Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Summer Break in Eastern Bhutan

Mouse count 75. No great stories to report, so instead:

Bhutan fact: Bhutan only became (an absolute) monarchy in 1907. The present king is only the fifth king of Bhutan. The fourth king is still alive and relatively young. He abdicated to ensure a smooth transition for his son. He also wanted his son Jigme, the fifth king, to oversee the peaceful introduction of democracy. Bhutan officially became a democracy in 2008.

Well, we’re already past the half-way mark of our year in Bhutan.  When we first arrived in Bhutan, Justine and I both admitted that we’d had those, ‘what have we done’ feelings.  A year seemed such a long time; how could we possibly survive? Now, I’m already feeling moments of sadness at having to leave Bhutan at the end of the year.  It’s often an infuriating country - why can’t restaurants write their menu up on a board just to give us a clue what food to ask for! But it’s also a breathtakingly beautiful country and the people really are amongst the friendliest you could meet. Though I regularly crave much of what the West has to offer (bacon, roast pork, a nice glass of red wine) I wonder how long I would be back in Australia before I start to miss my life in Bhutan. Ho hum.

The Bhutan school year only has two terms, the big holiday is in the winter because much of Bhutan is so cold that the kids cannot attend an unheated school.  So as the 2 week holidays approached, our excitement levels increased. We were to be re-united with our fellow chillip (foreign) teachers at a ‘retreat’ in Bhutan’s mysterious east. According to my trusty Lonely Planet, Bhutan’s east is the most densely populated region but it is still the ‘hinterland’ and many tourists simply don’t make it out that far because of the time spent travelling on the long and winding roads. The main language in the east is Sharchop so the official language Dzongkha isn’t much use - luckily English is widely spoken. The east is also home to several minority tribes with their own distinct languages and costumes.

Crossing the Thrumshing La pass at 3750mtrs

It was an extremely leisurely start to the holidays, The Bhutan Canada Foundation – the charity who organised our placement in Bhutan, had arranged for a bus to pick us up. We live right on the main east-west road and so they arrived at our doorstep. Several of our fellow teachers were already on board and the fun seemed to increase each time we picked up another teacher.
Our first night was just up the road at the River Lodge in Chamkar, Bumthang. Mr Pema Dawa who runs this establishment has been incredibly helpful to me over the months, particularly when I needed to get back to England for my father’s funeral. I was very pleased to give him two desk flags for his collection (England and Germany). I’d picked them up on my most recent trip to Thimphu which was awash with World Cup fever.  I thought the flags were somehow poignant; England the team I hoped would win the World Cup but never thought they would for a second. Germany, the team I least wanted to win (haven’t they won it enough times already) but whom I thought probably would. Incidentally, in a triumph of head over heart, I put my money on Germany in our school’s betting pool. Unfortunately, 3 other teachers picked Germany too, so we will have to share our jackpot.
The following morning we were up at 5.30am to allow for an early start on the long drive east. As usual it’s not because of the distance that it takes so long, it’s because the roads are so winding that the bus rarely exceeds 40kph. Although its summer, Bumthang is still quite cool and you often need to wear a jacket during the day. As we headed east, we had to cross a range of mountains that runs north-south from Tibet.  Once crossed, the vegetation grew denser, the variety of trees increased, the mountains grew higher, the valleys narrower, the temperature rose and ..... surely that’s not cannabis growing wild at the side of the road!
We finally arrived at the Lingkhar Lodge in Trashigang around 7pm and there we were reunited with many more of our colleagues who teach out east. Sadly, 3 of our gang have already returned home for various reasons, and one teacher simply couldn’t get away from her school on time to attend. The Lingkhar Lodge is the height of luxury by any standards and our suite was probably the most fancy place we have stayed anywhere in the world.
The second day was Canada Day, we visited Trashigang Dzong (local government building & monastery) and were kindly shown around by the Dasho. I was interested to see that as he stood up to leave his office, he put on his patang (sword) which he told me he must wear at all times when walking around the dzong. He had a good sense of humour and said he would protect us all with his patang. I had another bout of ‘tummy trouble’ and so was very pleased to return to our fancy room with a proper toilet.
At the Trashigang Dzong

That night we celebrated Canada Day. The Canadian teachers kicked off the evening with a stirring rendition of the Canadian National Anthem, closely followed by Brett Parish singing an a Capella version of American Pie. Nancy (the BCF Director) had very kindly supplied some wine and it was wonderful to once again taste a nice glass of red. It was great to catch up with the teachers we hadn’t really seen since our orientation in Thimphu. It was also good to get to know some of the ‘2nd year’ teachers better.

Happy Canada Day

Temporary Canadians
Oh Canada, our home and native land.....
Lois decorated American Kevin!
That night all the conversation was about what we would do after our 3 night stay at the Lodge. We had originally planned to do the Merak Sakteng Trek which would take a minimum of 3 days.  We’d actually dropped out at short notice after being convinced that it was too adventurous for novice hikers with 3 young children in the monsoon season. Fortunately (for our consciences at least) a vital bridge had been washed away and that meant that nobody could do the Trek.
All too soon it was time to leave. Luckily we didn’t have to say goodbye to everyone as a bunch of us headed off to Ash’s house in Trashiyangtse. Warren was in charge of logistics and after much too-ing and fro-ing we eventually came up with a plan to visit the Rigsum Goempo monastery. It was a 1 hour taxi ride to the suspension bridge that marked the start of the trek. It would then be a 3 hour trek to the monastery. It was nearly 4pm by the time we set off and so I was hoping there wouldn’t be any delays as it tends to get dark around 7pm. 
A stop along the journey from Trashigang to Trashiyangtse

A hearty lunch in Trashiyangtse before our trek
Setting off on our trek
A Bhutanese guy joined us in our taxi, (maybe he was a friend of the driver’s) and said he would join us on our trek. His name was Choki Dorji and I was very pleased to have him with us to avoid any wrong turns. He laughed and joked all the way up the mountain as he took regular slugs of whisky (which he was very keen to share but didn’t get any takers) to keep himself going. At one point in our trip he told me that I looked like James Bond - clearly the whisky was getting to him but hey, a compliment’s a compliment! Incidentally, he referred to Justine as ‘Mrs Paul’ throughout our adventure.

The walk began in glorious weather and jackets were quickly removed and tied around waists. Right at the start of the trek there is a stunning, terraced rice field. The gentle slopes soon turned a little steeper and the grass quickly turned to mud, not a few puddles here and there but deep, squelchy mud that tries to suck the boots off your feet. Unfortunately, the precarious state of the track meant having to stare down constantly to choose the least muddy route, rather than look around and admire the view.

Here come the girls!
First stop to catch our breath and admire the view
Mmm, I don't think I'll drink that water

Of course, being the monsoon season, it wasn’t long before the rain began to fall, but because it was still so warm, nobody bothered to put their jackets back on. It wasn’t long too before we began to experience the East’s famous leeches. On that 3 hour trek, I had to remove 7 of the suckers from my skin, most were simply on my fingers and quickly removed before they could do too much harm. But at one rest stop I found one close to my belly button, it had already swelled to quite a good size and the wound itched for nearly a week afterwards. All our kids had leech encounters too and I was proud of how well they reacted to the thirsty little blood-suckers. I was also proud of them for simply walking up the mountain in such tough conditions with little complaint. The last 15 minutes, was completed under torch light; we were wet, a bit cold, sore and fed up. We were all very pleased indeed to arrive at the monastery. We’d phoned ahead to let the monks know we were coming and they’d allocated us 3 rooms for the night. By the time we’d all sat around talking for a while, comparing leech and blister stories we all realised we were hungry and it was getting quite late.
Nobody understandably wanted to move but fortunately hunger triumphed over exhaustion and Justine, Sarah, Jess and I headed off to the kitchen to make soup with the supplies we brought with us. The kitchen was very poorly equipped and they only had an electric rice cooker for cooking. Sarah said we should simply boil some water and throw all our ingredients in. I was very doubtful, but we had little choice and so we chopped the veggies and chucked ‘em in.

Souper Sarah cooking up a storm
While the soup simmered, a group of young monks gathered around us. They were just as interested in us as we were in them. Justine proceeded to teach the monks some classic western songs including: Heads and Shoulders, Knees and Toes; and the Hokey Pokey. Now that was another night of magic for me and a memory I will treasure for life. I tried to film some of it with my little camera but the room was very dark. I hope it works ok on the blog and you can get some sense of the magic that we felt.

Hokey Pokey Spectators
Continuing that magical note – somehow the soup turned out to be really delicious and everyone was full of compliments. Choki Dorji was still with us and by now he was handing around a bottle of Arra (local hooch) which is particularly popular in the East. 

The following morning the monks took us on a tour of the monastery and we duly left our donations at the altar. The walk back down the mountain was a little easier this time, a lot less leeches but still plenty of mud and rain. The taxi was waiting dutifully for us back at the bridge and we happily climbed aboard in our filthy, soggy clothes. For the Divers, it was the beginning of a couple of night’s stay in Trashiyangste at Ash’s house, but the rest of our motley crew headed off to Lhuentse to visit fellow teacher Keith. Would we ever see those guys again?
(To be continued.)

Mud, sweat and cheers, we made it!