Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bhutan: Day Two

I was having a delicious Peaceful Resort breakfast, studying my Bhutan magazine homework that my guide, Tsering Penjor, had given me when he and Tobgay (our driver) had met me at the India border, when Tsering startled me by walking out of the hotel kitchen.

"Where is your breakfast?" I asked, when he didn't sit down to eat.

He motioned back to the kitchen. "I am eating with the staff. We have green chilis and rice in there."

I'd noticed he'd munched down an entire green chili last night with his dinner. Bhutanese like their food hot. Really hot. So hot that stomach ulcers are big here.

Tobgay met us at 8:30 for a full-on day of sightseeing in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Tsering had carefully explained to me what was on the agenda today, but I'd nodded cheerfully and tuned him out. I was fine with going wherever the guys intended to take me. They knew more about what I wanted to see than I did. I'm on the road for ten months. If someone else wants to plan my days for a change, I'm all too happy to take a backseat and let them sort it out.

Bhutan's national official policy is all about Gross National Happiness, which was defined in the magazine I was reading as development-with-values. This means that trees aren't cut down without consideration and approval from the Forestry officials, financial considerations are no more important (or possibly even less important) than environmental and lifestyle questions, and plastic bags aren't even legal. Selling tobacco is also illegal, though I disapprovingly noticed that a huge percentage of the population appeared to be hooked on betelnut, and I'm sorry, but that's one thing my closed little brain just can't get behind.

What Bhutan is NOT is an idyllic backwards Shangri-La without modern conveniences. We outsiders love the idea of a kingdom in the clouds without TV or the influence of global pop culture or junk food or Internet. Of course, that's nonsense. I'd driven in via a modern Hyundai on a carefully engineered road, a technical marvel built with modern heavy equipment, human labor, and brainpower. My hotel was modern and had both excellent plumbing and fast wifi, but also had a lovely rustic atmosphere due to some brilliant architecture and interior design. The streets of Thimpu have no traffic lights, but they have plenty of roundabouts and stop signs, and even a traffic policeman who serves the same function as a traffic light but only during the day.

Plastic bags aren't available in stores, but people did acquire them as Bhutanese too go abroad, to India, Nepal, or Thailand, mostly, and tourists bring them in. But these bags are reused until they are full of holes, so stray bags don't litter the streets as they do in most of the world, blowing in the breeze. And while there isn't a McDonald's, there is Coca-Cola and you can get packaged snacks that have been imported from India.

So rather than being the popular television-free Shangri-La of our imaginations, Bhutan is a tiny country struggling to modernize in a responsible and sustainable way that doesn't obliterate its culture or ruin its pristine environment.

Thus, Gross National Happiness.

Peaceful Resort was set on a hill over Thimpu, and we drove past several dogs as we embarked on our day of touristing.

"Did they bother you last night?" The popular saying about Bhutanese dogs is that they sleep all day and bark all night. And that's no exaggeration.

"No, I didn't hear them." I had a little, but not enough to keep me awake. Of course, not much keeps me awake, and if something does, then yes, it's really loud.

"They tried building a place for dogs...a dog pound...but that didn't work out, so now there are people who catch the strays and sterilize them. Then the dogs are released."

Ugyen of our travel agency would later describe the constant barking to me as the dogs telling their stories.

"Every night, they are telling their stories."

 I was just hoping no one would notice that I'm a stray. Tsering was sure to catch on by the end of my trip, but he was still treating me like a princess for the moment.

We passed what I'm almost sure was a mini-golf course and parked at the Motithang Takin Preserve.

"This used to be a zoo but we are Buddhists, we can't keep the animals in a zoo. It was the same with the dog pound. So not many takin are here anymore, just the ones that were already domesticated or the sick ones. Let's see if we can find some," said Tsering, leading the way up the dirt path alongside the takin fence in his Bhutan national dress and black knee socks.

My old friend Yancey—who a few of you may remember from when he met me in China and Mongolia in the original—had read about the takin and emailed me about them immediately when I'd told him I was going to Bhutan. Apparently, the most-favorite saint of Bhutan—the Divine Madman—had created the takin from the head of a goat and the body of a cow. I didn't know much about the Divine Madman (Lama Drukpa Kuenley) but all visitors to Bhutan, including myself, are fated to learn a great deal about him. My schooling would begin tomorrow.

"Of course, most people understand that the story about the takin coming from the head of a goat and the body of a cow is a myth," explained Tsering.

"Kind of like the yeti," I said, waiting for a reaction. He laughed. Maybe I'd win the yeti argument yet.

The takin were hiding from us and we had to work at locating them, but eventually they appeared by the fence to have a snack. They were of varying temperaments and some of these goat-antelopes were pleased to meet me while others were contrary—one of them rammed the fence when I got too close.

I've lost track of how many sights we saw over the rest of the day—first there was the National Institute of Traditional Medicine (all medical care is free in Bhutan, even for tourists), then an arts school called National Institute for Zorig Chusum (students learn traditional arts and crafts including wood carving, embroidery, painting, and sculpture), the National Textile Museum, the National Library (no shoes please, lots of books wrapped in cloth), and then finally, after lunch, I got Tsering to take me to the post office so I could buy stamps. Bhutan is famous for its stamps.

Or rather, was. Now the best place to buy cool old Bhutanese yeti stamps and 3D stamps is in the souvenir shop. Or maybe on eBay.

So Tsering took me to a souvenir shop. I looked at all the stamps, which for $2,138 a collection, were way beyond my budget, and then I looked at all the trinkets for sale. Today was just the second day of my trip. Too early to know what to buy. But later, I'd realize that the best place to buy had been here in the souvenir shops of Thimpu and at the arts school this morning.

Tsering sat in the corner of the souvenir shop, engrossed in a magazine as I browsed. I assumed he was doing the traditional bored-man-shopping thing, but when I went over and interrupted him, it turned out he was reading this article about the yeti.

"Here it shows a photo of the yeti skull in the monastery," he said.

I took the magazine, quickly established that the article was about Reinhold Messner's research, pointed at his name, and said impatiently, "Yes, that's the mountain climber I was telling you about yesterday. IT'S A BEAR."

Tsering looked unconvinced. We weren't done with this topic yet.

We left the gift shop and attended a women's dart match at the national stadium along with Tobgay. This was marvelous—women in traditional Bhutanese skirts and blouses pitching darts across the lawn at tiny targets. They'd yell encouragement or tease the opposition, and when someone scored, the women would run to the center of the field and perform a singing and dancing routine.

I was by now all touristed out and tired from the long day of running around. Actually, I was probably touristed out before lunch, but I only had one day in Thimpu and I could rest when I got back to Bangkok, so I followed Tsering to a chorten. That's like a stupa or shrine, sort of a giant wedding cake-looking whitewashed memorial with a pointy top. It's a memorial to the 3rd king (we're currently on king #5, and he's the one getting married on October 13th). We paced around the chorten twice, following senior citizens as they circumambulated the shrine while holding their prayer beads and prayer wheels.

In Tibet, I had seen tremendous numbers of active devotees of all ages. Surely the lack of youngsters performing religious rituals here must reflect the comfortable state of life in Bhutan versus the stressful situation of Tibet, or perhaps there just isn't the same need to outwardly demonstrate one's religion here as in Lhasa.

We stopped at two more places—first, a monastery, then a nunnery high over Thimpu. I was wiped out and can't even remember the monastery, but dutifully followed up my guide up the path and to the entrance of the nunnery as the final stop of the day. We left our shoes outside.

"Once at this nunnery, a dog stole my shoe. I couldn't find it anywhere. I had to finish the rest of the day with one shoe."

The dogs of Thimpu are probably still telling that story at twilight.

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