October 12, 2019
Thimpu to Phobjika Valley/Gangtey
Distance: 134km – 8 hours including stops
We were heading to the Western part of Bhutan, Phobjika Valley via the Dochu La Pass, 3,100m in elevation. After an unexpected detour into a car garage for a 40 minutes gear box repair, waaaaa?, we were ascending towards overcast skies that totally blanketed the highest Himalayan peaks in Bhutan. We gazed into a thick sea of fog and wandered around a few of the 108 stupas or chortens that surrounded the nearby temple Druk Wangyal Llakhang.
A hike was on the schedule to visit another temple in the vicinity built in the 18th century, Lungchutse Gompa. Although the sun intermittently unveiled the snow covered mountains, it didn’t suggest the fog would clear anytime soon. The start of the hike was up a narrow and muddy path into pure whiteness, we collectively agreed it wasn’t the greatest of ideas and got into the van.
The drive towards Wangdue Phodrang was on a two way mountain road with killer turns that separated us from rows and rows of cypress trees, blue pines, oak trees, and conifers. We crossed the Wangdue Tsangchu bridge towards the majestic structure of Punakha Dzong and stopped by a restaurant at Wangdue Phodrang for lunch with a view of the terraced paddy rice fields and green mountain slopes. At the restaurant, there were displays of Bhutanese art and paintings, the Buddha on the lotus caught my attention. The details, colors and fabric were OTT.
At 2:30pm we arrived at Gangtey to attend another festival Gangtey Tsechu at the Gangtey Monastery. It was part of a three day annual religious festival that took place at the main courtyard. More intimate than the one at Thimpu, the courtyard brimmed with locals dressed in colorful patterns of ghos and Kiras. Everyone waited in anticipation for the performance. Dancers came out of the temple to perform folk and wooden mask dances special to the region. An actor shouted out mantras at the crowd and then approached some people blessing them intimately with wisdom and power. It was celebratory, locals dressed in their finest outfit catching up with family members and friends.
My claustrophobia kicked in. I walked away from the courtyard and watched from afar. I intended to find an empty space and wait around. The “empty spaces” were soon filling up with people so I moved around quite a bit until where I thought was empty turned into a jam-packed affair. I couldn’t take it, half hour and a bunch of photos later, I excused myself and made my way to the exit. Leaving was just as arduous as avoiding the crowd. More people kept coming in, we pushed and shoved each other until I took a deep breath outside the temple.
I continued to evade the crowds while walking down the main street lined with tented shops selling everything from local produce, toys, cleaning products, canned food, hand tools and stuffed animals. Their party was just getting started. We took a right into Phobjikha Valley valley. Instantly it was like white noise. I was no longer distressed.
Gangtey Hike: 5km, 1 hour 35min
Downhill – from 3,000m to 2,830m
The undulating hike exposed beautiful flower meadows and rice fields that eventually led us to a winding walkway surrounded by towering pine trees. Soon, the Phobjikha’s valley’s heavenly U shape pasture cut by a river was uncovered; prayer flags and grazing cows were dotted across. The valley is famous for protecting black-necked cranes that visit from Tibet between October and March. When we reached the lowest part of our hike, it started to drizzle but we weren’t too far away from the van.
It was pretty sweet to end the day like this. The crowd-less nature, fresh air, and practicing solitude.