Spiti Tales- Mountains, valleys, lakes, and bridges.

After bidding farewell to the divine Kinnaur Kailash, we set out for  Tabo. This route is known for landslides and we knew the photo stops would be considerably reduced. We passed through Akpa, Morang, Spello and Pooh.The road conditions varied from smooth tarmac to narrow mud tracks.  On the way, there are some lovely bridges and waterfalls. This stretch has some of the finest bridges  I have ever seen, ranging from Bailey, suspension to massive modern ones.

The good roads

Mud roads.Don’t miss the Mummy rock. Pc: Ajay

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The Border Road Organisation (BRO) is responsible for the maintenance of these mountain roads and frequently we came across people engaged in clearing the rock_  strewn paths. They have put up a number of quirky sign boards all along the route doling out safety precautions. ‘If married, divorce speed’, ‘ Be gentle on my curves’,  ‘Mind your brakes or break your mind’ and ‘Be Mr.Late than late Mr.’  are a few I remember now.

Our first halt was at Khab. This is where the mighty Sutlej which originates from Tibet meets Spiti river coming from the Spiti valley. The landscape is barren, arid and vast. The greenery has almost vanished. Mighty mountains lead us to a narrow tunnel with overhanging rocks.  Though technically we are still in Kinnaur I  feel we have entered the surreal land of Spiti.

The gateway to Spiti

Khab Bridge adorned with prayer flags.

The confluence of Satluj and Spiti rivers. Satluj is muddy brown and Spiti river is ash gray.

The rocks show a range of colors and some of them have striations. Wish we had a geologist in our group!

This rock reminded me of a gargoyle with cold, evil eyes.

Rock art Pc: Ajay

Boulders perched precariously

Our convoy.

 

Khab has another significance. Shipki La-the high mountain pass and border post on the India-China border is about 40 km from here. You require special permits to go there.

A slice of the sky Pc: Mangesh

Face off! Mr.Snub nose and Ms.Sharp nose.

From Khab to Hangrung valley

From Khab, the road ascended through a series of switchbacks. There were no other vehicles in sight. It was like going into an alien, remote land. All we could see were the mountains in different colors and dimensions. The landscape is like Ladakh except that Ladakh is always bursting with tourists.

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A patch of green.

The next stop was Nako -a beautiful village and often a night stop for the travelers. Nako is an important center of Buddhism. There are two main monasteries (gompas) and many temples in the Nako village. Guru Rinpoche is believed to have meditated in the caves seen up in the mountains.We could not go inside the monasteries as they were closed to the public.

Old Nako Gompa

After a quick lunch, we went over to Nako Lake. After the rocky, dusty, barren terrains, the shimmering lake was like an oasis. It looks more like a  large pond.

Enchanting Nako Lake

Nako lake is a natural lake and remains frozen during winter. The water was crystal clear and green reflecting the trees around the periphery.  The tranquility and silence all around was overpowering.  Though Nako has become quite popular on the travel circuit, there were not many people around.  I can imagine how this place would look with a bunch of noisy, selfie_ obsessed tourists.

Circumambulating the lake

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The walkway around the lake leads to the Nako village and its cluster of houses made of earth and stone. Fodder and firewood are piled on the wooden roofs and most houses have a pen for their cattle.   Prayer wheels, colorful prayer flags, and cairns with inscribed mantras seen among the winding lanes reflect the age-old Buddhist traditions.

Nako Village homes

A pen with no inmates

All peace and quiet here.

Where are the people?

I wanted to peek inside.

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Prayer wheels and Mani stones

The premises are kept very clean. But where are the people?   Most people-both men and women work in the fields.Their main crops are peas, potato, wheat, and barley. The Himachal government has provided many houses with solar panels and they also have a helipad to transport people in case of an emergency. New concrete buildings are coming up beside the traditional homestays and small guesthouses. I did not see a school or a hospital.

Two sisters were seen out there enjoying the sun.IMG_5245IMG_5246

I had not even heard of Nako before coming here and now I am leaving with pleasant memories of a small, peaceful village.

 

 

Dragon Tales-The Bridge on the River Po

As I   was coming out of the Punakha dzong  I  could see a long bridge in the distance  and wanted to  have a closer look.After  a short   trek through a dirt path  I am standing on the bridge and as expected this was another  magnificent structure.It is  the second  longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and  stretches over the Po Chhu.  I knew it would take considerable time to cross the bridge  but it was too good to pass up .I associate bridges with romance and pathos and this bridge  was exceptional  all the way.

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The mighty bridge spanning 350 m

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A long way to go

The bridge is sturdier and less  bouncy  compared to the one in  Paro  and  offers  stunning views of the  mountains and villages.I saw a variety of people on the bridge-school children,villagers, monks and  a quadruped.
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The lone monk pc:Dr Bruno

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Back from the school

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In meditation

Colorful prayer flags seemed to be telling me something and I wished I could read what is written on them.It started swaying  gently as I reached the centre.I think this bridge would make an ideal location for movies.But it is not very easy  getting permits for movie shooting.  Bhutan has strict regulations and hefty royalty fees . Bhutan April 2016 395IMG_0767

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Gently flows the River Po

 

Now I am at the other end and a prayer wheel welcomes you to the village.A two storey building   and rice fields  are the main sights.d2d1

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Is this a museum ? office ? residence ? This is a general store.

An old lady was seen turning the prayer wheel and  three kids were playing in the court yard.They  were very friendly and curious  and asked  a lot of questions.  I can’t remember the last time  a child wanted to know my name ! The youngest kid was the centre of attention and she entertained us with her antics.Even the dogs were in awe of her.

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Playtime

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Little Miss Sunshine

 

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The boss with her loyal guards

The girls   insisted on accompanying me  to the other end.They cross the bridge  every day to go  to the school and dzong.I had to coax them to go back after we reached half way and made a promise to visit them before they start going to college.I looked on as they waltzed their way back.

Today was  a day of serendipitous moments and I  wish I  could stay.

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Goodbye

Dragon Tales,Punakha-Seeking Bliss

Besides the Tiger’s  Nest  Punakha Dzong is the most iconic and revered monument in Bhutan and  is also known as The Palace of Great Happiness or Bliss.It is also the headquarter of Punakha district.This was the last dzong  of my trip and  I found it  the most beautiful and majestic.  .Words and pictures can’t do justice to this magnificent fortress/monastery.

Situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu(mother river) and Po Chuu( father river) Punakha Dzong was built in the 16th century and  holds a special position in the history of Bhutan. This  regal dzong is closely associated with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – the Tibetan Lama and the  founding father of Bhutan. He was the one who unified this country  and established the dual system of governance. Many dzongs were made during his time  as  defence fortresses against invaders. .He  fought many Tibetan invasions and consolidated the country  giving it a distinct  Bhutanese identity. He went into retreat in  1651 and was  believed to have passed away  in this dzong..His death was not revealed for a long period for  fear of  unrest. His embalmed body is kept in the most important  section of the dzong along with certain sacred relics and he is  worshipped all over the country.Most of the temples have  statues of Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung and now I can identify him as the Lama with  a flowing beard.

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Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel pc-wikipedia

This was the first sight of the dzong and  I was struck by its picturesque setting.They could not have chosen  a better  location.

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The Palace of Bliss pc Dr Bruno

 

 

There is a charming cantilever bridge connecting the main land with the dzong over the Mo Chhu.The original bridge was washed away in a flood in 1957 and this new bridge was made in 2008.

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Tower of the cantilever bridge over Mo Chhu

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School children on the bridge

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Sparkling Mo Chhu

 

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Dzongs are made of mud,stone and timber and painted in bright red,white and black.

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Seen from the bridge

 

 

Leaving the bridge tower  the imposing facade  of the dzong comes into view.Now you will  see the massive scale of the  structure and  I wonder how they made such a perfect  building in that period with  limited tools and technology.
A strict dress code is enforced . Bhutanese have to put a scarf ‘Kabney ‘ and visitors have to be in formal wear.I appreciate that.Can you imagine going to  this grand citadel in  casuals?
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The stone and wooden staircase leading to the dzong

The wooden stairs can be pulled up in the event of an attack   and there is a huge wooden door .A unique feature of this dzong is the three courtyards(Other dzongs have two ) The first courtyard  has the two storey administrative wing .There is  a huge white stupa and  a Bodhi tree at the centre of the courtyard.

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The giant Bodhi tree standing like a sentinel

A six storey central tower  UTSE   separates it from the second courtyard which has the monastic  quarters.

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The central tower.This little girl was very excited and was dancing around.

Compared to the rest of the dzongs the art work  and colours are magnified and one can’t help   but stop  and gasp  at the intricate carvings and paintings on the doors,windows,staircases,balustrades and balconies.It looks as if each part is made with great diligence and devotion.I remember the master in the art school saying that creating a piece of art is a also a form of worship. . Seeing the abundance and mastery of the exquisite art all around  I felt  I was having symptoms of Florence Syndrome.d7d15d11

All of a sudden  there was a commotion  and  I could see many important looking people assembled  in the courtyard .I thought they were waiting to receive  someone from the royal family  or  a VIP and decided to  wait and watch from the balcony.

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Kabney spotting. Green is for judges ,white with red stripe for headmen and white with fringes for the common man

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Monks are also waiting.

Soon  the the courtyard  was resonating with chorus chanting , booming drums,blaring horns ,  gongs,cymbals and  a religious procession started.It was a fascinating  sight and I was spellbound.

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Yellow hatted monks pc Dr Bruno

 

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Monks with drums

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I did  not know the religious significance of this ceremony but it was thrilling to  be part of it.

The third courtyard  houses  the temple. The sanctum santorum has  gigantic statues of Lord Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung .There  are huge gilded pillars  and every inch of the walls and ceiling are adorned with  exquisite murals depicting the life of Lord Buddha.The silence and serenity   of the temple was overwhelming . One need not be a believer or follower of Buddhism to appreciate the energy  and power of this sacred hall.

Next to the main temple is the     Machey Lhakhang  containing the embalmed body of the great Zhabrdrung  and  its entry is limited to the King and the Chief Abbot.

Punakha Dzong was damaged in flash floods,earthquake and fire several times(most recent was the flash floods in 1994) and each time it was restored   to its former glory.In 2011 the wedding celebrations of  the present King was held here.What impressed me most was the way the Bhutanse have preserved their national heritage sites.India takes pride in its rich cultural heritage but most of our ancient monuments are in a sad state of neglect and some have even disappeared.It is sad seeing our protected sites in ruins and  defaced with graffiti.We have a lot to learn from this neighbouring country.They don’t forget their past even when they are adapting to the challenges of  the modern world.

Punakha Dzong-a perfect blend of  religion,art and architecture and I will always remember it as  the Palace of Sublime Moments.

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Punakha Dzong- Timeless and invincible

Dragon Tales,Thimphu-Out and about

Another day in Thimphu  and it began with a visit to The National Memorial Chorten – a  prominent landmark and  religious centre  for the Bhutanese.It was not far from the hotel and the huge white  structure with the gleaming golden spire could be seen from far.Going to this shrine every morning  is a ritual for the devout   Bhutanese.

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National Memorial Chorten

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The Temple

 

Many elderly men and women are seen in the premises engaged in prayers  and circumambulating  the main shrine.Some are  seen spinning the giant prayer wheels and prostrating in prayers.This is  not so easy and I was wondering how some of those frail  old Bhutanese  were  doing  it with such ease and remarkable grace.  A group of ladies were  relaxing around the central  pavilion.This must be their favourite place for meeting friends.

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From the chorten I went to see the Centenary Farmers Market.This sprawling 2 storey building  is   the largest domestic market  for the local farmers. Being a week day it was not  crowded  and I could explore it leisurely.There are about 400 stalls displaying local  and imported  produce of vegetables,fruits,cheese, rice,spices etc.The whole market is kept remarkably clean and everything is clearly marked.

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Fresh organic local fruits

Bhutan has banned the use of pesticides    and agriculture is  wholly organic .Most of the Bhutanese are non vegetarians  and red rice,meat,cheese and chillies  form their staple diet.Chillies  are an integral part of their cuisine and  is used more like a vegetable than a spice.  Ema datshi is the national dish and it is  made of chillies and cheese. Cheese  products are seen in  all shapes and sizes.Asparagus and fiddlehead ferns called  Nakey were in season .I had  them almost every day and found it quite tasty.There is a section for dried fish and meat   but the odour kept me away.

 

As I came out of the market I saw a bridge  and had to  go there.Bhutan being a country with rivers has many bridges and most of them are pieces of art unlike the nondescript structures I have seen in India.This one  was also painted in  bright colors and decorated with prayer flags .

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Aesthetic and elegant

I spotted a pair of school girls and followed them to the other side and found many empty stalls . The  bubbly girls  informed  that this is the place for  the weekend handicrafts market.

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Leaving these charming girls I made my way to the National Institute  for Zorig Chusum(Zo=to make,rig=science,chusum=13)Here the students learn 13 forms of  art and craft which includes weaving,masonry,sculpting  and painting. It is admirable that the government has taken measures to preserve and promote their  traditional art.The courses take 4-6 years.

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National Institute for Zorig Chusum

I went inside  the  classrooms and  saw many young students . Some of the classrooms looked crowded  – could be the  junior grades. They  seemed to be engrossed in their  studies and I felt I was invading  with my camera though I was told that they are quite used to visitors. I was not convinced and preferred to observe their meticulous work .It was impressive to see  the talented youngsters.Girls were  seen mostly in the embroidery and sculpture classes  and boys dominated the painting section.I spoke to one of the teachers who showed  these sketches   by the students and gave  an insight into the  curriculum.

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Bhutanese art is also deeply rooted in Buddhism and was formally categorised into the  13 traditional art forms  towards the end of 17th century.Some of the eminent lamas themselves were great artists .

It was interesting to know that they use natural pigments and dyes and they have to  follow a set of iconography rules.Art is  considered a pious act and the artists remain anonymous. So what about artistic freedom?There are some art studios in the city that promote contemporary art.I must say that this glimpse into the traditional art  was the highlight of the day and I regret that I could not spend more time out there.

From the ‘Painting School’ I went to see the national animal-Takin.I have not heard of such an animal before and was curious .Legend has it that takin was created by the famed Lama Drukpa Kunley  who is also known as the Divine Madman for his unconventional ways.It seems he fixed the head of a goat on the skeleton of a cow and created this new species.Wikipedia informs that takins  belong to the category of goat antelope and they are also found in Tibet and China.Motithang Takin Preserve  is on the outskirts of Thimphu and  we drive through  a dense forest    and walk up a  short distance and there he stands.They do look rather odd  and  docile.

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Takin-national animal of Bhutan

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He looks melancholic

 

Can I leave Thimphu without seeing  the famous dzong? Tashichho Dzong  is the seat of the government and houses the throne room and office of the King,secretariat and ministries of finance and home affairs.It  is also the headquarters of  the central monastic  body and their summer retreat.By the time I reached it was closed and I could only see  the magnificent building  and surrounding gardens from far..

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Tashichho Dzong-Fortress of the glorious religion

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From the lookout point

It had been a memorable day and I went back to the hotel after a stroll in the central square.

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Clock tower square at night

Dragon Tales,Paro-Crossing bridges

I think I  am a pontist. I have always been fascinated by bridges  and there are quite a  few in Bhutan which are old and with interesting history.

This bridge is in  the Paro  valley and is  a popular tourist spot.Drubthop Thangto Gyalpo bridge  is a suspension bridge over the Paro Chu and  is over 600 years old.It was washed away  in a flood in  1969 and was restored in 2005.It was made by  the legendary  Thangtong  Gyalpo who  had built many bridges all over Tibet and Bhutan and was also  a physician,blacksmith and the founder of  Tibetan opera.I think he can be called as the Iron Man of Bhutan.

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A narrow path off the Paro Thimpu highway takes you to the entrance of the bridge tower .A prominently displayed board  cautions you.

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No swinging,please.

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Crystal clear Paro Chu

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Looks easy?

I was  very excited  and took the first few steps  without losing balance.It was a treat to  see the gushing waters and the majestic mountains.

Soon it started to swing as more people got on the bridge.So I had to slow down and watch the steps.

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You can make out the  600  year old iron chains reinforced with the new iron rods and  wire mesh.It is a bit unnerving to look down the wide gaps.This gentleman did not seem to mind  and am sure he found my  slow progress amusing.

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I must have taken 10minutes to get across to the bridge tower.It  is a  two storey structure with beautiful murals  of Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and the bridgemaker Thangtong Gyalpo. Some  parts of the old  iron chains are kept there.The windowsill  has a collection of tsatsas-the special memorials.

As you come out of the tower you can see the Tachog Lhakhang  on  the hill top and  this was  also built by  Thangto Gyalpo.It is a private monastery now  and is maintained by his descendants.

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Tachog Lhakhang

There is a wooden bridge near the iron bridge and this is meant for the cattle.Trust the  Bhutanese  to be kind to all  sentinent beings.After the swinging    iron bridge this was a cakewalk.

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Wooden deck for the cattle and the cautious.

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I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –
Thank you,Emily Dickinson.