Our first three days in Eastern Bhutan have taken us about a quarter of the way across the country. Our journey began at the Guwahati Airport in India, where we were met by our tour guide, Jigme Reegyal. Jigme tied silk scarves, white to represent purity in Buddhishm, around our necks and told us that this was the custom for honored guests in Bhutan. We jumped in our van and traveled for four hours down a long highway through Assam on which lanes seemed to be a formality that no one really respected. We eventually approached the high mountains of Bhutan and heaved a sigh of relief. As we waited for our passports to be inspected, we learned to say hello (Kuzu-zang-po) and thank you (Ka-drin-chi-la) in Dzongha, the native language of the country that was to be our home for the next three weeks.
We reached Hotel Mountain, our lodgings for the night, had a meal consisting of Indian food and emadatse, vegetables covered in a fiery cheese paste. We freshened up and set out for Zangtog Pelhri Temple where we watched three young monks perform their evening prayer. One beat a drum and the others chanted in a low, throaty tone to the beat. Our guide Jigme brought us around the temple, clockwise, and told us about the stories depicted in ornate wooden carvings that covered the walls. In the center of the temple was an island covered in cakes, butter lamps and water bowl offerings to the Buddha. We met Thukten, the owner of the temple, thanked him for letting us visit and he thanked us for coming to Bhutan. We returned to our hotel and fell asleep to the barks and howls of the dogs of Samdrup Jongkhar.
We woke up early to set out for Trashigang, “the jewel of the east.” This was the first of what would be many days of long drives down one of the few roads that connected the villages of Eastern Bhutan, one of the fourth king’s gifts to his people in the 70’s. The road was unbelievably windy, at various points paved and unpaved, and provided breathtaking views of the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas. Our driver Pemba navigated the roads expertly and when another car would fly around the corner we would pull in our mirrors and peel past them, holding our breath. Around every corner we came across prayer flags, either crossing high above the road or erected tall and proud at at a high place on the mountains. Jigme told us that the colored flags bring luck and happiness while the white flags, as seen above, are erected to honor the dead. Both flags depict prayers that translate to “may all the sentient beings be liberated from suffering.” As the wind blows through the flags, these prayers are sent up to the heavens and to the ears of the gods.
After a couple hours of driving we arrived at Sam Choling, a monastary built high up in the mountains. We walked up the steps and came upon a group of startled nuns, who told Jigme that they hadn’t seen a foreigner for a long time. We walked around the temple until we came across a nun who beckoned us inside to see the Buddha. She rolled out a red rug for us to sit on and offered us tea. Two older sisters, 80 and 60 years old, came to watch us drink as they chanted and spun hand held prayer wheels. Jigme asked how long they had lived at the monastery and they answered 30 years. The nuns performed their prayers for us, chanting and blowing into a conch shell, and giggled as Barry took their pictures. As we walked away, the younger nuns shouted “safe journey” and waved goodbye.
After many more hours of driving we arrived at the beautiful Lingkhar Hotel in Thrashigang, owned by the former minister Lynpo Minjur Dorjee. The lodge sits high up on a mountain and overlooking a valley dotted with farms. We said goodnight to Pemba and Jigme and retreated to our rooms to rest up for the next day’s journey to Trashiyangste.
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