Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bhutan 2014: Journey's Last Days

May 17th was our last full day in Bhutan. At breakfast the Taj Tashi bid us an edible farewell.
We checked out of the hotel,
and drove towards our first destination of the day, the Cheri Gompa, also known as the Chagri Dorjeden monastery. The road north from Thimphu ends near there; then, visitors must cross the river and climb a steep hill to the monastery. Here is a Google Maps image, with the monastery at upper left. 

This privately sponsored shrine and rock painting of Guru Rinpoche was alongside the road, partway from Thimphu.
We reached the end of the road. This photo looks across the river to a chorten/stupa complex at the foot of the hiking path.
Upstream and down, the riverbanks are connected by strings of prayer flags.
Inside the bridge were many tsa tsas, which often are molded from clay and the ashes of a departed person. If in the form of a Buddha, they may also be meditation objects.
We approached the stupa complex and circumambulated the interior yard. Clockwise is the respectful direction.
Here is a look from the back side. The niches in the outer walls hold small prayer wheels.

Beside the path were three structures. On the left is a large prayer wheel; in the center statues of Guru Rinpoche, Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha), and the Shabdrung, in that order from left to right. The rightmost structure protects an image of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, who first brought the Drukpa lineage to Bhutan in the 13th Century.

The path switchbacks up the side of the mountain, sometimes steeply, sometimes not. This image looks back along the trail.
The route is supplied with containers for visitors' and pilgrims' trash.
This is the view back down the valley, towards Thimphu, as we drew close to the monastery.
Chagri Dorjeden came into view.
This site houses not only a temple and a monastery, but is also a major retreat center where monks may meditate in isolation over months or even years.

This area is a favorite for the Himalayan goral. In this photo there is a monk above and a resting goral below.
Let's take a closer look at the goral, who looks like he might also be meditating. Gorals are an even-toed bovid, in a different genus but the same tribe (Naemorhedinias the mountain goat. Its status is near-threatened.
Joan, Tshering, and I passed through the entrance.
The area in front of the lhakhang (temple) is more of a crossroads than a pavilion. You can see where visitors have doffed their packs and shoes before entering.
A closeup of the entryway. As always, there are no photos allowed inside the temple. 
Another entrance is to the Chagri meditation center.

A goral strolled by beneath us, showing off its black spine-stripe.
As we left the complex I took this photo of its fire extinguishers. Old, dry interior wood and butter lamps easily lead to incendiary accidents.
Many additional buildings cling to the hillside higher up.
Another trash bin as we left the grounds.
These whorls and cracks summoned my camera.
Someone had placed a small homemade shrine on the side of the path.
One the road back to Thimphu we passed this message painted onto the side of a house/shop. Stopping to take a picture was a must.
Then it was time for lunch, for which Tshering recommended the Indian menu at the Hotel Druk, on the clock tower square. I've never stayed at the Druk, but their lunch was superb.

At the clock tower square there was a major entertainment event about to begin, part of "Bhutan Star," which while inspired by American Idol, is predominantly about Bhutanese culture. A comedian was warming up the crowd.
The free show was sponsored by Bhutan Telecom.

We decided to visit the Thimphu farmers' market instead.
It is organized into two large open floors.
The local products section was especially interesting. It was just as well that we had just eaten lunch. Or was it?
Sacks of spices and spice blends.
One of many produce counters.
By 3pm it was time to drive on to Paro and the Zhiwa Ling for our last night in Bhutan, the same place as our first night. Surprise #1: we had been upgraded to the Takin Suite, in the main building!
This was the view from one of our windows, looking out on the back of the property, where there are separate buildings for the spa, meditation/yoga, and greenhouse.

Surprise #2 was waiting for us in our suite. We had asked about visiting the ceramics workshop next to the Zhiwa Ling, but today they were closed. However ... in our upgraded room ... was one of the plates commemorating 2014, the Male Wood Horse year. It even came with a protective wooden box. This photo is slightly off-angle to reduce the flash glare.

I took several photos while wandering about, saying farewell to the Zhiwa Ling; this one is of the portraits of the five kings of Bhutan.
It's not possible to capture the essence of the Zhiwa Ling in any one photo or sequence of photos, but I must try. This is the third floor, where the lhakhang resides, and the murals above.
Looking down to the central open area, next to reception.
And now looking across the central open area on an upper floor.
The next morning we drove to the airport and said our goodbyes to Tshering and Kaka. After checking in with Druk Air we were directed to pass through passport control, where the event of exiting the country was stamped, and then take the stairs to the business class lounge. Joan and I went through passport control and were bewildered and then stumped. We asked for help. The business class lounge was outside passport control! Huh? Would there be any problems repeating passport control already stamped? As it turns out, no. We had a pleasant flight back to Bangkok, with a stop to refuel soon after leaving Bhutan. The Airbus needs to be as light as possible to clear the ridge at the end of the Paro runway.

The next day in Bangkok we arranged to meet our friends Latiff and Balkeesh from Malaysia. Our 2011 get-together, in Boston, is documented here. Joan and I had newbie nervousness about using Bangkok's elevated SkyTrain system, but it proved to be convenient and easy to use. We rendezvoused with Latiff and Balkeesh and then traveled on to a restaurant they favored. Here they are without their super-cool sunglasses.
And with. Stand back in admiration.
Alas, there was no time for a foot massage, highly recommended by Latiff. Next time we'll have a longer layover. Joan and I returned to the Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport hotel, cleaned up from Bangkok's heat, finished packing, and walked through the underground connector to the airport for our evening flight.

We departed Bangkok on Qatar Airways, connected in Doha, and landed in Philadelphia at a time (about 7am) when there were no other international arrival flights. We breezed through passport and customs, and easily made our connection to Columbus.

Will we visit Bhutan a fourth time? Quite possibly; it's a special place and changing rapidly. When? Who knows?

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