At the fag end of the dusty haphazard Indian town of Darranga, where dogs and cows scavenge among heaps of garbage and runnels of diesel stain the mud, lies an imposing gate. Bright painted dragons wrap themselves up its concrete pillars, snaking their way past lotus flowers and mandalas, and a two-tiered gilt roof rises above, ending in a pinnacle of gold. Past the gate, in the Bhutanese town of Samdrup Jongkhar, the streets are clean and lined with trees. The houses, white with wooden windows, and red roofs under which run elaborate checkerboard cornices, fall into neat rows. Men exchange pants and shirts for the gho, a striped kilt-like full-length robe, and the women wear bright kiras, which wrap around the body like a skirt. The Tata trucks which thunder down the two streets of the town now proclaim ‘I love my kingdom’. Cigarettes go from being freely available to being banned, and as a result the price of a pack of Navy Cut rises from Rs 30 to Rs 50.


It is said that Bhutan starts where a stone rolled off the mountains stops. The road begins climbing the moment you get out of Samdrup Jongkhar. It crumples into bends and loops, and densely forested hills start rising around us, until we can’t see the turn ahead. Small square chortens with sloping roofs appear at various corners. The golden-brown winter colours of the Himalayan maple mix with shades of green and brown in pointillist layers that run up mountainsides.


We stop for a quick lunch of pork, served with lots of lard, beef, rice and some chilli pickle at a small restaurant overlooking a valley. It’s warm in the sun and mushrooms have been spread out to dry in the courtyard. But by the time we get to Narphung village, about 10km away, a thick veil of mist clouds the mountain tops. An old man swaddled in a voluminous woollen gho sits outside a shop pounding betelnut in a small cylindrical container (drechu). Parts of back-strap looms, fruits and jathas, rounded bamboo containers for straining local alcohol, lie outside the shops. It starts getting dark by 4.30pm. In the car, Kuzoo FM, Bhutan’s only popular Western music ‘youth’ channel is playing Jack Johnson and Flipsyde. By the time we get to Trashigang, the town is fast asleep.


Details of the town emerge in the morning. Three streets emanate out from a large mani (prayer) wheel. The houses and shops, indistinguishable from each other unless you venture inside, have row upon row of wooden windows with the same club (from a pack of cards) trefoil motif cut out at the top. Some have wooden balconies that run along the length of the first floor. The walls and pillars are invariably covered in intricately painted flowers and geometrical patterns, and the occasional house has an all too realistic phallus painted by the door (commonly associated with Lama Drukpa Kunley or the ‘Divine Madman’). Flowering plants and shrubs cover the raised stone platforms in front of each. People are getting started with their day. Women have brought out their looms, and children play on the streets. There are few cars to trouble the dogs who sun themselves in the middle of the road. The effect is gentle, orderly and somewhat elysian.


Rangjung lies due east of Trashigang. The hills around us are a dense thicket of oak, deodar and maple, punctuated near villages by fields so steep that they look like they’re falling off the hillside. In Lungten Zampa village, a mother and daughter sit in the sun, weaving sky-blue kiras with delicate gold patterns.


We make a quick stop at the newish monastery at Rangjung, outside which stand a series of eight white chortens, each representing an important event from the Buddha’s life. At a small restaurant in Rangjung we try yakshatsheom, boiled yak meat with radish, tomato, onion and, of course, chilli. It’s slightly chewy and musty but very warming. There’s a prayer going on in a neighbouring house, and the sound of a dung (the long trumpet used in Buddhist ceremonies) reverberates though the street.


Another prayer is taking place at Pema Leda’s house in Chaling, a village perched high above Rangjum. To get here we’ve driven for over an hour on a dirt track which crawls up through pine forest. The village lies on the fringes of the Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary. It’s one of the three villages in the area where a small group of Brokpa, a distinct pastoral community, lives. They speak Brokkat, a language incomprehensible to the rest of Bhutan. Their clothing too is distinct: they wear thick red woollen smocks, heavy knee-high handcrafted leather boots, leather vests and hats made of black yak wool (mukhaling), from the edges of which extend five enormous tentacles (designed to let rain water drip off), giving the impression that the wearer has emerged from the ocean with an octopus on top of his head.


An array of monks sits in Pema’s large single-roomed house. Two of them are playing the jaling (small trumpet), two play the dung, one holds the rylm (cymbals) and the other plays the nga (a large freestanding drum). Along the wall opposite them lie heaps of offerings — there are huge baskets full of local cheese (rolled into balls), buckwheat noodles, flakes of corn, brown and red ritual flour cakes and torma (ritual figures made from flour and butter) of foxes and houses. Pema ushers us into a corner of the room, and brings us some tea. Villagers mill around. The sonorous chanting continues. I ask Pema if I can wear his mukhaling. He takes it off and hands it to me. I put it on my head and pose for a photograph, while the room erupts in laughter.


Back in Trashigang that night, we stop by the local pool parlour, the only entertainment in town. Crowds of young school boys sit on a high bench. A gaggle of girls and small children are clustered around a heater in one corner of the room. Some of the boys study in Thimphu, while others study in the local school. Ugyen, our guide, and Choda, the driver, decide to play a game. I wander out. The steep mountains that tower over the town are dark, making the valley seem even narrower than it is. The sky is flecked with clouds through which slivers of moonlight filter through.


The 53km drive from Trashigang to Trashi Yangtse is the most scenic in this part of Bhutan. It goes north along the steep valley of the Drangme Chhu. The road starts out high above the river, but descends gradually till it runs right along the stunning green waters. About 13km from Trashigang, the road arrives at a small flat expanse in the middle of which sits the beautiful Gom Kora temple. Golden Garuda figures peer out from the corners of the tiered roof of the square structure. Under it are images of the Buddha carved on stone.


The temple is at the spot where Guru Rinpoche, credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, stopped to meditate en route to Tibet. It was built by Pema Lingpa, the 17th-century terton (treasure-seeker) who discovered teachings concealed by the Guru in different parts of the country. An external staircase leads to the lhakhang (prayer hall or temple), where there is a large painted clay statue of Guru Rinpoche sitting on a lotus. He wears fine blue, golden and red robes. His hair is long and his beard curls at the edges. The expression on his face is benevolent and meditative. Next to him is the figure of Chenresig, the Bodhisattva of compassion. And in one corner of the room stands a wrathful black deity, Dharmapala, who was subdued by the Guru and converted to Buddhism. As the name suggests, he is the guardian and protector of religion. In his right hand he holds the wheel of eternity, and in the other he carries a sword and a shield of rhino hide. And just in case the enemies come with slightly more contemporary weapons, there lies a brand new AK-47 assault rifle carefully ensconced in a glass case beneath him!


The walls are an incredibly dense and detailed canvas of the Buddhist cosmos — the arahats or disciples of the Buddha, the Wheel of Life which depicts the realms of existence into which beings are born, and the fantastical deities of everyday life. A family enters the temple. The men and women prostrate themselves in front of the deities. Then the monk accompanying them takes them up to the altar, where, under a silk cloth, lie several differently shaped black stones. “This,” he says in Sharchop, pointing to the one which is almost perfectly round, “is Garuda’s egg.” “That is the footprint of the Tantric Master.” Then come the footprint of his consort, and the print of the hoof of the Tantric Master’s horse. And finally with utter solemnity he points to a cylindrical rock, “The penis of the Great Treasure Discoverer.”


Beyond the temple, the road turns northwest, heading up the valley of the Kulong Chhu. Forests of oak, with a thick undergrowth of ferns, orchids and bamboo, reappear. A band of endangered golden langur plays on a tree. Fold after fold of mist-covered mountains lie stacked on the horizon. Tall white vertical flags (manidhar) erected by families in memory of the departed flutter high up on the hillsides and on bends in the road. They’re a comforting and reassuring sight in the middle of this lonely landscape. Finally, around a bend in the river, Trashi Yangstse appears. A town of about 40 houses, scattered up a small hillside.


The next morning, the sky is clear, and I can see the snow peaks of the Aphyongla mountains at the head of the Kulong Chhu valley clearly. As the sun hits the tin roof of the Karmaling Guest House and Bakery, I hear the pitter-patter of condensation dripping off.


Bomdeling, an hour’s drive north, is one of about four breeding sites of the rare black-necked crane. As we head out, we hear a shrill tweet-tweet echo between the hills. Then a flock of ten cranes flies over us in perfect formation, headed towards the fallow fields around Trashi Yangtse (in which maize and wheat are grown in summer). In a field outside Bomdeling, a pair of cranes picks morsels from the ground, their black tail feathers bobbing up and down behind them. A stone’s throw away from them, five village boys are practising archery with wood and bamboo bows, and metal-tipped arrows.


To get to our next destination, Mongar, the largest town in eastern Bhutan (with a population of about 4,000 people!), we’ve got to backtrack to Trashigang and then drive west on a road that runs right along the ridge-line, crossing the 2,400m-high Kori La. We pass through small villages like Yadi Mongar, where the road is lined with trees laden with oranges, which look like Christmas baubles that someone’s forgotten to take off.


Beyond Yadi Mongar, we see many people walking along the road in their best formal clothes. “I think there’s a tsechu (monastery festival) on at Naktshang,” says Ugyen. Soon, roadside stalls selling Chinese jackets, torches, beer, snacks, and an assortment of other goods appear. And then we hear the beat of drums and see the crowds.


It’s a carnival in the courtyard of the monastery. People have spread rugs and picnic hampers out on the grass. Every inch of space on the balconies of the monastery buildings is occupied by families who stand chatting, while the children run around. Two yellow posters advocating safe sex are pasted on the monastery wall. In the middle of this bedlam, a hypnotically slow masked dance is unfolding.


Masked manifestations of Guru Rinpoche dance in a circle to the beat of drums and the sound of trumpets. In their hands they hold swords, vajras, beads and small drums. With every step they complete one turn, transforming the courtyard into a swirling mass of brilliant robes and flying tassels. At the end of the dance (known as Guru Tshengay) both sets of the eight manifestations sit down in a line, beside a small enclosure in which sits Guru Rinpoche. The crowds line up to take their blessing, touching their feet, while the manifestations nod sagely. Two clowns (atsaras) dressed in grubby overalls, wearing bright red masks with hideously long noses jump up and down, mocking people, and imitating the manifestations. A monk wearing a crinkled mask of an old lady (abhi or granny), cradling a large plastic doll in his hands, goes around asking for donations. An elderly village lady, with a large bamboo basket on her back, walks into the centre of the courtyard. She starts dancing slowly, swaying her arms, and singing songs from a remembered youth.


The slow, stylised dance of the ‘heavenly ladies’ follows. The final dance, the dance of the heros (pacham) is, in sharp contrast, very martial. The warriors brandish their weapons, and leap into the air touching their feet to their heads. With that the Guru and his manifestations get up and walk slowly back into the monastery. The drums reach a crescendo, and everyone stands up to get a last glimpse of their Guru.


It’s freezing cold now, and the crowds are retreating to the small food stalls outside. We join two boisterous old ladies who sit chugging super-strong Druk 11000 beer with chilli chop (pakoras). The combination of beer and slightly intoxicating doma (raw betelnut in paan leaf) is making me a little wobbly. Outside, the celebrations have come to an end, and you can once again hear the rustling of leaves in the breeze.


Mongar, the last town in eastern Bhutan, lies before a range of mountains which runs from north to south, all the way from Tibet to the Indian border. It’s a small sleepy town, an overnight stop for people travelling from one side of Bhutan to the other. A couple of hours’ drive north is the small town of Lhuentse, known for its spectacular dzong.


We set out after a late breakfast. The river has changed once again. We now travel up the valley of the Kuri Chhu, which flows down from peaks at the head of the valley. At Autsho, a small village perched under towering cliffs which dominate the sky, a boy plays the guitar, while girls weave on the balconies. Half an hour later, the dzong appears against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. A three-storeyed rectangular structure of white stone that soars high above the valley. At both ends of the compound rise flared gold-painted three-tiered roofs, each tier smaller than the one below it so that the ensemble has a pyramidal shape. Wooden balconies and windows look out onto the Kuri Chhu which flows far below.


Bright red poinsettia trees stand against the white walls. A hairpin ramp takes us up to a large wooden door in what looks like a turret. The guardian kings of the four directions are painted on the walls of a corridor, which opens onto a large indoor courtyard. In front of us is the utse (the main tower), which houses all the temples. To the sides are the district offices and a set of large prayer wheels. Dark, narrow corridors and wooden stepladders lead into the building. Billowing dragons peer out from every corner. From the painted windows on the first floor, two young monks look down. Administrative officers with bright embroidered scarves flung over their shoulders hurry past us.


It’s evening by the time we head back. An keen archery contest is on outside the dzong. The mist is coming down the mountains, the streets have fallen silent, and the lights of faraway villages flicker like fireflies. Kuzoo FM is playing ‘Changes’ (a reprise of a Tupac song) from The Yak Album. “I’d love to go back to when we were ruled by kings/but things changed and that’s the way it is/ that’s just the way it is. I can’t afford no fuel/but as long as I herd yaks I can stay relaxed and I never touch cognac/that’s just the way it is,” raps the voice from faraway Thimphu.


The information


Getting there

The easiest way to get to eastern Bhutan involves first flying to Guwahati. Samdrup Jongkhar, the Bhutanese border town, is 100km/2.5hrs from there. You can either hire a taxi from the airport or prearrange one (try Sanjeev Jain, 9435014262) The one-way fare is Rs 2,000. Alternatively, travel to the east via western Bhutan—a two-day-long drive from Thimphu or Paro.


Where to stay

No luxury in eastern Bhutan — the hotels are clean, comfortable, but very basic. Most have hot water, but check when booking. You’ll get decent Bhutanese food and dal-chawal, but not much else. No credit cards accepted. The ngultrum is equivalent to our rupee, which is accepted everywhere (only Rs 100 notes).


Samdrup Jongkhar

The only air-conditioned hotel here is the TLT Guesthouse (Rs 2,000; +975-07-251470). A non-AC option is Hotel Menjong (Rs 400; 251094).


Trashigang

The Druk Deothjung Resort (Rs 1,500-1,800; 04-521214) is a small resort about 1km from the centre of town, with beautiful dzong views. Small rooms decorated with thangkas surround a small open courtyard. The owners also run the more basic Druk Deothjung Hotel (Rs 1,150; 521145) near the prayer wheel.


Trashi Yangtse

The Karmaling Hotel (Rs 1,200-1,500; 04-781113) offers large, uncluttered rooms, good food and lovely views of the town and snow peaks from the garden. The only other hotel in town is the barebones Sonam Choden Hotel (Rs 300; 781152).


Mongar

Most people travelling from western to eastern Bhutan stop in Mongar, so there’s a greater choice of accommodation. The Wangchuk Hotel (Rs 2,000-4,000; 02-380039, www.wangchukhotel.com) is the fanciest in all of eastern Bhutan. The rooms are built around a large open courtyard. The Druk Zonghar Hotel (Rs 2,000-2,500; 04-641587) is another good hotel. The rooms have balconies and televisions. An excellent budget option is the Dolma Hotel (Rs 400; 04-641508), near the public ground.


Getting around

There’s little by way of public transport in these parts. A few buses run between the major towns (each 5-6hrs from each other) but their frequency is low (one or two a week) and the timings inconvenient. You can, however, hire taxis. They’re reliable and have fixed charges. But if you’re travelling around a lot, it’s cheaper to hire a car for the entire trip from Samdrup Jongkhar. A Bolero costs Rs 3,000 per day, and an Omni Rs 2,000. Our driver, Rinzin Choda (+975-17789382), was excellent. Don’t hire a car with an Indian registration — you’ll end up wasting a lot of time on formalities. While it is technically possible to take your own vehicle into Bhutan, the formalities at Samdrup Jongkhar can take up to three days.


Tour operators

Depending on where you’re planning to go, you might find it useful to travel with a guide. However, most tour operators in Bhutan only organise trips that begin from western Bhutan — they might be reluctant to organise one from Samdrup Jongkhar.

I recommend Bhutan Scenic Tours (+975-8-271634, www.bhutanscenictours.com) — they’ll book your hotel rooms, arrange your permits and send their guide to Samdrup Jongkhar to meet you. The cost of the trip varies depending on your itinerary and hotels. For a complete list of tour operators, see www.tourism. gov.bt, the website of the Tourism Council of Bhutan.


Permits

Only Indian citizens are allowed to enter Bhutan from Samdrup Jongkhar (all others from Phuentsholing). However, eastern Bhutan has, in the past, been affected by the spillover of the banned ULFA from Assam. The authorities are a bit wary of letting in tourists. The permit system too is complex — you’ll get a route permit at Samdrup Jongkhar, but your permit for entering dzongs and temples comes from Thimphu. It makes sense to get your operator to pre-arrange your permits Also carry your passport and five passport-size photographs.


What else to see & do

A day-hike from Bomdeling to one of the villages in the sanctuary.

Visit a showroom of the Handloom Development Project in Khaling (04-581122) to see weavers at work, and pick up some beautiful cotton and silk cloth.

Visit the village of Khoma (1hr walk from Lhuentse), known for its outstanding weaving


When to go

Eastern Bhutan is lower than western Bhutan — it gets cold in winter, but temperatures rarely go below 2-3 degrees. Summers can get fairly hot in some parts. The best time to go is mid-September to mid-November and February to mid-April. Try to avoid the monsoon (June to August).



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