Day 2: Morning, more around Thimpu
Afternoon drive to Punakha (1,250m)
Drive to Punakha (1,250m) in the afternoon – Not done with the Bhutanese capital yet, we drive to a vantage point above the city towards a tiny zoo to be bemused by the sight of an animal that seems more out of the pages of a mythical story book. Takin, the national animal of the Druk Kingdom, is as strange a creature as you’ll ever see – an interesting concoction of a goat and cattle.
We then head further to a nunnery, Drubthob Lhakhang. En route, you can capture a fascinating sight of the city from high above. Visit to the local vegetable market on return to the city centre. After lunch, drive to Punakha (70 kms/3hrs approx) via the Dochula pass (3,050 m). Again, mountain views are spectacular, weather permitting.
Capital of Bhutan until 1955, Punakha is the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). Blessed with a temperate climate and fed by the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha is the most fertile valley in the country. Afternoon activity will include a walk to the temple of the Divine Madman- Chimi Lhakhang. The walk takes you through the farmlands and past the farmhouses to a hill with commanding views of the river valley below. A stop by a farmhouse gives you the low- down on the typical farm life. (B,L,D)
Day 3: Around Punakha
Day start with the drive to Yambesa (7kms from Punakha). Drop off at a parking lot by the Mo Chhu River and hike through a beautiful pastoral setting to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten(40mins approx) – an impressive 30m tall chorten, dedicated to protector deities, perched high on the hill with the bird’s eye view of the valley below. We later take a picnic lunch by the river and test our hand – eye coordination at the favourite pass time of Bhutanese – Archery. The latter part of the day will include a visit to Punakha Dzong. Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the dzong was built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative cena ter for the region. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the dzong has been fully restored in recent years by the present monarch.
Day 4: To Gangte Region (2,900m)
Punakha – Gangte Region (2900m) with a stop-over at Wangduephodrang - Located south of Punakha and the last town before central Bhutan, Wangduephodrang (45mins) is like an extended village with a few well-provisioned shops. The higher reaches of the Wangduephodrang Valley provide rich pastoral land for cattle. The district is famous for its fine bamboo work, stone carvings, and slate, which is mined further up a valley. Stretched along the hilltop above the confluence of the Punakha Chu and Tang Chu rivers, the imposing Wangduephodrang Dzong is the town’s most visible feature.
Resume the drive towards Gangte, a.k.a. Phobjikha, (2hrs approx). Broad yak pastures, rhododendron and pine forests and the winding narrow road leads to a serene bowl shaped valley made to look more remote by the non-existence of power cables and telephone connections. Flanked by the enigmatic yet untouched Black Mountains and the winter abode (Oct-Mar) to the migratory Black Necked Cranes, the Gangte Valley has an unassuming charm about it .
Reaching the valley, we head to one of the farmhouses to take our lunch and try out some local produce. Fortified, we then take a circular walk along the Nature Trail (2hrs approx) to emerge out onto the ridge –the site of the 450 year old Gangte Monastery which houses one of the largest prayer halls in Bhutan and gives shelter to about 100 resident monks. (B,L,D)
Day 5: Return to Paro
Enroute to Paro, we again make a halt at Dochula pass to break our long drive in time for the lunch amidst the Himalayan vista. Down the road, pull over at Simtokha Dzong. This dzong, built in 1627 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, stands on a low
ridge 8 km down the valley from Thimphu. Nowadays it is home to the Institute for Language and Culture Studies. The most noteworthy artistic feature of this dzong is a series of over 300 finely worked slate carvings behind the prayer wheels in the courtyard.
The lovely valley in which Paro is nestled encapsulates a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries and the National Museum. Mt. Chomolhari (7,314m) dominates the northern end of the valley; its glacial waters plunging through deep gorges to form the Pa Chu (Paro river). The Paro valley is one of the kingdom’s most fertile, producing the bulk of Bhutan’s famous red rice from its terraced fields. (B,L,D)
Day 6: Paro and Environs
Our long-awaited morning hike up to the famed Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's nest), an iconic Bhutanese landmark. The upward climb will take around 2 hours and stunning views compensate for the energy expended. Local lore claims that it is here that Guru Padmasambava landed on the back of a Tiger in the 8th century, and then proceeded to meditate for three months. In 1684 a monastery was built on the site to commemorate the event. Midway on the descent, we take lunch at the terraces of a Government run cafeteria facing the Tiger’s Nest.
The remainder of the day has in store for us:
Drukgyel Dzong: Located 15km to the north.
This dzong, with a picturesque village nestling below its ramparts, was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders. Though largely destroyed by fire in 1951, the towering outer walls and central keep remain imposing sights. On a clear day, there is a splendid view of Mt. Chomolhari from the approach road.
The “fortress of the mountain of jewels“ was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on a hill above the township. The approach to the Dzong is through a traditional covered bridge (called the Nemi Zam) and then up a paved stone path running alongside the imposing outer walls. The Valley’s annual springtime religious festival, the Paro Tsechu, takes place in the courtyard of the dzong and on the dance ground on the hillside above.
On a ridge immediately above Rinpung Dzong is Ta Dzong, built as a watchtower to protect the Dzong. (“Ta” means “to see” in Dzongkha, so the watchtower of a dzong is always called a “Ta dzong”). Because of their function, watchtowers are always round in shape. In 1968, Paro’s Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the National Museum. It now holds a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings, an exquisite range of Bhutanese postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural history
Day 7: Day Excursion to Haa Valley (2,736m)
Leaving Paro to the west by road, and after driving through pine and rhododendron forest, we begin our climb of the Chele-la pass (4,200 meters), the highest mountain pass in Bhutan. From here one has splendid views of the High Himal, including the magnificent peaks of Jhomolari, Bhutan’s most sacred peak at over 6,700m, and Jichu Drakey. A 22km descent from the top of the pass brings us to the erstwhile restricted zone of Haa. The Haa Dzong is presently occupied by the Bhutanese military, but the views from outside its walls are stunning. After a picnic lunch there are visits to the Monastery of Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) followed by the Lhakhang Nagpo (Black Temple). The central shrine of Lhakhang Nagpo is said to resemble that of the Jowo in Lhasa, Tibet.
The three giant hills looming over the fringes of Haa Valley are popularly known today as ‘Rig Sum Goenpa’, signifying three deities: Jambayang, Chana Dorji and Chenrizig.
Return to Paro. (B,L,D)
Day 8:Fly Paro to Kathmandu
Early morning drive to Airport for the return flight to Kathmandu. Journey ends on arrival at Kathmandu Airport. End of Expedition. (B)
MEAL CODES: (B=Breakfast, L=Lunch, D=Dinner)