Bhutan 2018

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas, landlocked between India and China. The country is slightly smaller than the Netherlands, with  a population in 2016 of about 800.000, roughly the same as the city of Amsterdam!

It was only in 1974 that the isolated country opened its borders to foreigners. In that year 287 tourists visited Bhutan, a number that increased to almost 180.000 in 2016. Compare that with the 15.5 million tourists visiting the Netherlands in 2016!

The Bhutanese government wants to preserve the traditional culture and has decided to limit the tourism, by making it expensive. Tourists have to spend 200-250 USD daily, depending on the season.

Friends who have visited Bhutan, told us not to wait too long with a visit, so we decided to go and started looking for a suitable travel agency, because you can not travel on your own in Bhutan, you need to book a guide and a driver. For us that would be a new experience. Finally we chose Book Bhutan Tour ,and booked a 10D9N tour with them.  With only the two of us as passengers, it made the trip even more expensive  🙂

But it was worth it! Before I start my travelogue, here is a Google Map of Bhutan in which I have indicated the places where we have stayed overnight (A – H) and some of the highlights of the trip (red markers). When you click on a marker, you will see a picture. The map can be enlarged and you can zoom in and out.

There are no direct flights from Kuala Lumpur  to Bhutan, first we took a MAS flight to Bangkok, stayed overnight near the airport and early the next morning we departed with Druk Air for Paro, the international airport of Bhutan.

The descent to the airport was quite spectacular. Because the terrain is so mountainous, the plane can not approach in a straight line. Aric took pictures during the descent and nowadays smartphones can record GPS data, even inside the plane! The GE screenshot shows the altitude of the plane and the surrounding mountains.

 Here are the corresponding pictures

At the airport we were welcomed by Ram, the owner of Book Bhutan Tour, and Tenzin, our guide. We received as welcome gift a khata, a silk shawl, decorated  with the  Ashtamangala , the Eight Auspicious Signs. Tenzin, our guide, is wearing the traditional Bhutanese dress for men, the gho.

After a cup of coffee we drove to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, where we had our first Bhutanese food.

On the way to our hotel we passed a sports meet, where students were competing in various activities. Fascinating to see how the spectators  were all dressed in traditional garb, the boys in their gho with black knee stockings and the girls in their kira.

Our room in the Jumolhari Hotel   was comfortable. As we had got up at 4am, we took a short rest.

But not for long, we were going to visit our first Dzong! A Dzong is a fortress, often built on a hill top, dominating a town. Half of a dzong houses administrative offices, the other half is occupied by the monastic body, monks quarters, chapels etc. Many of them have their origins in the 17th century, when Zhabdrung Rinpoche  unified Bhutan as a nation-state. These spectacular fortresses are  one of the main reasons to visit Bhutan.

Here is the Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu. Built in 1641, it has been the seat of Bhutan’s government since 1968.

Because government offices are housed in the dzong, access is only allowed after working hours and there is a dress code. Bhutanese men have to wear a ceremonial white scarf, and tourists should not wear t-shirts, shorts or sandals.

When we arrived, it was raining, they were just lowering the flag.

After a while the rain stopped and we could enter the courtyard. It was our first dzong, so we took numerous pictures. Bhutanese architecture is beautiful, very traditional and decorative.

Here are a few more pictures

Because it had been raining, there were some pools on the pavement. Aric knows how to make spectacular pictures, using the reflection in the water. Tenzin was interested and Aric was eager to explain how to do it…:-)

Before calling it a day, we drove to a spot where we had a good view of the illuminated dzong. A nice first day in Bhutan


DAY 2

We spent this day in Thimphu. First we visited the Memorial Chorten  , built in 1974  in memory of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the 3rd Dragon King, who died in 1972.

There is a lot of respect and love for the royal family in Bhutan, which may explain that daily hundreds of locals visit the memorial for praying. They walk many times around the chorten (stupa), always in clockwise direction. Or they go to the prayer wheels and turn them around and around. Old ladies sit down near those wheels and keep turning them. Fascinating.

Next we went to the Great Buddha  statue, one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, 52 m high. Construction started in 2006 and was completed in 2015, only a few years ago. It is quite impressive, although there has been criticism that it is megalomaniac and doesn’t fit in the Bhutanese culture.

The Buddha is overlooking Thimphu and can be seen from far away. Inside the statue are temples and halls, containing ten thousands of small bronze Buddha statues.

After our lunch we visited a vocational education center, where young (and older) Bhutanese were trained in traditional arts and crafts. We were allowed to just walk around and take pictures. I was impressed by the concentration of the students, even without the presence of their teachers .. 🙂

Wood carving, painting, embroidery, drawing. Notice how concentrated everybody is

It was my birthday and I had decided not to tell Ram and Tenzin. When Ram suggested that we could have a cup of tea at his house, I was not suspicious and accepted his invitation. Only when his wife came in with a cake, and everybody started singing Happy Birthday,  it became clear that there had been a complot between Aric and Ram. Really a surprise, I even became a bit emotional…:-)

Back in our hotel, we had dinner. We had several nice meals, but in general Bhutanese cuisine is not a reason to visit the country. The red rice is tasty, many dishes are prepared with local cheese and can be very spicy. Not much variety.


DAY 3

Our destination this day was Trongsa, less than 90 km from Thimphu, as the crow flies. But the connecting “highway” is winding, resulting in a driving distance of almost 200 km, traversing mountain passes up to 3400 m high. We left Thimphu at 8 am and reached Trongsa around 4 pm, just in time to visit the dzong. But the landscape is beautiful. Ram had prepared a picnic basket with coffee and cookies and we had lunch in a restaurant halfway. I could not resist the temptation to have my picture taken as a big boss…:-)

After lunch we continued and visited an interesting stupa with eyes (Nepali style) . The “highway” is the only east-west connection,  being widened, some parts were in bad condition. We passed a waterfall and finally saw the imposing Trongsa Dzong, but it still took almost an hour to reach it. Have a look at the map above to find out why…:-)

The Trongsa Dzong is the largest dzong of Bhutan, built in 1647. For centuries it was the seat of the Wangchuck dynasty who ruled over much of eastern and central Bhutan, and from 1907 have been Kings of Bhutan

Also here a division in a governmental and a monastic half. A very impressive fortress.

The dzong is a paradise for photographers. Here a small selection from the many pictures we took during our visit.

We stayed overnight in the nice Yangkhil resort,  celebrating a long, tiring day with a bottle of Bhutanese wine.


DAY 4

Our room had a balcony with a view of the Trongsa Dzong.

After breakfast we continued our trip . Also here they were working on the  “highway”, widening it. We stopped for a while at the Yutong La pass, marked by a chorten and a sea of prayer flags. At an altitude of 3425 m, you feel out of breath easily!

After the pass we descended into the Bumthang Valley , the  religious heartland of Bhutan. First we visited the Jakar Dzong, founded as a monastery by the great-grandfather of the Zhabdrung and in 1667 extended as a dzong. Impressive, large building.

Interesting were the many monks in this dzong. Notice that one of them is carrying a smartphone…:-)

Walking back to our car we met a group of young schoolboys going home, dressed in their gho uniform. They were friendly and could speak English quite well. It is educational policy in Bhutan to teach English already in primary school.

After lunch we visited two holy places, each with an interesting history.

The first one is  the Jambay Lhakhang. According to legend, it is one of the 108 temples, built by a Tibetan King in 659 on a single day, to pin down a female demon. The temples were constructed on her body parts that spread across Tibet and Bhutan. In Bhutan two of the temples still exist, the other one is in Paro (see later). Of course they have been repaired and rebuilt  several times. Looking at the many devotees visiting the temple, it is still a very holy place.

The second holy place is the Kurjey Lhakhang , a complex of three temples. The oldest one was built in 1652, it was locked when we were there, inside there should be a meditation cave where the Guru Rimpoche left his body print. The Guru Rimpoche lived in the 8th century and is one of the most venerated Buddhist masters in Bhutan. The second temple was built by the first king of Bhutan in 1900. The third one is very recent, built in 1984 by the grandmother of the present king. Interesting is that the architectural style of all temples is very similar

On the temple grounds we noticed this large collection of miniature stupas. They are placed here by devotees who hope that it will add to their karma. And near the temples there was a hanging bridge decorated with numerous prayer flags. Bhutan is a deeply religious country.

We were getting tired, it was time to go to our guesthouse. The Swiss Guesthouse to be precise and indeed, it felt a bit like Switzerland..:-) . With an apple orchard, a wood stove in our (spacious) room and a more or less Western style dinner.


DAY 5

Another picture of the Swiss Guesthouse. Left in the background the Jakar Dzong. Lots of apple blossom

This day no dzongs, monasteries or temples, we started our trip back to Thimphu, using the same so-called Lateral Road. Here one more stretch (to be fair to Bhutan, large parts of the road were already finished and in good condition)

At  high altitudes, there are no longer cows but yaks. And of course there were  rhododendrons.

Destination for the day was the Dewachen  hotel in the Gangteng Valley, a vast U-shaped glacial valley at an altitude of ~ 3000 m. During the winter months the globally threatened Black-necked Cranes roost here. It is a beautiful valley and our guide Tenzin suggested that we should hike a 4 km nature trail to the hotel. It was a pleasant walk.

The last few days we had been often the only guests in the restaurants and guesthouses. Here in the Dewachen Hotel there was quite a crowd.

We had a beautiful room with a view of the valley. After our dinner Ram and Tenzing joined us for a while, dressed this time in “western” outfit…:-). Both are nice guys and became our friends easily.

 


DAY 6

From our hotel it was an easy walk to the Black Necked Crane Visitor center. We knew that the cranes had already left to their breeding places in Tibet, crossing the Himalaysa at 6 km altitude! One juvenile bird got injured and broken-winged in 2016 and is now kept in the center. Read here more about Karma

We walked through the valley, as the car had a problem. Quite a long walk, but a good exercise. The landscape is dotted with farms, the region is fertile, potatoes and other vegetables are grown. The farmhouses look attractive in their traditional Bhutanese style. Look carefully at the house in the top row, second from right, next to the stairs. It is a penis! Later more about this interesting Bhutanese tradition. We bought  a drink in a local grocery shop

We passed a school and of course I had to take a look. There was a sports meet going on, so we could have a look inside.

The Gangtey Monastery is one of the most important centers of Bhutanese Buddhism.  Established in 1613, but of course several times rebuilt and restored, last in 2002-2008.

This is a monastery, not a dzong. There are prayer halls, the monks have their rooms, no government offices here.

The car had been repaired and from the monastery we continued to Punakha, our destination for the day. One of the famous views in Bhutan are the snow-capped giant Himalaya mountains. But you need clear skies to see them The best view we had was today, at least there was snow. Our altitude 3330 m

In the late afternoon we reached the Punakha Dzong. Altitude 1230 m, 2100 m lower! Constructed by the Zhabdrung Rinpoche in 1637–38, it is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of its most majestic structures. Quite accessible, compared with Trongsa and Bumthang, not surprisingly there were relatively many tourists here.

Punakha was the capital of Bhutan and the seat of government until 1955 and in 2011 the wedding of the present king took place in the dzong


The dzong closes at 5pm, we could not really visit in detail. Before going to our hotel we visited the longest suspension bridge of Bhutan. Modern design, traditionally decorated with prayer flags.

Another interesting day.


DAY 7

After breakfast we visited Chimi Lhakhang, a monastery near Punakha, with an interesting history. Built in 1499, it was the monastery where the “Divine Madman” lived. From the Wikipedia link:  “Some of his most famous performances include urinating on sacred, thankhas, stripping down naked or offering his testicles to a famous Lama.” It is a nice walk through the padi fields to the modest monastery.

The tradition to decorate houses with paintings of erect penises originates from the Divine Madman. Nowadays the government discourages this tradition, but in the countryside we had still seen several (see picture above). They are not fertility symbols but serve to protect against evil spirits and demons.

In the nearby village of Sopsokha it has become the main tourist attraction. Shops, restaurants, they are all decorated with modernised phallus images. A bit too much…:-)

But of course I joined the crowd in taking pictures. Here is a collage.

Leaving the village we had a nice view of the beautiful landscape. If you look carefully, you can just see the monastery on the hill top, left from the village

Next stop was at the Royal Botanical Park, where that day the yearly Rhododendron festival took place. Quite a few visitors, mostly locals.

The rhododendron season was almost over, we had to search for nice specimens.

Our last stop was at the Dochula mountain pass at 3100m.  With clear skies you can see from here the big Himalaya mountains, but, although the weather was nice, the view was not clear.

The 108 memorial chortens have been constructed in 2004, in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India.

We stayed overnight in Thimphu, in the same hotel as the first two nights.

 


DAY 8

Before we left Thimphu for Paro, we went to the Main Post Office. Why? Because you can buy regular stamps there with your own picture on it.

At the Dochula pass we had already taken a picture , especially for these stamps.

Here is the result. We have used them to send postcards to family and friends.

In Paro we first visited the National Museum, high above the Paro Dzong. A watchtower (left) protects the dzong, which you can see downhill (right).

Seen from above it looks rather small, but actually it is a large fortress. Notice the watchtower in the top right of the picture

This was the fifth and last Dzong we visited during our trip. Fed up with dzongs? Not at all. Although the basic architecture is the same, all of them have their own character. And they are live monuments. Here too the dzong houses both government offices and the monastic body.

Everything so colorful. A delight for photographers

During our stay in Bumthang we had visited Jambay Lhakhang, one of the 108 temples, supposedly built on one day in 659 AD to pin down a demoness. The other one in Bhutan is located in Paro, the Kyichu Lhakhang .

It is believed that the two orange trees in the courtyard of the monastery bear fruit throughout the year.


DAY 9

Probably the most famous landmark in Bhutan is the Paro Taktsang, better known as the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery located in the cliffside of the mountains near Paro, at an altitude of 3100 m. The shrine was first built in 1692 around a cave where according to legend the Guru Rimpoche had meditated in the 8th century.

It is considered the cultural icon of Bhutan , so of course we wanted to visit it. It is a strenuous hike, starting at an altitude of 2600 m, and we were not sure if we could make it…:-)

Of course we were not the only visitors. The first part of the hike you can rent a donkey, I just bought a walking stick. We started early before 8am. In both pictures the Tiger’s Nest is visible, try to spot it ..:-)

Even though we were reasonably fit, it was a tough hike, we were often out of breath because of the altitude. The pictures give the altitude and the time. Notice that we had to climb higher than the monastery, then go down steps about 100 meter and finally steep up again to the entrance.

Here is the reward for our efforts…:-)

The interior of the monastery is beautiful, but photography inside is not allowed and the checking was strict, cameras and smartphones had to be put into lockers. We stayed inside for about one hour, then walked back in  2 hours

Tired but happy that we had made it!. In the right picture you can see the Tiger’s Nest above me

I wrote earlier that Bhutanese food is not that special, but the lunch we had was delicious

Ram and Tenzin had ordered it especially for us, probably because they knew that we are interested in food..:-)

Aric had also asked them if they could arrange a Hot Stone Bath, a Bhutanese speciality. So, after lunch we went to a bathhouse. As they had to prepare the baths , we had some time to try archery.

The water in the bathtub is heated by stones, that have been roasted in a fire. When they are dumped in the tub, they not only heat the water, but also give off minerals, supposedly good for your  health. It was a fun experience, when the water cooled down, you just called the helper outside “one more stone, please”.

After we had taken some rest in our hotel, Ram and Tenzin took us to a restaurant for a farewell dinner. Again really nice food

 


DAY 10

Ram and Tenzin took us to the airport, where we said goodbye to what had become our friends..

A very rewarding trip, although we still prefer to organise our own travels, if possible

Apollo et Hyacinthus

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, in 1767, when he was eleven(!) years old. Recently  I have been listening many times to this  fascinating work of art, really amazing that it was written by an eleven year old boy.

Not many recordings exist. Here is a beautiful one.

The Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinthus is an interesting one, because it describes the love between the god Apollo and the boy Hyacinthus. The Greek gods were not picky and had love affairs with both men and women. Famous example is the love of Zeus for the boy Ganymede.

In this case  both Apollo and Zephyros, the West Wind god, were in love with the handsome Spartan prince. Hyacinthus preferred Apollo. When the two lovers were playing with the discus, Apollo threw it very high and far and Hyacinthos tried to catch it. Jealous Zephyros blew the discus off its course, it hit Hyacinthus and killed him. Apollo was desolate, could not bring the boy back to life, but created from his blood a beautiful purple flower.

Painters loved the subject, here is a version by the Russian artist Alexander Kiselyov. The discus is lying on the ground. The flower was not the present hyacinth, but probably the blue larkspur. Ovidius who describes the story in his Metamorphoses, tells that Apollo inscribed “Ai Ai”, the Greek expression of grief on its petals. And indeed, with some imagination you can see in the flower an A en an I …:-)

How is this  homoerotic love affair between Apollo and Hyacinthus, with Zephyros as a jealous rival presented in the opera? Mozart used a libretto written by Rufinus Widl, priest and philosophy professor at the University of Salzburg that had commissioned the opera. Father Widl removed the controversial  theme by introducing a sister of Hyacinthus, Melia, who is the subject of Apollo’s love and Zephyros’ jealousy!

I got intrigued how Widl had done this. The libretto is written in Latin and my knowledge of that language has become quite rusty, but I found an English translation…:-) . I have created a webpage on my site: Apollo et Hyacinthus , where you can read the Latin and English text, while listening to the corresponding parts of the opera. Give it a try!

Here is a screenshot of my webpage. Note that there are only 5 soloists, Hyacinthus, his sister Melia, his father Oebalus, Apollo and Zephyros. More about the soloists later

Here is a  synopsis of Widl’s libretto

Act 1

The opera starts with a conversation between Hyacinthus and Zephyros . Hyacinthus is preparing an offering for Apollo, and Zephyros is wondering why especially Apollo. Oebalus and Melia appear, everything is ready, but then lightning strikes and destroys the offering. Oebalus is upset, what have they done wrong? Could it be because of what Zephyros had said?

Then Apollo appears, as a shepherd, because he has been banned from the Olympos by Jupiter. He is humble and promises to help Oebalus if he can stay in his kingdom. Melia adores him and Apollo accepts her love with pleasure. He will also be a good friend of Hyacinthus. Zephyros, in an aside:  Alas, now Apollo is snatching my beloved boy from me!.

Act 2

Conversation between Oebalus and Melia. Oebalus has no doubt that Apollo wants Melia as his wife and Melia is eager to accept him. They wait for the return of Apollo, who is playing discus with Hyacinthos and Zephyros

Then Zephyros enters with the news that Hyacinthos is dead, hit by a discus thrown by Apollo. Of  course Oebalus and Melia are upset, a marriage with Apollo is now out of the question. Zephyros, in an aside: What’s this I hear? Is the god considering marriage? Is he bent on stealing my beloved Melia from me? Will he who stole Hyacinthus also snatch her love from me?

Oebalus asks Zephyros to go back to Apollo and tell him that he is banished from the kingdom, but Zephyros replies that Oebalus better tells Apollo himself. Again in an aside: If only he expels him, so that my crime can be hidden, for I am the one guilty of committing the murder. Oebalus leaves. Zephyros again:  Everything is going as I wished, my plot is working, and my beloved Melia now remains to be my bride.

Zephyros tries to convince Melia that Apollo is bad and that she better can choose him. She is sad about her brother’s fate and refuses his advances.  Then  Apollo enters. He curses Zephyros who is transformed in a wind and swept away.

Melia is now even more furious, refuses to listen to Apollo’s explanation and banishes him from the kingdom.

Act 3

Oebalus finds Hyacinthus still alive but dying. Hyacinthus tells his father that it was not Apollo but Zephyros who killed him. Then he dies.Oebalus swears to avenge Zephyros’ crime. Melia enters, still thinking that Apollo killed her brother. She tells her father that she banished the god who also killed Zephyros. Oebalus then explains that Apollo was right, because it was Zephyros who threw the fatal discus. Both are upset that the god will take revenge after being banished wrongly

Apollo enters, saying that his love for Hyacinthus made him return. He can not bring the boy back to life, but lets hyacinth flowers spring from his dead body. Both Oebalus and Melia apologise for the banishment, asking for forgiveness. Apollo promises to stay in the kingdom, hoping that Melia is still willing to become his bride. Oebalus gives his permission, saying:  Hyacinthus is dead: you will be for me another Hyacinthus, if you deign to remain in our land as husband of my daughter.

The opera ends with a terzetto, sung by Apollo, Oebalus and Melia. Oebalus sings: “After furious battles, the joyful pledge of love unites you. After these events decreed by fate, the longed-for marriage torch will crown you and inspire me”.

As Shakespeare already wrote: All’s well that ends well… 🙂

Some comments, mainly about Zephyros

  • In the myth Zephyros is a (minor) god himself, here he is just a mortal, a “friend” of Hyacinthus
  • His aside that Apollo is snatching his beloved boy from him, doesn’t make sense in Widl’s adaptation.
  • In the second aside, he is suddenly in love with Melia, afraid that Apollo will steal her like he stole Hyacinthus.
  • Why did he kill Hyacinthus? To put the blame on Apollo? So Melia can become his bride?
  • As revenge for the  killing of Hyacinthus, Apollo transforms Zephyros in a wind. In the myth Apollo can not punish (the god) Zephyros, because Eros protects him, as the crime was committed out of love!

I hope you will agree that Widl has managed to eliminate thoroughly the theme of the original myth .. 🙂

Let me conclude with some details about the soloists. The parts of Oebalus and Melia are sung by a tenor and a soprano. Those of Apollo and Zephyros by countertenors. The part of Hyacinthus is sung by Arno Raunig, a sopranist , a male soprano. LIsten to him, singing Bach’s Ave Maria.  Four years ago I have published a post Countertenors and castrati, where you can find more information about male altos and sopranos..

There is a very simple reason why Mozart wrote his opera for these voices. During the first (and during Mozart’s lifetime only) performance, all parts were sung by boys! They were students and choristers of the Salzburg University and we actually know their names (and ages)

  • Oebalus : Mathias Stadler, student of moral theology and law: 22 years old
  • Melia : Felix Fuchs, boy soprano, chapel chorister, 15 years old
  • Hyacinthus : Christian Enzinger, boy soprano, chapel chorister, 12 years old
  • Apollo : Johann Ernst, boy contralto, chapel chorister, 12 years old
  • Zephyrus : Joseph Vonterthon, boy contralto, fourth-year pupil:, 17 years old.

Even the part of Melia is sung by a boy soprano.

Are you curious how this first performance might have looked like? In 1983(!) a television recording has made of the opera, with soloists from the Tölzer Knabenchor. The quality of the recording is not that good, and the YouTube video is split in eight parts, so I have created a playlist. Here it is:  Apollo et Hyacinthus .

To give you an impression, here is a better quality video of Melia’s aria, sung by boy soprano Alan Bergius. In this aria she sings how happy and proud she is to become the bride of the god Apollo

Immediately after this aria Zephyros enters with the message that Apollo has killed her brother.

By the way, the part of Zephyros is sung by Panito Iconomou, who, two years later, excels in Es ist Vollbracht . (St John’s Passion under Harnoncourt)

I have written this blog with more than usual pleasure and I hope the reader will enjoy it