All Posts By

Blakely Trettenero

Asia Journal

When I Close My Eyes I Can Still See Bhutan

When I close my eyes I can still see Bhutan. I can vividly see the lush green rice terraces, the statuesque Himalayan Mountains lining the horizon, and old chain bridges crossing a gentle river below. I see steep rocky cliffs lined with colorful Buddhist prayer flags swaying in the cool breeze. I see some of the most elaborate temples and buildings you can fathom. I see sweet smiles of Bhutanese natives happy to see foreigners enjoying everything their peaceful country has to offer. I’ve never in my life experienced a place so serene and so rich with beauty. Bhutan has left a mark on my heart in ways I cannot explain.

As my plane descended into the jewel of the Himalayan Mountains I was made aware by the girl sitting next to me that this airport is one of the most dangerous airports in the world and only 8 (!) pilots are qualified to fly into this airport because of the size of the small runway and the amount of maneuvering around the mountains it takes. Good thing I didn’t know that beforehand.

The second I stepped off the plane I got an instant rush of serenity in a way so powerful I still don’t understand it. Here I was on this small runway engulfed by beautiful lush mountains everywhere. I looked over at the tiny airport and I was instantly mesmerized by the beautify of the architecture. The ornate detail is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

In Bhutan, in order to visit there, you must apply well in advance for a visa and if they can accommodate you there is a $250/day tourist visa fee. Now, I know that seems absurd BUT that includes everything. All of your food, accommodations, a guide, and a personal driver. Now $250 doesn’t seem that bad does it?

When I stepped out of customs I was greeted by my sweet guides, Dorji and Jigmy, and from the moment we met we were instantly friends. I hopped in the car with my new Bhutanese friends eager to visit Bhutan with a full heart and a ready mind.

My first stop was at the picturesque 14th Century Iron Bridge. From the moment I got out of the car I just stood there in disbelief of the beauty of the bridge and it’s surroundings. I couldn’t move I was so enamored. The crisp air blew around me while I watched the colorful prayer flags blow in the wind on this beautifully constructed old chain bridge. The gentle sound of the river babbling below instantly calmed any fear I had about crossing the bridge. I closed my eyes as I walked across it, waiting for the moment this mystical bridge was finally going to collapse and take me with it into the river below forever.

As our car curved around the mountains I couldn’t help but keep my head out of the window the whole time, staring at the sprawling landscape randomly dotted with the picturesque traditional farm houses in the distance. Jigmy informed me that his favorite music to listen to was American rap music, so we cranked it up, singing and attempting to rap our way through the serene streets of Paro.

One of my favorite stops was seeing the Tashichho Dzong in Thimpu which triples as a monastery, a fortress, as well as where the government meets. There are large, elaborate, and exquisitely colorful floor to ceiling tapestries and paintings everywhere. Photography isn’t allowed but I considered sneaking one just so the world could see how impressive the inside of their Dzongs are. We walked, weaving in and out of monks, as Dorji explained to me the history of this peaceful country and their leaders. It was so refreshing seeing a country that loves and respects their leaders the way the Bhutanese people do. By the time we left the sun had just set, and the Tashiccho Dzong was lit up in the most spectacular way. Between that and the uninterrupted star lit night sky I was in heaven.

I woke up early the next morning, eager and ready for what the day had in store. Today I was to hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which was the whole reason I booked this side trip from Nepal. I was picked up by my guides after breakfast and we drove to the base of the mountain. As we were driving there I looked straight up the tree lined mountain, weary if I would be able to climb that high. The monastery looked so far away. The altitude of Bhutan was slightly getting to me and I felt sluggish that morning waking up, but I refused to let that stop me. After a quick pep talk by my sweet guide Dorji we were off. I curiously asked him what his record time was up and when he said an hour and twenty minutes and my competitiveness kicked in determined to beat that.

We started up the steep rocky mountain, schlepping through the mud that had developed from the late night rain the night before and the mysterious horse poop everywhere. I bounced from rock to rock avoiding the mud and poop at all cost while we slowly ascended up. I could feel the altitude setting in but my adrenaline refused to let me slow down. We finally reached the halfway mark and I got my first glimpse of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery high in the sky. So close, yet so far. We stopped for a quick water and tea break before continuing on. Up and up we climbed this majestic mountain, huffing from being out of breath, and from laughing at each other’s stories. I stopped a few times breathless, not because of the hike but because of the view from the mountain overlooking the lush pine trees below. It was so overwhelmingly beautiful.

A grueling one hour and thirty minutes later I finally made it. My first glimpse of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery felt like a dream. I stood there trying to catch my breath, staring, unable to move or say anything. I had to hold back tears from the rush of emotions I was feeling. I was completely and utterly consumed with the beauty of this amazingly intricate monastery perched high in the sky. It was an out of body experience like I’ve never felt before. The magnitude of the beauty of this monastery and it’s surroundings is something I wish everyone could see in their life.

After that initial viewing point there were stairs, and lots of them. First we headed straight down, then straight back up another couple hundred. By the time we passed the picturesque waterfall at the entrance I was completely and utterly out of breath, but I made it. Unfortunately because this site is so sacred no one is permitted to take pictures or bring their cameras inside. My guide and I spent hours walking around all the different colorful shrines lighting fragrant butter lamps and receiving blessings from Monks along the way.

Once back at the mountain base I was informed that it is tradition to take a hot stone bath at a farm house after hiking to prevent any soreness and that’s where we were heading next. Hot stone bath? Well, twist my arm. We drove out into the deep country until we reached a beautiful well preserved old farm house. I was greeted by sweet older Bhutanese lady, her mouth red from chewing betel nut all day, and a cup of salted butter tea. She motioned for me to follow her past a roaring fire to a smaller wooden shed in the back of her house. I entered the shed and instantly noticed all of the handmade wooden tubs everywhere. One was filled with water and she made a motion signaling that would be mine. In this wooden tub there was a small slotted wooden divider blocking off about a quarter of the tub. I turned around and watched as the lady went out to the fire and collected hot stones, adding the stones to the small section of the tub. She put them in one by one, every stone setting off heaps of steam into the room. She tested the water by hand until it was the perfect temperature and she told me to change and get in. I sat in the bath as the stones were still sizzling, giggling to myself. Here I sat alone in a wooden bath, with rocks freshly picked out of a fire, in the middle of nowhere Bhutan. Life can be so funny sometimes.

From here I saw so many different and equally as beautiful monasteries, stupas, and shrines. I went out singing ‘Achey Breaky Heart’ karaoke and drinking Bhutanese beer till the early morning with my new friends. I explored the beautiful downtown areas of both Paro and Thimpu, marveling at the architecture and the natural surrounding beauty. I devoured delicious and very spicy Bhutanese food like their national dish of ‘chili cheese’ which is extremely spicy chilies cooked in a cheese sauce and served over rice. I admired the Bhutanese culture, their outlook on life, their happiness, and willingness to not succumb to change. I made friends that I will keep in touch with and made memories with them that will last a lifetime. When I got on my flight to leave I did something I never do, I cried. I cried not only tears of sadness because I was leaving, but tears of happiness for being able to experience a place so wonderful. I know I will be back one day, my heart won’t let me not go back.




Asia Journal

Kathmandu: Beauty In the Chaos

After 30 hours of traveling my plane finally landed in Kathmandu around 8:30 at night. Deliriously I got off the plane, stepping into the quiet Nepalese immigration. I was greeted with kind faces and a customs without any power. I waited in the dark to get my visa and go through customs before I hopped in a cab to drive to one of the nicer hotels in the city, the Shangri La Hotel. I sat in the back of the cab, while cars weaved in and out around each other with no hesitation or rules. Horns filled the streets as I sat in the back with my eyes closed, bracing for impact. My driver kept looked back at me laughing, asking where I was from. When I responded he replied with “America? Oh, very good place”.

The next morning I woke up and headed to the famous monkey temple located high in the hills called Swayambhunath. I walked up the steep stairs lined with colorful prayer flags and white washed stupas until I reached the top. The views of Kathmandu below were breathtaking and I stood there just taking it all in, my first ever solo vacation has begun. The smell of incense filled the air as I walked along the beautiful temples, touching the prayer wheels like the locals, and walking clockwise around the large gold stupa.

There were people all around, praying at the beautiful temples and I watched them as I walked around making sure to dodge any monkeys coming my way. I knew right away I was going to love this place.

My next stop was to Patan Durbar Square which is located in the center of the Lalitpur area of Kathmandu. It is one of the three famous squares and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were remnants of the destruction from the 2015 earthquake that shattered Nepal but overall the Square was in pristine condition and I was more than eager to explore. I walked all around exploring the small side streets, ducking into temples to be blessed with the Tikka on my forehead, and checking out the amazing architecture that surrounded the square. Beautifully hand carved doors and windows were present in every building around the square and I couldn’t help but just stop and stare at the intricacy and imagine how long it took for someone to construct such a building. Coming from a world where “handmade” doesn’t really exist anymore, especially for buildings, it was mesmerizing.

I ducked into a small garden restaurant where I got my first taste of Nepalese cuisine…. Momo. Momo are steamed dumplings, filled with either chicken, vegetables, or water buffalo (OMG), with a slightly thicker dough than you’d find in other asian dumplings. They pair them with a spicy curry tomato sauce and oh. my. goodness. they are SO good. I couldn’t stop eating them. After washing them down with my cold Everest Beer I was beside myself with pure happiness.

The next morning I found out there was a holy festival going on in the city called the Teej Festival. This festival is where all of the women wake up really early in the morning, dress in their finest red attire, fast all day long, and go to the Pashupatinath Temple to pray. The younger single women pray for a good husband while the married women pray for their husband to be the best they can be. It’s a vibrant, colorful festival and I couldn’t wait to see the women. As I was driving there the line of women in red seemed to be never ending. I couldn’t believe about many women were standing there waiting. The line had to have taken 5-6 hours to get to the actual temple itself. Lucky for me, I’m a tourist, and I could go in another entrance and not have to wait in line for 6 hours. I walked towards the temple in a sea of beautiful Nepalese women dressed in red. I stopped to receive a Tikka blessing on my forehead before I started taking pictures. I couldn’t stop and they didn’t want me to. They were all so beautiful.

I walked to the other side of the temple where I passed the river where cremations were being held on the bank. The smoke filled the air and I couldn’t help but feel a little queasy knowing that I was breathing in the smoke from four nearby cremations. I glanced down to the riverbank and watched a man washing himself in the river, completely unaffected that he was washing in the same river the ashes were being put into. It’s always an eye opening experience witnessing a different culture and their faith about the afterlife. I found there was a much better understanding of life and death here and how they perceive what our body is, just a vessel for our soul.

I walked up the stairs and past the moss covered old shrines until I came across something so amazing: a group of Sadhus. A Sadhu is a holy man in Hinduism that has dedicated their life to meditation and contemplation. They wear brightly colored clothes signifying their Holy status, and you’re instantly captivated by them. I sat next to them as they talked to me, giving me a blessing, wishing me a life of happiness, love, and prosperity. I wanted to sit there all day with them, but I continued on.

I made my way to the Boudhanath Stupa located in the city center of Kathmandu which is the largest of all the stupas and the holiest. Unfortunately there were significant damages done to this beautiful stupa from the earthquake and as I walked around I watched as volunteers worked diligently scaling up and down the precarious bamboo ladders trying to restore it to its former glory. I walked around the stupa clockwise like the monks were, touching the prayer wheels the whole way and observing the sweet Nepalese people around me.

That night I feasted on a traditional Nepalese dish: Dal Bhat. This is a dish that is served almost every night at home in Nepal and the name literally translates to exactly what it is: Dal = lentils and Bhat = rice.
The lentils and rice are always the same, but what else accompanies it changes. Usually it’s sautéed curried vegetables, some kind of curried meat, Nepalese “pickles”, and greens all served in their own small silver bowls so you can add them to your rice as you’d like. I ate my weight in delicious Dal Bhat, piling on the incredibly flavorful curried wild boar and curried squash.

The next morning I woke up at 5 am and headed to the airport. Today I was going to take a scenic flight on Yeti Airlines to see Mount Everest and the majestic Himalayan Mountains. I patiently waited in the
small domestic terminal until the airline got the go-ahead for clear weather. We ascended through the clouds and in twenty minutes I saw one of the most beautiful sights of my life. The color blue didn’t seem real, the snowcapped mountains didn’t seem real, and the fact I was looking at them with my own eyes
didn’t seem real. I sat there speechless while we flew next to Mount Everest. It was a surreal experience. We were all given a glass of champagne and my new friends and I toasted to the Himalayan Mountains as we headed back to the airport.

My trip continued from here, seeing the rest of this beautiful country, for the next two weeks. I fell in love with the culture, the people, and the food. Despite Kathmandu being so large and chaotic, I found beauty in the chaos. The cars and their crazy driving towards the end didn’t even bother me… in fact I got used to it and started to like it. Everyone was so present in the moment that there were hardly any accidents ever. People were so kind to me in this great city that I was hungry to see the rest of the country. Kathmandu was an amazing place, and one that I hope to return to one day, if I’m lucky.