Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Summer Sojourner, Chapter 6: The Secret Garden

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.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Summer Sojourner, Chapter 5: Wild

Previously on The Summer Sojourner: In Merak we spent a night drinking and dancing with the local Brokpa, followed by a day visiting the nearby school and participating in a ritual at the village’s temple.

The Summer Sojourner, Chapter 5: Wild

We awoke early in Merak. I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my bag, and headed down the ladder, surveying the land for some semblance of the day’s weather forecast. The sky was hidden between layers of clouds, the lowest of which barely hung above my head. It was bleak, but a kind of bleakness that contrasted nicely with the grass and hillsides, making their greens appear even more lush thanks to the morning dew.

It wasn’t long before the rest of my compatriots came scrambling down the stairs with their bags slung over their shoulders. We piled our things together and ducked into the tea room to consume a hearty breakfast—a necessity to fuel us through our upcoming jaunt. As we ate our guides saw to the final preparations, loading up the packhorses with our meals for the day along with a few stray bags for those who couldn’t bear to carry them for the entirety of the day.

               After strapping everything on we set off, carving through the town for the last time. I savored one final look upon this misty Shangri-La until I focused my gaze upon our course into the foothills. 

The hike would lead us up a gradual incline over dirt, grass, and rounded white rocks for well over an hour before shifting to a steeper uphill climb.

Our guides, experts at this trek, patiently kept to our pace; even though we were relatively acclimated to the altitude (at least better than most foreigners considering how long we had been living in Bhutan at this point), this section of the hike made for hard work. On one side the landscape opened up, but with the fog little could be seen. The silver lining was an increasing amount of unique flora. Flowers in shapes and sizes I had never seen before.

               We powered through the difficulty of the terrain for some time. At one point the ground leveled out for a while, whereupon we ran into Pema Choden’s father, a true Brokpa who dressed accordingly and was weaving yak hair using his fingers as well as a strange wooden device. We introduced ourselves to the yak herder and his friends while we rested then took off once more, continuing the uphill struggle.

               After a few hours had passed we were nearing the 4200m (~14000ft) peak. Nakita and I were leading the pack and ahead we could make out prayer flags—a welcome sign signaling the end of our ascent. Then I spotted it. Directly in front of me some 15m was an oversized yak, staring at the two of us with the blankest of expressions.

In the midst of our high-altitude delirium we found this absolutely hilarious. We had a good laugh over this bizarre sight and caught our breath only to lose it again to the beautiful 360-degree vista that surrounded us. The land was surreal—reminiscent of something out of Arthurian legend.

               I decided to take a walk around while the others came to the top. There a fellow BCFer and American Cat joined me. We roamed one of the hills which were covered with wooden stakes, a sign of local herders who had once tied their yaks up while they rested. I found a good spot and drank up my surroundings while Cat soldiered forward, attempting to ascend the one hill higher than where we stood.

               After getting my fill I descended to a nearby hill and joined Kirsten who sat atop a smaller hill looking toward the path ahead. We exchanged funny stories while looking outward, eating some barbeque-flavored almonds to keep our energy up. The minutes flew by until the whole group stood behind us, telling us it was time to push ahead once more. Our rest was fruitful and now we had the luxury of going downhill for the first time all day.

               During this time I took the opportunity to talk with Pema Choden and Yongten Dema further about the Brokpa. I learned these people of Merak and Sakteng had come from Tibet at some point—when exactly they didn’t know, but some had told them hundreds of years while others said it was over a thousand years ago. Regardless of the timeline their lineage with Tibet was undeniable considering their unique ethnic features. Over conversation I also found out about a unique facet of Brokpa culture. Although Buddhist the Brokpa of Merak do not cremate their dead. Instead they submerge the newly deceased in water for 3-6 days, the length of time determined by a lama. Once this period is complete, the corpse is then taken out of the water and cut up into 108 pieces before being thrown into the nearby river. A morbid concept indeed, though I found something about it quite fascinating. Those who are held in high esteem (like select priests) would have their bodies encounter an even more bizarre fate: they would be left in a remote, yet open space to be consumed by vultures.

               We walked on and on for hours, ever descending through the trees. At one point we came across Bhutan’s national flower, the incredibly rare blue poppy—once considered myth to the scientific community. We took a few minutes to hear more about this flower from our guides and snapped a few photos.

As we walked, the landscape was changing; the trees closed in around us and as the rain fell gently, occasionally opening up to a river and a cliff which separated us from it. By then the fog had cleared but the clouds kept the sky a morose shade of gray.

Somewhere around the 6-hour mark we came upon an open area with various wooden structures. These “buildings” were made from tree overhangs, pine branch and needle fencing, and stumps for chairs. Apparently these were constructed specifically for the king, who had come through this very path just a month prior. We sat on stumps and ate a simple but hearty meal of kewa datsi (sliced potatoes with a cheese sauce) and dried fish over rice. The rain began to pick up as we huddled beneath the structures, our bellies full and warm against the cold mountain air.

               Once the rain let up slightly we repacked the horses and continued the hike. From there it was another 2 hours of steady downhill trekking through pine forest before the land opened up into fields. This magical landscape definitely looked like yeti territory. Pockets of civilization appeared before us—mostly small farms tucked into the mountain where yaks grazed happily.

               We reached a large encampment where tourists typically spend the night. The perimeter was lined by a stone wall roughly 4 feet in height. Inside were a couple of cabins and several designated areas for campfires complete with wooden overhangs. It looked cozy, but we planned on doing the whole hike in one day.

As soon as we passed the fort, the landscape changed yet again. Suddenly the descent was steeper and trees gave way to white, rounded stones. Minutes later we came across a large river. Most rivers in Bhutan consist of immense river beds with a much smaller torrent running through the center, likely due to the varying amounts of rain throughout the year, and the one in front of me was no different. We crossed a small bridge and took a break in the afternoon sun. Our spirits were still high, despite 9 hours of walking.

               While we sat our guides approached a local herder who was half covered in mud. We learned from the girls that our path was too muddy to navigate, lest we desire to wear a layer of mud ourselves. Instead we would take a different route, somewhat longer, but ultimately in our best interest. So we followed the river which proved to be a gauntlet rife with ankle-spraining potential. We had to cross over water a few times and the last instance was especially slippery, leaving a couple BCFers with soaked shoes.

As we walked I talked with my Kiwi friend Alex about foods of the world—one of any expat’s favorite topics of discussion. We salivated over the mention of burritos, teriyaki, and Brazilian barbeque. Despite the hunger pangs, it helped pass the time.

Eventually we cut inland and up into the topical forest. The air became thick with humidity and we were now entering the kingdom of the leeches. I had been warned of the huge leeches around this area, but until then had not encountered one in this region. It wasn’t long before we spotted some 4-inches in length, desperately whipping at the air for a chance to latch onto our heat-expending bodies. We stopped every few minutes to check for leeches, but so far we were all safe, aside from one of our guides who expertly removed one from her neck, not the slightest bit concerned.

               Climbing up a steep dirt path in overbearing humidity after 10 hours of hiking chipped away my spirit. I tried to immerse myself in word games to keep me from focusing on my fatigue between labored breaths, but it was apparent a great many of us were suffering. But we made it to level ground and happily threw ourselves onto the grass to break for food and water. Then I felt an itchy sensation near my waistband. Sure enough I lifted my shirt to find a leech atop my boxers desperately trying to suck me dry. I threw that bastard as far as I could. Fortunately he never made direct contact with my skin so no blood was drawn; the creepy feeling, however, lasted a while longer.

Whilst resting we stocked up on crackers to reenergize and our guides assured us we were closing in on Sakteng, though precise distance and time estimations aren’t exactly the Bhutanese’s greatest strength. Their words were the equivalent of saying we’d be there somewhere between 10 minutes and three hours. Nevertheless we stood up and trudged on.

               With the wind and increasing distance between trees, the air was much more tolerable. The ground turned into a subtle descent and within the next hour we could see Sakteng in the distance.

This beautiful town sits in a valley bowl, surrounded by hill-cum-mountains. A large river acts as a moat separating itself from the path to Merak. From where I stood I could make out small specks, which upon closer inspection turned out to be well over a hundred horses, frolicking free of bondage. It was an amazing sight to see.

               We crossed the bridge into Sakteng and made our way toward our accommodation just as the light started to fade, weary from a long but beautiful hike. At long last we had made it.