We woke up the next morning at 5:30 a.m. and packed everything up. Yeshey called us for a breakfast of sausage, eggs, French fries, and toast.
We thanked Yeshey for all of the great food and said goodbye to him. We also said our goodbyes to the family (Mom Deki Pem held onto my hand for a minute). We presented the kids with oats and honey granola bars wrapped in green foil packaging. Phub Lham said “Tank you” in a small voice. Again, I didn’t know she spoke any English. Little Phub Zam smiled and chewed on the granola bar wrapper. It seemed a shame to leave when we were just starting to bond with the family.
We walked reluctantly out to the family's small van, into which Karma was loading up our luggage. We hopped in the back seat, and Karma and Dorji sat in the front. Karma and Deki Pem's eldest son Passang Dorji was sitting outside and waved as we left. Craig and I were quite reflective on the ride. We were sad to leave this little Shangri La (a cliche, but an apt one). The village stay had been the pinnacle of the itinerary in our minds in the days leading up to the trip, and it had lived up to the hype. We passed by the once-foreign but now familiar farmhouses, tea house, school, shops, and fields of cheerful yellow mustard plants as we bounced down the hardened mud track. We thought back to our arrival, how we hadn't known at all what to expect, and how the experience had surpassed all of our hopes. The village people had embraced us, and had really made us feel like family. We had learned so much about Bhutanese culture and day-to-day life. We passed the chorten where we had stopped to rest on our hike up to the village. Although we were going downhill now, we were still glad to have a ride. It took about an hour to drive down to the main road. I can only imagine how long it would have taken when the roads were as muddy as they had been in the past few days!
We said goodbye and thank you to Karma, and he said we would be welcome back at any time. With typical Bhutanese humility, he said that the next time we came, he would make sure that his house was in better shape and that our accommodations would be better. This was nonsense, as our lodgings had exceeded all expectations. He turned around and drove back up the hill, and we stood quietly by the side of the road waiting for our ride.
We waited about 10 minutes, and then an Etho Metho van arrived at 8:45, driven by Jigme (it took me about a day to realize his name was not Chimmi, also a common Bhutanese name. The "g" in Jigme is silent, so it sounded impossibly like “Jimmy" , which I immediately dismissed). He drove us to Thimpu. The ride only took about an hour and a half. The sights that we had previously walked past now flew by through the van windows. It was Sunday, which meant that all of the Indian road crews had the day off. We saw the rock crusher but it was temporarily abandoned...it was sad as we had hoped that we would be able to wave our rock crushing friends. As we approached Thimpu, we saw a large group of Indians worshipping together in one place. Although the Indians work in a variety of roadside camps along various roads in Bhutan, they all come together to celebrate their faith on Sundays. We assumed that ourrock-crushing friends were probably among this multitude.
Jigme dropped us off at the RiverView. Dorji had the staff bring the bags that we had stored there. Everything was intact, with "Etho Metho" written in chalk on the bags. We relaxed in the restaurant with a glass of fresh orange juice and some tea while Dorji went home to drop off some of his things. We went through our bags, re-organizing some of our things. We met some tourists from Bangladesh and had a nice chat with them while we sipped our tea.
Dorji and Jigme arrived back to collect us at around 11:30. We were running low on camera battery power after all of these days camping, and wondered whether we would need an adapter in order to use our battery charger in Eastern Bhutan. The Riverview had had both Bhutanese and western electrical outlets, but that was less likely as you got off the more popular tourist trail. We decided to be better safe than sorry and asked Dorji if we could stop for an adapter. It was Sunday and some places weren’t open. The first shop we tried didn’t have any, but the proprietor sent us down the street. We found one for a mere $4 and were on our way by noon. When we got back to he van Jigme and a crowd of people were looking at something on the street below. Was it an accident? Nope, someone just got a souped-up bicycle that was gathering a lot of attention. Such is Bhutan.
We drove up to the Dochula Pass (3140 meters). On the way, we passed through Tibetan refugee territory. The refugees have been allowed to resettle in this area, and most of them grow apples and sell them at roadside stands. There was a checkpoint here and Dorji had to show them our visa. He bought us a Mirinda orange soda at the little farm stand next to the check point. We continued the climb up to the pass, leaving Thimpu behind us. Once we crossed the pass, we would no longer be able to see it. Dogs gathered on the sides of the roads near waterfalls; we imagined that they were on a journey to cross the path as well.
Dorji started to pray and we knew we must be near the sacred spot where one of the queens, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, had commissioned 108 chortens to be built. I had read about this in her book "Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan". In 2003, a situation with guerillas from north-eastern India who had set up camps in Southern Bhutan came to a head. They were using their Bhutanese bases to launch attacks on India. In December of that year, the King of Bhutan led his people into battle to vanquish the guerillas. A worried Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck set up a relief effort and began to build 108 (an auspicious number in Buddhism, as it is the number of prayers in a complete cycle) chortens on Dochula Pass, at the site of a chorten she had previously built. The Duar War of 2003, as it came to be known, was complete in just a day and a half, during which time the King and his troops destroyed the thirty guerilla camps and captured and/or drove out the guerillas. The chortens were completed in June of 2004, and they were named the Druk Wangyel Chortens ("Chortens of the Victory of the Druk Gyalpo"). I had read all of this history, but I just couldn't picture what it would look like.
The chortens were gorgeous. They were square and squat with red roofs and they had small gold finials on top. They sat on tiers with staircases in between so that you could climb up to the large chorten in the center. There was a gorgeous view of the Himalayas - jagged white peaks against a bright sky dappled with white puffy clouds. Some peaks were obscured by clouds but others were shining in the sunlight. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, and it was a stunning sight all around. Next to the parking area was one of the oldest stupas in the county. We wandered around and it was totally peaceful. As we were leaving we passed an adorable toddler and her father. We waved and her dad told her to "Say hi Auntie." "Hi!" she said in a small voice. "Say hi Uncle" "Hi!" she repeated to Craig. As we walked away she said "Bye!" and blew kisses. She was so cute! We blew kisses back to her and waved on our way to the van.
We headed a little further down the road and stopped at the Dochula Cafeteria. They are in the process of building a brand new hotel nearby that should have a spectacular view of the Himalayas. Lunch was a buffet of fried potatoes, fish curry, veggie soup, cauliflower, and red rice. Craig had a beer and I had a cold Fanta. The restaurant was decorated with lots of artwork and craft pieces. I found the food to be so-so and was in a hurry to eat so that I could look at the artwork. We looked through a stack of paintings and fell in love with one of the Wheel of Life, painted by Bhutan's most famous living painter, Ugyen Dorji. The detail was very intricate, and we found one with colors that would match our home decor. We purchased one, and the woman rolled it up and placed it safely into a plastic tube which she then duct-taped shut.
We bought a few other souvenirs here as well. There were panoramic photographs hanging on the wall of the Himalayas on a clear day, with all of the peaks labeled. Wiseguy Dorji took photos of these photos to try to fake a better view . On our way to the rest room, we passed a cardboard box of Amul butter, butter from India which we saw everywhere. The box had a caricature of a little girl and showed the slogan "Utterly butterly delicious." For the rest of the trip, we would quote this slogan when eating anything yummy,
We continued on to the Royal Botanical Garden (or as Craig accidentally called it, the "Royal Bhutanical Garden"). There was a nice lake there and many types of rhododendron (for which "Etho Metho" tours is named) but unfortunately none were in bloom at this time of year. The lake reflected the blue sky and clouds, and it was very serene.
Next we drove to Punakha. As we approached town, we passed a taxi which was pulled over on the side of the road. The driver waved and Dorji said “That’s my brother.” It was his twin, Dawa. Dorji had said that he would like to invite us to his mother’s house for tea. He was typically modest about her situation and house, but when we arrived there it was quite nice. The house was yellow and down a small hill from the road. Chilis were drying on the corrugated metal roof of the detached kitchen. A small outbuilding to the right of the house contained bathrooms. Behind the house were beautiful fields, and we could see a temple off in the distance. Dorji had told us before that his mother looked young enough to be his sister, and despite being forewarned, we were still surprised at just how young she looked. Tashi Choden is only in her early 40’s, and it didn’t seem possible that she had twin 26 year old sons. She greeted us and invited us into her sitting room. We met Pema Rabgay, Dorji’s youngest brother (age 12, class 6). Dorji's mother served us tea, popcorn, and fried grains of rice (a finger food snack). We noticed that the house had the same interior decorative painting on the woodwork that we had seen so many times before, in dzongs, in Karma's farmhouse, in restaurants, and even the Paro airport. Dorji explained that people hired professional artists to paint these decorations in all of the buildings.
Then Dawa arrived. Dorji showed us a picture of himself and Dawa and their younger sister when they were all small. Dawa was very sweet. He is the younger twin, and had stopped school at class 10 to support the family and help fund Dorji’s education in India. Their dad passed away when they were 16. Dawa had been a truck driver and had gotten into a very bad accident. Dorji brought him to India for surgery. Now Dawa drives a taxi. It is really sweet how the family sticks together and helps one another out. We told Dawa how highly Dorji speaks of him and how admirable that it is that he has taken such good care of his family. He is typically modest, and smiles and shrugs, saying what choice did he have. Dorji put on the TV and flipped through the channels. We saw a commercial for "Pirate Master", a bad reality show we had watched in the USA that got cancelled halfway through the series. Maybe we could watch the rest in Bhutan, we joked. Dorji stopped flipping the channels when he found the recent "Spider Man" movie. We showed them all our photos from home. Dorji’s mom invited us for dinner. We declined, because Dorji still had a couple of places to show us before it got dark. We thanked her anyway and she invited us back for lunch tomorrow, an invitation which we happily accepted.
We drove through town, passing a large, goregous Dzong at the confluence of two rivers, as well as a Nepalese-style stupa. The town was small, and there were fewer tourists than we had seen in Paro and Thimpu. We stopped at Dorji’s high school, Ugyen Academy, which opened in 2000. Dorji was one of the original students (he's such a youngster!) and helped do a lot of the landscaping. After a quick tour of the campus, Jigme drove us to Hotel YT. We had been warned that it was “modest”, but it had an indoor toilet and shower, so we were thrilled! The room had some nice Bhutanese furniture, and a silk drapery to cover the door as a kind of "do not disturb" signal. On the wall opposite our door in the hallway was a tapestry of dogs playing pool.
We took hot showers immediately. An employee knocked on the door and told us that dinner was ready. We sat at one of the long tables in the dining room and were served vegetable soup as an appetizer. Then it was a buffet dinner with red rice, Chinese style vegetables, delicious beef curry, watercress soup (which Craig tried but didn't care for because it seemed to be made out of fish stock), green beans, pork with chilis, and chilis and cheese. The chilis and cheese were so hot that I could only eat so much of them, despite how delicious they were. Craig devoured them. Craig had a Druk 11000 beer and I had a Fanta. A little boy came over to our table at one point and we met the proprietor, YT (grandfather of the little boy). For dessert we had mango and tea, and chatted with a couple from Belgium and Holland. After dinner we went straight to bed at 9. It was a nice change to sleep in an actual bed.