This culture, with its distinctive architecture, beautiful valleys, traditional clothing, and deep Buddhist roots, is less marred by crass commercialism and ugly development than any populated place we’ve been. There is a lot of talk about Gross National Happiness in Bhutan. I don’t know if the Bhutanese are really happier than anyone else, but it was fascinating to see people living as if in a simpler era.
From the Phobjikha Valley we moved west to Punakha, the capital of Bhutan from the time of the first king in the early 20th century until the late 1950s. Google Maps would tell you it’s only 80 kilometers and a 90 minute drive from the Phobjikha Valley to Punakha, but Google’s probably never spent a lot of time in Bhutan. Given the challenging roads here – calling them challenging is being generous – it took us a bit over three hours to bounce our way down to Punakha. And down it was, from Phobjikha’s 8,700 foot elevation to Punakha’s mere 3,900 feet.
That elevation change, of course, makes a huge difference in the climate, so Punakha was much warmer than we’d come to get used to in the higher parts of the country. And with that climate change came a change in crops; here, rice is the primary cash crop, though we also found pepper fields and even eggplant. Rice, though, changes everything. Suddenly we found the stunning terraced rice fields that I’ve never seen outside of Bali. Bike rides were constantly being interrupted by the need – the need – to stop and take another picture. And one of our big hikes up to a beautiful temple was right through some rice fields, which has to be one of the greatest ways on earth to spend a day.
As you might guess for Bhutan, the world’s only Buddhist kingdom, we spend a lot of time in Buddhist temples and hearing about Buddhist history and so on. Buddhism is a little hard for me to get a handle on, since it’s a religion that doesn’t depend on a god. Siddhartha Gautama was a 5th century BC Indian who became “enlightened” and known as the Buddha; he taught that we could end suffering by eliminating ignorance and craving. And while officially he’s not a god, I can’t see much of a difference between the way Westerners think of their God and the way Buddhists think of Buddha. And the way our guide describes 7th century gurus and masters doesn’t differ a lot from the way Catholics talk of saints.
One thing that’s gotten my attention over the last several days is how generally unfriendly and even unhappy Buddhist monks seem to be. As we travel around these remote parts of Bhutan (as an aside, do you know how challenging it is to get those random h’s in Bhutan and Buddhism, keeping them in the right place?) people are just breathtakingly friendly. Kids want to talk to you. People in cars smile and wave, going so slow because of the terrible roads. It’s like a country full of Minnesotans who’ve taken their Happy Pills. In all the miles we’ve put in driving from lodge to lodge, I’ve never once seen a slow car or truck fail to slide over and let faster vehicles pass. They always let you by. Try that in Boston!
The monks, though, are a glaring exception. They don’t smile at us, they don’t talk to us, and they just don’t seem happy. Maybe it’s the “can’t marry or have sex” thing. Maybe it’s being responsible for the happiness of all sentient beings. Not just people, mind you, but all sentient beings. Our guide Kelsang told us that some monks don’t go outside in early summer months when bugs are breeding for fear they would accidentally step on one and harm a sentient being. Shades of the Tin Woodman! I suppose being responsible for all sentient beings is a pretty big responsibility, but a priest is responsible for his
or her flock, and they can be happy sometimes. Some day I have to understand the whole unsmiling monk thing.
Other Bhutanese, though, seem genuinely happy, notwithstanding the poverty they face. It makes you think that this Gross National Happiness thing has something to it. People smile, they talk, they always want to know where you’re going and what you’re doing there. And it’s not as though their lives are so easy. Whether it’s hoeing potatoes in Gangtey or planting rice by hand in Punakha, their lives are tough. One little eight-year-old who walked for a while with Mark explained that he walks an hour and fifteen minutes each way to and from school every day, but you could tell he was just a happy kid. As long as he stays out of the monastery, I say.
OK, so that’s Punakha, with it’s random h thrown in to keep me on my toes. Lots more hiking and biking. Mark’s knee isn’t getting any better, but at least it’s not getting any worse either. (When we leave Bhutan we’re headed back to Hong Kong to see the specialist again to see what we should do now.) We’re both getting a ton of exercise and more fresh air than you could get in five years in Boston. We’ve got one more stop in Bhutan, but I’m already thinking of a return trip in a couple of years. I love this place.
Our third stop in Bhutan was in the Phobjikha Valley in Central Bhutan at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. So far, at least, it’s been my favorite stop in Bhutan.
The first thing we noticed on arriving here is just how remote we were, probably the most remote place we’ve been since we spent three days in a ger in Mongolia just over two years ago. It’s a solid two-hour drive from here to anything that would remotely be called a town with shopping and all that. And in all this isolation our lodge sits on a hill overlooking the huge valley with the sounds of wind, birds, and cows, just a very short walk to some of the villagers’ houses. We could only wonder what these farmers must think of a luxury lodge in their midst.Remote? The primary cash crop is potatoes, and in most fields we walked past you could see the tent or shack where someone sleeps every night, with a dog nearby, to fight off the wild pigs that would otherwise destroy the crop. While hiking down a mountain after a great hike one day, our guide pointed out the shack on the slope where the yak herders sleep to protect the herds from the leopards that would otherwise eat them. Houses are constructed of pounded dirt walls, and all day you could see teams of women – always women, we were told – standing on top of walls at construction sites pounding, pounding, pounding.
The Phobjikha Valley is perhaps best known as a winter feeding ground for the black necked crane, a threatened, legally protected bird with a wingspan of nearly eight feet that summers up in the Tibetan plateau. Because the valley is such an important feature of the crane’s ecosystem, power lines throughout the valley have all been buried below ground, adding immeasurably to the beauty of the area. Unfortunately, the cranes don’t arrive until October and then leave in February, so we have to come back in a few years to see them.
The other major feature of the valley is the Gangte Monastery, a 17th century Buddhist monastery currently let by the 9th reincarnation of somebody-or-other. That whole “Xth reincarnation of …” is surprisingly common here. The chef at the lodge in Bumthang explained with all seriousness that his older brother is both the uncle of the current queen – entirely plausible – and the 11th reincarnation of some Buddhist master he just assumed we’d recognize. Less plausible, from my perspective at least. At any rate we hiked one day from our lodge up to the monastery, with fabulous views, and then around the valley for a total of nine miles. Probably shouldn’t have done that given Mark’s ongoing knee problems, but it was a beautiful hike.
So, remote valley, beautiful views, great hikes, exhausting bike rides (with Bhutan’s top mountain racer, I remind you), and all the solitude and quiet and peace you could ever want. And at the end of the day we’d have a nice cocktail and great Bhutanese food that we’re continually impressed by. Not bad.