The aspens have turned golden and were glowing in the afternoon sun when our plane landed in Bhutan. The Paro valley airport requires sharp turns just before landing, and we skidded sideways a bit as we touched down. Unnerving. After that, however, everything was graceful and calm.
Bhutan’s idyllic quality is immediately apparent as we step off the plane and are free to roam on the tarmac, gaze up the valley, and take photos. No one sweeps us into the terminal or shows any concern as we linger. The hypnotic charm only continues as we drive on roads empty of the horns, cars, and chaos to which we have become accustomed in Kathmandu. Bhutan is a quieter, gentler place–for now. Both Paro and the capital of Thimphu are growing as people migrate steadily to these urban areas. Modernization, with all its benefits and challenges, is beginning to take hold, especially among the country’s youth. It’s foreseeable that the narrow streets will become crowded one day and that television will displace traditional values. For now, however, Bhutan retains its Shangri-La quality–a sleepy Himalayan hamlet where the outside world falls away. Kathmandu was something like this 30 years ago. Hard to imagine, but true.
Our first few days are filled with striking architecture and geography. Paro Dzong is a massive whitewashed block tower, striped with an orange band near the top, decorated with black and gold painted circles, and then capped with a black roof. Dating back to the 1600’s, these fortress-monasteries have a traditional style similar to Tibet. The whole effect is imposing and impressive. We park beside a wooden cantilevered bridge and cross the river. Clear water slips over polished stone. The singing of schoolgirls reaches us before they do.
They giggle and skip past as we climb a winding stone walkway around an apple orchard to reach the monastery steps. Bhutan’s dzongs are unusual in that they house both the civil administration offices (like courts and city clerk) and the monastic community (in this case, about 150 monks). The interior courtyards are spacious sanctuaries, the hallways and temples are filled with brightly painted religious murals.
Takshang is Bhutan’s most famous monastery, honoring the great guru who initiated what we know today as Himalayan Buddhism. Padmasambhava flew on the back of a tigress to a cave high on a cliffside and meditated for six months in order to subdue the demon who resided in the Paro valley and convert it to Buddhism. Takshang is built precariously into the side of that cliff, 3000 ft (and a long hike) above the valley floor.
Stories abound in Bhutan: the 15th century Iron Bridge lama who found iron ore, used his knee as an anvil, and constructed 8 bridges with foot-long iron chain links across the country’s major rivers…or Kichyu Lakhang, a 7th century temple built to pin to the earth a demoness who was obstructing the spread of Buddhism. Everywhere we go, a story unfolds.
Night falls on a hundred-year-old farmhouse, where we stay with a family, amongst their 15 cows and 100 chickens, their apple orchard, and their rice fields. We have a feast of red rice, chilies and cheese(the national dish), tender beef, glazed chicken, buckwheat dumplings with spinach and amaranth, sauteed vegetables, pumpkin soup, and ara (i.e., moonshine). Then, like any rural household, we tell stories around the heat of the stove late into the night. Late, however, is about 9:30pm now that we get up at dawn. Country living.