A Valley at 9,600 Feet
We’re just back from two days in the Phobjikha (pronounced roughly like “pope JEE kah”) Valley of Bhutan, a valley that’s really more of a mountain valley: The altimeter app on my iPhone said we were above 9,600 feet. It was noticeably chillier there than any other place we’ve visited, with nighttime temperatures in the 40s, and it’s also where some of us first started to really feel the effects of the altitude. Most of us got a prescription for Diamox—a drug that accelerates your body’s adjustment to high altitudes—before we left home, and those who hadn’t already started taking it, including me, definitely started once we got to Phobjikha.
The base for our Penn State group for our two days in the “valley” was a lovely place called the Dewachen Hotel, which had the look and feel of a deluxe ski lodge, complete with the gentle smell of wood smoke in the air. Each of our rooms was heated by a small wood stove, and there was a big wood stove in the dining area. The place had electricity, too—off and on. It seemed to be available in our rooms early in the morning and after about 5 p.m. So if you had camera batteries, a laptop, or an iPhone to charge, you had to plan around the electricity schedule.
Incidentally, when you come to Bhutan, you have to bring several different kinds of adaptors. Some outlets require an Indian-style adaptor; others, the European kind.
This has also been the only hotel on the trip to have no wi-fi—though the wi-fi at some of the previous stops has been so pokey as to make me think the Comcast Slowsky turtles were in charge. Of course, one might argue that when in Bhutan, it might be a good opportunity to stay away from the Internet anyway and just enjoy being here. And for the past two days, we did just that.
While in the Phobjikha Valley we visited the Gangteng Monastery—we’ve seen a lot of Bhuddist monasteries and temples on this trip, but this one is associated with a different sect, the Nyingmapa sect. This particular monastery doesn’t receive government funding, and you could tell: Its buildings seemed more run-down, less spiffy, than the others we had seen. But we still loved wandering around its courtyards, photographing the prayer wheels and the murals, asking the monks passing by if we could take their pictures, and visiting the very ornate temple, where the monks happened to be chanting a special prayer service.
(The photo here is of the entrance to the temple, where the monks and visitors must leave their shoes before entering.)
We took a hike of 4 kilometers—about 2.4 miles—through the valley, checking out the tiny wildflowers, noticing how odd it was to encounter cows in a pine forest, photographing the sweeping vistas, and (in my case anyway) gasping for breath at times in the mountain air.
In a few days we’re scheduled to hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a long and steep trek that’s the highlight of any trip to Bhutan, and I sure hope I adjust to the altitude by then. At the very least, I hope to make it halfway up, to the cafeteria area, which I’m told affords some pretty sweet views of the iconic monastery clinging to the side of the mountain. But others in our group are fully intending to hike the whole way to the top.
Tina Hay, editor