Sunday, 20 April 2014

Explore Bumthang, Bhutan's Central Valleys

Bhutan Central Valley ©Solange Hando

Beyond Paro and Punakha, the turning point for most visitors, the high road  continues over spectacular passes before winding down to Bumthang, the meeting point of four bucolic valleys at the heart of the kingdom. It's all willows and apple trees and sleepy villages where women weave on the doorstep.

Bumthang has been a special place ever since a local guru named Pema Lingpa discovered sacred treasures and created religious dances which he saw in his visions. His descendants are said to include an ancestor of the royal family.

Shrines in Jakar ©Solange Hando

Jakar is the most convenient base to explore the central valleys, a bustling little place where you can buy Bhutanese crafts, Tibetan goods, fancy gifts and even cheese from a Swiss dairy. The whole area is sprinkled with Buddhist sites, most impressive Kurjey Lakhang with its sacred rock and 101 stupas. Up on the hill, Jakar dzong is named after a white bird which, according to legend, landed on this auspicious knoll in the 16th century.

Quiet trail, Jakar ©Solange Hando

The central valleys are ideal for trekking but even if you go no further than Jakar, there are lovely trails to explore along the tumbling river, where prayer wheels tinkle from morning to night, or up on the slopes dotted with shrines, wild flowers and cypress trees. Birds twitter all around and under the clear blue sky, this truly feels like the land of 'gross national happiness'.

 ©Solange Hando 

For the locals of course, there's work to be done. At 3100 metres, Ura (above) is the highest of the four valleys, a land of lush pastures and potato and buckwheat fields. Tiny blue flowers splash colour on the slopes, goats roam on the road and red-billed choughs circle above the village temple, another auspicious sign for sure.

Cultural trek ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile, the Bumthang cultural trek promises to show you local life along a trail winding through meadows and forests, past villages and temples. There are rushing streams, grazing yak, wild boar and you might even spot a black bear. It takes just three days to complete and is relatively gentle, with only one pass to tackle.

Plan your trip carefully and you could take in one of Bumthang's most amazing festivals  such as the Fire Blessing, when locals run through burning hay to purify their soul, or the Naked Dance (everyone welcome but no photos!). Well worth venturing beyond Paro , the lovely gateway to Bhutan.

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