Once while we were taking a break, it quickly became apparent that we managed to stop in the middle of a yak crossing and while the massive beasts shyly kept their distance, it was a bit unnerving to be completely surrounded by them. As we approached the top, we could see the wind blasting the extensive collection of prayer flags lining the road. The temperature was dropping quickly too, so we bundled up before cresting the pass and had just enough sunlight for a few photos before it sank into a bank of clouds sitting on the other ridge of the valley below us. We had pedaled against 6,000 feet worth of gravity to reach Bhutan's highest motorable, and cycleable, pass at an altitude of 13,000 feet. With the sun, we too began our hard earned descent, pausing a couple of times to rewarm fingers and toes and at least mentally combat the windchill with chocolate. Still, I can think of worse ways to spend Christmas.
Despite our tired legs, we spent our first day in Haa getting a lay of the land by taking a leisurely cycle up to the end of the valley, or at least until the guarded gate of the Bhutan Army post. There is a permanent presence of both Bhutanese and Indian military in Haa due to its proximity to the Tibetan border. On our return, we stopped in Hatey village in search of the Lechuna Heritage Lodge where Lonely Planet made mention of serving filter coffee, as in real coffee. We instead found the Soednam Zingkha Heritage Lodge and ended up with some regular old Nescafé, not realizing the Lechuna was a separate entity until after it was too late.
In the evening we rewarded our Chele La efforts with a hot stone bath in a private hut in the house's courtyard. This time we each had our own deep wooden "trough" to recline in, but similarly we would give a little holler when we needed new stones from the fire to be added to a compartment of the tub that stuck through the wall for outside access without disturbing the bathers. We felt that we could really become connoisseurs of the hot stone bath, except we felt guilty about how much work goes in to it and how much wood it burns. At least we were relieved of one worry when the family took advantage of the opportunity when were finished, even the adorable grandparents came over for a soak. As for the wood, Bhutan has 72% forest cover and is the only carbon negative country in the world. Of course, we all know that carbon emissions stay within national borders, right?
In the afternoon, Tenzin became our de facto tour guide and showed us the recently renovated Lhakhang Kharpo, or White Temple, and the Lhakhang Nagpo, or Black Temple. Both were originally built in the 7th century by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo, making them some of the oldest of their kind in Bhutan. The White Temple houses Haa's Dratshang, the monk body of the district, whereas the much smaller Black Temple is associated with the protective deity of Haa Valley.
We still had some time to spare after a tea break back at the house, so Ugyen suggested that we visit the government run trout fishery. Since it was a few kilometers away, we asked Tenzin if she had a bike and she responded in the affirmative. As we were leaving, her father was urging her to wear a helmet and she used us as rationale why she didn't have to since we were skipping them for the minor ride. Only after we departed did we realize that she was not very confident with her bike riding skills and the bike was actually a rental for homestay guests, but fortunately there were no accidents. The fishery itself wasn't much to see, but Tenzin was so enjoying practicing riding a bike with us that we continued to explore down the valley and tried to teach her how to shift gears.
Upon returning to the house, Sonam began molding the dough into a figurine of a little man riding a horse while we observed and sipped the obligatory late afternoon tea. We were impressed with how quickly he made it and the level of detail involved, even dressing the lu in a robe, and adding a miniature butter lamp, offerings of grains and hoentay and money. Each member of the house then created a chi chi by squeezing a length of dough inside their fist to make their unique palm print. The piece of dough was then passed around the body to remove the person’s negative energy and spit on, then placed on the plate bearing the lu. Lastly, the butter lamp was lit and a trail of flour spread from where the lu sat on the kitchen floor to the door of the house. As the lu was carried out of the house, Tenzin swept away the flour trail. Kinga carried it all the way down to the river and set it down facing south, all the while the group was yelling loudly to scare away the lu. As an extra precaution to ensure the lu did not return to the house with all of the negative energy it was carrying, the boys lit a couple of firecrackers, which didn’t exactly blow up the lu, but did crack the plate it sat on. Then we returned home and ate plenty of hoentay for dinner, of course.
The next morning we got a fairly early start on a hike that Sonam invited us to join him on, along with his friends from the village. The Tourism Council of Bhutan had recently built the Meri Puensum Nature Trail to help promote tourism in Haa, taking its name from a series of similarly shaped hills known as the Three Mountain Brothers. These sacred hills represent the Rigsum Gonpo, a trinity of three important deities called Chana Dorji, Chenrizig, and Jambayang. The group of young men from the village had decided to take on the upkeep of the trail and their mission that day was place rubbish bins proclaiming “Use Me!” at intervals along the way. We were pleased to keep pace with them in the middle of the pack while still stopping to pick up litter as we saw it, despite taking the steep shortcuts in between gentler graded switchbacks intended for mountain biking. Even though this was designed as a mountain biking trail, it would have been a pretty rough one, requiring a good deal of pushing and even carrying in a few sections, so we were happy with our decision to be hiking it.
The guys were quite welcoming to having two random tagalongs join their close knit group and while we didn’t understand their jokes or good natured banter, it was apparent that everyone was in high spirits. While I hold no illusions that “Happiness is a Place” as the Bhutanese tourism tagline would like the world to believe, I had an overwhelming feeling of contentment within myself on this particular day and sensed that our companions were experiencing the same. We stopped for a break in a meadow midway up and were amazed to watch most of them pull out full size thermoses of tea out of their small packs. Likewise, at lunch on top of the ridge that runs behind the Meri Puensum hills, bulky insulated containers of packed lunch appeared out of those same bags. While traversing the ridge, we had yet another great view of Jhomolhari from a new angle, then descended back into the forest to complete the kora (loop) around the three sacred hills. We returned to Ugyen’s house at dusk, to the surprise, and perhaps relief, of the older family members who were doubtful we would make it out of the forest before dark. Best of all, Sonam informed us that we must have been the first chilips to hike that trail, yet another place to add to our list of first foreigner to visit in Bhutan.
We were awoken the next morning before daylight by a chorus of deep-toned horns, bells, drums, and guttural chanting. We laid in bed just listening to our unique but lovely alarm clock for a while. This was the first day of the family’s annual ritual, a two-day affair on auspicious dates determined by the local astrologer. Yesterday, a few monks had spent the day at the house creating torma, elaborate towers made of colored butter shaped onto a base of dough. The collection of torma were lined up the length of the altar where the monks had begun conducting extended ceremonies in honor of each torma in the altar room. Meanwhile, Ugyen’s family was busy preparing special foods for their relatives arriving from Thimphu, Phuentsholing, and perhaps beyond. We joined them in the kitchen just in time for some tasty thup, a savory spicy rice porridge, and filled up on it assuming that it was breakfast. It turns out it was just a pre-breakfast and a mid-morning feast of meat curries over rice was served as official breakfast. As soon as that was wrapped up, preparations for lunch began, with Ugyen and Dole donning their kabney or rachu to dash in to the altar room for a specific prayer or ritual as required, then returning to the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Matt and I gave a bike maintenance crash course to Sonam, Kinga, and their Uncle Dodo to help them take care of the rental bikes they had recently purchased for homestay visitors. At lunch, dried yak meat was served, including pieces of pure fat that Sonam coached us on the best way to eat: put the cubes on your plate first and cover with steaming rice to soften, then eat them last, like dessert. It didn’t exactly substitute for chocolate ice cream in my opinion, but it was still cool to try a delicacy that came from the family’s herd of yaks currently grazing at pasture above Paro. We socialized with recently arrived relatives in the afternoon, then got out for a stroll around the village just before dusk to get some fresh air and attempt to digest a bit before dinner. We had noticed that a suspicious number of dogs had been lurking around outside of the house that day and we soon figured out why. They recognized the sounds of the annual ritual and knew that the torma would be carried out of the house and discarded. As soon as Ugyen and Kinga set them down and walked away, a pack of black dogs devoured the beautiful displays of butter and then cows finished off the job with the dough and turnip bases. It was a good reminder of the prevalence of the concept of impermanence in Buddhist philosophy. By the time we ate the last large meal of the day, we were more stuffed than any Thanksgiving. In fact, the whole relaxed day filled with special food and family felt a lot like Thanksgiving, sans parades and football. And since we had not spent the holidays with our own families, this was the best substitute we could have imagined.
Before departing the last morning, we were invited to join Ugyen and Kinga on the covered roof of their house, which serves as a "cellar" for dried turnip greens, strips of meat, chilies, and grass fodder for their cows. The father and son performed an offering ritual to Dumcho village’s protector deity and we were honored to witness it. It was one of those travel moments made more rich and meaningful because we chose not to bring our cameras up the ladder hewn out of a single massive log. We were fully focused on absorbing every vivid detail with our senses without the filter of lenses.
As we bid farewell, Ugyen told us that it was karma that brought us together to celebrate Lomba and their annual ritual, because even members of their own family were not able to make it. Indeed, the traditions seemed strong and vibrant from our perspective, but some relatives spoke to us about how the current celebration is an echo of the past, a time when the entire family would gather for a week or more without the pressures of modernity and distractions of technology. Regardless, we were grateful for our temporary adoption into a welcoming Bhutanese household and earnest inclusion in their festivities.