16th Sep 2016 - 17th Sep 2016 - Bhutan
With a population of 95,000, Thimphu is a very small capital, the third highest capital in the world by altitude (2,320m) and the only capital without any traffic lights. In fact, when the government installed a set, the residents complained and so the white gloved traffic policeman was returned to his position in the middle of the road, directing traffic in a very balletic method. Although, bizarrely, he does this from the middle of a roundabout which functions perfectly well as a roundabout when he’s not there. He is also probably the most photographed sight in the capital!
Our visit to Thimphu began with a trip to the Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 in tribute to the third King. It is a popular place for workers to leave their elderly parents for the day whilst they go to work, before collecting them after the day is done. Meanwhile, the parents get a social element as they hang out with all their friends for the day. We then headed to a textile workshop where the traditional dress is painstakingly handmade on a loom. An outfit made of cotton can take a day, whilst one made of silk can take over a week. We then drove up a hill overlooking the town to the site of Buddha Dordenma. The Buddha is 169ft tall, looking down over the valley and can be seen from pretty much anywhere in town. The Buddha’s third eye is a huge diamond.
We then headed to the mini-zoo, so named because it hardly has any animals, just the 4 in fact. But it is home to the national animal, the takin, which has the body of a cow and the head of a goat. It’s quite an odd looking thing. The remaining three enclosures contained mountain goats, barking deer and Tibetan antelope but the total number of animals seen could be counted on your fingers! On the way back into town, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the royal palace. We all assumed that the largest building we could see was the Palace, when in fact it was a much smaller one hidden away by trees, but with a large golf course next door. The first building was actually home to the head of religion’s offices as well as some of the King’s offices.
After lunch, we visited a paper making factory followed by the School for 13 Crafts where talented students study traditional crafts such carving, embroidery or clay making. We then made a much anticipated stop at the post office, where you can buy valid postage stamps with your face on them!! With a bit of free time in the afternoon, a few of us headed into town to look round the shops and witness the balletic white gloved traffic cop close up. After dinner, we decided to visit a local karaoke joint although clearly in Bhutan karaoke means something completely different to over here. Instead of singing, there was a girl on stage dancing to Bhutanese songs, although she didn’t seem to be enjoying it and had a slightly dead behind the eyes look. Apparently, you can pay money to request a song for her to dance to. Er, no thanks!
We left Gangtey the next day on a “free massage” road i.e. it isn’t paved and expect potholes. The road wound steadily up and up, until we reached the Dochu La pass at 3,040m. At the top of the pass are 108 chortens, built to atone for deaths whilst having to expel some Indian people back to India to face arrest. The King at the time repeatedly asked them to leave and they repeatedly agreed to but never went. He didn’t want to force them but relations with India were in danger of turning sour and Bhutan relies heavily on India for trade routes so he had to send the army to force them out. Some soldiers lost their lives and the King built the chorten to make up for this. Driving down the other side of the pass, we arrived in Punakha, where we would return the next day but for now was just our lunch stop. We then had another 3 hour drive up to the Lowa La pass at 3,360m from where we could descend a short distance to arrive in Gangtey. Gang meaning Hill and Tey meaning Top means they didn’t put much thought into the name! We visited the monastery, which was built in the 17th century but had a complete refurb in the last few years, before heading to our farmhouse which would be our accommodation for the night. It was simple with no running water and only squat toilets but was kept nice and warm thanks to a wood burner in the middle of the main communal room. We did question why it was called a farmhouse when there was no farm but apparently the chickens “had gone shopping”!