Living Like Royalty in Paro Valley
We had a comfortable night’s sleep in our Thimphu hotel:
Ann relayed to us that she and Dave had shared a drink in the hotel bar last night. The bartender was a Bhutanese man whose family was originally from Nepal. Ann and Dave had asked the bartender many questions and had discovered that he had a university degree and had been hoping to find a job with the Bhutanese government, which provides the “best” jobs in the country. However, those jobs are impossible to get if you are not of “pure” Bhutanese descent. The highest level job available for him was a service job in the tourism industry, so he was working as a bartender.
Bhutan is often portrayed as a form of “Shangri La”--sheltered from the outside world, promoting peace and harmony through Buddhist practice, and devoted to protecting the environment. This perception has validity on many levels. It is indeed a beautiful country, and the people (of all ethnicities) seem to be very warm and welcoming to outside visitors or “tourists”. However, things are not always as they appear, and we were seeing some cracks in this façade of tranquility and tolerance. Like other places around the world, racial discrimination is present in Bhutan and affects all aspects of life—social, religious, and economic. The reality is that equal human rights are often denied to people who are not considered “pure” Bhutanese, especially for the people who come from neighboring India and Nepal. The severe extent of the deep ethnic divide in Bhutan was revealed to the world in 1991, when Bhutan began expelling ethnic Nepalis, many of whose families had lived in Bhutan for generations. This ethnic cleansing resulted in the loss of one-sixth of the country’s population and created over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, who are still living in a tragic state of limbo in various refugee camps in Nepal.
The leaders and crew for our motorcycle group were men of four different ethnicities: Rob was from the United States (he also lived for many years in Nepal), Dorji was Bhutanese, Gyan was Bhutanese of Nepali ethnic origin, Sono was Indian, and Tsring was Bhutanese. All worked together as a cohesive team, with genuine camaraderie.
Each morning, Sono and Gyan were up early to prepare our bikes. Today, I came out of the hotel to find our bikes lined up and ready to go:
Here I am with Sono and Gyan—two people who I will always remember for their helpfulness, tremendous patience, compassion, and infinite knowledge about the art of motorcycle maintenance:
We left Thimphu behind.
Today we were riding to the beautiful Paro Valley. We crossed the Paro River (Pa Chhu) and stopped for a short break.
As usual, there was the informative AIDS sign:
Ben and I watched in amazement as this woman trekked down an extremely steep hillside with a heavy load on her back. We grabbed our camera in time to catch her sitting down to untie her packs:
Our road then wound along beside the Paro river, which was still immersed in the shade from the surrounding hills. The cold air cut through my layers of clothing. As we neared the town of Paro, we took a side road up into the hills. I think that my teeth had stopped chattering by the time we arrived at this view point above the Paro airport (the only airport in Bhutan).
Our accommodations today were in the fabulous Gangtey Palace, located on a hill overlooking the town of Paro.
Gangtey Palace was constructed over 100 years ago by the Governor of Paro Valley, who was also an uncle of the first king of Bhutan. For a short time, it served as the king’s residence while he was visiting Paro. In 1930, the Royal Family gave the Palace to the grandfather of the current owner, who converted the buildings into a hotel in 1995.
The architectural details were stunning:
Ben and I stayed in a luxurious room on the ground floor. It was so beautiful (and big), and I couldn’t help but wonder who else may have slept in this very room throughout the history of the Palace.
The hotel had a huge surrounding area with many benches where we could sit and admire the incredible view of the valley.
Fred and Paul relaxed in the sunshine:
The town of Paro:
The road to Paro was shared by pedestrians and vehicles:
We watched the people working in the fields:
Ben, with the Paro dzong in the background:
A closer look at the dzong:
Further down the valley, we could see the snow-dusted mountains:
We speculated about who lived in this large house (and the labor and cost of cutting the switchback road up the mountain):
This chorten in the hotel courtyard made a comfortable bird rest:
The Paro airport has one to two incoming flights each day. The landing pattern requires the planes to made a tricky turn and navigate above the Paro Valley, descending between the mountains on either side. We all were captivated by the sight of this airplane passing close by:
We had lunch at the hotel restaurant, with the usual buffet, deliciously prepared:
This afternoon, we mounted our bikes and rode the twisty, narrow road that extended to the outer tip of the valley. We stopped to crane our necks at the Tiger’s Nest monastery, high on the rock face in front of us. This monastery is considered one of the holiest places in Bhutan. In the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche allegedly flew to a small cave there on the back of a female tiger and meditated for several months.
A close-up view:
As we continued onward, we passed this sculptural homage to the penis (with its symbolism in promoting fertility and warding off evil spirits):
The mountains were getting steeper as we approached the end of the valley:
The paved road ended, and we reached the Drugyel dzong, now in ruins from a 1951 fire. (In the above photo, a portion of the dzong is shown in the lower right corner.) The dzong was built in 1646 to celebrate victory over invading Tibetan forces and to protect against future invasions. Historical records indicate that several battles were fought against the Tibetans in Paro. One of those battles occurred inside the dzong, which was designed with a false entrance to lure enemies into a closed courtyard where they could easily be defeated.
We could see the dzong walls, partially hidden by the trees on top of this hill:
There was a small community at the base of the dzong. The residents were busy with their daily activities.
Laundry was ahanging from the beams inside a home:
A dirt road continued up into the surrounding mountains, and into Tibet. This place was the launching point for treks to the nearby Mount Chomolhari (24,000 feet), as well as trading expeditions into Tibet. We could see a pack of mules being prepared for what appeared to be a trading mission.
The building facades were decorated with the usual protective symbols to ward off evil and promote fertility and harmony:
There were a few boys who ran up to us, laughing and asking us questions:
We decided to hike up to the dzong:
Here I am climbing the steps to the entrance:
We stepped into a large courtyard that had a group of teenagers relaxing with a boom box playing ‘80s rock music from the United States.
The old walls still were quite regal, with their crowns of vines and tall grass:
We made our way carefully through the open doorways:
The setting was very serene, with the commanding mountain peaks around us:
Although the monastery was no longer occupied, someone had hung prayer flags in various places.
At the back of the dzong, we climbed a short but steep hill to reach another viewpoint:
This peaceful valley contained agricultural fields that were divided into artistic patterns:
The distant peak of Mount Chomolhari was impressive:
We gazed for a long time at the beauty of the natural landscape, and then turned around to find this monk and an older woman (his mother?) chatting on a cell phone:
We followed the monk and his companions out of the dzong. The ground was very uneven, and we marveled at the ability of the young woman (on the left) to walk in her high-heeled shoes (Dorji called them “pin shoes”):
On the way back to our bikes, three small children ran past us happily playing with their “toys” of wooden planks:
We stopped by downtown Paro and walked up and down the main street of shops and businesses:
We rode up the hill to visit the Paro Dzong, but the gates were locked.
My boots had developed a loud “squeak, squeak”, drawing some laughter and pointing from the locals. (One more thing added to my "to do" list!)
After dinner tonight, we were treated to a beautiful view of Paro Dzong all lit up across the valley:
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