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Thursday, 12 November 2015

Bless you at the Haa Chu

“I think they should rename this place The Chilly Pass,” I say to Mal as I stand huddled next to a clay stove and try to garner some warmth.  Me along with ten others – all Indian nationals – try to find the best spot next to the fire.  In front we stare at the most incredible view,  upright white flags on a forest of  poles snaking along a ridge line to a peak, flutter against blue skies.  Either side, deep plunging green valleys spiral into dark voids and all around a kaleidoscopic swirl of colour flaps and strains and whips in the wind – prayer flags for as far as the eye can see.  We are at the top of Bhutans highest motorable pass – the Chele La at (officially 3,780meters, although the sign I’m standing next to says 3988meters and our vehicles altitude reader is spruking  4030meters.  Whichever it is, it’s high! And I’m starting to feel some affects of altitude.  A throbbing headache and a bit of a dizz, although,  I think that might be from the hairpin corners.

It was an early rise as we were in for a big day – leaving Paro to visit the Haa Valley.  It was super early for me though, up a three am, the body clock was way out of sync and the head throb had also started.  I’d been warned that it might happen at Paro but was assured by the guide that we were just under the level where altitude sickness happens and that if we took it easy we’d acclimatize.  I took his advice and threw down a couple of headache tablets, skipped my morning coffee and took it easy.  Not that there was going to be too much activity – our hotel was well and truly out of town and surrounded by dogs wandering around the roads, so a little stroll to check out the early morning local life wasn’t on the cards and at the hotel, we weren’t being allowed to lift a finger.  Even pouring our own milk into a cup of tea was a no-no.  We were to be waited on hand and foot.  I wondered if I could ‘get use to this’ then decided no -  I’d be drinking too much hot milk. (I’m to find Tea here is more milk than brew and weak is an understatement!)
Our guide and driver collected us bright and early and we were zipped along past rice fields and up into the mountains.  It was a long drive, winding and pot-holed but stunningly spectacular with views that went forever.  Every now and then we would drive under a swathe of prayerflags and past enormous Mani Wheels that spun at incredible speeds, throwing out their blessings, as they were operated by small waterfalls and fast flowing streams.    Part way up we turned off the bitumen road and bounced along a rough rocky track to a nunnery – the Kila Goempa – where we’re told about 100 nuns (young and old) lived in isolation.  We’re also told that they rarely got visitors, a statement we find a little strange, because when we arrive there are a number of tourist cars and a bus sitting in the car park,  and a number of tourists hiking along the narrow track that clings to the side of a steep cliff.   We join the trail of visitors and wander along the narrow path for about 150meters.  Actually it was barely a wander for being so high, the air is clean, crisp and thin and we both feel the shortness of breath - so much so, we huff and puff as we walk along and I tell Mal we need to be careful that we don’t blow the precariously clinging abodes away. 
The nunnery hugs the sheer cliff face and every view is spectacular.  It’s the most perfect place to meditate and contemplate the meaning of life and existence, though I think for me, I’d spend more time bird watching than inner thinking.  The birds are abundant, as are the flowers that cover the path.    The temples and small abodes that make up the nunnery are very simple – white, rustic and lightly decorated in the traditional artwork, yet the whole place is idyllic and beautiful.  We’re taken right up to where the nuns, of all ages, are sitting and chatting, a couple of them are trying to blow very large trumpets, and we’re told we can ‘take their photos’. 
I find this an uncomfortable proposition and decline.  I also feel like we have intruded upon their self-imposed seclusion and a sense of voyeuristic guilt drapes over me.  We thank them for letting us visit their home and our guide takes us to the small main temple which is stunningly intricate inside with its artworks and icons.  Now this I wish I could photograph, but photography in the temples is not allowed and is strictly monitored.
From the nunnery we head up another 5oo meters to the Chele La (La means pass in Bhutanese).  While we’re there our driver shares with me that the pass is extra special for him as two of the white flags standing on the peak are his offerings for a passed sister.  He explains to me that the white flags represent remembrance of lost loved ones for Bhutan doesn’t have grave yards.  After cremation, the ashes are scattered, and a white flag becomes their marker.
After the obligatory photos and hug of the fire, we jump back in the car and head down again.  Just before we hop in the car, we meet up with two women on Royal Enfield motorcycles who are traveling the length of Bhutan.  They cause quite a stir with a large group of Indian Nationals who have come to Bhutan for their Puja holidays and they line up to have their photos taken with them.  There’s lots of laughter and giggles, and I’m quite impressed with the women and their bravery to ride Bhutan’s roads on such ‘ancient’ looking motorcycles.  In fact, I wish I had their tenacity and bravery.
We leave the pass and stop further down the road for a picnic.  We are to find the Bhutanese love their picnics – it’s a national pastime, to take a packed lunch in tiffin tins and spread out in a meadow, beside the road amongst the hills or near a raging river.  I love it!  We choose a meadow near a cow shed and enjoy a smashing meal of red rice, curry and an amazing potato dish that I just want to learn to create.  And of course the must have – chili cheese.
Zipping down the mountain the scenery changes from green to golden as we come across a grove of beautiful turned fir trees and maples.  Splashes of colour race up to meet us as we weaved through the hairpins.  Part way down we pass emergency vehicles – a tiny ambulance and two small cars filled with personnel in orange-overalls.  “Accident” comments our guide and we keep going.
The Haa valley is wide and green with a huge river running through the middle. Rice fields and cattle dot the landscape.  We pass a golf course and helicopter pad and our guide points out some army barracks – ‘Indian Army’ he says, ‘they protect us.’   Our first stop is to a Temple from the 7th century,  we're not sure if it's the Black Temple or the White, but it has brand new buildings being erected around it and it’s interesting to see how they form the structures which will be painted just like all the other buildings in Bhutan with the traditional ornate features.  
We enter the temple and ooh and arh over the glorious artwork, the colours still vibrant and lush after years of being.  While there we meet up with a fellow traveller who had also been staying at the same hotel the night before.  He tells us that a dreadful accident happened at Chele La, a bus that was reversing plummeted over one of the cliffs, it had five Indian Nationals on it – the rest of the group were still waiting to board, at least one had died.  It dawns on us it was the same group who were at the pass the same time as us, the ones who were having their photos taken with the two motorcycle women.  We are devastated for them and their family.
We leave the temple with sadness and go to our hotel. Again it is outside of the town, and again the area is surrounded by numerous wandering dogs.  After dropping our bags to our room (and Mal has the standard luggage tug-a-war with the  baggage girls - they win), we ask our guide to take us to the town so we can explore.  He’s a little hesitate, telling us there’s not much to see in Haa, but we say we’d like to see it anyway.  Our driver takes us to the other side of the township so we can have a good walk through, and as we’re being dropped off we find ourselves having a bit of a ‘run-in’ with two cows.  Well not quite so much as a run in as a run away.  Just as I close the car door, two cows with nice little sharp horns, decide to have a tussle with each other, locking horns they push at each other and end up stumbling towards us.  I run towards the front of the car and almost get myself run over as our driver, realising the cows are heading for his car, launches the car forward then has to hit the brakes as I tap the front bumper.  This in turns results in the cows crashing into the side of the car and the horns make an enormous scrape mark up the side of the car.  Our driver is most upset - it turns out he doesn't own the car and vehicles in Bhutan are an expensive luxury few Bhutanese can afford.  We feel dreadful for him. 
From horn wielding cows, we find we have to run the gauntlet of street dogs when a pack of them realise someone new has entered their territory and come tearing towards us.   Thankfully, some of the locals come out and chase them away.  They give us cheery smiles and wave us on our way through their village.   It’s very rural, lots of small timber huts with hay stacks around, their homes however all sport the beautiful artworks of the twelve auspicious signs and dancing phalluses.  Prayer flags hang on the bridges and along fence lines and we pass goods carrying trucks that also look like works of art with their decorated cabins and images of deities and good luck wishes. 
The air starts to cool as we enter the main street of the village and we pass the everyday shops that sell packets of chips, bottled water and dried chilies, nestled in with karaoke bars and government offices. Our driver and guide are waiting for us and as we cross over a small swing bridge spanning the Haa Chu we are blanketed in a flap of prayer flags.  Never one to miss a word play, Mal pipes up with "Bless You".   I certainly do feel incredibly blessed.

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