Snowfall and Nightfall at Phajoding

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Thimphu glowing from under the clouds

Thimphu glowing from under the clouds

Winter in Bhutan is a special time for me. The mornings open with a frozen mist cloaking the frosted brown grass. Often the pipes are frozen, and while walking about in Motithang, it is not uncommon to witness spectacular ice crystals and icicles adorning the bushes and chain link fences where a random water pipe burst at some point in the night. Climb more than 1000m up into the mountains above Thimphu, and it is colder still.

With a waxing moon and a forecast for snow, this was where I decided to spend my weekend: visiting my friend Lama Namgay Tenzing at the Phajoding Monastery. I packed up all my running gear and camera equipment and headed up on Saturday morning. The plan was to be up in time for lunch, and then spend the afternoon adding another 10 km for some extra training. As my friend Aine and I walked out the door, the first snowflakes were just coming down.

Halfway up, Namgay caught up with us, and shortly thereafter one of the monks met us on the way down to help Namgay with his heavy load of shopping. The monastery is only 4km up the trail from the top of the road, but the challenge is that it is also almost 1000m higher. I can run this in under an hour on a good day, but with a pack and a dog in the snow, we were aiming for anywhere between 2-3 hours.

When Namgay’s designated porter showed up, he was trailed by a Dasho, a huge black mastiff built like a bear, who wants to eat Laya. Being a smart dog, Laya has learned this from experience and she turned back the way she came and hightailed it. Just below the monastery, I dropped my pack and my camera and chased Laya lickety-split down the mountain.

By the time Laya and I arrived back up at Phajoding after a 15km detour (back to home!), it was getting dark and I was unsure whether the wet snow that had accumulated on my clothes would ever dry. Thankfully, Namgay and Aine had the heaters turned up to 11 and a pot of tea on, so I was able to thaw out. Laya was able to curl up in the corner and have dreams of chasing Dasho around the monastery.

As night fell, the snow let up and the clouds parted. the moon rose across the Thimphu valley and the world of Phajoding was transformed into a magical land, with monochrome moonlight reflecting in every direction off the snow. This was a photographer’s dream. I put my frozen shoes back on and ventured out and this is what I saw:

A 30 second exposure makes it look like daylight

A 30 second exposure makes it look like daylight

Between 9 and midnight I made several trips outside, and tracked up the snow I every direction looking for new angles and interesting shadows and profiles. Roofs and doorways offered angles, trees created dark shapes, and clouds made ghostly shapes during 30 second exposures.

The following morning the sun rose and shined directly into our quarters where we snuggled deeper under heavy blankets. Outside, the light was almost painfully magnified, as I retraced many of my steps from the night before, catching ice crystals and snowflakes reflecting the morning sun.

Enjoy the gallery below, and better yet, enjoy a trip to Phajoding for yourself. If you can’t make it up for a visit, at least “Like” their Facebook site, follow them on Twitter and consider sponsoring a monk for a year.

(Click on any picture to expand or view as slide show.)


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