Saturday, August 6, 2011

Final Post

Traveling in Bhutan means unpredictable (unavailable in my case) internet service. None the less, I am back in the Western half of the country now, making preparations to leave.

In the valley of "Ura" I visited a small monastery. The monks were attending a special ceremony up the road where a higher up lama was giving blessings, so we had a little time to kill until they returned. While we waited, my guide informed me that the people in this part of the country are renowned for their generosity.

This friendly woman approached and offered us all kinds of things including "ara." I had heard about this stuff by way of signs in the hospital warning of the dangers of alcoholism. Ara is home brewed alcohol, true Bhutanese moonshine. Now notice the size of the thermos next to this woman. It was full. Enough to flatten the entire town. Bhutanese liken ara to Japanese sake.

Well, when in Bhutan....She offers up a bowl about like what you might eat won-ton soup out of in a Chinese cafe. Holding it out, she proceeds to fill it to the brim. I take a sip and then perform an act of head and neck acrobatics, simultaneously suppressing my gag reflex, while smiling at the woman, nodding and bowing in thanks, and looking around for an escape to this predicament. And then the nausea hit as this poison reached my stomach. I was then informed by my guide that it is customary to always accept a second portion of anything offered, regardless of how small it may be, even a few drops more (I'm not kidding about this). This woman proceeded to fill my bowl up again overflowing the rim this time.

Thank God (or Buddha as the case may be) for photography. You see, I had my camera with me and almost without thinking, I grabbed it from the ledge on which it sat, brought it up to my eye, started snapping as I chased after some children running around the corner. As soon as I was out of sight I accidentally spilled my entire bowl of this wicked potion into a rain puddle. Phew.

Here is my guide Pema standing by "The Burning Lake."

Here is my driver Hamraj and our van.

We all know that these dzongs and monasteries I have shown pictures of were built hundreds of years ago, in the 7th. and 8th. centuries. Remarkable how they have stood the test of time with little in the way of restoration. Now, unless I'm mistaken, there was no running water back then. So I would like to conclude by answering that question burning in everyone's mind, "where do the monks bathe?"

So that's all for now. See you back in the states.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


The roads in Bhutan have something less than a stellar reputation. I am here to confirm that as truth. I have now driven from Thimphu to Jakar, the main city in a region known as  Bumthang. Actually, I did none of the driving. This was left up to my driver, Hamraj who is employed  by the tour company which arranged this trip for me. We are accompanied by Pema who is my guide. He makes all the arrangements and makes sure I don't do anything too stupid.

So back to the roads. I told the tour company that I had little interest in just sitting in the van for endless hours just to reach another town and look at the local sights. We agreed that a bicycle would be brought along and I could get out whenever I wanted and ride for as long as I wanted and then be picked up again. The itinerary would be viewed as only a guideline and could be altered as mutually agreed upon by me and Pema. In any event, we drove for 5 hours one afternoon, covering a whopping 110 kilometers. For those of you math whizzes, that is an average speed of 22 km/hr, or 13.2 miles per hour.

Now you might ask how that can be when we spent the entire time on a road known as the main east to west highway in Bhutan. Well, the word highway is a bit of an exaggeration. Actually it is a complete misuse of the word to apply it to what we drove on. The slight cutout made into the side of the mountains resembled more of what a civil engineer might create in order to indicate their intent to some day construct a road there. It varied in width from 1/2 to 3/4 lane and had intermittent sections of pavement. It followed every curve of the terrain and I maintain a few extra's were thrown in there by the construction crews just for fun and to add to the challenge. The interesting part wasn't even the road itself or the rain or mud. It was the fact that this is a two lane road and an estimated 50% of the vehicles are full sized dump trucks carrying rock, dirt, cement, rebar and other construction materials. So how do cars pass each other?

I  should mention here that horn use in Bhutan is quite different than in the U.S. They are not used out of anger or frustration but rather as a communication tool and their use is encouraged. One relays a message to a slower moving vehicle in front of you that you would like to pass and they will then pull over at the next convenient place and allow you to drive by. Horns are routinely blown when entering a blind curve on the road to warn oncoming traffic of your presence. They are also used as a courtesy warning to pedestrians, livestock (commonly grazing alongside the road and for some reason lying in the middle of the road), and bicyclists. Somehow, vehicles get by each other, sometimes by no more than inches though.

So we got one flat tire on the way, changed it without any problem to the spare but have discovered that the damaged tire cannot be repaired. So we are driving with no spare until we return to the capital city in a couple days over the same road that caused a flat in the first place. Oh well, at least I have the bike to bail out onto if we get stuck. The spare bicycle tube I brought is still unused. I told Pema I would call for help when I reached the next town. Anyhow, we finally arrived in a town called Gangte, located in a wonderfully, beautiful valley in which several hundred of the endangered black neck cranes spend their Winters. I don't know that I have ever been so glad to pull into a hotel parking lot. The next day I rode the bike the 80 or so kilometers to the next town.