Cows Up. King Back.

The queen of Bhutan gave me a thumbs up as I stood respectfully next to my bike on the twisty mountain road. The king was in the car in front and by the time I realized it was him, I had only a glimpse. There’s something about being with royalty that makes for a special day in Bhutan.

We knew right from the beginning how important royalty is to this Himalayan Kingdom from the moment we got off the plane. Fortunately, I had already heard about the landing in Paro with the plane wings seemingly skimming the mountains as you come into the landing strip high in the mountains so I didn’t panic as we landed. I had seen Mt. Everest from the plane – a real thrill – and before I knew it we were landing. We were all a bit bleary from our meeting time in Bangkok at 3 a.m. Wake up calls at 2 a.m. are a difficult way to start a day. As we were flying the three hours to Bhutan, I couldn’t remember packing my bathing suit and some other things. When we got to our lodge, there they were.

As we came down the stairs of the plane, one of the first things we saw was a huge billboard of the King and Queen’s recent marriage. Our guide met us in the airport and filled us in on the history of Bhutan as we drove into town. Although the 4th king had given the power back to the people in 2008, this 5th king still has the final vote in the government and deep respect from the people. His father (the 4th king) has four wives – four sisters who come from the village where we are staying and had turned the throne over to his eldest son. Our guide has heard the rumor that the astrologer is saying that the new queen is pregnant with a son. We’ll see.

Our first day was filled with learning the history and culture of this country known for making decisions based on Gross National Happiness. We visited a cultural/handicraft school where we looked in on classes in painting, sculpture, wood carving, embroidery and weaving. We visited a traditional Bhutanese house where we could see the intricate decorations both in wood and paint. We spent some time wandering the town, doing some shopping and getting a feel for this unique country. People still wear traditional dress. The men wear a tunic that comes just below their knees and knee socks. Women wear long skirts and jackets. There is also formal wear that our guide put on when we visited a temple and the king’s fortress.

Hanging out at the temple is the way many of the older folk spend their days. Spinning hand held prayer wheels, grinning with their betel nut stained teeth, they walk around and around the temple always in a clockwise direction. Others hang out by giant prayer wheels with their prayer beads, chanting prayers or talking with their friends. Everyone prostrates themselves as they enter the temples with their giant Buddha and elaborately carved figures. Paintings, like the ones we saw at the school, cover the walls with their colorful and detailed pictures of the lives of Buddha or the lives of local saints and figures. Butter lamps burn and monks preside – sometimes young ones. Already I’m becoming familiar with the three main figures – Lord Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, the second Buddha, and the guy with the long beard who united Bhutan.

By the time we drove up to our lodge high in the mountains, we were really tired and hungry. After a delicious meal by the woodstove, we settled into our rooms. In the morning, my room mate from Florida was having difficulty breathing. She had experienced altitude sickness before and was ready with medication but she still suffered for the first couple of days with a bad headache, breathing trouble and vomiting. While she rested, the rest of us headed out for our first bike ride starting with the steep descent down into the village. The air was cool and fresh through the forest. Once near the river, we crossed the bridge and headed up the other side. As you would expect, a country made of mountains is not easy cycling. As we climbed and climbed up the other side, I knew that the option of riding back up to the lodge was not one I would likely take. I could tell I hadn’t been on a bike except for a few days here or there since Hawaii and with the extra weight of a mountain bike and without my clip in pedals, I worked really hard to get up the steep ascent. Some walked, some gave up and a few with their own pedals and having trained, seemed to buzz on up without too much trouble.

Once at the top though, the view down the valley was worth it. Prayer flags in the trees, the temples and fortress we had visited the day before, the king’s residence – all were visible from our vantage point. On we went for another hour or so. Our bike guide called them rollers but I would call them steep ascents and winding descents. We passed prayer wheels powered by waterfalls and a giant painting of the second Buddha – Rimpoche painted on a large rock wall; not my usual scenery on a ride. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the end of the road not far from where you can start a trek to Tibet about a 3 days walk away. There is a monastery high on the hill where monks meditate for months without talking and barely eating.

The way back was a sweet ride with great downhills that we had climbed before and a few ascents. When I got back to the road where a truck would pick up our bikes, I was there ahead so I decided to ride or walk my bike up the steep hill until the truck came along. It was a pleasant surprise to find that with my granny gear and having warmed up, I made it all the way up to the lodge. That night we enjoyed a dance performance of Bhutanese dance with colorful costumes and live music.

I woke up early the next morning and walked over to the nearby temple while my room mate slept in a bit. The same chants I had heard in Nepal were being played and I circled the temple spinning the outdoor prayer wheels and enjoying the view down the valley. The caretaker came by and opened the temple for me so I settled into a cushion for a little quiet meditation, a very Bhutanese and pleasant way to begin a day.

Our biking day was to begin at the top of a mountain pass. The bus twisted and turned as we climbed higher and higher. The road was much like that in Nepal, especially as it is being widened and still under construction in many places. The same colorful Indian trucks were carrying merchandise and passing each other in tight places. At the top, we visited the 108 chortens, each with a special relic, to honor those who had died in a skirmish with some Indian rebels a few years ago. One of the queens had a temple built at the top with stunning views down the valley and I saw the same rhododendrons I had seen in the mountains of Nepal still in bloom.

As we descended, instead of being tucked into a bus, I was in control of my own descent this time from the seat of a bicycle. We rode 30 kilometers downhill, calling out cars behind us or trucks up ahead and warning of potholes and bumps. We also called out when a cow was in the road. They are sacred here and have full run of the country. It was noisy from our voices as there was barely a smooth stretch of pavement. It took focus and concentration but it was a sweet ride. I had to stop and remember to look around at the mountain villages, the views of the road winding down the hillside below us and the terraced fields. At one point in a village, I felt like I was in the Tour de France as children blocked my way yelling “Bye! Bye!” and chasing next to me on the bike.

As we got further down, our group spread out. I stopped to talk with some school children walking home in their colorful uniforms. I met the Bad Boy of Bhutan, an impish youngster who wiped my hand with a stinging nettle. I used my best teacher voice to express my anger at being tricked. The other children stopped their laughing and looked chagrined. One explained that he was a naughty boy and when I asked if he was the only one in Bhutan, they laughed with me.

As I caught up with our guide further down the mountain, he was hurriedly adjusting his national dress. The king was coming down the same road we were cycling! The king is an avid cyclist himself and our guide hoped he would stop to see us and briefed us quickly on the etiquette of being in the king’s presence. There were only a few of us there when the police vehicle came first, flashing his lights. Suddenly, there they were- the king in the first car, the queen in the second smiling and giving me a thumbs up, and then they were gone. Feeling quite special, we headed down the mountain grinning at our luck. Two days in Bhutan and we had seen the King and Queen – special indeed!

After lunch, we hiked out to the Temple of the Divine Madman. Passing through a village where the people were constructing new mud homes, we got a peak into rural living, similar in some ways to Nepal but with more intricate buildings. At the temple a young monk (maybe 8 years old) blessed us with oil and a large wooden penis and an arrow. Yes, that’s right. In this area of Bhutan, you often see large penises painted on the sides of buildings as a way to ward off evil. As a group of women, we had our giggles as we passed the Phallus gift shop on the way back through the fields.

The last part of the ride was a long ascent from the river up to our lodging high on the side of a mountain. In the morning, we got to ride all the way back down. At the bottom, we turned onto a rough dirt road to ride through the fields and villages to the start of a rafting trip. My sandals went on the raft (I swapped shoes with someone who didn’t have river shoes) but I opted out when I heard that there were rapids of the same size that threw me under water in Nepal. It all worked out well as three of us rode our bikes along the river and took photographs of the rafters. As a bonus, we also got to cross a huge suspension bridge across the river and met up with the rest of the group for a picnic lunch. Just before we met them, I heard a voice say, “Quickly! Quickly!”. I turned to see a van full of police. I suddenly stopped my bike, jumped off and looked up to see the queen just a foot or two from my face. She smiled and waved (my old friend from yesterday!) and kept going.

After lunch, we donned our formal wear which here means that all of our bodies are covered from our ankles to our necks. Despite the heat, we enjoyed a tour of the fortress. Inside is the most holy temple in Bhutan where the King and Queen had their marriage last year. The monks were chanting and beating drums in the next section as we learned about the paintings depicting the Lord Buddha’s life, the wheel of life and other figures depicted on the walls and saw the giant carved figures.

Nearby was an archery match, the national sport. Earlier we had tried out the traditional bow at a place near the river where I was one of three people who hit the target, but these men were using highly technical bows. The distance was 140 meters long – longer than a football field and whenever anyone hit the target (which seemed an impossible task given the huge distance and the wind) each team would do a chanting dance.

Bhutan is working hard to develop itself as a more modern country while at the same time they are trying to preserve their traditions and culture. Tourism is becoming a big part of their income which obviously influences this place that has been tucked away in the mountains for so many years. Some call it the last Shangri La and from what I’ve seen the last few days, it certainly feels like that. The people are sincere and friendly and have a wonderful sense of humor. They obviously love their royal family and are incredibly respectful. Buddhism is a huge part of their culture and temples and shrines are everywhere. It really is a magical place. We’ll be back on our bikes in the morning, heading up to yet another mountain pass. I wonder where the queen will be tomorrow?

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3 Comments

  1. pam perkins

     /  April 22, 2012

    Oh, Ellen, you took me right back to my trip to magical Bhutan. Since there is only one road in the country, I followed your every step (pedal?). We were there for the King’s Coronation and also saw him during his motorcade on a steep mountain road. I’ll never forget that handsome face and smile and we watched the wedding ceremony with much joy. As I was reading, I wondered whether you saw the penis art, so I smiled when I came to that paragraph. That bike looks darn heavy. Glad you found your cycling muscles again! XO

    Reply
  2. Barbara

     /  April 22, 2012

    Bhutan sounds like a wonderful place to be! Also sounds like the hills of Vermont will be minor after the climbs you’re doing there………Enjoy!

    Reply
  3. Mary Kay

     /  April 22, 2012

    In my opinion, Kate is “old hat” compared to the Queen of Bhutan. Carry on, Ellen!

    Reply

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