The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Finding happiness along the Affirmation Highway

“Don’t hurry or your family will worry.” 
“Mountains are pleasure only if you drive at leisure.”   
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

There’s no such thing as a roadside advertising billboard in Bhutan, and as we drive along the ‘affirmation highway’ - as I’ve dubbed the road from Haa to Thimphu - we are given gentle reminders to slow down and savour life.  It’s not until we realise that the country side we are viewing is absent of the garish bombarding of commercialism and oversized advertising signs that it dawns on us how open and free the countryside feels and the views of quaint mud-rammed houses dotting rice terraces that cascade towards a wide aqua-green river gives us a feeling of serenity.
Although it's an ice-cold morning, we leave Haa in a blaze of sunshine, the heavily forested mountains glowing in a green and golden hue.  The road hugs the side of the mountains, and we are awashed with views of chequered board fields in gold, red and green with villages of adorned white and timber houses. Far below, deeply plunging valleys fold into a coursing river that’s  embroidered with rapids. 

Every now and then we pass a chortan, a swathe of brightly flapping prayer flags or a long mani wall, the gold Sanskrit shining in the sunshine.   The villages we passed through are idyllic, tiny winding laneways where the homes are beautifully decorated, as if each neighbour was trying to outdo the other. 

Not only the windows, doors and walls painted and embellished, but so are the eves.  At one village we stop and take a walk through – our car to meet us at the other side -   the laneways laced in flowers, herbs and five leaf ‘mull’ plants that we’re told are only cattle feed – no wonder the cream coloured jerseys we see wandering around and lazily chewing their cuds have such sleepy doe-eyes. 

Just passed this village we view an enormous Dzong, once a jail for the worst of the worst and our guide tells us of how the prisoners were dealt with many years ago; tied into a sack and thrown down into the river, apparently if they survived the icy, turbulent waters, they could go free. It’s an impressive looking buildings perched high on a hill – indeed a room with an amazing view, but maybe one ‘you’ rather not see.
Lunch time is approaching and our guide tells us we’ll be having lunch in a local home.  We’re excited at the thought of being invited into a Bhutanese home and seeing how they live.  We soon arrive at a small, but beautifully intricately decorated abode that’s still in the process of being built.  Next door is a small restaurant.  The home and the restaurant are sitting in the ‘middle of no-where’, not another house or village that we can see around.  We jump out of the car and rustle through our packs for a couple of packets of macadamia nuts we’ve brought from home to give as gifts to our host.  We’re introduced to a young woman, called Tenzin, and are taken around the back of the house and directed up a small ladder-cum-stairs to a room that doesn’t have any furniture, but is beautifully painted in swirls of orange on bright yellow, and adorned with photos of the royal family – I love it.  We’re told to go into another room and here we find a small table and four chairs and a small cupboard in one corner.  We take a seat, eager to chat.  Tenzin smiles, gives a small bow then disappears from the room.  Our guide opens a picnic basket and proceeds to unpack the meal, then tells us to help ourselves.  We’re a little confused.  “Is Tenzin not joining us.” We ask.  “No, Tenzin has to serve in her restaurant” is the reply.  We eat our lunch and drink our tea, just us and our guide and driver.  Then it’s all packed up and we’re told it’s time to leave.  Back downstairs we’re directed to get back in the car, but we say we’d like to go into the restaurant to thank Tenzin for the use of her home.  Our guide is reluctant and tells us he has already thanked her.  We insist on thanking her ourselves and go into the small, but cosy restaurant.  It smells divine – the aromas drift around us and tantalise our tastebuds.  We’re surprised to see how busy it is, every table filled with happy, hungry diners. We wonder where they’ve come from. We thank Tenzin then go back to the car, as I get in I ask our guide why we didn’t eat in the restaurant as it looked lovely.  He gives me a concerned look and answers with ‘too dirty for tourists’.  I’m shocked and assure him that it is far from that, but he shakes his head and tells us that tourists can’t possibly eat the food there, besides he adds, ‘it’s too spicy for you.’  I feel uncomfortable at how the expectations of tourists are perceived in Bhutan and wonder if it is just what our guide thinks or if this is the actual perception across the board.
We continue on and soon reach the highway to Thimphu, passing over the river and past a set of beautiful chortens that glisten in the sunlight. The next hour ls spent reading affirmations and road safety messages dotted alongside the highway.  Thimphu comes into view and unlike the delightful villages and small towns we’ve passed through, we find it to be a jungle of concrete buildings of various colours – all still decorated with the auspicious signs but no-where near as intricate or beautiful as the homes and shops of the smaller towns. 
Thimphu is heavily congested with traffic and is noisy and dusty, but we’re keen to explore it, but our guide says first we must go to the Post Office where we can get a stamp with our photo on it.  It sounds very kitsch to us and we say that we’re not really interested but apparently it’s a highlight on the tourist list and we are to do it.   We drive into a building that looks as if it’s in need of a good renovation and we’re taken up a dark stairwell to a small room where a number of other tourists are gathered and being encourage to get their photos taken for a stamp.  Again our guide suggest we too do this and again we decline. Instead we look at the stamps and first day issues and although I haven’t the least bit of interest in stamps, I buy a first-day-issue of the ‘strong man of Bhutan’, we do this because part way through our trip, our itinerary has us staying with the strongest man in Bhutan so I feel it’s only appropriate to have this little souvenir.  
Our guide then tells us our next stop is a weaving centre but I suggest to him that we’d rather go to the Bhutan National Library to see the world’s largest book.  Our guide insists we go to the weaving centre first, so off we go.  The weaving centre is a small two storey building with the looms downstairs and a shop upstairs.  We view the weaving – I’m astounded at how intricate the craftsmanship is and how these women work without a pattern.  The pieces are incredibly vibrant and stunning. Then we are directed to the shop but I decline to purchase anything, being so early into our trip, I’m really not ready to commit to a weaving yet.

I ask again if we can go to the Library but instead we are taken to an art gallery where the most beautiful thangkas and Bhutanese landscapes adorn the walls, once again it is suggested – ever so subtle -  for us to purchase a little piece.

We are then told we are going to go to a paper-making factory, but I say I’d like to be to be taken to the Library and, we’re told it’s now near closing time so it’ll be a quick visit.  I’m far from impressed when told this.
Bhutan’s National Library is gorgeous.  A stunning piece of architecture surrounded by the most beautiful rose gardens and with an even more stunning outlook. Inside the library itself is a beautiful piece of art – wide timber floors, worn smooth with time, intricately painted shelves and architraves, and rows upon rows of Buddhists texts in various colours behind glass, some of them hundreds of years old.  We’re taken first to a room to see a smaller version of the ‘world’s biggest book’, which is a pictorial display of Bhutan’s landscapes and culture, then we go to the main room to view the real book.  It’s huge and kept in a massive glass case.  The page is open to an image of mountains with prayer flags.  Photography is not allowed in the library but this doesn’t deter many of the tourists who sneak a snap on their smart-phones. As we leave the library, our guide suggests we now visit the paper-factory but all we want to do is put our bags in the hotel and go find a much need cup of coffee – preferably of the roasted beans variety. 
Once again the hotel we are staying at is well out of town – it’s big and impersonal and when we enter our room we’re dismayed to see that it quite run-down.  We’re here for two nights.  We quickly stash the bags and get the driver (and guide) to take us into Thimphu central so we can start exploring the capital city of Bhutan…and of course find that coffee. 
And again the guide is reluctant to let us go by ourselves, and tells us that Thimphu can be unsafe and that the traffic is bad, but we insist on being allowed to wander and look by ourselves.  We are finally dropped off near the “Times Square” of Thimphu a square with prayer wheel walls and a clock tower in the centre, and we go in search of coffee, finding it in a delightful cafĂ© called ‘Ambient’ – it’s perfect!  The coffee just as good as home, the atmosphere fantastic and the Wi-Fi fast.  We spend a good two hours whiling away the late afternoon, then enjoy shuffling about in Thimphu’s vibrant main street, a collection of old-style timber shops with low doors and modern glass and chrome flash.  As the evening starts to fall the city becomes more bustling and the smells of Bhutanese flavours wafts out of small cafes and restaurants.   We’ve been told that dinner begins at seven at our hotel, so we catch a taxi back.  We are to find we should have stayed in the main street and found a dinner there, for the hotel fare is exceeding dismal. Once again the delectable ‘taste’ of Bhutan remains nothing more than an aromaous sniff.


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