Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

I was checking the search engine referrals on my blog last night, when I saw ‘Wangdue Phodrang fire’. A short search later I saw the sad news that back in June a devastating fire raised the dzong (fortress), which contained the regional administrative headquarters and a monastery school, to the ground.

This photo makes me very sad:

Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan, on fire

Read more about the fire here and here here

As a place I remember fondly from my trip to Bhutan, I decided to post a few photos of how it was.

The two trainee monks who had just had a very un-monklike fight:

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Young Buddhist monks, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

(This photo is also one of my 7 Super Shots post, which includes a lovely memory of my Grandma related to this photo.)

The main courtyard of the monastery:

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Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

The main courtyard of the monastery:

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Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

High up at the far end of the inner courtyard, the skeletons are there to remind you to live your life well as it will be over sooner than you know it (sage advice):

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Inner courtyard, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

And finally, the sweetest little monk ever:

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The sweetest little monk ever, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

I hear two good things: that many of the treasures were saved, and there are fund raising initiatives in place to rebuild it. Please add comments and links if you know anything about this. Thank you.

Day 38: the end of a week in beautiful Bhutan

DAY 37: was all about seeing the sights of Thimpu.

We spent the day seeing what the Bhutanese capital has to offer, oh, and almost seeing the Elvis/Fonz impersonator King when his motorcade drove past. Blacked out windows, though…

Bhutan didn’t have roads until the 1960s, only has 2.5km of dual carriageway, and does not have a single set of traffic lights (apart from a short-lived experiment, which confused all and sundry). Instead, the major traffic junctions in the capital have “dancing” Policemen in Jacko gloves!

Dancing Policemen, Bhutan’s nearest thing to traffic lights, Thimpu

Here’s the Dzong (=Fortress), now an administrative centre.

Thimpu Dzong (fortress), Bhutan

The largest book in the world, 2.13 metres wide, is in the National Library. I had to ask Abhi, our Nepalese tour leader (who’s about 5 foot 10) to pose next to it to get a true sense of scale.

Allegedly the biggest book in the world, Bhutan

They also have Steve McManaman, circa I think World Cup France 98, on stamps. I have no idea why!

Steve McManaman stamps, Bhutan

 

DAY 38: was mainly filled with a hike up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to the side of a rocky hill.

Looking up towards Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

It was a very steep climb to the top, about 3,200m above sea level, but the views both of the monastery and the Paro valley floor are worth it.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan

In the morning, I fly to Delhi.

Day 36: thinkin’ in Thimpu

Okay, so today is the day of the General Election back home, and I’m actually (for the first time) feeling a bit homesick. Not because I’m missing anybody or anything, purely because the political situation seems interesting enough that I would like to observe.

Anyways…since the last post I’ve been having a wander through the lovely, beautiful and happy place that is Bhutan (and there aren’t an awful lot of internet connections, so I’ve not been able to tell you about it on my way).

Day 33 and 34:

We left Paro (the airport town) to drive through Thimpu (the capital), and then onwards to Punakha, the former capital city.

After lunch, and checking into our hotel, we visited a couple of monasteries and the spectacular c17th fortrees (Dzong) in Punakha, which looked beautiful amongst the Jacaranda trees along the river.

Jacaranda trees, Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

Many houses and businesses in the Punakha valley feature phallic symbols painted on the walls, as a fertility ritual.

Phallic fertility symbols, Punakha valley, Bhutan

This was started “The Divine Madman” (well, a self-styled reincarnation of the c.15th Bhutanese legend)  (I found a book on the legend in Thimpu, now in my rucksack).

I’ve also met “The Divine Madman” (well, a self-styled reincarnation of the c.15th Bhutanese legend) in our host “Uncle” at Hotel YT in Punakha. It was obviously easier for me to get a job behind the bar….

“Uncle YT”, and my temporary Bhutanese bar job

Note the spirit called ‘White Mischief’ (front right). It sure was…also, it was one of our travel group’s Birthday, so “dinner” took more of a cake-and-alcohol turn:

Dinner of Bhutanese beer, 25-year-old whiskey and arrack!

The next day, we (groggily!) hiked up to Khasum Yulley Namgyal Chorten high on a hill beyond Punakha. And some of us (well, me) hiked up even further to the Queen Mother of Bhutan’s Summer House. Absolutely zero security, too. It’s the happy place, remember…

Khasum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, Bhutan

We also had a potentially ill-advised go at the national sport of Archery (suprisingly, no-one got killed!) and a beautiful riverside picnic, then visited Punakha Dzong properly. I made some sound recordings of the ceremonial brass horns inside the main temple, but sharing them with you would involve me working out how to upload them. Another day…

Day 35:

The day started with the short drive to Wangdue Phodrang, and a visit to the monastery. It’s amazing how young children are sent to monastery school, and mostly because their parents can’t afford to feed and clothe them. This lad was only just six, and I just wanted to scoop him up and give him a massive hug;

Trainee monk, Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Wangdue Phodrang town itself is perched on a hilltop, almost above the clouds. The sights and vibrant colours of the market were stunning:

Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Driving onwards to Gangtey (via a tea-stop amusingly called ‘Nob-ding’!), we had chance encounter with the recently (2 weeks ago, and on a tour around Bhutan) deceased body of the latest re-incarnation of Guru Rinpoche and his funeral cortege and celebrations.

Monks and mourners outside the memorial service, Gangtey, Bhutan

The evening was spent at a homestay in the Gangtey Valley, where I was lucky enough to sleep in the family’s prayer room. Really quite something, and clearly not going to happen again in a hurry. These experiences are why I love to travel.

Day 36:

Now we’re back west, in the capital city of Thimpu. We’re halfway through our 2 days here to see the capital and it’s Dzong, parliament, markets…more to come tomorrow.

One of my favourite photos from the market was this kid happily playing with cardboard, whilst his mother sold vegetables:

Bhutanese kid-in-a-box, Thimpu market

Earlier I had time to buy some of the lovely Bhutanese national dress as a souvenir:

Okay the half-kira isn’t tied too well, but you should get the gist (and a laugh)…!

Two and a bit days before I leave Bhutan, a week before I’m back in London. This isn’t right, right…?!

And, as a closing gambit, I have mostly been listening to Elbow’s ‘The Seldom-Seen Kid’ (particularly ‘One Day Like This’) and Frank Turner’s ‘Love, Ire And Song’. So many times that I suspect that those albums will always be synonymous with this trip. This is not a bad thing.

Days 25-29: Everest, and as far as the Nepal border

The trip has carried on getting better and better, and I think these few days have been the best yet.

DAY 25, saw us leave Shigatze and head for Sakya. The main point of interest was a monastery that had a completely different look and feel because of the Mongolian influence.

Sakya Monastery, Tibet

It was a little odd to see monks visiting a monastery as daytripping tourists, not prostrating pilgrims, posing for mobile phone snaps in front of the prayer wheels…

A visiting tourist monk at Sakya Monastery, Tibet

…not least because they got more hassle from the souvenir (and yak butter) vendors than a dozen white western tourists!

A few of us hardier souls (the temperature fell to 2 degrees after lunch) scrambled up the hillside to some chortens, from where we saw a mini sand tornado sweeping through the valley below. We were blessed by a lovely amiable old monk in the ruined monastery up on the hillside.

My friend the elderly monk

I lagged behind the group afterwards writing a few things in my notebook, and he grabbed it from me to write his name and a short blessing in Tibetan. Absolute legend.

The next day – DAY 26 – we had an unexpected itineary change due to one of my lovely new friends being taken very ill and having to go to hospital for a wee while. Luckily he’s back to fighting weight and with the group again now, but he did give us all a bit of a worry back there…

DAY 27 was a biggie, finally making it to Everest Base Camp. We woke up to a winter wonderland in New Tingri, as it had snowed overnight. The bus wound it way up a twisty, snowy road (only getting stuck into a snowdrift the once) towards the Wula Pass.

A snow-covered Wula Pass, Tibet

There’s also a concept that I must introduce you to, that of the SGS: Shitty Gift Squad (© credit due, I believe, to Scott Irwin). Here they are, excitedly swarming around an arriving bus to peddle their remarkably overpriced wares.

'SGS', aka. 'Shitty Gift Squad' (Tibetan branch)

This particular branch were lurking at the top of the 5,200m Wula pass with Everest in the background (had the weather been clear enough to actually see it), but their natural habitat is anywhere where tourists gather in groups of four or more. Watch out for them on your next encounter: they’re devilishly persistent!

Back to the trail, we reached Rongbuk Monastery (5,100m above sea level: the highest in the world) for lunch, and to meet the locals…

The yak welcoming committee at Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet

… and then headed up a little further to the Tent City below North Base Camp, where we could just about see the peak of Everest peering through the clouds for a few seconds.

Tent City, Everest North Base Camp, Tibet

After stopping at the highest Post Office in the world to send postcards (update on May 24th, 27 days later: I’ve been home two weeks, and the postcard I sent myself still hasn’t arrived), it was a couple of hours’ breathless hike up a gentle stony path to Base Camp.
The highlight of the hike, given the peak didn’t grace us with its presence again, was the incredibly docile deer. I’m presuming that they see so few humans that they don’t take fright and bolt like deer normally do, and that meant we were able to get very close indeed.

When we got to Base Camp, there was plenty of time for photo opportunities. Predictable, moi?!

A very very special day, given it was something I’ve wanted to do since about the age of seven (having seen a documentary on Chris Bonington a few months after his return from the 1985 Norwegian expedition, fact fans!), made even more so when the peak finally came out of the clouds again for a minute or two as we were hiking back down.

DAY 28. We spent the night in yak hair tents at the Tent City – let’s just say it was minus 2 at 7am the next morning after the yak dung stoves had been re-lit – but there was SUCH a huge reward awaiting us. The morning sky was crystal clear and cloudless, allowing a full view of the peak. Magic.

A clear Mount Everest, from Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet

After that, nothing was really going to begin to be noteworthy.

The snow had melted as we zig-zagged back up the windy roads and over the Wula Pass, leaving zebra-stripes on the hills, and a clear view back south towards Everest and the other tall peaks in the distance.

Zebra-striped snow melt, Wula Pass, Tibet

We basically sat on the bus for an entire day (that’s an awful lot of knitting!), stopping in Old Tingri for lunch and then making a fairly hefty altitude drop off the Tibetan plain as the landscape got greener. Our last hour was a steep descent down a very precarious road down to the border. I say road, but most of it had swept down the steep slope to the river below in the last monsoon, and the new one hadn’t been built yet.

Ah yes, the main highway to an international border crossing

The bus was lurching around in the mud, perilously close to the steep drop, and I felt like it would have been safer to walk at least twice. Someone got valium out of their rucksack.

Still, we made it down to Zhangmu for our last night in Tibet. Like a typical border/trucker town, it was a wretched hive of scum and villainy, so much so that I expected to see Greedo or Jabba The Hutt in one of the bars. Instead, there were just money changers (who mainly changed Chinese Yen for freshly-photocopied dodgy Nepalese Rupees. Seriously), many “ladies of the night” and a bar with a picture of Oddjob for it’s sign! And, as the town clings tightly to the hillside, a lovely view down the river valley.

Looking south down the Bhote Koshi river, towards the Friendship Bridge

You just needed to shut out the noise of the ropey discos, and pretend you were on the edge of a fjord in Western Norway.

DAY 29. The once again full, reunited group said our sad farewells to our lovely Tibetan guide Yonten at the border crossing below Zhangmu, and then made our way across into Nepal over the Friendship Bridge.
We’re now at the top of a hill in Dhuklikel, hoping the thunderclouds will clear so we can see the Himalayan skyline again on the horizon. If not, the boys and I have just been into town to buy beer, haha…

Day 23: update, as far as Shigatze

Firstly, I’ve just been checking out the news from home (in a rare moment here in Tibet, both the Guardian and Independent websites are accessible), and spotted this article (which might annoy the Chinese government censors, haha). A work of genius from Messrs Parker and Stone, which I can’t wait to see.

For the last few days, we’ve been in more remote places, therefore deprived of even electric and hot water at times, let alone t’internet. So a whistlestop tour of the last 5 days.

 

DAY 19: the last day in Lhasa, was again spectacular. The highlight was a trip to the Sera monastery to see the novice monks debating what they’ve learned.

Debating novice monks, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet

Fascinating, lively and vibrant. The video clip shows just a little of the religious fervour, passion and intensity of debate, also the friendships and respect between the monks. We stayed for almost an hour, but I could have stayed much longer to watch and listen.

 

DAY 20: we headed north-west towards Nam-Tso (heavenly) lake, stopping to get acquainted with the locals during one of their rest breaks from ploughing the fields (yes it looks like mud and dirt, but the soil is ploughed and prepared in advance of the rainy season so they can make the most of their rare opportunities to grow things).

'The Yak Whisperer'

We also stopped to cross wobbly footbridges (there and back again, purely for the sake of it), for food at the ‘big plate of chicken’ restaurant in Damxung, and take photos of our first Tibetan snow-capped mountains. After a prolonged red-tape break at a checkpoint, we drove up the winding 5,100m Lachen-la mountain pass, our highest altitude yet.

Lachen-la Pass, with Nam-tso lake behind

Nam-tso lake itself is around 4,700m above sea level (so c. 1,000m higher than Lhasa), and it was easy to spot the difference in altitude. Despite having ascended and descended, I got very sick, dizzy and headachey from the altitude, and spent a restless night shivering and hyperventilating next to a yak-dung-burning stove in a hut with the Tibetan guides. But the fantastic scenery and stunning sunset made it all worthwhile.

Nam-Tso lake, Tibet

 

DAY 21: was a bus day. We travelled back to Lhasa, then turned east towards the holy (and incredibly beautiful, even a the sandstorm came in) Brahmaputra river.

The holy Brahmaputra river, Tibet

We had to put all of our faith in our slightly precarious-looking flat-bottomed “ferry” ‘s ability to reach the other side in safety (hey, we had lifejackets, though!).

Note: in parts of rural Asia, the word "ferry" has a very different meaning Vs in the West

We spent a night in a guesthouse at Samye, an 8th century monastery claimed to be the first and oldest monastery in Tibet. It’s a huge monastery complex laid out in the shape of a mandala, but there are many more monasteries on this trip, Instead I’m going to focus on the the fact that it had the oddest souvenirs I’ve seen so far: rotating prayer wheels with flashing lights that played chanting music! If only I had space in my rucksack….

 

DAY 22. The morning was spent exploring Samye monastery, before heading back across the Brahmaputra on the trusty ferry, and back onto our bus (with the dodgy driver who has never heard of the concept of progressive braking).

Driving towards Gyantse (which took 8 hours, to add some perspective), we travelled up a mountain pass road which put the Stelvio Pass (Top Gear’s ‘Best Driving Road In Europe’) totally into the shade. It was hard to get a good photo of a road spanning several valleys from a moving bus, but what I would have given for the keys to an Aston Martin…

The best driving road in Asia? I'm fairly sure the Chinese government will never let the Top Gear cameras into Tibet to judge this one...

The entire drive was spectacular. From the top of the Gampa-la (also Khamba-la) Pass, the road dropped down towards the fabulously blue Yamdrok-tso lake, shining in the afternoon sun.

The stunning Yamdrok-Tso lake, Tibet

I’ll gloss over the bit where we were mugged by camp motorbike bandits (they pulled a small knife on our driver when we and our guide were off the bus taking photos, and made off with about £1.27, bless ’em!), we then passed a beautiful glacier plus several amazing mountains and rock formations on our way to overnight in Gyantse.

 

DAY 23. This morning we explored Gyantse, which may be known to some as the place where the Chinese journalist Sun Shuyun spent, and wrote about, her ‘Year In Tibet’ (it was also made into a BBC documentary, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00949bt , which I know has been shown outside of the UK).

The most interesting part was the monastery. Its stupa which was beautiful and ornately decorated outside, but stupifyingly dull inside (most of the chambers were closed, the artefacts having been, ahem, lost at some stage…).

The stupa, Gyantse Monastery, Tibet

After a good-natured haggle with the monks and souvenir vendors (and a CD of monks’ chanting, some finger cymbals and a bracelet added to my rucksack), we took a wander through the old town, chatting in pidgin English to the locals and being lucky enough to be invited into a couple of their homes for a short while.

It was then upwards to the fortress, scene of a bloody battle during the 1904 British invasion of Tibet led by Sir Francis Younghusband, and subsequent occupation (you can read Wikipedia yourselves, but this New York Times article may be more interesting?). Climbing the rocky slope in the midday sun (300m upwards makes a difference when you are already c. 4,200m above sea level) was a little taxing, shall we say.

Gyantse old town, Tibet

Following a late lunch (more yak!), we took a short drive across to Shigatze, where I’m writing this in a dilapidated internet cafe.

Tomorrow we head into another unbelievably holy site, the Tashilhunpo Monastery (home of the Panchen Lama), which I can see out of my bedroom window in our guesthouse.

Day 11: Chengdu, Le Shan and Emei Shan

Hello from the mountains of Sichuan.

Yesterday we got off the night train at 5am for a day in Chengdu, including a visit to the fabulous and cute pandas. We also walked around a lovely old part of Chengdu after lunch in a city centre monastery, before a night in a hotel. A few of the group went to see Sichuan opera, and the rest of us went for local hotpot (meat and fish cooked in sizzling oil).

This morning we went to the giant buddha at Leshan which was, though spectacular, too too crowded and turned into half a day of queuing.

Tonight, and in two nights’ time, we’re staying in Bauguo Temple, a Buddhist monastery. I think I’m actually quite looking forward to being woken up a 5am by the monks’ chanting.

Tomorrow, we head for the 3000+ plus summit of Emei Shan.