And now, with the School for Field Studies fall semester all wrapped up, that same dream was launched into reality. Panniers stuffed onto the back racks of our mountain bikes, mandatory route permit tucked in to a side pocket, and us wrapped in various warm and windproof layers to combat the winter morning chill, we set off from Hotel Sambauv, practically our second home in Bhutan. We were easing in to bicycle travel in Bhutan with a mini-tour from Thimphu to the top of the closest mountain pass, Dochu La, a wimpy 3,000 feet of elevation gain spread over 16 or so miles. We were relieved that it did not feel too strenuous, since that would not bode well for the rest of our itinerary, but in true Bhutanese fashion we stopped anyway for a tea break mid-journey in the village of Hongtsho. Of course, our ulterior motive was to locate the new Serbhum Brewery that had just started distributing Bhutan’s first stout to select pubs and bars in Thimphu. A nice local man offered to drive us a ways back down the hill, but the brewery was closed as the tasting room wasn’t finished and open to the public yet. But we will definitely keep checking on its progress during future trips to Thimphu.
We crested the pass and were greeted with a panorama of distant snowy peaks against a bluebird sky. After making the traditional three clockwise circles around a cluster of 108 small chortens (stupas) forming an island that gracefully separates the lanes of the East-West Highway, we continued a short distance down the other side of the pass to the Dochu La Eco Retreat. We settled in to a spacious but cozy wood-paneled room with a bukhari (wood burning stove) and an even more impressive view of the spread of mountains than from the pass. We felt high, at about 10,000 feet, but more so from a successful first day and the prospect of fifty more days of Bhutan exploration left ahead of us.
Our specific motivation for staying at Dochu La was the Druk Wangyel tshechu held the next day. This festival is unique in that it only occurs for one day every December 13th and commemorates the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's efficient and effective expulsion of Assamese (Bodo) separatists hiding out in Southern Bhutan back in 2003. Dochu La is a fitting location since the 108 chortens were commissioned by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the eldest of the fourth king's four wives, as a memorial honoring the Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives in the battle.
From the chortens, we passed through a decorative gate and down a long cobbled walkway, entering the festival grounds just ahead of the opening procession of dancers, dashos (VIPs), and even members of the Royal Family. One glance at the "dance floor", a perfectly rounded hillock rising above the seated audience, and we knew this would be a tshechu to remember. Not only was the backdrop of snowy peaks against a perfectly blue sky simply stunning, but the costumes were even more elaborate and vibrantly colorful than usual.
We were soon "adopted" for the day by a woman named Rinchen after we randomly began chatting with her while watching the dances. She claimed some of the limited chairs for us, introduced us to her husband and friends, and fed us tea and Bhutanese snacks like zau (puffed rice) throughout the day. We were meekly offered to join in their picnic lunch, but she was concerned that it had too much chili for us chilips (foreigners) to handle, so she did not insist as per usual Bhutanese hospitality.
Midway through the festival, some Royal Family members including one of the queen mothers, a princess, and a prince, as well as the Prime Minister, came out of a beautifully embroidered tent presiding over the festival grounds and mingled with the festival goers. When we noticed that they were greeting all of the chilips in particular and asking where they were from and about their experience in Bhutan, we tried to keep our distance and hide amongst the crowd. As much as it would have been an honor to meet them in person, we were unfortunately wearing our outdoorsy clothes. While tourists can get away with wearing Western clothes to a tshechu, Bhutanese must wear the national dress and usually opt for their finest ghos and kiras at that. We would not feel comfortable telling the Royal Family we live here in Bhutan while dressed as tourists at a tshechu, even with the excuse that our gho and kira would have taken up half the space in our bicycle panniers.
After watching the entirety of the program, including some dances specially choreographed to represent the battle with the Assamese militants, we returned to 108 chortens and combed the stretch of vendors set up along the road. We picked up some tasty beef samosas, amazing cheese momos (dumplings), some peppery thup (a savory rice porridge with bits of fresh cheese), and some ngaja (milk tea), then sat out on a lawn with other picnicing folks before wandering back to our hotel. That evening we were treated to even more beauty with a nearly full moon rising up through a hazy pink and purple glow on the mountains.
The following morning we set off for a hike through a dense rhododendron forest up to Lungchutse Goempa. The temple was locked and the only monk we could see around was meditating on a flat rock embedded into a ridge running below the monastery. We were not disappointed though, since the location provided our first glimpse of Jhomolhari, Bhutan's second highest peak. We descended down a different trail to Trashigang Goempa where we inadvertently aggravated a dog as we passed by the monks' living quarters. A monk, who later turned out to be much more afraid of the dogs than us, came out of his house to see what the commotion was and immediately invited us in for tea. While sitting in his courtyard and chatting, we learned that his monk friend staying with him was one of the dancers in the tshechu the day before. We happened to have a video clip of him, unmistakable in a large wooden mask of a blue-faced wrathful deity, which we showed him. Then he pulled his phone out of his robe and showed us an almost identical video of his performance, taken by one of his friends at the tshechu as well.
Our host, Penjor, gave us a thorough tour of the 18th century monastery which houses statues of certain Je Khenpos (Chief Abbots) who meditated there. While Himalayan Buddhist monasteries share many characteristics in common, each one still has a distinctive feel if you pay attention to the details. This time, while scanning an altar cluttered with relics, a brown oval-shaped polished stone set upright in a chalice caught my eye, much like a poached egg. Indeed, we were informed it was a dragon egg when I inquired about it. Penjor then took us to the monastery's source of water, a drupchu (holy spring) encased in a chorten. We filled our water bottles with the sacred water and wondered if the UV light of a SteriPen would also kill its holiness along with the bacteria. We parted ways with Penjor after forcing a small donation upon him and caught a ride back to Dochu La after walking for a while down down the dirt track from the monastery.
Our third time to a monastery that day was less than a charm. Despite having crossed Dochu La plenty of times since first coming to Bhutan, we had never visited the Druk Wangyel Lhakhang, a modern temple dedicated to the Fourth King that includes murals of monks using laptops, a DrukAir plane, portraits of members of the Royal Family and contemporary events. Unfortunately, the temple was guarded by a disgruntled monk who did not look pleased at the arrival of some chilips without a guide. Matt only enhanced his surliness when he unknowingly began to enter a side chapel with open doors that he was not allowed in to. Therefore, when I politely asked if we could go upstairs to see the unique murals, I was met with a harsh no without further explanation. We left without further ado and decided we would have to try again another time, already knowing that other chilips had been allowed upstairs in recent times.
Before leaving the hotel the next morning, we took a last look through the incredible gigantic binoculars mounted on the balcony of the Dochu La Eco Retreat. Besides seeing every detail of the mountains and villages below them, we lingered over the view of the Gasa Dzong, so close but so far away. Our intention for staying in Bhutan for the duration of the break between programs was to see new regions, so we had planned to cycle up to the northern district of Gasa after our time at Dochu La. It would have been a challenging ride made worthwhile by hot springs at the end of it, but the Immigration Office would not approve a route permit to go up there. Apparently there is no problem for tourists, but within the last year they have denied ex-pats entry. We were curious as to why, but no one ever offered any explanations. Since independent travel is outside of the norm of tourism in Bhutan, it tends to works in mysterious ways, so instead we headed back to Thimphu on a quick downhill ride.