HAA, the secret valley
"Ha Chhu" our friendly guide, Mr Pelden said, gesturing. But, unlike what most of my friends assumed, it wasn't a sneeze, but the name of the river flowing through the intersecting hills of the valley we were driving through. In Dzongkha, the official Bhutanese language, Chhu means water or river and the unknown valley it flows through was charmingly called 'Haa', the smallest district in Bhutan.
Mr Karma, our driver, kept us entertained with tales of his journeys around his country, and we enthusiastically enjoyed the meandering hilly road, lined with tall pine and cyprus trees, that led to the ancestral hometown of the Queen Grandmother of Bhutan. An hour passed without us even blinking as the landscape kept changing into newer tones like a slideshow.
The air turned fresher, crispier, colder, and the emerald mountains grew bigger and denser, dotted infrequently with clusters of colourful wooden houses. After a considerable stretch of road and greenery, we would spot a quaint village, only to drive past it to another conglomeration of teal pyramids. Eventually, after crossing a picturesque Indian military camp, and several fertile areas, we arrived at our secluded resort, being greeted by the distant barks of Bhutia sheepdogs. Two pink cheeked girls in Kira dress, their national costume, appeared giggling, and welcomed us to our charming wooden cottages, with sloping roofs and brightly painted walls.
Stashing our bags, we stepped out of our rooms, and for a couple of seconds we stood spellbound, gawking. Used to living in dry and emotionless man-made surroundings, we had almost forgotten, what it is to be like amidst nature's bounty. The serene, unspoiled valley, at a height of more than 8500 feet, and populated with a mere 200 households, took us in its lap like a long lost child as the refreshing breeze caressed our tired souls. Some of the farmhouses and homestays are located in the beautiful traditional village of Dumchoe in the heart of the Haa Valley, at the base of three sacred hills known as 'Miri Punsum', said to embody the three great Bodhisattvas: Manjushri, the manifestation of the Buddha's Wisdom; Avalokitesvara, manifestation of the Bhudda's Compassion; and Vajrapani, manifestation of the Buddha's Power. The residents here have their ancestral roots in the Haa Valley and are known as Haaps amongst the Bhutanese.
As night approached, redefining silence as we knew it, a melodious chanting of mantras reverberated from the monastery perched atop one of the mountains that guarded the valley. Buddha's mantras lulled us into a relaxing sleep as we snuggled inside our quilts after a hearty chat with our tour group, devoid of any technological distractions like TV or mobile phones, and internet. A beautiful dawn woke us up next morning, peeking through the slats of the green, wooden window doors. We were excited to find that clouds had descended to our bedside to befriend us. Playful as usual, they floated across the ravines, sometimes hiding behind a peak or two and sometimes creating whimsical images in the blue sky board.
A look at two cute kids in mini Gho and Kira, with their joyous faces and innocent little eyes, was enough for me to understand the meaning of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan's mantra for national well-being. I felt a pang for our city kids whose innocence gets hijacked by huge expectations and lives encased in concrete. After cuddling the kids thoroughly we bid them goodbye and turned to the Haa Chu river that lured us with its beauty, flowing beside the Indian Army base camp. Contemplating for a few seconds whether we should cross through the closed wooden gate of the Army camp, as it might be a prohibited area, we gave in to our curiosity. A beautiful golf course lay in front of us, by the side of a thin gurgling river stream. We met two smart army officers from India, playing golf, and they invited us to visit and tour the entire camp with our friends. Gladly we accepted the invitation and delightedly hiked to our resort to share the news.
After a sumptuous but healthy breakfast, Mr Pelden drove us down to Kasto village, where a milky shrine stood at the foot of the three holy mountains. Built in the 7th century, the white temple called "Lhakhang Karpo" had a wide flight of stairs, giving way to a big courtyard. As we entered the dimly lit chapel, adjusting our sight, we found it lined with young monks chanting prayers in their red robes. I later found out that the robes were all made up of natural material and also were dyed with natural colors. Bowing our head to the deities at the altar we silently took our place in a corner to soak ourselves in the spiritual calm. The senior students, apart from chanting mantras from a thin rectangular loose book, held drums in their right hand and beat it with a stick on certain chants.
At the end, the senior monk gave us holy water from a bronze cup to sip. From behind the Lhakhang Karpo, ran a narrow hilly path up to a black shrine called Lhakhang Nagpo. A deep grey painted temple, supposed to be identical to the Jowo temple in Lhasa, welcomed us amidst tranquil woods and chirping birds. But the most amazing part was that though the White chapel had got damaged by an earthquake in the past, this black shrine, guarded by a holy oak tree at the entrance, had stood undefeated.
Then we were off to Wangchulo Dzong, a grand dzong commissioned by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, the Grandfather of the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck. The Dzong structure resembles the Wangdicholing palace in Bumthang that was the seat of the 1st and 2nd kings. It is the entrance of the headquarters of IMTRAT - Indian Military Training Team, responsible for training The Royal Bhutan Army or RBA. The camp was maintained fabulously and so was a sprawling 18-hole golf course with sandy greens. Just opposite is a replica of India's "Ashok Stambh", our official emblem, depicting the close relationship between the two countries. Another place worth visiting enroute to Haa is Dogar Dobji Dzong, the first model Dzong in Bhutan, built in 1531 AD by Ngawang Chhogyal, on a cliff facing the eastern wing to the narrow ravine of Pachhu-Wangchhu River. Later, the Dzong and all it's surroundings were destroyed in a great earthquake with the exception of the central tower.
Across a wobbling bridge, a few steps down to the meadow and just beside the bubbling river, we settled down to our open-air luncheon. On returning at nightfall, Phurva, the resort manager, picked up a red hot stone boulder the size of a football, with a huge tong from the fire pit. Dropping it carefully inside an oak bathtub filled with fresh water from Haa Chhu that was placed inside a wooden cabin, he went back to collect some more. The water sizzled and started steaming by the time five such river stones had been placed in the water strewn with flower petals and Artemisia leaves. Once the water was hot enough, we sank into it one at a time, soaking in the warm pungent smelling water that had an amazing therapeutic effect on our tired feet. The hot stone bath is a well-established bath ritual in Bhutan.
The day ended with a sumptuous meal of "Ema Dasti", a Bhutanese repast made up of Yak cheese and green chillies, red rice, spinach and potato curry, with a glass of "Ara", a traditional wine made out of rice. The Ara, though a bit strong, worked its way fine down our chilly bodies and turned the game of cards we played before retiring to our cozy beds into a jolly one.