Published in Sunday Herald Travel on March 23, 2014
Sudha Madhavan explores the mysterious Haa Valley in Bhutan and witnesses the joy of the simple life led by locals in one of the most beautiful places in the world…
Landing at Bagdogra we take a taxi, and four hours down we are at Jaigaon, driving through winding roads and the ubiquitous market place we come bang up against the majestic gates (emblazoned with fire spewing dragons) of the kingdom of Bhutan. Our vehicle passes through, India being a friendly country (Indians don’t need a visa…only a permit, for which a copy of your passport or voter’s ID works fine). Many Indian things work; one of them being the Indian currency. On the Bhutanese side is the town of Phuentsholing, distinguishing itself instantly by being better kept and cleaner. We are officially in Bhutan. We stay overnight at a local hotel, and in the morning, we are at the Bhutanese immigration office to get our permits. We are under the spell of the Haa Valley.
Having read about it in our pre-travel research that has led us to this exotic, mystical, lesser-known and even less-touristed (opened to tourism in 2003) hidden valley. The details have us salivating. We plan to visit Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, but the permits for the elusive Haa are available only in Thimphu, which is 176 km from Phuentsholing, approximately the same as Paro, and from Haa the two are equidistant.
Extraordinary sightsOn the drive from Thimphu to Haa via Paro, going over the Chellela Pass, we get the dazzling glimpse of Jhomol Hari, the tallest peak in Bhutan, around a mountain curve, and then as suddenly as she appeared, she vanishes from view! We also spot herds of yak, grazing the hillsides, their bells musical to the ear.
Haa, pronounced ‘Hah’ (the ancient name is Has, pronounced Hay, that has an esoteric significance, i.e., of mystic leanings) is a remotely placed dzongkhag (district) at the western extreme of Bhutan, sandwiched between tall mountains, scarcely touristed except for the hiking, mountain biking and trekking community. It remains in a rustic cultural exclusivity of its own…also known as the Hidden Rice Valley.
Haa is the land of the Haaps, who follow animism and unique, ancient customs, which are at wide variance with the Bhutanese culture. They are an agricultural community growing mainly potatoes, apples, barley, maize, mustard crop, etc. Their livelihood is dependent on animal husbandry. Most families have their own numbers of cows and yaks with an abundant supply of milk, cheese and butter that is home made.
The temperatures can dip easily to sub zero in the night while at daytime it ranges between 5 and 10 degrees celsius (during November and when the sun is out). If it rains, the night temperature becomes the daytime ones. The playful Haa Chu flows through the cluster of villages, adding to the rustic beauty.
Haa is a protected territory (lying towards the Tibet/China border) and the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) involved in the training of the RBA and the RBG in combat, use of arms, medical terminology, usage of medicines and perhaps everything else, is stationed along the sensitive border area of Dumchoe and is also present in the Dzong there.
The countryside is stark and simple in its beauty with village shops lining the road. The village of Dumchoe, where we have decided to stay with a farmer’s family, looks serene and out in the wilderness.
The large three-level country house, built in true Buddhist style, is weathered and ancient with steep logwood staircases afore stepping on to which we are welcomed with the mooing of cows put away in the sheds below. To climb up these, you hold on for dear life and get your toehold right…as for climbing down you turn around and go down backwards.
The one that goes up to the loft (where the family keeps its yak skin, dried yak meat etc.) has to be seen to be believed. Each step is a five inch curvature scooped out of a log of wood with about 20 such scoop outs, almost vertical with nothing to hold on to but the sides of the scooped out wood. It stuns you by its sheer audacity! However, we are unable to restrain ourselves and do a shuddering climb up to the loft and down. The interiors are dark and chilly, but there is the welcome warmth of the bukhari in the kitchen where the family assembles for most part of the day.
We are offered a milky tea and zhow (Bhutanese puffed rice). By dinner time, over hardcore Bhutanese diet of ema datshi (chillies stewed in cheese gravy that we fall in love with from day one, variations of which are made with mushrooms, sak, potatoes) fried sak (sag), dal made rustic style and chewy red rice, we warm up to each other.
The lady of the house, Dole Bidha, speaks only Dzongkha (Bhutanese national language), her husband Ugyen, a smattering of Hindi, but the son (Kuengo) and daughter (Tenzing) 13 and 11, speak English and are expert interpreters. We teach them to make jhaal muri, masala omlettes and tea the pretentious way with ginger simmered well. Some help with Tenzing’s English and Math lessons and the warmth transforms into bonhomie and language is no longer a barrier.
Evening finds us at the Lakhang Karpo (White Temple) and the Lakhang Nagpo (Black Temple) built on the slopes of the sacred Miri Punsum or the three brothers. According to legends, the three brother hills represent the three Bodhisattvas, Manjushri, Avalokiteshwara and Vajrapani, revered by the Bhutanese.
A simple life Morning, we wake up to their majesty, The Risums. We walk through Haa market, along the Department of Riverine and Lake Fisheries of Bhutan where the fisheries expert is enthused to explain to us how the eggs are brought from India and hatched there and the fingerlings are nurtured for commercial consumption. A fish is most delectable when it reaches a weight of 250 gm, he says, and being hardcore vegetarians, we take him at his word. The fish are the rainbow trout, snow trout and the brown trout. Couple of them look slightly sluggish and are apparently quarantined. By now, we are seriously interested in the lives of fish.
Bidding goodbye, we go onward to the Dzong located within the IMTRAT area and see classes being conducted for the Bhutanese soldiers by our guys. We are offered tea the Indian style (ah! at last) with biscuits and visit the Sarva Dharma Sthal. The atmosphere is serene and quiet.
Walking along the pristine, stark countryside with the crisp air, blue sky, sunshine unhindered by clouds and the Haa Chu as companion, we cross over to the other side via a bridge. We need to get to the highway to go up to Katcho Gompa. We lose our way and clamber up an as yet uncharted territory, reach the highway and try to flag down taxis to whom we have become invisible.
Then along comes a helpful lady driver who drops us to the taxi stand and collars a garrulous guy who drives a cross between a taxi and a truck. We hop in and are rattled up rapidly several hundred feet within minutes. Looking down, we get a spellbinding view of the valley. The Katcho Gompa is divinely peaceful with an air of all pervading serenity typical of ancient shrines.
From deep inside emanate chanting of Buddhist scriptures by young student lamas. For a moment, one realises the wisdom of life within and the futility of the world outside.We are just about to go up to the prayer hall when one of the young apple-cheeked lamas precedes us up the stairs and offers us the teertha and watches helpfully as we say our prayers. The courtesy shown to tourists is, in our experience, uniform in Bhutan. These friendly unhesitant gestures by locals mark our travel through Bhutan and make it a heart-warming experience. It goes without saying, of course, that one begins with a certain affinity oneself. Fond goodbyes are exchanged with the Ugyen family and we head to Paro.