Monday, August 25, 2014

From Takila to Thimphu

Monsoon Travelogue 

Chorten Kora, Trashiyangtse
Vehicle drivers and passengers help clear the road manually 
I lay on the rough wooden floor of the gup’s office in Ramjar as I write this. It’s raining heavily outside and occasionally I stand up and scan my legs and knees for bug bites. My group, five of us, who came on a government survey, are tugged inside their sleeping bags, helping themselves on a bottle of ara.
It’s beautiful when it rains in Ramjar and the after-shower brings with it, a musical variety of insect sounds and bird chirps.
We had our dinner at the gup’s house. His wife, who laughed profusely at any normal conversational jokes, greeted us with warm Ara brewed in egg and butter. As I had recently quit drinking, I had to gently decline the offer, while my group carried on.
During my sixteen day tour of the remote eastern districts, I had this surprising impression that whenever you enter a house, you are offered alcohol. They never ask if you would like to have a cup of tea.
After the dinner, we headed back to the gup’s office, where he had arranged for our beds. Lying down, I stare at the ceiling, which is an artwork of cobwebs, various paint brush strokes and old stained tube lights. Moths and insects flutter around the light until they are caught in the web and die struggling.
Our Bolero struggling on the mud on the way to Bikhar
We are to start our survey on disaster management in the eastern districts the next day. The government has laid greater emphasis on disaster management when the country experienced a series of floods, earthquakes and major disasters in the last few years. A magnitude 6.1 earthquake hit eastern Bhutan in 2009 claiming the lives of at least ten people and destroying hundreds of houses, monasteries and schools. One year later, another 6.9 rippled across western Bhutan injuring many.
But the people seemed least prepared for any disasters in the future. While interviewing the villagers, most claim, jigita hangrang masela na lopon (I don’t know anything sir). In some cases, the villagers are almost beginning to lose their trust in the government. Several households, I interviewed had to say this- Nan dabhu taburang shekcha, diwa dini, par tab ni pura buwa, tshingey hang rang mala, (people like you come time and again, they ask questions, take pictures and then they never return).
As I confronted this house, I remembered what our king told us during the last national day that we Bhutanese are excellent planners, but lack in action and implementation. Perhaps, all the surveys and research papers are lying idle in some government offices for want of budget, I don’t know. But should it continue the people may no longer hold belief in the government. The biggest failure for a government I believe is when its people lose faith and no longer hope anything from the government. The people must always remain hopeful.
Interviewing on the move
The next morning, as we decide to move towards Yalang, which is located a few kilometers away from Ramjar, our bus got stuck in the mud and no matter how much Phuntsho, our driver, pushed the accelerator, the bus moved in all directions but forward.
So we asked the help of the gup who summoned all the villagers. We tied a rope to the bus and pulled it with the combined strength of all the villagers until we managed to get it off the quagmire of mud. The journey had to be cancelled because of the heavy downpour. I felt disappointed; we were lagging behind our deadline. The rain can be very unforgiving in the east and our roads easily get damaged with the slightest rain. I contemplate, you can’t just own a car and think you can go anywhere, without a road, a car is as useless.
So rather, we head back to Rangjung from where we hired a Bolero to travel to the remote gewogs upon farm roads. This sturdy Indian pick-up truck has the reputation of being able to carry huge loads as well as run in all kinds of roads. So much so that when it became quite popular in the east, they were branded Sharchokpa Hilux (Hilux of the eastern inhabitants) hurting the ego of the affluent sharchops who thought it generalized most sharchops as relatively poor.
As we headed towards Bikhar, we come across huge piles of empty beer bottles stacked beside roads that stood as stark display showing how much they loved to drink. Our bolero driver puts on the song “58 Ko Lauri” which suddenly takes be back to the 90s.
By the third day, the rain had damaged most parts of the roads in Trashigang. So I head towards Mongar and Lhuentshe where the roads are much better even during monsoon. On my way to Mongar I come across a village called Chali, where you can see, illiterate, village folks speaking English.
The Chalipas use words like hurry, come, go etc in their daily conversation. Surprisingly, their dialect is a mix of ngalong, sharchop, khengpa, lhotsham and almost all that’s spoken in the country including English. Legend has it that, While the gods were distributing languages to different villages, the Chalipas were the last one’s to receive, but by the time the gods reached the Chalipas, it had already run out and so the gods picked bits and pieces of all the languages it distributed earlier and gave it to the Chalipas.
Several hawkers have appeared along the roads in Mongar selling beaten maize. Maize, which is the major staple crop in the east, grows three times a year. Maybe the government could capitalize on the surplus production by entering into commercialization and setting up agro based industries that could reduce food imports and thus help in controlling rupee outflows to some extent.
Trashigang Dzong
As we moved onwards to Lhuentshe, I received an earful of history from an old man who hitched a ride on our bus. The old man in his typical rustic accent narrated to us the legendary tale of the ruler of Bangtsho who built an underground fortress to ward off Tibetan invasion some centuries ago. The underground fortress is still to be seen today in Bangtsho, Lhuentshe. Some archeologist had found clay pots and other utensils in the fortress.
But most people, the old man said dreaded entering the fortress as they believed the ruler was a Naga king who still lived within the fortress in the form of a serpent.
The old man also showed us a village called Budur in Lhuentshe which in ancient times was famous for its quality bamboos. King’s usually ordered their bamboos from Budur to be made into bows and arrows. But after the advent of modern compound bows, the village has lost its former glory and the name it held for supplying bamboos to the kings.
While on Lhuentshe, I made it a point to visit Takila and catch a glimpse of the ongoing construction of Guru Rinpoche’s statue. The statue which stood almost ten stories tall manifested an ambience of peace, compassion, love and above all majesty.
I had almost completed the survey by then, and had to head back to Thimphu. No matter how much you try and run away from the city, there is a strange feeling of nostalgia that pulls you back to the city.
It was again a long way ride back to Thimphu and I will omit the details as it was like any usual travel in the monsoon. When I reached Thimphu, I call up my friends, dress up in my best jeans and T shirts and head to a Karaoke bar where we drank mango juice and sang loud songs.


  1. Great piece. Enjoyed reading it. It reads better than the way you narrated to me. Keep writing :)

  2. Go to eastern part of Bhutan, a bottle of ara is a reception, which in native dialect called 'dhong chang'. Nice read Nidup sir.