Deep in Eastern Bhutan, a tiny ribbon of road leads to the lost valley of Trashiyangtse, following the old muleteer track which once linked the eastern and central lands .
Opening up at the end of a spectacular gorge, this is indeed a lost Shangri-La where all of a sudden, the dry hills of the east make way to lush patches of millet and rice, forests of hemlock and pines and meandering trails strewn with orchids, violets and rhododendrons.
The Stupa in Trashiyangtse ©Solange Hando
Festooned in fluttering prayer flags, Trashiyangtse is a sleepy little place where only crickets and birds seem to disturb the peace. Down by the tumbling river, a white stupa beckons on the edge of the paddies while the fortified monastery -or dzong- guards the entrance to the town.
Up there on a spur at 1800 metres, the dzong is all glistening roofs, carved eaves and balconies and mysterious temples reached by near vertical ladders. There are marigolds and sunflowers, laundry drying in the sun and crows waiting for spoils in the courtyard.
But in this remote valley, Trashiyangtse has two claims to fame, top of the list one of Bhutan's two Institutes of 13 Arts and Crafts where artists and craftsmen refine their skills, embroidery, painting, carving and more. There's an air of meditation all around, focused yet relaxed, for in Bhutan, creating beautiful things is considered an act of worship.
Trashiyangtse also has a university where youngsters from the east can enjoy equal opportunities to those residing in the west, close to the capital. All subjects are taught but campus life continues to revolve around Bhutan's traditional values .
Heading Home from School ©Solange Hando
Meanwhile, in the valley, daily life is unhurried, quiet, though moving gently with the times. Children go to school -in national dress-, farmers till the land, women weave on the doorstep.
Heading for a short trek into the hills, I took with me the good wishes of the valley's headman, the blessing of the red-robed lama and giant cucumbers offered by local farmers, just in case I went hungry.
A Gift from the Farm ©Solange Hando
Follow the high road across the kingdom and in these eastern reaches, you will discover values and traditions barely touched by the outside world.
It's well worth the long drive from Thimphu with its the hairpin bends and dizzying passes, but beware: the views might simply take your breath away...