Bhutan

Wednesday 10/17/07 - Kungarabten, Trongsa Dzong, Jakar, Radio Debut

We woke up from a very good night's sleep at 5:30 am. We showered, packed up, and by 7:00 we meandered our way over to the main building. Along the way, we admired a little garden courtyard hidden next to the lobby. All of the flowers were bejeweled by dewy raindrops. A small bridge arced over a man-made waterfall, and it was a very tranquil spot. The sun poked its head above the nearby mountains, and we could see the dzong across the valley, thinly veiled by occasional wisps of fog. We went inside and climbed the stairs up to the dining room, where we briefly chatted with Leah and Jim. The buffet breakfast consisted of orange juice, toast, doughy waffles, fried eggs, corn flakes, and tea.

We met Dorji and Jigme and embarked on a drive to Kungarabten, the winter palace of the Second King, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuk, which is now used as a monastery and national library. Along the way , we passed some beautiful scenery, including a waterfall so long that it could only fully be appreciated from about half a mile down the road. A trench was dug down the side of the road to prevent the waterfall's runoff from washing the whole road down the mountainside. We stopped at the waterfall for some pictures and got quite wet from its spray. Blue skies blended into purple mountains which in turn blended into bright green valleys punctuated by the occasional white house.

When we arrived at Kungarabten at around 9:15, we saw horses and a cook waiting to meet Leah and Jim for the start of their trek. A farmer wearing a gho, a bowl-shaped woven cane hat, and yellow galoshes watched his cows graze in the golden morning light. In the courtyard, four young monks were playing cane flutes which sounded very reedy. They seemed to enjoy our attention. Three other monks played the long telescoping "dung chen" horns which were contrastingly brassy, evoking a tuba. Their cheeks puffed our like Louis Armstrong while they played. Cheerful wooden balconies framed some of the windows, and there was a faded painting of a mandala on the ceiling in one area. We saw defensive walls with tiny rectangular holes through which past inhabitants could shoot out, but which would make incredibly small targets for attackers. There was a large wooden door in the stone barricade wall, and one of its corners had broken away. We wandered around the grounds and wound up in a lovely garden. There we ran into Leah and Jim, who had just arrived by van to embark on their trek. We chatted for a while, and then each went our separate ways.

After about half an hour, we went back to the van. Dorji revealed to us that he had called the girl from Shelmakha (named Choden) and talked to her on the phone last night. It sounded like they were getting along quite well. In addition to the phone call, she had sent several more text messages. We were quite happy for his blossoming relationship. We drove back along the same road toward town. The vegetation was very jungle-like, and we passed by the waterfall again.

Our next stop was the Trongsa Dzong. We entered the grounds through an archway. There was a compound bow archery tournament outside of the dzong and a bunch of monks were huddled under the shade of a large blue Pepsi umbrella watching the archers. We passed them and crossed a wooden covered bridge to enter the dzong, which was very architecturally interesting. It had many angles and sometimes if you looked upwards, you felt like you were in that M.C. Escher painting with the staircases leading to nowhere. Inside the courtyard were cats, kittens, roosters, and dogs. An adult monk was washing his feet from a water spigot. We could see our hotel off in the distance through the dzong windows. By looking out one of the windows from just the right angle, you could see a view of the other half of the dzong itself, and it looked rather far away. The massiveness of this structure was difficult to grasp. Up to 5 stories tall in places, it sprawls for 227 meters. The courtyards were made of precisely cut and fit flagstones. All of the doorways we saw were quite elaborately decorated. We couldn't enter the temple here because the monks were having prayers, but we enjoyed walking around the courtyards.

On our way out, we watched a bit more archery. Dorji checked his phone and received a text poem from Choden. Aaah, young love! It came time to go (of course the archers got an "eyeball" as soon as we turned our backs to walk away) and we headed back to the hotel restaurant for lunch.

The staff served us lunch at our table (as opposed to a buffet): white rice, mushrooms, squash with cheese (that both looked and tasted like potato), pork in sauce, chilis with cheese, Chinese vegetables, and noodles. It was so much food! Craig drank water and I drank a Coca Cola Light, which tasted funny to me - a different sweetener than in the States, I imagine. A large group checked in and I decided to quickly check email before they descended on the business center. We had email from Myths and Mountains saying that they were looking into the Delhi hotel charge (it turned out that the hotel made a mistake. Myths and Mountains straightened it out and refunded our money before the credit card bill was even due), and we also had mail from a few friends. Craig joined me and said that he had ordered dessert, so we went back to the dining room for guava slices drizzled in custard. The custard looked like Velveeta, but it was quite yummy. I find guava seeds to be annoying, though.

We then headed out in the van. My "Khumbu cough" had turned into a full blown cold and my sinuses were killing me. My head was pounding and I felt pretty miserable. We wound up further and further into the mountains. The trees became different; very craggly.

We stopped at a tea house called the "Coffee Corner". We went inside and took a look around. Craig was enchanted by some small statues of goddesses which were displayed on shelves. He thought that they were merely decorative, though, and not for sale. Before sitting down for some tea, we went into the adjacent handicraft shop called Thogmey Yeshey. This was the most interesting shop we had perused yet. It was like a flea market - there were little gems hidden everywhere and you had to rummage through stacks of textiles, piles of wooden and metal trinkets, etc. There were no lights on and the proprietors were nowhere to be seen. As we explored the treasures, I found a yak wool purse that I really liked, and I decided to buy it. There were also some very intricately detailed metal padlocks that we liked, and we joked about using one to lock our shed at home, but resisted the temptation to buy a heavy metal object. Craig saw a cache of statues like the ones he had seen in the coffee shop, and immediately fell in love with one which depicted the god of knowledge and compassion, Jameyang. Dorji fetched the proprietors, who came running enthusiastically when they learned we were interested in a substantial purchase. They turned on the lights and two young boys followed them in. They were very friendly and I got a picture of them in front of a large antique-looking mask which was hung on the wall. They eagerly looked at the photo and said "Tank you!" This purchase was the first time we used a credit card in Bhutan. Credit card transactions can only be processed during business hours, as they need to approve your credit card over the phone. We have heard that it can be problematic if people try to check out of a hotel early in the morning, before the banks are open. Luckily all of our hotels were pre-paid! But I digress. The proprietors pointed out that the statue had a small tag made of newspaper and embossed with a wax seal. This indicates that the statue is not an antique relic and is approved for export. This, along with the bill of sale, was supposed to prevent us from having any trouble at the border when we would leave Bhutan for India.

After making our purchases we went into the Coffee Corner tearoom next door and had two cups of tea and a plate of braided breadsticks. Before resuming the drive, we needed to use the bathroom. This turned out to be an adventure in its own right. We followed a little path behind the buildings, which led past various houses. Families sat on their porches and worked in their yards, watching us as we walked by. After following the path and climbing some steps, we arrived at a building which contained several bathrooms. We didn't know quite what to make of it. Maybe it was a communal bathhouse for the neighborhood. But it sure seemed to us as though we were invading someone's privacy by cutting through their yards, but nobody seemed to mind.

We drove the final stratch to Jakar, in the famed Bumthang Valley. The sun was getting low in the sky and casting a nice glow, though we knew that our timing was wrong for sunset. On the way, we listened to our new favorite radio station, Kuzoo FM. It was female disc jockey TC's throwback "country show." They played "Ode to Billie Joe" which neither Craig nor I had heard for years, and Dorji and I sang along to John Denver's "Country Roads", which seemed appropriate for our current circumstances winding our way down the rural artery of Bhutan. This lifted my spirits substantially, as my head was still pounding away to the point that I felt I couldn't even think. I decided I had to stop the denial: I was sick and I needed to do something about it. I had no idea whether our route would bypass a pharmacy (it seemed unlikely to me), but I asked Dorji and Jigme if we could possibly stop if we found one. They said it would be no problem.

We drove over a pass and made a quick stop to photograph a small chorten bedecked with prayer flags at a fork in the road, and then continued on our way. The road wound its way through groves of tall, straight pine trees, It reminded me of the town where I grew up. The whole landscape of this particular area was very New Englandy. I explained this to Dorji. At one point we saw a literal street sweeper - a person using pine boughs to clear the pine needles from the road. As we got our first glimpses of the Bumthang Valley, we wished that the light was better, but we were a bit too late.

Dorji had been talking about calling in a dedication for Choden during the request show on Kuzoo, and we thought that was a perfect idea! Again, it was like a junior high romance. He thought that the request show followed the country show, and tried to be the first caller. But they told him that it wasn't going to be on until 7:30 pm. We excitedly planned out how Dorji would call Choden to tell her to tune in, and then he would call in the dedication to Kuzoo. The whole experience was like a time warp. A time warp back to teen romance, and also a time warp back to the 50's and 60's, where radio drove pop culture in the USA, rather than corporate interests driving the radio, as is the case today.

We arrived in Jakar in the late afternoon. It was a small town with a main street lined with shops. Jigme pulled over in front of a dark little shop and we went inside. I asked if they had any cold medicine, expecting it to cost a fortune (most imported items in Bhutan are expensive). The shopkeeper pulled out boxes of D-Cold tablets from India - 24 tablets for 40 ngultrum. Unbelievably cheap! I asked her for two. She went to open the package, to give me two pills. Dorji explained this and I laughed because it was quite a foreign concept to someone from the USA - being able to buy loose pills. I laughed and said that I wanted two boxes. I wanted to make sure I had plenty - who knows when we might find another pharmacy. The Bhutanese seemed to find it funny that an American woman would buy so many pills at once. They must have thought that I was a cold medicine junkie.

We continued a short distance to the Mountain Lodge, where we checked into second-floor room 108. The room had a wood stove and the walls were paneled with wood, giving it a real "lodgy" feel. I took my medicine right away, and we relaxed in the room for a while.

We headed over to the building next door (which housed the dining room and the guide quarters) at 7pm for dinner. The dining room was very nice. At one end it had tables, at the other were some benches arranged in a conversation area near the bar. Much to our surprise and delight, Tshering (our first driver) was there with his new clients. We said hello to him and then ate our buffet dinner: chicken noodle soup, white rice, buckwheat noodles, potato croquettes, beef with mushrooms, and French carrots. It was ok, but nothing spectacular. Craig had a Druk 11000 and I had "pure Bhutanese apple juice", which was quite delicious. We ate quickly so we would be done in time for the radio request show.

We hooked up with Dorji at 7:30 and excitedly went to the van - the only place where we had access to a radio. Jigme laughed and unlocked the doors, and we all climbed in, feeling like high school students doing something illicit (especially since Craig had a beer with him from dinner!) Jigme turned on the radio. Although Dorji had been told the request show started at 7:30, we tuned in to find news and the "Bhutan Experience" show (which profiled a American man teaching golf to Bhutanese children at a country club in Thimpu. We had actually seen the golf course in question when we were in Thimpu. They are trying to get golf to catch on among the Bhutanese, and realized that the best hope is through children.)

We listened in anticipation until the request show started at 8. Dorji called Choden to tell her to tune in. He wanted to dedicate Enrique Iglesias' "Somebody's Me" to her. We hadn't known of this song back home, but we had heard it on Kuzoo plenty of times since being in Bhutan. It was one of the few modern day songs which are popular in a Bhutan which seems mostly obsessed with music from the '70's.

Request upon request was taken, but Dorji couldn't get through on his cell phone. Tshering and some of the other guides and drivers congregated in the parking lot and we told them what was going on. They all smiled and giggled and then stuck around to see the outcome. Dorji was getting frustrated, and asked Craig to try, for luck. Craig got a busy signal as well. By around 8:45, Dorji was ready to give up. I suggested that he let me have a turn. It connected on my third try. Dorji had a screening interview in which he told them who he was and what his dedication was, and that he was with clients from the USA whom he had grown very close to (aaaw!). He hopped outside of the van and I got a photo of him talking to the station. He was put on the air and Craig was able to record the entire radio interview with his MP3 recorder. Dorji dedicated the song to Choden and also talked about us and asked the dj if he wanted to talk with us. Before I knew what was happening, Dorji handed me the phone through the van window and I was talking with the dj. The radio delay caused the expected confusion, but I hadn't even had a chance to step outside. Jigme turned the radio down a bit and I could concentrate better. The dj was very polite. I told him that we love Dorji and that Choden was lucky to have him. He asked about our trip and I told him about it, and I dedicated the song to Craig as well. He kept me on the phone talking for several minutes. Then he played the song ("The hottest Track in Thimpu" as he called it) and we hung up. Dorji shook my hand. We were all so excited, and we felt victorious. After the song ended, we all cheered and celebrated. We had just barely made it, as there were only two more callers before the end of the show at 9:00.

All of the guides and drivers were intrigued by the fact that Craig had been able to record it. I ran to the room to fetch a pair of headphones and we all listened to the recording. It was great fun. Craig had his beer with him and Dorji brought me a cup of tea. We all chatted excitedly in the parking lot. Dorji called Choden to make sure she heard it. He let Craig and I talk to her, and she seemed shy but very sweet. She was very nervous and giggly. It reminded us once again of innocent junior high school romance and we got that warm fuzzy feling. After we were all giggled out, we headed to the room. I got a very nice night's sleep thanks to my cold pills.
Roadside waterfall

Roadside waterfall


Countryside


Countryside


Farmer at Kungarabten

Farmer at Kungarabten


Young monks playing dung chen

Young monks playing dung chen horns


Winter palace of Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuk

Winter palace of Druk Gyalpo Jigme Wangchuk


Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong


Trongsa Dzong


Trongsa Dzong


Trongsa Dzong


Trongsa Dzong


Boys at the Thogmey Yeshey handicraft shop

Boys at the Thogmey Yeshey handicraft shop


Our statue

Our statue


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