Bhutan’s westernmost district is where people rarely visit.
My second day with DAJ Expeditions begins lazily with a mid-morning departure from Thimphu: Bhutan’s capital. We follow the winding mountain highway westward for half an hour before crossing one of Bhutan’s most iconic bridges above a roaring river deep in the gorge below. On the far side of the bridge, a makeshift market for travelers is established on the side of the road with locals selling an assortment of fresh produce and hot food. We stop for a late roadside breakfast consisting of tea, rice porridge, and mandarin oranges. After our quick stretch and eating, we continue heading continue traversing the valley towards Haa, one of Bhutan’s westernmost districts. We continue to travel for a short while until the iconic temple known as Dobji Dzong comes into view.
The first Dzong (temple fortress) constructed in Bhutan, legend has it that Dobji Dzong was commissioned in 1531 by Ngawang Chogyel, the brother of the famous Bhutanese saint Drukpa Kuenley or the ‘Divine Madman’. It is said that Ngawang Chogyel was in Druk Ralung, Tibet and there he discovered a stream flowing from below the throne of the Buddhist saint and poet Milarepa. Ngawang Chogyel followed the water south, through the Himalayas and into Bhutan until he discovered the spring’s source was a rock at 6,600 feet above sea level (2,000 meters). He then ordered the construction of the fortress temple here and today, perched on the edge of a cliff, Dobji Dzong has withstood the tests of time and houses some of the most important religious relics in Bhutan.
After exploring Dobji Dzong and the surrounding area, we continue westward following the winding mountain road through traditional farming villages dominated by rice terraces and apple orchards. The drive takes longer than expected due to some construction and roadblocks, but we arrive in Haa at dusk. One of the most exclusive destinations in Bhutan, Haa was off limits to foreigners until 2002. As the sun sets on this quite sprawling valley, we head to Lhakhang Karpo: the White Temple.
Lhakhang Karpo is one of two major temples in Haa, the other being Lhakhang Nagpo: the black temple. These two temples complement each other at the foot of the hills of the three venerated brothers known as Meri Puensum. There are many stories in circulation describing the origins of these temples. The most popular tells of the 8th century Tibetan king, Songtsen Goenpo, who released one black and one white dove from the palace in Tibet. They followed the two doves as they flew into Bhutan and came to nest in the Haa valley. Songtsen Goepo then ordered that two temples, one black and one white, be built where the doves had landed.
We watch the sunset on the Haa Valley from Lhakhang Karpo, before making our way to our home for the night: a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse homestay. Upon entering the spacious house made from wood and mud bricks we warm ourselves by a fire fed stove and are offered tea by our hosts. Our ama (mother) for the night churns butter and finishes cooking dinner while our apa (father), tends to the fire and shares what contemporary life in Bhutan is like for a farmer. We are served a dinner made almost entirely of products from their farm. A massive plate of steaming rice with melted butter over it, mixed vegetables, and of course, ema datsi: Bhutan’s national dish made with chili peppers and cheese fill our stomachs.
We rise with the sun the next morning and after a quick breakfast, we are off. We visit Lhakhang Nagpo (the Black Temple) and begin a drive up to one of the most scenic passes in Bhutan. The road to Chele La pass winds up out of the Haa valley making tight switchbacks that maneuver next to sheer drops. We gain altitude quickly and after an hour of climbing, we arrive at the highest point on Bhutan’s road system.