In contrast to the traditional market, we followed it up with a stop at a corner general store to buy a SIM card for our iPad. Matt tested the internet service after activation, but it was quite hesitant to load any pages. He brought it back to the shopkeeper to explain it wasn’t working. The guy took a look at it and matter-of-factly replied, “Yep, it’s working. This is Bhutan.” Meanwhile, Norbu was trying to stay cool upon recognizing an attractive Bhutanese TV star walk in to the shop. It turns out her husband was the shopkeeper Matt was speaking with. Yep, this is Bhutan.
With chili and celebrity sightings out of the way, we set out a second time with genuine intention of covering some ground. But this was not meant to be. In the middle of a dusty construction zone, we heard the telltale pop of a flat tire. After unloading our luggage on the side of the road, Tshering pulled out the spare only to discover it too was in a sad state of non-inflation.
With some discussion and a few phone calls, the plan was concocted that Tshering would hitch a ride back into town and Norbu would take us to find lunch in the meanwhile. We began strolling up the hot dusty road, eventually enquiring how far it would be to reach lunch. “Twenty kilometers.” What!?! It turned out Norbu didn’t exactly have a sense of human walking speed, so we had to politely explain that it would take us until dinner to get there on foot. Once we convinced him that we could handle hitching a random ride, we eventually got picked up by a family of potato farmers in a truly mini minivan that closely resembled a horizontal refrigerator.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too long after lunch and tea that Tshering returned with the essential tire repaired, but unfortunately not the spare as well. We were anxious to get to Trongsa where Tashi had arranged for us to stay at her sister Pem’s house. Nonetheless, we still made sure to stop at a roadside alcove where the rock walls were enchantingly painted with images of Guru Rinpoche and other deities. This very spot had appeared in a scene in Bhutan's first feature film, Travellers and Magicians, and a personal favorite of ours. An inscription along one wall was tagged "Nov. 2002, Scene 112, Take 101" and served as a confirmation of the site's validity. Shortly thereafter, we saw another familiar sight in the form of the Chendebji Chorten, modeled after the Swayambunath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
We arrived in Trongsa at dusk. Pem, along with her husband (also named Tashi) greeted us and showed us to a room that was previously reserved for none other than His Majesty the King of Bhutan during the house’s previous life as a government-run tourism guesthouse. We share a delicious homecooked meal sitting on the floor around a wood burning stove and learned a bit about their lives as principals of Trongsa’s primary and secondary schools.
We got a taste of school life the following morning while visiting Tashi’s primary school. Adorable children arrived in the school’s uniform of navy kiras and ghos, each with a colorful plastic wicker lunch box in hand. At the singing—yes, singing, not ringing!—of the first bell, everyone engaged in what they call “social work,” essentially stewardship of their school that included weeding the landscaping, sweeping, and even bathroom duty. The second bell gathered the students in formation for the daily morning assembly, but rain dispersed them to their respective classrooms to conduct it there. Then we walked over to the secondary school where Pem facilitated a question and answer session for us in a typically awkward 7th grade classroom. Some things really are the same around the world! As much as these schools appeared ideal to us on the surface, Pem and Tashi explained that some families struggle to send their children to school with the financial burden of uniforms and school supplies. Other students are challenged to stay in school because of family life at home.
Still with daydreams of becoming teachers in Bhutan floating around in our heads, we moved on to a tour of Trongsa’s imposing dzong in the pouring rain. Ironically, it let up just as we entered a museum within the dzong’s watchtower, which detailed the local history and the many forms of Buddhist deities portrayed in Bhutan’s temples.
Before leaving Trongsa, we were thrilled to spot some golden langur monkeys with tails much longer than their bodies, only found in a small region of India and Bhutan. As with most species with a restricted native range, they are listed as endangered due to habitat degradation and loss. Hopefully Bhutan’s ambitious environmental protection policies will provide a safe haven for the species to survive, albeit at a reduced population.
Patches of fog rolling in and out of the contours of the valley made for a captivating drive out of Trongsa, but Yotongla pass was so chilly and wet that we simply snapped photos from the car. We descended into Bumthang, a wide and fertile valley dotted with idyllic farmhouses and fields, nicknamed the “Switzerland of Bhutan.” We settled in to the Chumey Nature Resort, a cozy guesthouse that beckoned us to stay longer than one night. When the rain lightened to a drizzle in the early evening, we explored the country roads and had a DIY happy hour by the woodburning stove of a local shop.
The other nickname for Bumthang is “the spiritual heartland of Bhutan.” We got a taste of this while visiting several of the oldest temples, not only in the area, but in the entire country. One was built by a Tibetan king as part of a network of temples that pinned down an anti-Buddhist demoness whose body was sprawled out across the landscape of the region.
In the afternoon, we got to see the operations of the small-scale Red Panda Brewery, appropriately owned by a jovial Swiss man. He only produces one beer, Red Panda Weiss, but he does it well. We were happy to add Bhutan to our gradually growing list of countries where we have sampled craft beer!
The next morning we walked up to Namkhe Nyingpo Goemba, a school for more than three-hundred monks with a nice view over much of the valley. Meanwhile, simple car and tire repairs turned into lengthy and complicated process, so we tried to make the most of our unexpected down time with aimless wandering in the town of Jakar, trying not to worry about having to rush through the rest of our day. We finally got going in the afternoon, making a brief detour to legendary Membartsho where the famous treasure-finder Pema Lingpa uncovered many sacred relics hidden by Guru Rinpoche centuries before. The "burning lake" is really a calm spot in a river with prayer flags strung across the gorge that it flows through, which make it quite a scenic historical site.
We reached our stopover of Ura with just enough daylight to explore the picturesque village. Our guesthouse’s gregarious six-year-old boy had incredible English and made a most entertaining tour guide in exchange for a popsicle at the neighbor’s little shop.
After seeing our young friend off to school the next morning, we continued on to Thrumshingla pass, effectively marking our transition to eastern Bhutan. As a though central Bhutan was wishing us farewell with a grand finale, we reached the top of the pass via a short hike through a dense, foggy, and absolutely mystifying forest of rhododendrons in full bloom.