Thursday, September 1, 2011

In the Mountains Over Thimphu

"You are lucky today," said Tsering Penjor, my Bhutanese guide, as we gazed out over the white-topped Himalayan range in the distance, from atop a ten-thousand-foot mountain pass. This view is frequently shrouded in clouds and fog.

I wasn't just lucky today—I was lucky during most of my trip in Bhutan. I'd gone in at the tail end of the rainy season, though I'd pushed it as far as I could, hanging around Darjeeling and letting the days pass. But I still have half a world to get through before I have to show up for my first day of teaching comic book coloring to seniors at School of Visual Arts in New York in early January.

Risky to go into Bhutan a few days early, I know—would it have been miserable if everything had been gray and foggy, with me paying $240 a day to be here?—but the weather had cooperated for once. We'd had lots of sun, brilliant panoramas,  and clear views of Bhutan's green mountains and vivid blue sky as we wound around the twisty roads that snake across the landscape.

The mountain pass we'd driven to from nearby Thimphu was called Dochu La Pass. Or at least, that's what my emailed itinerary says, the one that Ugyen had sent me back when I was filling out my Bhutan travel agency paperwork. Tsering told me the name of the place several times while we were there, checking out prayer flags and the 108 memorial chortens at the top of the pass, but I had recently learned the limits of my ability to retain information. Meaning, I have lost that skill. I took notes with pen and paper during the original MariesWorldTour ten years ago, but these days I lazily rely on my faulty memory and the power of Google.

My memory is only part over my overall laziness. I'd also rejected the idea of a three-and-a-half hour hike from here to Lungchuzekha Monastery. I hadn't forgotten how the altitude had wiped me out in Tibet, and how the smallest hill had been challenging.

Instead, we climbed a small hill to some steps to a temple just across the road from the chortens. I admired the colorful detailed paintings and carvings that adorned the temple—I'm especially a fan of the Bhutanese white lions that are carved or painted all over. These aren't like the Japanese cartoon Kimba the White Lion, but rather almost resemble a mastiff that is also white. And a lion. My other favorite is the iconic "four friends" theme, which shows a peacock sitting on a bunny sitting on a monkey sitting on an elephant, all cooperating to reach the fruit in a tree.

Tsering led me through the monastery and back down the hill to our Hyundai, where our driver Tobgay was waiting.

The clouds were back and the Himalayas had disappeared. The chortens—built to commemorate the loss of Indian separatist's lives when the Bhutan military flushed them out near the border in 2003—were shrouded in fog, and a slight drizzle had begun.

We got in the Hyundai and started off down the other side of the mountain, winding through pine forests. Eventually, I became bored and started bugging my guide again.

 "Tsering, I have a question about Bhutan."

"Yes?" He turned around, which must have been sickening as we drove around the winding mountain roads.

"If the yeti was here and of course he doesn't have any identification—and he asked the King for asylum or land, what would the King do?"

Tsering took a deep breath and prepared to explain the concept of kidu, or the King's charitable assistance and land grants foundation, as we drove on through the pine trees, down the mountain.


  1. You get bonus points for the Kimba reference! I was obsessed with that show in the 70's (and Speed Racer).

  2. That was exactly my taste as a kid! I adored Speed Racer.