My journey with DAJ Expeditions began with a mid-morning pickup at my home in Bhutan’s Wangdue Phodrang district. We drive east along the country’s main highway for about thirty minutes before splitting off and following a rough farm road for several kilometers through forests and terraced paddy fields. The mild, winter air clears my lungs as we continue, passing a cypress tree that towers above all the others in the valley. As we approach, I can see the tree is adorned with bright prayer flags and ask my guide what the story of the tree is. After being in Bhutan for as long as I have, one learns that everything in the Kingdom has a story and you would be remiss not to inquire. Sangay, my guide, tells me of how Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambava), the saint who had brought Buddhism to Bhutan, had planted his walking staff in the ground at that spot and prayed for it to grow into a magnificent cypress to show that the teachings of Buddhism would flourish.
We continue along Guru Rinpoche’s path until the road ends at the foot of a mountain. Stretching our legs, we exit the car and prepare our things for hiking. Already at the base of the mountain, the hike begins with a steep ascent though chir-pine forests. It becomes apparent that the Bhutanese do not believe in the concept of switch-backs as we climb, quickly gaining altitude. The trail begins to level as we pass a monastic meditation retreat center where a box outside the center’s gates ask for donations to support the monks during their three years of silence.
Further up the trail we exit the forest and we are greeted with a view of the sprawling valley below us and a rock face, shining brightly in the afternoon sun, above. As we get nearer, a small wooden hut appears nestled against the rocks and we are greeted by a layman who is on retreat and, conveniently, not bound by silence.
After making small talk with him for some time, he shows us a slit in the cliff behind his hut and explains the lore which states that if a person can pass through the slit, they will be purified of any sins. Thankful we had skipped breakfast, we all took our turn sucking in our stomachs and contorting our hips as we passed, one after another, through the crack. Thanking the man for his time, we carry on and he resumes his noble solitude.
Now, nearly at our destination and feeling refreshed from our short detour and purification, we hiked through a maze of prayer flags on a thin trail against the cliffs. The wind causes the colors to dance around us and the temple, perched on the rocks above, becomes visible. With only a short distance to travel, we rush up the path to the temple’s entrance.
Upon entering the temple’s modest courtyard, we are welcomed by an old monk caretaker who smiles broadly. He insists that we rest and he offers us tea to refresh from the hike. As we sip on our steaming tea, wind rushes around us before plummeting into the depths of the valley below. The monk proceeds to tell us the story of the temple: Beyul Langdra. The literal translation of the temple’s name is Hidden Treasure Bull Cliff. The story goes that Guru Rinpoche, had come to these cliffs to meditate. During his contemplation, a local deity came, riding a bull, to disturb his peace. Guru Rinpoche transformed into a wrathful state and chopped the deity’s bull into three pieces (its head can still be seen on a rock face above the temple). Terrified, the local deity begged for forgiveness. Guru Rinpoche became merciful and stowed many teachings deep in the cliffs. The local deity then was ordered to become the protector of these hidden treasures and he remains there to this day.
Having finished our tea and entranced by the temple’s mystique, we proceeded to follow our host into the lower shrine room. This shrine was completed within the past year and a half and exemplifies the finest Bhutanese craftsmanship. The freshly carved and painted pillars adorned with dragons and holy symbols frame the brightly colored, clay statues of the temple’s gurus and deities. Here, we notice an atypical bronze statue placed on the alter: it is the figure of a bull being ridden by a rather disruptive looking deity. We proceed up a flight of wooden stairs into the upper shrine room. A more ancient shrine, these statues here have faded with time and are juxtaposed by the recent offerings of brightly dyed butter sculptures. The sunlight bursts through the fogged glass windows, illuminating the deities who sit in meditation forevermore. As is custom in all shrine rooms in Bhutan, photography is strictly prohibited as these are the country’s most holy places and depict the protectors of the Kingdom.
We exit the shrine rooms and bid farewell to the caretaker. We descend as quickly and painlessly as possible as to reach our car before dusk. We arrive at the base of the valley and devour the food which we had stowed in the car. We admire a temple just down the road from our picnic spot as we eat and the sun dips behind the ridge, casting shadows throughout the valley. For the night, we are traveling about two hours to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, where I am greeting with a warm room and soft bed at one of the standard tourist hotels before our adventure continues tomorrow…
Photos: Bryan Gensits
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