Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Journey East

I'm sitting on the front step of my hotel room in Jakar to write some memories of the past couple of days travel to our new home in Bumthang (boom-tung). I'm looking over a flat broad valley, the river dividing plots of farming land where cows graze peacefully. Simple farmhouses made from grey stone and decorated in ornate Bhutanese fashion are spaced out along the riverside. High hills covered with blue pine circle us in all directions. It's chilly, but not too cold and so quiet. The only sound is the cawing of ravens, the Bhutanese National bird that fly in high loops overhead. I'm finding that Bhutanese are quiet people, they speak with each other in hushed tones, us Australians and particularly the boys, seem loud and brash in comparison.

So, on Tuesday the big group of us BCF teachers piled into two school buses and a ute to start the journey east. I found it hard to fathom how all our belongings would fit on top of the transport, but Karma who is a very able organiser coordinated the arrangement of all the things we'd bought inside and on the roof of the buses, and it seemed in no time at all we were on the road. The teachers who have placements near the capital or south of Thimphu came along for the ride as school doesn't start til the 13th (for teachers, students begin later) and the possibility of one more night together and seeing Punakha appealed to all.

Buses packed for the journey.

We travelled for only about 3 hours, the highlight being reaching the Dochu-la Pass at approximately 3100m. As we arrived at the top, our eyes literally widened and we murmured to each other about how awesome the views were. There's something about the sight of a ridge of Himalayan mountains that is so enchanting. We had plenty of time to climb up the nearby hills to take photos of the mountains, prayer flags and the 108 chortens that adorn the pass built by the eldest Queen Mother Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.  We were fortunate to have clear blue skies and a perfect view of the mountain range.

Prayer flags at the Dochu-La.

After the pass we travelled on to Wangdue (Wangdi) and settled into our hotel, Dragon 's Nest, and enjoyed another legendary buffet lunch - the cold weather has fueled my appetite for these buffet meals served three times a day throughout orientation - a tasty mix of Indian and Bhutanese cuisine, always accompanied by ema-datse (chillies and cheese - the national favourite) that I am growing very fond of. Wangdue was surprisingly warm (some of the teachers were wearing t-shirts but it wasn't t-shirt weather for Queenslanders!) and the river flowing past our hotel was clear and aqua in colour, enticing a couple of brave teachers to go for a dip after dark.

We were taken to visit Punakha Dzong in the afternoon, the image of which was very familiar as it is on many tourist brochures and websites.  The monks from Thimphu come here for the cool winter months and return to Thimphu in the summer. The vast size of the Dzong was not immediately obvious to me until I saw maroon-robed monks walking around the base of the Dzong, looking tiny in comparison. We entered the Dzong over an old covered wooden bridge spanning the river, and then climbed the steep ladder up to the main entrance. Inside a large courtyard built around a Bodhi tree is where all the main administration offices of the region are housed. Residents visiting these offices must come dressed in their national dress and in addition men wear a kabney (a white shawl) and women wear a rachu (a red scarf with beautiful embroidery) which shows respect.

Entrance to Punakha Dzong.

Karma in his Gho and Kabney.

 Remy and I at Dzong.

Moving further inside the Dzong we came to the monastery where important preparations are underway for the upcoming Tsechu (religious festival) held in mid February. By climbing       
up more steep steps we came to a viewing area over the main temple area where monks were mediating and occasional drums were sounded, while local mums with children looked.  on (the kids were running around with packs of chips in hand). Remy didn't have
 the patience to watch for long, so we left only to find out later that ritual masked dancers arrived and performed to the sound of chanting, horns and percussion. Hopefully at some point this  year we will have the chance to see a Tsechu at one of our local monasteries.

The second day of travel started with some very sad farewells to the teachers living and travelling in the Punakha area. The realisation that we all had to part ways hit me suddenly and after becoming friends with these teachers over the orientation time in Thimphu, it was hard to say goodbye. I hope that some will take us up on the offer to come and stay and enjoy cake, pizza and warm Bumthang hospitality with us in Chumey (can't wait for visitors!).

I had chatted with one of the teachers after the first day's drive that it was a little surprising ( and I admit disappointing)  that the scenery and small villages we had passed enroute to Punakha were so similar to Nepal and India. At times I even thought the green hills and the warmer climate reminded me of driving in the Gold Coast hinterland! Coming all the way to far away Bhutan I had expectations of something different. The second day's travel revealed the Bhutan I had been longing for : steep densely forested mountains, the road precariously winding around and around, we peered down deep below to a chilly and at times icy river far below. Where the mountain was protected from the sun, snow and ice remained, even waterfalls frozen in motion and then just around the next corner, the hillside could be bathed in sunshine with no sign of snow. Sometimes we came to wide open valleys, cleared for farming and scattered with traditional homes, the ground golden brown, the rice already harvested.      

We stopped for lunch at Chazam and said more goodbyes to our friends who would be  travelling to nearby Trongsa for their placements. Our bus merely passed through Trongsa   allowing us a quick glimpse of the Dzong and bustling town area. It looks like an interesting  place to explore so hopefully we will return to visit Kyle and Sarah sometime.

Lunch at Chazam included amazing shiitake mushrooms, spicy boiled eggs, red rice and of course ezay
(chilli salsa).

By the time we had got to the last leg of the journey we were all a bit weary from the travel. Luckily the kids were asleep on our laps so we could just watch the scenery pass by in silence. After another couple of hours we came to a sign welcoming us to Bumthang region and soon after a broad valley opened out. It was so beautiful as everyone had promised with simple wooden farm houses close to the road, many with signs out the front offering a bar or general shop. We were on the outskirts of Chumey, and soon rounded a corner to  see a familiar house -our house that former teacher Sabrina had photographed for us!

We had a quick look around (Sabrina, if you are reading we will now have the top left hand apartment, not the one you were shown). The other teachers on the bus helped us carry all our stuff up to the third floor, and we were told that our place was nicer than any they had seen a teacher stay in in Bhutan. We are very lucky to have a large new apartment with two bathrooms and a kitchen. When we visited,  the owner and his workers were busy completing the unit for us to move in: putting glass in the windows, and generally cleaning up. The grandmother has curtains to hang and after Losar (Bhutanese New Year which starts this weekend) a hot water system will be fitted to the bathroom and railings fitted to the stair well. Today we also bought a bukhari (wood heater) and this will make our home warm and cosy. 

So that brings us to here, The River Lodge in Jakar. The remaining teachers enjoyed what  was one of the last communal dinners with a glass of Australian red wine by the bukhari.   The pine timber panelled room decorated with all sorts of interesting artefacts is reminiscent of a European ski lodge (I think, not that I've ever been to one!). We had a sumptuous  dinner (the best we've had in Bhutan which is saying a lot!) featuring Bumthang specialty   buckwheat noodles.

A glass of Penfolds by the bukhari!

I can't finish without sharing our explorations of Jakar today. We began with more Bumthang specialities for breakfast: buckwheat pancakes with local organic strawberry and plum jam, honey and Swiss cheese from the nearby factory. We lingered over this breakfast, our first alone in Bhutan. The friendly hotel owner Mr Pema joined us and offered to take us for a drive to see the sights which was very kind. We piled into his landcruiser and headed out to see the new airport of which locals are proud. Now in 25 minutes you can reach Paro by air which takes two full days of driving to achieve. Already it is crossing our mind that this might be a good way to depart from Bumthang at the end of the year.
View from the River Lodge, Jakar.

We were also taken to a monastery dating from the 15th century, established by the saint Pema Lingpa. The monastery looks weathered with age, and we could hear chanting and horns coming from inside the temple, but weren't permitted to enter. We chatted with a young monk who spoke good English and learned about his life in the monastery. Mr Pema took us to the factory where bukharis are manufactured and we were lucky that one meeting our needs was available. He loaded it in the back of his car along with cheese we also bought from the Swiss cheese factory next door (Emmenthal and Gouda). He dropped us in Jakar town for a look around and only left us once he had bought chocolate bars for the  boys! What amazing hospitality!! We enjoyed looking around town and finding out what is available in the shops: pretty much anything we could need. I took the boys to a nice cafe for a piece of cake, and then we looked for a place for lunch. 

A chocolate doughnut for Remy.

Shopping in Jakar.

At the cross roads in Jakar.

In the afternoon Mr Pema again invited us to go sightseeing in town again. Mr Pema was an accomplished high school history teacher, principal and district education officer before retiring. He relished the opportunity to shower us in dates and enthralling stories of the history of the Bhutanese royal family. We visited two more monasteries, one dating back to the 7th century - Jam Lhakang - founded by the saint Padma Sambhava.

What a great day, and an amazing opportunity to sightsee in our new big town where we will visit often through the year for shopping, banking and other administrative tasks. I can't recommend a stay at the River Lodge highly enough! To finish up, I just wanted to add that we are super excited to move to our new house tomorrow, and perhaps welcome our first visitors the next day as we all have holidays for Losar. We may not have Internet for a while which is a bit hard to take, so I'm sure this wont be the last loooong post!


  1. I really enjoyed this, love the photo with Remy on your lap.. but one question, what is with the SKIVVY at the cafe? I swore I'd never put my child through that and despite a winter in the UK (and a NY in Scotland) I never have.. Please buy him a scarf if he's cold! ;-)

  2. Glad to hear that you are settled and looking forward to seeing the new home
    Enjoying your accounts very much now that we are back in Australia and missing Bhutan
    Getting more and more excited about the move to Tanzania

  3. Wow! what a great post Andrea - full of beautiful photos too.
    Can't wait til the next one xx