Cycling with Yaks

In this most spiritual of countries, today we hiked up over 10,000 feet to the Tiger’s Nest, the most sacred monastery built high up on the side of a mountain cliff. It is said that the second Lord Buddha was flown up to a cave by his Tibetan consort in the form of a tigress. Today I climbed down into that same cave that goes deep into the mountain. We also visited the temples where a monk sat chanting and beating a drum while incense scented the air. One can’t help but be in awe in such a setting 3000 feet above the village of Paro. To get there was our final day’s challenge. We climbed up a steep dirt path for about 2 hours before reaching a tea house where we stopped for the twice a day tea stop. From there it was another hour of climbing until we reached the highest place. That’s where the steps go down the face of the cliff, cross a bridge past a waterfall and then up another set of steep steps to the temples. All along the way were colorful prayer flags waving in the breeze some shot across the air by arrows.

We have visited several temples on our last few days in Bhutan and know the routine. First the shoes come off, long sleeves and long pants put on, sunglasses and cameras put away. At this sacred site, the police checked to make sure cell phones were left behind with the cameras. I’ll have to take the images inside in my head of the various carvings, offerings, butter lamps burning and elaborate paintings. I was glad I had my camera though as I started the descent down the stairs. On the way up were a group of Malaysian monks we had met at the top of a mountain pass a couple of days ago. That day, one monkette, aka a nun, indicated to me that she was very interested in my bicycle. After several tries, I held onto the seat and handlebars as she had her first bicycle ride. We attracted a lot of attention from the other tourists as I ran along side of her like a parent does with a young child learning to balance. She was a spirited one and we had an instant camaraderie. As I was descending the stairs today, I was delighted to see her again as she came laughing up the stairs calling out to me, her biking buddy. After some hugs, laughs and photographs, we each headed off in our own directions carrying the joy of our shared moments.

In order to go east and west in Bhutan, you have to go up one of the twisty mountain roads, through a pass and back down the other side. In our biking these last few days, we have spent hours perfecting our descending skills, dodging potholes, trucks and cows as we flew down the mountains sometimes for hours. My favorite moment, though, was when we came across some wild yaks grazing by the side of the road. I’ve never been around yaks on a bike and one of our women found out to keep your distance as the yak threatened her. We were also high up where the rhododendrons were in their bright red glorious bloom and we could see snow covered peaks in the distance. In Bhutan, most of the Himalayan peaks are unnamed and none of them are climbed. The people here believe that there is a deity on each mountain that would be offended by having climbers on their mountains.

That’s one of the special things about being in this spiritual country. Our guide has made sure to follow the customs of the country with us including stringing prayer flags at the top of our highest climb to bless our journey. At one temple we were each given a sacred knotted string to wear around our necks to protect us. We have been blessed with oil and spun prayer wheels of all sizes to send our prayers to the heavens, bells ringing as they turned. At one picnic site there were woven spirit catcher like things lying on the ground. When some women picked them up for souvenirs, our guide showed his distress. Since we didn’t know what karma they held (maybe there were offered to help a sick person or to change a bad situation) he warned them to leave them be. You can buy new ones in town, he explained.

Like in Nepal, there are shopping opportunities wherever tourists gather. On the way down the mountain today there were women with their wares spread out on colorful cloths. We spent some time in the shops yesterday in town where many women filled their suitcases with prayer flags and jewelry. I was looking for a CD of the chant that has been in my mind since Nepal. Coincidentally, some of the same group of Malaysia monks was in the shop with me. When I hummed the tune, they showed me which CD was the one I wanted. A monk helping me choose a chanting CD – that was another special moment.

We have not been in tourist areas most of this trip however. We made it to the center of Bhutan where white faces are a rarity. Rarer still is the sight of lycra clad women riding bicycles past farms and villages. Many waved as we passed and everyone returned my smile. Children held out their arms to touch our hands as we rode past and some ran along beside us. As we climbed hills on our bikes, women stopped their chores to watch us pass and men grinned.

In the center of Bhutan is a giant valley where the endangered black necked crane spends the winter. As we reached the valley floor after a challenging descent (one woman took a bad fall on a hairpin turn and has been on crutches with colorful bruises ever since) we could see for miles. Our colorful lodge was perched on the side of a hill and we each had a small wood stove in our rooms to keep us warm. In the morning sunlight, we hiked across the valley and then climbed straight up the side of a mountain to visit a Tibetan style temple in the village there. I was especially interested to see how the Tibetan temple varied from the other ones we’d seen as I had just finished reading an autobiography of the Dalai Lama which finished with his escape over some of these same mountains from Tibet to India.

From the temple, we rode back up to the same mountain pass where we had started our descent on the first riding day. This time, we rode down the other side to the river confluence and then back up to ride back to Paro, the home of the only international airport. Altogether it was 70 kilometers, some downhill, some uphill and some with intense headwinds. All along the way the views were beautiful either from high in the mountains, past terraced fields or along the river and through villages with their colorful buildings. In Paro, we are spending three nights in our lodge also perched on a hillside. There are four sets of stairs to get from the reception area (where there is wireless internet) to our room. Just going to and from the restaurant is great exercise. We can also see the planes landing and taking off, all of one or two a day.

Yesterday we rode our bikes out to the most western part of the country where the road ends and some low mountain treks begin. The road is cut into the side of the mountain in many places but now we are old hands at negotiating the occasional traffic and the ups and downs. Tomorrow, it will be our turn to board the flight back to Bangkok and leave this amazing country behind. Before we go, we’ll enjoy one more dinner. We know the menu by heart – red rice, stir fried pasta, some sort of potatoes, steamed vegetables, fiddlehead ferns or asparagus and a mouth sizzling chili, cheese and green bean dish. We might enjoy one more round of the special dumplings called Momos (that I also had in Nepal) and probably toast with one more glass of Druk 11000, the Bhutanese beer that only comes in large bottles.

It’s been a quick 10 days here in Bhutan and in a country that I hope will retain its unique culture as it joins the 21st century. Today our guide offered prayers in our last temple visit that we will all return to Bhutan some day. I hope the gods were listening.

(Apologies about the duplicate and some triplicate photos in the last blog post. The internet here is inconsistent and pictures seem to magically appear, disappear and sometimes reappear. I hope things will go smoother this time.)

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8 Comments

  1. Connie

     /  April 27, 2012

    It sure makes me wants to visit Bhutan!

    Reply
  2. Breathtaking! Thank you Ellen

    Reply
  3. pam perkins

     /  April 27, 2012

    Thanks for helping me relive our trip. I’ll never forget the climb to the Tiger’s Nest. Love the story about the monkette. You captured the experience beautifully.

    Reply
  4. Sandra Timko

     /  April 27, 2012

    Great pictures. What a journey. OK you have got the eat, pray part down pat. What is left?????

    Reply
  5. Donna Jacobs

     /  April 27, 2012

    Oh Ellen is just sounds so magical!!

    Reply
  6. Rose Lucas

     /  April 27, 2012

    Hi Ellen, loving your posts and following your wonderful travels. Are you coming down to Australia while you’re (roughly) in the neighbourhood? We have a spare room and you’d be very welcome…

    Reply
  7. Barbara

     /  April 28, 2012

    Another adventure down and if I read the itinerary right, on to Cambodia/Thailand…..
    It sounds like you have found some special people in every place you’ve visited- what a wonderful way to travel!

    Reply
  8. john bentley

     /  April 29, 2012

    Amazing photos. Incredible adventure
    John

    Reply

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