Time-Travelling in Bhutan: The Road to Ogyen Choling

A journey to a spot where the road ends and history begins to unfold.  
Jakar Bhutan Wangdicholing Dzong
In 1972, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk coined the phrase "Gross National Happiness" to indicate the quality of life of Bhutan's citizens. A novice Buddhist monk at the Wangdicholing Dzong in Jakar seems to embody this index. Photo: Gavin Gough/Getty Images

It takes at least a day, and usually more, to cover the distance from Thimphu—the capital of Bhutan—to Bumthang, with each kilometre marking how far you are from the rest of the world. The restaurants and hotels becoming sparser, the population thins out with barely a house to be seen—and more importantly for a lone traveller, there are no roadside tea stalls to slake your thirst. The great change happens at Trongsa where I break journey for the night, wet and feeling somewhat miserable, having spent a whole day enduring drizzling rain that never stopped and a road interrupted every few hours by a mud or rockslide.

Ura village Bumthang Bhutan

Ura Village, Bumthang is considered to be the spiritual heartland of the country and is home to some of its oldest temples and monasteries. Photo: Peter Adams/PhotoLibrary/Getty Images

There is only one motorable road winding through the centre of Bhutan and when it rains for days on end, travel becomes a challenge. Each passing vehicle becomes dependent on the quick work of locals who labour with picks, shovels, and sheer physical strength to clear the roads. I had chosen to traverse the country in my father’s old 4×4 jeep, and although its high clearance and thick tyres came in handy, the missing doors in the waterproof canvas left me open to the elements. A leather jacket is great against the dust and wind, not so much against persistent rain. As the light died in the sky I was becoming desperate to reach Trongsa, but the winding mountain roads played havoc with my sense of time. Then, through the mist and light rain, I spotted the dark mass of a fortress in the distance.

Like most major settlements in Bhutan, Trongsa has a dzong. The word can be loosely translated as “a place of strength”. While this can mean a grotto where some monk of renown had meditated, in contemporary speech it is largely used to describe a fort, or more precisely a religio-administrative centre of power. The dzongs are the most distinctive feature of Bhutan, and each dzong has its own story. Trongsa is the powerhouse, where the father of the first king of Bhutan began his career in the early 19th century, transforming the country into a unified whole that has adroitly managed the turbulence of the last century and a half.

Crystal Monks Bhutan

Buddhists use prayer beads or japamalas of different materials such as crystal, mother-of-pearl, lotus seed, and elm to recite their prayers. Photo: Gavin Gough/The Image Bank/Getty Images

I am in Bhutan searching for history, trying to literally travel back in time to understand this country and where it comes from. Like all histories, the story of Bhutan was not predetermined. There are pivot points—moments when the history of the country changed abruptly— and I am travelling to Ogyen Choling, a house that was one of those points. These things that are hard to figure out in Thimphu, which has most of the modern conveniences—and attitudes—we take for granted. The travel into the interior showcases a more complex journey. This strikes me forcefully as I stop to look at Trongsa dzong in the dying light. It lies across the road, its dark length snaking around the mountainside. It is not on top of the hill like many dzongs, nor does it glint with gold or copper. Bhutan is called Druk Yul, loosely translated as ‘The Land of the Thunder Dragon’. It is a romantic name and with the frequent thunderstorms prevalent in the country it is easy to imagine dragons in the clouds. And yet the real dragon seems to be Trongsa dzong, slumbering in its strength.

My break is a short one, and I gun my engine as I make my way to the town. I have no reservation at a hotel, and while I guess I can always find someplace to camp out for the night, I would rather get out of the wet if I can. A few turns before the town, a road leads up into the mountains to the left, with a sign that says, Yangkhil Resorts. I vaguely recall seeing it the last time I was driving by Trongsa. It looked expensive, but at this point price is not the most important consideration. I just want a warm bath and a good dinner.

Yangkhil takes good care of me in those respects, but the next day I am also told that the road is blocked. The rain has loosened the hillside and some large boulders have made their way down the mountain.

This required work that went beyond pick and shovel, and would take time.

Paro Dzong Paro Bhutan

Architectural detail of the richly carved, painted wood in Paro Dzong. Photo: Pete Ryan/National Geographic/Getty Images

The break allows me to contemplate the dzong across the valley and think of Jigme Namgyel. His story is the stuff of legends. Born in 1825, he was the youngest of three sons from a noble family. He set off to seek his fortune in his teens, starting out as a common herdsman until he joined the entourage of Ugyen Puntso—the Penlop, or Governor, of Trongsa. In three years Jigme Namgyel rose from being among the menial staff of the Penlop to being a zingap—the person who guards the master’s chambers. His climb did not stop there.

In 1849, the Punakha dzong had burnt down and the great lords from all over Bhutan were summoned to help in its reconstruction. Each lord brought his own personal champion renowned for his strength and fighting ability. Jigme Namgyel bested them all and, during that time, also discovered a plot by the other lords to assassinate Ugyen Puntso. At one critical moment when it seemed that the lords would combine to kill the Penlop in the council chamber Jigme Namgyel walked in, fearless, with a hand on his sword hilt, and escorted the Penlop to safety. In gratitude, Ugyen Puntso promised to make Jigme Namgyel the Penlop when he retired.

With Trongsa in his hand, Jigme Namgyel went on to consolidate his hold on the country. He was known as the Black Regent because he favoured dark clothes and rode a black horse. His fierce nature would have only added to the myth. His son, Ugyen Wangchuck, would adroitly play off the politics of the British and the Tibetans and become the first king of Bhutan.

Jigme Namgyel Bhutan Ugyen Puntso

Monks playing tag. Photo: Peter Adams/Getty Images

The monarchy has been good for Bhutan, bringing steady development, security, and stability. I experienced it in the clean sheets, fluffy pillows, and luxurious bathrooms at Yangkhil. But the world that Jigme Namgyel inhabited is still very much evident. The huge dzong, with its aura of physical power, makes it easy to imagine that he laboured there as a very junior servitor, his future still unsure. But I am not so much interested in Jigme Namgyel as what he left behind. His first master, Ugyen Puntso, was from Bumthang, and his old manorhouse is still well-preserved. That is where I am headed.

There is a flurry of activity as the announcement comes through that the road has cleared. I have packed my belongings, but I am in no hurry. Bumthang is hardly 70 kilometres away. There is more than enough time to finish my coffee.

Jakar Tamshing Gompa Bhutan

Monks prepare a meal at Tamshing Gompa in Jakar. The monastery has a 500-year-old suit of armour. Photo: Gavin Gough/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The drive to Bumthang is marked by low-hanging clouds and intermittent bursts of rain, but as I crest the pass into Bumthang Valley, the sun bursts through. The buckwheat is in flower, marking the valley with pinkish-red streaks and although the rain has subdued the brightness of the vegetation, it is still beautiful. Over the next half hour as I trundle towards Jakar—the main town in Bumthang valley—the skies clear. To be honest the town is little more than a crossroads with a long street of shops at the bridge which spans the river running through the valley. The river itself is a roaring mass of brown water carrying soil and uprooted trees, almost breaching its banks and slopping hungrily at the road.

This is hardly surprising, and partly due to my own biases. The whole population of Bumthang district is just about 16,000 people. I am used to Delhi, with its population of 17 million. The very low population density is a delight, but it has its downsides too. There is only one good restaurant in Jakar, and you have to order a day in advance otherwise they will not have the food to feed you. The population is simply not large enough to justify storing extra meat and supplies.

Yak Cheese Bhutan

Women choosing dried yak cheese. Photo: Bhutan View/Alamy/Indiapicture

I make do by buying tinned sardines and crackers, and ask for directions to Ogyen Choling. Go east, I am told, and turn off the road before the next bridge. Simple directions for a simple country, especially one that has only one road running west to east. Having topped up my fuel tank, and packed my unexciting food supplies, I headed east. The path to Ogyen Choling was clearly marked, indicating that it was 26 kilometres up an unpaved road disappearing into the mountains. It was just gravel and stones but fairly wide. As I turned in, I shifted down from the fourth to the third gear, and then as the slope steepened and the gravelly path became more difficult, into second gear.

After a while the squeaking and rattling seemed to acquire a new pitch, but I ignored it until I happened to look in my rearview mirror and noticed that my spare tyre seemed to wobbling a little. Stopping the jeep, I hopped out and checked the spare only to find that the wobbling had undone the nuts holding the tyre in place and they had almost come off. It took only a few minutes to open my toolkit and tighten the nuts, but I decided to slow down a little. The sun was still up, and how long could it take to cover 20 kilometres?

A long time, I realised. We take good roads for granted, but there are few tarred roads in the interiors of the country. Access is limited to bumpy rides in cars, or as in Jigme Namgyel’s day, to travel on foot or horse. The road I was following was one of the better ones in the interior, and it was difficult enough. It made me wonder at the qualities of the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who during his 36 years of rule (1972-2008), famously made it his duty to walk and visit every habitation in the country. There is a reason that the monarchy is so loved by the common people in Bhutan.

It was also on the way to Ogyen Choling that I encountered the first Bhutanese I could not converse with. He wanted a lift, and I was happy to offer him a ride, but we could not communicate. I realised that I had become so used to the multi-lingual Bhutanese in the larger towns, who all tend to know some bits of English, Hindi and Nepali, that I was totally unprepared for a Bhutanese conversation beyond, kuzu zangmo (how do you do?). As a tiny country, with a population of less than 700,000, the Bhutanese have learnt to communicate in the tongues of their larger neighbours, but as with most everything with the country, there is much that remains inaccessible. I dropped him off somewhere—he said a name, I nodded, uncomprehending—and then soon picked up a person who could understand me better, a government official with a sword on his hip. Only in Bhutan, I thought, would I happily give a ride to somebody so obviously armed.

Flags Bhutan Valley

Prayer flags flutter against the backdrop of valleys and clear skies in Bhutan. Photo: Pete Ryan/National Geographic/Indiapicture

Feudal Bhuitan Ogyen Choling

A former feudal house, the Ogyen Choling Manor is now a museum that houses a variety of traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts. Photo: Gary W. Ashley

There was more to come as the road ended near a bridge which could only be passed on foot. I had to leave my jeep and some luggage at a house with a family I had never met before, guaranteed by the word of the man with a sword. Hefting my backpack, I crossed the bridge, looking back every so often to the house where my jeep was parked until it was out of sight. On the other side were fields made into mud by the recent rains. The official guided me for a way, and then pointed up a mountain, “That is your way. Good luck.” Then he disappeared around another turn. Adjusting my backpack, I started climbing, not sure how long it would take, sweating a little in the warm winter sun.

Ogyen Choling appeared not after the first turn, or the next; after the fifth I stopped having unreal expectations. I had climbed a good five-six hundred feet up the winding path when the cawing of crows made it apparent. Around a sudden turn was a lodging, part farm and part manorhouse out of the Medieval Ages, with nobody present. I was hesitant to try the manorhouse and turned right in the hope of finding somebody. I made my way along a narrow path until I encountered a cow. We both looked at each other for a while, and then I decided going the other way would be wiser and went back to the manorhouse. It was there that I met Ugyen Rinzin, descendant of Ugyen Puntso, one-time Penlop of Trongsa, and asked, “I don’t have a reservation, but do you think I could stay for a night?”

Xylograph blocks Bhutan

Xylograph blocks. Photo: Gary W. Ashley

He said yes, and then asked me if I would like to visit the museum. I had not known one existed, but was happy to be walked through it. That was truly like entering the world that Jigme Namgyel had inhabited. There were tools for makingara, the locally brewed rice wine. The making and offering of ara is a family legacy with no written recipes. The yeast is prepared differently in each house, and there are always at least three categories of ara, for lamas and VIPs, for valued guests, and for ordinary folk. There were weapons of war, and fabrics preserving handloom traditions over time. At each level of the small fort-turned-museum—the lowest-level housing the food and drink, the higher levels housing weaponry and sacred texts—I felt I was disappearing into a deep feudal past that was beautifully preserved, all of its parts only set aside for the moment, but able to be revived at a moment’s notice.

The experience was heightened by the fact that I was the only guest there. As night fell, after having a traditional Bhutanese meal of emadatsi—cheese and chillis—I was enveloped in isolation. For a moment I felt like calling somebody on my cell phone, just to hear if the world outside was still there, but I restrained myself. Instead I closed the heavy wooden door and slipped into bed. The silence all around me was old and rich, but before I could make sense of it, I was asleep.

Appeared in the August 2012 issue as “The Road To Ogyen Choling”.

An elderly man drinking tea. Photo: Gavin Gough/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

The Guide

Orientation

Bumthang district is in northeastern Bhutan, encapsulating the valleys of Chokor, Ura, Tang and Chumey. The town of Jakar is the district’s administrative hub, approximately 250 km east of Thimphu.

Getting There

Air Paro is the only international airport (350 km from Bumthang/10-hour drive). Druk Air flies there from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. Flights are now available from Paro to Bumthang (Tuesday 10 a.m., Thursday 10.25 a.m., Saturday 9.35 a.m. Tickets can be booked online or at Paro airport; +975-8-271856).

Road Taxis to Bumthang are available at Paro airport (cost varies widely). Alternatively, travellers can take a taxi to Thimphu and finish the journey by government-operated buses. Details for buses and shared taxis can be found at www.rsta.gov.bt. Road travellers from India must enter Bhutan past the West Bengal border through Phuentsholing (150 km from Bagdogra). Bumthang is 465 km/15 hours away.

Rail The nearest Indian railhead to Phuentsholing is New Jalpaiguri (around 150 km).

Visa Rules

Indians do not need to obtain a visa prior to entering Bhutan. A passport is required and a permit stamped on arrival by air. Those entering by road at Phuentsholing can apply for a permit there and get it in a few hours. Visitors staying longer than a week must apply for an extension from Thimphu’s immigration office; it takes around half a day to process. This office also issues special permits to enter dzongs or travel to districts other than Paro, Thimphu and Phuentsholing.

Spiritual Journeys

Monasteries are Bumthang’s chief allure:

Kurje Lhakhang is a complex of temples built in memory of Bhutan’s first three kings.

Tamshing Lhakang is a 16th-century temple and monastery started by the Nyingma saint, Pema Lingpa.

Ngang Lhakang celebrates a three-day cultural festival every December.

Thangbi Gompa is a 15th century monastery, with paintings of Padmasambhava’s depiction of heaven.

Namkhe Nyingpo Gompa is one of the Bumthang’s newer monasteries. Philosophical debates held daily are open to the public.

Seasons

Bumthang’s weather is pleasant from spring (April-May) to autumn (September-October), with moderate rainfall throughout the year. Autumn coincides with the Bumthang Tsechu festival (end of October), and is generally considered high season. There is heavy rainfall in the summer months (June-August). Temperatures drop below zero during winter (late-November to early-March). Heavy snow sometimes blocks the roads leading in to Bumthang.

Stay

Basic

Ogyen Choling is the ancestral home of Ogyen Puntso, with traditional Bhutanese rooms in a giant manor with a museum within (+975-3-680704; www.oling.bt; kcrjakar@druknet.bt; doubles from ₹500, without meals.)

Swiss Guest House is run by Swiss resident Fritz Maurer, who first came to Bhutan some 30 years ago. Expect comfortable rooms and authentic Swiss cuisine (+9753-631145; swissguesthouse.bt; swissguesthouse@yahoo.com; doubles from ₹1,990, without meals.)

Comfort

Jakar Village Lodge is a family-run B&B with pine-panelled rooms overlooking the Chokor Valley (+975-3-631242;www.bhutanlodge.com; gyeldup@druknet.bt; doubles from ₹3,000, meals and taxes extra).

Luxury

Amankora is Bumthang’s only five-star hotel, offering super-luxury suites against the backdrop of the royal palace of Wangdicholing (+975-8272333; www.amanresorts.com; reservations@ amanresorts.com; doubles from ₹59,440, includes all meals and alcohol).

Chumey Nature Resort is a three-star hotel surrounded by hills in the Bumthang valley. (+975-17114836; www.chumeynatureresort.com; doubles start from ₹2,742, meals extra).

  • Omair Ahmad is an author whose last book on Bhutan was titled "The Kingdom at the Centre of the World" (Aleph, 2013).

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