(Tantric) Sex and (Near) Death

Read any touristic information about Bhutan, and you will come to believe that attending a Bhutanese tsechu is something no one should miss. A tsechu is a religious festival highlighted by days of ritualized dances. When I began planning our trip here, I was sad to see that because of scheduling constraints, we would just miss the big tsechu held in the nation’s capital, Thimphu, every September. But then I heard from a tour operator who pointed out that one tsechu would be taking place in a beautiful glacial valley named Phobjikha during the week we wanted to come to Bhutan. Attending it would require driving almost to the center of the country. But we could do that in about 5 hours, she assured me. And we could break up the car time with a couple of sightseeing stops. Because seeing a tsechu sounded so important, we committed to the tour operator who had suggested this itinerary (Bhutan Swallowtail).

We had to leave Thimphu after just one night (Saturday, when we arrived in Bhutan.) The first half of Sunday was magical. For a while, the road was decent, and it took us to a mountain pass that’s the site of a splendid war memorial. Clouds obscured the views of the distant Himalayas, but what we could see was so beautiful, we dawdled to drink it all in, greedily.

The road leading into the pass had deteriorated, however, and we had to press on, eastward. The ride grew worse as we approached the Punakha Valley, site of a former Bhutanese capital. Our destination there was something called the Temple of Fertility, built by Drukpa Kunley, a beloved 15th Century lama known as the Divine Madman. Kunley was bawdy and iconoclastic, and although I’ve read several things about him, I still do not understand why he’s a wildly popular Buddhist saint (at least in Bhutan). It must have something to do with the character of the Bhutanese, who in the part of the valley around the Divine Madman’s temple paint images of giant penises and testicles on their homes and buildings.

We ate a late lunch at a restaurant that featured a giant carved wooden penis, then set out on foot across the valley. Folks say the farmers here are the most productive in Bhutan. Maybe it’s the fertile vibrations emanating from the temple, but we also saw a lot of back-breaking labor as we followed a path through the ripening wheat fields — women bending over and over again to cut bundles of rice with hand scythes; others in the distance threshing the grains by hand.

The temple was dark and atmospheric and filled (as most religious structures in Bhutan seem to be) with tantric images, both wrathful and sensual. At a certain point, a gaggle of boy monks ranging in age from maybe 4 to 14 trooped in. Most sat on the floor, lined up in rows, while a few prepared a “food offering” to the resident Buddha. Howie and Donna were eager to see how the ritual would play out, but Steve and I, still jet-lagged, were weary, as well as worried about the drive in front of us. It was close to 3, and we’d been told that the trip to our final destination would take at least 2 hours.

So we hiked back to the car and set off. This was around 3:15, still partly sunny. The road, which we knew would take us from about 4000 feet up to almost 10,000, was atrocious, a narrow crumbling asphalt ledge hacked out of one mountainside after another. This was the main east-west highway traversing Bhutan, but for the most part, it had no shoulders, let alone guardrails. It virtually never ran in a straight line for more than a few hundred yards, but twisted and turned (sometimes almost 180 degrees) to make the climb up the unearthly grades. Early in the ride, Steve and I remarked that although it was terrible, this Bhutanese road wasn’t the very worst we’d ever traveled on. We reminisced about the hellish jouncing nightmare of one journey in Baja; about the potholed horror of another ride in Senegal.

But after an hour or so, we realized it wasn’t true. The Bhutanese road was worse than anything we’d ever experienced, than anything imaginable. It’s allegedly being widened, thanks to money donated by the Indian government, and huge stretches are torn up and boulder strewn. Occasionally, even though it was a Sunday, we glimpsed wretchedly poor migrant Indian workers gathering rocks together into chicken-wire-bound blocks to (eventually) be assembled into reinforcing walls. Bhutan experienced torrential rains this fall, and in places streams poured over the path before us. The erosion from this and all the heavy truck traffic had made all the asphalt disappear at times, and the recent rain had turned the underlying dirt into a muddy bog. Through that, our minivan shuddered, inches from the edge of a cliff that dropped straight down, for thousands of feet. We slogged on, and another hour passed. It began to grow dark.

Not all of the road was this muddy, but this section was wider than many.
We weren’t very far from the riverbed here, but this shot gives a sense of our close we were to the edge, and how crumbly the edge was.

Yet another hour passed, and the road still didn’t improve. Sometime into the third hour, it began to rain. Finally, after four full hours on the road, we reached the dark Gangte village, but then learned that a) our hotel was somewhere on the other side of the huge valley adjoining the village, and b) our driver had never been to it before and didn’t know where it was.

We asked questions of people that we passed in the night but still got lost. The minivan got stuck. The driver almost fell into a stream trying to get the vehicle to move. Finally, close to 8 p.m., we arrived at Gakiling Lodge, and learned that the electricity had gone out.

It was all pretty grueling, so it may be hard to understand how we could all be so happy the next morning (Monday). In the light of dawn, we could take in the breathtaking views of the valley (where the annual migration of Black-necked Cranes draw hordes of tourists every November.) Low clouds quickly burned off, and brilliant sunshine illuminated a dozen shades of green on the thickly wooded mountainsides. We set off early for the festival, parked, and walking amidst the monks and villagers toward the temple, I felt like I’d been transported back to the middle ages. All the villagers were wearing their finest woven and silk robes and scarves and jackets, as these tsechus are part country fair, part religious obligation. (Bhutanese Buddhists believe that you get spiritual points for attending them.) When we entered the temple grounds about 9:30 a.m., it was packed with families sitting on mats on the ground. Mothers peeled hard-boiled eggs and cut up chunks of cucumber for their kids. People gossiped, keeping half an eye on the monks dressed in masks and fantastic costumes executing one exotic dance after another. We spent a couple of hours watching the spectacle, but we were told that most of the locals would be there all day, then back again for a third time the next and final day.

This morning, after a buccolic hike through the woods, we had to face the awful ride back, of course. Although it was sunny and warm, most of the road was in at least as bad a shape as it had been. But we didn’t run into any landslides. We didn’t slide off the path and into the void. No gigantic boulders or trees slammed down on us (as they clearly could have). Our driver, Tandin, was cautious and level-headed and sensitive to the minivan’s needs, and we pulled back into Punakha for lunch.

After this adventure with pornograpic daily ornamentation and blood-curdling transportation, the next few days should be almost sleepy. Today (Wednesday) we’re supposed to visit a Buddhist nunnery, go on another nature hike, then return to the capital for more (prosaic) touristic activities.

Welcome to the kingdom of happiness

Monday, September 28

Saturday morning we landed at one of the scariest airports in the world. We survived. I would have predicted that it would have been the highlight of our day. But somehow it wasn’t. A few things went wrong in the hours that followed, but they were balanced by other moments that I can only describe as mind-blowing.

That’s not to say our arrival wasn’t noteworthy. Boarding for the flight from Bangkok started a few minutes earlier than scheduled. The weather was sunny and clear. The Drukair Airbus pilot had a reassuringly Teutonic accent, and our stop in Calcutta to pick up passengers went without a hitch. Then we were off for the 55-minute flight to Paro, the site of one of Bhutan’s three airports (and the only international one).

Halfway into the trip I was thrilled by my first sight of an actual Himalayan mountain poking up through the cloud layer. I was stuck in an aisle seat but loosened my seatbelt and strained as far as possible over Steve in the middle. The peaks we glimpsed were white as marble and jagged. I wanted to yank the friendly lady from Macao out of her window seat, the better to stare at them.

Then we were descending, and soon I could soon see patches of green forest below. Fortunately, I had watched (3 times!) the video that can be found online by googling “Scary landing at Paro Bhutan,” because it prepared me for what followed. There’s no place in Paro (or Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital), that’s clear enough of mountains to allow a jet to make a straight and gradual descent. Instead, planes go down fairly quickly to about 5000 feet, at which point they’ve over the airport. They keep descending into Paro Valley, and just when it appears they will definitely slam into the mountainside in front of them, they bank sharply, dropping and twisting their way back up the valley until they’re over the tarmac and able to touch down. Probably it was just as good I wasn’t at the window; I would have disgraced myself by gasping and moaning at how close we came to the terrain. What made the whole experience not that terrifying was that it only lasted maybe 5 minutes. And then we were rolling to a halt before the tiny mountain kingdom’s glorious airport terminal.

Arrival at Paro Airport

Passengers flowed off the plane and into the terminal on what felt to me like a wave of relief and adrenaline. As difficult as the Bhutanese make it to visit to their country, they make up for that with a quick and easy passage through immigration — a swift passport stamp, and then the immigration agent gives you a postcard featuring a beautiful image of the country, complete with postage, ready to be mailed. (That’s never happened to us at any other border in the world.)

The bad things that happened to us in the hours that followed were:

— At the airport, no guide or driver was waiting for us (unlike for all of our fellow travelers.)

A guide should have been among these guys with a sign saying DE WYZE. But there was none.

Eventually, one of the guides who was milling around approached us and told us he’d gotten a call from his friend, who been pressed into guide service at the last minute. Apparently he was covering for our scheduled guide, absent for reasons that to date have still not been made clear to us. He urged us to hang out at a nearby coffeehouse, assuring us that the replacement crew would arrive shortly. It was more than an hour, but we instantly liked Ugyen, the guide, when he showed up; our vehicle, a Hyundai SUV, looked to be in reasonably good shape.

— Late in the afternoon, after we’d made the hour-long drive to Thimphu and had lunch and checked into our hotel and headed for the town’s central marketplace, we found an ATM (one of the few in the country.) When Steve and I asked it for 10,000 ngultrums (or “nu”s, as the people have nicknamed their currency), the machine dealt them out to us. Howie then went through all the same steps up to the words “Take Your Money Below” appeared on the screen. But no money appeared. It’s possible he’ll eventually get recredited for the $160, (but it promises to be a long process.)

On the other hand, the day was filled with sights so beautiful and strange they made our jaws sag. On the drive to Thimphu, we stopped at our first Bhutanese temple, this one founded by a Tibetan ascetic in the 15th century. Here’s the bridge he built over the river that runs next to it.

Ugyen escorting Donna onto the bridge built by Thangtong Gyelpo. The brightly colored cloths are prayer flags. They're ubiquitous here.

One of the temple’s caretakers, a direct descendant of the ascetic, was about 70 years old and dressed in the national outfit for women (which looks a bit like a kimono, but warmer). Her teeth appeared to be dripping with dark blood — the distinctive look for those who chew betel nuts (which apparently is most of the Bhutanese older generation.) She welcomed us inside and let us poke into her smoky kitchen, then we spent some time admiring the temple interior. I’m tempted to call it “baroque” because of the extremely detail and complexity of the ornamention. Except never in the Western world’s baroque catalog have I seen so many images of violent conflict and sadistic tortures, mixed in with copulating gods and goddesses.

I felt simultaneously awestruck and depressed. As a writer, I struggle most when describing landscapes and art works. Within a few hours, I began to realize there was no way I would be able to communicate the way those two things come together in this place. The valleys are so lushly green; the hillsides so vertiginous. In their natural state, they would take your breath away. But the buildings that have been created here also are astounding. Not only the temples and monasteries, but even common country homes are sturdy and covered with beautiful colors and images. The poverty of the people is evident, but they live amidst something that looks like a movie set.

Typical Bhutanese building ornamentation.

And the grand buildings — of which we will see plenty on this trip — could hold their own with those in Earth’s most powerful capitals. Toward the end of our first day, Ugyen and our driver chauffeured us through a section of the valley where the Bhutanese Supreme Court and the National Asembly and a huge monastery fill huge majestic spaces. We were ogling all the distant sights, when Ugyen suddenly blurted out, “That was the king!” He pointed to a couple of cyclists, rapidly disappearing down the road. The current king, Bhutan’s fifth, is just 33 years old and a legendarily passionate biker. He lives in a modest house near the monastery and is married to a gorgeous 23-year-old. (We see the royal couple’s photo everywhere.)

Changgangkha Lakhong, the ancient monastery and monastic school in the hills above Thimphu, where we caught a glimpse of the king on his bike.

I was glad to see him, if only for a few seconds. It made me think that even if I can’t do justice to the art and nature here, there will still be interesting things to write about.

A 2-stage launch

Steve and I generally eschew group travel. In fact, we sometimes joke that it took us decades to learn to get along with each other on the road. But we’ll have some close traveling companions for the first part of the adventure on which we’re now embarking. That part will take us to the remote Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan (tucked in between India and Tibet.) The Bhutanese government limits tourism severely; it allows no independent travel, for example. All Bhutanese visitors must be part of a “group” (even if the group is only 1 or 2 people). To go there at all, you pay a hefty daily flat fee per person.

At some point when planning our Bhutan excursion, we started wondering if we might entice any friends to join us, thus lowering the daily costs a bit while increasing the fun. We thought of two individuals we’ve known forever and with whom we spend a lot of time. The idea of exploring Bhutan for a week did appeal to them; they agreed to join us.

At some point during the months since then, they decided to leave three days before us, in order to have some time in Bangkok (the city from which we’ll catch our Drukair flight to Bhutan). They also decided to follow our example and travel as lightly as possible. They bought snazzy new carry-on suitcases and packed them carefully. I gave them a ride to the airport, and when I dropped them off, they looked exultant.

I was surprised, then, when Howie called me an hour or so later with a cautionary tale. When they’d checked in for the flight, the gate agent had made them weigh their suitcases (even though the bags clearly met the requirement for carry-on dimensions). On the Japan Airlines scale, Howie’s rolling bag was 2 kilograms too heavy, while Donna’s was over by 4. Although Howie then shifted some of his stuff to his backpack and made the 10 kg limit, Donna couldn’t follow suit. She had been forced to check her bag.

Steve and I were shocked. Once in a while we’ve been ordered to check our carry-on suitcases (usually on small planes or obscure airlines with limited overhead bin space), but never have we ever had to weigh them. I checked the JAL regulations online, which confirmed a 10 kg (22-pound) limit. Our suitcases, fully packed, each came in around 25 pounds. I took several items out of my suitcase and crammed them into my backpack (the other object I carry onboard); made plans to wear my pullover and raincoat through the check-in process, even though the weather in San Diego has been sweltering. Once at the gate, we could repack, I reckoned, putting the extra 3 pounds (or more) back in the rolling bags. We had Elliot drop us off at the airport super-early, to accommodate this additional screwing around.

As it turned out, none of it was necessary. The friendly fellow at the check-in desk didn’t so much as glance at our carry-ons, let alone make us weigh them. We breezed through security; arrived at the gate more than 90 minutes before boarding. Of course that gave us plenty of time to transfer the extra weight back to the rolling bags.

And all the fiddling with our gear helped distract us from the grueling journey we were facing: San Diego to Tokyo to Bangkok (where we slept for a few hours in an airport hotel) before heading on to Calcutta (just to pick up more passengers) and finally Paro (Bhutan).