. The youngest is 5 and she knew every move and word just like the older girls. When I brought out my camera they were overcome with giggles but didn’t miss a step. Some of the songs and movements I recognized from the festivals I had attended, but there is something quite different when they are performed on the spot by young girls, purely for their own enjoyment.

They sang by light of a kerosene lamp until we all drained our glasses of ara and scattered throughout the house to find an empty mattress and a few blankets to huddle under. I was quite lucky to get to have an experience that cannot be found on any tourist itinerary.  

The Puja

A Bhutanese puja can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The one being held at Gyaltsen’s parents home in Isa was due to last 12 hours. It begins early in the morning when the monks arrive and all offerings are brought into the altar room.  Here the monks (or in some cases nuns) will sit and chant readings from a prayer books. They also play drums, horns, and cymbals to ward off evil deities. Every house has an altar room that has a shrine to Buddha and at least five small goblets that are filled with water each morning. There are hand painted wall hangings called thangkas, seven butter lamps, rice or barley flour sculptures, and usually some form of musical instrument.

My drive from Thimphu took just over six hours due to road construction. I was able to meet up with Kinga and Gyaltsen at 3:15 in the main courtyard of Trongsa where we picked up offerings of beer and eggs for the hosts. We then drove for another hour to the home where the puja was being held. The village was very remote and they hope to have electricity by August.

From the street below I could hear the sounds of drums, the mumblings of monks, and see the smoke from the burning juniper. Straight up the hillside 20 minutes later, we were at the doorstep. Our gifts were gratefully accepted and Gyaltsen’s parents, who had been aware an American would be joining them for the occasion, greeted us. They had never received a foreigner in their home and this was a big event for them.

Since my arrival had not been confirmed due to obligations in Thimphu, the others attending the puja had not been told I would be there so it wouldn’t disappoint them if I couldn’t make the trip. This time the room literally did stop when I walked in. The only sounds were from the altar room… not a whisper from the 30 or so family and friends sitting in the living room who had previously been engrossed in conversation. Small children stared, old men and women unconsciously stopped spinning their prayer wheels, and even the kittens sat still.    

The silence was finally broken when Kinga introduced me and when I said “kuzuzangpo” it seemed to break the ice. Against my wishes, we were given the seats for the Chief Guests and served tea. Conversations resumed, traditional snacks were passed around, and the children began playing. Gyaltsen’s parents gave me permission to enter their altar room during the ritual and also take a few photographs.

It was another surreal moment to be in a Bhutanese altar room at dusk, lit only by candles, sitting among eight monks, listening to them chant, and ward off evil spirits. Again I found myself thinking, “who does this really happen to?” I couldn’t help but close my eyes, lean my head back on the wall, and breathe in the serenity.  

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Long Drive

The trip to Thimphu began at 9:30 (an hour later than planned) and I didn’t crawl into the queen size bed at Hotel Pedling until 10:00 that night. Karma Tempa (the WCP accountant) was driving with another member of the tourism industry to Punakha and he would give me a lift until that point. From there it would be another two hours by taxi to reach Thimphu. His wife and infant daughter were also going to Thimphu, so we would need a taxi that had room for two.

We stopped frequently and the drive went slow since Karma wasn’t as confident behind the wheel as the professional drivers and the road was icy. We took a break for lunch along the roadside and enjoyed rice with carrot or beef curry (I opted for the vegetarian choice) with some gorgeous views. Once we reached Punakha it took almost 90 minutes to secure a taxi that could take two more adults. The little girl would ride on her mother’s lap, just as she had done for the previous six hours of the trip.

It took every ounce of patience and every fiber in my newly-learned meditating body to survive that drive without nerves fraying to the bitter end. We were in a small Hyundai with five adults and one unhappy infant. The monk in the front seat mumbled prayers for two hours and the driver had somehow decided 1990’s rap would be the perfect choice for navigating winding roads in the darkness.

All the tension washed away when I settled into a hot bath and was able to get completely clean for the first time in months (though I did feel bad for the maids who would have the job of scrubbing the ring of dirt the next morning). For the next two days I was shuttled between the office of the videographer, WWF headquarters, and the hotel. I was able to meet up with Jan and Ute one final time for dinner Tuesday night and the highlight of the short vacation to luxury was the long awaited arrival of Mom and Dad’s package.

Monday evening was spent curled up in a brand new Snuggie, snacking on walnuts, and watching ESPN… it was almost like being home.  

Friday, January 22, 2010


In rural Bhutan it is crucial that one be able to provide for themselves. This includes clothing, housewares, food, and drinks. Villages typically will have at least one craftsman for each vocation in order to limit trips to the main town, which can be more than a day’s walk away.

The majority of the homes we visited had at least one loom for weaving kiras, ghos, blankets, or scarves. The women were the ones who most commonly operated the looms and various types were available. Some consist of two sticks placed between logs and the simple pattern is woven from yak yarn. Others were much more complicated and had foot pedals, many colors, and metal tools used to make the most intricate designs. Young girls are taught the skill from an early age.

Bamboo weaving is conducted by both men and women for many different applications. It is not uncommon to drive over bamboo sticks laid in the road by weavers to help flatten and soften the fibers. Baskets, floor mats, fencing, and room dividers are all created from different types of bamboo weavings.
These two pastimes are typically performed in the evening after work in the fields, school, or the paid jobs are completed. The workday ends a 4:00pm in the winter and dinner is served at 7:00, leaving two hours of light to work.   

The Plan for the Week

Things are really starting to get super busy for me as I am getting engrossed in the documentary work and Kinga is continuing to take me all over Bhutan!

Sunday the 24th I will head from Bumthang to Thimphu where I will check in a hotel for a few days! (A hotel means a real shower and I couldn't be more excited about that!) On the 25th and the morning of the 26th I will be working with our videographer going over footage, concepts, and determining if we need to go out into the field again. The afternoon of the 26th I will catch a bus for the trip to Trongsa where I will meet up with Kinga to go see the watch tower, a couple waterfalls and a few more goembas. I will get to witness the annual puja of Gyaltsen's house on the 27th which I am very happy about. We will head back to Bumthang on the 29th just in time for the weekend!

Lots to do and lots to see in the next 7 days! This photo was taken on the 20th when we dropped in on some of Kinga's friends on our way home from Nasgephel (we had given them a ride earlier in the day so they were expecting us). The mother of the house was trying to teach me how to use her prayer wheel, but I couldn't get right. You can see her laughing to the left.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Animals That AREN'T Red Pandas

Blood Pheasant, Barking Deer (muntjac), &; Black Necked Cranes

This post will continually be updated with critters we have found during our hunt for the red panda. Kinga has made it his mission we find one... he has everyone he knows looking and they will call him when/if they see one at which point we jump on the bike and go find it!

A Few of Me

Because Mom likes pictures with me in them and Kinga loves to take them!

Photo1: Some of the boys were willing to let me try archery with their traditional bows.

Photo 2: After the 20 minute climb straight up the hillside to a remote goemba.

Photo 3: Sitting with a monk on a vacation from the monastery to visit his family.

Yak Cheese Day

January 21st was spent among the rural people of Chokhar and has become one of the special days on this trip. Kinga declared it “Yak Cheese Day” because we needed some way to commemorate the day and it was the first time I tried yak cheese.

It started with a drive to the remote villages in Nagsephel (where the Nomads’ Festival was held), along which we were lucky enough to spot two different families of Black Necked- Cranes. I was able to get closer to them than I previously had at Phobjika and it was a rare sight for them to be in the Bumthang valley this late in the season. This made three straight trips away from the office with wild animal sightings… we were on a roll!
We got to the main village (which consists of about 5 large buildings) just before lunch, but since one of the buildings was the home of one of WCP’s hospitality trainees, they were ready for us. The women welcomed us into their living room and the three of us (Kinga, Gyaltsen, and myself) took our seats on carpets on the floor. We were served tea and biscuits while Kinga put in an order for lunch. At least one dish would be prepared light on the chilies and with no meat for me.

Since it would be awhile Kinga took me on a tour of a typical village in Bhutan. There was an old prayer wheel spun by a small tributary, a chorten for the religious to make their offerings, little boys practicing khuru under an old Cyprus tree, and some women weaving while chattering away in dzongkha.
When we turned one corner we came upon an old wooden shack with smoke billowing out. A toothless old woman was inside clanging pots and working feverishly to keep the fire smoldering while mashing something in another metal pan. This was where they made ara. Ara is a strong alcohol that is the pride of every house and made of rice, barley, corn, or wheat. It is distilled, brewed, and filtered in the same small building and burns going down like nothing I have tasted before.

After lunch we hiked up to the main temple in the village. It didn’t look too tough from below, but I wasn’t aware we would literally be climbing straight up the side of the hill. Some times we were going hand over hand like a ladder… much more vertical than horizontal. Since we were all off different skill levels in hiking, we each were on our own which made the chanting, drumbeats, horn blowing, and guitar strumming that much more surreal.

The view was definitely worth the climb and one wouldn’t guess how sacred of a place the temple was. Apparently it was built decades ago and had been knocked down by a multitude of natural disasters. The last one happened about 25 years ago and during the reconstruction, one of the builders discovered a rock with Guru Rinpoche’s (the second Buddha) footprint on it. The stone was placed inside the temple and since then, no harm has come to the building.

We trekked back down and stopped at some houses along the way. Every house asked us in for a cup of tea or ara. They were so welcoming and friendly and expected nothing in return. It was on our second stop when we were served yak cheese with the ara, that Kinga decided it would be Yak Cheese Day.  I was given the chance to sit a loom, play archery, chat with a monk, and make an attempt to spin a prayer wheel. We also saw many more places bearing Guru Rinpoche’s footprint and the elders were the most 
excited to show off these landmarks to a foreigner.

We didn’t spend the day in fancy hotels or restaurants. We weren’t pampered or following any kind of planned itinerary. We were playing it by ear and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a day. I saw how the people of Bhutan live every day and was the recipient of their pure generosity. In a country thought to be so poor… their spirits couldn’t be more rich.     

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


The first stop on Tuesday was Membartsho (The Burning Lake). It was about a 30 minute trip East of Jakar and then a quick hike down the gorge. The path was only 4 feet wide in places and the other side was a steep ravine cut into the mountains by the Tang Chuu (River). There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of prayer flags strewn across the bridge and in the trees. The 17th was a National Day of Offering, so many were brand new and offered a stark contrast to flags that had been hung years before and were not faded and tattered.

The history of the spot goes back to the 15th  century when Pema Lingpa is said to have jumped into the lake and retrieved treasures of the Buddhist religion. This occurred twice after a meditation session directed him to a spot where ”the river forms a large pool that looks like a lake.” The second jump for treasures was witnessed by many people and is how the spot came to be known to the non-enlightened. It is believed that those who have reached true enlightenment can look into the pool and see the golden palace beneath the waters.

While none of us saw anything in the waters, the place is truly serene. One can stand below the bridge and sit among the boulders that line the river. It is away from any main roads so the only sounds one hears are the rustling of the prayer flags in the wind and the constant rush of the river. 

Learning How to Bend

I am beginning to think there may be no actual point in making any kind of plans, because they are just going to keep changing! Another thing to learn.. one must be flexible! The trip to Ura and Thrumshingla National Park finally took place on Monday morning. It was planned that we would stay overnight and go into the forest with a ranger who had a little more experience in the area than Kinga. Upon our arrival we found the Chief Forestry Officer and the rangers were all gone to a meeting. Alas we only spent one day in Ura but were able to visit the monastery there and did some hiking along some roadside trails. 

Kinga informed me that if I want to see animals I need to get to Royal Manas National Park. That park is about 10 hours away and is on the border with northern India... needless to say, I am working on it. 

He wanted me to be happy though so he planned a cultural excursion for Tuesday and another long hike Thursday through Friday. Tuesday was great! We saw some new places including Membartsho, Mani Dungkhor, Chakhar Lhakhang, and Namke Nyingpo Goemba (I am standing on the courtyard of this monastery in the first photo). Kinga also insisted we visit some places I had found on my own because we could go inside and he could tell me more about them. This was great advice because it makes a huge difference once you get through the doors! So back I went to Wangdichholing Dzong, Jampey Lhakhang, and Kurjey Lhakhang.

It was a busy day and I will put up a few posts on some of the individual highlights from the tour. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ura for the Day

The trip to Ura began at 9:30 on Monday morning. Kinga, who is a forester with WCP, had arranged for a taxi to take us on the 58km (36 miles) journey. The pavement is as wide as a single lane road back home, but divided into 2 lanes. When one comes upon a car going the opposite direction, one of the cars has to pull off the road to pass.

The road has many tight turns as it climbs to 11,200 feet to the main town of Ura. Most of the waterfalls were frozen and snow was still on the ground from the overnight storm. We stopped two or three times at various points overlooking the valleys. The mountains are all around us and become a faint blue the farther south you look. Turning north, one can see the valley of the remote villages we just passed through and the snow caps of Bhutan’s highest points peek over the lower ranges of the Himalayas; all of it is covered in forest. Bhutan currently boasts a 70% forest cover rate and the constitution states it must maintain a minimum of 60% at all times, thus insuring the environment and the animals in it.

Because the Chief Forestry Officer for Thurmshingla Park was not in for the next few days we were only able to stay for the day. Our first stop was for a quick lunch in the one “hotel” in the town… potatoes and rice! Next we visited the Rinchen Jugney Lhakhang which was built in 1308. Though from outside the building is rundown and looks to be in need of repair, it houses three enormous bronze statues of the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. (Pictures are not permitted inside monasteries.)

From there we walked 3 miles into the forest and looked for any animals. We found barking deer, blood pheasant, and Himalayan monals… no red panda though. On the drive home we came across a government labor camp where men were winding down their day playing khuru and let me have a chance to throw the darts. It was a nice way to spend a day out of the office.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quick Update!

Sunday marks the official halfway point of the trip and I can say it has been amazing so far! It also feels like I have been gone for more than two months!

I am heading to Thrumshingla National Park (about an hour East of Bumthang) with one of the WCP rangers to see if I can find one of the red pandas I so desperately want to see. We will head out around 9:30 Sunday morning and head back Tuesday morning. There is also a ton of cultural points of interest in Ura as well, so the trip will be great for sure!

Just keeping everyone updated on my day to day going-ons. I beat my first battle with food poisoning last night as well.. not so fun.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tid Bits of Perspective

These are a few little pieces of information that I just have to share, but don’t really make up an entire post on their own.

1.     1. Mornings when I wake up to a frozen ground are days destined to be a little more difficult. Typically that means the water is still frozen, so I will have none flowing through the pipes until 10 or so.

2.     2. The highest count of bug bites peaked last week at around 75, but I think I now have a control on it with precisely placed insect repellant sprays each night. So thankful I brought Calamine Lotion!

3.     3. Last weekend’s excursion to go find the red pandas was put on hold because we couldn’t drive to the trail heads 50km away… the town ran out of gas.

4.     4. Every morning I wake up to some form of livestock grazing in front of the apartment. Usually cows, but there have been horses and donkeys. They are also ever present outside my office windows.

Looking forward to expected snowfall on Thursday!!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

To say Saturday was my least favorite day on this trip so far would be a massive understatement. After having spent time with more locals and their helpful corrections to my guidebook, I had chosen a few dzongs and other holy places I wanted to visit this weekend. I figured I would do this on Saturday and save the laundry and house cleaning for Sunday. My body and immune system apparently had other plans. I had felt a sinus infection coming on and was doing my best to fight it with Vitamin C, warm water, and rest. My need to conserve the few medications I brought with me is quite high.

The cold days, long nights, early mornings, and freezing temperatures of the past seven days at the Festival finally caught up with me and I was down for the count. So instead of walking for hours in the remote villages of Bumthang I was on the floor, in my sleeping bag, next to the heater only moving to get more water to take Sudafed. I slept for 14 hours and went through an entire roll of tissues. Of course this was the first clear day since the snowfall on the 31st. I was not about to waste another day when Sunday morning came with bright sunlight and clear skies.

Thankfully I felt much better and I knew I would be able to manage a short trip. About 45 minutes up the road I found Jamphey Lhakhang; a temple whose main stupa was constructed in 659. Believed to be the oldest temple in Bhutan, it is considered a sacred site and the most celebrated of Bhutan’s festivals is held here in October. I circumambulated the temple three times (maintaining the Buddhist tradition) and oddly followed three elderly women. The morning had leant itself already to be a day that I would need guidance, since I was following memorized directions and my propensity for getting lost is higher than most. On my way out the front gate I passed three elderly monks repairing prayer wheels... again I saw this may be some kind of special day.  

I took a dirt trail farther into the village and after crossing a half frozen stream, I came upon a huge white monastery and newly constructed temple. I later learned this houses one of the many body prints Guru Rinpoche is believed to have left in Bumthang during his periods of meditation. On my way home I decided I wasn’t quite ready to be done walking. I thought a stop in the Handicrafts Emporium would make a good diversion and only added another 30 minutes to the walk anyway.

I came upon some men playing archery on a pitch in the Wangdechholing Dzong’s entryway. Some young men were perched on a stonewall on the road above the game enjoying the festivities so I sat to join them. I had brought an apple with me and picked up a bottle of water along the way and this seemed as good a place as any to stop and take a breather. The players were much better than most I had seen before so I went down closer to take some photos and videos of the fun celebrations the teams do when an arrow hits the target.

Once I had my fill I turned to go back up the road home. Chorten (a man I knew as a friend of Administrative Assistant at the office) asked me if I would please stay for lunch as a guest of the Dasho playing in match. I said sure, assuming the Dasho was the local gup of Chakhar. Turned out it was the former governor of Bumthang and now works closely with the King on development projects for the destitute of Bhutan. I ended up spending six hours watching the match, chatting with the players, and just soaking up the experience. They even managed to drag me up to join them in their closing ceremony dances!

I have been told many times the Bhutanese are a happy people and sitting around a fire with them on a bright Sunday afternoon, enjoying their food, sipping their finest whiskey (which is ever present) I couldn’t help but be awed by them. No picture or video would do any of it justice. For this reason I fear my favorite and most cherished moments of Bhutan will not be adequately shared with others. They will reside within my heart and become memories I can’t ever forget.

His companion for the day was another Dasho (Karma) who worked for the Wellness Center (similar to the US’s welfare system) running the census programs. This gentleman formerly worked for the National Parks system and is based in Bumthang currently! What luck! Chorten works for Karma and I now have two people dedicated to seeing that I get to experience all I can in Bumthang before I depart. We are heading for Thrumshingla National Park on Saturday for a day trek!

I can only look back on the weekend and wonder… if I hadn’t gotten so sick on Saturday, I would never have stumbled upon this game. I would have missed this opportunity. Perhaps that one day of misery was a right of passage to earn a day basking in the joyous nature of Bhutanese life and the opening of the door for all my other adventures on weekends in Bhutan? Maybe I’m reading too much Thoreau… maybe I’m looking too deep in things… but maybe I’m just reconnecting with the inner part of me that allows one to be guided along a path. To take each day as it is and live in the moment is truly what the core of the culture is about.

One conversation was had beneath an old tree with Dasho Dorji.  Explaining what was at the heart of Buddhism he told me something I have come to take to heart… “The moment we stop to ask ourselves if we are happy, we cease to be so.” Be happy in the moment that is now, for what else is there?