Tag Archives: Thimphu

Epic Mission, Great Adventure

I face the 3rd last mountain pass trying to get back to our base camp.  Tashi and I are out front, another two are about 15 minutes behind us and another group of three is at least 90 minutes behind them.  We’re in a white out, I want to say that low cloud cover has smothered us but since we are at least 4.3km (14,000ft) above sea level somehow I think the clouds are exactly where they are meant to be.  Not realizing the height at which we would trek to, I had not taken medication to combat altitude sickness, I’m nauseous, my legs are exhausted and have been for the last three hours, with every step is a struggle.

We left from the telecommunication tower above Thimphu at 7.30 that morning.  Backpacks filled for the overnight camp.  I have our dinner packed away in my rug sack and we take it in turns to carry the tents.  It takes us 4 hours to climb to Phajodhing monastery from 2,300m to 3,600m where we eat lunch.  We drop off the backpacks into the monastery, we’ll camp here tonight.  At 11.45am we set out on the second half of the climb and what we believe will take us 2hrs to reach our destination, Simkotra Tsho, a high mountain lake.  The first hour and a half gets up to the first pass at Thujedrag Goenpa (4,070m).  The first signs of the near permanent snow is scattered across the mountain peaks which are laid out before us.  Kinlay, who has trekked this route, known to as the “Druk” path, 9 times but the last time was over ten years ago.  He believes that the lakes are just over the next mountain pass.

Five passes later and we reach the lake, its visible we’re all shattered; we look down on the lake from a cliff ledge as it is laid out below us, about the size of a football pitch, perched above the valley far below.  Three of the group discuss going down the 150m to the lake edge, I have no problems in letting them know that I’m not able.  I really feel the altitude at this point and my stomach is doing summersaults.  The three start the descent as we wait, its 4.00pm at this point.  It’s taken us over 4 hours to get here and I’m conscious that we have only a couple hours of light left.  I decide I’m going to start back to camp and the other three are only too keen join me.  We signal to the others that we’re off.   The clouds have moved in at this point.  One of our group is suffering from a bad headache, a sure sign of altitude sickness while the second is nauseous.  All four of us are beyond tired.

The third last mountain pass was a bitch, Tashi and I broke away from the other two, I knew I needed/wanted to get to a lower altitude.  The gradual incline for more than a kilometer rising to a height of 4,300m was killing me.  We stopped at least five or six times, from our snail’s pace, to rest and catch our breath.  We finally get there.  We make it back to the last pass above Phajodhing at 5.20pm and wait for the two behind us.  I was worried, Kinlay was pretty sick and I could see in his face he was scared.  Tashi and I had agreed to wait at the pass as long as we could, leaving enough light for the hour hike into camp.  We decide if it came to it, we would leave our hiking poles on the path with our torch so that the other two could use them to find their way back down.  The sun had set at this point.

Luckily after 20mins they came into sight and 15 mins later they made it to the pass.  None of us were as concerned for the three we left behind.  All local, they did not seem to be as affected by the altitude.  Tashi and I made for home.  One of the benefits of the steep decent is the reversal of the otherwise deadly altitude sickness.  If I learned anything from a month in Nepal 8 years ago is if you feel it, you must descend immediately.   Tashi and I got back just before nightfall just as the wind and hail picked up.  The other two were 10mins behind.  The monks were a godsend, giving us all hot water.  I, along with the others, were frozen.  The other three arrived back two hours later in pitch darkness, a little worse for wear.  Boy we were glad to see them.  They had wandered off the path four times in the darkness, but thankfully each time realizing it before they had gone too far.  The wind and hail has beaten into them but they had two got torches.  Feeling like, what I can only describe as shit, we went to pitch the tents…..I’m the only one out of seven who had done this before, I couldn’t believe it!  We collected firewood and managed to get a camp fire going, wet wood and all.  It took us until 11.00pm to get dinner cooked but boy was it good.

In hindsight we should have acclimatize at Phajodhing before trekking to the lakes the following day.  It went from an adventure to an epic mission but we made it.  Lesson learned – prepare better!

We’re already planning our next trek! 😉

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Tigers Roar

The Thongdrel is over 400 years old, four stories in height and about 25m wide as it is hoisted up on the front of the monastery building.  It depicts Guru Rinpoche (the second reincarnation of Buddha) and his bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.  It is unrolled by monks in the top floor of the monastery who winch the Thongdrel up as a team of around fifty people at base of the building slowly unroll it with every heave.  A single drum beat is played very slowly.  The moment it reaches the top the hundreds of people who have gathered to witness this event prostrate before it.  Its 3am in the morning and the Land of the Thunder Dragon lives up to its name as the thunder rumbles overhead and the rain descends.  It’s an auspicious sign, cleansing the sins of the people present.  Many of these people have travelled for days, some by foot, from all over the country and from all over the world to witness this.  I can only look on with respect.  They then form an orderly queue and wait, some for hours, to touch the Thongdrel and receive a blessing.  This spectacle has played out like this for over 400 years.

I leave at 7am to return to the traditional farmhouse in which I’m staying for the night/morning.  The Thongdrel was taken down within a couple of hours, for fear the ancient tapestry might be damaged by the rays of the morning sun.

At 9.30am I can sleep in no longer, I can hear soothing tones of a horn coming from within the building.  The smell of incense fills my room.  I get dressed and make my way into a reception room which is next to my bedroom and I’m greeted by the farmhouse owner.  Off the reception room is the altar room, it seems every house has one but this is essentially two rooms and quite large.  Four monks are chanting rhythmically to the sounds of two horns and a drum.  Three of the monks are wearing the normal maroon attire while the fourth, on a raised platform is wearing orange and yellow, signifying his importance.  He appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties.  This is a very special occasion the owner tells me, the high Lama, who arrived with his team earlier in the morning is believe to be the partial reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche (Buddha) himself and his ceremony in the house will last for about six hours.  Offerings of food, water and incense are all laid out to the gods and I am taught how to correctly prostate myself before the altar and to the high Lama.  He does not speak but smiles at my efforts.

It’s a country that is still extremely spiritual.  I am surprised by the number of youth joining the religious order; some look as young as ten years of age.  Many have come from some of the poorest families and it appears to be common that one member of a family will join an order.  It will be interesting to see how many will in the next ten years.  The youth at the moment are looking towards countries like South Korea and Japan for inspiration, skinny jeans are in, groups of guys wear over styled hair and spirituality and Buddhism is taking a back seat.

Strangely, I can’t help but feel I’ve seen this before.  Ireland and Bhutan bare stark similarities, I feel a certain sadness in the inevitable.  As the Celtic Tiger raged, Ireland faced the same important decisions that Bhutan faces today.  Ireland gripped capitalism or maybe capitalism gripped Ireland, took her (Ireland) for a cheap ride and kicked her out the next morning.  I think she is now doing the walk of shame, and slinking back to sobering reality.

In the case of Bhutan, it is flirting with the big C (capitalism).  In recent years, imports from India have soared and with the Bhutan Ngultrum pegged to the Indian Rupee it has made the currency artificially high.  Cheap money and loans within the banking system have driven consumerism in the country and its dependence on India for everything from cars and milk, to cheap labour and rice – many items that Bhutan could easily produce itself .  And so, within the last few weeks Bhutan has made the difficult decision to limit access to the Indian Rupee.  It seems that it is possible to learn from the experiences of others, and the Government is now trying to plug the holes and wean itself off the reliance on India.  Fortunate perhaps, but at the same time, this foresight is having huge repercussions.  Imports of basics from India are now on the rise, my tins of baked beans have gone up by 20% (mum, send me beans please!) along with many other more essential items, the cheap Indian labour is also under strain.  Many Indians workers are not migrating to Bhutan for work as their employers can no longer pay them in Rupee’s.

While the roar of my own home’s Celtic Tiger’s has caught a cold and now whimpers, I admire the steps in which the Land of the Thunder Dragon embraces its past as it grapples with the tough decisions that will shape its future.  Thankfully when they talk about tiger’s roar, they are very much of the real variety, one they are very careful to nurture.

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Its all Go, I mean gho

Over the weekend I walked up the Tashichho Dzong or “The Fortress of the Glorious Religion” nestled neatly in a valley beside the crystal clear water of the Wang Chhu River, it serves as both the government’s administration centre, in south of the rectangular building, and a monastic centre in the northern section.  This outer building surrounds a courtyard in which you find a central building and the king’s office.  It’s a majestic building and open to tourists at the weekend.  This central building is probably six to seven stories high while the surrounding buildings are three to five stories high.  It was all build in the 17th century and as still is the tradition, no plans were made and no nails or metal of any kind is used in its construction.  The chief engineer knew how he wanted it designed, in his head and that was enough.  Its solid stone walls are capped with ornate wooden structures and roofs.  The highest points, at the four corners of the structure and the central king’s office, are capped with gold and red roofs.  Entering the main courtyard you cannot be but impressed by the imposing structure and is white washed walls.  These craftsmen are to be admired.

While I was in the Dzong I entered the main temple were around thirty young red robed, shaven head monks, some as young as 11 I’d imagine, were chanting and praying.  Five drums and two 3 meter long horns kept the chanting in time while incense burned in front of a 6 meter high Buddha.  The sound and smell was hypnotic.

These monks, who are in training, are part of the group that remained in Thimphu for the winter.  As we make our way into spring the local guys find it hard and each morning a member of staff usually has to dress me again to the laughs of my co-workers in the middle of the office.  I wear knee length socks and have large white cuffs.  Sounds interesting eh!  Photo’s to follow next week.

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Fabulously Slimming

The people are quite reserved, sincere and gentle in their manner.  They are thoughtful, my meaning, they take their time in answering questions, thinking before speaking.  Something I could learn from.  I’m part of quite a young team, all are below the age of 35.  In general they are very respectful of seniority, bowing low on meeting.  Handshakes confirmed by placing your second over the back of their first hand are common. Direct eye contact for people in high standing seems to be avoided.  I believe that this is to do with the strong Buddhist culture where deities – demy gods – can be found around the country.  People do not make eye contact with these deities.  I’m sure I come across a little rude….I’m now bowing a little lower.

The newly married King and Queen are revered along with the rest of the Royal Family.  Photos are displayed with pride on the front of many buildings around the city and on work colleague’s desks.  We are currently on the fifth king who can only marry once due to a rule in the countries new constitution.  His father, king four, has four Queens.  All, I’m told, are sisters (same father and mother) and of those Queens he has had eleven children.  He got is speak in before the new rule was created, lucky man.

Marriage is interesting.  When a couple meets they decide to get married and that’s it, they’re married.  No ceremony, it is just announced.  Polygamy and polyandry were practiced throughout the country at one time.  Talking to my colleagues at work polygamy is still practiced but only on the agreement by the husband’s first wife.  As for multiple husbands, I’ll have to report back on that.  I have a feeling it doesn’t occur very often.  It was once traditional that young men in the east of the country would slip away from their homes in the dead of night and travel to the surrounding villages and court girls by window shopping…..climbing in the window of single ladies for some “courtship”.  If the lad does not return home to his parents’ house they can assume marriage.  Of course if the advances are unwanted the girls need only let out a roar to have her parents chase him from the house.  This tradition is dying out but it is interesting to note that inheritance still passes along the female line.  The men will move into live with this wife and her family.  The daughters in the family will be left the land, house and valuables.

I lay here in bed writing this where I’ve been most of the day.  I’m currently in my acclimatisation phase in getting use to the local food and hygiene, its fabulously slimming so far.  I think for the coming weeks I’ll be cooking my own food.  It’s all to be expected really and I’m sure I’ll be as right as rain soon enough.  Anyway that’s it from me, I have a rendez-vous with my toilet.

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Thank God I brought ear plugs

From New Delhi the plane went north west towards Kathmandu, then due east to Bhutan.  My window seat on the left side of the plane gave me a bird’s eye view of the Himalayas; it lived up the name of the most spectacular flight routes in the world.  It was surreal flying by the world’s highest peaks including the dominant Mount Everest perched in the clouds.  As we approached Paro airport the captain informed the cabin that we would be landing in the next 5 mins and warning not to be alarmed by the landing maneuver.  We were still at a very high altitude, traveling in an easterly direction the plane veers north and at the same point nose dives at a somewhat alarming angle.  Descending at a pace we rapidly approach the Himalayas (no runway in sight).  Within 1-2 minutes the wings are what appears to be meters for the tree lined mountain slopes, swooping into the Paro Valley.  White knuckled the plane wings level out but we are still nose diving towards the unseen runway.  It’s all over in a matter of seconds as we land safely….thank Jazus.  I have since found out only 8 pilots in the world can land at Paro due to its difficulties.

The airport building itself is beautiful, ornate wood carvings and stone, what I know now as typical of Bhutan.  The second thing I notice is the airport staff (male) are all dressed in the traditional Gho.  It’s liked a knee length bathrobe, tied at the waist by a belt.  As we disembark all the tourists are dotted about the pavement taking pictures of the terminal and the air craft.  There is none of usual directioning of the ground handlers stopping you or rushing you along.

We are met by our driver once thru boarder control and we load up our Toyota twin cab and hit the road.  Thimphu is an hour’s drive.  By the time we reach the city limits, the mixture of sleep deprivation, the constant twists and turns of the road, tuck fumes is making me quite nauseous.

Thimphu is a very small city; it feels no bigger than my home town in Ireland.  The architecture is fascinating.  A picture paints a thousand words so I’ll add a few for you to check out.  I arrive at my accommodation.  I’m in a common 5 story building on the top floor.  At 2,700 meters the climb with my bags feels every bit of the high altitude.  Somehow I thought I wouldn’t really feel it but I was wrong.  I settle myself in and go to bed.  I have a lot of sleep to catch up on.

We are currently looking for other accommodation.  While this apartment has all the basics the nightclub and a mix of other small problems aren’t appealing when I have to live here for a year.  I have already viewed a much nicer place which I may take.

While mountains surround the city, the peaks have very little snow, if any.  It is remarkably dry, so much so for the past two evenings the city has been draped in smoke from surrounding wild fires, none of which threaten the city (yet).  Since we are still north of the equator our seasons are the same as Europe and North America.  While it gets below freezing at night it warms up to the mid-teens during the day.

I’m conscious of not rabbiting on but I have to mention the dogs.  Since this is a Buddhist country it is seen as a sin to hurt or kill animals and so there are dogs everywhere.  You don’t notice them during the day but once night falls if all goes off.  The dogs are mostly wild and travel the city in packs.  They are all quite friendly and I don’t feel like they’re going to rip the arm off me just yet but the barking and howling at night is unbelievable.  Not just one dog barking here and there it’s like a chorus of 15-20 dogs barking at any one time.  It goes on all night.  Thank God I brought ear plugs!

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On Route

Its  nearly 3am in the morning here in New Delhi Airport as I wait for another few hours to catch my flight to Paro, the only international airport in Bhutan.  Only one airline services Bhutan and that is Druk Air.  I got my transit visa thru India at the last minute.  I had a trade show in New York for the last three days prior to flying it.  It was beneficial to me but I’m not too sure how good it was for business.

I was spoilt on the last night by Ash and saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I’ve done.  I have to get to work now on confirming his travel in May (or so).

Looking forward to touching down, traveling the hour or so to Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, were I hope there is a bed for me to crash in.  My boss is traveling in on the same flight.  The accommodation details are vague at best but I’m leaving it in her hands to get me to my place.  I was informed a couple of weeks ago that the accommodation has a “disco” in the basement, which the company was unaware of when booking it.  I’ll see what it’s like, frankly the way I feel at the moment it could be a 24/7 rave and I couldn’t give a dam, I’d happily snooze thru it.  I’ll can change location if I need to in the coming weeks.

Thimphu has a population of approx. 90,000 peeps and growing.  It’s so small I’m told everywhere in the City is walking distance.  It is reportedly the only capital city in the world that does not have any traffic lights.  They installed one set of lights a few years back but were removed due to the level of complaints.  The people found them too impersonal.  Other than that, I know a river runs thru it.

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