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Three days of walking beside the roaring Pa Chu, among rhododendron woods, dodging the yak-trains trudging up the trails with their bells ringing and their breath steaming in the cool morning air, brought us to the base camp of Jangothang, the magnificent snow-covered Jolmolhari looming over us, and all the other trekkers whose tents were scattered over the valley floor.

The highlight of our trek was a cup of hot, sweet yak milk tea served to us by Kelzang Om, the wife of yak-herder and village headman Pema Khandoor, whose family had just that week moved to their summer home in the high mountains, along with their 60 plus yaks. We got to meet three-month old baby Karma Dorji and his mother Ugyen, sister of our horseman, Tshering Penjor.

The rest of that glorious day, we walked along the steep shale slopes beside two deep turquoise high alpine lakes above Jangothang (14,500 feet), gazing upon herds of blue sheep and watching a pair of ruddy shell ducks as they made their journey to their summer home in the waters below.

If You’re Going to Jomolhari (adapted from San Francisco)
lyrics by Karma Wangchuck

If you’re going to Jomolhari
Be sure to take some sweets from Dhop Shari.
If you’re going to Jomolhari
You’re gonna meet some highland nomads there.

For those who come to Jomolhari
Springtime will be a enchanting there.
In the lap of Jomolhari
With primulas and gentians everywhere.

All across Jango Thang
such a sweet sensation
Eclectic emotion.
Finches and Flowers
With a new explanation
Eclectic emotion, Eclectic emotion.

Alaykha Photos

Below are photos that Gretchen and I took on a hike to Alayka, a remote village near Gedu, Bhutan. We hiked to Alayka with the Gaeddu College hiking club led by our friend Istvan Hernadi, a Canadian lecturer teaching at the college. For a written version of the hike see the previous blogpost: Gedu, Bhutan Through Five Senses.

Gedu, Bhutan Through Five Senses

The mistiness of Gedu comforts me; it reminds me of other rain-soaked, gray-skied places where I have lived and been happy. The heavy, only sometimes sun-bright air, is like a soft shawl, wrapped firmly around me, holding me in, making me feel as I imagine the Bhutanese babies must feel, tightly strapped to their mother’s backs. They are securely attached, yet free to wiggle if they want, bend their heads back to stare at the passing clouds or at pigeons in flight; open their eager fists to grab a branch or leaf.

As I walk down from the girl’s mess, where I have just finished a lunch of creamy, buttery potatoes and cheese, white rice, steamed vegetables and dal, I look out over the valley from the top of the broken concrete stairs, over the low clouds and dense green of the thick jungle that covers the soft mountains upon which this town is perched. Cows, the Bhutanese sustainable lawnmower, graze next to me, their bells clanging low and melodiously, the sound carrying so clearly in the moist air.

In the village of Tala, on the way to the hydro-power plant, the sweet smell of fresh-cut wood comes our way on the breeze from the factory where plywood is being made. Boisterous boys and girls, the sons and daughters of the factory workers, chase and play, sending badminton birdies whizzing through the evening air; the sound of a soccer ball being mightily kicked floats along with the smoke and clouds.
We all take turns lifting a steel rod with a chunk of cement wired to each end; the little ones grimace and grunt and show off their muscles.

In a small room at the end of the row of wooden shacks where the children live, we hear the rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk of weaving and peer in to watch one of the mothers, giggling at our presence,  pounding down the latest row of thread in an intricate black and red kira.

The next day we walk with new friends to Alayka, another village down the hill from Gedu. As we drop out of the clouds, following the dirt road down into the valley, we are sheltered from the wind; we shed our parkas, gloves and scarves. We come across young men playing a game of khuru, Bhutanese darts. The tiny wooden targets, like small gravestones, are placed 100 yards apart on hills of dirt. The darts have a long sharp point and an egg-shaped lead weight on the front, with wooden “feathers” on the back end. They buzz and spin, like heavy cicadas, through the air and land with a puff of dust near the target.

Halfway down the road we stop at a small shop perched above Alayka Primary School. The shop, made of tin and pine boards, bark still attached to one side, looks as if it would fall over in a gale. A gaggle of children gather around us for pictures.

The sounds of their names have finally become familiar to my ear: Karma Choki, Sangay Choeden, Chundu Lham, Chundu Zam, Tsering Dema, Nidup Zam, Tshering Choki, Sangay– who wears a dusty red and blue Spiderman shirt–and Kinley, red rubber boots covering his tiny bare feet. They all belong to one mother, who joins us soon, another baby held fast to her back by a wide orange woven cloth.

Q and A at the Sonam Hotel Cum Bar

  Setting: A Western woman sits with a Macintosh computer open at a simple table, covered in a green-checkered vinyl cloth, at a cafe in Samtse, Bhutan.  A television across the room is set to a Hindi soap opera. It is hot.  A fan circling above blends the smells coming from the kitchen–frying oil, curry, and chilies. Three young Indian men at a table across the room enjoy dinner and beer, while madam snacks on roasted papad, sips a cold Druk 1100, and edits her recent photos.

Q: Hello Madam, we are all from India. Where are you from?

A: I’m from the USA.

Q: May we ask you a question, Miss?

A: Yes, of course.

Q: What do you think of Obama?

A & Q: I like Obama. I hope he gets re-elected. What do you think of him?

A: Obama. Barack. That is his first name. I have seen him on TV. He looks like a gentleman. We like him very much.

Pause: Miss goes back to her computer and the three young Indian men resume eating their dinner and drinking beer. They are dressed casually in short sleeved cotton shirts and tailored cotton trousers.

Q: Excuse me, Miss. Sorry to interrupt Miss, but may we ask you another question, Miss?

A: Yes, please.

Q: What did you think of Osama bin Laden? How do you feel about his death?

A & Q: I wish he hadn’t been killed. I would have preferred to see him go to trial. . . tried by a group of people, not killed in a military operation. What do you think of Osama bin Laden’s death?

A & Q: My friend, he wants me to tell you that he hated bin Laden. He hates all Muslims. They are terrorists and they do terrible things. We don’t all feel that way, but he does. He wants to know what do you think of Muslims?

A: I think there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. I don’t think all Muslims are terrorists. I think there are good Christians and bad Christians. There are good Hindus and bad Hindus.

A & Q: Yes, yes! 50 percent of Hindus are good and 50 percent of Hindus are bad! My friend wants me to tell you that he is a Hindu, but he fell in love and married a Christian. What do you think of Hindus and Christians marrying?

A: That’s great. Love is always good.

Q: I see you are working on your computer and we don’t want to bother you. Are we disturbing you madam?

A: No, no. Of course not. I’m not really working; I’m doing fun things on the computer. You can ask me anything you want.

Q: We don’t want to bother you, but we’ve never been able to have a conversation with a Westerner before. We’ve seen Westerners, but we’ve never been able to sit down and talk to one. We are very interested in what you think. We live in West Bengal.  Two of us are working here, and I’m visiting. Have you ever been to India?

A: Yes, I’ve been to Varanasi.

Q: Oh! What did you think of Varanasi?

A: It was crowded and fascinating.

A: Yes, yes, it’s very crowded and dirty! And,very holy.

A: I’ve also been to Dehradun and Assam.

A & Q: Yes, yes! The Nagaland people in Assam are always causing trouble. We’re sorry to disturb you again, madam. Are you here by yourself?

A: No, I’m here with a friend. She is teaching a workshop just now.

A: Okay Miss. We will take our leave now. Thank you for talking with us.

Unbecoming of a Buddhist Part II

GNH, or Gross National Happiness, is a phrase on the tips of the tongues of most Bhutanese and nearly every foreigner who visits Bhutan. Far from being a fact of Bhutanese life, however, it is, rather, a set of policy goals and values created by Bhutan’s beloved fourth king to guide his country through what he must have forseen would be difficult of times. GNH values include cultural preservation and environmental sustainability, among other things.

Our trail intersects every now and then with a road so fresh that rocky rubble and tree roots still lie stacked along the sides. The road, Karma suggests, was probably paid for by a wealthy person who either wanted a road to an existing home (so a car could be driven to the front door), or wanted a road made so that a new home could be built upon the hill behind us. “Once we have the road it sets the tone for destruction,” Karma says, adding, wistfully, “People say the road will make our lives easier, but the road can mean many things.”

One of the things the road means is access to the forest for loggers, who either obtain permits to cut wood for homes and fires, or don’t obtain permits and cut illegally. Further up the path, we come upon several enormous newly-cut pines. The path is nearly blocked by branches, piles of fragrant sawdust, and discarded imperfect boards, bark still attached. We pause, accompanied by a gray village cat who has been alternately following and leading us, tangling itself up in our legs. “I have a picture of this tree. It used to make nice shade,” Karma says. “This used to be a place I would come to revitalize myself after a hard day’s work.” His lament has nothing in it of cleverness or nostalgia. He seems to simply be narrating his experience along this well-trod and well-loved path that is quickly changing, a microcosm of the larger changes facing his homeland.

“It’s so unbecoming of a Buddhist,” he remarks, shaking his head. “And it all started with the prayer wheel.”

I ask him what he means. He explains that the first intrusion into this spot that for him has been so beloved and natural was a chorten (a small whitewashed stone monument or shrine in which are placed sacred objects) and prayer wheel that was built across a stream at the bottom of the canyon. The prayer wheel inside the chorten is turned by the stream as the water flows under and through the stone structure. The water, thus diverted, no longer falls into the deep pool that was once there, surrounded by trees and ferns. The pool, like the thorn bushes beside the rice paddies, created a rich and delicate environment for animals, plants and insects. When Karma shows us the structure on our way back down the canyon, we notice that here, at this supposedly sacred place, there are more discarded chip bags, candy wrappers, pieces of used toilet paper, and plastic soda bottles than anywhere else on our hike.

“When there is sanctity…” Karma says softly, searching for the right words, “. . . it (the prayer wheel) is just a symptom of what we desire–our greed.” By building a prayer wheel or a chorten, he says, “We think we have done something pious, an act of earning merit, but have we really earned merit by destroying another form of life?”

Unbecoming of a Buddhist Part I

Pungent bushes of what I know as wormwood, or Artemisia, line the dusty path. I snatch a bit of the gray-green leaf as I pass, crush it, and hold it to my nose, inhaling the dense, sage-like smell. It is late winter, almost spring; the bare trees, empty rice-paddies, and brown mountain-sides of Paro Valley are just beginning to show signs of the change in season. Karma, the friend who is taking us on this walk and picnic up a scenic valley outside of Paro town, excitedly points out the shocking blue-violet of the primrose,  Bhutan’s first spring flower, almost invisible, tucked into the shade of an irrigation ditch alongside the rice paddy, mixed in amongst the wild mint and watercress.

“What do you call this?” I ask Karma, putting my pinch of wormwood to his nose.

“Kempa,” he says, and enthusiastically explains its many uses: People in the villages put it in their hot stone baths because of its fragrance and healing qualities. They also crush it and extract a green juice used as a first aid antibiotic. It’s boiled and made into a strong tea that is added to a bath one can sit in to cure problems in the urinary tract. You can make incense and brooms out of it, and you can even rub its fragrant oil on your wooden floors.

No wonder Bhutan has been known as the Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs–a once-secluded Himalayan Kingdom to the south of Tibet that because of its unusual geography supported a biodiversity of unparalleled riches. Bhutan is still rightly heralded as a paradise for bird, plant, insect, and animal species, but as this tiny mountainous nation has entered the modern world, so have many of the environmental threats that come with development.

We don’t have to walk far to see sign what is happening to Bhutan’s natural environment with our very own eyes. Unmindful modernization, Karma points out numerous times to this party that includes one of his students, a Bhutanese colleague, and three Americans, is apparent at every turn.

Our trail begins along the ridges and irrigation ditches that separate the rice paddies, which create a lovely quilt-like patchwork on the land. Karma points out three-foot deep holes that pock the flat earth in many of the paddy fields. Some of the dark holes are empty and some are filled in with small fruit trees, earth and cow dung fertilizer packed up closely around their tiny trunks. Elsewhere we see newly-charred stumps of big blue pines which have been burned down to make room for more fledgling apple trees. “They are replacing their food crop with a cash crop,” Karma says; most of the apples will be sold to India. The growth of the orchards also has meant that farmers are tidying up their fields, chopping down thorny brush and other growth along stream beds bordering the paddies. “The farmers don’t like this messiness. They think that this bush is too thorny. But who lives in this bush?” Karma asks. “Whose home is being destroyed here, and what are the consequences? Profit is not a GNH value.”

Stray Dogs and Prayer Wheels Part III

Prayer wheels are everywhere in Bhutan–perched above stream beds, constantly turned by the power of the water; built into crumbling chortens beside the roads; lining the outer walls of sacred temples; tucked into walls around the corner from the hardware store; and solar powered prayer wheels like the one pictured above spin on the dashboards of cars all across the country. You will even see people walking around with hand-held prayer wheels on a stick that you spin with a turn of the wrist. When you spin them you send into the universe the sacred words inscribed upon them, Om Mane Padme Hung. . . “May all sentient beings be free from suffering.” Spinning prayer wheels might feel, to some Westerners, like an exercise in faith alone, not an active intervention to eliminate suffering. In my Western mind, for instance, if I wanted all sentient beings to be free from suffering, I’d intervene with antibiotics and vitamins and flea baths to try to save the lives of all six of the neighborhood puppies, or all 50, or all 100, or all 10,000, or I’d spay and neuter all the dogs in Bhutan. Thinking that way, I quickly become overwhelmed and give up in hopelessness. An idea flickers in the dim reaches of my brain. . . I wonder, could hundreds of thousands of prayer wheels spinning out compassion and kindness, sending that scared chant, Om Mane Padme Hung, over the mountains, into the valleys, up the alleyways of Thimphu, down the farm roads of Bhutan, into the forests and across the rice paddies, be a place of balance between doing nothing to alleviate suffering and trying to eliminate it altogether? Could it be a middle path? Could the wheels themselves represent the circle of life, which after all, includes death?