While this landing in Paro is spectacular and can only be mastered in good weather,Low clouds, the conditions with fog and rain often disrupt flight schedules, which is something we have later to consider before our flight back. But for now we have arrived.
Almost immediately one can feel the thinner mountain air. Breathing is getting a tad harder. Even on the short way from the aircraft to the terminal.
Paro airport building looks beautiful from the outside. The terminal is designed in a traditional building style. Almost like a temple. But the inside appears bleak and formal and lots of officials are running around.
The immigration procedure is quick after everyone pays the visa fee of USD 20 (in 2005, currently $40 USD, see below).
Here is what travelling in Bhutan currently cost. Mind you, right now, no tourist visas being issued, due to Covid.
Visitors to Bhutan are obliged to pay a daily fee just to be in Bhutan. This fee is USD 250 per person per night for peak seasons (March to May and September to November) and USD 200 per person per night for off-peak seasons.
Usually USD 40 of the daily charge goes to the Government as a visa fee. This is the visa fee that most of us would recognise as being ‘normal’.
The rest of the daily visa fee is used to pay for things like accommodation, food and a tour guide. Basically the Government provides you with services to the value of your daily visa fee, less USD 40.00. This ensures a minimum daily spend of USD 210 per adult tourist per day in Bhutan.
In fact tourism is tightly controlled here, as the government and the king do not want its culture destroyed, overrun by cheap tourists or backpackers, the landscape violated by huge resorts and ever invading foreign visitors.
Today we face a new procedure, which does not allow our tour guides into the terminal building. Ask me why? So we have to find them outside.
It is possible to change money here. The going rate is nu 48 for 1 USD in 2005 (74 in 2022). Later we learn that there are more money changing facilities in town with better rates. Back in 2005 International ATM’s were not existent. By the way nu stands for ngultrum, which can be literally translated as ‘silver’ for ngul and ‘coin’ for tram.
Once outside the terminal we meet Peter, our organiser, which I know from Bangkok, who arrived a day earlier and our local tour guide, who will be with us to the ‘bitter’ end, so to speak.
The day is brilliant. Deep blue sky and the temperatures are in the low 20th. An auspicious start to our venture.
A short van ride away from the airport is our hotel. A great looking building, which is actually an old palace with the name: Gantey Palace.
Here we meet the rest of our travel companions, Sylvia and Ulli, who have already travelled several times with Peter. We are a mixed bunch from Germany, Britain, Australia, etc..
Our hotel is made of mud bricks, a most common building material here. The walls are very thick and it is eerily quiet inside the building. After check in, we make our way up a narrow staircase. Steep and worn by hundred of years of usage.
Luckily porters take care of the luggage.
We enter our bedrooms. I share mine with a British traveller.
Bedroom is an understatement. This is the size of a small ballroom, magnificently decorated with details paintings and carvings. Lots of timber.
Ah, great, now we can relax from the travel and acclimatise.
But no, Peter wants us to get the most from our money. Lunch first, which is served within half an hour after our arrival. It consist of a staple, which we will have in variations throughout the trip. Rice, potato, meat (beef, sheep, chicken) mixed vegetable more or less tasty and much less spicy than expected.
Peter announces, that after lunch we will make our way to a Dzong.
Dzong is the local name for temple or monastery.
We are all packed into a Kia van. First we are back on the airport road. But soon we make a right hand turn on to a gravel road. It is a steep ascend with tight curves and washed out and rutted sections.
The van struggles to get us up there. We pass through small, agriculture villages, which survive from subsistence farming and cash crops, like apples, which are exported to Bangladesh and India.
Keeping in mind that Paro is at an altitude of 2280 meter, the cars engine, like ours is suffering from a lack of oxygen and has to work much harder.
After about 1 hour the road ends in the middle of a small hamlet. The van is parked we set out on foot. Almost immediately we ascend a steep, grass covered hill. This makes walking a bit slippery at times. We were told that the Dzong we are about to visit is at 3000m altitude.
3000m. Wow, some people, if they are heavy smoker or not real fit, would need extra oxygen. But Peter is fit and storms ahead, while the rest of us, in a long line, staggers, more or less, behind him.
When I was much, much younger, I made it to 5500m in the Bolivian Andes, but today, I have the feeling that the 3000m are killing me. Mind you there are 30 years between now and then.
Having been up since the early morning and the climate change from hot and muggy Bangkok are really taking its toll.
After 2/3rd of the climb I am ready to call it quits. But gentle persuasion by others and some rest get me going for the last climb. The way now leads through pine forests and over washed out, rocky pathways.
Finally we reach our Dzong.
My first one. It is a relatively unimpressive building, but at least…
First we are allowed to enter a room where novice monks are learning meditation. Dark and unadorned, they are seating along the wall. The whole building is dark. Little to see, except the altar and some carvings in the timber structure. We are not allowed into the inner sanctum.
The building is dark, quiet and cool.
How harsh must it be in the middle of winter. Everything needed must be carried up from the hamlet. As far as we can certain, there is no road up here.
Our climb down is of course easier, but eventually the thigh muscles are hurting.
So with great relieve we reach the van. As we get in it starts to rain. Imagine this would have hit us down the slope.
Rain is an understatement. As we will experience several times, the water just falls down from heaven.
Our drive back becomes a slippery slide.
It is 7pm by the time we are back for dinner and a well-deserved rest.
A bottle of red wine, which Sylvia and Ulli provid, helped us all to fall soon into an exhausted sleep.
to be continued