Friday, January 24, 2014

travels in the Land of the Thunder Dragon...

Bhutan. Whoa. We went to BhuTAN.  (I know, we are very spoiled, going all these places. BUT, we do not get to hang out with our family nearly as much as we would like, so that is a definite price to pay.)  But we DID go to Bhutan, in the middle of November. And for the first time ever, we went without the kiddos.  It was weird. It was really difficult leading up to the trip. For me, at least. The kids, and Z, did not seem too phased.  But everyone survived and, more than survived, had a blast. We left the children with our friends, the Carrolls, and they had SUCH a fun time with them.  Zachariah and I had a wonderful time, as well, with our good friends, Rijen and Megan.  We all ditched our kids, and ran off to the Land of the Thunder Dragon...

First, though, we had a layover in Hong Kong. Here are some brightly-lit buildings.

Then we got to Bhutan. (Actually, we had a layover in Bangkok, too, but I could barely function enough to plop myself on a bench and conk out... there was no way I was breaking out a camera.)  As soon as we left the airport, our guide, Kuenzang, took us to this little bridge.  Lots of prayer flags hanging off of it... Prayer flags are hung usually over water, or anyplace where they will catch the wind well... like on rooftops, too.  We got out and spent a good bit of time here -- oohing and ahhing over it all.  Had we stopped at this bridge at the END of the trip... heh. We probably would not have bothered stopping at it at the end! But it was lovely and picturesque and a great start to a great trip. And already Bhutan was not living up to how cold I was expecting it to be.  Which was good, since all my "good" socks had holes in them.  (Hey, I live in Okinawa! We don't wear socks here!)

A river leading to India.  Beautiful country, isn't it?

The largest statue of Buddha in the world. Still under construction.

All the houses had lovely trim, and paintings on the outside. All the dragons, and creatures, and -- ahem -- other things (you will understand that soon enough, hehehee...) were meant for protection.

A bunch of very cute older Bhutanese people, hanging out and spinning their handheld prayer wheels.

Spices at the market in Thimphu, the capital city.

YAK cheese at the market.  This is a very popular snack. It's kinda like chewing gum, except you cannot chew it.  You suck on it.  Okay, it's less like chewing gum, and more like sucking a rock.  And it's not that delicious, but if you grow up with it, it's the best, apparently.  Zac still has the rest of his yak cheese "necklace" on his dresser. We should totally toss it in our food storage, because those suckers will last forever.

Mmmmmmm! A delightful mouthful of yak cheese!  Everyone was very impressed. Rijen especially. I think if he could pick his favorite thing about Bhutan, it would probably be the yak cheese.

A cute baby at a market.  She was not for sale, unfortunately. (Joking. That would constitute human trafficking, and I am very much against that, but she sure was cute!)

We hiked up to Tango Goemba monastery.  All along the path were little sayings like this.  There was a funny one written from a flower's perspective, asking us not to pick it because then it would die and would not be able to fulfill its purpose in life. Hmmmm... I should put a note from our hibiscus flowers in OUR backyard...

Here we are! At the monastery! Well, here the monks are! We are there, too, but not in this picture.

Oh, there's Zachariah! He just loves, loves, LOVES Bhutan. I love it, too, but he LOOOOVVVVESSS it.

Ahhh, Bhutanese food! It was good, but when you have it all day, every day for a whole week, you start to dream a little of... you know... pizza... Thai food...tacos... something different.  But it was very tasty.  Their national dish is right there on the lower left.  Chili Cheese.  It's made up of long sliced chili peppers (and their seeds), and a cheese sauce. It is delicious! Spicy, but soooo yummmy....  So that was a staple of each meal. Also, rice (usually that red rice), spinach, potatoes, some other veggies, and sometimes chicken.  Bhutan is a Buddhist country, and do not have any sort of meat industry. There is meat available to eat, but they import it from India. They let them do the dirty work.  Even fishing is against the law in Bhutan.

We went to the government offices, and popped into the temple on the grounds there (this is looking out of it).  The temples are all so gorgeous inside, but alas... no pictures allowed!  HERE is where we saw (oh, I'm having heart palpitations again! Kidding. But it was exciting) the KING of Bhutan! You will have to take my word for it, and Zac's and Megan's and Rijen's. And the other 20 tourists who happened to be there. We were firmly instructed to not take pictures of him.  But he posed on the top of those steps we are facing in the above pic, with a bunch of Japanese people (I tried to convince Z to show off his Japanese skills and gain us an audience -- or get kicked out? -- but he wouldn't), and then walked past the gaggle of tourists waiting for him to... walk past... anyway, he looked at us, and said that he hoped we were enjoying his country, and thank you for coming, and he SMILED, and he was just so handsome and looked like a movie star.  Sigh... Here is a picture of him, taken at the airport, which is just one of many places displaying large pictures of him and his lovely wife:

Then we went to a cultural place and learned more about Bhutanese culture. There's Megan, and me, in the picture above. I know you thought we were two Bhutanese ladies, but really we just dressed up in their traditional clothing. And we are dancing. Most beautifully.

We got to shoot a real bow and arrow. Z really liked (okay, he LOVED) wearing his Bhutanese man-robe. The gho. He kept exclaiming to me how COMFORTABLE it was, and it that it was actually warm, AND he had a big, and very handy, pocket! Kuenzang, our guide, is in the picture, too, and his hand is actually in the big and handy pocket.  Basically it's just the pouch formed when the belt ties around the otherwise loose robe, but it was mind-blowingly large. Normal pants pockets are embarrassingly small comparatively.  Z seriously thought about buying one of the man-robes. (Make a note, everyone, for future gift ideas.)

I, in all my striped glory, was an awesome shot. Some may say "lucky," but I will stick with "awesome."  

Evidence ^^

Oh! This guy! Pemba Tshering.  He is amazing. He can't walk, can hardly talk, he can't use his hands, but he carves and paints and shoots the bow and writes and just SMILES all the time.  I'm fairly certain he has very severe cerebral palsy.  His parents abandoned him when he was born because of his handicap, then he was eventually given to his grandparents, and then with a lot of hard work and determination, he became the artist he is today. All the work behind him -- done with his feet. We watched him work for a bit. It was amazing, and humbling. He chisels, and carves, and paints!! Just... amazing. We bought some little things from him. I wanted to buy everything, but alas.  Hehehee... Megan was paying him for her item, and was just holding out the money... finally we whispered, "give it to his FOOT"  which he was holding up, with a big grin, waiting for her to meet him halfway... hahahaa!! It was hilarious. Funnier if you were there, I suppose, because reading it it just sounds kinda mean. But it wasn't!!!

The four of us! Rijen especially enjoyed dressing up.

These guys, believe it or not, were even better than me at archery.  I was planning on giving them some tips, since I had done so awesomely the day before, but they pretty much had the hang of it.

Whenever one of their teammates hit the target, they would do a neat shuffle dance while chanting.  

We stopped at Dochula Pass when we left Thimphu. The view of the Himalayas was just amazing. Also, there were 108 little stupas, or chortens, which are basically little shrines, built to commemorate the victory over Indian militants during the 2003 War of Southern Bhutan. Which I don't even remember hearing about, so... that makes me feel like an ill-informed citizen of planet Earth. Except that it was a very small war.  If you want to read about it, click here.  Go, Bhutan! Anyway... each stupa holds effigies of Buddha and some religious texts. It was fun climbing past them all, and then being able to see soooo far... And then it was fun taking jumping pictures.  Megan looks like a superhero here. I need superhero boots.  It's tough traveling with such glamorous superhero friends.

A nice Indian fellow was enthralled with all the jumping.  Actually, there were several sets of eyes on us... no doubt because we looked so cool.  Anyway, he took a picture of all of us.  Then I took some pictures of him jumping with the other three. If I didn't already have almost 70 pics in here, I'd slip him in.  But just imagine I am an Indian fellow with a mustache. That's what it would look like.

Megan and I at the little restaurant we ate lunch at.  

Some more pictures on buildings...

And more...

And bigger pictures...

pictures and laundry...

Are you seeing what I'm seeing???!!! Of course you are. How could you not.  Though honestly, I didn't see them for a while. Megan kept seeing them. She had magnet eyes. She kept telling me, "I saw another one..." and I was like, "What?! WHERE?!?" Once I realized she was seeing them on buildings and not on actual people, it became easier for me to spot them.  And just in case you missed it, like maybe it was so huge your eyes just couldn't take it all in, the pictures of "them" began with Megan and me in the restaurant. Megan and me and IT, I should say... hehehee... yes. There was a lot of giggling on this trip.  And that DOES include Zachariah and Rijen.  

When Megan and I composed ourselves enough (was it the fourth day?) to ask Kuenzang about them, he told us they are not symbols of fertility, as one would suppose, but symbols of protection. Well, fertility as well, but primarily for protection. These can more or less be traced to the fascinating Lama Drukpa Kunley, back in the 14-1500s.  He is also known, rather appropriately, as the Divine Madman. He took a less conservative approach to Buddhism, and when not expressing his faith through womanizing and wine-ing, he could be found subduing demons by whacking them on the head with his "Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom."  Do we all know what that refers to?  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge... ;)  Yes, yes... fascinating fellow...

Ahem... back to serene and less giggle-inducing things. The beautiful Punakha Dzong.  Just gorgeous.  Dzongs are pretty much the central governing body for the district. They're basically fortresses, with temples, administrative centers, monks' quarters, courtyards, etc., enclosed within.  

A Punakha Dzong courtyard.

Kuenzang explaining the Four Harmonious Friends story to us.  In a nutshell, they all have to cooperate to enjoy the fruit of the tree.  There are a couple of different versions, but the one he shared was that the elephant saw the tree one day, and claimed that it was his. The monkey heard him, and said, "whoa, there! I found this tree when it was my size, so it's mine!" The rabbit overheard that, and said, "no way... I've been coming here since it was as tall as me, so it's MINE!" Then the bird flew down and set them all straight: "well, I dropped the seed that this tree grew from, so really..."  Then they all realized that it belonged to ALL of them, so they all worked together to enjoy the fruit of the tree. Another version says they worked together from the get-go: The bird planted the seed, the rabbit watered it, the monkey fertilized it, and the elephant protected it.  Whatever version, it's a nice tale illustrating how if everyone works together, using their different strengths, all will benefit. 

Yaks! Finally we were high enough to see yaks. Zac was yak-happy, and kept thinking/hoping normal cows were yaks. Not so, not so.  Kuenzang and Tshering (our driver) quickly pointed out, "and THESE are yaks!" (In Z's defense, the cows he mistook for yaks did look rather yak-like. They weren't the run of the mill dairy cows or anything...)

So, we took many a yak picture. This guy was fairly majestic looking. He pretty much posed for us.

The Black Neck Crane festival at Gangtey.  There was a lot of dancing going on here. A lot.

Annnnnd... some curious kids, too... Megan got a lot of hair-tugging, on her blond locks. This little guy I'm photographing was so funny and smiley.  As soon as I aimed the camera at him, though, he got very serious. It was funny.

Families came from all around the hills to enjoy the festival.

This was one of my two favorite performances. Tween boys dressed as cranes. They were so leggy and cute. 

Very cool mask.

After the festival we joined the throng of people heading back to their homes outside of the town. 

We were hiking to a viewing platform area where we were supposed to be able to see the black-necked cranes.

It was a lovely hike, and really pleasant out.

Looking for the cranes... Z: "There they are!" Me: "where...?"  Z: "Right THERE!" Me: "...."  Z: "Those little white dots that are moving." Me: (sighing with relief that I FINALLY saw them and could say, "I walked all the way out into the middle of nowhere in Bhutan and saw the Black Neck Cranes!")

SO.  I walked all the way out into the middle of nowhere in Bhutan and saw the Black Neck Cranes! I hope they have a wonderful winter out there, and a safe journey back north in the spring.  The ratty rags on those big sticks are prayer flags. It is definitely a good windy spot for them.  Maybe time to replace a couple.

We stayed that night at a local farmhouse. It was freezing. So freezing. And the toilet facilities left MUCH to be desired, but it was really fun! We all ate on the floor in the warm kitchen while the women of the house cooked right there. We met several other tourists from many different places, and had we stayed up late, Kuenzang informed us the next morning that he and Tshering and the other guides and drivers got a little tipsy and sang and danced a lot. Apparently we missed out!  Haha... we had explained a little to him about our religion, and it was pretty funny to him that we didn't even drink tea. Tea is HUGE in Bhutan.  So everywhere we went, it was somewhat confusing to the waiters, or whoever, that we didn't want tea. Kuenzang started just getting us hot water.  Megan loved that. It was pretty humorous, us with our little mugs of hot WATER. I'm sure they thought we were total weirdos. Then we found some hot cocoa powder, and when we remembered we'd take that in and get milk or just mix it in our water.

Zac about to head into the kitchen. This is the little boy who lived there. He's not really making that face in reference to Z, hehehee... He was a cutie, and very friendly.

After dinner we played some games that Megan and Rijen brought and ate M&Ms. Good times, good times...

Driving. Z wanted to include this picture.  I think to illustrate the somewhat bumpy, at-times precarious nature of driving here.  And Kuenzang and Tshering didn't even wear their seatbelts!!! Maybe so they could bail more quickly?

There are handheld prayer wheels, like the old folks were holding several pics farther up, then there are these medium-sized ones, that are usually all in a row and you spin them (always clockwise) as you walk past, and then...

...there are THESE ones. You grab a little rope hanging off the bottom and haul them around. Three times.  They're pretty heavy. The Bhutanese repeat their prayers/mantras while turning the wheels, as you probably surmised...

Looking down at a village and some rice fields.

A handicraft shop.  *ahem* ... cough, cough... *aHEM*

And then... one of the highlights of the trip. The Tiger's Nest.  A beautiful hike up a mountain to this gorgeous monastery, perched on the rocks.  Alas, the whole no-pictures-inside thing... which is understandable, but I so wish I could show y'all the interesting and lovely interiors.

There were so many prayer flags on the path there and back. They're just so pretty and colorful, fluttering away...

The four of us. 

More prayer wheels! You just can't walk past them. Well, you could.  I can't.  Zachariah figured out how.  See the bigger one in the background? They're just so colorful! And they ARE fun to spin...

Tara! Look!  In Buddhism, Tara is a deity or goddess, and there is a White Tara and a Green Tara. And apparently a few other colors of Taras, but White and Green are the most well-known. From the ReligionFacts website: "Tara (Sanskrit, "star") is a Buddhist savior-goddess especially popular in Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia. In Tibet, where Tara is the most important deity, her name is Sgrol-ma, meaning "she who saves." The mantra of Tara (om tare tuttare ture svaha) is the second most common mantra heard in Tibet, after the mantra of Chenrezi (om mani padme hum).  The goddess of universal compassion, Tara represents virtuous and enlightened action. It is said that her compassion for living beings is stronger than a mother's love for her children. She also brings about longevity, protects earthly travel, and guards her followers on their spiritual journey to enlightenment."  Go ahead and click to read more, if you are so inclined... But Tara's name! NOT in Ireland! 

Tshering on the left and Kuenzang on the right. And Zac.  They were GREAT!  Yes, all three. Tshering for great driving, Kuenzang for great guiding (and for showing us pictures of his 8-month old baby boy who is super cute and has a really chubby head and falls over when he tries to sit up, and Kuenzang just said, "right now I call him 'Baby,' when we asked his name), and Zachariah for planning a pret-TY awesome trip. And for bringing his flashlight everywhere so he was really prepared, except for the time we actually needed it. Hehe...hee.... that WAS pretty funny. He had been so good about carrying it around everywhere, and then we kept never needing it, and THEN...boom! Kuenzang needed a light to look in a dark hole under a trap door in a temple because the flashlight there was out of batteries! Z was soooo excited! He reached in his pocket, and.... nothing.... oh, man. It was pretty funny. Poor guy... ;)

And then it was time to leave.  We had a wonderful time, but we were ready to get back to all our rascals. 

We stopped in Thailand again. Here are four dogs, sleeping around one bone. Interesting. We had enough time to head out into Bangkok and see a movie. Ender's Game, to be exact. AND we ate super delicious curry. SUPER delicious. ANNND our rice was shaped like teddy bears. Except the guys. They got heart-shaped rice, which was a little odd... hmmmm, cute Thai waitress!?  Or should I say, friendly Thai chef-man?  A good ending, to a great trip.


Tara said...

Wow, Bhutan sound really awesome. And very suited to you, yes indeed. I did not even notice that is what you and Megan were standing by in the first restaurant picture! I really like the picture of you taking a picture of that cute little boy. And Z looks like a natural with that bow and arrow and comfy robe! High five to you for being such an awesome shot! I'm so glad y'all got to go have lots of fun sans kiddos. Oh, and very cool about Tara :). Thanks for sharing all your cool adventures with us!

pauline said...

That was a great trip ...for me ... and obviously for you too! What a very beautiful country it is. That is interesting about SOME OF the art work ... good grief! Lama Drukpa Kunley must've been an "interesting" character indeed :) I am assuming that one can find those "national" souvenirs to take home, at those craft shops! Oh, the yaks, and the yak cheese ... at least it was an experience! Aww, the Tiger's Nest monastery was so cute and nicely tucked in there. This blogging is like a part-time job for you Fiona! You do a great job of documenting everything ... thanks for sharing it with us. Oh, I loved the Tara references too...very cool! Love, Mom (Dad too) xox

Megan and Greg said...

Bravo leaving the kids! I don't know when our day will come, but it will be a blessed day when it does :) Super fun trip! Man, those penises! I can't get over it. I can't wait for Greg to see Zac in that robe.

Bonnie said...

What an adventure! And you'd think if all those penises were meant to symbolize protection they would have put condoms on them. Haha. Strange art. Glad you were able to get away without the kids!

Rob and Erin Smith said...

Wow!! Just Wow!! Seriously Awesome Trip!!! Amazing pictures and such interesting culturally significant things! What fun friends and I'm super jealous of that chili cheese dish, my mouth is watering...Gary's too. In fact, we decided we all need to go to Bhutan now. I can't believe you saw the king! Cool, too cool...

David said...

Great blog post. Since everything has been touched on, I have one question. How do we know that the evidence shown with the target was actually shot by you? ;)

Love ya,


zachariah said...

I vouch for Fiona's shot!

Grandma said...

WOW what a trip. Fantastic pictures! Loved all the little tidbits of information especially since I didn't even know Bhutan existed. Yuck on yak cheese, and I will abstain from their "prolific "art. LOL

katharine said...

Bhutan - the place I never knew I always wanted to visit!