Over peanut-butter-jelly sandwiches and French fries with a side of rubbery fried eggs for breakfast we vow to learn how to open a door again and work on our flabby arms by carrying our own bags. An hour later I'm stifling giggles as Mal luggage-wrestles again with petit house-keepers in crisp kiras of beautiful woven thread and high silk cuffed toegos.
We leave a mist covered Punakha early and begin a long drive into dust clouds and bone-rattling ruts all the way to Jakar. The national highway that runs through the middle of Bhutan is undergoing major construction, turning it from dual lane to four lane - all at once! We're told by our guide that the government has given the contract to a company who in turn has contracted the work out to many smaller companies; all of which appear to be competition with each other as to who can make the road the most dug-up, rubble filled, need-a-monster-truck-to-drive-it road possible.
I'm sure the country-side here is breath-takingly beautiful with abundant waterfalls cascading down the mountain side and plunging valleys filled with trees but mostly what we see is the colour of grey. The dust covers everything and when we stop for moment of clear sky I notice that there's a film of fine grey powder covering not only the whole outside of the car, but also all the luggage in the back the car and every crevices of the dash at the front. Even my nose also needs a good industrial blow out!
As well as all the construction work we need to navigate, our driver also has to hopscotch the tree-fellers along the road who are 'trimming' the sides. We witness lots of creative ways to cut overhanging branches from trees clinging to near vertical cliff-faces, there's absolutely no occupational health and safety here - cutters dangle themselves over the side of the cliffs, wedging their feet against trunks or branches as they saw away precariously with hand saws. Or whole trees are felled onto the road and gangs of cutters chop and cut great chunks of timber into rough blocks which they then lug into tip-trucks or just 'tossed' over the side of the road and down the mountain.
Near Pele La (a pass of 3420mts) our driver adds dodging Yaks to his navigation skills. In the valley below herds of Yaks graze on green paddocks, some making their way to the roadside where they graze and lounge without a care in the world. They are gentle looking creatures, mostly black with a few sporting white tails, but according to our guide, wild yaks are dangerous and therefore we are unable to stop for a closer look. I find myself feeling a bit sceptical about this, but make do with taking my photos of these doe-eyed beasts from inside the car. We zip past a gorgeous little stupa that reminds me of the Boudanath Stupa in Nepal - it's beautiful - and before I can yell "Stop" our guide turns around from the front seat of the car and informs us that we'll stop here on the journey back from the east and off we continue.
We do stop however at Pele La where we jump out for a quick once around the Chorten in the middle of the road, and string a line of prayer flags to join all the other colourful flapping good wishes, then off we go again. The road works are getting worse as we bump along and just as I'm bemoaning about my sore backside I take notice of the blue tarped and corrugated iron humpys that dot parts of the roadworks. When I first saw these huts I thought they may be equipment storage huts, but as I peered into an open door of one as we pass I am horrified to see bedding and woman and child sitting on the floor. "People live in there?" I ask the guide. He shrugs and says yes, the workers and sometimes their families join them. He explains to us that many of the road workers are Indian citizens "Bhutanese people don't like to do menial work" he explains " many are well educated, this type of work is below them." I find it hard to comprehend how the ethos of Gross National Happiness this country lives by correlates to the working and living conditions of these workers and their families. I also find myself wondering about the health effects on the workers and their families with all the dust that fills the air - surely their lungs and eyes must suffer greatly.
We arrive on the late side of noon to Trongsa - a town located in the very middle of Bhutan and the power rise of Bhutan's Monarchy. The first kings father, Jigme Namgyal, moved to the area and rose to power in the late 1800's and ever since each of the kings prior to taking the throne are required to undertake a stint as governor (penlop) of Trongsa. The Dzonng of Trongsa is enormous and one of the most spectacularly positioned buildings in the whole of Bhutan, perched on the side of mountain overlooking a gorge with ancient trails.
Behind it sits the watchtower and our lunch stop. Our weary bone-rattled bodies can barely make the few steps up to the Tower restaurant and when we sit down to eat, I have to admit we wonder why we bothered - the food is dreadful. I really cannot understand how an Asian/subcontinent country whose traditional dish is chock full of chillies, can cook meals so lack-lustre in taste. It doesn't take us long to eat, our meal consists more of a beer than food and then we make way to the Royal Heritage Museum to view among the many treasures, the Raven Crown. The official crown of the king of Bhutan, the one sitting on display in the museum is a stunning piece of craftsmanship and needlework. And if I may be so cheeky to suggest - also an outstanding piece of sugar skull art! The building is beautifully preserved full of winding stars and strange tiered floors and we are banned from taking our cameras into the building and leave them at the 'front' of the tower. We are directed to follow a maze of floors and as we near the end, our guide tells us he will double back to collect our cameras and bags. Just as we're about to exit the back door, a museum official indicates that we should go up a set of stairs to the viewing platform. We head up and are awarded a fabulous view of the Dzong and valley - stunning!
As we wander back down the spiral stairs our guide runs smack-bang into us, thinking something is wrong we ask if there is a problem, but instead he looks embarrassed and we realise that he doesn't want us 'wandering about' by ourselves. Back at the car, we're told there is no time to look at the Dzong, that we'll stop on the way back from the east. I'm seeing a big lists of things to see on the way back on a very long drive - I also see we'll be missing a lot of them again! We wave goodbye to cheeky monkeys striding near the tower's carpack and back on the road, bumping along to Jakar. As we near the township our guide informs us that there is not much to Jakar and that we'll be staying in the Chokhor Valley, a distance from the town. I find this information about Jake strange and read what the guide book says about Jakar to our guide, but he insists there is nothing to see in the town itself. We soon reach Jakar and instantly I love it - it's a quaint little place, bustling with life and lots of colourful shops, tucked in a valley and straddling the Chamkhar Chuu- I'm eager to explore it but instead we must drive through and off into the countryside to get to our hotel for the night. Again I'm far from impressed about being roomed so far away from the town.
The next day we're up early and hitting the Festival trail. Today is the first day of the Jambay Lhakhang Drup. The festival is held in a small temple called Jambay Lhakhang and is located in the heart of the Jakar valley. built in the early 7th century, the temple is dedicated to the 'Buddha of the future' - Maitreya - and holds an annual consecration ceremony (unlike a normal consecrate at a temple or church once and that's it) with the highlight being the Naked Dance or Dorling Tercham as is its official name. The temple is delightful, and when we arrive is a hive of activity with preparations in full swing. Men (in full ghos) are on the rooves hanging fabric valances, next door to the temple a paddock is being turned into a market place with makeshift huts going up and tantalizing smells wafting through of roasting meats and lots of chili cheese being cooked.
In another building tables filled with butter lamps burn brightly and when we walk in there we can only bear to stay a few minutes as the heat is extreme and the smell from the burning wicks saps away breath. But it still looks wonderful. After exploring the temple and its surrounds we take a walk through rural farmlands to a group of temples sitting near a small hill. These are called the Kurjey Lhakhang - a complex of three temples surrounded by 108 chortens, each of the temples are beautiful, but its the last temple, highest up in the complex that I find the most special.
Upon entering the inner sanctum I find that a group of monks are chanting and many people are meditating. I join them, mainly for the need to regain touch with my inner self, but also to find peace from the claustrophobic attention our guide is bestowing upon us. I am suffocating from his intense attention and constant watching eyes. I don't know how long I sat there staring into my navel, but soon it was time to leave as poor Mal was sitting outside under the Bhodi tree - he was totally 'templed-out' and had decided to sit this one out. I took a quick peek at the treasure of this temple - the hollow impression of Guru Rinpoche (apparently he sat so long in meditation that he left an indent in the rock. When I meet up with Mal again I agree with him that at this very moment, I too am templed out and that we should go in search of a beer and try some cheese. Jakar is famous also for it's Panda Beer of which its brewery is next door to the cheese factory. We tell the guide we'd like to go there, but he takes us to another temple first where we are encouraged to put on some chain-mail and try and make three coras of the temple.
I can't even lift it, but Mal gives it a go and does the coras without breaking a sweat. We then make haste to the brewery only to find they are not undertaking tours or tasting, we have to buy a full bottle to try. This of course doesn't perturb Mal any, but when he takes his first sip, the noes is wrinkled up and a tight lip pull is formed. We then pop across to the cheese factory and enjoy a small tour of the factory - unfortunately for me, the cheese misses the mark a little - although it's more like a swiss style cheese, I find I've become quite taken with the Bhutan style of feta instead. I'm still not game enough to try the rock-hard little square cheeses we see strung up like curtain-streamers though.
Later that evening we head back to Jambay Lhakhang where we find the place absolutely teaming with people and totally unable to get anywhere near the action is taking place. We stand on tippy-toes and hold our cameras high above our heads in hope to catch something of the dancing that is taking place (and then look at it later) but it is not until the crowd starts following a group of fire holders that we snaffle a spot near the ring. Unfortunately there is nothing to watch as now all the action is taking place in a field on the other side of the temple.
Malcolm wanders over to see what is going on while I 'stand guard' over our new-found spots. Turns out the Mewang was taking place - the fire offering. Mal comes back all excited and tells me about how a 'bough' exploded into flames and everyone, including people carrying children on their shoulders ran under the sprays of embers. It also turned out that just prior to the lighting of the bough, the black hat dance had taken place (an absolute highlight!) and we had missed it, although I did get a photo of a chap in his glorious outfit as he passed me on the way back to the 'green room'. By this stage it was close to midnight and I was freezing, the temperature had dropped to frigid and try as I might, I just couldn't keep the teeth from chattering . As we readied to go, the Naked Man stormed into the ring to show off their rings to the crowds and I can see it wasn't just my teeth that were feeling the cold.