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Bhutan’s Stunning Mountain Scenery

...and more penis jokes than you can stand

overcast 79 °F

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Gorgeous views along the road from Thimphu to Punakha

Deep gorges and sheer cliffs fell away to one side of the car as I looked out my window. Beyond those drops, isolated farmsteads, tiny hamlets, and colorful towns stretched into the distance. The road from Thimphu to Punakha, Bhutan, was one of the most scenic I have ever traveled. I tried to imagine what it was like to for these poor villagers to wake up to million dollar views every morning. Did it grow old after awhile? My guess was no - based on the number of road side stands selling chilis, tomatoes, corn, and other vegetables from their fields. All were cleverly sited exactly where you’d want to pull over to take pictures of the incredible panorama opening up before your eyes. They knew they lived amidst soul-searing beauty.

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Clouds obscure the view from Dochula Pass

My morning had begun with a heartfelt prayer for good weather and clear skies that day. We would be traveling through the Dochula Pass on the way to Punakha. On a clear day, you can see the peaks of the Himalayas from the pass. Yes, yes, I had been incredibly lucky and seen them on my flight in. But how many times can you view the Roof of the World before you grow tired of it? My guess is never, and thus, my hope to see those icecaps on this morning.

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A line of mountain peaks of plays hide and seek n the clouds

When we arrived at Dochula Pass, we were greeted by a dense cloud cover, wrapping us in a blanket of fog. My guide Sonam was positive, and said it might clear up. He led me around what was essentially a roadside park, pointing out the display illustrating Bhutan’s Himalayan peaks, the best viewpoints, and the monument at the center of the park. It was built by the Queen in honor of the 108 soldiers who lost their lives suppressing an Indian rebel movement that had based themselves in Bhutan along its border with India. An oval of 108 man-high, brick stupas crowned the park - one for each soldier.

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A villager’s home standing on a hill above a deep valley

Sonam led me slowly through the mist, each of purposively dragging our feet to give time for the skies to clear. As we finished our circuit, I suggested we climb the monument and walk amongst the stupas, which seemed to have a great viewpoint - if the day were clear instead of fogbound. The stupas are in an oval on a hilltop, and as we reached the summit, I saw a patch of blue amidst the gray, and pointed it out to Sonam. He looked around, seeming to sniff the air, and declared it was clearing up.

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More Mountain scenery on the road to Punakha

We waited patiently for almost an hour. Breaks would appear in the cloud cover and jagged peaks would loom out of the gray. The openings would expand, and soon we could see an indistinct line of mountain tops. But each time, the clouds would pull their blanket back over our hilltop. I looked up at the hazy disc of the sun, praying for it to do its job and burn away the mist. We both joked that if we had superpowers, we would pull the clouds aside like a lace curtain. After an hour of Dochula Pass’s teasing, we finally gave up, and drove down the winding, two lane road towards Punakha.

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A town looms above its rice paddies in Bhutan

It was then that I saw those Bhutanese villagers’ million dollar views. Dochula Pass paled before these dramatic panoramas. This was life lived on a raw, elemental scale. Steep mountains loomed over valleys of rice paddies, which surrounded clusters of three-story, Bhutanese homes. Monasteries stood proudly on summits, seemingly inaccessible, above tiny villages. Forests cloaked the hillsides, wrapping them up in green mantles that made you wonder how isolated and cut off those villagers were before modern roads came. How many weeks would it take to travel the route we were covering in a few hours?

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Imagine waking up every morning in this house to those views

At the halfway point in my trip, I had seen a good bit of what Bhutan had to offer. I had seen the incredibly detailed and decorative dzongs. I had paced through Buddhist temples, admiring their wall paintings and marveling at their ornate, otherworldly statues. I had learned about its culture in its museums. I had sat amidst a night time crowd In Thimphu and listened to an outdoor concert. But this - the drama of the geography of a mountain kingdom - was the true soul of the land. This was why I had come to visit this Himalayan mountain kingdom. I soaked up the sights I saw through my window, and every time I asked my driver to pull over, he courteously did. Sonam immediately popped out, too, offering up my telephoto lens and being as good as an assistant photographer as I had any right to ask for. I could have done this all day, but we reached our destination all too soon.

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Hiking through the rice paddies towards the temple of the Divine Madman

One reason most tours of Bhutan stop in Punakha is to visit Chime Lhakhang, the temple of the divine madman - Bhutan’s most beloved Buddhist saint. Lam Drukpa Kuenly lived an unorthodox life in the 15th century. Wandering the countryside as a vagabond, indulging in booze and women. He decided that the ultimate weapon to confront the dangers to the soul that every Buddhist faced was, ahem, the phallus. And so wooden phalluses are his symbol, and the village in the shadow of his temple is adorned with more images of male genitalia than any high school bathroom could ever have.

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The Temple of Chime Lhakhang

In fact, selling painted phalluses of every size, shape, and use imaginable is their business. And - dare I say it - business is growing. Lots of construction is going on, with new hotels, restaurants, and craft shops being erected (sorry, couldn’t resist) on a weekly basis. I mean, really, how many places can you walk into a shop, and with a straight face and ask, “How much is that phallus in the window?”

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A woman seeks the Divine Madman’s blessing, circling the temple carrying a giant, wooden phallus

Of course, the climax of any trip to Punakha is visiting the Divine Madman’s temple. In fact, couples having trouble conceiving often visit here - some coming (hee, hee) from around the world. The women circle the temple three times, cradling a giant wooden phallus in their arms. As you’d expect, miracle stories rise from Chime Lhakhang’s potency. The temple was actually smaller than I expected (a common complaint of women worldwide, I think). Sonam dutifully explained the “birds and bees” of the temple - the meaning of all the paintings and statues. He and all of the other Buddhists present donated money or food. I asked Sonam if, having four children already, he really desired the Divine Madmen’s unique blessing of fertility?

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Hand-painted “souvenirs” for sale in the village

After lunch, and an end to my sophomoric double entendres, we checked in to our hotel. From there, we visited the Punakha Dzong - the winter palace of Bhutan’s kings. The fortress is wedged in the triangle of land between two rivers which join together as one (honest, I am trying to stop!). It is smaller than Thimphu’s Tasiche Dzong, but seems to cram the same amount of decoration into half the space. Once again, we could visit only the main temple. And once again, I took my time wandering the fort, admiring the thick walls (blame yourself, not me, for that one!), taking tons of photographs of the decorations, and imagining what this fort was like when it fought off an invasion of Tibetans and Mongols.

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Punakha’s dzong stands proudly at the strategic junction of two rivers

My guidebook recommended a scenic overlook, and Sonam recognized it and agreed wholeheartedly. We wound our way up hairpin turns until emerging high above the riverside town. The view was every bit as good as expected. It was a gratifying finish to a thrilling day. I felt I had touched the soul of Bhutan. It’s landscape, its beliefs, and its achievements were everything I could ask for. I had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but could only hope it was as good as today. And if you take that the wrong way, you have only yourself to blame!

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The Dzong gleams in the afternoon sunshine

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Bhutan

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