To get to Bhutan we had to go through Dacca, Bangladesh (only one airline, the naitional carrier Druk, flies into and out of Bhutan, and overland travel into the country is not allowed). Our flight, on Emirates airlines, left Nairobi on Nov. 4. We have to admit to being a little tentative flying on Emirates -- on the one hand you know it's going to be safe from terrorists -- but on the other hand who wants to be an American flying on a planeload of Arabs at this time?
Anyway, the plane was very nice and though we received the usual stares, we landed in our transfer point in Dubai, UAE with no glitches. Dubai is a glitzy, rich middle eastern city, and as we pulled into the modern airport, from the runway we spotted the warm, soothing glow of the golden arches -- the first spotted since leaving the states.
So while we had very little time, we raced through the spotless airport en route to the McDs. We loaded up an enormous, picnic-sized bag with McVeggie burgers, fries, and the like, and headed to our next departure gate. Upon arrival, however, there was a bit of confusion: the sign on the gate was flashing "Dacca", followed by "Karachi". We approached the gate attendant.
"Does this flight now stop in Karachi?"
We were still hopeful: "Karachi, Texas?"
"No, Karachi, Pakistan."
At the height of the riots in Islamabad and the war in Afghanistan, this is not a place we wanted to stopover, but at least we didn't have to get off the plane. We just sat on the runway for a few hours, hoping the weather would hold, and we arrived with no problems in Dacca, Bangladesh.
We were exhausted from the red-eye and cautious of the many anti-US demonstrations going on there, so we didn't do much but sleep and watch CNN. However, we did take a few short excursions into the city and there are some pictures below. In short, Dacca has about 10 million people, is full of noise and pollution and garbage.
Ahhhh....peaceful, Buddhist Bhutan -- known also as "the land of the thunder dragon," but could just as easily be nicknamed, "land of the howling dogs", "land of the chili pepper", "land of the photo-op", or "land of butter products". We were thrilled to be finally in such a relaxing place, on a 10-day fully guided tour and trek on which the worst thing that could happen is a little frostbite.
Bangladesh & Bhutan pics! (click picture for full-sized version)
As background, Bhutan is a small, little-known Buddhist country nestled in the Himalayan mountains, south of Tibet and east of Nepal. Dale had seen a special on PBS about Bhutan years ago and ever since then it's ranked high on the list of destinations to visit. The only problem is that it is a ludicrously expensive place to visit if you are a tourist and is extremely difficult to plan as an independent traveler-- a policy that effectively limits the numbers of tourists to just a few thousand each year, and prevents the country from sprouting up tourist ghettos as in Nepal. In addition, as a tourist it is compulsory that a local tour operator arrange your trip and that you are accompanied by a guide practically 24/7 (something that we are completely unused to).
So, of course the fact that the country is completely unspoilt and is under such tight control adds to the allure. The only real question is, is it worth the cost and effort?
Just flying into Paro airport, we could tell that this was not one of our usual destinations. The plane flew underneath and between various snow-capped Himalayan peaks, and after landing we were whisked through an airport that looked more like a monestary than anything else.
Outside the airport gates we met up with our surprisingly young guide, Tashi, and our driver, whose name is either Chimmy or Jimmy (after 10 days it still remains a mystery, but we called him "Chimmy" anyway).
On the road to Thimpu -- the cultural center of the country -- it began to become clear what was so special about this place. Firstly, the scenery is spectacular everywhere you go (the first picture below was on the road to Thimpu). There is just one paved road running east-west across the country, and you didn't pass another car very often (Bhutan has about 600,000 people, vs. Nepal's 20 million or so). All the local people are required in most cases, by law, to wear the national dress: a hiked-up bathrobe called a "gho" for men, and a sarong and silk jacket combination for women called a "kira." The countryside is spotless, the air is clean and crisp, and not a single beggar can be found.
In Thimpu we checked into the Wangchuk Hotel -- named after the current King Wangchuk -- and had our first Bhutanese meal, which always consists of rice, chili peppers in chese sauce, and maybe some other dishes. The town itself, although one of the biggest in the country, was like a small town -- practically devoid of traffic and not many people either. One road runs through the center of town, and all shops below the road must be closed on Tuesdays, and all shops above the road must close on Wednesday -- a small but telling piece of legislation that reveals how protective the govt is of their old-time lifestyles, family, etc.
That evening we were invited to the home of our tour operator, Tshering, for dinner. Our guide joined us but Chimmy ate in a separate room, as we feasted on chilis and cheese, yak meat, rice, etc. and met her family (her husband was Minister of Technology or something and educated partly in the US). As opposed to the govt officials of practically every other country in the world, these people lived relatively modestly, but had a nice clean home and satellite TV (television was only introduced to the country about 2 or 3 years ago. Before then the only source of timely news was a weekly, govt-published newspaper). In the home on the wall were three pictures of the much-revered king (you will never hear a bad word about him), who took over at age 17 when his father died. Also interesting was that the children, although more worldy and educated in India, had no desire to ever leave Bhutan. This is the first country we visited, where all the people weren't begging us to help them leave.
We spent many hours over the course of the week driving east -- the roads are winding, hilly, and full of yaks and other livestock, in addition to rhesus and langur monkeys, and the national animal, the Takin. Along the sides of the road women and young girls were hunched over, pounding rocks with hammers to create gravel for paving. We went from town to town, Thimpu to Trongsa to the Bumthang region and Jakar, along the way exploring towns, monestaries, scenery, etc. We were also unused to the cold, especially at night in guest houses with no or limited electricity, where the only heat is provided either by a wood burning stove or your sleeping bag. Generally we would eat our rice, chilis and cheese, and other assorted tibetan and chinese-like food in the hotel or a restaurant in town, joined by Tashi. Inexplicably, Chimmy always ate in the kitchen or back room. Do we offend him?
Our guide Tashi spoke some english and was a bit difficult to understand at times, but that didn't stop him from chatting non-stop about the history of the country and the various sites that we visited. Tashi, like most Bhutanese, speak only of their religious beliefs and Bhutan legend as if fact . For instance, when Dale asked him if we would see any Yetis on the trip, he replied matter-of-factly, "No, they are only found in the east." Or, when describing how a monestary was impossibly built high in the side of a cliff hundreds of years ago, he said, "Guru Rimpoche turned himself into a flying tiger, flew up there, and built the temple by meditating with his powers." Not once would he couch his stories with, "we believe that..." or "legend has it that..."
In Jakar, we requested to stay with a family in a farm house, rather than a hotel. Of course the family spoke no english, so most of the time we just sat on the floor of the kitchen, around the stove, declining offers of various kinds of food and drink. However, we were not good enough at it and in no time had before us one glass of milk tea, one glass of butter tea (a disgusting concoction of yak butter, tea, and a pinch of salt), a glass of local hooch (called 'om'), and a glass of local Red Panda beer (unfiltered). We tried our best to be polite and sip ever so slightly at the various glasses, however, every time we took a sip someone ran over and refilled the glass. As a result, we just laughed hysterically and tried to meditate the liquids away.
In the beautiful region of Bumthang we began our 3-day trek through the mountains. The first day was the King's Birthday, and so there was a big celebration and parade in town (we had seen them preparing throughout the country all week). We were then met by our trekking team -- a cook, an assistant cook, 5 pack horses, the horseman and his son. Including our guide Tashi there were 5 of them, 5 horses, and just 2 of us. We felt like royalty with that entourage!
The hiking was moderate, through beautiful valleys, small villages, and monestaries, and at the highest passes there was ice and snow. Along the way we would stop for lunch and munch on the hard-as-rock dried yak cheese ('chugi'), which is essentially like putting a golf ball into your mouth, and about as tasty (Dana usually fed hers to stray dogs). We didn't see a single tourist the entire time, but occaisionally a local farmer or child flew past us as we wheezed up the trail. At night, our team would set up the entire camp and our cook Doji would whip up a delicious meal. The horseman and son, whom we affectionately referred to as 'apa' and 'bus' (meaning literally, father and son), kept us entertained as they smiled, joked, and hugged each other the whole trip. Though this is one of the poorest countries in the world, the people are some of the happiest and most family-oriented we have seen.
On our last day of the trek, we finished on a large breakfast, and minutes later were seated at another farmhouse, where we were instantly blindsided by another feast of milk tea, butter tea, apples, papadam, maize chips, etc. (see pics below). As usual we could only smile and try to pretend-sip our disgusting beverages, while preventing the inevitable refills.
We broke up the drive back to Paro with a stop to see the rare black-neck cranes in Gantey. In a show of all that is Bhutan, along the walk school children would stop in front of Dale, bow, and say, "Good morning sir." Then they would move on to Dana, bow, and say, "Good morning madam," before walking onto school. In Africa, generally school children are looking for a handout of candy, pens, or hard cash.
Our last days were spent in Paro -- Dale got a haircut for about a dollar with construction paper scissors -- and we saw a competition of archery, the national sport. Again, because this is Bhutan, when the opposing team makes a good shot, you carry out an entire song and dance routine in their honor. The better they shoot, the more elaborate your performance (no wonder a game takes all day). We tried to think of how this excessive reverse-sportsmanship would translate to American football! Finally, at our last dinner, a buffet of the inevitable chillis and cheese and other local dishes, Tashi finally revealed why Chimmy never ate with us. It turns out that he's not very adept at using utensils when he eats (locals always eat with their hands, as we do in the farmhouses -- a messy experience with rice and cheese sauce). So he's too frustrated to eat at the table with us using a fork and knife, and always wants to eat in the kitchen, where he is free to use his hands!
On our flight out to Nepal, passing directly by Everest, we knew why Bhutan had so many repeat visitors, and understood why it was such a special place. At the same time, we were a bit tired of everyone being so damned nice! Bring on the noise, pollution and grimy street life of Kathmandu!
Bangladesh: Honoring a local person's request to be photographed with a white person / The dangerous "baby taxis"
Bhutan: Road to Thimphu / Spinning prayer wheels
Traffic cop in Thimphu (no traffic lights allowed) / A dzong (administrative center, monestary, etc.)
Bhutan's national animal - the takin / Dana donning a kira - the traditional dress
A langur monkey sitting roadside / Bhutanese kids amidst flapping buddhist prayer flags
Our hosts -- the farm family / Bon Jovi's photo next to a yak-skin bag and King Wangchuk's
King Wangchuk's birthday celebration / Our trekking team
Family we visited with on our trek / Monastery caretaker
The dreaded butter tea / Guardian of the temple
Our guide, Tashi, with his brother / Chillies drying on a rooftop
One of the many pagodas we saw / Other team victory archery dance