HAA VALLEY, BHUTAN
I had lost my breakfast earlier that day at a squat toilet before lunch. I was mad at myself because I had underestimated the altitude. Actually, to be more accurate, I had gotten lazy to convert meters to feet. A few hours before, I thought we would be hiking uphill to an altitude of about 10,000 feet but in reality, we reached almost 13,000 feet. I should have hydrated more and slowed down on that climb. But as it were, I got overeager and I would get altitude sickness – luckily, it would be after my first real hike in Bhutan, after a car ride descending to Haa Valley, after the highest drivable mountain pass in Bhutan would tangle my stomach into pretzel twists.
We stopped at a sun-drenched restaurant for lunch and I wish I had more of an appetite because they served the best food I’ve had since arriving. But alas, I could not devour all of the momos (Bhutanese dumplings like gyoza, but steamed) on my plate, lest a return trip to the aforementioned squat toilet might be called for. I observed that the valleys served the best food and it should not be much of a surprise since they are lower in elevation where temperatures are more moderate and more conducive for growing crops.
Let me pause here to talk about Bhutanese food a little bit. Bhutanese food gets a bad rap and I myself had the wrong first impression on my first couple of days. This is very common because all non-Indian tourists are required to travel with a guide and unless you’re overly specific with your travel company (which you are free to do so), you will be typically ushered into buffet restaurants catering to tour buses. As such, the food they serve in these places are mediocre Chinese food at best – NOT Bhutanese. Bhutanese food is actually very spicy – chili stewed with cheese over rice is their national staple after all. But in these places with mass-produced food, they need to cater to the lowest common denominator, and since not everyone has a tolerance for fiery food, they serve a watered-down version.
Bhutanese food, once I’ve figured out which is authentic (and I insisted since to only have this), is rather delightful. I love spicy food and it’s fascinating to learn how each place has various iterations of chili paste – all of which I’ve tried is divine.
Breakfast is typically their version of continental breakfast, but I did not travel all the way to Bhutan to eat buttered toast slathered with mysterious red jelly imported from India. So my guide would arrange fried rice for me each morning with a sunny side up egg and tons of chili paste, just like how he himself would eat it. I’m content eating this like you wouldn’t believe.
Lunch and dinner are typically eaten on a shallow wooden bowl where you pile on vegetables and various accoutrements on to your steamed red rice. I’ve gotten so fond of “ema datsi” – stewed chili with cheese as mentioned above, and it’s cousin, mushroom cheese (I’ve made this at home when I’ve gotten homesick for Bhutan). I could have eaten just this the entire trip and I would have been happy. “Momo” is the traditional Bhutanese steamed dumplings that can be made with or without meat. It reminds me of Japanese gyoza except the wrapper is made of buckwheat so it’s grainier. They also have meat with “curry”, but as opposed to Indian curry, these are not usually made with turmeric, coriander or other spices, but rather with just chili and tomato sauce. There’s also jerky (the traditional Bhutanese household don’t have refrigeration so drying meat is their way to preserve it) mixed in with veggies such as radish and steamed pork fat, which once you smell it, you will never forget it.
Most households don’t have ovens so dessert is not really a thing. In lush valleys of Haa or Punakha, I was stoked to have been offered bananas (the best I’ve had were in Punakha) and apples, maybe papaya if they’re grown by the hotel themselves – but that would be about it. What they lack in dessert options, they make up for in homemade local digestif though in the form of an local adult beverage called ara or, well, moonshine.
Meanwhile, back in Haa Valley, we went on a quick visit to a temple after lunch then checked into our lodge. It’s a traditional heritage house that has been handsomely kept and restored. There are mountains surrounding it and the house overlooks the Haa River. I dragged my guide out for a walk to explore the surroundings. I was still feeling unsettled after my brush with altitude sickness earlier and I knew that walking outside would do me good.
And good it did.
This is my favorite time of the day in the mountains especially. It was late afternoon and the sun hung low on the mountains, basking everything – the river, the rocks, the foliage along the riverbank, the mountains in the distance – in pure and vibrant gold. The air was fresh and cold. In just another hour or so, it would be dark. My curiosity about the Bhutanese culture would grow exponentially with each day it seems and I try to fire questions one after another to Sonam. My questions inevitably led to happiness and GNH and the conversation turned circular at that point and I decided to drop it.
We paused for a brief intermission where I tried chewing "doma" or betel nut. Very common in these parts, doma is a betel nut smeared in lime ash and wrapped in betel leaf. If chewed, it stains the mouth red. It purportedly makes one a little bit high and also keeps one warm. But I couldn't tell you first-hand because I spat it out before either happened. We continued walking. We passed traditional mud houses, cows, stray dogs, a water-powered prayer wheel. We cross the river on a makeshift wooden bridge and we would meet a couple farmers on the way who themselves are getting ready to return home after laboring all day.
I love this. Anonymously (and hopefully invisibly) walking into how real life is lived here. And what is funny is that these are the exact moments that I cherish the most about Bhutan. It’s not the places that are photographed or seen in travel guides. It’s here, in the stillness of some unheard of valley, where the sunset feels like it is also happening inside me.
We keep walking uphill to eventually end up on the road that would loop back to the lodge. We pause to notice a few more locals hustling to harvest vegetables, radish perhaps, in the vanishing daylight.
That evening, I realized the midterm elections were occurring simultaneously in the US. I know intellectually that I need to be present but I guess I am still as human as anyone else. The knots returned in my stomach and wouldn’t leave until the following day (when I’ve had the chance to binge on BBC in my hotel room).
But the skies were cloudless the next morning and it was insanely delicious. The clouds parted and we had unobstructed views of the snowcapped Himalayas.
It's a new day.