18 March 2024

Altitude 4420

108 Chorten at Dochula Pass

Today is a drive over the 10,200 ft Dochula Pass, and weaving along the narrow two-lane Thimphu-Punakha Highway. Possibly I will suffer fewer than 1001 curves. The mountains and endless pines climb one side and some rather precipitous drops line the other. There is quite a bit of evidence of earlier landslides and wash-outs. There is no evidence of our road being straight for longer than a minute. I am happy for that left-lane driving as my side of the van is against the mountain. 

Dochula Pass

At the Dochula Pass there is a lovely Royal Botanical Park, a monastery and a large group of Chorten (stupas). The pause is a blessing. Generally, the weather at the pass is windy and chilly but today the sun is shining and winds are calm. The views rival the architecture. In the distance, if clouds clear, views are possible of the Eastern Himalayan snow-covered mountains and Gangkar Puensum, the highest peak in Bhutan. Alas, while there is little pollution, the haze limits our views.

The Dochula Chorten consist of 108 stupas which sit atop a hill. (108 is always an auspicious number for Buddhists.) Referred to as chortens of victory, they act as memorials to the Bhutanese soldiers killed in the December 2003 battle against insurgents from India. The King’s troops were successful in repelling the attack. .

Northeast towards Tibet

These chortens are arranged in three layers, the lowest level layer has 45 chortens, the second has 36 and the top layer has 27, all encircling the main chorten. All levels hold a particular symbolism; images of Buddhist gods and symbolic offerings can be seen. Prayer flags flutter in what is a pretty cold breeze. Each December, the Dochu La Wangyal Festival commerates the King’s victory. And nearby, those so inclined can hike to the Meditation Caves built into the side of the mountain.

Word is as we travel further east, the road only worsens. Hard to imagine. I swallow another ginger pill.

Phallus Village

Bhutanese markets sell well-developed phalluses, in a variety of colors. My favorite is gold but a few have monkey faces. I thought the markets were odd until we stopped in a village dedicated and named for them.

Phallus Village stores sell a variety of sizes and colors. A few are bent, a few with demon faces. Workers are busy constructing a new multi-story building. I am told that soon tourist can sleep overnight in Phallus Village.

UNESCO Dzongs of Bhutan

The center of temporal and religious authorities, a Dzong in Bhutan is a complex of fortified buildings which serve as a principal seat of a Buddhist school. Most Dzongs acted as strategic footholds for gaining influence of a particular school of Buddhism.

The histories of the UNESCO Dzongs reflect the Bhutanese history and culture since the unification of the country. Many important historical events have taken place in these Dzongs, and each are a witness to the successive social and cultural development of Bhutan. Within their walls are a large number of national treasures, including the remains of holy men. Those Dzongs recognized as UNESCO Historical Sites are Punakha Dzong, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, Trongsa Dzong, Paro Dzong, and Dagana Dzong. (The only Dzong we will not visit is Dagana.)

Palace of Great Happiness

We stop at Punakha Dzong  (the palace of great happiness or bliss) built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Known as “the Bearded Lama” he was the unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state. The fortified palace lies at the confluence of the Puna Tsang (Male) and Mo Chhu (Female) rivers. Considering the potential for flash flooding, the last one in 1994, the palace seems very close to these rivers. 

Palace of Great Happiness

The impressive dzong is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. Besides housing several sacred relics of Tibetan Buiddhism, the dzong acted as the seat of Bhutan’s government up until it moved to Thimphu in 1955. It is typical Tibetan architecture with whitewashed walls, large square towers and a central tower or utse all topped with brass roofs and golden spires. At one time more than 600 monks lived here.

The dzong itself is 590’ long and 236’ wide with 3 courtyards. The steep stairways and heavy wooden doors were meant to deter invaders. As every building I have visited, the ornate carving and colorful paintings are superb. In the clear air and with a blue sky and puffy white clouds, with the mountains and rivers as a backdrop, the location is perfect.

Drums and a Discipline Master

We were fortunate to arrive in time for the monks evening prayers. With drums, cymbals, bells and much chanting it is a magical time in a magical hall. Surrounded by their Buddha, statues and vibrant murals, monks of all ages close their day. The youngest, boys of 6 or 7, seem more interested in popping grapes into their mouths. The Discipline Master speaks to them but spares them his whip of leather. He seems a gentle giant, understanding of the young boys impatience.

Discipline Master at end of prayers

The fortress continues in use as the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body and considered one of the most beautiful dzongs in the country. It serves as the site of royal coronations of all of Bhutan’s kings; the royal wedding of the present king occurred here in 2011. Because it is a lower elevation here, about 4,265 feet, I also see the area is popular for hiking and white-water rafting. 

Walking a Bridge

Nearby is a wonderful 17th century 196 ft cantilever bridge crossing the Mo Chu river. In fact, there are several suspension bridges in the area. This one is covered in prayer flags which flutter over the rushing river.

Bhutanese Cuisine

Bhutanese cuisine generally has a lot in common with the cuisine of Asia. The main difference is that in Bhutan, pepper and rice, particularly red rice, are more common.

Meat is part of typical Bhutanese dishes, beef, pork, lamb and especially yak. Cooks use chilies, as well as cheese, which are the main ingredients of their national dish: Ema Datshi (Datshi means cheese and you will see it a lot on menues). Cooked with green chilies and a cheese sauce, if you like spicy food you will immediately become a fan. So far, I have had Ema Datshi ranging from very mild to spicy to too hot for me.

Ema Datshi

I love the Momos which are veggie or meat patties; Kewa Datshi is made with potatoes and cheese, but can have chilies or tomatoes added. Preparation involves cutting potatoes into thin slices then sautéing them in butter, then adding cheese and other ingredients. It was yummy without the chilies. 

Shamu Datshi uses more cheese, but this time mixed with mushrooms. The mushrooms cooks in a kind of stew with cheese and butter then served with rice. I feel all this cheese happily clogging my arteries. 

Not on a plate, as yet

Several dishes include shakam datshi, as dried meat is called. Seems this dish ruins good meat as most times it is just boiled chunks of meat. The sausage, or juma, made with minced meat, rice and spices is much tastier with a slightly citrus flavor because of the Sichuan pepper they use. Also tasty is the Jasha Maroo, which is a chicken stew with ginger.

Lunch of rice, momos, fried cauliflower, carrots, noodles, rice noodles and beef, lental soup, ema datshi. Always a choice of tea. Generally, dishes are mild unless you ask for spicy.

Not only do the Bhutanese love cheese but butter seems to be a popular ingredient. Scrambled eggs cooked in butter is Gondo Datshi. Mix the eggs with a lot of butter to fry them, and then cheese add cheese. The mix is delicious and this rating from a person who eschews breakfast in general.

Drinks in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

To accompany such tasty dishes, the most popular drinks include butter tea (suja), milk tea (ngaja), black tea, and locally produced ara (rice wine). All a big NO for me.

This land of the Thunder Dragon is developing quite a craft beer market. Tastier varieties, all served cold, include: Druk 11000 which packs a wallop at 8% alcohol (US beer is mostly 5%), and Glory Amber Ale named after a species of butterfly with 5% alcohol content. I am not into dark beers, but choices include Dragon Stout and Bhutanese Dark Ale. For a walloping 8% dark, try the Chabchhu.

Red Pandas, the Beer

And, because of its cute name, I favored the natural Red Panda Beer. It is free of preservatives and filtered. Owned by a Swiss gentleman, it explains the existence of the Bumthang Red Panda Weissbier, a delicious wheat beer in the good ole German tradition. It is brewed at the oldest brewery in Bhutan located in our next stop – Bumthang. 

Until tomorrow, I lay my head on my pillow and listen to the rushing stream outside our patio. The sun sets, the water rushes, and I dream of a little Red Panda.


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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