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.