Sunday, September 14, 2008

TR - Bhutan - Part 1

8/31 – 9/11/08
Part 1

Race Results
Bhutan International Marathon
Thimphu, Bhutan
Sun, Sept 7/08
Marathon #308 – Country #93
4:13:23 – 3 OA – 1 AG

Country #93 – THREE down – SEVEN to go!

The next question is “Where is Bhutan”? It is a landlocked country in the Himalayan Mountains bordered on the north by China/Tibet and on all other sides by India.
Bhutan’s early history is steeped in Buddhist folklore and Buddhism is still the main religion and cultural influence. The Kingdom is ruled by a King who decided to move the country from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008 that is committed to improving the GNH (Gross National Happiness) of the country and its citizens. The small population (about 700,000) is friendly and sincere.

I had first considered running a marathon in Bhutan in 2001 when the first and only other marathon was held. But the country is very difficult and expensive to visit. The number of tourists is restricted (less than 20,000 per year) and all ‘guests’ (except those from India) must be invited and escorted by a Bhutanese travel agency at all times. There is a tourist tax of $250/day included in the tour package that can only be purchased from a Bhutanese agency! Bottom line – it is not cheap to visit Bhutan! However in my quest to run 100 countries I felt that now was the time - I had better visit Bhutan when I had the chance because there may not be another marathon? And I am not getting any younger!

When I mentioned my trip to some other runners/friends only one – my good friend Frank (aka – the MadMonk) from Sarasota expressed interest and actually booked the trip - and agreed to share a room with me. There is only one airport in the country – in Paro – and only the National airline – Druk Airways – is allowed to fly into the country. We decided to connect to Druk in Bangkok and arrived in Bangkok a few days early to allow time to recover from the expected jet lag before traveling on to Bhutan. As expected when Maddog and MadMonk arrived in Bangkok in mid-afternoon after 32 hours of travel time we were totally wiped out from jet lag. We forced ourselves to stay awake as long as possible. MM succumbed before dinner and crashed at 5 pm. MD managed to eat a light dinner and crashed at 7 pm. We both slept 12 hours and felt much better the next day.

Our families sent us frantic emails warning us that the PM of Thailand had declared a state of emergency the day we arrived! We had heard the same news on the BBC news channel but our hotel was located on the outskirts of the city and we had not noticed any turmoil or problems in the streets? We booked a city and temple tour for the afternoon and decided to visit the Grand Palace on our own during the morning. We didn’t see any turmoil/problems when we arrived in the old section of Bangkok but there were lots of police and military armed with machine guns? We had foolishly dressed in shorts because of the hot/humid weather. I knew that it was forbidden to visit temples without trousers but I didn’t think the same rule applied to the Palace? As we approached the entrance to the Palace a smart local entrepreneur reminded us that we could not enter the Palace and ‘rented’ us a pair of trousers. Actually they looked more like Thai pajamas? We agreed that we would never tell anybody or let anybody see the photos of the biggest/silliest-looking dorks in the world visiting the Grand Palace in PJs – but then I figured “how can we laugh at others if we can’t laugh at ourselves”? So enjoy your laughs! (see photos).

In spite of many laughs and snickers from other tourists we enjoyed our visit of the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaew with its revered Emerald Buddha. MM wanted to take a tuk-tuk back to the hotel which turned out to be a bad choice as we sucked up (too many) exhaust fumes in the 5-mile drive! Later that day - and after a wise change into trousers – we toured the old city of Bangkok and visited (too) many Buddhist temples. Again we did not see any political protests or problems? But most of the protests seemed to occur at night and we were in bed by 8pm! Since we had a (ugly) 4:30 am departure for Bhutan the next day we enjoyed a great seafood dinner and were in bed by 8 pm. Five hours later we had to get up and head to the airport! Out Druk Air flight connected via Calcutta, India and arrived in Paro about 8 am on Sept 4. We were finally in Bhutan!

A tour guide from the travel agency that had organized the marathon and trip met us at the airport. We soon learned that Khandu would be our dedicated guide (and babysitter) for our entire stay in Bhutan. There was one other runner in our group – a lovely young lady from Germany. Corinna had only decided in the past few weeks to run the marathon. We were amazed to learn that a tour guide was dedicated to each group or individual guest that arrived at different dates or had a different length of stay? Khandu checked us into a hotel in Paro and I watched in amusement as MM let some young Bhutanese ladies carry his luggage to our room? After breakfast and checking out the grounds of the Hotel Gangtey Palace – an old palace that had been converted to a hotel – the MD and MM decided to do a run. Paro is the 2nd largest city in Bhutan with a population of 9,000 (no error in the zeroes). The town and surrounding area was very rural which was perfect. We couldn’t run in Bangkok because of the traffic and pollution and we needed to run! We ran down the mountain and through the town. The roads were very narrow with no shoulder but there was very little traffic. The biggest problem was dogs – hundreds of stray dogs – lying around the streets/roads in town and outside the town? Fortunately they were not mean or aggressive – they just lie in the middle of the roads and force cars and people to go around them? I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t move for cars? They would be dead in minutes in the US? After our much-needed run and endorphin kick we enjoyed a nice (vegetarian) lunch at the hotel.

After my trip to Nepal to run the Everest Marathon I expected to eat a lot of vegetarian meals but it did become a problem before the end of the trip. Our little group was very compatible except for one thing – Corinna was a ‘Vegan’ and Maddog was a ‘Carnivore’.
Corinna asked/demanded that all the veggies be prepared w/o butter or dairy products, etc and MD demanded meat – BIG pieces of meat – NOT the tiny bits of meat that were served in a typical Asian stir-fry. I had expected that I could always buy a Yak steak but there was none to be found?

After lunch Khandu took us on a guided tour of the National Museum in Paro. The Museum used to be a watchtower for the Paro Dzong (fortress) but was renovated in 1968 to house the National Museum. At the end of an interesting tour MD and MM asked Khandu to drop us off in town to explore the town and do some shopping. Khandu was hesitant/concerned about leaving us alone because he was supposed to baby-sit us 24 x 7 but he soon realized that wasn’t going to happen. We walked back to the hotel in time for dinner (veggie of course)! Since the hotel had no TV, telephone or Internet we went to bed early to prepare for a tough hike the next day!

The next morning MD and MM walked down the hill from the hotel to the Taju Elementary School after breakfast before starting the day’s activities. We had brought school supplies that we wanted to give to local Bhutanese kids and we figured what better way than to donate them to a school? We arrived at a very opportune time – the kids were assembled in the schoolyard for morning assembly. We watched as the kids stood quietly at attention in their school uniforms while a few classmates read short essays and then everyone sang the national anthem. After the assembly was dismissed many of the kids approached us politely to ask who we were and where we were from? I thought “I sure wish we could send our kids from the USA (and insert the name of your country here) to Bhutan for a few years to learn a lesson in humility and discipline”? We found the principal and explained that we wanted to donate some school supplies to the kids. He gladly accepted our gifts and explained that he would use them as prizes/rewards for good grades. Our good deed done we returned to the hotel to prepare for the day’s activities.

The itinerary called for a long/tough hike up to Taktshang Goemba – the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, miraculously perched on the side of a sheer cliff 900m/3000ft above the floor of the Paro valley. The name means ‘Tiger’s Nest’ – it is said that Guru Rinpoche flew to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress, a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, to subdue the local demon, Singey Samdrup. He then meditated in a cave for three months. The only way up to the Tiger’s Nest is to walk, ride a horse or fly on the back of the magic tiger! I was concerned about the MM and his poor back but Khandu assured us that although the trail was steep it was soft dirt up to the top of a chasm where it became necessary to climb many steps built into the side of the cliffs to get to the monastery. MM decided he could make it to that point. Because of my excellent training on 14ers I forged ahead on the steep trail and left the group. Khandu was no fool – he stayed with the lovely young lady and MM trailed behind. I waited at several points for Khandu and Corinna to catch up and take photos. MM caught up to us at a cafeteria located at 2940m/9700ft while we were enjoying a tea break. We continued to the top of the chasm at 3140m/10,362ft where there was a small temple and you are eyeball to eyeball with the monastery – except it is on the opposite side of a chasm. The only way to get to the monastery is to descend about 200m on stone steps built into the sides of the sheer cliffs to a waterfall that drops 900m/3000ft to the valley floor and then ascend about 100m on more stone steps on the opposite cliffs to the monastery. I went into the temple and lit a butter lamp and said a prayer (you can easily guess what my prayer was). MM refused to go any further because of his delicate back and severe acrophobia so I forged ahead. My recent terrifying experience on the stone steps of the Inca Trail prepared me well for this pilgrimage. I didn’t find the steps or the sheer 3,000ft drop that terrifying and I quickly made it to the monastery. Maybe I should run the Inca Trail again next year – Nah! – NOT a Chance in Hell!

There were four temples carved/built into the side of the cliff. We were permitted to visit three of them including the cave where Guru Rinopche meditated. I made a donation and wish at the sacred cave that was never fulfilled so I am not converting to Buddhism! No photos were allowed inside the monastery so you will have to make the visit and wish on your own. We had agreed with the MM that we would all meet back at the cafeteria for lunch so I hustled back there (while Khandu and Corinna meditated) to join him. When I arrived – no MM. When Khandu finally arrived he informed me that one of his fellow tour guides had found the MM (alone) at the car and called Khandu. The MM had broken two important rules: 1) when you are on a mountain you always-always stay at the agreed-upon meeting place until your group joins you - and 2) in Bhutan you do not go off on your own without your tour guide – especially in unknown/risky situations! Thankfully Khandu had arranged for his friend to drive the MM to a restaurant while we enjoyed a (veggie) lunch at the cafeteria. When we finally picked the MM up at the restaurant I was really pissed off and told him bluntly/emphatically how foolish he had been. By the time I finished my tirade he understood that he had screwed up!

It had been a long/tough hike so we returned to the hotel in Paro for a short rest before Khandu took us to the Paro Dzong for a guided tour. The Rinchen Pung Dzong was built in 1644 to defend the Paro valley from invasions from Tibet. Like all dzongs it was built to house government offices at one end and a Buddhist temple at the other. Inside the entrance to the dzong was a very colorful painting of a ‘Wheel of Life’ depicting the six stages of life that humans go through as they progress to either Heaven or Hell! Khandu tried to explain the various stages and meanings but unless you have a basic knowledge of Buddhism it is difficult to grasp? We soon realized as we visited many more dzongs and temples that a basic knowledge of Buddhism would be very helpful when visiting Bhutan since so much of their life and culture is derived from that religion.
At the end of the dzong tour MD and MM once again asked Khandu to drop us off in town so that I could take photos of the town and locals to share with my readers.

The next day we departed early for the capital, Thimpu, to join up with the other runners/guests who would be running the marathon. On the outskirts of Paro we stopped at the Tamchhog Lhakhang, a 600-year old temple owned by the descendants of the Tibetan bridge-builder Thangtong Gyalpo. The traditional iron bridge at the temple was built using some of the original iron chains forged by Thangtong. We continued on to Chhuzom known as the ‘confluence’ at the juncture of the Paro Chhu (river) and the Wang Chhu where there were three chortens built in a different style –Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali. There was also a police checkpoint at Chhuzom. I asked Khandu why? He explained that the road to Thimphu was treacherous and often cars did not make it the far end and the police could look for them. I was sorry I asked!
However we did make it to Thimphu – the capital of Bhutan and the biggest city in the country with a population of 90,000. They are proud of the fact that it is the only capital city in the world without a traffic light – but there is one traffic cop at the main roundabout in the center of the city. We checked into a modern hotel in the city center where we were supposed to meet up with the rest of the runners.

And this is a convenient point to end Part 1 of this report so that you can take a break before continuing the story.

Stay tuned!

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