Monday, September 22, 2014

Bhutan 2014: Mebar Tsho, Pema Choling, and a Hike

The morning of May 14th was sunny, and the clouds had lifted to offer us glimpses of the higher mountains.
Our first stop was to visit the dzong in Jakar. It's perched on a ridge above the valley floor, and so is less sprawling than some other dzongs.
 An immense tree towers outside.
The inner courtyard reflects the space restraints, but this 180ยบ panorama stretches it out.

Here is a closeup of the far section.

After touring the dzong we boarded the van and headed for Mebar Tsho (sometimes spelled Membartsho), the "Burning Lake." This is located in the valley of the Tang Chhu (River), a short drive from Jakar. In this Google Maps image, the national highway turns up the Tang Chhu for a short while, lower right, and before it crosses the river there is a feeder road taking you to Mebar Tsho ("A") and locations further up the valley. Click to enlarge.
A sign greeted us as we disembarked.
A trail leads down from the parking area. Already we can hear chanting from down by the riverside.
A fellow who Tshering, our guide, described as a cross between a hermit and a monk reads from scripture just before the trail reaches a bridge across the Tang Chhu.
This photo is looking back across the footbridge.
The path winds down to rocks beside the lake, which is a small pool of the river.
A group of Taiwanese pilgrims, whose bus we saw in the parking area, is clustered on the rocks. This is the source of the chanting we heard.
Here is a look downstream from this spot.
The downstream pool/lake is much calmer than the river upstream of the bridge.
We don't wish to interrupt the pilgrims, so after a few moments we turn around and recross the footbridge. A short but steep trail goes down to the mouth of the virtuous cave, where many tsa-tsas have been placed.
It is said that a virtuous person can wriggle through this cave and come out the other side without becoming stuck. I chose not to risk it.

Then it was time, according to Tshering's carefully crafted schedule, to visit Pema Choling, a new nunnery fulfilling a 15th Century prophecy of Pema Lingpa. This photo is of the main building.
There is an immense inner courtyard.
To fully display Pema Choling with its ongoing construction, here's an aerial image from Google Maps. Click to enlarge.
Tshering was greeted by the nun in charge of visitors, and we were taken to a second-floor room for lunch. Although the nuns do not eat meat, one of the dishes offered to us was some dried fish. The fish was tasty but had retained all its bones, which made it difficult for me. Otherwise I would have had seconds. After lunch Joan and I, as well as Tshering, made a donation; this institution is another that relies on individual support and not the Bhutanese government.

We then attended a performance of a drum and chant ceremony performed by the young nuns just for us. No photos, however ...
At the end of the ceremony we had the opportunity to light a few butter lamps in the lhakhang, silently dedicating the action to whomever or whatever we chose.

A much larger butter-lamp-lighting came next, in the little building at the end of the courtyard. Monasteries, nunneries, and dzongs have a nasty tendency to burn down if a butter lamp tips over or gets knocked askew, so Pema Choling was built with this inner outbuilding to house the ranks of butter lamps.
The pictures were taken just after Tshering, Joan, and I lit the bottom tier of lamps. You can see that they haven't melted yet.
Joan and I felt privileged to have received such a gracious welcome to Pema Choling. We were also pleased to see that a long-standing need was being addressed with new nunneries, and that women were starting to shake off their second-class status in the religious life of Bhutan.

Tshering, Joan, and I departed on foot while Kaka drove the van back to Jakar. He would meet us there after we three hiked up from Pema Choling to a pass and then down to the next valley. This photo looks back at the nunnery.
A view from a bit further on in the hike. New construction is visible to the right of the finished building we had visited (click to enlarge).
On the way we stopped to admire this orchid. Orchids are amazing plants; we've even seen them in the Arctic. The orchid family fights with the aster family for the title of plant family with the most species.
We reached a good spot to see a new temple in the valley, dedicated to the Fifth and current King. This is a maximum zoom photo.
While still climbing to the pass, we paused to inspect another, different orchid.
Then we reached the pass. This photo looks towards the Tang valley, back the way we have come.
We plunged on. There were occasional signs warning of rock steps, aimed at participants in a mountain bike event a few years ago. The afternoon clouds piled up, and there were some light showers. But as we drew closer to the valley floor the sun burst through.
This photo of a "god ray" shining down near the dzong is one of my best from this trip. The technical term is "crepuscular ray," but I like "god ray" better.
Kaka met us at the road, and we drove back to the Yu Gharling. After coping with the very odd room 202 the previous night, described near the end of this post, we had been upgraded to a junior suite!
Another look.
The book above the bed, supplied by the hotel, turned out to be Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse's work, "What Makes You Not a Buddhist." It's a fun, approachable volume.

That night we chose to eat again at the Noryang restaurant, rather than in the hotel. Tomorrow's agenda: see more of Bumthang in the morning, and then on to Thimphu via a flight to Paro. This would be its own adventure.