Bhutan

Wednesday 10/10/07 - Arrival in Shelmakha

Craig had another good night's sleep, and we awoke at 5:30 am. It was raining and dark and chilly, but there was a very nice view of the foggy mountains and valleys from our campsite. It was so wet outside that we had to pack everything up from inside the tent. We brought our bags to the dining tent, and then we were provided with basins of hot water to wash our faces. Dorji was later than usual getting up, but he needed the rest. For breakfast we had chum thup with honey, fried eggs, French fries, and a spicy hot sausage. A dog was hanging around our dining tent and kept peeking in.

At around 8:15 we started our trek while the horseman and Yeshey packed up camp. It was a short walk up the main road to get to the Shelmakha road. This was a steep dirt road, which gained the majority of its altitude within the first hour. The views were spectacular, and there were pretty stone walls dilineating different plots of land. We passed underneath power lines and could hear the buzzing of induction. We passed a nice chorten on the way and stopped there for a rest. From this vantagepoint we could see most of the route that we had traversed yesetrday way below us. We could see the restaurant where we had eaten lunch, as well as the farmstands we had passed. We continued up the dirt road, which was incredibly muddy. A small white van passed us, and we were surprised that it could even make it up the steep, sloppy road.

Shortly before 10:00, we reached the village which repesented the outskirts of Shelmakha and felt victorious. We had succeeded in our attempt to get to Shelmakha by foot, even though we hadn't taken the route we had originally planned. As if to celebrate our victory, the sun peeked out for the first time in several days. We were a day earlier than scheduled, but we were certain we would find something to do. We passed as general store and some villagers drinking sodas. We walked through the village admiring the buildings and gathering a bit of attention from the locals. We noticed that the power lines went all the way here, and were surprised that the village had electricity. We had expected it not to. The architecture was very pretty, and fields of bright yellow mustard stood in gorgeous contrast to the gray skies. The rain let up as we walked further up until we got to Shelmakha proper.

The feeling we had upon arrival is hard to describe. It was like we had reached our promised land, our Shangri-La. The prospect of this village visit had fueled our imaginations for months, and although we each had visions of what it might be like, in reality we knew that neither of us had any idea what to expect. Our anticipation was reaching its zenith. If not for the power lines and a few cars, we might have been wandering into a Bhutanese village circa 1500.

We slogged through the deep mud thinking that we probably should have worn our hiking boots rather than sneakers today. We sat on a bench outside a little tea room to wait for the horses. There were three little puppies in the road that were absolutely adorable, and I couldn't resist playing with them. We met Gem Tshering, who had been riding in the white van. He was a school teacher in Sarpang, who had grown up in Shelmakha and was returning for the festival. He said that he had tried to negotiate the Shelmakha road yesterday, but was unable to because of the muddiness. He was very nice and friendly, and said that he would see us at the festival.

The school was right across the way. A teacher rang a bell and a bunch of students emerged.The girls were very giggly and smiley and seemed interested in us. We were invited into the tea room ofr some tea while we waited. On my way in, I accidentally stepped on a puppy who had gotten close to my feet without me knowing it. I felt awful but the villagers just laughed. I'm sure it's not the first time such a thing has happened. We were brought into a room that had faux-leopard covered furniture, a gorgeous tea cabinet filled with teacups, a TV cabinet with a TV, VCR, videotapes, and what looked to be an original Nintendo console, photos of the royal family, posters of Bhutan, statues of parrots, etc. It was a very eclectic decor. A young woman in a T-shirt and traditional skitr served us tea and passed around a tin of English butter cookies. We took photos with her and promised to send copies through Dorji. She got embarrassed and told Dorji that she didn't know what to say. A pretty short-haired cat wandered in and we petted it. Dorji picked it up and fed it a cookie while I got a photo. We saw the horses go by through the window and knew that that was our cue to leave. We thanked the proprietor and headed out following the horse team.

We followed them up the road a ways and then up a steep trail to a spot that they thought might be good for camping. This wasn't really a suitable spot after all, so we continued on. craig and I assumed that the festival would be hed back near the tearoom, and as we slogged through the mud we wondered if we might have a long walk ahead of us between camp and the festival grounds. Our lungs were also feeling the thin air of the altitude. But then we came upon the monastery, where the festival actually would take place. Young women were practicing traditional dances in the courtyard. We saw two little VIP-style tents set up, and Craig joked "THose are for us!" People were very friendly and smiled, waved, and nodded toward us. Small children were wary of us, though. Shelmakha doesn't get too many outside visitors.

We continued down the muddy dirt road and saw a truck which was overstuffed with supplies presumably for the festival. We were surprised it was even able to make it up here. We walked a short distance to a clearing (later we found out that it was actually an archery field) where we set up camp. It was right next to a water-powered prayer wheel which chimed each time it made a revolution. It started to rain, and the team set up the dining tent very quickly so that we could sit inside and be dry. They piled all the supplies in the dining tent while they set up the rest of the camp. Our tent was on a slight slope, which actually was a good thing because hopefully it wouldn't flood. When our tent was ready, we retreated into it for some much needed freshening up. Dorji then called usfor "tea and a simple lunch." It turned out to be a delicious noodle mixture in a surprisingly spicy broth. It warmed us to our bones. Now that we had arrived, we had no more use for the horses. We said goodbye to the horsemen and got a photo with them. For the next few days it would just be us, Dorji, and Yeshey and the villagers of Shelmakha.

Dorji told us that rehearsals for the festival were supposed to begin at 2:00, and asked if we wanted to see them. Arriving a day ahead of schedule we had a whole extra day to enjoy the village, so we jumped at the opportunity and headed over to the monastery. Although we were a little late, they had not yet begun because they were trying to stop the rain. We met up with Gem Tshering, who was now wearing a gho. He asked us if we would like to "go inside to see the preparations." We assumed that this would just be a quick peek into the monastery to see costumes being prepared, etc. Dorji was not allowed inside because he was not wearing his gho (he was wearing hiking clothes and a rainsuit). As foreigners, we were exempt from the dress code. Dorji encouraged us to go with Gem Tshering while he waited outside.

We climbed a steep ladder-like staircase into the entranceway of the monastery. We took off our shoes and deposited our hats and camera in this outer room. We were introduced to the "Secretary from Thimpu". He was a jolly yet authoritative man who was very friendly and asked where we were from. We said "The USA" and he further questioned us, to which we answered "Massachusetts." "Boston?" he asked excitedly. He welcomed us to his village. We could tell he was an important person by the way the others were treating him with the utmost respect.

Gem Tshering led us inside the temple and we found ourselves in a room full of beautiful things: silk scrolls, an altar with what appeared to us to elaborate wax carvings, masks and silk quilts hanging from the ceiling, musical insruments... The lama of the village was seated in a regal wooden chair and other people were seated cross-legged in two lines in front of him. It was incredibly surreal and we felt totally out of our element in the best of ways. We felt like we were inside a movie. Gem Tshering asked if we wanted to make an offering. We had to tell him that we had left all of our money at our camp. He lent us 15 Nu apiece and showed us the proper wway to make an offering: place your palms together on your forehead, then over your heart, then kneel and touch your forehead to the floor. Do this three times toward the lama and three times toward the altar. We then placed our offering into a bowl and this would ward off sickness for the next year. I hoped that this might bring an end to my "Khumbu Cough".

Gem Thsering then had us join the people sitting down on the wooden floor planks in front of the lama. I was mildly aware then (but certainly more aware now looking back on it) that I was the only woman in the monastery. All of the others were men or boys. People were drinking the infamous Bhutanese butter tea and eating desi (an oily yellow rice mixture) with raisins. Everyone seemed to carry a teacup and bowl in their gho for just such an occasion. Gem Tshering had someone fetch teacups and platic bowls for us as well, and we were immediately served. The desi was tasty but very greasy and we had to eat it with our fingers. The butter tea was hot and salty and oily: not a mixture that my pallette is used to. I had a sip, and then followed it up with some desi. When I went for a second sip, my gag reflex kicked in. I coughed dangerously and Craig suggested that I not drink any more. I didn't want to be disrespectful, but I figured that it would be less disrespectful to politely decline than to vomit all over the monastery. Visions of the headmaster’s office at the Maasai school in Kenya were popping into my head. Craig did extremely well and drank his whole cup (though he wasn't a big fan) and ate all of his desi. My right knee was really painful and kept locking up as I tried to sit cross-legged. Although I was trying to respectfully sit still, I needed to constantly shift my legs. craig handled the entire situation like a pro, however, sitting perfectly still.

Gem Tshering brought over a very large (by Bhutanese standards) jolly man with a shaved head who looked like the Buddha himself. He grabbbed our greasy desi-coated hands in a firm hadshake. Gem Tshering explained that he was a "millionaire from Thimpu" who had been raised in Shelmakha and was now a shipping and real estate magnate. He helps to fund most of the festival. He doesn't speak English (in his generation, the mandatory second language taught in schools was Hindi rather than English) but Gem Tshering translated for him. He told us that his daughters go to school in the USA. The millionaire made a fist and put his big hand next to mine. It was rather intimidating, but he barked out in English "Same" with a smile, pointing to our flesh, indicating that although we live half a world away and speak different languages, we are all brothers.

Gem Tshering explained that people raised in Shelmakha who left tio work in other parts were expected to return for the festival each year and help to fund it. if they were not able to attend, they were levied a fine. Attendance was now being taken, and Gem Tshering had to go. he wanted to make sure he was not fined when he did make the trip to Shelmakha for the festival, after all. He left us with the millionaire, who broke into a benevolent smile, shrugged, and said "no Inglisi."

Then the preparations began. People got dressed in elaborate costumes. The lama was dressed in a gorgeous gold brocade silk costume with a hat, others were dressed as soldiers with helmets and shields, others as animals with faux tiger loincloths. They held drums with long handles, and beat them with long hook shaped pieces of metal. They blew large metal horns and red painted phallus shaped flutes (which we would later learn were made from human femurs!) Everyone was smiling at us and showing their approval of us being there. They were filing outside, and someone told us to follow them. Some small children were standing between us and our shoes, and as we reached for our shoes they seemed afraid and scurried away from us. We were the last two to exit the monastery, and dancing had now commenced in the courtyard. It was raining, and we stood against the building for a bit of shelter. The animal dancers had flaming bundles of sticks. They threw powder into the fire to make a flash. They aimed their flashes at various people, including Craig and myself, and the onlookers laughed. We felt the heat of thes mall puff of flames and felt that they were already accepting us into their village.

When this dance was over, we reunited with Dorji. We told him about everything we had seen, and were just in the midst of telling him about meeting the "Secretary from Thimpu" when we heard "Please put your hood on. Rain and cold can make you sick at high altitudes." We turned around to find the Secretary himself, holding a "Today Show" umbrella and wearing a Snoop Dogg cap. He introduced himself as Karma Dorjee, Secretary of Industry and Tourism. We chatted with him and I pointed to the Today Show unberella and asked if he had gotten that when Matt Lauer visited Bhutan earlier this year. He got very excited and said yes, that the crew had given it to him for his help with organzing their stay. He was very down-to-earth for someone so high up in the government. He was worried that we would get sick from the weather, so he ordered someone to bring us umbrellas. We looked around and saw nothing but medieval-looking farmhouses, yet someone immediately scurried off and returned with two large golf umbrellas, giving one to each of us. We felt a bit guilty, as each of these umbrellas could have sheltered about 5 Bhutanese, but such was Karma Dorjee's hospitality, and we were grateful.

He asked if we wanted to see the continuation of the ceremony, and we said sure. He led us down the muddy path to where the dancers had gathered. Villagers were sitting and watching the festivities. I was trying to stick to the periphery, as everything we had read said the worst thing to do at a festival is to impede the festivities iwth your photography. But the Secretary was insistent; he wanted to make sure I got the best angles for my photos, and steered me right into the thick of things. A group of little kids was watching me and I asked if they wanted me to take a photo of them. They immediately posed and I took one and showed them. They were excited, but I realized that I was distracting them from the festivities so I didn't take any more for now.

The elaborately dressed lama (with the help of one of the animal dancers) lit an evil spirit effigy on fire and created a little bonfire. Toward the end, Karma Dorjee said "Let's let Stephanie get a good picture!" and directed the lama and two animal dancers to pose for me. Thsi man has clout! He then said to us "Don't tell people these are Buddhist monks. Tell them they are Ghostbusters!!" and gave a hearty laugh. He walked with us back to the monastery courtyard and found us a prime location next to the incense burner to watch the next phase of festivities. We watched as the lama subdued the local deity in a hole in the ground with a dagger.

Karma Dorjee invited us for tea. He led us to one of the VIP-style tents we had joked about earlier. How do these things happen to us? We were nervous that it would be butter tea which I wouldn't be able to stomach, but we were offered a choice. We (along with Karma Dorjee) chose "milk tea" (tea with milk). People brought our tea as well as butter crackers, puffed rice with butter (which tasted remarkably like popcorn), and some cylindrical-shaped snacks. Karma Dorjee seemed to be worried about our health, and assured us that they used powdered milk in the tea, so it was perfectly safe. He found a moist towelette in his gho and told me to wash my hands to stay healthy. We chatted about the time he has spent in the U.S. He went to school in New York City, and has visited Boston, San Fancisco, Niagara Falls, Berkeley, Cape Kennedy, and Orlando. He said he loved Disney World and could have spent a week in the park. He talked about September 11, and how devastated he was to learn about the collapse of the World Trade Center. He said that the King gathered all of the lamas to say prayers for the victims of 9/11.

They had to dismantel the tent we were sitting under, so they moved us to the other tent, which had fancier furniture. We had endless supplies of tea. Karma Dorjee told us some of the history of Shelmakha: that the monastery had been moved to this location 10-12 years ago. Electricity and the road reached Shelmakha within the past 3-4 years. While we were chatting, young women in gorgeous kiras ran through some traditional dances to recorded music several times before accompanying their dances with their own singing. A clown holding a wooden phallus performed and the kids mimicked him. Karma Dorjee said that the phallus wards off evil spirits and jealousy. He said that every male has one, so why hide it? We talked a lot about Matt Lauer and the Today Show. Karma Dorjee was very impressed by Matt Lauer's eloquence and commanding presence. He mentioned that the film "Little Buddha" was shot in Paro Dzong. He was complaining of the cold and we told him about Cameron Diaz on "Trippin" asking a Bhutanese man what they wear under their ghos. Karma Dorjee laughed. "Shorts and underwear. But Scotsmen wear nothing! We're not like them!" We all laughed. DOrji buried his head in his hands, laughing, but not knowing quite what to make of us for having such a conversation with a government minister. A man came over and spoke to Karma Dorjee. Karma Dorjee shook his head and said to us "He asked if you would be staying for dinner. I told him no; the meat can't be trusted."

Karma Dorjee was unsettled by the notion that we were camping in this weather. We tried to reassure him that we were fine and that it would be fun, but he was worried about our health. It was getting dark, and as we headed back to camp, he sent a man with a hoe to dig a water trench around the tents. "I think I will have a look at your camp," he said thoughtfully, and followed close behind us. He said that if the rain kept up he would try to find us accommodation in a house. Dorji told him that we would be staying with a family for two nights after the festival. Karma Dorjee looked thoughtful again. “Ah, Karma’s house. But he doesn’t have an indoor bathroom!” We assured him that this was fine as well. Karma Dorjee inspected the trench-digger’s work, offering instructions via torchlight. He gave Yeshey quite a fright when he walked into the kitchen. He peeked into our tent as well, which was an absolute mess. We assured him that we don't have a problem with camping in the rain. We told him that it always rains when we camp at home. Woops. "Oh, so you brought the rain god!!" he joked with a hearty laugh. He inspected the trench and signed off on it, saying to Craig "This won't leak. This way Stephanie won't think you peed the bed!" This guy was a character! We said our "see you tomorrow"s and then he left.

We ate dinner and talked about the day’s events. To think that we weren’t even supposed to have arrived in Shelmakha until tomorrow! Sometimes things do work out for a reason! We asked Dorji how we should address Karma Dorjee. He told us that the proper title in “Dasho.” We stored that in our heads for use tomorrow. For dinner we we had more yummy thick cream of mushroom soup, rice, dahl, delicious chilis and cheese which were quickly becoming Craig;s favorite Bhutanese dish, green beans with pork, and papadums, with pears for dessert.

Dorji said that the Secretary had invited us for porridge tomorrow at 8 am. Dorji was cold, so Craig let him borrow an extra pair of thermals, which he really liked. Dorji went to bed at 8:15. We went back to the tent and Craig read while I wrote up the day's events. We went to sleep at 10. The cold and dampness didn’t do much for my cough and sore knee. I guess our offering at the monastery hadn’t worked. But wait – the money had been Gem Tshering’s. Maybe when we paid him back tomorrow, my condition would start to improve. Craig woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and could see the stars – a good sign that the weather might be nice for the festival for the first time in several years.
Campsite

Campsite

Chorten on Shelmakha road

Chorten on Shelmakha road

Outskirts of Shelmakha

Outskirts of Shelmakha

Tea house, exterior

Tea house, exterior

Puppy

Puppy

Tea house proprietor, Craig, Dorji

Tea house proprietor, Craig, Dorji

Shelmakha Monastery

Shelmakha Monastery

Craig, Dasho Karma Dorjee, Steph

Craig, Dasho Karma Dorjee, Steph

Shelmakha kids

Shelmakha kids

Musicians

Musicians

Bhutanesse Ghostbusters (Lama and dancers)

Bhutanesse Ghostbusters (Lama and dancers)

Fire dance

Fire dance

Craig, Gem Tshering, Steph

Craig, Gem Tshering, Steph

Craig, Steph, Dasho Karma Dorjee, Dorji

Craig, Steph, Dasho Karma Dorjee, Dorji

Dancers practicing for the festival

Dancers practicing for the festival

See more pictures from this day


Previous Day Trip Overview



Back to Craig and Steph's Vacations
Next Day

Read our guest book   Guest book Sign our guest book
Please send any questions or comments to steph@craigandstephsvacations.com
All photographs and text copyright 1996-Present www.craigandstephsvacations.com except where noted.