Up the Chelele pass road

I had a quest in mind for my last day in Bhutan. I wanted to go back to the nunnery I visited with Chador a week ago, the place I found the most intense calm in a trip full of calm.

I’ve been inside at least a dozen temples, and most of the others were more elaborate or ornate. I was very moved by stumbling across a group of monks in Haa performing different rituals, with trumpets and tonal prayers, the youngest boys alternately bored and fervent.

But this place — the oldest nunnery in Bhutan, home to 50 or so women who study together — this was the place that made me actually sink to the ground and find my own breath in a way no other place ever has. The temple was tiny but the energy was profound.

I sat for an hour the other day, part of the time meditating and part of the time simply watching the spinning of a paper prayer wheel moved by the heat of the butter lamp below it. Complete peace.

So I wanted to go back, but it is most of the way up a mountain, and I didn’t want to drive. I wanted to ride. Chador very kindly agreed to let me keep my bike an extra day, even though it meant he would have to ride it the 60 km back to Thimphu.

No one could agree how far it was — the pass is 36 km from the junction, and I thought it was about 2/3 of the way up. Chador agreed. 24 or 25 km, he said. We rode 18 km up a pass the other day, and I thought I could do another 7 or 8 km. Just.

I woke up feeling a bit ill, after feeling quite nasty while hiking to the tigers nest the day before. So I spent the morning strolling around Paro buying souvenirs, trying to catch enough wifi to post a couple of blogs, and trying to get my bank card to work. Then suddenly I felt restored, ate a quick lunch of vegetable thukpa (Bhutan’s answer to pho) and set off.

It was late in the day to embark on this kind of ride, but I thought I would just see how it unfolded.

The road was unrelentingly up, and so many curves. For the first 10 km, I was jumpy on every curve, a bit quivery at the narrowness of the roads, the sheer unprotected drops. At first I would stop when I heard a car or bus approach, and then I found a flow. It was hot, and there was just me and the bike and the road and the valley further and further below me.

My only companions on the road were a group of a dozen or so Indian men on motorbikes. At about the 10km point I had to slow down because two of them were taking photos of each other in the road. I stopped and one asked for a photo. I thought he wanted me to take a pic of the two of them, or of me on my bike. But no — he wanted me to get off my bike so he could sit on it for a photo. Then his friend did it. So I am in the photos of two random Indian men who commandeered my bike. (This is, weirdly, the third time this has happened this trip — only one time an old Indian man rode my bike around the parking lot at the phallus temple while I removed my long pants that I had to put on to go inside).

I rode up and up, steady in a middle gear, the road a little steeper as I got higher. Two shantytown camps of the Indian road workers and their families, washing their clothing and blankets in the spring. Sunday, so no school or work. Hopeful little plants on the tin roofs.

More potholes and almost no stretches of flat. Trees on both sides, messages of wisdom from the road building project, the one whose motto is “we cut mountains and connect hearts.” (Not the worst mission statement I’ve ever heard),

After what felt like forever — about two and a half hours — I started to expect to see the nunnery. I remembered seeing it high above the road long before we made the turnoff to drive up to it. I began to make gentle plans through my flow up and up and up, around the potholes. If I couldn’t see it by 22 km of climbing, I would rethink it.

At 26 km of up, I was feeling like I was close to done with the up, and beginning to remember that it’s on the way down mountains that things go awry. I knew I wouldn’t have time to climb up and spend any time in the temple — I had started too late in the day — but I was trying to at least see it from the road.

I haven’t been using any distance trackers this whole trip, but I was using the GPS on my running watch to gauge how far I’d gone, remembering that i still had to go down. At the 31 km mark from the hotel, I realized I was at my limit, and I stopped. Three hours.

I stopped and looked. The valley was far gone below me. I’d ascended at least 2300 metres. Absolute peace. Layers of mountains you can’t see in a photo, the furthest ones snow capped in the fog. Silence except for this sound that could be chanting, could be wind, could be wheels, could be ghosts — it most likely was. The most likely was chanting, probably from the nunnery — but the voices seemed deeper than women, so maybe a hidden monastery, maybe just the echoes of centuries of prayers living in the mountains.

I tried to take a selfie where I stopped, ate something, shrugged on my jacket — but it was into the sun and my arms seemed to have gotten shorter.

I was completely happy. My gloves were filthy and I was cold and light headed, 11 km from the highest road point in Bhutan, 3810 m.

I rode down, braking almost the entire way, thumbs ups thrown at me from my Indian motorbiker friends on their way down. My hands tingled and my right foot hurt because I took it out of the clips in case I needed to stop abruptly.

At 4 km above the junction, I stopped and savoured the valley. Rice fields and pure Bhutan.


Paro, Sunday morning

Today is my last day in Bhutan. The group cycling trip is done, and I had plans to ride by myself halfway up the pass I drove with Chador last week.

I woke up tired and a bit sick, and decided to spend the morning shopping and drinking coffee. As I walked down to the town I was submerged into an unexpected Sunday morning.

First, a straggle of runners in a full marathon, the numbers on their clothes all lower than 50, navigating horses and cows and hills and loneliness.

On the recreation field, men practicing traditional archery, their cheers the noise I could hear from my hotel room. And men and women in a gorgeous traditional dance. Performing for their own pleasure, not for tourists.

I watch for a while, then go in search of a bank machine. I render one useless, and then find one that is willing to give me Nu. Which I promptly spend on a prayer wheel, a goat mask, some books on Buddhism that Chador recommends, and an antique prayer chime.

After two Americanos, I’m suddenly ready for a ride.


Prayer flags are the dominant image of Bhutan. Across every river, bridge, mountain road, open space. Fresh colourful strings representing all five elements — air, wind, water, fire, wood — for luck, for prayers, faded and tattered strings as the wind and rain dissolve them. Spiritual laundry.

People hang the prayers where there are strong winds, an image of the wind horse in the centre representing the power of the wind to carry the prayers fast and wide. They consult astrology for the best place, and hang tall flags in front of every home representing your own element, or a local protector. And most hauntingly, tall clutches of 108 long white prayers on bamboo poles to honour someone who has passed away.

Consciousness of death is at the centre of Bhutanese Buddhism, recognition that you can be healthy one day and gone the next. Old people walk slowly around prayer wheels, clockwise around temples, praying with sets of beads as they walk down the street. If you forget for a moment, white ghosts of honour of people who’ve passed away are clustered on edges and plains, and stupas — large structures to honour the dead — are dotted everywhere. Smallish ones and large ornate clusters.

And tucked away into slots and crannies all over Bhutan are thousands of mini stupas, called tsatsas. These are made of clay and the cremated ash of the dead person. Not immediately visible, but once you start seeing them, you see them everywhere.

When a loved one dies, you consult the astrology for the person to find out the right time to cremate them. It might be a day or a week away. Until then, their body rests outside their home, guarded day and night. Chador told us there is a possibility that the body would be stolen for the thigh bones, which are used to make ritual horns for temples — which we saw in the Punakha dzong. The astrology also tells you where to put the prayer flags — high up, on a river, at a river confluence — and where to place the tsatsas.

The tiny stupas are so sweet looking one of the guys in my group said he wanted to swipe one to take it home. We told him he would be stealing a dead person, and I think he refrained — although he did sneak a forbidden photo in the temple with the big wooden phallus. If his plane crashes, we’ll know why.

Cremation is the most common form of burial, but babies’ bodies are thrown into the river, and some elderly Bhutanese follow the Tibetan tradition of sky burial, meaning the bodies are left high on a mountain pass for the vultures and other creatures to devour.

I did not know that when we wandered around the flag-tangled Cheleli pass on our way to Haa Valley.

Bhutan is the gentlest place I’ve ever been, and I could roll my way on a bike through its valleys for weeks. There is a softness of mist and energy, even when cars are jostling for space on a narrow road. It’s a country where stories of gods and spirits are very much alive, and it is taken for granted that some spiritual leaders are reincarnation of historically great people.

One of the most well-known features of Bhutan is its concept of gross national happiness. One of the people in my group said that she hadn’t noticed a particular happiness about the country. I agree that it doesn’t feel like joy — but it does feel like calm, contentment, kindness. I haven’t heard a single Bhutanese voice raised in anger since I got here, and people are incredibly kind. This is the only time in all of my travels where a guide has put himself out to satisfy my whims — Chador let me keep my bike an extra day, knowing that he would have to ride it 65 km back to Thimphu himself. My only way of making sense of it is that it’s kind of a living embodiment of the Buddhist concept of non-attachment — living now without fearing the future, accepting the full landscape of life and lives in a way I’ve not felt in any other country.

Thimphu to Punakha

I’m on the top of a mountain pass. We climbed from Thimphu, 18 km straight up, the road relatively gradual but persistent. The climb was quiet except for the steady passing of busses and cars, impatient on the curves.

At the top, it’s an array of stupas and a chaos of Indian tourists. That’s who was in the busses.

I left my group below me, two close by for most of the ride, the other two and the guide far behind. My dogged little legs just going.

The road was smooth and inviting, the valleys dark green and opened up beside us. The sky was dark and the clouds folded down around us as we rode. The rain started about halfway through the ascent, and I shrugged into more clothes.

The road is pure breath, steady, prana in action, the only jarring moments the packs of wild dogs that try to warn us off. At one of our water stops, an emaciated dog barks at us for food. Namgay, the driver of our support van, shoos it off. About a minute after we leave the stop, we hear a thud and a prolonged yelp. Death beneath the tires.

The lunch room is jammed with Indian tourists, the table covered in crumbs. I’m damp and chilled, drinking black tea with sugar while I wait for the rest of the group. Two of them show up a few minutes after me, the last one and the guide an hour later. I feel around for the impatience I would normally have at waiting this long. I have space here.

After lunch, it’s all downhill, fog and mist, straight down for 36 km, then a few curves and a steep uphill for 1.5 km to our hotel. I ride behind everyone else, tentative on the curves, savouring.

The valleys enfold me, I curve around the traffic, the sun comes out and we land at a beautiful hotel perched on the side of a mountain. Chen and I were the first up the hill, and he spins the prayer wheels from his bike as we glide into parking lot.

I shower and find the outdoor lounge. Two of the men in my group talk about football and man things. We drink beers and I feel the wind as affectionate, a country where everything feels like a gift.

Paro, alone

I had a day to myself in and it was perfection.

When it looks like you’re a woman traveling alone, people in Bhutan are excessively kind. Pema, one of the women who works in the hotel dining room, greets me warmly and makes special eggs for me with chilies.

My group was arriving tonight, and I got to be completely on my own. Chador — the best guide I’ve ever had — said “take the bike and ride where you want to today.”

I need the silence and the solitude and I had a blissful day. I drank tea looking over the valley after breakfast, read for a while in the shade, walked down to town to drink a good coffee and quell the knotted headache of caffeine withdrawal that woke me up in the night. Watched the street and savoured a land with absolutely zero electronic noise pollution — no TVs or music as a backdrop to public life, just people gently going about their business.

My soul needs this silence.

Then I got on my bike — a fat-tired heavy mountain bike — and rode to the end of the Paro valley road, gently uphill for about an hour. I passed the mythical Tigers Nest monastery perched up above the valley, heading for a dzong on a hill at the end of the road. Everyone I passed smiled hello.

I pushed the heavy bike up the path to the old stone steps, then climbed up. Like the hermitage yesterday, closed. No chanting, just construction. I sat for a bit in front of a stupa, then turned back to Paro.

The road was quiet and sloped downhill, and when I got back to Paro I headed straight for the momo shop.

Then I had a nap.

It was the perfect day. I’m glad to start the cycling trip, but I could happily spend the next week just riding by myself supported by Chador. It’s hard to explain how I feel nibbled away by interacting in a group when I’m traveling, no matter how nice they are. When I travel like this, I’m reminded over and over that I’m a deep introvert who leads an extroverted life. I thrive on the light gliding of connection with people bringing me food, the 5 minute conversations with people intrigued by me traveling alone. The social world of traveling in a group is… fine. But it’s work for me, and that quiet core that comes when I slide toward exactly what I feel like doing at that moment is essential.


We climbed up and up to this hermitage on the side of the mountain. The door was locked and we could hear someone chanting softly inside.

People come here for months or years to meditate in solitude. There was evidence of someone settled in — a toothbrush, fresh water piped from a stream — but beyond the chanting, silent.

Except for the thin mewl of a a cat, a kitten really, who bounded up to me and demanded to be loved.

I picked her up and she cuddled me and then shat on me. Cats shouldn’t be vegetarians. Or hermits.

I seriously thought for a few minutes about what it would take to bring her home. I realized that was insane. Then I meditated for a bit while she climbed on me, just like my cats. While I sat, Chador checked his phone.

I hope the hermit is nice to her. And I hope the almond bar I gave her didn’t make her sick.


On a beach holiday to the Dominican Republic when I was in my late 20s, we had a chance to drive into the hills with an expat white woman who’d lived there for decades. She drove an old VW van and was the first person who taught me to really think about the lives of people who washed their clothes in the river, who couldn’t do anything with a Canadian dollar I thought I was being generous with.

She took us to buy tightly woven baskets from a woman in the hills. The little house had almost nothing in it — a cooking fire, a pot, stools. I felt a wave of shame that I hadn’t known this was how people truly lived. My ex still has that basket — it’s the sturdy reliable thing to serve bread in.

Since then I’ve been to another 30 or 35 countries. I don’t always end up in people’s homes — but what I’ve noticed when I do is that people try to fill their homes as soon as they can afford it. My guide in Myanmar who took me to his overstuffed main floor, cheap suitcases sprawling over with clothes, photos of his family in gilt embroidered robes. The overstuffed chairs and fabrics that fill the tiny houses I’ve been in in Rwanda and Uganda, Elinah showing off that she had two mugs, Saphra proudly showing me the TV she’d bought with the money she’d earned writing and singing a campaign song for her local MP.

On New Year’s Eve this year I was eating tagine at Hamid’s mother’s home in a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains, watching a nature documentary on a big TV bolted high on the wall. Yesterday, I watched the royal wedding sitting on a carpet in the main room in a home in a village in the Haa Valley in Western Bhutan.

Nor Kim, the grandmother of the house, and I both laughed out loud when the preacher just kept on preaching. We both smiled at the prettiness of the bride. She hobbled up off the floor and got a mango from the kitchen area, cut it and offered me half. I got her a napkin.

My guide and Nor Kim’s son were also rapt.

Somewhere in the middle, a teenage girl with braids came in and complained the fire wasn’t lit so there was no hot water to wash with, and Chimi, my host, lit the stove.

The King of Bhutan and his family watched us watch the wedding.

One thing I’ve learned is that most people in the world don’t sit down at a special table to eat a meal. Chimi set the food on the floor in front of us, the national dish of chili and cheese with no cheese for my sensitive tummy. An intergenerational gang whose relationships I never quite figured out ate while watching a Bhutanese singing competition.

When I left this morning, Nor Kim told my guide she wanted me to stay for several days. I could have stayed there a week, drinking tea and reading on the little carpet, listening to the cows outside, sneaking meat to the stray cat who kept pushing open the door.

I think part of the appeal of traveling to less developed countries is this notion of being drawn to some elemental minimalism. I yearned to spend a silent month in the ancient nunnery we climbed up to yesterday — washing dishes in cold water, having nothing but the most basic things with me. I am notorious for losing and dropping things, and I think it really is a symptom of too much, too much stuff, when did I even BUY nine tubes of hand cream, where the hell is my rescue inhaler? That’s partly why I’m always so drawn to activities like loaded cycling where I have to whittle down to the essentials. I want to believe there are essentials, and if I can just locate and select them, I will have equanimity.

Being in people’s homes all over the world, I have realized the wrong-headedness of romanticizing people who “lead a simpler life.” Simpler usually actually means harder, with fewer choices.

I’m not going to move to a hermitage on the side of a Bhutanese mountain, even though the one we climbed to today came pre-felined. (The poor thing was hungry and so starved of love — people on months-long meditations only eat vegetarian food, once a day. But I couldn’t exactly take her with me).

I feel very privileged I got to stay with Chimi and her family, and I know how privileged I am to have the time and space and money to be in this country. And I’m reminded again that equanimity has to come from how we choose to live where we are.