OFF LATE I HAVE OFTEN BEEN caught dozing off during the cab transfers. Blame it on my expanding girth (Delhi Belly?), my growing age or 8 years of travel. As our van moved from Paro to Haa valley, a series of exclamations woke me up. The travel bloggers in our van were sighing at the misty Chele La Pass. I peeped out of the window, eyes half closed, to see a series of white flags fluttering wildly against a grey sky. Before I imagined that I was still sleeping and this is just another ‘unreal’ dream, my blogger friends jolted me out of my stupor and forced me to come out of van.
Not caring about the slight drizzle, I moved about silently as a bunch of dogs, (tails wagging, ears stuck to its head – signs of affection) came running to me. They chose me out of all the people. I value this welcome much more than the garland and tikka welcomes at fancy hotels. It was a silent moment. We were the only people there at that time. Throughout our 10 day long journey in Bhutan, this was the only misty place we came across. At approximately 13,000 feet, it is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan and connects Paro to Haa Valley. None of us had been to Haa valley before and it set the tone for the remaining journey.
It was pitch dark and still drizzling as we reached the 100 year old restored farm house in Haa Valley. Exhausted, we were still curious how the Haa valley looks likes. Never mind, as I stepped out of the van, I inhaled the rain soaked smell of soil deeply, listened carefully to the bell which rang in a distance (A Cow? A Prayer wheel?), touched the wooden railings of the dirt track we took to reach the farm, tasted the Haa air. Sporadic lamps (Few and far between) danced in the distance. I was still not sure what Haa looked like, but I was sure how Haa felt like!
The night was spent admiring the beauty of the farmhouse we were staying in. It was a restored house built in the traditional Bhutanese style. The wallpapers in the room were artistic and had Buddhist themes painted all over. Since it was an old style house, there were no attached bathrooms for any of the rooms. You don’t mind such things when you want an authentic experience. Cultural Immersion has always been about getting out of one’s comfort zone. I had always wanted to stay in a Bhutanese house and that wish was fulfilled here. The dinner was simple organic Thali (pre plated meal), flavorsome! A post prandial walk in the garden and midnight conversations followed.
We woke up early the next day for a morning walk around the village. The sounds and smells we experienced the night before got a face. We discovered it is a sparsely populated village. There were large empty stretches between clusters of mud and wood houses. In our 2 hour long walk, we did not bump into a single person. Some people did go about their chores in their houses, some tending to their farms. The houses were large and often with a big lawn, with angry barking dogs. Some houses seemed ancient. Cows roamed around nonchalantly.
The empty wooden bridge above the water stream waited patiently for someone to justify its presence. Snow capped mountains made it all look even more majestic. The cows grazing in the green expanse next to a wooden hut made it look like Switzerland. Somewhere in the middle of our walk, I got the epiphany that we should have planned a longer stay here. It is not every day that one gets to converse with oneself and the nature in comforting solitude.
As we left the farm house post breakfast, an old man playing with his cat smiled at me from his second story window. The Bhutanese frame of the window and his fondness for gibberish etched the memory of this moment forever in me. A few steps, as I walked on the dirt road to sit in my van, a kid, perched on his father’s shoulder smiled and waved at me. I don’t know why but that moment humbled me. It made my city life seem meaningless. I sat in the van, slightly upset. I refused to peep out of the window one last time. Because I know love happens when you do that! People in Haa know how to melt your heart, one artery at a time! In a non noisy way!
WHAT IS ALL THE HOO HAA ABOUT?
Being an agrarian nation, 70 % of people in Bhutan live in rural areas. They depend on farms and cattle for the livelihood. Bhutan is abundant in natural resources what with green mountains, mysterious forests, voluptuous rivers accompanying you wherever you go. I got a glimpse of this even in urban areas.
I have been to Bhutan 2 times, once with parents and again with travel bloggers. I missed seeing Haa Valley the last time when I was here. Just like many others who stick to the traditional Paro-Thimphu-Punakha circuit. Haa Valley is the perfect place to experience the traditional lifestyle of Bhutan amidst a calm atmosphere. It is a great place to indulge in the backdrop of rich culture manifest in prayer wheels, fluttering prayer flags, vibrant close knit communities and a lazy languor that hangs in this village.
With an area of 1706.8 square kilometers, Haa is one of the smallest districts of Bhutan. It runs north east to south west, neighbouring Paro, Chukha and Samte. With a population of approximately 12,000 in 63 villages, Haa is the second least populated dzongkhag aka district in the valley.
CULTURE AND TRADITION
People of Haa are called Haaps. They celebrate the New Year much earlier than people in other parts of Bhutan do. The Haa New Year called Lomba (meaning: To carry the year) is celebrated on 29th day of the tenth month (usually November) of the Bhutanese calendar.
Ancient shamanistic traditions are practiced here along with traditional Buddhist rituals. The annual ritual to honor Ap Chhundu, the guardian diety of Haa includes the sacrifice of a yak. It is accepted that doing so will ensure a year of prosperity for the haaps for an year. The deity is worshipped by the men in his form as Pholha Masang Chhundu.
FOOD IN HAA VALLEY, BHUTAN
The valley of Haa is fertile and people grow millet, potatoes, barley, rice, wheat etc. Many apple orchards pass us as we drove through the valley. I also saw farms of Quinoa ivory, Huancayo, Negra Collana.
Habi Hoento aka Hoentey is a local dish cooked during Lomba, the new year. It is a steamed dumpling stuffed with pungent grated turnip, dried turnip greens, mushroom, garlic, onion, chopped cabbage. Occasionally ginger, mustard seeds, walnut, chilli powder, salt, butter and oil seeds like poppy and sesame are also added as per individual preference and spending capacity.
Habi Ruto: Yak products are common in Himalayan regions. It is a dried variety of Yak Cheese popular in Haa.
POINTS OF INTEREST IN HAA:
Temples: The verdant hills of Haa are home to many picturesque temples such as 7th century old Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black temple) in a tiny village called Dumchoe. Lhakhang Nagpo is situated above Lhakhang Karpo.
Tagchu Goemba: It is a 100 year old monastery in Lungse Kha Village and was founded by Dali Lama Sangay Jamtsho. It is said that its structure is similar to Nub Dali Dzong in Tibet where Lama Sangay Jamtsho served a tenure as the abbot of the Tibetan monastery.
Shekhar Drak Temple: Built at a foot of a cliff, it appears as if it is an outcrop of the hilly terrain.
Wangchu Lo Dzong : Haa is the ancestral home of the Great Royal Grandmother, Her Royal Highness Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck. Her Grandfather Gongzim Uguen Dorji commissioned the construction of the Wangchu Lo Dzong, a former district center. Its structure is akin to Wangdicholing Palace in Bumthang, the seat of first and second Kings of Bhutan. Dumcho Dzong stood here earlier. It was destroyed in fire. Since it is a relatively a newer construction (established in 1915) when compared to ancient dzongs, a prefix sar (new) is often added to distinguish it.
Dobji Dzong: This fortress at an altitude of 6,600 feet is 11 kilometres away from Chunzom. It was built in 1531 by Ngawang Chogyal. The five storied fortress stands tall atop a ridge, jaw dropping ravines descending to the basin of Pachu-Wangchu. It was a center of Drukpa Kagyu teachings.
The hill that looks like a horse: Behind the Gongzim Ugyen Dorji Higher Secondary School, our guide Sonam pointed to a hill. A large portion of it looked like the face of a horse. We were told it is a natural formation. There is a suspension bridge near the school.
The view from my #SoulWindow is away from the touristy frills!
Disclaimer: My trip was sponsored and all the logistics were taken care of by Bhutan Bookings. Click here to plan your vacation in Bhutan with them.
I was accompanied by travel bloggers – Dipanshu, Manjulika, Swati and Parnashree in the fun company of Sonam Karma and Dipanjan from Bhutan Bookings. Click on their names to read their stories from Bhutan.
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