Phajo - the story of karmic souls going on a hike
06:45, 30th of May 2020.
My alarm goes off. I feel sleepy but I know I have to wake up because my friend will be here soon. With my eyes half open I go to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. The cramps in my stomach are making me worried about our plan for today. Together with three other friends I am supposed to hike up to Phajoding monastery. One last time I check up if I prepared everything. Sleeping bag, tent, camera, chocolates and a few bottles of water. I am ready. But my stomach is not. I take some medicines and call my friend to hurry up. On our way to the base point we rapidly pick up some incense and butter to offer in the Lakhangs. I hope I can make it there with my uneased stomach. When we reach the base point all of us are excited, ready to hike. We start off at BBS tower and luckily the weather looks clear. The way up is so steep I am immediately having trouble with maintaining my breath. We reach the first prayer wheel after an hour and all of a sudden my stomach cramps are urgently telling me to look for a bathroom. There is one monk so my friend asks in Dzongkha if there is a bathroom I can use. But the bathroom is blocked so I cannot go there. After all we are in nature so I run into the forest to do my thing. Okay. We can go on now. I barely noticed the stray dog before who started following us from the base point. She is such a cutie pie. We walk on and reach the picnic spot for today. I made local fern with datshi (cheese, and yes in Bhutan there is edible ferns!) and rice for lunch. Our stray dog, who I named Phajo now, also enjoys rice. From here we start to meet many people who are on their way to visit the monastery. We walk another hour or two and we can see the monastery now. Here and there we chat with locals. I think I cannot make it. From the monastery it will be another 45 minutes to the top of the mountain. Then again another 45 minutes to the camp spot. I am not a good walker. Why did I want to do this hike so badly. I cannot make it. But my friends can. I should get through this. The smell of fresh forest air is giving me energy. At least I have to get to the monastery, then we will have a break to do offering in the lakhang. I will be fine. And what an incredible view it is. Tired already I am amazed with seeing the Thimpu valley from all the way up now. I get excited again. I realize that after seven months in Bhutan, I am going to do a small trek and camp into wild nature. Finally the trip I have been waiting for has arrived. We see some desuups (Bhutanese voluntary workers patrolling in orange suits) and register ourselves with them since after all there is still a global pandemic going on. We ask about the route to the camping spot. They inform us that it is still three hours walk from the monastery. This is double from what I expected. “You have to move fast guys, otherwise you might not reach on time to pitch your tent before the dark.”, the desuups explained. It is forbidden to camp within the area of the two monasteries so you have to walk further than usually. I am worried because I am already tired and thought we would have a break now. Off we go into the unknown. When I see the second lakhang so far up in the mountains I feel like I want to cry. How can I walk so high up again? I am not used to conquering mountains since I come from Belgium. The highest point in my whole country is only on 700 meters altitude. Reaching an altitude of 3600 meters is already a huge achievement to me. I am walking lost in thoughts until the sound of prayers wake me up. Underneath me there is Phajoding, above me there is Thuji Dra. I can smell incense and hear the prayers of the monks resonating all over the mountains into my ears. Okay, I have to succeed. We walk and walk, sometimes wondering if this is even the right way. Phajo is used to walking and even plays with sticks joyfully while I am still suffering to just breathe properly. If a dog, and many tourists can walk, I can do it too. We reach the smaller lakhang and all of a sudden it starts to rain. No time for a break again. We put on our raincoats and refill our water bottles fast. By now I don’t even know if we are halfway or not. The path has become climbing rocks at some points instead of being an actual path. It is tough but there is no other way. I can see the stupa on the top of the mountain. The moment we arrive I feel joyeus because dear god… I am on the top of the mountain! We might have reached 4000 meters now. It is so foggy and cold here, but the alpine vegetation shows its beauty to us. There are rododendrons everywhere and somehow I find out that the fog in itself is a part of the mystical beauty that surrounds us. We realize that we forgot to bring the cooking pot. I guess we will have to survive on raw noodles and cookies for a night. Anyway the wood is so wet from the rainfall that I would not know how to make a fire. From now on it will be less steep. How long will it still be walking? I do not know. I am still short of breath while we are not walking uphill so much. I am getting headache. I feel a bit dizzy. The altitude is playing its role so I eat some chocolate and hope that I won’t get sick. Let’s focus on the magnificent surrounding and walk on. We see some high school kids that we met hours ago somewhere in the beginning of the hike. They are quite nice, lighting incense on the way to the camping spot. We are walking together since both our groups are getting quite late. “Do you guys maybe have a cooking pot for tonight?”, I asked. “No, haha. We don’t have but we have friends in the camping site and they have a pot. We will manage together.” It is such a surprise to know that many people will be camping here tonight. But it’s also a relief since with four of us the chances of bumping into bears would be bigger. It is already 05:00 pm and we still have an hour to go. Will we reach the camping spot before dark? I don’t know I am so tired I cannot walk faster than this with this heavy backpack dragging me down. But I have to, we have to. My Slovakian friend, Zuzana, is in the front. She is an incredible hiker. I am happy to see her because it motivates me to keep going. Karolina and Robin, my Czech and Bhutanese friend are staying more with me. I don’t know if that is out of kindness for me or if they are also really tired now. I need to pee. We keep on passing locals who are still returning from doing the whole hike to the Dungtsho lake in one day. I cannot comprehend it. How can they walk this whole route in one day? I feel like I cannot even seem to reach the camp spot and from there it’s still one hour and a half one way to reach the lake. I can see tents! I am so happy. I can even see smoke coming up from people making fire to cook dinner and stay warm. I am walking faster now and trying to look for some woods which are at least half dy. This place is so beautiful I immediately feel peaceful. There is a small lake with rocks inside and we are all surrounded by green mountains. Astonishing. Once we come closer there are other dogs on the ground who bark and growl at Phajo. She is so afraid she starts weeping and hides behind me. What a special stray dog she is. She followed us the whole day straight. I hope she will not be cold during the night.
18:30, 30th of May.
The group of friends welcome us as if we have known them for a long time. We are offered tea, what? I am so surprised but happy since now I realize how cold it actually is while I am standing still. Before I even finish my tea I can see some of the men putting up our tent. This is Bhutanese kindness. I cannot believe this arrival. It feels like we are one family and they immediately let us enjoy the warmth of their fire with a cup of warm milk tea. “We are a group of 25 people”, the coordinator told me. “We just finished a project with the CSO we are connected to, VAST. So now we came here for a small vacation.” Such beautiful souls, they are on vacation and are helping us to settle down. This shows that home is where the heart is. You take your home with you and share it with those who are present. I feel like I am dreaming. Someone brought a guitar and another guy is capturing the landscape in a painting at 4000 meters altitude. ‘This is Bhutan’, I thought with tears in my eyes. I settled my bed for the night and went back to get to know our new friends better. I sing some songs with my friend at the lake when someone came to warn us. “We have to sing only good songs here. When we are close to the lakes we cannot make our local deities angry. So we should not smoke, shout or do bad things in front of the lakes, okay. The lake behind this one is the lake of anger so we have to be mindful about that.” I am thankful for the explanation and joined the campfire. The only thing I can contribute for dinner is a package of Koka, instant noodles. I would be so grateful if I can make some hot water to prepare the instant noodles. They accept the koka but are saying something about all taking dinner together. “What are you cooking in this pot?”, I asked. “We are making rice in this pot. Kewa datshi in the other pot on that fire there.”, one of the guys explained. It’s my second experience of cooking a meal on a campfire so I knew how incredible the rice tastes when it is cooked on the woodfire. I still cannot believe this. We are having an actual meal in the mountains offered by strangers who have hearts made of sunshine. And kewa datshi is my favorite curry by the way. As the darkness embraces us we sing all kinds of song around the fire. English, Hindi, Nepali and Dzongkha songs are all famous here. Our sweet Phajo also joins us around the fire. Curled up she decides it is safe to sleep. It’s almost 10 pm now, I should better also call it a night. I thank our new but awesome friends together with the two other European girls. I just realized I stepped into a human shit while going for a last pee in the dark. That’s disgusting. But definitely a funny story to tell later during a game of ‘never have I ever’. We get into our sleeping begs more satisfied than ever. I am still singing ‘Nge Thimpu’ and some other few songs I recognize and then fall into a deep sleep.
04:55 am, 31st of May
I put an alarm with the idea of seeing the sun rise. It was so foggy yesterday that I didn’t get my hopes up too high but there is no harm in trying right. I opened the zipper of the tent only to see a bright daylight already. But I need to pee. Some of the guys are already awake and around the fire. ‘Good morning guys!’, I wave at them. The others are still sleeping so I decide, as I always do, to crawl back into the sleeping bag and rest just a little longer. Half an hour later everybody starts to wake up and we prepare a breakfast. Surprisingly my legs are not hurting that much. That’s a good thing because today we will have to walk to the lake further away and then come back all the way to Thimphu town. It took us 9 hours yesterday to get here already. We tell the others we are going to visit the lake and then we will come pick up the tent. “We will wait for you here then. It will take you three hours to go and come back. We can go down all together.”. One of the girls came up to us to explain us about the fact that lakes are sacred in Bhutan. She requested us to pray on the way to the lake in order to actually be able to see it. Often it is so foggy that it is not even visible.
So we start hiking up the mountain. I love how awake I feel when I am in nature. At home it would take me one hour to feel fully awake but here we are, conquering mountains at 6 or 7 am in the morning feeling wide awake. After around half an hour of walking some of the guys all of a sudden show up. “Yeah, the girl you talked to before wanted us to show you the way since it’s the first time for all of you to visit the lake.” He visited the lake only yesterday and still guides us all the way there. I hope I can be more like this in the future. He told me we would have to cross four mountains. I was already blown away by that because I thought after the one mountain it would be somehow flat. After the fourth mountain I asked him: ”Why am I still surrounded by mountains and not a lake?”. “Haha, it’s still two mountains! Now you are already here so you can’t give up now.” I love and hate this response at the same time. I already feel weak and we didn’t even start our journey back to civilization. It’s so foggy but still we get to see already a few lakes on our way to Dungtsho. When I finally counted six mountains in total, the lake wasn’t even visible. The only way to get closer was a very steep, slippery rocky way down. I don’t want to go down but then I also don’t want to wait for half an hour in the bitter cold. I should just follow and see. Phajo is less afraid and climbs down with more ease than us. We have to watch every step and hold each other sometimes in order not to fall on the icy parts. We reached. It is the most peaceful place and the fog again offers a special mystical touch to the place. Close by we have the infinite waves coming to us but further away it looks like an endless space between water and sky. It’s foggy, so let’s pray. For the first time I my life I closed my eyes and manifested the most genuine and sincere prayer. A few tears rolled over my cheeks shamelessly. I am experiencing and I am so blessed, grateful and proud to be where I am now. To be where I am, in all the possible contexts you can think of, is the biggest achievement of my life. Being in Bhutan, being at this lake, being in this body, being with these words I am writing. We offer some money and my Bhutanese friend is chanting mantras. I don’t care if you are spiritual or not. But the fact that the lake is clearing up from where he is chanting mantras felt enlightening to see on its own. Once we are slowly, rock by rock, starting our journey back up..there are only monks left at the lake. We look back one last time back only to see the lake clear up completely all of a sudden. What a magical place this is. It’s time to get back to the camp. It starts to rain once again so my friends are running over the mountains while I am hardly able to keep up. I am getting a low blood pressure. Chocolate is my saviour while I try to keep on walking as fast as I can. It feels like we have been going fast but still it takes us four hours instead of three. The other group of friends waited for us in the rain and immediately offered us lunch. Totshe with homemade ezzay. We are so lucky to have met these wonderful artists from VAST. We pack the tent and start our journey back down all together. They know a shortcut so it would take less time to reach back to the stupa on top of the mountain. All good and well but this shortcut is such a steep climb on loose rocks surrounded by rhodendrons everywhere. I am so out of breath that I feel weak. But we keep on going. There is no other way now. All of us walk together while rain comes and goes. We reach Phajoding and finally there is time to do offerings in the lakhang. We request if we as foreigners can enter since we have been in Bhutan before COVID-19 existed. We are allowed, what a joyful moment. I do some prostrations and pray for all sentient beings. The local monk speaks English and explains us about the statues and how he became a monk. Once we go back outside, it is raining heavily and fog covers the whole valley. I am afraid the steep path down will be too slippery to even walk now. We are more than lucky once again because the monk invites us for tea so we can wait for the weather to calm down. Our friends from VAST will hike further down. Phajo is still with us and tries to sneak inside the monastery. When she couldn’t find a way in she patiently waits outside while we are having tea and biscuits and ask the monk all the questions that come to mind about Buddhism and life as a monk in Phajoding monastery. “I became a monk when I was only 9 years old. Now I am a teaching the smaller monks here in the monastery.”, he explains while chewing on some local doma. ”Together we are around 70 to 80 monks.”. I wonder how life would be growing up as a monk. I wonder how much space there is to be a child. We have to leave now otherwise we won’t reach down before the dark. As we descent Thimpu valley comes closer and closer. My legs are starting to shake from watching every steep step down in between the mud and rocks. I am almost slipping down the hill twice. We see the group from VAST once again on our way down and reach the base point half an hour later. I am in so much need of rest I feel like I cannot even stand up anymore now. But we need to walk to the main road to get a cab. Another half an hour later, we have walked 35 km which took us 11 hours today. What a challenge it was. And my dear Phajo, I want to take her with me from the start but I know the stray dogs in my home will not allow her appearance. I must have some karmic relation to her since she remains with us until the moment a taxi picks us and we are slowly driving away while darkness covers over Thimpu town. I am back home and I am grateful. I made new friends, met old souls. Together we lived this story that will remain in my cherished memories. Good night, Phajo.