Day 19: Punakha

Alright! Off to the old capital of Punakha and the winter home to the heads of the faith. We set off from Thimpu weaving our way up a mountain pass. The clouds curled over the mountains looked like the Thunder Dragon the country’s national symbol. The sky is so incredibly piercing blue, I’m not sure if it’s because there is so little pollution, or the altitude, or both.

On our way we stopped at the top of this mountain pass at a spot called Dochu La that’s some 3100m above sea level, or over 10k ft for those not wanting to multiply by 3.2. Normally I’m told you can see a long string of mountain peaks in all directions, the Himalayas that ring Bhutan. Today though they’re obscured by big fluffy clouds at our height. I’m a little disappointed I don’t get a chance to see the distant snow capped peaks, but what I’m seeing is still quite stunning. After a bit one of the big fluffy clouds blows right over onto us. We move on following the road through the fog stop for tea near by, and I’m hopefully with the view the cloud will pass and I’ll get another shot at some stunning vistas. They don’t and we head down the hill eventually leaving the clouds.

The country side is spectacular here with little farm houses with their terraced fields perched along the steep cliffs. The women are out on the street with food stands selling their harvest. I asked my guide if they bring their goods into town and he said no they do just fine right in front of their houses. People want the fresh organic crops and because they don’t have to bring them into town they’re also cheaper. I approve. I also bought some apples.

The roads here are windy and narrow with lots of camber changes and tight switch backs. Because they drive on the opposite side of the road to us I’m sitting in what would be the driver’s seat back home, and I can’t help but have fantasies of rally racing in bhutan. The roads would be quite the challenge though without much guardrail it might be too dangerous of a place for it. I asked my guide if he knew rally and he didn’t. All the same in my mind I’m cutting the corners just right, throwing it through the hairpins with the hand brake and hearing over my imaginary radio my codriver calling the turns. I’m also enjoying the drive, watching the sights pass by my window.

We arrive at Wangdue Phodrang for the night and check in and have lunch. But that’s just the start of the day’s travel, now we’re off to Punakha the old capital. I’m told about how Thimpu is too cold during the winter and the heads of the religion move here. It’s tradition the king is crowned in the dzong here, and most of the major ceremonies happen here as well. Today is also a federal holiday and an important day here. I’m kind of tired of dzongs and monasteries at this point, but I appreciate seeing everyone come in their finest to pray and give respect, it’s the cultural significant and learning not about the dzong, but the people coming today to visit it.

On our way back we make a side trip to Metshina Village where there is a fertility temple. Because as my guide says “it’s an auspicious day” people are out in droves walking long distances to the temple. We pull up a ways a way and walk towards the temple. The houses here are covered in paintings of penises which is something I remember reading about and seeing in Travelers and Magicians. We stop in at a shop briefly for some offerings and then start the hike up to the temple crossing rice paddies. It’s kind of refreshing, the wind is blowing briskly which is nice with the sun. It’s planting season and the women are out singing songs and planting young rice plants, the men tilling the field some with small tractors and a few with bulls. I feel kind of engrossed by the whole thing, the earth smell, the nice wind. There are lots of people here to be blessed hoping to have a first or even a fourth child, this is one blessing I don’t receive though. It’s no that I believe so much as it would seem insincere. After a quick tour and my guide Lhendup making his offerings, we head back to the car. Lhendup is a true believer I think.

Driving back up towards Wangdue Phodrang we see a bunch of cars parked and suddenly it becomes clear even without being told there was an accident. There are no simple accidents here. The roads are narrow and unprotected with big drops down the sides. My stomach sinks and we get out to see what’s happened and if there is anything we can do. Looking over the edge we see a red suzuki alto upside down at the bottom of a 30ft drop, the cabin completely crushed. People are already down there but from the lack of urgency I think anything that could be done was done. It’s unclear from the bystanders what happened, but it seems the car was traveling too fast and went off the edge, perhaps avoiding another car coming down the other direction. Then there’s someone laying on the horn, and my first thought is he needs to chill,but then it becomes clear he has a survivor in the back and he’s trying to clear traffic to get here down somewhere. I don’t know if there is a hospital near by or if they will use one of the helicopters back in Thimpu to pick up the survivor. I get a glimpse in the window and see a woman writhing in pain. There at least seems to be one survivor, though I have no idea how, the accident looked like it would be completely fatal. The mood is somber as we continue our drive. The images of rally driving on these roads replaced by those of what would happen if that were me in my car, no roof to soften the blow, my head level with my roll hoops. I have no doubt if I had a similar accident I wouldn’t survive.

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