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Most of today was spent under grey, overcast skies, but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment of experiencing new places in and around Thimphu today. 

Leaving the hotel at a little after 9:00am, we headed north from Thimphu towards the northern end of the Thimphu valley, formed by the Wang Chuu (Wang River).  Although the distance travelled was only about 15 kilometres, the drive took over an hour, partly because the road conditions only allowed for slow driving, but also because there were several interesting (and photogenic) places to stop on the way.

Two stops particularly stood out.  Just before crossing the bridge that spans the Wang Chuu, there was a large cliff-side rock painting of Guru Rinpoche, the so-called ‘Precious Master’ who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the year 746.  His statue appears in almost every Bhutanese temple and monastery, and his face was the centrepiece of the huge Thongdrul we had seen unfurled at the Paro tsechu.  He is regarded by Bhutanese as the Second Buddha who possessed miraculous powers including the ability to change form, subdue demons, and foretell the future.

The other noteworthy stop on the way was a few kilometres further north where some ‘self-arisen’ rock images of a fish and a mongoose could be seen (with a bit of creative imagination).  They were easily identified by the chortens and prayer flags that had been erected around them.

Before long we arrived at the base of the trail that ascends from 2,600 metres to the Tango Monastery at 2,940.  Unlike other trails we had taken, this one was paved because it had to serve the heavily trafficked sole means of access to the monastery, which is regarded as Bhutan’s premier postgraduate educational institution for Buddhist studies.  Although paved, the climb was unrelentingly steep as the track zig-zagged purposefully up the side of the steep slope to the monastery.  However, the walk was made easier as thoughtful monks over the years had erected encouraging signs on trees along the route to keep pilgrims and visitors inspired on their journey.

Tango Monastery was first established in the 12th century, but the present Tibetan style building dates from the 15th century when it was rebuilt under the supervision of the ‘Divine madman’ Lama Drukpa Kunley.  In addition to its role as a Buddhist university, Tango Monastery also serves as the home of Gyalse Rinpoche, a young trulku (reincarnated lama) who has apparently been able to speak the national language (Dzongkha) from a very young age, even though his parents never spoke it or taught it to him, and has been able to recite complex age-old Buddhist mantras since young infancy.

The site of the monastery was awe-inspiringly beautiful, sitting atop the mountain peak overlooking the expanses of the deep forested valleys below and the snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance.  With friendly, welcoming, red-robed monks everywhere to be seen, wandering through the high, white-walled monastery was a sublime experience.

We were able to explore the monastery’s main three-storey building even though it was under extensive renovation to repair damage from a succession of small earthquakes and the overall ravages of time.  Consequently, what should have been beautifully decorated rooms were more often than not bare rooms with timber floors and exposed brick or stone walls.  Many of the sacred artefacts had been temporarily rehoused in a small room in another building, and we got a chance to peruse these briefly, even though they were not shown to their advantage in their dusty glass casings.

After about an hour in the monastery, we began our descent, using the same steep zig-zag pathway.  Being located within Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Park, we had been told to expect to see many bird species and monkeys during our walk.  We didn’t see any monkeys, although we did see lots of their droppings, and more impressively, a baby mountain goat grazing right beside the track.

After a 40 minute drive back into Thimphu, we had a quick lunch in the Yang Restaurant before beginning our afternoon visits in Thimphu.  Our first stop was the Thimphu Institute for Zorig Chusum, the high school devoted to developing Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts that we had unsuccessfully tried to visit yesterday just before the King’s visit.

The school was functioning normally today, so we had the opportunity to wander freely through many of the classrooms to see the students at work.  We saw classes in wood carving, clay sculpture, painting, embroidery, and tailoring.  In every case, the lessons seemed largely student-directed or undirected, as several classrooms had no teacher present, while others had an inactive teacher sitting silently in front of the class of students.

We were told that it is getting more difficult to recruit students for the school because the arts don’t pay well upon graduation.  All the work we saw had a strong religious (Buddhist) focus, which may explain the non-commercial nature of the activities. Nonetheless, the quality of the students’ work was uniformly outstanding, being clearly defined and brilliantly executed.  I came away in awe at the quality of the skills these young students possessed.

Our next visit was to the Centenary Farmers’ Market, located beside the Wang Chuu (river) near the city centre.  Known unofficially as the Weekend Market, because it used to open only on weekends, the market is now open every day of the week except Tuesday.  Farmers and middle-men vendors sell their produce in different sections of the market – cereals, fruit, vegetables, dried fish and spices on the ground floor, and produce sourced from within Bhutan such as fatty pork, yak cheese, wild honey and doma (betel nut and lime) on the upper floor.

Compared with food markets in other parts of the world, Bhutan’s market was strangely quiet and almost deserted, although I expect Wednesday afternoon is not prime shopping time for food in Thimphu.

A short walk from the food market brought us to Thimphu’s archery range, known as Changlimithang Archery Range.  Archery is a very popular sport in Bhutan, and it is one of the few sports in which Bhutan fields a team in the Olympic Games.  There were actually two archery ranges in use this afternoon, one using traditional bamboo bows and arrows, and the other using high-tech carbon fibre equipment.  Archers of varying degrees of competence were practising this afternoon with traditional bamboo bows and arrows, and it was great to watch while managing to avoid getting killed by any wayward arrows.

Our next stop was the National Memorial Chorten, a large stupa in Tibetan style that is visited daily by many of Thimphu’s residents.  Built in 1974 as a memorial to Bhutan’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who had died two years previously, the white chorten with gold features seemed to have a constant stream of local people walking clockwise around it whenever we had driven past, and this afternoon was no exception.

The interior of the chorten is usually opened only on special occasions such as major religious festivals, but we were lucky this afternoon as it was being cleaned and thus open for us to look through.  Like the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Lhakhang (temple) we had visited a few days earlier, the interior of the National Memorial Chorten featured a dazzling and sometimes grotesque array of good and bad spirits at war with each other in the tantric tradition of Buddhism.

Our final stop for the day was the Tashi Chhoe Dzong, Thimphu’s huge traditional fortress.  Because the dzong is used as a major government office block, including the King’s offices, it is only open to visitors for one hour after the offices have stopped work for the day, and then access is only granted to an outdoor courtyard area.

We arrived at a little before 5:00pm, which was excellent timing to see the daily ritual of lowering the huge national flag in the grounds of the dzong.  This was quite something to behold as a squad of ceremonially uniformed soldiers marched in perfect unison behind two lamas and an abbot to the base of the flagpole where the flag was lowered, folded and wrapped with great dignity and solemnity.

Half an hour later, at 5:30pm, the doors were opened and the assembled visitors were permitted to enter the main courtyard of the dzong.  Compared to the other dzongs we had visited (in Paro and Punakha), the Thimphu dzong was something of a non-event, although that impression may have come about in part because we were there well after sunset in the gloom of dusk with no lighting provided.  It was worth seeing the interior of the dzong, but I’d definitely make an effort to see the dzongs in Paro and Punakha before this one.

Day 7 - Tango and Thimphu

Wednesday 4 April 2018