We woke up at 5:30 am and got packed up for our journey to Trongsa. We went to breakfast just before 7. We had corn flakes, chum thup, fluffy scrambled eggs, toast, and tea. The 13 month old baby of the hotel manager and the gift shop clerk crawled into the dining room and I got a very cute picture of her. She was all smiles, and obviously used to meeting tourists. She was extremely friendly. After taking the photo, I showed it to her and I returned to the table.
We chatted with the two men seated next to us. We had noticed them last night, and I still thought that one of them looked familiar, as if I had seen him on television. As we chatted, we found out that he was a retired producer of many popular PBS (public television) series. We told him that I had sworn he looked very familiar, and he said that I had probably seen him on the televised pledge drives. I felt vindicated - I knew that I had seen him before. When we got home, we did a couple of web searches and found out that he was in fact Jac Venza, a public broadcasting pioneer responsible for such programs as "Live from Lincoln Center", "American Playhouse", "American Masters", and "Great Performances." We chatted with them until it was time to go. They would be proceeding on to Rajasthan after Bhutan.
We excused ourselves from the table a few minutes before we were scheduled to leave in the van, so that we would have time to purchase some items we had liked in the gift shop. We chatted with the woman who ran the gift shop, Sonam Deki. Her 13 month old baby crawled in, and we learned that her name was Dechen. She crawled all over us, and even let me pick her up. She was absolutely adorable and impossibly cheerful. All full of smiles and giggles. The items in the gift shop were very nice, and they were very reasonably priced. We bought some gifts for people at home as well as some prayer wheels and masks for ourselves.
We bought bottled water and settled our drink tab from the previous night with Sonam Deki's husband, the hotel manager. (We had left so quickly for the snooker hall that we had completely forgotten about paying for drinks. We realized it later and felt awful, but the staff was very nice and patient.)
Jigme was in rough shape this morning. His boil was really bothering him and he was in a lot of pain. He could barely walk, and he found driving to be very uncomfortable as well. We got into the van and he drove us toward Wangdue Phodrang. We could see the dzong atop a hill overlooking a river and bridge bedecked with prayer flags. We stopped at a checkpoint before crossing the bridge, and Dorji and Jigme presented our documentation. From this vantagepoint we could see a section of earth which was divided into a series of grid-like roads. This was atypical of anyhing we had seen in Bhutan before, and Dorji explained that it was to be the site of a planned residential community, and it seemed to be modeled after the suburbs of the west. No houses had been built, however, and we don't know whether they were still in the planning stages, or whether they had abandoned the idea altogether.
After crossing the bridge, Jigme drove us up the hill toward Wangdue Phodrang. We reached an area where the road was lined with shops. There was an early morning market taking place to our left. The road forked and we went to the right, toward the dzong. Jigme dropped us off, and Dorji escorted us to the dzong. At 9:00, we took off our shoes and entered the dimly lit monastery. Dorji explained that he wanted to take Jigme to the hospital, and asked if we would be alright exploring the dzong by ourselves. He insisted they'd be back by 9:30, though we, veterans of the United States health care system, expected it to take a lot longer. We assured him that it was no problem, and that we'd walk to the town for 9:30 and meet them whenever they got back. We knew we would stick out like sore thumbs and they wouldn't have any problem finding us amongst the locals.
This monastery hasn't been restored, and the paintings on the walls are centuries old. They are protected behind curtains, but you are allowed to pull the curtains aside to view them. They have aged remarkably well and the colors are still surprisingly vivid. There was a golden statue of Buddha, a bit smaller than ones we had seen in previous dzongs. Young monks were chanting, reading from long narrow cards written in dzongkha. One monk was beating a drum. It was mesmerizing and we felt entranced. I couldn't help feeling a bit awkward, like we were intruding on something private and spiritual. I think this was because it was the first time we were witnessing something like this alone; unaccompanied by Dorji. The monks didn't seem to mind our presence at all, and we made sure to be very quiet and respectful, minimizing our movements and just watching a listening to the scene unfolding around us.
After soaking up the atmosphere inside the monastery, we went back to the courtyard and spun the old prayer wheels, some of which were off axis and looking rather worse for wear. It was nice to see an older (non-restored) dzong. Though the restored ones are gorgeous, this one somehow felt more authentic. As we walked through the courtyard, we noticed a small tan cat relaxing in the rafters. I took pictures of some young monks as they brushed their teeth with sticks, and they corrected my pronunciation of "thank you" in dzongkha.
As we exited the dzong grounds, we walked through the "chorten with two legs" (a chorten with a walkway tunnel through the middle) which was designed to purge slaughterers of animals of their sins. There were some nice views of the valley, and we saw an interesting tree with various layers of bark that looked like army camouflage. We could see the river below, its silty shores, houses, farmland, and eight small stupas all in a neat line.
The "town" of Wangdue Pghodrang was right outside of the dzong's archway and pretty much consisted of a line of shops on either side of the streets. I bought some gum to share with Craig, Dorji, and Jigme. It was always nice to have gum or hard candy here, as your mouth gets so dry in this climate. I made a mistake when purchasing it, though. I showed the woman my dollar and asked her to give me a dollar's worth of gum, which turned out to be 5 little pieces. I should have asked how much each piece costs in ngultrum, and then done the conversion myself. I have the sneaking suspicion I would have gotten more for my money that way. We saw small children buying more gum than I was given, and they certainly paid less. Oh well, live and learn.
We wandered around, window-shopping in the stalls that lined the streets. We saw all kinds of things for sale: food, toys, thermoses, music cassettes. There weren't too many other foreigners around, though we ran into the Bangladeshi family we had met several days before at the Riverview Hotel, and we were able to point them toward the dzong.
We saw Jigme drive by in the van at 10:00. That was a fast hospital visit! He drove to the gas station and parked. Dorji appeared behind us (we knew he'd have no trouble locating us) and we all walked over to the gas station (the morning market had broken up, and we could now see the gas pumps in the middle of the lot), where Jigme filled the tank. Dorji had acquired sunglasses at some point this morning, and they were oversized round ones reminiscent of those worn by Hollywood actresses of old. We teased him that he was trying to avoid being recognized. We waved at some student drivers parked near us, and they seemed to get a big kick out of us. Dorji ran off and returned with a "shake your Body" cassette as a momento for us. It was the soundtrack of a movie and was very popular amongst the Bhutanese. He promptly put it into the stereo, and we enjoyed it as we drove across the countryside.
We climbed up through the mountains, and the familiar trees began to give way to much older growth forest. We drove up, and up, and up, and shortly before noon we arrived at a small stupa resplendent with prayer flags at a fork in the road. We stopped to stretch our legs and take a bathroom break. The sky began to grow dark with clouds. We were beginning to get hungry. We had no idea when or where lunch would take place, so we tucked into our stash of M&M's. Dorji was sleeping in the front seat with his sunglasses on so that we wouldn't be able to tell. The road then descended for a while, and along the ride, we saw our first yaks. They were huge, with long coarse fur and long horns. A man was walking with three of them, who were laden with gear, while others laid lazily in the grass. We saw another Etho Metho vehicle, and Dorji said that another group of clients were hiking across the pass today. We were glad that we hadn't chosen to do that. The day was cloudy and they wouldn't even get to appreciate the views to the fullest. We were just as happy to be driving.
At around 1:00 pm we reached a Nepalese-style stupa at the top of a pass. Many vertical prayer flags stood on poles surrounding it and a small wooden covered bridge spanned the river to connect it to the road. We passed the stupa and entered a cafeteria which was a couple hundred feet down the road. They served a buffet of chilis and cheese, momos, mixed vegetables, red rice, noodles, small bananas, and tea. I love momos, but I came across something crunchy in one of them. It may have been a little bone or something, but it put me off my lunch and I didn't eat any more of them. There were quite a few other tourists at this stop, as restaurants in this area seemed scarce.
After lunch we walked down the street to the stupa. As we approached it, and older man fingering his prayer bead smiled benevolently at us. Craig pointed out to me that the stupa was imperfect, and that gave it a much more organic feel than some other architecture we had seen in other countries which tended to be very symmetrical and precise. The stupa had eyes which looked in each of the cardinal directions. There were lots of prayer flags and painted slates surrounding the stupa, and dzongkha words were painted in beautiful gold calligraphy on some of the slates. We circled the stupa clockwise via a well-worn footpath through the grass while admiring its flawed beauty. Although it had been rather cloudy when we first arrived, the clouds began to give way to blue sky. The contrast between the gilt cupola of the stupa against the brilliant blue sky was breathtaking.
As we walked back to the cafeteria, we heard someone calling to us. It turned out to be a little boy in a window of a nearby house. I asked permission to take a photo, and the boy's mother cocked her head in a signal of approval. He moved from window to window as we retreated, keeping us always in view.
We got back into the van and headed toward Trongsa, our destination for the night. We passed gorgeous trees and roadside waterfalls. The landcape was very verdant, and the roads were muddy. Children frolicked on their walks home from school along shortcuts between fields. There was a large dumptruck in the road, and men were breaking boulders using hammers. As pieces shattered off, women swooped in and shuttled the pieces into the dumptruck.
We reached the overlook to Trongsa Dzong (tucked neatly into the green valley) at around 3:15. There was a small chorten at the overlook, as well as an incense burner. We chatted with a newlywed couple wearing Red Sox caps. Their names were Leah and Jim. They were also clients of Myths and Mountains (the two had hiked over the pass), and were from Boston. Small world! We could also see our hotel from this vantagepoint. It had a large sign which read "Yangkhil Resort." It sounded fancy, but it was hard to tell from this distance.
We had planned to visit Trongsa Dzong before checking onto the hotel, but Jigme still wasn't feeling well and could use some rest, so we decided to postpone the dzong visit until tomorrow. We drove around the valley toward the hotel. It had seemed deceptively close, but the actual ride took longer than we had expected. We stopped at a checkpoint at a bridge and two little boys in ghos came over to the van window while Dorji presented our papers to the guards. We took the boys' pictures and they were thrilled. When we were back on the road, we passed a very pretty waterfall. As we approached the resort, I spotted a family of langur monkeys along the roadside: the baby ran away quickly, but two adults stuck around. They were really fuzzy and were a golden brown color. We were very excited to have seen them: our first monkeys in Asia.
We arrived at the hotel and hopped out of the van. There were some children there to greet us, and they were quite cute. One little boy in a gho had one kneesock pulled up to his knee, while the other was pushed down to his ankle. A girl was wearing a bright green skirt. I took a few photos and then we went to the lobby to check in. They had a business center with computers (maybe we could send email home!), a gift shop, couches and newspapers to peruse, and an upstairs restaurant. We got our key and walked outside to a little building containing several rooms. Our room number was 404. We were right next to a large prayer wheel, and we had a gorgeous view of the dzong from the room. We had two double beds, and the bathroom had a bathtub! I was sure that my sore knee would benefit greatly from a warm soak. There were also tissues in the room! I wouldn't have to keep scrounging toilet paper for my running nose. This place was a dream come true for my aching body.
This was the first place where we had seen internet access, and we wanted to send a note home. We went into the lobby and were served tea and cookies. There were two computers in the business center, but one was out of order. Leah and Jim had arrived just before us, and Jim was on the working computer. Dorji joined us for tea in the lobby while we waited for the computer to free up. I perused some Indian newspapers while Craig chatted with Leah.
After Leah and Jim were done in the business center, we wrote an email and sent it to our friends and family back home, telling them we were fine and that we would be updating our blog momentarily. I wrote a detailed blog entry, and while I was doing that, we got a bunch of email replies. It was nice to hear from them; it made us feel connected with home and we were excited to tell people of our adventures so far.
I typed up a quick mail to Toni at Myths and Mountains to ask her to please look into why we were charged for the Delhi hotel room on our first night. Just as I was about to hit send, the power suddenly went out. The hotel staff brought candles into the business center. We got a picture of the candle next to the computer monitor - modern technology vs ancient technology, and ancient technology is the victor. We had to laugh. We headed back to the room, defeated. A few minutes later the power came back on, and we headed back to the business center. I had just powered the machine up and logged in when the power went out again. The staff advised us to wait; that this was a common occurrence in winter when the water is low (power here is hydroelectric), and that it shouldn't take too long to be restored. The power did come back on, and we managed to send out that email. We had been online for a total of 75 minutes. But for all we knew this would be our one and only chance to send out an update, so we made the most of it.
We freshened up in our spacious room and then met Dorji in the dining room at 7. Craig drank Druk Lager and I had a strawberry Fanta followed by a blue raspberry punch Mirinda (they were out of orange). Dinner consisted of a buffet of naan, fish, vegetables, red rice, dahl (lentil soup) and chilis and cheese. We had a great dinner. It was nice to get a chance to chat with Dorji over a relaxing restaurant meal. Dorji had been keeping a secret which he revealed at dinner. He had met a young woman in Shelmakha whom he had really liked, but she seemed to avoid him. She had been one of the winners of the raffle at the HIV show (that didn't narrow it down for us - we hadn't been able to see the winners) and he said he made her shake his hand before giving her the prize despite her reluctance to do so. He thought she totally wasn't interested, but apparently she had liked him well enough to get his phone number from one of his friends, and she had texted him. We told him that obviously she was interested too - just shy. He coyly showed us the message, a sweet little poem. It was so cute. It reminded us of passing notes in junior high school. We told him to make sure to keep us posted as the situation developed!
After dinner, we went back to the room at 8:30. I flushed the toilet and as it filled up again with clean water, it started to overflow. Craig and I worked quickly to open the tank and lift the phlange to stop it from filling. I desperately looked for an off valve, but there was none. Craig continued to hold the phlange open while I ran to the office to get help. I explained to a man in the lobby what had happened, and he nodded and ran up the stairs. To my surprise, he returned with two young women who would accompany me to the room. Craig was feeling quite helpless stuck there holding the phlange, and was happy when we returned. The two young women closed the bathroom door and set to work. craig and I sat out on our patio, embarrassed to make these two young women deal with our toilet. Craig read the Buddhism book (which Dorji had given him to keep) and I wrote in the journal. We admired the view. The countryside was so dark, except for the lit up dzong across the valley. We could see the stars and it was very peaceful on the patio. Soon we noticed that neither the stars nor the dzong were visible, as a foggy mist had descended upon us. We took some photos of the large prayer wheel which was visible from our patio. The women somehow managed to fix the toilet and took their leave. It was getting chilly and we decided to go back inside.
I took a bath at 10:00. The tub was a bit short in length, but I was able to fully extend my legs. It was excellent to be able to stretch my knee. The hot water made it feel so much better. We went to sleep at 11:00 in this quite comfortable hotel room.