Hello from Trongsa. It feels like a lifetime has passed since we last spoke. After a long five days of trekking and camping I find myself faced with the impossible task of boiling down some of the most grueling and beautiful days of my life into a blog post.
We left our hotel in Mongar bright and early and drove for three hours, making a quick stop at the shop of a local yak weaver.
We finally arrived in Trongsa, located at the foot of the Black Mountain region through which we would be trekking for the next six days. We visited the Wangchuk Museum, housed in an ancient watchtower and named for the Wangchuk Dynasty that has ruled over Bhutan since the first king’s coronation in downtown Trongsa in 1907. As we climbed the stairs into the watchtower the power went out. When the lights came back on we found our guide Jigme Reegyal hiding in the corner, waiting to jump out and give our driver Pemba a scare.
We left the museum and drove down the hill to the Trongsa Dzong. As we walked in we saw about fifteen young men practicing the Black Hat dance, a traditional Bhutanese dance performed during festivals. Monks watched them dance from the steps above. One of the men slowly beat a handheld drum and the others jumped in circles and kicked up their feet. As they danced, flocks of pigeons took flight and the sound of their wings filled the courtyard.
We drove from the Dzong to our campsite overlooking the unbelievably beautiful Trongsa Valley. Our trekking team had hung prayer flags over our tents and over the entrance stood a banner that read “Welcome” in both English and Dzongkha. Our tents were big enough to stand up in and inside we found cots with warm sleeping bags as well as beautifully decorated rugs. Aside from our sleeping tents, each campground on our trek would include bathroom and shower tents, a dining tent and a full kitchen where our meals would be prepared.
Our Yangphel trekking team consisted of eight staff, including Jigme and Pemba. We met Ap Gyeltshen, the man who would be stuffing us full of the most delicious food three times a day. Dechen Dorji was his kitchen assistant. Rinchen, a local from Drongtha valley who would be leading us on our hikes through his childhood home. Karma Namgay, who only answers to Tarzan for reasons that no one seemed to be able to explain, was also our guide and served as Barry’s photography assistant, anticipating his every need.
Tinley would be leading the horses that carried our picnic lunch each day and was also, I later learned, an incredible dancer and singer. Biran drove our luggage from campsite to campsite and set up our tents so that everything would be ready when we arrived after a long day’s journey.
We had a wonderful dinner and our trek team sang us songs. This was my first time hearing local music. The songs in Bhutan are so different from home and so beautiful. It seems like every person here has been singing their whole life, and they seem to really enjoy singing together and singing for us. We returned to the campfire and looked up at the stars. There was construction happening below us and every once in a while a dynamite blast would fill the valley like thunder. Even though we were outside and the temperatures were in the 30’s, we all fell asleep easily that night.
We woke up early and had tea at Karma’s wife Namgay’s childhood home. Namgay’s cousin takes care of the property and in the backyard he had built a beautiful greenhouse. His wife and daughter were gorgeous and I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. We sat down inside and enjoyed snacks made with butter, sugar and fried, crispy rice.
We hiked about 4 hours to our next campsite at Ugyen Tekchen Choliing monastery, stopping on the way to have tea and lunch at a stupa overlooking another beautiful valley. On the way there we stopped at a community school where about six children were playing. Jigme introduced us to the children. They all laughed when they heard my name because everyone in Bhutan calls their cat Jilly, which I actually think is pretty cool. Barbara took polaroids of each group of siblings and they showed us their classrooms. Jigme asked each of them what they wanted to be when they grew up and they all responded with either an engineer, a doctor or a teacher.
When we arrived at our campsite, we found local artisans busy making ornate wood carvings for renovations to the temple. We found a shockingly large bull grazing next to Barry and Barbara’s tent and met the monastery dog whom the monks had named Domchu which means Bear Cub in Dzongkha. Domchu quickly became our dog as we fed him the scraps of our delicious dinner.
We put down our bags and went into the temple to meet Rinpoche, a lama who had just returned from three years and three months of solitary meditation. He spoke in a deep and beautiful voice about the difficulties and benefits of learning to control your mind. He told us that he spent the entire three years focusing on clearly picturing the face of Guru Rinpoche. Though in the beginning of his meditation he felt anxious to be alone for such a long period of time, when he realized his retreat was coming to an end he felt sadness and wondered if he should continue to meditate for another three years.
We returned to our tents and played a game using darts made by the woodworkers and a block of wood. Pemba proved to be an expert and we learned that he played archery, Bhutan’s national sport, for a tournament team. I hit the target a couple of times as did Barry and Barbara. We had dinner, sat by our fire and rested for the next days long hike into Drongthang.
We woke up to the sound of the monk’s performing morning prayers in the monastery. We had coffee and toast around the fire and Jigme showed us the complicated process men perform to tie their ghos. We set out on our five hour hike to Drongthang, the village of Karma Lotey, Tarzan, Rinchen and the rest of the Yangphel Adventure family.
Domchu followed us the entire way, darting into the mountains to chase off the occasional deer or bird that was in our path. It was oddly comforting to come around a corner and find him waiting for us. We followed Domchu onto a property where he played with a puppy that looked like him, whom I have named baby Domchu, and took polaroids for the children who lived there.
After a long hike we arrived at our campsite in Drongthang. We put down our bags and followed Tarzan and Rinchen up a hill to meet their families. We came across Karma’s grandfather who was 99 years old, the oldest person I had met in Bhutan if not anywhere in the world.
We were welcomed by Rinchen’s family into their beautiful, 130 year old house. The rooms were bare and the walls and floors were stained with smoke. Everything smelled like Juniper incence. Rinchen’s mother demonstrated the process for making suja, tea made with melted butter and poured us each a cup.
We were then given cups of ara, which we learned was made differently in each house depending on the crops that grew on the property. It is customary to offer guests a cup of ara when they come into your home as well as a second serving, and it is considered rude to reject either. As we moved from house to house , meeting more and more Yangphel relatives, we started to feel dizzy from all of the cups of ara we were being fed. Ara seems to be an integral part of hospitality in Bhutan, and the welcoming of guests is definitely an integral part of Bhutanese culture. We would wander onto people’s properties and instead of being shocked to see us, people would welcome us into their homes and offer us drinks. Each time we would enter a house, Domchu would stretch out in the grass to take a nap while he waited for us to come back out.
We returned to our campsite for dinner, a little bit tipsy. Jigme ate rice with his hands in true Bhutanese fashion. Gyalsten refilled our plates and complained that Jigme was too skinny. After dinner, our trek team surprised us with an apple birthday cake as Barbara, Jigme and I would all be celebrating our birthdays during our three week stay in Bhutan. The Bhutanese traditionally don’t do much in the way of birthday celebrations, aside from maybe lighting a butter candle at their altar to pray for a good year, so the surprise was a welcome one. The trek team sang us happy birthday in English and we blew out our candles. After an hour or so we all drifted off to sleep. Domchu spent the night at the entrance to my tent.
The next morning, the prayer flags were wet from the last night’s rain. The fog was so thick around us that we could no longer see the mountains that our campsite was nestled between. As we ate our breakfast a group of crows surrounded us. Domchu ignored them and waited for our scraps. After breakfast we set out for Mangdephu, the most remote village in Bhutan.
We hiked for about an hour and a half before we reached the home of Karma’s mother. When we arrived, the man of the house brought us to his fields to watch a cow milking demonstration. Barbara milked the cow as she cleaned her calf.
We then watched him till his soil using a plow pulled by two very strong bulls as he guided them with ropes. Jigme tried to guide the bulls but they were too strong for him and they ended up walking in the wrong direction, taking Jigme with them. He brought the milk inside so that the lady of the house could show us how she uses it to make butter and cheese to be sold in the Trongsa markets. When she was finished, her son took a small pad of butter to offer to the local deity. The lady spent a few minutes molding the butter into a nice shape, as the Bhutanese believe that if the butter is packaged in a bad shape, the calf of the cow will be born deformed.
We had lunch and the family sang us traditional Bhutanese songs. They asked us for a song and we sang Don’t Worry be Happy very discordantly. They were nice about it and said that it sounded beautiful but they didn’t understand the lyrics. We went outside and played Sok Sum, a traditonal game in which players try to hit a piece of wood with bamboo shoots that you throw like javelins. Any time someone would come close to hitting the target, the entire family as well as our trek team would hoot and holler in Dzongkha.
We said goodbye and the ladies of the house asked if Gyalsten, who had been entertaining them in the kitchen, could stay and live with them. They posed for pictures with him and laughed hysterically at all of his jokes in Dzongkha. This was the first moment I realized that Gyalsten was the funniest and strangest man that I had ever met.
We said our goodbyes and continued down the road. As the road bent to face the house across the valley, our new friends stood on their porch, waving scarves and howling at us. Our trek team howled back and we joined in, yelping and whistling across the valley. Jigme told us that this was the traditional way to see people off in Bhutan. This continued for another ten minutes or so until we came upon yet another house inviting us in for a few cups of ara.
We walked for another hour back to our campsite and found Domchu was waiting for us. Our trek team had prepared hot stone baths, an ancient Bhutanese healing practice where river water is mixed with Artemisia leaves and boiled with river stones baked in fire. The water proved too hot for all three of us chilleps (white people) and so our trek team added a few buckets of cold water to bring our baths down to American temperatures. Jigme took his bath last and seemed to have no problem sitting in the scalding water.
We sat by the fire giving off steam until about 25-40 villagers arrived to welcome us. They came bearing 24 bottles of ara, one from each household, and proceeded to present them to us one by one. The men of the village made an offering of the ara to the gods, a strange, deep chant followed by howls and yelps. Everyone broke out their bowls and we all began to drink. Our trek team brought out the largest pot of rice I have ever seen and gave each of our guests a helping the size of a saucepan.
After we ate, seven of the ladies got up to do a welcome dance for us by the fire. Traditional dances in Bhutan involve at least seven people doing what to us were complicated dance steps as they move forward and backwards in a circle, lifting and dropping their arms like hula dancers and singing. The older lady sitting next to me kept pulling my hand towards the dancers, wordlessly begging me to join in. After a few more bowls of ara I obliged and I did not regret it. At first I had an impossible time following the steps of the girl in front of me and I bumped into her more than once. I heard quite a bit of laughter coming from the crowd that I would imagine was directed at Barry, Barbara and me. Eventually Thinley stepped in ahead of me and instructed me on the steps. His commands of “one step, two step, same step, back step” confused me more than they helped, but after focusing on his feet for a few minutes I eventually fell into rhythm with the rest of the dancers. Occasionally the dances would pick up, changing from steps to jumps and leaps, and I was lost but no one seemed to mind. The rest of our trek team joined in and proved to be incredible dancers and singers.
The villagers asked us to perform a dance for them and Barry and Barbara began to do a pseudo-waltz with each other. With out missing a beat, Ap Gyalsten grabbed my hand and began imitating them, picking me up and spinning me in circles. The rest of the villagers joined in, laughing and enjoying twirling around. I returned to the fire to catch my breath and an old lady gave up her spot so I could be warm. I took off my parka and put it over her legs and we sat together for a while, holding hands and speaking without understanding each other. Jigme gave a speech to the villagers about the litter that we saw on our trek and told them that the chilleps take better care of their land at home. He told them about waste management in America, how to take their recyclables to the nearest town and what they could do with the waste that could not be recycled. The villagers said they were happy that we came to tell them about this problem because they don’t have televisions in their homes so they didn’t know what to do with their waste.
We danced for a few more hours, each time the villagers lying and telling us that that dance would be the last dance. Though they clearly could have continued all night, the ara and the hiking made it necessary for us to go to bed. We said goodbye to all of our new friends and they invited us back for the following year.
Hung over from all of the ara, we set out on our four hour hike to Bemji Valley. On our walk we passed a large sign that said “electric fence to protect crop from monkeys and other wild animals.”
When we arrived at our lunch spot, we met three young brothers who bowed and greeted me with a polite “good afternoon, madame” before asking Barry to take their picture.
As we enjoyed our lunch, a mother passed by us with three children carrying bags of cement on their backs. She stopped to say hello and her children walked ahead, the youngest lying down in the dirt to take a rest. When she caught up to him, she picked him up by the cement bag and he ran ahead down the hill to his house.
We kept walking until we came upon a three-story white house, the oldest home in the villages we had been trekking through. From here, relatives began to move from Trongsa back into these remote valleys in hopes of cultivating the fertile and beautiful land. Mangdechu and Drongtha were all settled by members of this very family.
We were welcomed inside by the 86 year old grandmother of the chairman of Yangphel. She had beautiful white hair and wore a kira made of yak fur to keep her warm. Jigme held her hand as we asked her questions and told us she had 40 grandchildren and had lived in the house for 80 years. She told Jigme that they had only received electricity within the last nine months, but that it didn’t matter for her because she couldn’t see very well. She was very beautiful and covered her mouth when she smiled, a sign of respect in Bhutan. She brought us down to the kitchen to warm ourselves by the wood burning oven. She offered us ara and invited us to return next year and for 100 years after that. Barry asked if he could spend the night and she said she already had a husband so he should take his ara and go.
We were informed that our campsite was ready so we continued up the hill for a few minutes until we reached the community school. Our tents were set up on the school’s soccer field and the buildings were housing young men from the military who had been deployed to conduct a land survey.
As we unloaded our bags and got ready for a quiet night of rest, a villager came over to greet us and informed Jigme that the people of Bemji wanted to have a welcoming ceremony. Jigme politely declined because he thought we were too tired, but the villagers insisted and so we ended up having a second party with just as much ara and just as much dancing. This time the alcohol was offered to a giant tree that the villagers believe to be the residence of their local deity. Thinley kindly stepped in as my dance teacher once again and I held hands with more old ladies by the fire as they asked me if I would consider marrying their sons. The principal of the school came out to greet us and invited us to have tea in his house but we were drunk and tired and decided it was time to say goodnight. As our second group of new friends left, a woman hugged us and said in English “I am so happy and drunk.” We were too and so we kissed her goodnight and retreated to our tents as the party continued with out us.
The next morning we woke up at sunrise to what must have been a 1,000 man army of crows. The team circled around Barbara’s tent and sang her happy birthday. She stuck her head out to say thank you and then retreated back inside and out of the cold. A local woman brought us each a marigold flower and wished us a safe journey and we set off for our final hike back to Trongsa.
We made it about two hours before Jigme called Pemba to pick us up in our trusty Yangphel van. We drove to Bjizam and got out to have our last picnic lunch. Outside of the car, a young girl and her brother played with six puppies. They stacked them on top of each other like Lincoln logs and carried them into their house.
We walked down to the river where our trek team was waiting for us with Druk 1100 beers, mine and Barry’s favorite. As we drank we saw three monkeys washing themselves in the river. We had a delicious lunch with our trek team and said a teary goodbye. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the hospitality and professionalism with which we were treated by the Yangphel team. It was a long and exhausting trek, and to be taken care of so well by such friendly and kind people really transformed a difficult journey into a wonderful experience. On our trek we ate the best food we’ve had in Bhutan and had the most fun I’ve ever had dancing. We finished our picnic, had a big group hug and set off for the next stage of our journey.
As the road transitioned from dirt back to pavement and the Trongsa Dzong came into view, I thought about the sadness that the Lama described experiencing as he came out of his three year meditation and returned to the real world. However, as I walked into my hotel room, turned the sink on and felt hot, running water, I felt very very happy.
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