We were up, dressed and out on the hotel balcony by 5:30am hoping for a clear morning. It was slowly getting light but a couple of peaks were visible. Pensoc only managed to show his face at 5:45 (not 5:30) so it was lucky for him it was cloudy else we would have been very grumpy to miss the view from the pass. We were disappointed it wasn’t clearer and after 40 minutes of hope decided to get back in bed until breakfast time.
Fed and watered we left at 9am to return to the pass which was now visible from the hotel and only 5 minutes drive away. We wandered to the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang which is a temple recently built by the royal family with interior paintings of the history of Bhutan up to the 21st century. It even includes a painting of a Druk Air plane over the Himalayas, a monk using a laptop and surreal paintings of the 4th King at war – he did a stint battling the rebels in the jungle.
After an abridged history we wandered around the 108 stupas built by the Queen Mother to celebrate the King’s return from war. It’s a glorified traffic island but we know with its mountainous backdrop (that we couldn’t see) that it is probably quite dramatic. We left and dropped down the other side of the pass into Sha valley, with many village houses that have a slightly medieval look about them, and then through the Black Mountain Range dodging landslides.
At one point not too far down the road the traffic came to a stop, we got out and had a look at what was going on. Across the valley was a large truck with and even larger tree falled across it, decorated by other vegatation, stones and soil. A large landslide had brought the tree down which landed on the drivers cab. It took them 3 hours to get him out but as he was ok we felt ok to take photos. He was very very lucky. The hold up for us was actually a truck broken down. Dodging huge landslides, water cascading alongside and across the road we followed the mostly sealed route to Sopsoka.
The temple in Sopsoka is dedicated to the Divine Madman. It was built by his cousin in 1499. There was a demoness who was terrorising people up at Dochu La pass so he chased her here before subduing her with his ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom’. During the chase she had transformed herself into a dog. He is seen as a statue in the temple with a pet dog called Sachi and no dogs come near the place apparently. It was an interesting story that linked the places we have seen.
The temple is also a place to come for fertility wangs (blessings) given by the wooden phallus of the Divine Madman himself. For optimum chance of conceiving you sleep with it for a night. Not a traditional buddhist there are many stories about the Divine Madman. From Tibet in 1455’ish he felt that the stiffness of the clergy and social convention were keeping people from learning the teachings of Buddha. He behaved outrageously, had a number of well publicised sexual exploits – ie. once recieving a blessing thread only to tie it around his penis and tell everyone he did so to give him luck with the ladies. This area is the first we have seen painted penises on the buildings and hung from the rafters on the corner of the roof. There was a 1.5m one at the restaurant carved of wood which one middle aged female tourist was hugging whilst giggling like a girl and having her photo taken. These paintings and sculptures are modelled on Divine Madman’s and are meant to ward off evil. The gift stores are full of them – some of the carvers have been quite creative…
The rice fields, small villages and hill leading up to the temple gave us another great view of rural life here and we enjoyed the heat and humidity of the valley. After a terrible lunch with a great view we headed up over Lowa La pass at 3360m before dropping down once again to the Phojika Valley. It’s a semi alpine valley with a big flat wetland at it’s base. We were now in central Bhutan. Bowl shaped, the lifting cloud gave us a good view down and across the valley. We visited Gantey Goemba which was alive and humming with activity and preparations for the festival to celebrate the monsoon season ending. The lamas were blasting out at full volume a mantra to stablise the mind as heaps of people circled.
After a brief trip further into the valley and a quick look at the Black Necked Crane Centre which was a bit lame (especially given that there aren’t any here at the moment yet the tour agency had added this on for us). We headed uphill behind it to our accommodation which had a stunning view, exceptional food (finally solely vegetarian as we had asked for from day 1 but our guide seemed to have problems remembering) and warm service. We got to meet the owner who was very keen to know what we thought of his new place. He walked away smiling and we hoped he told the staff who at this hotel actually seemed to care about their job. Bhutanese service is rubbish and not all the hotels have heaters where they need them or are clean. They are very variable so although this new building had no mirror in the room or heater (yet) they are heading in the right direction and will soon outshine a lot of places. The fact it is locally owned, not by a tour operator made us feel good. Apparently the wealthiest people in Bhutan are the tour company owners… no surprise there.
We managed to fit in some ‘free ranging’ taking a walk around the outskirts of the village and visiting a couple of wooden shed shops for goodies. We chatted (well shouted back in reply) to some children and bemused the shop owners. Not many tourist dollars go directly to the local people so we were really glad to be able to buy a few small things knowing the money went straight to them.
That night we chatted to another guide who gave us a more educated and comprehensive view of what makes the Bhutanese tick (we secretly wised he was our guide). We had alredy guessed – Buddhism, chillies and a significant obsession with the King and co. We went to bed with the sound of mind stablising mantras echoing down the valley.
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