Dochu La is neither the highest pass in Bhutan nor the most dramatic, but at 3,100 metres it is the most visited by locals and visitors.
Some 30 km from Thimphu, on the highway heading east, it links the modern capital to the ancient capital of Punakha. Up there, in clear weather, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, including Gangkar Puensum, the highest in the kingdom at 7,158 metres, but beyond the spectacular panorama, the ‘pass of rocks and water’ is imbued with spirituality.
As you approach the final bends, high above paddies and orchards, prayer flags line the road, their traditional rainbow colours fluttering in the wind, blue for the sky, white for clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for the earth. Inscribed with Buddhist prayers, they pop up all over the kingdom, tall sentinels guarding sacred sites or frail garlands draped around shrines or trees where the spirits are said to live.
One more bend and the pass comes into view, with 108 chortens (local shrines) – an auspicious number – built in three concentric tiers around a hillock, rising towards the main shrine. Like most chortens in Bhutan, they are small square monuments, white with a red band below a roof of stone slabs. Whatever the location, chortens must be built according to strict traditions with rituals, prayers and offerings enshrined at different stages of construction. The Dochu La chortens were commissioned by the first wife of the Fourth Dragon King in gratitude for his safe return when, in 2003, he led his army to push Assamese insurgents back across the Indian border.
In brilliant sunshine, blanketed in snow or hidden in mist and fog, the chortens hold everyone spellbound as devotees walk around seven times clockwise to ensure good karma. It can be a challenge at this altitude but across the road, the cafeteria is a great place to recover with hot tea, snacks and breathtaking views, weather permitting.
Meanwhile, people pray on the edge of the precipice, offering rice and flowers to the mountain gods, others climb to the hilltop temple where bright murals depict an intriguing mix of mythology and history spanning 500 years. The Druk Wangyal temple was built in 2008 to mark the centenary of the monarchy, a beloved institution which brought enduring peace after centuries of turmoil. On December 13th, a colourful festival takes over the temple grounds as masked dancers pounce and twirl on the flagstones and myriad prayers drift across the mountains. Look around and you are sure to feel the ‘gross national happiness’ unique to Bhutan.
Dochu La is also a beautiful backdrop to the Royal Botanical Park inaugurated in 2008 and the first of its kind in the country. Covering 47 square kilometres of protected land, it is home to musk deer, leopards, tigers, red pandas and over 40 species of birds. Forested slopes extend as far as you can see, conifer, broad leaf, subalpine or temperate, laced with trails which vanish into the distance sprinkled with the heady scent of daphne, the paper-making plants.
Spring is blossom time with masses of magnolia and most of the 46 species of rhododendrons found in Bhutan. In the dedicated Lamperi Garden within the Park, the annual rhododendron festival attracts people from afar, keen to enjoy the pristine surroundings and the auspicious blessings of the Dochu La pass.