7 Days in Bhutan (of 16)

Bhutan: WOW!  What a country….. what a change from India.  Total population is almost the same as San Francisco.  Ruled by a seemingly benevolent King and Parliament.  Development policies, plans, and actions that emphasize the national policy to promote “Gross Domestic Happiness” instead of GNP.  Wonderfully receptive and gracious people. 

[Note: internet is very sketchy so these reports will be erratic and possibly jumbled.]

 We started out at about sea level and have been climbing through the mountains all day—6 hours to go 120 miles.  Rose to about 9,000 feet, settled for the next two nights at about 6,500 feet. The roads were advertised as “treacherous” and have met the challenge.  Major road “improvements” are no doubt going to be improvements when finished but right now when looking straight up on one side of the road and straight down over a torn up already-bad road is, well, sobering.  It took a while for it to sink in that part of what was so disconcerting was that I was sitting behind the passenger seat occupied by our guide, Phuntzo, and he kept turning around to talk to us.  Fine.  But, that is the seat that I would ordinarily expect to see the driver in…. while not conscious of it, my brain was warning me: “the driver is not looking where he is going” as we perch on a cliff into oblivion….. initially gut wrenching….. Of course, they drive on the wrong side of the road here.  I knew that….

It is a challenging task to build and then maintain these humble 12-foot wide shelves hacked into the sheer cliffs thousands of feet up and, ugh, thousands of feet down.  7 days a week, 12 months a year, dry season, monsoons, snows, ice, you name it.  These little shelves look pretty tiny—particularly as compared to the thousands-of-feet long streams of almost-white rock tailings dumped over the side as the have to do something with the solid rock that they just hacked off the side of the cliff—and we see the tailings on each switchback.  The workers manually break the rocks in the hot sun (remember the song?) and don’t live near their work.  They live IN their work in tiny rusty, dusty, tin shacks perched on the cliff side of the road with no running water, no sanitation, no electricity, and literally nowhere to go.

Charming road signs with simple messages about driving carefully—see the photos.

We’re at the Druk Hotel (really!) in Trashigang (really—sounds like a gang in a Bollywood movie).  Perched on a mountain top, views for miles down the river canyon below.  Traditional architecture, large facility, 30 staff, first night here we were the only guests.  Financed with dubious Indonesian capital…….

Ventures yesterday and today to temples, monasteries, nunneries, and the humblest of humblest of homes where people were weaving the most beautiful of garments in silk and cotton under impossible conditions.  The photos will give you some flavor.  Trundled downslope on a muddy path full of cow dung to arrive at the home of a woman weaver who was wonderful.  We watched as she wove and talked about how she did it (all day when she is not tilling her fields or tending her cows), how long she has been doing it (since childhood),  how long it takes to weave a shawl (3-4 weeks).   Uphill from her were two more (mother and daughter of about 40) weaving in raw silk. They gather the cocoons, separate, treat, and die the silk.  Only then can they begin the weaving.  Same back-breaking weaving posture.  We also bought several from the makers that added up to about 4 months of their income.  There is something special about buying this stuff directly from the makers (that’s why our home is so full of “treasures”).

We expected to be entranced and taken by the textiles, settings, and most definitely, the people.  All expectations have been exceeded. 

We intentionally started in East Bhutan which is the least developed, has the most undisturbed culture, and remains the most steeped in ancient Buddhism, culture, and incredibly complex –yet the underlying message is simple—honor others and yourself—superstitions (the Yeti still roams these mountains, 3 forms of “marriage”, etc.).  Tomorrow we’ll enter what is known as central Bhutan as we enter “modern” Bhutan.  Average speed remains about 20.

Peaceful, quiet, tranquil.  Our driver has honked his horn (generally at totally blind curves) 3 times in 3 days.  It averaged once every 20 seconds in India.  Today we had a delightful quiet picnic by the side of a very active (“technical” we would call it in my rafting days) trout stream.

Internally peaceful and contemplative.  Archery is the national sport.  No physical contact, no bruising of another human—or any other living sentient being.  We watched a friendly competition today where the range is 160 yards (! As a kid I did archery and thought I was doing really well at 50).  Quiet.  Your “trophy” when you hit the target is a ribbon to hang on your belt.  When you hit the target, you form a ring with your 5 teammates and dance clockwise in a circle singing ancient folk songs.  Not quite the Super Bowl.

Like all cultures, they too have their “badges”.  Here it is the color of the men’s shawl: Yellow for the king and other high level royal family, Blue for high level government officials, and so it goes.  What one wears during work is different from society, etc.  Nothing new.

Progress?  In order to finance the very liberal public service systems (free school, free health care, scholarships to colleges, road works, etc.) the government opened major open-pit gypsum mines….. very fine, soft material used for many products (e.g., sheetrock or gypsum board).  As a result a constant haze of gypsum dust pervades the country.  One can only guess what that is doing to lungs.

The TANSTAFL Principle:  There Aint No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Progress.  There’s no denying that farming using ox plows, etc., is drudgery and an assignment to poverty.  So the government introduced low cost loans (sound familiar) for the farmers to buy roto-tillers from Japan.  Seemed like a good idea.  Now, to make cash payments the farmers till ever steeper slopes in the same time as the ox.  Less work?  I don’t think so.  More time for the farmer to do other things?  I don’t think so.  Where is this headed?  I quit my international “development assistance” work because I could no longer accept a model that trades one form of drudgery for another, only to benefit the merchant class and the bankers (and the constant briberies within government and other decisionmakers).

Progress.  Someone observed that the farmers (95% of the population in these parts) could earn more cash by planting, harvesting, and squeezing the oil out of lemon grass….. an export commodity.  Unintended consequences.  Now, to make more land available for planting lemon grass in this impossibly steep terrain, the farmers set fire to the brush and grasses in the thin forests.  No surprise: before it’s over the entire mountain side has burned….brush, grass, and trees.  They have no ability, much less intention, of containing the fire unless it threatens their homes. To get 2 acres of plantable land, 1,000s of acres are ash.  The incredibly steep, now barren, hillsides simply erode.  Literally nothing that can be done about it.  To replant it would be more expensive than simply giving farmers cash to begin with NOT to try to plant lemon grass in these areas.  Where is this headed?

Lots of comparisons to Nepal which the local people think have done development all wrong.  We’ll see for ourselves in a couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, we’ll continue to immerse ourselves, take in the richness, and try to remember all these social-cultural-religious-democratic-and royal pieces of the Bhutan fabric.

Mongar: Tonight we are at a very high-end lodge in Mongar (seriously): US$45/night including breakfast and dinner.  Classic architecture, finely executed, gracious and friendly staff… of course, all dressed in classic attire.  Food everywhere is basic but scrumptious.  Once again, we are the only guests.

It is difficult to unload this day filling the senses of sights, sounds, smells, textures.  A 14th century monastery perched atop a mountain up a breath-holding steep road with what must have had 1,000 switchbacks.  Started by a nun travelling the old routes, she somehow was struck that this particular location was free of evil spirits and threats.  Today it thrives.  80 or so monk-in-training.  Restoration post-earthquake underway, we had nice chats and photos with the workers who spoke English.  We were literally the only foreigners there.

Another picnic alongside another stream.  A passing farmer with a huge load of stuff that he had cut to take home to his cows still raised his head from the weight of the load to give a broad smile and greeting in an obscure language.  Once again, we had way more food than we could eat so we gave it to him.  With big toothless smiles, he made room for it in his load.

Up-down-switches-upon-switches, we went up and then down a pass of about 9,000 feet to get here.  Took a walk about town.  All pleasant, welcoming…..  I’m out of wind.  Enjoy the photos and ask questions if you like.

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