The last leg of our westward journey will take us to Ha’a. (It only sounds like I’m trying to be funny.)
I had two reasons for requesting this extra excursion to our already-full itinerary. First, the destination is a bit exotic, even for Bhutan. It’s only been open to tourists a short time, and its relative isolation gives it a different flavor. I want to taste that.
The other reason is that we have to cross Chelela Pass to get there. Chele La is the highest highway pass in the country, at nearly 4000 meters. I’d like to experience walking around at that altitude, even if it’s only for a few minutes. And there’s a tantalizing possibility, if the weather is clear, of having a spectacular view of the high Himalayas.
The height of the pass is also, of course, the main reason Ha’a has been so isolated.
The winding mountain road is by now a familiar sight, but a 2000-meter climb is still a bit of an ordeal. We stop halfway up to stretch and enjoy a taste of the forest—now fir, at this altitude. The weather is cloudy, getting colder as we gain altitude. At last, we come to a clear spot, and I spy the Himalayas. Stop! Photo op!
No, says our guide, much better just ahead.
So we climb higher, but instead of getting a clearer view, we are beginning to see clouds between us and the distant heights. When we reach the pass, we are pretty much in the clouds. The view to the west, over the Ha’a valley, is spectacular, but only grey skies to the north.
The northern-facing slope at the pass has plenty of snow on the ground, while in the air, little flurries of snow add to the enchanted atmosphere.
It’s a windy place, but the wind is not wasted: this set of prayer wheels has little propellers on top, so the wind can turn the wheels and send out prayers all over the land.
Surprisingly, we see a lot of tourists here (almost all Indian). More than anywhere in Central Bhutan.
I climb up the slope at bit, maybe 50 meters. I’m breathing very hard. The air really is thinner, here. I enjoy the giddy feeling I get, but I’m glad I don’t have to travel on my feet at this altitude.
We descend the other side of the pass, hoping for a glimpse of magic. But the view is not so enchanting. It’s just an ordinary-looking farming town, surrounded by brown fields, still in the grip of winter’s sleep. But I can see how the setting would be stunningly beautiful with a little change of color, with a little sunlight (the clouds are darkening overhead).
In town, we have a wonderful lunch with some touches of Indian cuisine. Then we are supposed to see two famous temples, known as the Black Temple and the White Temple.
It turns out that the Black Temple is closed—I don’t learn why, but we are turned away by a monk before we even start up the entrance road.
The visit to the White Temple goes smoothly, though. Now, I can’t tell you anything about the temple itself, because I am so distracted by what was going on there. (Again, no photos or recording, by order). At the foot of the main Buddha statue (not in a corner for privacy, but not trying to attract attention, either), sits a monk. He is chanting, very quietly, while reading a text. He is drumming, not quietly, with one hand, in cadence to the chant. Every once in awhile, the drumbeat is punctuated by a cymbal crash. The monk is very adept at keeping both instruments in time with one hand, using the other hand to turn pages. He’s been practicing this a long time, I think. (Like this guy, too)
The drumbeat is exactly the pulse used by shamans all over the world for trance journeys, which is why it captivates my attention. And I wonder, could I follow that drumbeat into a trance, too? And go to the place where this shaman/monk is going? From across the room, I test the entrance to the Otherworld.
Something changes, but it’s not my state of consciousness. The monk is aware of my attention, and now rather than opening the door to the Otherworld, my awareness is snagged in his question: who are you? how are you qualified to come into this spell?
Not having an answer for him, I back out. This mystery remains closed to me, at least for now. But the experience whets my appetite for more.
It has started to rain lightly. By the time we drive back up to Chelela, the snow is falling generously. The fir forest becomes magical with its coat of white. Not something you often get to see in the tropics!
Back to Paro; tomorrow will be the climax of the whole trip: the climb to Tiger’s Nest.