We woke up at 6:30 am and took very brief showers. Though the toilet tank was apparently full of steaming hot water, the shower was a cool trickle. We joked that we might have done better to have stuck our heads directly into the bowl. Dorji and the Brits' guide had been able to make a few phone calls and get our visas squared away, so at 8:30 we were able to leave for Trashi Yangtse as scheduled.
We passed through the checkpoint at Chazam with no problems, crossed the bridge, took a right, and headed north, upriver.
About half an hour into our ride, we passed a section of road which had been damaged by a rockslide. Workers were stacking rocks into a retaining wall by hand. Bhutan utilizes manual labor in the most literal sense of the word. After 30 more minutes, we reached Gom Kora, a very important site in regards to Guru Rinpoche. We would return for a proper visit later in the day, but the early morning light was quite picturesque, so we stopped for a few photos now nonetheless. It was a small compound, consisting of a temple, a huge boulder, and several smaller buildings. The river swept past behind the compound, and then a mounstainside jutted straight upwards. Young monks climbed the boulder and frolicked on top, rolling around and looking like they were in danger of plummeting over the side at any instant. Older monks and nuns worked the fields on the riverbank. We observed all of this going on below from the road, and then got back into the van and continued on our journey.
We drove past a small cave where Guru Rinpoche had meditated. There was also a rock cliff where Guru Rinpoche embedded two white seashells. Dorji tried to point them out to us, but it took a lot of explanation as to their location before we were able to actually pinpoint them. A couple of little boys were walking down the street. Dorji had some leftover granola mix which he had meant to hive to Kunga at the college, but we had all forgotten. He gave the bag of granola to these boys, and they smiled and posed for a photo. There were rockslides in the road further up. Men were clearing the rocks from the road so that vehicles could pass through. We saw some monkeys on the side of the road, but they scurried into the underbrush before I could get a photo. There was a large waterfall whose impact on the ground created a white cloud of spray. The road here was a narrow, one-lane, dirt road, which clung to the side of the mountains, following the path of the river below. We passed a very muddy area, and we thought for sure that our van would become stuck. But thanks to some very adept driving by Jigme, we managed to avoid what seemed inevitavble. The vegetation around here was incredibly lush, and it seemed as though rain must be prevalent in this region.
Approximately two hours after setting out from Trashigang, we approached the town of Trashi Yangtse. From the road below, we could see the different levels of the village nestled into the mountains above us. We continued up a large hill, passing an archery tournament, en route to the new dzong. There was a Bhutanese flag flying outside, and we entered the courtyard. The architecture was very handsome, and there was a nice view of the surrounding valley and mountains. It was a shame that the weather was so gray today, as sunlight definitely would have made the place even more impressive. We went inside the temple and found all of the paintings and silks to be very vibrant and new. Monks were seated on the floor chanting.
A very friendly gomchen (lay monk) explained to Dorji the story behind the old dzong. We had passed the old dzong just before entering the town. A demon had entered the house of a woman who was weaving. He told her that if she fed him, he would finish her weaving. She did so and he finished a year's worth of her weaving immediately. Guru Rinpoche was looking for the demon. The demon made the woman promise not to divulge its whereabouts, and it promptly went upstairs and hid in a container. Guru Rinpoche arrived at the woman's house inquiring about the demon. The woman did not break her promise by telling him, but she did make a gesture toward her upstairs. Guru Rinpoche took the hint, went upstairs, and subdued the demon. The location of the woman's house was where they built Trashi Yangtse's original dzong. It still houses monks, but is no longer the official functioning dzong of Trashi Yangtse.
The new dzong, where we currently stood, is only around twelve years old, which explains the vibrancy of colors in the paintings and silks. The government provided the materials to build the new dzong, but the people of Trashi Yangtse provided all of the labor to build it. The lay monk seemed very happy to impart all of this information, and he didn't rush us at all, or indicate that we were causing any disruption to the morning prayers.
When we were done at the dzong, we walked down the hill in the hopes of watching some of the archery, but as luck would have it, the archers took a lunch break as soon as we reached the bottom of the hill. Our timing was unfortunate, but at least we had already had the chance to see some archery, so it wasn't that big of a disappointment. We walked through the town center, which consisted of a few small restaurants and shops, past a large prayer wheel to the Nepalese-style Chorten Kora which was built in 1740 by Lama Ngawang Loday. It is a replica of the stupa of Bodhnath in Nepal. The Lama supposedly visited Bodhnath and carved its likeness into a radish as a model for Trashi Yangtse's chorten. The radish shrank a bit during his journey back to Bhutan, so Chorten Kora is not an exact replica of the Bodhnath stupa. As is the Nepalese style, the chorten has eyes facing in each cardinal direction and is situated right on the river. Its pinnacle was originally made of stone, but it was not straight, and so was replaced with a gilded cupola. This also was not straight, and after multiple attempts, the builders determined that it was not meant to be straight, and left it crooked. The original stone pinnacle sits on the ground near the chorten.
384 prayer wheels surround the chorten, and we circled the chorten three times while spinning them. The locals all seemed happy to see us participating, and they smiled and bowed to us as they chanted and circumambulated the chorten. Mani walls decorated with paintings flanked the stupa, and there was a water-powered prayer wheel. You could see the inner workings, which consisted of a very simple water trough which funnelled water to a wooden wheel which drove the prayer wheel. As we meandered our way back to the van, Dorji and Jigme walked around the old stone pinnacle of the chorten three times. We met a bunch of children who were rolling hoops in the street. I tried to get some candid photos of them in action, but they insisted on stopping what they were doing and posing for the camera instead.
We got back into the van and started the drive back towards Trashigang. The gray day had degraded to sprinkles and then full-on downpours. When the rain stopped, Jigme pulled over and parked. He and Dorji pulled the floor mat from the car for us to sit on, and set up a roadside picnic spot with the hot lunch from the hotel (red rice, fish, potatoes, chilis and cheese, green beans, and sour oranges). We had apple juice and tea to drink. It was a nice picnic spot with view of the mountains. There were trees here with long green needles that looked kind of like my family's artificial Christmas trees from the 1970's, with branches that looked like toilet brushes.
After our lunch stop, we drove back to Gom Kora. The temple was surrounded by cheerful flower gardens, and the setting on the river was gorgeously bucolic. We went inside the temple and there were holiday lights and statues of many deities, including Guru Rinpoche. Incense was burning (I could actually breathe through my nose once again, and could actually smell it!) We knew that this must be a very holy place, as Dorji bowed and prayed as soon as we entered. There were very sacred relics on the altar, including vulture eggs, Guru Rinpoche's footprint, a tiny footprint of Guru Rinpoche's consort, Guru Rinpoche's locket, a horse's hoofprint, and a drum. There was also a donation bowl containing various colorful "lockets" (small ornamental weavings which are to be worn around your neck as a blessing). We gave a donation and each took one for good luck.
We went outside and were led into a locked courtyard. There was a small stupa out there. If a couple carries a heavy rock around it three times, it will help them to "conceive a football team" as one of the guides jokingly put it. Jigme scurried up the rock face of a boulder effortlessly, which cleansed away all of his sins. Now we knew that his boil was feeling better! He could barely walk a couple of days ago. We joked that Dr Dorji had taken good care of him. We walked around the boulder, and our attention was directed to water trickling out of the stone. Holy water leaks out of it on holy days of the Bhutanese calendar (of which today was one). We then got to a little cave in one side of the boulder. A demon serpent scared the meditating Guru Rinpoche in this cave. The Guru jumped up, startled, leaving an imprint of his hat and thumb in the rock overhead. We inspected these imprints. If you are able to contort your body through the little cave and emerge through a small hole, it is yet another way of cleansing yourself of all of your sins. It looked impossible, but one of the guides assured us that even very large people have been able to do it if their devotion is pure enough.
Our last stop would be Trashigang Dzong, which closed at 4:00. It was now 3, so after a quick bathroom stop and a stop at the checkpoint, we made a mad dash to the dzong. We got there shortly after 4, but they allowed us in anyway. There were fresh wooden planks and beams sitting outside. It looked like they had been hand-planed, as there were curly wood shavings surrounding them. Some sort of construction was obviously imminent. We went into the monastery. The paintings were very old and dark. There were some gorgeous views of the shining river snaking thrugh the valley in the waning light through the dzong windows, and I took a few photos. We knew we were on borrowed time, so we made our visit a quick one. As we were leaving the monastery, the student monks were seated on the floor facing one another in two parallel lines. One monk came around with a bucket of rice. The seated monks produced a handkerchief and a plastic cup from inside their robes. They laid the handkerchiefs flat and a scoop of rice was placed on each. They wrapped the rice into a neat bundle with the handkerchief and put it on their laps. Then another monk came around with a pail of soup and filled their cups. Some of the young monks refused the soup, or asked for smaller portions. We assumed that the rule was to eat all that you take. The monks were chanting and it seemed to get louder and louder as they progressed, like a football team getting psyched up for a game. The chanting culminated in being able to eat once everyone had been served, and it seemed as if they were excited to get the chanting over with so that they could dig in to supper.
Although they were monks, their behavior belied the fact that they were still children first and foremost. When the older monks weren't looking, they would try to get one another in trouble by hitting each other in the head with rice bundles, placing rice grains on one another's shoulders, and trying to convince one another to eat before the appointed time. This made us think of Khyentse Norbu's 1999 Bhutanese film "The Cup", in which young Buddhist monks resort to shenanigans and schemes to be able to watch the World Cup via satellite from their monastery. When we saw the movie we wondered whether or not student monks would behave in such a way, it seemed like a Westernized concept. But now we had our proof. Kids will be kids and it seems that their superiors accept that. The young monks finished chanting and started to eat, which was our cue to head back to the hotel. We were very grateful that they had been able to accommodate us, even though we had technically been late.
Back at the hotel, we sat on a patio overlooking the dzong and watched the sun set with Ann from the UK group and a German couple. We were served tea and cookies. We stayed outside and filled out our end-of-tour paperwork and wrote a goodbye letter to Dorji. We couldn't believe that tomorrow would be our last full day with him. The time had flown by, and we had really bonded with him. We appreciated the way he adeptly took care of things when Craig hadn't been able to hike, and how seamlessly he had been able to alter the itinerary. We wanted to write a nice letter to try to express our feelings. After the sun had set, the dzong was lit up, and we could see headlights of various vehicles on the road below.
We talked to Sonam, another guide, and Tashi, a half-Bhutanese woman who now lived in Switzerland. They were showing some of her Swiss friends around the country. Then it was time for dinner. Dorji joined us at an outdoor table, and we enjoyed chicken soup, nice warm fluffy flat bread, potatoes, rice noodles with beef, and green beans. Dorji brought Craig some chilies and cheese. We ate together and chatted. We had tea and when Tashi and her group ordered some butter tea, Craig daringly drank a couple sips now that we were in a more controlled environment. It wasn't as much of a shock to the system as it had been the first time, but he still viewed it as an acquired taste. Oily beverages aren't something we usually come across. He was glad that he had given it a second chance, but didn't feel the desire to finish the cup. We ate little bananas for dessert. Dorji went to bed at 9. We stayed at the table and I wrote in the journal. Craig enjoyed just soaking up the ambiance, living in just this moment, in harmony with his surroundings. Sonam, Tashi, and friends were playing a dice game and enjoying some libations. They were very animated and it was very entertaining to watch them. We went to bed at 10.