Monday, November 15, 2010

Travelling Further East

Friday,October 29 was a national holiday for Buddha’s Descending Day, and Monday, November 1 was a holiday for Coronation Day, so I asked for a half day leave on Saturday to make a four day weekend. I persuaded Keira to do the same so that we could go exploring further east together, and also visit a couple of our Canadian buddies. We had to write our official leave letters for approval, and then have road permits issued since we were going to different dzongkhags. At one point it seemed like we weren’t going to get our road permits in time, and then we ended up getting duplicates, as well as a promise from the local Officer in Charge to help us if needed. So, no problem.
Our travel plans changed from moment to moment. First we were going to get a ride to Tashi Yangtse with Keira’s DEO (District Education Officer), but then he changed his plans. So Keira hopped on a bus in Lhuentse Friday morning, and by the time she arrived in Mongar at 11:00 a.m., there was a new plan. Luckily, my friend T.P., a nurse at the Mongar hospital, was on his way to Gelephu for a conference, and offered to drop us at Tashigang, three hours east of here.
Keira and I bought some momos to eat in the car en route, and it seems that was a big mistake. I’ve had moments of car sickness here before, but nothing too serious. On this drive T.P. had to pull over for me twice, but the nauseous feeling past. The third time, I didn’t have enough warning, and puked out the window. We stopped at the next stream to wash the mess off the side of the car. Motion sickness is very common here, even with the locals, so no one thought much of it, except me.
We said goodbye to T.P. at the Chazam bridge, and then sat by the side of the road, hoping to catch a ride. Within a short time, we were offered a ride as far as Gom Kora, a temple we wanted to stop at anyhow. The road followed the Drangme Chhu (river). The temple is built in a lovely spot beside the river, in the midst of a field of grain. The monks were celebrating Descending Day with amplified ceremonial music. We checked it out.
Gom Kora

Gom Kora is a spot where it is said that Guru Rinpoche meditated and left a body impression in the rock. There is a holy spot where if you squeeze yourself through a narrow tunnel in the rock, it proves you are pure. It looked scary and dirty, so I didn’t try. Keira started but backed out because she was afraid she would be like Winnie-the-Pooh, stuck without honey until he slimmed down.
From there we got a ride in the back of a truck to Duksum. The young men insisted that we sit in the cab, but it was much more fun riding in the back.

For the last section to Tashi Yangtse, we paid for a taxi, arriving at dusk. Keira and I stayed in a very simple hotel where it would have been cheaper to have separate rooms (why?) than to share one. In any case, we chose to share a room.
Our young taxi driver, Karma, was very excited because he had never driven foreigners before, so we arranged to meet him the next day to drive us to Tashigang. In the morning he drove Keira to the hospital for her second of three rabies shots. She had received a tiny dog bite in Lhuentse, and was following the doctor’s advice to get the shots at specific intervals.
Karma wanted to practice his English, which needed a little polishing. He usually made himself understood, but often in a rather blunt way. When we met him in the morning, he inquired of me, “Have you washed your face Madam?” I jokingly said, “Yes, why does it look dirty?” To which he replied, “Yes.” Then he asked Keira if she had brushed her hair. She said she had. He said, “You are looking scruffy, but if you are make-upping you will look beautiful. When I look at your body I am feeling very comfortable.” Keira was not swept off her feet, but we did have a good laugh at that and many other things Karma said.
in Tashiyangtse
While Keira was waiting at the hospital, I walked around Chorten Kora, another beautiful chorten. This one was built in 1740 and modeled after Bodhnath Stupa in Nepal. The chorten, with the river rushing past, the pretty town beyond, snow-capped peaks in the distance, all worked together to make this a magical spot.
Chorten Kora

Behind the chorten, right beside the river was a small, empty house. I could picture myself living there, teaching at the local school.

Keira and I both purchased a couple of the gorgeous wooden bowls which this area is famous for. Each is carved from a burl of (I think) an avocado tree. The bowls vary in price depending on the patterning and colouration of the burl. We admired, but didn’t buy, the most expensive ones, about $1000 each!! It is said that whatever you eat from one of these bowls is purified. Karma said that even if you were served poison in one, you’d be fine.

Karma dropped us safely in Tashigang, mid-afternoon.
centre of Trashigang

In the meantime, Nick had called to say that if we could make it to Khaling that night, we were invited to hike four hours to the Holy Lake above Khaling, starting at 3:00 a.m. A group of Nick’s students were going up, and it was a rare opportunity when it would be okay with the local deity. A few years ago, some young people upset her by throwing something in the lake, and only one of them returned to tell the story. The others were never found. Since then, people only go up at times which are deemed to be acceptable to the deity.
I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with a bunch of teenagers, so I opted out, but Keira was really keen to go. We spent ages in Tashigang trying to find a lift for her to Khaling, but it just didn’t happen. Keira was very upset about that.
We followed through with our original plan to go to Sherubtse College, in Kanglung to meet Sonam Wangmo, a friend of Nancy’s. Even for that ride, we had to wait a couple of hours while the driver and his wife went shopping. We ended up becoming great buddies with that couple, drinking rum and port in the taxi, and taking turns singing songs. When we arrived at Sonam’s place, they wouldn’t accept any money from us. They insisted that they were just returning home to Kanglung anyway.
We were greeted by Caroline, a young American woman at Sonam’s place. She is a sociology lecturer at Sherubtse, and a good friend of Sonam’s. The four of us had a blast. Keira was imitating Caroline’s Kentucky accent, and we were all making fun of Keira’s Bhutanese English. By then Keira was well over her crankiness. Sonam and Caroline fed us very well, a delicious dinner and breakfast.
Sonam had to lecture in the morning, so Caroline gave us a tour of the campus. It is supposed to be an alcohol-free campus! Also the students get locked into their dorms at 8:30 p.m. As you can imagine, college students aren’t too thrilled about going there, especially if they have experienced life in the big city of Thimphu.
From there, we caught the bus to Khaling, just an hour or so down the road. Nick met us in “town” and took us up to his place. What a fabulous set-up he has! He lives next door to his best friend, U.K., in a very comfortable building of traditional style. Although I prefer my washroom(s) and balcony view, his place has so much more character.

Nick gave us a tour of his school, and introduced us to his buddies and some students.
Many of the students from the school for the blind are integrated into classes at Nick’s school. One of them read a Braille text for us. I think that is such an amazing skill, to decipher those tiny dots with fingertips.

Natalie joined us from Wamrong in the afternoon, and we hung out by the river for awhile. I was very excited to see a Brokpa couple in town. The Brokpa are semi-nomadic yak herders who come south for the winter.

Back at Nick’s, he and Keira played guitar and sang a few songs - their own, and covers. They are both very talented musicians. Keira adds a lot to Nick’s music with her gorgeous voice, and Nick adds a lot to Keira’s music with his intricate guitar work.
Keira also sang a traditional Bhutanese song for U.K.’s grandma. Grandma was delighted and she and Keira became inseparable buddies for the evening. Keira has learned enough dzongkha, that she can carry on a simple conversation. I am so impressed.

Nick arranged for U.K.’s aunt to make us ba thup for a dinner. It is a delicious thick beef/noodle stew, sort of a cross between Hungarian goulash and beef stroganoff. Everyone else had changkay to drink…but not me. I still can’t face it after my over-indulgence a few months ago.
Nick managed to borrow mattresses, bedding and pillows for us, so we all stayed at his place. In the morning I wanted to cook buckwheat pancakes and bacon for us, and since Nick had no gas, we went next door to U.K.’s place to use his stove. Nick is not a breakfast-eater, but the rest of us enjoyed it, including Grandma while U.K. entertained us with some Michael Jackson moves.
We headed into “town” at noon. Natalie caught a lift with someone back to Wamrong, and Keira and I waited for the bus. The shopkeepers insisted that we hadn’t missed it, although others said it might have gone early to get through the road construction zone before it closed for a couple of hours. That’s the way they often do it here. They post the hours the road will be open, and since there are no alternative routes, people plan their schedules accordingly.
The bus eventually came, and since there were no seats available, Keira and I perched on bags in the aisle. It seemed that we might have quite a wait at the road construction, but the dozer pushed a path through for the bus, right at the cliff edge. Travelling at the edge of a precipice doesn’t bother me any more. I used to hold my breath and lean away from the drop-off, but now I have more faith.

It was a long slow drive, but we arrived safely in Mongar at about 8:00 p.m. We were starving, so we went straight to the Lotus Pond for dinner before hiking up the hill to my place. Earlier in the trip, Keira had complained that lots of her staff call her “motay” (fatso, chubby), and she was beginning to believe it. She is slim and shapely, and not at all motay. In the restaurant, a young guy who had met Keira before, came over to chat her up. He was quite drunk, and the first thing he said to her was, “You are looking quite plumpy.” Keira turned to me with a laugh and said, “See what I mean?” I indicated to the guy that he had made a poor choice of words, and he then made it worse by explaining that he only meant that she was looking bigger. I think he somehow meant it as a compliment! I advised him that if he is trying to impress a woman, he should avoid words like “plumpy” and “bigger”.
Keira stayed at my place and took the bus back to Lhuentse the next day. She did some shopping in Mongar, including replacing a student’s confiscated cell phone which had been swiped from her desk drawer after. She managed to get it on credit because the bank wasn’t handing out money that day. Technical difficulties.
Keira sent the money, hidden in a book, a few days later on the bus. The address was “Tam Kumar, Madam Ann”, and with just that it was delivered to my door. Tam Kumar is the local traffic cop. Everyone knows him and he knows everyone. I knew the parcel would arrive safely with his name on it.

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