You’d be forgiven for thinking we’d transported ourselves to Switzerland but, no, this is Bhutan’s cultural heartland, Bumthang. Four bucolic pine-clad valleys make up this area of the country where the main activity is farming. Every lane is filled with placid grazing cattle of the doe-eyed Jersey kind, so calm they pay no heed to passing vehicles or pedestrians. The small fields are neatly cultivated with crops of buckwheat and potatoes. Orchards are full of lichen encrusted apple, plum, peach and apricot trees. Clouds of blossom rise up into the blue sky, set against the fresh green of pollarded willows.
One great Tibetan saint said of Bumthang “Its pleasure meadows and cascades are beyond all description”. And yes, superficially it’s the very image of Darling Buds of May. Underneath it’s the result of hard graft of the kind few of us have to trouble ourselves with in the 21st Century.
Many places in Bhutan have names which sound slightly curious to foreigners (we have Nobgang coming up in a future post), although with places called Nempnett Thrubwell and Leighton Buzzard, the English would be fine ones to talk. There are two possible derivations of the name Bumthang. The more literal one is that the main valley is shaped like a bumpa or vessel of holy water. When combined with thang, the word for field or flat place, we arrive at Bumthang. I prefer the translation which refers to the notoriously pretty women of the area – bum meaning girl.
There’s more to Bumthang’s similarity with the Alps than just the landscape of pine-clad mountains and flower filled meadows. Our accommodation had many rustic features, including wooden chairs with little carved hearts, roaring wood-burners and enviable quantities of top-notch logs. It even served up homemade jams, apple brandy and potato rosti. This pretty little hotel once served as the headquarters of a dairy and forestry project and was so often visited by project workers from Switzerland that it later became known as the Swiss Guesthouse. Down the road in the optimistically signposted “Industrial Area” there are tiny factories making Swiss cheese and apple juice. Red Panda beer, a cloudy Bavarian-style weissbier, is manufactured in the brewery and very good it is too. Alcohol goes to your head twice as fast at this altitude and quickly disables your legs!
Now to the subject of hot stone baths, which is where we deserve an award for bravery. Hot stone baths are the traditional method of getting clean in Bhutan, and simply described are no more than a wooden tub of water heated by very hot rocks. The Bhutanese swear that the mineral filled water is more effective than any massage, and surprisingly I have to agree with them. Native herbs can be added to remedy various ills and are far more environmentally friendly than a slug of Radox. Rather than pay top dollar for the pleasure in a five-star hotel ($100, I ask you?), we were persuaded to let the gentleman farmer, pictured below, prepare us a soothing soak in his back yard for just a few dollars a piece.
To make one hot stone bath, heat smooth Himalayan river stones in a bonfire or fire pit. Once the logs turn white, remove the stones with a pitchfork and rinse under running water, in this case from a cattle trough, to remove any soot. Drop into the outer part of a wooden bath filled with cold water (again from a cattle trough) and watch the steam rise. Once the temperature is to your liking, enter the bathroom (i.e. shed), undress as quickly as possible, and get in the sit-up style tub. (The rocks are separated from the bather by a perforated board, so as not to poach your feet.) Ask farmer to add more rocks as necessary (Dzongkha optional). Ignore any floating objects and then attempt to relax. (The latter can be quite difficult when cows start poking their noses through the slats in the wall and mooing loudly. I guess it’s not often that two pasty Europeans wander into your farmyard and start taking all their clothes off, so you’d want to have a gander.) When you can’t take any more, or the water goes cold, dry yourself as rapidly as possible, dress and exit the bathroom nonchalantly, as if it’s something you do regularly.
Despite the very bizarre experience of being starkers in a shed, I felt surprisingly clean and serene at the end of the experience. You should try it, although I wouldn’t recommend carting about superheated rocks with flip-flops on, as shown here. It’s asking for trouble.
Finally, laid out in the farmyard were copious chillies. These, along with red rice, are Bhutan’s staple food. Normally served quartered, complete with seeds and smothered in cheesy sauce, they make a dish called Ema Datshi. It’s an acquired taste but guaranteed to warm your cockles or any other part of the anatomy not reached by the waters of a hot stone bath. These particular chillies were grown last year and stored in the farmhouse roof (all Bhutanese houses have open sided roofs for storing grains and chillies). They are then carefully rinsed and left out to dry as required for cooking throughout the winter and spring. This lot would barely see the average Bhutanese family through a single meal!
In my next post – Aside the Black Mountain.