Previously on The Summer Sojourner: our group of BCF teachers along with 2 packhorses and our wonderful Brokpa guides hiked a grueling 11 hour trek over a 4200m pass, through the forest and over rivers, finally arriving in the town of Sakteng just as the sun was about to set.
The Summer Sojourner, Chapter 6: The Secret Garden
Sakteng is a large city considering its remote locale, with several thousand residents. Despite this fact there are no cars, only tilling machines akin to oversized lawn mowers pulling carts though horse, mule, and ox-led carts are more common. After we crossed the river toward Sakteng, we weaved our way into the town which was ankle deep in thick mud. It wasn’t long before we reached our quarter for the next two nights. The quaint building was simply constructed from wood, nails, and concrete. The inside was modest to put it lightly and the doors had wooden hinges—a feature I don’t think I’d ever seen before, but it was a place to rest and the sight of it was most welcome after half a day of hiking.
We looked out at the town as the sun dipped behind the mountains and went into the gathering room for tea. After unpacking our things we were invited back for dinner and more arra. We took them obligingly and spoke wearily about the day’s events. Needless to say it was not a late night.
The next morning after eating our breakfast we crossed the street to visit a local school. We met with the principal and, with his blessing, visited some of the classrooms, speaking to the kids and explaining our roles in Bhutan. They were a healthy mix of shy and curious. While neither Merak nor Sakteng have ever hosted a Western teacher, I personally would happily be placed in either one, but the likelihood of anyone being stationed this far out is small considering their remoteness and limited health facilities. Similar to Merak the boys wore red ghos and the girls sport their embroidered vests and dresses.
After ample perusing we went for a stroll down to the main temple. It was closed unfortunately, but nevertheless we made our rounds by spinning the small prayer wheels. We aimlessly wandered further visiting larger prayer wheels and another temple which was also closed. Eventually we made it to the streets, which are utterly medieval. The roads are cobblestone and dirt, narrow, and full of plant and insect life. These little alleyways had to be my favorite thing about the town; they were straight out of a fairytale.
After lunch we split up into groups based upon what we wanted to do. I went with a small group up to a temple high in the hills behind Sakteng. The hike was strenuous but beautiful—unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. We passed cows and horses, all the while having a perfect view of the city behind us. Forty minutes of huffing and puffing and Alex and I, the first of the group, made it to the temple just as the rain began to fall. How the hell did they get the materials up here? This is a question I often ask in Bhutan. They must have been really motivated.
As there was no one present at the temple the two of us sat at its steps under a roof as the drizzle became a pour. In our field of vision was a small stone fireplace underneath a thatched roof, a young calf, and rooster milling about. We caught our breath and passed the time in conversation as the rest of the party arrived. We’d come to learn the temple owner was out of town and for the third time today we had no access to the inner temple. But our spirits are no less discouraged and we played with what must be a newborn calf, surely no older than 2 weeks. After a good hour of loitering we set off down the mountain, intent on making it to our soccer match on time.
Down by the school we met up with some of the other BCFers and a growing group of Sakteng Lower Secondary School students. We split up the teams and began an intense soccer match on an uneven, potholed, untrimmed grass field. My motivation was high at the onset, but as the game progresses I grow more and more breathless, surely due to the altitude of 2200m (not terribly high, but still higher than Mongar) and dispiriting rain. Still it was less “oh my god I’m going to die” than the match I played in Thimphu back in early February.
After a good game we shook off our defeat with hot tea, a shower, and a change of clothes. As I was taking a shower I realized (without my glasses) there was a foreign entity trying to dig its way into my body. I promptly ended my ablution and had a friend confirm that, indeed, a tick was dead set on burrowing into my right hip. Once again my bee savior, Holly, came to the rescue. She expertly pulled out the tick before it got too deep.
The evening’s events would be quite similar to the cultural exchange we experienced in Merak, but this time with the Sakteng locals. The process consisted of the same essentials: arra and singing. This time the Americans pulled out Smash Mouth’s classic “Gold”. We never got to the dancing, but I was thoroughly entertained by our guides getting nonstop refills of arra and some of our groups’ terribly off-key renditions of songs.
The next morning we packed up our things after breakfast and set off on our final hike. In order to get back to a navigable road, we had to hike a good 3 hours through the forest. We said our farewells to our hosts and trekked through hills, trees, waterfalls, and rocky cliff overhangs. It was a lovely walk with a few tough spots. I used this as an opportunity to chat with one of the guides and catch up on all the drama with select parties. During our trek two other teachers and I decided to come up with Western names for our guides in return for Bhutanese ones. We decided on Hannah for Pema Choden, as the name seemed to aptly encapsulate her perky nature and good humor. We named Yongten Dema Emily, which just seemed to fit for no particular reason at all. Meanwhile we received our Bhutanese names.
Since there are only some 60 different varieties, Bhutanese names can appear commonplace. But underneath their mundane sounds are rich translations: great eon, lotus flower, indestructible one, spreader of dharma, gentle voice, ritual dagger, jewel of the sky. Names here are given to people via village lamas who ordain them by esoteric means. There are no last names in this country, only given names. Generations ago only important families had more than one name. Now most have two or three names. I don’t recall the names given to the other chilips (foreigners) but I do recall what Hannah named me: Reese Jamtsho (jahm-tso). The translation being “ocean of compassion”.
By lunch we had made it out of the forest to the beginning of the road, running into a Japanese couple taking their 5th trip to Bhutan along the way. They must be rich to afford the tariff again and again! We had a picnic lunch on the grass before we hopped in our Bolero trucks headed back to Lingkhar Lodge. Before we could make it there, however, we had to drive around rockslides and through waist-deep water. It was heart-pounding good fun and on the way we even stopped to gawk at an immense waterfall. As always the views were eye-popping. Comes with the territory, I suppose.
At Lingkhar the vibe was more relaxed. We sat out on the veranda and schemed our next steps. Nakita decided she’d be doing a 5-day meditation retreat at the nunnery we had visited earlier and our Australian matriarch, Lynne, was going back to Trashiyangtse. The rest of us aside from Tim, however, were headed west. We booked an 8-person taxi and settled our bills before getting a good night’s rest.
We woke up relatively early the next morning to load our bags and say our goodbyes. I was mostly sad to say goodbye to our Bhutanese guides. I gave them big hugs and a couple gifts as thanks.