A part of our visit to Bhutan is a tour of the Royal University of Bhutan’s various colleges that have been established in districts across the country in part of an effort to decentralize the nation’s centers of education and cut down on rural to urban migration of the younger generation. Our first stop was the College of Natural Resources, a half day road trip across the country. Because the roads are literally one and a half lanes at the widest and wind over mountain passes, we never got above 20 miles per hour. In a way it was nice to be too nauseated to read, because I was able to spend the entire time with my brow against the window taking in the scenery.
The bus wound through mountains of thick cedar and pine. On every bend there were white washed stupas with slate roofs. Some of them had been built over streams where prayer wheels spun with the water sending out blessings to the village beneath. I could imagine our road as a trail. After all the first roads and ribbons of macadam had only been laid in the 1960’s when Bhutan opened its borders to the outside world. We passed through villages where women were selling apples in cellophane as along the road and long looping strings of dried cheeses. Our bus pulled over and we bought fresh local apples and Asian pears that we chomped on as our bus climbed higher toward the pass.
In the saddle of the mountain, we pulled over at a monument of over 100 stupas that had been erected for weary travelers to get out of their vehicles and walk kora around the base of the temple. We wandered the path through the army of white-washed towers. The roofs had been constructed from heavy slate and there was gold crepe fringing the eaves, Buddhas painted in shallow grottos.
As we boarded the bus, I gulped a bit looking at the road switch-backing down into the blue and mossy mountains thick with orchids and heavy magnolia flowers suspended from the trees. The forest literally swallowed the road, and we were told to look for white ghost monkeys in the trees. “Very auspicious,” our guide exclaimed. “A sign of good luck!” Long strands of prayer flags sagged low over the road, nearly brushing the windshields of huge dragon-faced trucks as they struggled to climb toward us.
It was crazy how narrow the road was- only one lane and washing off in landslides at places. All the crevices in the rock cliffs were filled with tiny clay hand-sized stupas that were white washed and painted gold. They were arranged in the cave grottos like candles, and our guide called them “tsa-tsa.” Apparently, the local people take the ashes of their dead loved ones after cremation and mix them with clay to form these miniature statues. A thousand or more are made from one body and then they are placed in the rock wall along roads to ensure a swift path into the next life. Down, down, into the blue ocean of forests and monkey ghosts.