Today we drove from Paro over the Chelela Pass (3988m/13,084ft) to the Haa Valley. The road sort of goes up almost on top of itself. I could not count how many hair pins/switch backs there were… all I can say is thank god for travel pills. In fact, every day that we drive in Bhutan I have to swallow them. We passed up through pine, spruce, hemlock, larch, juniper and fir forests and could see where bears, yup bears, had used the trees as scratching posts. There were wild rhododendrons but they are not yet in full bloom and there were also lovely little purple primulas everywhere. The top of the pass had masses of prayer flags and we also saw a couple of yaks. They can get a bit aggressive so we weren't allowed too close.
Tourists have only gained access to the Haa Valley since 2008. This is a remote farming community and we are staying at a guest house which is a reasonably recent venture of a local entrepreneur. The Soednam Zingkha guest lodge has been adapted for western tourists and is an amalgamation of tourist needs and the traditional ways. It has typical Bhutanese architecture but the inside has been ramped up for tourists. No shoes are worn inside and the wooden floors are beautifully smooth and polished. The rooms are basic but lovely. The one downside is that the bathrooms are shared but it’s worth visiting for the experience. We are at the top end of the valley at the base of the mountains and the road only goes on for about another 2km. This area is very very close to the Tibetan border so the Indian Army maintain a presence here to assist the Bhutanese in resisting any take overs.
There was a local archery match on when we arrived so we popped over to check it out. It was a match between two villages and the prize was a case of beer. The bows are very modern things and hugely expensive at an average of NZD10,000 each. The men were shooting from one side of the river to the other (and over the road) approx 300-400 metres away. When one scored a point they all danced about and chanted. It was brilliant. Each side has a target (not very big) and a split log fence that you shelter behind when it’s the other sides turn to shoot. We learned later that the dance emulates that of the black necked crane.
I took up the offer of a hot stone bath. Our host escorted me down to the river side about 50 metres from the house where a fire had been heating up the stones for about 2 hours. We sat by the fire and chatted while watching my bath being made ready. The bath is a wooden trough like structure with a divider about 2/3rds along full of holes. There is another smaller wooden trough at right angles next to the smaller 1/3rd. The main part of the bigger trough is screened off in a lean to type structure & curtained for privacy. The stones were picked out of the fire, briefly dipped the small trough to clean them and then dropped them into the 1/3rd portion of the main bath. Where the benefit comes in, apart from the heat, is that the stones release lime and minerals into the water. This is a rural Bhutanese cure for aches and pains. Needless to say it was a great experience. I was lying in a hot bath watching the sky go dark and listening to the sound of the river. The only thing that would have improved it would have been if I could see the mountains at the same time... and maybe a wine!
The food at the guest house is absolutely superb and beautifully fresh. The variety tonight was amazing as food is generally pretty much all the same in Bhutan. Bhutan is the only place I have come across that serves chilli as a vegetable in its own right. But other than the chilli cheese (emadachi), which is toned down for chilips, none of the dishes had any chilli.
It has started thundering again outside. Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon.