The Tiger’s Nest

The last stop: the most famous site in the country, Taktsang, the “Tiger’s Nest” monastery.  It really quite big inside, considering the location, and of course the location is stunningly beautiful.

Bhutanese people make the trek (1-2 hours from the road) to leave offerings at one of the many shrines here.  Traditionally this is money or fruit, but as it was early spring, we ran into the actor/broadcaster Tshewang Dendrup (star of the film Travelers and Magicians) bringing an offering of asparagus.  We had met him previously several times , but Taktsang just isn’t the sort of place you expect to run into people you know.

That nearly completes my time in Bhutan; the next day we took another treacherous 7 hour bus ride down to India, and caught a train in Siliguri, West Bengal and arrived in Delhi 37 hours later, and then I got into Heathrow a day later.  Jumping across three worlds in 3 days added an almost surreal twist to an amazing journey.

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The Paro Tsechu

A Tsechu is an annual religious festival, generally lasting 10 days, and every major town in Bhutan has one at various dates throughout the year.  Paro isn’t a large town, but its proximity to Thimphu as well as a few historical reasons make the Paro Tsechu the biggest event in the country.  There are a lot of traditional dances, singing, drama, etc.,  and lower down in the town, a small village of vendors, makeshift kitchens, movie theatres, and of course, bars.  These events are a pretty old tradition in Bhutan, and (it seems) that everyone tries to find a way to attend, even if it is a long journey.

I was expecting to see a lot of foreign tourists, but there actually weren’t that many.  The crowd was roughly 99% Bhutanese, with just a handful of foreigners who didn’t stay long.  The event also managed to stay quite traditional and everything was done in the Dzongkha language.  I’ll just let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

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The capital of a small, rural country

Another 11 hours of curvy roads, stunning vistas, and substantial discomfort get us to the Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. The city has close to 100 thousand people, is THE major population centre to which Bhutanese youth aspire to ‘make it big’, usually meaning a job in the civil service. The current rates of rural-urban migration were a problem we hear a lot about, mainly because the hoards of youngsters moving to the capital overwhelmed the local job market, leading to massive youth unemployment in Thimphu and the usual associated social problems. The city is also a centre of trade, aid, and tourism, all of which makes it seem completely unlike anywhere else in the country, and making us feel like country bumpkins coming in from a dusty, far-flung provincial town, which was more or less the case.

Though Thimphu may be a city, it is a Bhutanese city, and as such, has a number of charming quirks. There are no traffic lights; apparently there used to be one, but it was deemed too tacky, and replaced with a traffic police officer who directs traffic from an ornately-painted little platform. Prayer flags are strung at ‘auspicious’ locations near the city, but with a population that size, the shear number of them means it becomes a web of prayers. The city is nestled in a narrow valley (the only type of valley they have here), and there is so little room that the airport (the only one in the country) is nowhere nearby. We visited the takin preserve (the national animal), saw the sites, had pizza made by a monk friend of ours, and then prepared for our trip the following day to the biggest festival of the year…

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The Road to Thimphu

Bhutan has chosen to open its doors slowly to the rest of the world, and tourism is a prime example. There are less than one million people in the country, and the government has opted to keep numbers of tourists low accordingly, the easiest way to do this being to make visas $250 USD per day. Consequently, the tourist infrastructure which has sprung up in recent is generally quite ritzy, especially given the relative poverty of the rest of the country, there are no backpackers as you would certainly find in the rest Asia.

Tourism is heavily concentrated in the west of the country, around Thimphu, Paro, and Bumthang. There are a handful of foreign workers scattered across the country working for various Scandinavian, Japanese or Canadian international development agencies and the like, but the numbers are quite small, and there were none in the south-east where we were, nor was there any tourism. Hence, coming to Bumthang was the first time we had seen foreigners in many months, and it was a bit of a shock to see tour groups.

We stayed in a Trashigang the first night, before proceeding to the Chokhor valley the next day. Jakar (the main town) is nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks, with a plethora of beautiful ancient temples. We stayed here two nights at a lodge (with hot running water!) before proceeding to the the bustling capital city of Thimphu to stay with friends before moving on to Paro.

The bus stops for lunch - hope you like rice & chillies!

Jakar is pretty far from everywhere - those trips took 10.5 and 13 hours respectively

Door in Jakar - the phallus is believed to ward off evil spirits

Elderly women circumambulate the Jampey Lakhang in Jakar

The Jampey Lakhang was originally constructed around 600 CE in order to subdue a Tibetan demoness

Beautiful paintings on buildings

Prayer flags

Newspaper cartoon: There is a program to post canadian teachers in remote villages in Bhutan

Trashigang dzong at dusk

View from our room in Trashigang

Inside the Jakar Dzong

Kurjey Lakhang, Jakar

Red Panda: Delicious local beer, Jakar

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Roads in Bhutan

After finishing up in Dewathang, we travelled by bus across Bhutan to the capital, Thimphu. Despite its small area (roughly the size of Switzerland), it actually took 33 hours of driving to get across there. The roads are constantly winding and narrow, requiring large oncoming vehicles to slow down and often take to the unpaved shoulders when passing. Also, the road is almost entirely blind corners, so this further complicates the situation. As a result, the speed on these roads rarely gets above 30 km/h, though this actually feels incredibly fast, given the conditions. I would estimate that 90% of the time, the road is right beside a cliff which would spell certain death, and rarely is there any form of barrier.

Full-size buses aren’t used in Bhutan, the corners are too tight and the roads too narrow, so smaller 17-seat buses are used though in practice, drivers pick up hitch-hikers for extra pocket money, filling up the aisle as well.

As most Bhutanese people are still subsistence farmers living in rural areas, most people do not travel that often, and even fewer would actually own a vehicle. Therefore, the bus/hitching is the only affordable way to travel for the vast majority of people. There are very few private cars on the roads. By my count, it would be 20% bus, 65% trucks, 5% gov’t/corporate vehicles (you can tell because they’re all large SUVs), and 10% hired taxis/private vehicles. Fuel is about the same price as in Canada, and even higher in areas away from the Indian border, so relative to the income of most people, private vehicles are prohibitively expensive.

The highways in Bhutan are perpetually under construction, all across the country. The ‘road widening’ that was started a decade ago really hasn’t gotten very far: every km requires drilling, blasting, retaining walls, and culverts, much of which is still done by hand. By my estimate, by the time the road is completed, there will be virtually no oil left in the world.

An army of Nepali and Indian labourers lives in Bhutan, moving their temporary shanty-towns along the highway as work progresses. They are employed by Dantak, part of the Indian government’s Border Roads Organization which maintains roads of ‘strategic military importance’ in India’s greater sphere of influence. It is staffed by their Army Corps of Engineers, so the site supervisors walk around in their fancy military attire, which we seems pretty out-of-place, given the dusty, squalid conditions under which the labourers toil. They are hired on what would be called a ‘casual’ basis, no job security, no benefits, minimum wage. Safety equipment is non-existent, and the (largely female) workforce does everything from breaking rocks with hammers, casting concrete bricks for retaining walls, mixing asphalt over open fires, and sorting aggregates from piles of debris all while dressed in flip-flops and saris while trucks fly by at full speed. There are memorials in most large towns to all the labourers who were killed building the roads. The one in Dewathang has well over 100 names on it already. Needless to say, the contrast between this and the principle of GNH couldn’t be more stark.

Wage slavery aside, the scenery along the way is absolutely spectacular. There are stunning vistas at every turn as the road winds its way from the steamy jungles of the Indian border up through temperate forests and the snow-capped peaks Himalayas. We left mid-march, so there were a lot of amazing flowering trees, and only the highest passes had much snow; the only time I saw any all year.

This is why straight roads are impossible

making asphalt

Labourers making concrete bricks

Narrow section on the main highway

Slope stability?

Prayer flags over the road

Himalayan roads

Highest pass on the main road

Waiting for the road to re-open

Closed for construction most of the day

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Official Festivities

stomp to my beat

the hunt is on

Officials approve

Traditional dances

1st king lives on

Tomorrow is the birthday of Bhutan’s fifth king, Jigme Kesar Namgyal Wangchuck.  It is the biggest celebration of the year here, a four-day holiday which will include all the major ingredients that make up all Bhutanese holidays: choreographed dances and marching by school children, masked dances, archery competitions, and booze.

Most larger towns will have some sort of a field that serves as a parade ground, and school children from the surrounding villages are bussed in and required to  participate in several hours of standing/marching in formation, an exercise for which they practice throughout the year.  The imagery and symbolism seems quite antiquated and militaristic from a western perspective, but these sorts of things are apparently quit common in many Asian countries.  The main themes of the banners and slogans are generally peace (juxtaposed by a heavy military presence) and patriotism: reverence for the monarchy, Buddhist values, and tradition. This is all part of a long-running concerted effort to promote a national identity in a country that has several different ethnic groups.  Here in the south-east, neither of the two ethnic groups (Sharchop & Nepali) traditionally speak the national language, and in the case of the Nepalis, don’t practice Buddhism and don’t wear the national dress unless they have to, so patriotic celebrations of something that was (until recently) someone else’s culture seem to elicit mixed emotions. Regardless, attendance is formally and/or socially mandated, so everyone shows up and goes through the motions.  It is not the sort of top-down tradition that is easily changed.

At the National Day event we attended, even though we were in the second-tier VIP tent along with the monks and local officials, the midday heat and the slow pace of the proceedings, speeches especially, led to more than a few people nodding off.  However, with the large scale of the whole event, and the rather of modest level of general interest, no one seemed to notice.  As the afternoon wore on, many of the officials left, but the  children kept following the prescribed program, dancing in front of a nearly empty pavilion.

On the upside, masked dances are a part of most celebrations, both the big official ones and smaller village tsechus.  They typically tell a story from Bhutanese mythology, generally about Guru Rinpoche (a reincarnation of the Buddha) ‘subduing’ demons through his fancy footwork and killer dance moves.  The costumes are fantastic, and the dances quite energetic; a major highlight of the event.

a motley crew

demon busts a move

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Excursions in the dark gewog

We recently got back from a research trip to two of the northern districts in the area; Gomdar and Wangphu.  There is ‘road access’ to one town in Gomdar as of a month ago, and no roads at all in Wangphu.  The ‘road’ into Gomdar is about the most dangerous road I’ve seen anywhere, ever.  It is a 40 minute ride which drops 1.5 vertical kilometers, and the tiny road makes about 50 switchbacks with sheer cliffs everywhere.  There is a shortage of aggregates in the area and the road is made of rather loose, coarse stone.  On the way out, our taxi got stuck twice and we had to push it uphill.  It was a scary ride, and the next day we learned that that same vehicle had careened off the road, falling over 50 meters and killing the occupants.  These things happen in Bhutan, but ‘what to do’ (as the locals say), it’s the only way to get there.

From the end of the road, the rest of the region is accessible only by foot, or in the case of cargo, by mule.  Mandarin oranges are the sole cash crop here, and this being orange season, we had to stop frequently to let trains of mules carrying oranges to the road head for export.  Electricity also just arrived here a month ago, and it is yet to make it to the further reaches of the region, so kerosene is still carried up into the mountains along with a few other basic provisions on the returning mule trains.

The villages are scattered along this very deep valley, and until recently, would have been multiple days walk from any road.   Not may people from outside venture this far; even government officials make visits only annually or so.   Similarly, most people don’t leave often.  This, or course, makes us even more of a spectacle than usual. We stayed at the town by the road head for a few days, making day trips out to nearby villages in Gomdar and then planned to head to Wangphu for a few more days.

We set off south, crossed the raging river on rickety bamboo bridge which creaked and bent severely as we crossed, and then climbed up into the dark and isolated Wangphu gewog.  The hike is supposedly only 4 hours and we left at 11:00 but unfortunately we were somewhat inhibited. Cheku was limping badly from a knee injury incurred on the second day, Kate had some sort of intestinal illness, and Luke was, well, drunk (there was a send-off ceremony with some local officials which involved mandatory drinking).  We got into the main village around dusk to the sound of long bronze trumpets, cymbals, and chanting from a puja (prayer ceremony) that was going on.  All of buildings were dark, with the exception of the lakhang (essentially a temple), where the puja was going on.  We were ushed in, given the ceremonial sweet rice, and then more arra (corn liquor – ugh, more mandatory drinking).  As it was quite dark, the monk who was supposed to be pouring a few drops of holy water into everyone’s palm, sloshed it all over me, soaking my feet and lap.  The night was concluded by traditional dances, which are simple rythmic dances done to different chants and are easy to pick up and quite hypnotic.  The arra, the thick curtains of incense and kerosene smoke, the chanting, and crowds of farmers, children, monks all swirled around the flames, taking the senses with them.

We were staying with the Livestock Officer, a government employee who performs veterinary duties and advises farmers on all livestock issues.  While the area has no electricity, she had a small solar system sufficient to run a few lights and a laptop.  On the latter, we were shown few videos, one of which was a ridiculous MTV travel shows where a group of somewhat obnoxious American celebrities go abroad (in this case to Bhutan) and are toured around.  Every scene makes one cringe.  Imagine Cameron Diaz, one of the guys from the Black Eyed Peas, and a few others going around in a country like this unwittingly doing all sorts of culturally inappropriate things with rock music in the background. They actually erected a prayer flag in memory of ODB, who had recently died- Cultural juxtapositions galore!

We stayed a few days conducting interviews and traveling to nearby villages and waiting for Cheku’s knee to heal.  The pace of life is certainly slower, and the only noises you can hear are generally cattle in the distance.  There are times of the year where farmers are working full tilt, but this certainly wasn’t one of them.  All the government staff out here (livestock, agricultural, health, admin staff) are generally young, placed here straight out of college.  They said they found it tough at first, but came to like it after a while and only leave quarterly to attend meetings in SJ. We headed back reluctantly, and once we got to the highway, caught rides with dump trucks hauling gypsum as there were no vehicles available for hire.

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