We might have made it before the sun set, had we not made it our mission to document the plethora of very punny, rhymey, and/or straight up bizarre road signs expounding all sorts of wisdom between Thimphu and Paro. Gems such, "Peep Peep Don't Sleep!" and "If you are married, divorce speed" come courtesy of Project DANTAK of the Border Roads Organization, a subdivision of the Indian Army Corp of Engineers, which has build more than 1500 kilometers of roads in Bhutan since 1961. The signs have always entertained us during the many times we had driven between Thimphu and Paro, but the freedom of the bicycle allowed us to honor them in their full glory for the first time.
In the (not too early) light of the morning, we got to see why Taktshang View is aptly named. It does indeed have a great view of Bhutan's most iconic landmark, the Tiger's Nest Monastery, hugging a cliff face at its midpoint roughly 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley below. Leaving the hotel, we zoomed down our hard-earned hill and turned north for a ride up to Drukgyel Dzong towards the end of the valley. The dzong was built around 1650 to commemorate victory over attempted Tibetan invasions of Western Bhutan. Mostly in ruins since a butter lamp started a fire in 1951, restoration to its former glory began in early 2016 in honor of the birth of the Gyalsey (Bhutan's Crown Prince) as well as the 400 year anniversary of the arrival of Bhutan's great unifier Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. We parked our bikes and hiked up to its hilltop location to see what there was to see, which was mostly a construction site, but also included exploring a series of watchtowers that historically protected access to the dzong's water source far below.
Passing by the window of only handicraft shop in the little village at the base of the dzong, a tiny painting of a chorten on a square of wood caught my eye for its absolute uniqueness. To my disappointment, the shop was locked but some men nearby quickly offered to fetch the owner for me. I was curious enough about it that I agreed. When I picked up the little painting, I was shocked at how heavy it was, at least two pounds, and not wood but stone. I literally had to weigh if it was worth carrying on my bicycle, after all, we had actually done a decent job of packing lightly for once. I decided it was. Merry Christmas to me, a hefty little Buddhist painting, lol!
Speaking of the holidays, we spent a good chunk of the following day scouring the internet for Christmas and Chanukah gifts to order for family members. This turned out to be a striking reminder of how far removed our lives have become from consumer culture with our particular existence in Bhutan. While working, meals are provided at the cafeteria and we live high up on steep hill above the main town. We can go weeks without actually spending any cash, and even then it is usually just a bike ride down to town to stock up on a very limited selection of treats: locally made yogurt and honey, Cadbury chocolate, and mid-grade Bhutanese whiskey at $5 per bottle. This is not to deny that there is growing consumerism as Bhutan continues to modernize, but there are few temptations for us chilips amidst the cheap imports of Western clothes and, well, the usual plastic crap.
In contrast, I found myself sucked in to the website Uncommon Goods, beginning to fantasize about owning cute house things and kitchen gadgets I would never use, at the same time I was incredulous that anyone would spend $20 for a pack of 10 snowflake-shaped marshmallows from Williams-Sonoma. We couldn't even deal with the endless options for the same thing on Amazon. Is it real or will you get ripped off with a knock-off instead? Are those real or fake reviews? Aargh! What to do? We were reminded of the lesson we learned returning to the US after our extended journey in Asia in 2014-16. More choice does not lead to deeper satisfaction with life, and by choice I refer strictly to the consumer kind. Rights and freedoms are another matter altogether.
Of course, we wanted to show appreciation to our families, and at the end of the day we found items that we felt expressed it well, but we definitely benefited from the therapeutic de-stressing effects of a hot stone bath that evening. Somehow we had been in Bhutan for seven months without enjoying this Bhutanese tradition, perhaps because it is a bit labor intensive. Rounded granite river stones ranging in size from a softball to a soccer ball are embedded into a raging bonfire for several hours until they are literally red hot. Then the very skilled attendant removes them with long tongs and plunges them into a compartment of a wooden tub that heats the bath water while also releasing minerals from the rocks. Medicinal herbs such as artemisia (wormwood) are mixed in as well to further soothe sore muscles and ease aches and pains. Since the water gets pretty darn hot, we were told that tourists rarely last longer than half an hour. Of course, we were determined to get our money's worth and were proud to soak away an hour and a half.
For our last day in Paro, we hired a taxi to drive us up a windy road climbing up the side of the valley to the Sanga Choekor Shedra, a Buddhist college where the monks were about to begin their exams that morning. We easily picked up the trail for the Bumdra Trek, usually a two day excursion that we were going to do as a day hike and end up back at Taktshang View. After an hour or so of hiking, we reached Chhoe Tse Lhakhang, a simple temple tended by an single elderly lama who invited us in to his home for tea (and entertainment by his three kittens as companions). He showed us the altar room where we left some fruit we had carried with us and a small donation.
As we continued upwards, we hoped that the cloudy sky would clear by the time we got to the luxury camp below Bumdra Goempa, embedded into an outcrop of cliffs. The heavy clouds made no effort to dissipate, so we were out of luck for mountain views for the day. We poked around the camp and marveled at the wall tents with real wood framed beds inside, as well as the effort that was required to haul them up there. Then we climbed a couple of extended ladders from the base of the cliff to pay our respects to the singular altar of Bumdra attended by a rather shy monk. From there, we descended steeply through a rhododendron forest and, of course, the sky began to clear. By the time we emerged at the collection of temples dispersed along the slopes above the cliff face of a Taksang, it was warm and sunny. We visited inside whichever temples were already opened or those where we could find a caretaker without being too disruptive, each with their own unique features, and passed by the rest.
Reaching the main trail to the Tiger's Nest late in the afternoon, we decided to bypass the star of the show since we have been lucky enough to visit it three times before. Besides, in the five temples visited along the way, we had definitely done plenty of prostrations, taken many pours of holy water, and spun enough prayer wheels for one Christmas Eve! We bombed down the well-trodden trail past the row of "Buy something!" souvenir vendors in the parking area, arriving back to Taktshang View at dusk. In 11.5 miles, we hiked up 3,800 feet and came down 5,300, surely a logical way to rest up before we would leave Paro the next morning and cycle over Bhutan's "highest motorable pass"...