Day 7: Temple hikes through Punakha Valley

My first full day in Bhutan was a big hiking day.  I’m struggling a little on writing my notes for the day because I saw and experienced so much.  Travel over-load in a good way.  Further, my Internet connection is pretty far from awesome so I couldn’t possibly upload all the photos I’d like.  Stupid Himalayas with your unreliable broadband connections — how dare you!  

One of my objectives on this trip is to punish myself whenever possible, so I looked for a tougher (or at least longer) hiking option.  Never mind the fact that I hadn’t hiking regularly at home, and I hadn’t broken in my new hiking boots.  Type A travel all the way, baby — sore body be damned.  Today’s trip would ultimately take about five and a half hours including some stops to look around as well as a little picnic.  It covered 10.6 km with a reasonably heavy ascent — or at least one where I was definitely huffing for sustained periods.   

The trip had three components:

#1:  Visit to Khamsum Chorten temple.  

The first part of this hike was more of a walk that took me through rice patties and rice terraces that line the river in the Punakha valley.  It’s funny how many times I’ve eaten rice, but if you had put a gun to my head I would not have been able to pick a rice stalk out of a grain lineup.  Now I was marching right through it and not only saw rice growing, but more interestingly, I got to see it being harvested.  It’s not surprising that much of the farming in Bhutan is still very much manual, and the local workers were out in force thrashing away.  

This girl is a class VI student (12 years old).  It was Sunday so she did not have school (Bhutanese children go to school Monday through Friday with a half day on Saturday).  No SIMS or social networking for her.  She was working away in the fields (not that I’m trying to make my own awesome daughters feel badly about not thrashing rice on the weekend).  

Girl harvesting rice.jpg

Here is the rice thrashing with a foot-powered machine.  

Thrashing rice.jpg

We hiked from here up a mild ascent to the first scenic stop, Kahmsum Chorten, a temple built relatively recently in 1999 by order of the Queen Mother to protect her son, the crown prince, as well as to provide peace, harmony and stability for the country.  It was a truly beautiful temple which housed a Buddhist tantric guru who wielded seven (or eight?) daggers to kill different kinds of evil spirits.  In Buddhist tantric teaching these evil spirits could be seen either literally (i.e., ghosts) or as metaphors for the evil spirits, or bad thoughts, that live within each of us.  While I could not take photos inside the temple, I was allowed to go in, explore and make offerings.  

The temple itself was stunning, rivaled by the spectacular views around it.  

Khamsum Chorten.jpg
Khamsum Chorten view.jpg

#2:  Hike up to the 300 year old Giligang Temple

This was by far the most physically demanding part of the day.  We slugged up a steady 4 km through a beautiful pine covered hill.  I kept my eyes firmly to the ground for most of it in order to 1) avoid twisting my ankle and 2) avoid the prodigious quantities of cow dung.  Seriously, you could solve the energy crisis by scooping up and burning what seemed to be more cow patties than McDonalds could serve in a year.  I digress.  

The long hike ended in a clearing at the top of the hill when we were greeted by a cellular transmission tower, a hut, and a somewhat dilapidated temple.  In Bhutan, some temples receive official government support, and are kept pristine.  Others have to soldier on their own and depend on a local caretaker to keep them up to shape.  Gilligang is the later, Khamsam Chorten (above) is the former.  

This was to be the lunch spot, and we settled down in grass next to the temple.  We were greeted by the 77 year old caretaker, Aum Korten, who has lived up here for 50 years with his wife.  As I understand it, he was a buddhist monk before he gave that up to get married.  He has been up here ever since, painting and maintaining the temple by hand.  He was a kind and friendly man who sat with us and took my guide and me into the temple where we were able to give offerings and to meditate for a few minutes.  

My guide tells me that he doesn’t get too many visitors compared to the fancier, more accessible temples.  I think that’s what made this part of the day’s journey particularly special.  The experience felt more off the beaten path, more personal and more touching.  

Giligang temple.jpg
77 year old caretaker, Aum Korten

77 year old caretaker, Aum Korten

#3:  Hike down to Punakha Dzong

A Dzong is a fort in Bhutan (there are 16) that houses both local administrative government functions (front half of the facility) and a monastery (back half of the facility).  The Punakha Dzong is considered to be very important and special in Bhutanese culture, and among other roles it houses royal weddings.  It is also the Winter headquarters for the monks of the Drupka school of Mahayana (Tibetan) buddhism (one of the two schools of Tibetan buddhism practiced in Bhutan).  It was built in 1637 at the intersection of two rivers, Father and Mother rivers.  It is the second largest, and second oldest Dzong in Bhutan, and it served as a fort during the battles with Tibet back in the 17th century.  

Again, I could not hope to do justice to the beauty of this place with photos, but here are a few.  

One of the really fortunate parts of the day was that it was the 15th of the month, which is considered an auspicious day.  This means lots of celebrations and ceremonies.  This was particularly lucky for us as we were allowed to go into the monastic temple portion of the Dzong and witness the buddhist monks perform a ceremony with chants, drums and horns.  It was amazing to be given a window into a life that could  not be any more different to the one that I live. 

Punakha Dzong.jpg
Part of Dzong where they held the Buddhist ceremony (inside, sadly not pics allowed)

Part of Dzong where they held the Buddhist ceremony (inside, sadly not pics allowed)

I'm kind of tired just writing all of this.  Must have been a good day.