Culture and… more culture!
After yesterday’s hike we would take it easy today. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel any affects from the previous day’s exertions. No sore legs, no aching calves, no headaches. It was a good sign, because tomorrow was the first day of a five day trek through the mountains. Oh! And the biggest surprise of all: my feet were happy! All of the research, tweaking and testing that Dan and I did in preparation for this trip really paid off. In fact, I think my feet were the happiest part of my body on the hike yesterday. Let’s see if the streak continues…
Today’s agenda was a tour of local sites and museums. As our bus worked its way back to town and then turned up a different valley, Chunjur gave us tidbits of information (!) with the time we had. He explained how the Kingdom of Bhutan wants everyone to be self-sufficient. Therefore, if for whatever reason there has been no land held by your family for two generations, you can petition the King for an allotment. If the petition is approved, then the applicant gets three acres of land with water and electricity access. This is enough to grow your own food and live off the land. It wasn’t stated if there was abuse of the system, but from what I saw while I was in Bhutan, I get the impression that the notion of abusing this allotment is generally unheard of.
Our first stop was a roadside check point. While the army of Bhutan is only 7,000 strong, there are a number of policemen that roam the streets. I never once saw the need for anything more than traffic direction or, in this case, a driver documentation check, and Chunjur assured me that crime was fairly low (Wiki has more to say on this). This particular check was to ensure that the driver was not driving while intoxicated and that the correct papers were on hand and then there was a brief, cursory glance at the overall vehicle condition. The unsmiling policeman let us by without any fuss.
Vineyards in the foreground and our first destination in the background
Typical motorcycle type seen in Bhutan
The bus pulled into the parking lot of the National Museum of Bhutan. I had no idea what to expect and admit that I was a little disappointed that the first room was full of masks on the walls and a five minute video about cultural dances playing on repeat. I wanted to learn more about Bhutanese culture, but not through a video! The room filled up with people from other groups, but they eventually filtered out into the next room. Chunjur then pulled us into a corner and began to give us his own cultural history lesson. Chunjur’s knowledge is impressive, and it has to be. In order to be certified as a guide in Bhutan one must not just be from Bhutan, but also pass tests regarding geography, history, cultural aspects, wildlife…and be physically fit, too. It seemed that no matter what question was put to our guide, Chunjur knew the answer.
The next few rooms were full of old paintings, scrolls, pottery and other historical fragments of Bhutan’s history. These rooms didn’t interest me nearly as much as the next two: they were full of the flora and fauna of the landscape that I would soon be immersed in. A (mounted) rare snow leopard greeted me as I entered, and a massive wild yak head hung on the wall. A plethora of stuffed birds gave proof to the variety of wildlife to be found in the forests. Signage and photos gave lengthy descriptions and were positioned throughout the room for easy reading. And the information on the trees, flowers and other vegetation was in-depth and fascinating. I wish I had a photographic memory so that I would know it all. Chunjur pointed out a 3D landscape model of the country and pointed out our upcoming trek on the moulded, green hills.
He also pointed out something else: China’s land grab. In 1998 China demanded that Bhutan cede a section along the northern border to China. Bhutan, grossly outgunned in this case, merely handed China a map and basically said “Draw the border as you want it.” China did and things were relatively calm for years afterwards. However, China has recently demanded more land, and started building roads on Bhutan’s land. Bhutan is fighting back and has now called upon the UN to intercede and while the UN generally does not get involved in territorial disputes, it has agreed to assist with this one (more Wiki information here)
View of Paro from the National Museum
The original museum building – currently been renovated
Partial view of the airport
Next on our list was the Royal Court of Justice. This complex set of buildings stood out on the side of the hill, overlooking the fertile valley below. We entered a hallway filled with colorful murals illustrating the stories and histories of Buddha and his teachings. Chunjur explained one of the images to us, giving us a rich understanding of the images on the wall. And then we went through another doorway.
Kids will be kids
The Royal Court
(Dan’s) Chunjur explains the story of the mural
As we descended a wide, steep set of stairs we heard chanting and drumming. Turning the corner gave us a beautiful sight: a couple of dozen monks in their rich red robes were dancing in a circle. Our group blended into the shadows as we watched them practice for an upcoming festival. Some of the dancers were obviously more skilled in the moves, and some were quite young and were struggling to keep up. It was enjoyable to take the time to watch them and notice the subtleties among them.
Hot in the sun
Watching from above
(Dan’s) Close up
While the King of Bhutan maintains his residence in the capitol city of Thimphu, he has a residence in Paro. You can see it from the Court buildings: it is the low white building nestled in the trees on the left, with Paro stretching out down the valley to the right.
As we watched the dancers, someone pointed out a number of honeybees in the area. Chunjur knew that Dan and I used to have a hive and were interested in Bhutan honey production, so he asked around and found that there were wild combs hanging from some of the eaves. He took our group on a little detour to show them to us.
(Dan’s) His camera’s zoom is amazing
We left the law behind and headed for lunch. Rice was on the menu and there was no time to waste! The bus would meet us on the other side of the river and the group walked down to a bridge (featured in the movie Seven Years in Tibet) and crossed over to the parking lot We returned to the same place we had lunch on our first day. So much had changed in such a short time! I now knew everyone’s name, I knew that the tiny chicken chunks contained chopped up bones, I knew that I could politely decline the tea if I wanted to and no one would think less of me… And then there were a couple of things I didn’t know, such as butter tea is almost sickeningly sweet and bitter gourds are actually quite tasty.
Private home near the Court
The Bridge of…Cows?
During lunch the rain moved in. It continued to pour even as we finished up our meals and prepared to go out and explore the town. Those with pressing errands (such as Matt and his need for new boots) braved the driving rain. Others stood on an open balcony and watched life pass underneath (that would be me) and still others made themselves comfortable in a corner of the restaurant and opened a couple of bottles of beer to pass the time.
Eventually the rain petered out and Dan and I ventured out to see some more of Paro. We only had about half an hour but we poked our heads into the local grocery store (always interesting to see what is available) and along the wet streets.
(Dan’s) Cordyceps available here
Our last official stop for the day was a monastery at the other end of Paro. We approached the site through a thick field of rice, the road barely wide enough for our bus. Once off the bus, it was a short walk to the buildings, and then inside (no shoes, no cameras – no surprise). Chunjur once again told us stories of the temple, built in 1615, and why it is considered a holy site. To be honest, I could not keep track of all of the holy people and places and events. The stories were interesting to hear but to me they were just that: stories.
One room inside the monastery was full of sound: chanting, cymbals, and horns filled the chamber with noise. Well, to my untrained ears it sounded like noise. I enjoyed the mantras as they were chanted, almost as a mumble, by the half a dozen young monks. Chunjur had explained previously that Buddhism is a casual religion. Solemnity is not required all of the time, and one can often see monks smiling and joking even during the ceremonies. Today was no exception. As we stood in a half circle and watched the monks perform their mantras I noticed a couple of young monks smiling towards each other and then starting as they realized that they missed their musical cue for the horn section. No one batted an eye at the misstep; what you do here is personal and not for anyone else to judge.
Roadworks on the way to the monastery
In the photo above there are little molded forms I took to calling “cupcakes”. But what they really are is the cremated remains of the dead, mixed with a little clay, brightly painted and left in auspicious places. They are called tsa-tsas, and as they disintegrate, the ancestors slowly merge back into the landscape. A rather lovely way to honor the dead.
Our tour of the monastery was over and we piled back into the bus for the short ride back to the hotel. Remember that narrow road through the rice fields? We met another vehicle on our way out. I saw it long before we met and I wondered why neither driver hesitated or backed off but there we were, face-to-face among the heads of ripened rice. Somehow – and I don’t know how – the two vehicles managed to pass each other without one of them tipping over into the rice paddy. These guys really know their vehicles.
Everyone think thin thoughts!
This guy decided to back up when he saw us
I should end this post here, as we were back at the hotel for the rest of the day. But a few of us weren’t content to sit around at the hotel and instead we decided to explore the “neighborhood”. I use that term loosely, as there were few buildings around us to explore. The most interesting to us was the one right next door that was being added on to. A few of us shared the fascination of “how things are done” here in Bhutan. Different building styles and skills are always interesting to see.
The scene of construction
Ok, it was a little awkward as we just walked right onto the property
Workers trimming down the stone; they stared at us for a while before going back to work
Custom-made wooden window frames
Chainsaw wood cutting
Watering her plants
In the photo above, you can barely make out a carcass nailed to the wall of the house just above the woman’s head. Chunjur later told us that this is done to honor the spirit of the animal after it has died. I’m glad he told us this, as this scene left us wondering what was going on here.
Chilis dry on the roof as the wood is sanded underneath
While we were inspecting the building and materials, I made it a point to smile at the workers and give them the impression that we were genuinely curious about the methods used. I wanted to appear not merely as rude tourists, but as honestly interested in what they were doing. Regardless, they seemed puzzled at our actions, but made no move to interfere. There were four of us: Dan, Matt, Petra and myself, and our little group was content to just poke around and see what we would find around the next corner. After we had left the construction site (waving good bye and smiling broadly to the workers as we went) we continued down the road.
More chilies in the sun – with mother and child enjoying the day
Street-side milk delivery
Fantastic clouds over the valley
Fields of gold
We were enjoying walking down a long, straight road. We hoped that it would eventually cut back to the main road and we could then return to the hotel. In the meantime, we savored the landscape full of flowers, grains, homes and unusual scenes. Like this one: we approached this building and admired the flowers planted around it. Then I noticed the sign that read “General Store” and I looked more closely: an old man was sitting out front, and his wife (?) was just inside. We greeted them (I finally mastered the Bhutanese greeting and was so proud to use it whenever I could) and then I noticed the man hunching himself next to the flowers. He was hoping that I would take his picture – how great is that?
The General Store
The store owner
So many murals painted on the house walls
As we stood in the road and debated if it really did reconnect to the main road, or if we should turn back, a couple of women harvesting their rice stopped and stared at us. They were obviously willing to help (we looked lost) and when we asked them about the roads, they said that the road we were on went all the way to Paro. If we followed it, we’d have another 2.5 kilometers to walk back to the hotel. We thanked them and turned around and walked back up the hill.
Moving his cows to greener pastures
The group had a short meeting after dinner to go over the plans for tomorrow. We would be given a waterproof black bag to be shared with one other person (yay! I can share with Dan!) in which we could pack whatever we wanted with us on our upcoming five day trek. We would also have our backpacks for items we wanted with us during the day (the black bag would only come to us when we stopped to camp). Everything else (such as our two suitcases and non-hiking stuff) would get put in a transit van and meet up with us at our eventual destination in Thimphu. It sounded like a good plan and we all scattered to our rooms to sort through our stuff.
Tomorrow would be the beginning of the real exploration!