Bhutan

Saturday 10/06/07 - Thimpu - National Memorial Chorten, Painting School, Zoo, Dzong, Paper Factory

We got a good night's sleep, though I had recurrent nightmares until I got up and drank a glass of water. The next day we awoke more refreshed at 6:30 am. We took showers and made a mess of the bathroom. There was a shower curtain which wenmt all the way up to the celining, but it was 6 inches too short to reach the floor. Water went everywhere. They should have just hung it a little bit lower. We got our packs ready for the day and headed downstairs to breakfast at 8:00. It was a buffet with scrambled eggs, ham, tea, toast, chum thup, and little sweet bananas. Dorji tried to eat alone but we convinced him to sit with us.

We could a stadium being built across the street, and we asked Dorji about this. He told us that next year, when the country moves to democracy, there will be big celebrations and they expect many foreign dignitaries to attend. There is a lot of construction going on in preparation for it (both in terms of biuldings and roads) and it is supposed to all ve complete before the new year. It seems like an impossible goal. Dorji told us a bit about his family, including that he has a twin brother. He explained that in Bhutan, lamas name babies. There are no surnames that are passed down within families. Twins are always named Nima (Sun) and Dawa (Moon). As the eldest twin, Dorji was names Nima. He said it very matter-of-factly, and we were confused. Wasn't his name Dorji? He explained further. When he was young, he got very sick. It was believed that this was because his name wasn't "strong" enough. So they changed it from Nima (Sun) to Dorji (Thunderbolt). We found this to be very fascinating.

We left the Riverview at around 9:10 to drive to the National Memorial Chorten, which was built in 1974 by the 4th king to honor the memory of his father, the 3rd king. A chorten (also known as a stupa) is a memorial monument in which sacred objects are enshrined. The golden finial atop the chorten is visible from a considerable distance, as it shines so brightly in the sunlight. People were making their morning prayer rounds (3 times around the chorten clockwise) chanting, fingering prayer beads, and spinning handheld prayer wheels. We walked slowly around the chorten three times, admiring our surroundings, feeling slightly like we were disrupting a delicate choreography. Dorji laughed and said "Even though you aren't Buddhist, there may be a place for you [in heaven]." We were able to peek inside the chorten, where there were photographs of the 3rd and 4th kings, as well as elaborate brightly painted Buddhist statues. A monk was sitting near the entrance petting a tiny black puppy no bigger than his hand, which was sitting on his lap. The landscaping around the chorten was ripped apart, and there were new trees and plants around the perimeter, witing to be planted and benches were waiting to be installed. It seemed as in within the next couple of days, thedirt lot would be transformed into a green park.

After we finished admiring the chorten, we headed to the "painting school", or, more formally, the National Institute for Zorig Chusum. This is a high school where grade 11 and 12 students learn the traditional Bhutanese arts (zorig chusum). Today was Saturday, so they were only in session for the morning. Students can specialize in a particular discipline, or they can learn all of the traditional arts. We started off in the carving room. Mostly male students (there was a single female) were using hand tools to carve masks and Bhutanese motifs from squares of wood. The design was traced onto the wood slab and the students used their tools to painstakingly carve the details. One boy and girl were sharing a pair of earphones, and they quickly put them away when the teacher came by. This would happen again later when I took photos of students – they would quickly hide earphones in their ghos. Some things transcend culture. We then visited a second carving classroom.

Next, we visited a spinning, weaving, and embroidery classroom where we chatted with the rather shy female students. There were four of them in total. We took their photo and they were very sweet, wanting to see it and asking us a bit about ourselves. Then we went into the sculpture classroom. The sculpture students were creating very elaborate statues by affixing sticky clay to wire frames. They wer eworking on statues of Buddha, and the delicate detail work (especially on the faces) was amazing. Craig chatted with two girls toward the back of the classroom. To blow off steam, the students had created little soccer games out of paper. They folded tabs up to act as the players, and used dried chewing gum as a ball, creating a primitive foosball setup. The imagination and ingenuity of these kids to make games out of such simple materials reminded us of the children in Guatemala.

Next we visited the sewing studio, where men and women were making silk scrolls and traditional Bhutanese boots, using foot-powered sewing machines. There were yellow plastic boot forms in different sizes. The boots were white with colorful accents. We crossed the courtyard into a larger building, and went into a painting studio. Students here had nearly completed two huge canvases which had an amazing amount of detail. There was a display case of minerals and other natural materials used to make the paints. One of the painting students (named Kelzang Lhamo) showed us some smaller paintings which were for sale. We picked one which she had painted of lotus-born Guru Rinpoche and purchased it for $80. I asked for a photo of the artist with her painting and she giggled. They are so modest and shy!

We went into a fashion design classroom where students were using Bhutanese textiles to create a fashion fusion between traditional Bhutanese designs and more western fashion. The students had created hand-drawn posters as advertisements for their design philosophy. Students were using electric, foot-pedaled, and hand-cranked sewing machines, as well as electric irons. There was a really pretty black dress on a mannequin which I really admired. We also went into an embroidery classroom where students used chalk powder to transfer designs onto their fabric, and from there they embroidered along the pattern. We also went into a "production dollmaking" studio. Young women were using sawdust with animal-based glue to create the body forms, and they fabricated heads for the dolls out of clay. They had small clay dolls for sale which were wrapped in silk cloth. These would make perfect Christmas ornaments. We chatted with the girls who had made them and bought 5 at 200 ngultrums apiece. The girls were very excited and immediately formed an assembly line to wrap them in newspaper for us.

We went into another painting studio with more exquisite large canvases. There were brush marks and color tests on the sides of the cavnas that would eventually be cut away or covered by a frame. We were told not to photograph these as they were commissioned by the Royal Family. One artist was painting gold detailing onto slate carvings of the Buddha. These slates are used as traditional adornments in chortens and dzongs.

The “painting school” had been amazing, and we really enjoyed seeing these young artisans keeping their traditions alive. There was a small store which sold art produced by the students. We walked around and could have bought so much, but couldn’t make up our minds. There was some very interesting metalwork, but it was all too heavy to carry around for the next couple of weeks. We really liked an intricate metal lock, and joked that we could put it on our toolshed at home.

We stopped at a small grocery store and bought 2 bottles of water for a total of 30 ngultrums. From there we walked to the Folk Heritage Museum, an old farmhouse. On the grounds leading up to it were a water-powered prayer wheel and a small grainary. There was a beautiful flower garden, and we passed through a doorway into a courtyard where animals were tethered. Hanging above the door wass a carvingaof a phallus. This was the first we had seen in Bhutan, though we had been told that they were plentiful as a talisman against evil. There was a small outdoor incense burner that looked like a brick furnace. The farmhouse had been restored and furnished to look as it would have a century ago. The ground floor was for sheltering animals. Steep staircases led to the upper floors. The second floor was used for storing grain. On the third floor, there was a bedroom and an altar room. Musical instruments such as a guitar with an animal skin body and wooden neck, along with drums and flutes adorned the altar room. We saw traditional bows and arrows and their targets, as well as smaller targets which were used in dart games. There was also a game where flat stones were thrown at a target.

After admiring the cultural artifacts and architecture of the museum, we stopped at the post office to buy some postcards and look at the stamps. Bhutan is known for its elaborately beautiful postage stamps, some of which form intricate multi-stamp panels. There was a shop in the back of the main post office building which has glass cases displaying stamps and first-day covers, and ther were many thick stamp albums that you could flip through. We browsed for a while and picked out some postcards to purchase.

Bhutan likes to boast about the fact that they don't have a single tarffic light in the country. We passed Thimpu's single traffic cop in the center of town. All of the buildings are of traditional architectural style, right down to the gas station, and we enjoyed seeing all of this as we drove through town.

Dorji took us to the Lingshay Restaurant for lunch. We ate upstairs, but Dorji and Tshering ate with the other guides outside. We were starting to get used to the fact that the guides here don't usually eat with the clients. We drank Fanta and Sprite, and ordered the "Middle Eastern Meal" of meatballs in a spicy sauce, rice with onion, a salad of baby tomatoes and cucumber in yogurt, and guava and green tea for dessert. The radio was playing some songs that we were surprised to hear given our surroundings: Highlights included "Fairies Wear Boots" by Black Sabbath, "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2" by Pink Floyd, and "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" by AC/DC. We got a kick out of this. We chatted with Pat and Stephanie, tourists from Colorado who were seated at the next table.

We drove past a house which had a very elaborate (and anatomically correct) drawing of a phallus entwined with a dragon. Tshering stopped the car and indicated with a sly smile and giggle that this might be a good place to take a photo. We all laughed (and took the photo, of course!) Next we drove up a steep hill to Thimpu's telecommunicatios center.Tshering dropped us off at the foot of their driveway, and we meandered back down the hill with an extremely gorgeous view of the city in the valley below, framed by a plethora of prayer flags. The prayer flags were fluttering in the wind and the entire place seemed very surreal. We could see the golden finial of the National Memorial Chorten gleaming in the sun. We passed small stupa figurines tucked into niches in the rock ledges on the side of the road. Dorji explained that these were made with the ashes of the deceased, and were placed there as a prayer. They are tucked into rock niches to protect them from rain, which causes them to dissolve. There are so many fascinating customs in Bhutan!

Next we drove to the "zoo" (Motithang Takin Preserve), a fenced in enclosure which houses Bhutan's national animal, the takin, along with several species of deer. Dorji told us the story of the takin: The Divine Madman (Lama Drukpa Kinlay) had asked for a goat and a cow. He ate both of them, and stuck their bones together (the head of the goat on the body of the cow). He then re-animated it. Even to this day, taxonomists can't quite figure this animal out, and have classified it in a category all its own. We walked around the perimeter of the fence. There are around 10 takins in the preserve, and we saw several. They reminded us of small buffalo, and had very long fur. I found a chink in the fence and stuck my camrea through to take a photo of one. The takin was curious and came over and I found myself face to face with it. I could feel its hot breath on my face. Elsewhere in the enclosure were some barking deer. They were small and had tiny pointy horns. The most surprising thing about them was the two sharp fangs protruding from the side of their gums, despite the fact that they are herbivorous. Dorji picked some grasses and fed them which made for a good photo opportunity. We then saw some larger deer with big ears that reminded us of the mule deer at the Grand Canyon. The zoo area is used as a park, and as we were leaving we came across some boys playing darts on the path, using small wooden targets like we had seen in the Folk Heritage Museum. We also saw an older girl pulling some younger children down a wooded hill on a blanket, much like we would sled on the snow at home. the children ran between teh trees to the top of the hill so that they could slide down again.

From there we headed to the Thimpu dzong. Its size is huge and it is imposing and beautiful at the same time. Workers were paving the driveway and women were carrying buckets of hot tar suspended on poles. There was a steamroller to flatten it all out. The dzong was guarded by police, and we were allowed into the monastery side (as opposed to the side which housed the governmental offices). There were a lot of pigeons in the courtyard, and their fluttering and cooing was ethereal. There was a wall lined with prayer wheels and monks walked by, spinning each one in turn. Construction was going on in the temple, as with everywhere in Thimpu. We were surprised to learn that we could go into the temple (though no photographs were allowed inside). We took off our shoes and entered, and were amazed by what we found. There was a 10-meter-tall gold statue of Buddha (which was built a year and a half ago) in the center of the altar, with other large statues flanking its side. An archway of colorful carved flowers framed the Buddha. It seemed that every square inch of wood (posts, beams, walls, etc.) was elaborately and colorfully painted. There were 1000 identical small Buddha statues housed in niches on the walls. The ceiling was several stories high and beautiful chandeliers hung from it. It was honestly one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful buildings I have ever seen.

It was now 4:00, and we wanted to visit the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory, which closed at 4:30, so we made our way back to the car and Tshering drove us over there. They make paper from the bark of the daphne plant, and embed flowers and other organic matter in the paper to make it decorative. A man stood at a sink and wtted the pulp, pressing it into a wooden frame form and stacking it into piles. then a woman took the sheets and put them onto a heated electric easel to dry for several minutes. The paper was beautiful and totally organic, and it was a completely manual process. There was a little shop where they sold their paper products, and we shopped here for quite a while. There were some really interesting items such as lampshades (the paper looked gorgeous with light shining through) but we opted for some smaller items which would be easier to pack.

The paper factory was suprisingly close to the hotel, and we then headed back. The room hadn't been made up. This was ok, but we needed extra towels (ours were sopping wet from mopping up the spilled shower water). I called down to the front desk. They were very nice and offered to make up the room now, but I said that wasn't necessary. Craig went outside to get some photos of the exterior of the hotel. He found an interesting little cross made of two sticks and woven with thread into a diamond shape on the ground. I sat on our balcony writing in the journal and waiting for the towels to arrive. An employee rang our doorbell (we had a doorbell?) to deliver the towels. He reached into his gho and produced two rolls of toilet paper. He reached in again and produced soap and shampoo. Wow, he could hide a lot in there! Craig came back and we sat together on the balcony for a while.

Tshering and Dorji were supposed to pick us up at 5:45 for dinner. We made sure we were ready in plenty of time and headed down to the lobby early. They weren’t there yet, so we looked around the gift shop. They had some beautiful silk kira jackets and silk bathrobes. They also had some really cute sequined shoes, but none which would fit my feet! We went back into the lobby and sat on a couch. I wrote in the journal and Craig went outside to get a few sunset photos. Tshering pulled up and they chatted. Craig asked if Dorji was meeting us and Tshering said yes. The two of them looked at the sunset and I continued writing inside. At 6:15, Tshering came inside and saw me and nodded. I asked if it was time to go and he said yes. It turned out that Dorji would be meeting us at the restaurant, not here at the hotel! This whole time Tshering had thought that I wasn't ready yet, and had been patiently waiting for me. Everyone is so polite in Bhutan that miscommunications are common; we would need to learn to be more straightforward in our questions. Anyway, no harm done.

Tshering drove us the short ride to the restaurant where we had eaten lunch (Lingshay Restaurant). We were shown to an upstairs table. Dorji was already there, "helping with the menu". He gave us an inscribed book which was written by the general manager of Etho Metho, which was a nice surprise. He phoned Eutha, the marketing director of Etho Metho, who was supposed to meet us for dinner. A few minutes later she arrived, and the three of us (once again, Dorji and Tshering would eat separately) had a nice dinner and chat. Eutha had lived in the U.S. for 6 years, going to college in Illinois, working in Chicago for a year, and getting her masters in Berkeley. Her mother is one of the three founders of Etho Metho, and is originally from Shelmakha (this was the connection that would allow us to have a homestay in Shelmakha). Eutha was born and raised in Thimpu, and like most young Bhutanese adults, still lives with her parents. She is very sweet and polite and we really enjoyed her company.

We drank "passion fruit squash" (a fresh juice) followed by a Druk 11000 beer for Craig and a local rum and Coke for me. The meal was delicious, and consisted of corn soup, potato salad, beef tenderloin, and pasta with meat sauce. Craig still didn't have his full appetite, and the pasta was so good that I actually ended up finishing his portion. Dessert was pear cooked in apple juice. Before we knew it, it was 8:30. We would need an early start tomorrow for our hike, and we still needed to organize our bags, figure out what we could leave behind at the hotel to pick up after hiking, etc, so we said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel. We organized our bags and went to sleep at 11:00. The toilet handle broke, which made us laugh.
National Memorial Chorten, Thimpu

National Memorial Chorten, Thimpu

Students at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum listen to music while they carve

Students at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum listen to music while they carve

Sculpture class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Sculpture class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Kalzang Lhamo with her painting, National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Kalzang Lhamo with her painting, National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Embriodery student, National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Embriodery student, National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Production doll studio, National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Production doll studio, National Institute for Zorig Chusum

View of Thimpu from Telecom hill

View of Thimpu from Telecom hill

Takin

Takin

Barking deer

Barking deer

Dzong, Thimpu

Dzong, Thimpu

Thimpu Dzong courtyard

Thimpu Dzong courtyard

Monks spinning prayer wheels, Thimpu Dzong

Monks spinning prayer wheels, Thimpu Dzong

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory

Dinner with Eutha

Dinner with Eutha

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