Balls Out: Adventures in Bhutan
A quest for textiles and a bike trip lured Paula de la Cruz to Bhutan. The scenery, the people, and yak meat were just lucky bonuses.
BHUTAN – Landing in the wide green valley of Paro in western Bhutan, the first thing to jump out is color. Not from flowers or the landscape but from the intricate decorations painted on the wooden overhangs of a building that acts as the airport's one and only gate. Bhutanese men and children stand out among the few khaki-drenched tourists with their knee-length robes, or ghos, the national dress for men, woven in plaid patterns of contrasting hues. I have come to Bhutan to learn about thagzo — literally, "the art of weaving" — the most refined and complex of the country's thirteen traditional arts, which also include woodworking, papermaking, goldsmithing, and stone carving.
Silk Robes and Evil Spirits
My first stop is the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu. It's a simple building with unfinished cement floors where a dozen women work quickly at their looms while whispering into cell phones. Some have come after the harvest season in eastern Bhutan, an area known for its fine weaving and silk worms. Only an experienced weaver can make a kushutara, the most prized and intricate textile found in Bhutan and the formal wrap dress for women. Bhutanese royals have trusted the Lhundrup center for decades for their ceremonial needs, including the young King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema, whose gho and kushutara for their for their highly publicized October 2011 marriage were woven here.
Everyday women's clothes consist of a kira, a full-length skirt worn with a toego, a long-sleeved silk blazer. Unlike the kiras that come in every possible color, a kushutara always follows the basic colors of the woman's own astrological element: green for wood, red for fire, yellow for earth, white for metal, and blue for water.
Weaving also brings luck — and Bhutanese take superstition very seriously. You see this everywhere in the country. Ugyen and Sangay, my energetic guides, explain many of the techniques one can use to keep evil spirits at bay, which include painting giant ejaculating phalluses on walls. Unlike men, who can display their own phalluses in moments of perceived danger, such as when walking through a cemetery, women are limited to fingering their prayer beads and reciting their mantras. Both Ugyen and Sangay pray at each temple we visit and recite prayers when driving by stupas, mound-like structures housing Buddhist relics.
The View from Two Wheels
We leave town after a few days of combing markets and weaving centers for textiles I can take home without breaking the bank (a silk kira costs between $900 to $2,000). As we start driving east, we stop at Dochu-la Pass. It's covered in dense fog, but on a clear day you can see into Tibet. We'll do the next part of the road by bicycle, so we wait a few minutes for the fog to clear. Ugyen is an avid biker, and his company, Guides of Bhutan, offers biking tours throughout the country. Luckily — it must have been all that weaving! — we are doing this ride downhill. Just before our descent, the eldest prince shows up with a friend on bicycles. Their support van is nowhere to be seen, but they shrug it off and disappear at high speeds.
We negotiate our first curves under heavy fog, but as we reach the first valley, the clouds have cleared, and steep cliffs filled with cypresses, tall rhododendrons, and moss-covered pines give way to wide, terraced rice paddies. I forgo my energy bar for a just-picked and roasted corn cob and an apple from a fruit stall by the road. It seems almost every house in Bhutan has an apple tree or an orchard. Seeing the landscape from a bicycle is a much more intimate way to interact with it, with nothing between me and nature — or between me and the trucks. But the hulking vehicles are decorated with bright deities and shiny amulets, so I can hear and see them from miles away.
Yaks and Roosters
Off the bike and back in the van, we reach the U-shaped glacial valley of Gangtey at 10,000 feet, covered in marshland and populated by its favorite customer, the yak. I have read about the meat's brilliant-red hue, which comes from the extra oxygen the high-altitude beasts carry in their blood, and I am eager to try it in all its variations. Amanresorts has a spectacular, intimate lodge here, Amankora, one of five lodges they have in Bhutan. Chef Matthew Schaeffer has organized a tasting menu of yak delicacies (available upon request) that look like an exorcism for vegan zombies. The dishes range from yak carpaccio, yak dumplings, and yak sausage to a grand finale of yak confit. All this protein comes in handy the next day when I hike through dense pine forests, run after wild horses in the open valley, and try another hand at biking, this time uphill. I imagine the muscles of my legs as red as the yak's as I struggle for breath.
The final leg of the trip from Gangtey to Bumthang has close winding roads, and we take turns in the front seat. This is as far east as I have time to go (in January 2012, airports opened in the central and eastern cities of Bumthang and Yonphula), because the drive back to Paro will take more than ten hours. I am eager to see the weavers of this colder region, since they work almost exclusively with wool. Sangay and Ugyen have arranged a visit to a farmhouse owned by family friends, and we are welcomed to the second floor, where the living room, kitchen, and weaving room all blend into one.
Our hostess makes a treat of fried buckwheat noodles in yak butter while her mother works on a thick wool blanket on her loom. The patterns depicting flowers are coarse and simplified, with only a few strands of color. As we wait for our noodles, a baby runs after a rooster, which also apparently lives in this part of the house. Like most weavers, the grandmother started when she was around twelve years old, though she is not sure of her actual age now. As geometrical and planned as these woven patterns may seem, they are usually improvised, responding to the weaver's instinct and imagination. But for inspiration, it may be enough just to look out the window.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Flights: Drukair is the only international carrier serving Bhutan. It flies daily from Bangkok (BKK) to Paro (PBH), and four times a week from Delhi (DEL). Although the Delhi flight promises spectacular Everest views, it is often delayed by bad weather.
Tashi Air-Bhutan Airlines is a private airline, operating domestic routes between Paro and Bumthang three times a week and to Yonphula twice a week. Their planes are also available for private charters.
Visitors can't just fly into Bhutan or see the country on their own. Hotels help visitors facilitate the required entry visas, which includes a $250 daily fee per person during the high season (March-May and September-November) and $200 during the rest of the year. The fee includes three-star accommodations, meals, guides, and transportation. Tips, luxury accommodations, and certain activities are not included, and a surcharge applies to single travelers and couples.
Get more information: Tourism Council of Bhutan.
Guides of Bhutan organized my trip to perfection. Not only do they have in-depth knowledge about all aspects of Bhutanese culture, they also understand the nature, the best markets, and places to shop. The bike rides were definitely the highlight of my trip.
WHERE TO STAY
I stayed at the new Taj Tashi, which was built in the traditional Bhutanese style. Rates from $390.
Amankora has magnificent views of the valley, but my favorite moment was a romantic dinner in its stone potato shed, completely lit by candles. Rates from $1,300.
WHERE TO SHOP FOR TEXTILES
The best prices and selection are in Thimphu, followed by Paro, so don't wait to go east to make your purchases. I often found that in small villages the kira or kushutara could be dirty or not sewn properly. Ask about the materials and if fabrics and embroidery threads are colorfast.
Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre, Thimphu, +975-2-327-534
Chencho Handicraft, Paro, +975-8-271-633