We woke up at 6 am, an hour and a half before breakfast. We would be camping for the next few days, so we took advantage of our last official shower.
As I was showering, Craig came into the bathroom and discovered that the water wasn't just splashing out from the too-short shower curtain...there was also a hole in the side of the bathtub, through which water was literally pouring. We tried to mop up as best we could.
We headed down to the restaurant for breakfast at 7:30. They asked how we would like our eggs cooked, and delivered us scrambled eggs with bacon, small bananas, and apples. Other people in the restaurant had menus to order from. Weird, but we didn't really mind. Dorji and Tshering arrived and ate at a table by themselves in the opposite corner of the dining room. There was some question as to how water would work during the trek. We would be gone for many days and it wouldn't be possible to bring bottled water for the entire trek. We would bring some bottles for today, and then after that, when we had camp set up, the camp staff would boil river water to drink once they had the campstoves set up. So we bought 4 bottled waters at 40 Nu apiece at the hotel. We left 3 bags behind at the hotel (mostly souvenirs but also some extra clothes).
After eating, Dorji came over and said that on the drive over to the hotel he and Tshering had seen an archery match. They thought we might like to see it, so we could stop on our way. We left the hotel shortly after 8:00, and stopped at the archery ground for the Sunday morning archery tournament. It was traditional archery with a wooden bow, something which is more and more rare in Bhutan as they import compound carbon bows. The archery target is more than 100 meters away – we were barely able to see it from the side where the archers were shooting. We said that the Todd Rundgren song “Zen Archer” would be appropriate here. Dorji and Tshering explained the rules to Craig while I took photos. They call a bullseye an “eyeball”, and points are won by hitting the eyeball or even just the target itself (which is a piece of wood about a foot or so in length). When they were shooting from the other end of the field, I was behind the target taking some photos when I heard the whoosh and impact of an arrow on the target. The archers on our side of the field lined up and sang a lengthy song and danced to celebrate the hit.
We rode in the van to Genekha, the starting point of our trek. It was an hour's drive, and pretty scary, though we felt totally safe with Tshering's driving. We took the "expressway", which was a road divided by a jersey barrier. People can drive on either side of the barrier going in either direction. We were glad that we weren't behind the wheel. I guess when you have a small population, you can get away with road rules like that, but we just thought of the chaos it would cause at home. On the ride Craig started to feel a bit nauseous. He really hadn’t been eating or sleeping well since we left home. Usually I am the one with jet-lag and altitude symptoms, so this was unusual. We reached a dirt road as we approached Genekha.There were stretches of the road that were pretty dicey, and we thought we might get stuck, but Tshering negotiated it well. As we bounced along the bumpy roads, I looked at Craig and he was holding his stomach, as if trying to prevent it from jostling too much.
We passed an area where men were competing in archery with compound carbon bows. We passed them and continued as far as we could in the van. This was where we met our cook Yeshey, and the horsemen along with their horses. We unloaded the van and they started to load up the horses. There were seven horses to carry the load, but with the big gas tank there was too much weight, and they needed to send someone out for an additional horse. We would be carryingon;ly a daypack, while our large packs were loaded onto the horses.
At 10:30, we got a head start and Dorji took us on a walk down to the official start of the trek, down at a suspension bridge over the river. It was a walk down a dirt road, and although the sun was very warm, it was enjoyable. This area was a traditional mushroom farming area, and has recently also been mined for iron ore. We walked for about 30 minutes and then sat in the shade waiting for the horses and staff. Dorji carved himself a walking stick, while we looked at an Etho Metho tour brochure. We learned that "Etho Metho" means "rhododendron" in Dzongkha. As we read the brochure we became more and more excited about the rest of the trip that lay ahead of us. This trek would be difficult at high altitude, but it would bring us to the village of Shelmakha, where we would get to experience their annual festival. They see very few western visitors, and we were very excited to experience their culture and get to stay in a farmhouse with a local family for several nights.
We waited for over an hour and Dorji was afraid that something might be wrong, but then we saw the staff and the horses coming down the road at 12:15. We crossed the bridge while the horses walked across the river. The beginning of the trail immediately climbed very steeply. It was hard to get a good, deep breath, as we were at 2900 meters. The sun was surprisingly hot. Where was the cold weather we had been warned about? We were right behind the horses and staff for a short while and then they got quite a lead on us. Craig was having a very hard time and had to stop often. His vision started to blur and he was dizzy. He sat down and rested a while. We were concerned about our ability to make the trek, especially since this was an easy day compared to tomorrow’s crossing of a 14000 foot pass. Craig attempted to get up but felt nauseous within minutes. Dorji was very worried and we discussed our options. I knew that although I was doing a bit better than Craig was today, I was in rough shape as well, and we’d better abort the attempt to hike to Shelmakha. But what did that mean? Would we have to give up the festival, which we’d been looking forward to most of all? Dorji assured us that we could still get to Shelmakha by road, so we wouldn’t miss the festival no matter what happened. This was a great relief.
At this point our choices were to continue on to tonight’s camp and then descend tomorrow, or to go back now and find a place to camp tonight closer to the road. It became apparent that we wouldn’t even be able to make it to tonight’s campsite, so while Craig laid down to rest, Dorji ran ahead to catch the horsemen and tell them the new plan. Craig's body started to shake and he laid down on the forest floor. I was starting to get hungry, so I broke into one of the box lunches that the hotel had packed for us. There were two cheese and mayo sandwiches, 2 hard boiled eggs, a piece of fried chicken, and three pieces of fruit. And this was just mine! There was an identical box for Craig. My box contained way too much food for me, and I shared a bit with Craig, though he didn't want to eat very much. Between the two of us, we couldn't finish the contents of even one of the boxes.
We looked at the forest around us and there were some mutantly huge pine cones. Craig started to feel better after his rest and he was able to stand up. We walked slightly off the trail to have a look at the valley. Just then, Dorji and Yeshey returned. They had been very worried, and were relieved and encouraged to see that Craig was back on his feet. It turned out that the horsemen and Yeshey had already made it to camp and had unloaded one horse. When Dorji told them what was happening, Yeshey raced back down with Dorji and the horsemen were following once they packed things up.
Dorji and Yeshey ate their box lunch, which consisted of curry paste and traditional foods. A while later, the horsemen arrived. We gave them our extra box lunch and the leftovers from the one that we had eaten and they gobbled it down ravenously. We all headed back down to the road together. We discussed what we would do from tomorrow on. We could either get a car and go back to Thimpu for a couple of days before driving the Shelmakha, or we could walk to Shelmakha via the roads. Craig and I were partial to walking and we did want to camp. Also, this way we would still use the horses (if we took the car the horses would be canceled and the horsemen would only be paid for the first day). This seemed like a good solution to everyone. The plan had been to arrive in Shelmakha on foot accompanied by horses, and we would still be doing that, albeit by a more unconventional route. Dorji would just need to run it by the office when he got a chance to use a phone (he didn’t get cell reception here).
We walked back to where the archery tournament was taking place. There was a level green field here, and Dorji thought it would be a good place to camp. Along the way we passed two girls who were walking very slowly, carrying notebooks and water bottles. They said hello to us but were a bit shy. They filled their water bottles in a little roadside waterfall. They continued walking with us and started to talk. Craig and I were a bit nervous about how this whole thing would work out, and weren’t in the friendliest moods. But the girls were really sweet. We explained what had gone on and that we would be setting up camp near the archery. “That’s right near where we live!” they said excitedly. We continued to chat on the walk there and they immediately put us at ease. They are boarding students at the Genekha Pry school, and their hostel is the building near the archery. They are cousins. The oldest is Phub Dem in class 8, and her cousin Passang Dem is in class 7.
As soon as we arrived at the archery grounds, the two girls introduced us to some of their friends and asked if we’d like a tour of their hostel. The boys roomed on the first floor while the girls roomed on the second floor. Today was Sunday, so there was no school and everyone was dressed casually. The girls all asked us questions and chatted with us. In the first room that we visited, one of the girls had a 4 month old baby. In the second room we met a young girl in class 2. She was initially afraid of us and shy, but soon she was a little bolder and came over to us. We met Purni Maya Patel (aka "Puma") who was wearing a T-shirt featuring The Who, and Yeshi Pelden in class 7. All of the girls were really sweet and eager to talk to us and ask questions. Unfortunately, it seemed that many of them had lost at least one parent. Living with each other at the hostel during the school year, they were each other's family. When we were done with our tour, we headed back down to our campsite, across the dirt road. Along the way we met the school principal, who was very nice and welcomed us.
Our camp staff had set up two sleeping tents and a mess tent. We headed back down to the campsite, and were chatting with the girls when their dinner bell rang. The girls invited us to dinner. We were honored, but told them we needed to get settled and would meet up with them after dinner. We tried to get things organized in our tent, but a group of young boys had gathered and were peeking in and calling to us. Eventually we persuaded them to go to dinner and we were able to change clothes and get settled in. Yeshey had the cooking tent set up and called us for tea and biscuits as it started to get dark. Dorji left with one of the horsemen so that he could use the satellite phone at the horseman’s house to call his office and tell them the situation.
A group of kids had congregated outside of the hostel after dinner. They were looking our way but seemed reluctant to intrude. I caught the eye of our two friends Phub Dem and Passang Dem and motioned them down. They came down and sat with us, as did two boys around their same age (Jigme Dorji, class 7, and Sonam Norbu class 6). I wrote everyone's names and classes in my journal. We offered them tea and bicuits but they politely declined. Politeness was a running theme, and they all addressed us as Sir and Ma'am, said please, thank you, may I, etc. It was very refreshing, because you don't often get that kind of respect from teenagers in the United States. We showed them our photo album from home, and they had a lot of questions. The girls asked if they could keep a photo of us. They each picked an Easter Island photo. The boys chose a Boston postcard and a New England Patriots photo.
Passang Dem and one of the boys showed us their own photo albums. The boy's was filled mostly with clippings of film stars and singers, while Passang's had many photos of family and friends. She showed us a photo of her uncle, who is a Buddhist monk. She tried to quickly flip by a photo, and we busted her. It was a photo of her boyfriend, and she was sweetly embarrassed. It was so cute! The kids then proceeded to teach us Dzongkha words, writing them in he back of my notebook. Two younger boys came down to chat as well. Craig talked to one of them about the Milky Way when we saw how amazing the stars were here. At one point Phub Dem said that her mother died when she was two and I was acting like a mom to her. I almost cried and gave her a hug. She was so sweet. She told us that she was school captain, which is an extremely high honor and means that she has much leadership responsibility.
With the horsemen gone for the night, Dorji off using a satellite phone, and Yeshey cooking dinner, no one had yet had a chance to dig a camp latrine. I waited as long as I could, but by now I really needed to use the bathroom. Phub offered to take me to their outhouse, and we were walking down there when we met Dorji and the lead horseman on their way back. Dorji seemed mortified that I was about to use the students' outhouse (though it didn't bother me) and he and Yeshey immediately dug our latrine and placed a little tent around it. Phub Dem walked me over to it and waited nearby until I was through. She was really very sweet and was obviously lonely for a maternal figure.
Dorji had spoken to Etho Metho and everything was approved for our walk along the roads to Shelmakha. The horseman was particularly pleased that we would still be using his services, and Dorji said that he wanted to “take a snap” with us (i.e.take a photo) the next day. The school principal came down looking for the boys. The girls had asked permission to come down to visit us, but the boys had been missing in action. It started to rain and they all said goodnight, gave us hugs, and went inside. We hoped we would see them on their way to school in the morning.
We ate our dinner in the cooking tent - vegetable soup, salad, rice, spicy pork, the delicious local favorite of chillies and cheese, a mystery vegetable that we had never seen before, and Dorji couldn't remember its English name, bananas, and tea. Dorji explained that they usually set up separate dining and cooking tents, but tonight they had opted for just one under the circumstances. We went to our tent at 9:30, and I wrote in the journal via headlamp until 10:20. We were really happy and thought that things truly do happen for a reason. We had been disappointed that we weren't able to do the hike as scheduled, but if we had, we wouldn't have met these wonderful kids. Our time with them had already been a highlight of the trip. We love interacting with locals, and kids especially. Sometimes the best things in life are those which you don't plan and can't foresee.
Tshering and Dorji at the van outside the Riverview Hotel, Thimpu
Sunday morning archery, Thimpu
Walking down the dirt road to the start of our hike, Genekha
Our horses crossing the iriver, Genekha
Dorji and Craig crossing a log bridge
Phub Dem and Passang Dem, our new friends from the Genekha hostel
Our campsite across from the Genekha hostel
Girls' hostel room, Genekha
Steph with the girls in their hostel room, Genekha
Steph, Sonam Norbu, Jigme Dorji, Phub Dem, and Passang Dem
Craig with the two younger boys