Punakha to Phobjikha

Punahka Dzong, the administration and religious centre and winter retreat of the chief abbott of Bhutan was our first stop this morning. The building is reached by a cantilevered bridge which was built after the floods of 1958 destroyed the structure built in 1908. We made our way around sleeping dogs dotting the bridge deck crossing the river as we entered the grounds for our first stop of the morning.

The first large courtyard contained the usual huge Bodhi tree: these are planted in all temple courtyards as they were the tree under which Buddha sat when he achieved enlightenment. The second smaller courtyard contained the entrance to the temple, the interior of which was covered with glorious murals tracing the story of Buddhas birth and journey to his enlightenment and leaving his body at age 80.  

Once we had finished photo ops on the bridge, our transport headed for Phobjika via the Bumthang-Ura Highway which claims membership in the Most Dangerous Roads in the World Club. The road winds along the river before starting to climb up towards Pelala Pass (3400 m)  through the Black Mountains and was built in the 1990’s to connect the region to the central east Bhutan. It is the main route to the region and  is an active truck route. The road quickly started to become narrower and began to follow a path of hairpin turns, gravel stretches and the conspicuous lack of guard rails on the drop off side of the road. Bundles of tall white prayer flags at some of the turns weren’t reassuring. 

We reached the summit of Pelala pass and stopped to stretch our legs, enjoy the stunning scenery and explore the small shopping stalls set up by Nomads alongside the road. Weavings were of Yak fibre, there was metal work and various bits and pieces, including the ubiquitous dried cheese we see everywhere. A beautiful piece of weaving caught my eye – very different from the rest. Conversation through our guide as an interpreter  revealed it had been woven by her grandmother. It is stunning and has joined my growing pile of treasures. Mary purchased a yak bell and some beautiful woven scarves. We made the first purchases of the day which is a lucky omen. The shop owner who sold Mary her scarves modelled a yak felt hat for us – fun but no buyers.

Doing a U turn around the  Chorten  at the pass the van quickly reached the turn off to Phobjikha our destination for the evening. The slope below the narrow road was crowded with massive rhododendron plants which must be spectacular when they bloom in spring time. Following a brief drive through the forested hillside we came upon the lovely valley in which the village of Phobjikha (2800 m) is situated. After driving through the valley we checked into our hillside hotel with amazing valley views. The mountain air is cold compared to the humid climate we just left, making us glad that we had packed fleece and down jackets for our exploratory walk through the village. We were greeted by smiles from the few locals we passed,  assessed with blank gazes by a number of cows and escorted by three of the local dogs on our walk about. 

The passage of time has somehow escaped this village, internet is non-existent and we look forward to exploring the area tomorrow.

Phobijka

Phobijka is a high mountain valley consisting of a number of ecosystems. The bottom of the valley is marshland and grass land with streams meandering through the bottom land. Some is used for communal grazing of livestock, primarily cattle and horses: the majority is a nature reserve for the endangered black necked cranes which over winter here with their young. They are considered heavenly birds by the residents and are at the centre of a conservation effort by the government. The sanctuary is surrounded by small farm holdings on the south side of the valley while the town and temple are on the north side. The pace of life is slow here: 4500 people live in the valley, internet is slow to non-existent and power outages are common. Rooms came equipped with candles and a woodstove complete with a fully stocked wood box. 

Our first day dawned crystal clear with a hard frost silvering the grass and trees throughout the valley. A magnificent start to the day.

Trans Bhutan Trail

Records of the original Trans Bhutan trail indicate that the route existed possibly earlier than the 16th century. It stretched 403 km from eastern to western Bhutan (Haa to Trashigang)and was primarily used for message transfer. Messengers called Garps would run the trail with all forms of communication from educational to religious. It was also used for trade and pilgrimage and functioned as a military communication link during times of war. 

The trail fell into disuse in the 1960’s with the advent of highways and automobiles. Restoration was begun a decade ago and it was open for trekking again (after 60 years) in March  2022 after a massive reconstruction effort repairing bridges, stairways and clearing pathways. It is now considered one of the worlds greatest long distance paths. The trail is divided into 28 sections. It takes about 30 days to complete the entire trail and offers participants access to some very little known areas of Bhutan.

Today we hiked the area of the trail from Pelala Pass to the Rukubji Valley a distance of about 9 km on a route that travelled through time. As we began our descent our guide spotted a family of wild boars on the hillside above us, a sow and 4 piglets.

They disappeared quickly once we were detected, was lovely to see them moving in single file across the hill. Following the trail through rhododendron thickets (the trail must be spectacular in the spring) we dropped down from the pass into the first valley on our route, home to Nomads, who are Yak herders and fibre artists. Simple wood homes dotted the hillside surrounded by several hundred Yaks and some sturdy mountain ponies. The Yaks were an unexpected pleasure to see and various colour combinations backlit by the sun were gorgeous. The ponies came right up to us looking for food and provided some good photo ops.

Our travel through time continued with the appearance of modern cattle in the next valley. Interestingly enough the ecosystem was somewhat different with grasses predominating in the second valley vs the shrubs and marshy grasses predominant in the Yak filled valley. Our descent continued through the second valley into the third – the Rukubji – which housed modern rural Bhutan: small market garden holdings. 

During our hike we crossed numerous streams and rocky valleys, using makeshift bridges that are replaced following each moonsoon runoff. Whenever we saw people we were greeted with smiles and waves. A wonderful, wonderful day in the glorious sunshine and clear mountain air.

Tomorrow we head to Paro to get ready for our hike up to the famous Tigers Nest Monastery. Stay tuned!

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