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.
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.