The two most calming and enigmatic visuals in all of Bhutan are the chortens and prayer flags in my humble opinion. I never tire of photographing them and at any point in time one is never very far from one or both. They are addictive and they come in an incredible range of simplistic styles, each with its own allure.
Last Sunday we finally decided to take a walk up behind the mini hydro electricity plant in Rangjung. From the road on the opposite ridge you can see 3 chortens marking a path up the mountain and it looks very enticing. We have been promising ourselves to go up there and explore for a while now so this was our chance.
From our balcony we can see a picturesque little settlement that is often bathed in very intense narrow beams of light when the surrounding area and Rangjung itself is looking rather gloomy. Try as I might to photograph it, I cannot capture its charming allure. For this reason I think of it as a kind of enchanted place and Ian refers to it as the “country club” as there is large cleared area that is always intensely green between the few scattered houses. We suspected that our chorten route would take us up to this hobbit like hamlet and were looking forward to seeing it up close and personal.
We set off earlyish but not in the cool, quiet, still of the morning as we had originally planned. It is hard to not have at least a brief sleep-in on Sunday morning when it’s the only day of the week one is not heading for the chalkface!
We more or less followed our noses to the hydro plant and then set off on the first narrow foot trail we spotted.
This was always gong to be a relatively easy walk but we were surprised at how quickly we fell upon the first of the chortens. I was climbing and panting and thinking that if we were Julian and Shauna, or Lisa and Scott or even Maureen and John, all BCFers from our intake and all in different and far flung places now, we would have been doing this in our first month or so in Rangjung. BUT seasoned hikers from mountainous environs we are not and we are still finding our climbing legs and building our stamina. For a couple of plains dwellers we are doing OK. Nonetheless most of our students can bolt up these kind of inclines without raising a sweat and wearing traditional dress and thongs! (flip-flops or slippers as they like to call them here)
Anyway sweating but undeterred we continued on our way and felt truly blessed that at this point, the unrelenting sun decided to take cover in the clouds. The second chorten afforded us a great view of the monastery but not our house but then a little farther up the trail, even it became visible. Now I just don’t get how we cannot see the chortens from our house but we can see our house from the chortens? It doesn’t add up but I have now spent a week staring meaningfully up at that same cliff face and they just can’t be seen!
On we plodded and within moments, we arrived at the third but as it turns out not final chorten. It also manifests as a group of chortens not the single entity. The area around it was littered with what looks like cotton wool and the pods, seed and membranes from the pods were also strewn about the place. The locals call this tree a cotton tree and I can certainly see why but I wonder if it is really kapok or if indeed that is even a natural substance. If anyone reading this knows I would love to be enlightened. (feel free to comment)
This collection of chorten, chedi, or stupa (depending on which Buddhist culture you are residing in) came with the accompanying “corral” of prayer flags. This too is Ian’s term as we don’t know why some of these stands of prayer flags are fenced in and others are standing like giant sentinels on the bends of roads.
However this group of chortens was preceded by a cluster of prayer flags. The Standard group of three chortens was very well established with huge concrete bases and cleared areas and steps!! As is often the case it is clear that there are frequent visitors, who tend the site even if they are never present when we are. Nearby we were dumbfounded to see a huge water pipe and concrete tunnel (the Morgan Whyalla pipeline Ian joked) How anyone could get machinery to that point was a mystery to us and we pondered if it was possible to have done it all by hand while we hung out there and caught our breath.
Eventually we decided to keep on trucking upwards.
We were now not exactly sure where this trail would lead us but with the monastery, our house and my school disappearing and reappearing from view as we climbed we were in no danger of getting lost.
Before we knew it we were facing a previously unexpected 4th chorten, which just happened to be on a farm road, that looked set to return us known territory and Rangjung in particular. Maybe that is how machinery got to the lower point, as this was definitely a vehicle friendly road.
Unsatisfied with having not yet sighted the “country club” we continued up a narrow trail on the opposite side of the road. This goat track was only spotted because a man out collecting pine needles, for reasons best known to himself, darted up it after stopping to stare in awe at us for a while.
We were equally amused by each other’s presence and exchanged the Dzongkha greeting “Kuzuzang pola!” This being the most useful of the less than 10 phrases I can now say! On this track we found ourselves finally looking sideways at the small collection of houses we see daily from the balcony.
When the track petered out a few metres later and left us on a bit of a clearing with a bird’s eye view we figured that would do us on the upward ever upward front for the day. We sat ourselves down listened to the birdlife, watched the red-bodied dragonflies, spotted beds of rice seedlings patiently awaiting replanting and wild figs and wondered why we had taken so long to get to this little haven so close to town!
As usual we spotted a great collection of birds only some of whom we were able to photograph so that we could look them up in the bird books once we got home. We heard several cuckoos but they were as elusive as ever.
Luckily, the road to which we returned, allowed us to make the walk a loop and I find that so much more satisfying than up and back on the same path. We took one steep shortcut and managed to keep our feet and cut off kilometres of winding dirt road by navigating the steep, slippery, near vertical descent. We made a mental note that this would not be the path of choice after heavy rain as much of it was obviously a waterway!
As we came back into known territory I had to take photos of the chortens, which mark the entrance to Rangjung and the one located in the centre of town as these are the mainstays of our chorten life.
I can’t help but be reminded of the chedi which was the only tourist attraction in Nakhon Pathom and which we could see from the Foreign Language teacher's office in a school we would rather forget in Thailand!!