Traveling with a sketchbook changes your experience. It forces you to stop and really look at where you are. There are about 30 books from trips dating back to the 1970’s languishing in my storage room, so I will gradually document and upload them.
The trip to Bhutan was the result of a prize won in a charity raffle. Most unexpected and doubly precious for that.
Your emotional journey starts on the flight into Paro, the impossible skyline of the Himalayas on your right, then lower until you are flying through a valley, a quick left turn around a mountain, villages and people waving on each side of the plane as you descend, then very welcome solid ground. There was hardly a dry eye on the plane.
It is regarded as one of the most challenging international airports and flights in the world and is only attempted in daylight in good conditions. The airport is at 2,200m elevation and surrounded by mountains to 5,500m. There are only about 8 pilots certified to fly here.
Paro is in the western end of tiny Bhutan. After being picked up by our guide and driver, we headed for the capital Thimpu, along roads being hand constructed by literally thousands of Indian villagers, breaking rocks, building retaining walls, levelling gravel.
When we saw Bhutan in 2007, the only way to travel was with a designated guide and driver. One of many wise decisions from the king and the government, as the nature of the country and infrastructure could not cope with a major influx of tourists. It gives you great flexibility as well, as although you are pre-booked into tourist hotels for your stay, your time is pretty much your own, and within reason you can decide what you want to see and do.
The main street of Thimpu is a colourful mix of traditional buildings. I was fascinated to see many ‘modern’ buildings of concrete masquerading as traditional stone and timber buildings, complete with carved and painted doors, windows and eaves.
When you enter almost any centre or town in Bhutan, the tzong, which is a combination administrative and religious centre, will be obvious.
The scale of these buildings can be misleading from a distance. In Thimpu I thought Trashi Cchoe Tzong consisted of 4 storey buildings.
The Phobjikha Valley is farmed during the summer months, and we are at the tail end. There are only a few farmers still here.
This is the most atmospheric of the tourist hotels we visit, traditional rooms and the most interesting food of the journey. The chefs in the tourist hotels have most likely all been taught the same meals, and learned how to moderate their chili use so as not to kill too many westerners.
The lounge and dining area is heated by an enormous wood stove and is as nice a gathering place as you could want. Our film star handsome guide Karchung (sounds like a cash register) is the one on the left. The wood stove had a pot of chai bubbling away to warm the insides.
After a wonderful moonlit night we awake to a frosty morning. The sun takes a while to clear the surrounding mountains and the frost twinkles. The farmhouses, although many hundreds of years old, look very modern, and have an affinity with traditional Japanese buildings.
As we left the hotel, there was a problem with one tour group’s car- the frosty morning had made it not want to start.
This meant a delay, and nothing is sweeter to an artist’s ear. There is always something to draw, and it is pretty difficult to stop on most of the roads as there is barely passing room even on the main routes.
We spent the morning walking around the fertile valley, admiring the rammed earth buildings, and the ancient cultivated landscape. We visited the Gangtey Goempa or Gangteng Monastery, the most important building in the Pobjika valley which was being extensively rebuilt. Teams of carvers were producing elaborate carved beams in the workshop.
We were also hoping to get a glimpse of the black necked cranes who gather here every year.
We returned to the Hotel for lunch, and our guide Karchung told us there was to be a major event that afternoon. One of the area’s holy men who had not been recognised as the spiritual leader that he was, had left many years before to live in the US. Since that time, there had been many problems with crops, sickness and fertility in the valley, and the people had realised that they had wronged this holy man.
They decided to build a new temple to honour him, and today was to be the consecration of the foundations by the returned holy man himself. This ceremony would be followed by a general blessing. Karchung’s question was ‘would you like to go to a blessing?’
We drove through the valley, and on every hillside, on every track you could see people making their way towards this event.
It was the biggest gathering to happen in the valley for many years.
There was no timetable or program of course, we just had to be part of the throng, which probably numbered close to one thousand by the time we arrived mid afternoon. When I began drawing, the children were fascinated.
There is a very rich tradition of drawing and painting in Bhutan, but drawing what is in front of you was totally new to everyone. Before long I was engulfed in a cave of children, pointing and exclaiming when I drew a relative, and enthusiastically rubbing their fingers over the drawing!
After some hours, the procession was heard in the distance and everyone rushed to get back into line. The holy man (Kunzang Pema Namgyal ) was most amused to find two westerners in the line and gave us an extra thorough bump on our heads. Then there was a mad scramble (more like a scrum) for the blessed red cotton threads handed out by his attendants.
Trongsa was our next overnight stop, after many kilometers of winding roads full of wildlife, monkeys, deer, orchids and fantastic forests.
We stopped briefly at the well visited Chendebji Chorten, built in the 19th Century by a Tibetan Lama to cover the remains of an evil spirit who was killed there. It is located 41 km west of Trongsa at 2430 meters in elevation.
The Trongsa Tzong is the largest in Bhutan and beautifully and strategically sited on a spur. There is often mist swirling in the valley below.
It is a maze of coutyards and monks quarters as well as being the administrative centre of the region.
There are about 24 temples within its walls.
Electricity is a recent arrival in many areas of Bhutan. We needed to refuel our vehicle, but the power was out, meaning the diesel had to be hand pumped. More wonderful delays and time to do a drawing.
We seemed to be having the most amazing luck with special events and festivals. Our next stop, the Bumthang valley is famous for its festival season, which we were reliably informed had ended 2 weeks before.
Of course, there was one last festival at a very small and very remote village. ‘Would we be prepared to take the long journey out there? It required much rough roads and walking at the end.’
The connection between the past and present, the people and their land, the harvest to come was palpable.
To witness even a few hours of this week long festival was a great privilege.
On the trip back from the village, Karchung suggested we might like to visit his favourite temple. We had to wait until the other tour groups cars had gone past us so that no one knew what we were up to. This place is pretty out of the way, and he didn’t want hordes of tourists spoiling it (the Bhutanese know what they want).
On the way to the village I had noticed a collection of prayer flags on a spur up near the skyline, and idly wondered what was there. We were about to find out.
We started our climb, with Karchung stopping every ten minute to let us catch our breath.
The prayer flags were at about the half way point as it turned out. Just as we were about to reach them, three enormous black hairy dogs came loping up the path and waited for us. They were as large as St bernards but much wilder in appearance. They were Bhutanese sheep herder’s dogs, probably on their way back up to the plateau to bring back the last of the sheep before winter. One dog positioned himself at the front, one in the middle, and one brought up the rear.
‘Now we are seven’ said Karchung.
After more than an hour’s climb, we were at the tiny temple, built around a ‘footprint’ of Guru Rinpoche in the rock face and a cave. The temple is halfway up a small cliff, and you enter by climbing a ladder that comes through a trapdoor in the floor.
Many temples were to follow, but none had the power of this simple place.
Jurjey Lakhang holds the bodyprint of Guru Rinpoche, and the tree above is said to have sprung from his walking stick.
We were looking forward to a visit to Karchung’s house, which like most of Bhutan, was a small farmstead on a very steep hillside. The day before our visit, I asked what his wife was doing (he had just received a call from her on his mobile). ‘Cutting 300 kilos of bamboo from the forest for new fences’.
There was excitement the night before our visit when their dogs barked in the night, and the morning showed leopard footprints outside the door.
‘Was it a snow leopard?’ we enquired.
‘No, just a normal leopard’
In a few places, the hills are moderate enough for rice paddies.
Most temples and Tsongs are constantly being refurbished and repainted, which requires an army of trained artisans. Punakha Tsong is situated right by a river and is accessed by a shaky timber bridge.
As we headed back westward, the country became more fertile again and opened up into splendid valleys.
The sound of the river becomes all pervasive at night
We finally had a flat tyre, which meant I could do a drawing on the long and winding road. This is pretty typical of the farmlets in the steep valleys, and similar also to Karchung’s house.
For the ‘big finish’ to the trip, and only to be attempted after at least 7 days acclimatisation, is the climb to the famous ‘tiger’s nest’ monastery.
The most photographed view is after 3 hours climbing, and just before you go steeply downhill once again. Our guide suggested that we would enjoy another rarely visited holy place ‘on the way, and not far’.
It was incredible, and of course we ended up climbing so high we were looking down on tiger’s nest. After 777 steps down we climbed back up under a waterfall then into tiger’s nest. We had climbed 900 metres in the day.