Chhubu Hotsprings Punakha
The place is muddy and humid. But it's seething with heat. It is far-flung and inhospitable. But the place is throbbing with life. Chhubu Tshachhu (hot springs) in Punakha is nature at its most bountiful.
Located at 2,930 metres above sea level, Chhubu hot springs are more than two hours walk from the road head in Walathang from where visitors hire horses to carry their rations mostly comprising local rice, meat, butter, cheese and eggs. The mountain trail gently snakes through a chir pine forest into the cool, temperate mixed forest.
The hot springs see a chain of people from across Bhutan for more than six months in a year. In the last month of the Bhutanese calendar, the hot springs gushing out of the steep, swampy hillside are inundated with more than 1,000 visitors, says Namgay Wangchuk, 57, the caretaker of the tshachhu. Namgay Wangchuk is popularly known by the title nedag (estate owner) but he says the title is inappropriate because he believes that the 'real nedag' or local deities own the tshachhu and not the caretaker.
Namgay says that, during the peak season, more than 100 colourful tents sprout up near the tshachhu transforming the hillside into a vibrant village of strangers. The only guest house cannot accommodate more than 60 people.
The temporary village presents a rich mosaic of people from all walks of life and from different social and cultural backgrounds. However, as everyone ' men and women, young and old, lamas and lay people ' splash into the same ponds of steaming hot water half naked, the diversity dissolves into a typical Bhutanese good humour. Dzongkha becomes the lingua franca. As women in short garments gently lower themselves into a pond, an elderly man's earthy sense of humour is roused. 'My weakness for women's thighs is timeless,' he says, smiling through a mist of steam. A ripple of laughter spreads across the pond. 'My abhorrence of men's thighs is also timeless,' a middle-aged nun retorts. All heads turn to the man. 'I can understand your abhorrence,' the perspiring man concedes with a tinge of sarcasm.
Chhubu Tshachhu has two ponds separated by a flight of concrete steps. Measuring 43.50 degree Celsius, the first pond is found to cure skin and stomach diseases, tuberculosis and some minor ailments. The second pond, which is 145 average man's steps below by the bank of the tumbling Tshachhu Phu stream, measures 45.60 degree Celsius. It is found to cure stomach ailments and certain forms of tuberculosis. A board put up by the side of each pond by the traditional hospital of Punakha warns that tshachhu water is undrinkable. But many people believe that tshachhu water contains medicinal properties that make it healthy to drink.
While some people visit the hot springs to find cure to a certain ailment, others come to soak away fatigue and stress. Over the years ,many people have found therapeutic powers in the Chhubu hot springs. Kinley Wangmo, 70, from Walakha has cured her crippling knee pain after soaking in the tshachhu for more than 20 times. Lam Sherab Chhoephel, 48, from Ngoedrup Chholing Lobdra in Chhubu gewog, Punakha, says his diabetic illness has become less troublesome after he visited the tshachhu twice. He says that, as a Buddhist, soaking in tshachhu with mindfulness makes the water more therapeutic. He was among more than 20 monks who chanted prayers in the ponds last week. But others, who want time for earthy humour, find their prayers 'irritating'.
The ponds pulsate with life and humour at least 21 hours a day. From time to time, they are drained out and refilled. Some elderly people, who had been to the tshachhu when they were young, say the springs have become smaller and less hot. But others disagree. Kinley Wangmo, who had visited the tshachhu as a teenager, says the springs are as hot and therapeutic as it was 30 years ago.
Regular tshachhu visitors say the place surrounding the tshachhu has improved in sanitation but it has become dirtier with waste. Dorji Wangchuk, 56, from Chapcha had been to the tshachhu when he was 15. 'At that time, one could hardly find a clean space to walk around,' he recollects. 'Every metre of the ground surrounding the tshachhu was filled with human excreta.' After three makeshift latrines were built in 2009, sanitation has improved, but with the number of people visiting the tshachhu increasing by the year, waste management is a big challenge, says caretaker Namgay Wangchuk.
Plastic wrappers and bottles fly around. For lack of a waste disposal site, waste is regularly burnt sending fumes of intoxicating smoke into the clean mountain air. Namgay Wangchuk says burning of waste angers the deities of the place, khachep Draley Gyep and Gomo, who retaliate by causing rains and windstorms.
The tshachhu doesn't have clean drinking water. Three outdoor taps became defunct barely a few months after they had been built by a contractor in 2009. The leaking tanks and broken pipes were never repaired.
A decent place to camp is on the top of all tshachhu visitors' wish list.
Apart from a caretaker, who is paid Nu 100 a month by the government, there is neither an organised waste management strategy nor sanitation drive initiated at the tshachhu. A senior monk says, "The bounty of nature must be enjoyed sustainably."