Aside from Angie’s recent update about her teaching experiences here in Bhutan and my ramblings about clouded passes, it’s been a while since we properly recounted what we’ve actually been up to. The main purpose of this post is to do that, and only that, and the focus is on our times away from Khaling. The majority of the normal commentary and more in-depth observations will follow in some additional and hopefully insightful posts.
We’ve been away from Khaling a number of times over the past few months, mostly to meet up with other foreign teachers. It’s always nice to be able to see others who are sharing the same experiences as there is always an outsider’s perspective of a place that no native can ever share or understand unless they’ve spent considerable time in the culture from which you come and from which your perspectives originate.
The following is a list and brief discussions of the places we have been together. As Brett has done some additional solo travelling as part of his volunteering with Mountain Hazelnut, an additional post about these places will follow.
Trashigang is the capital of the Dzongkag by the same name and is, by Bhutanese standards, the big city. It’s a proved a nice location with for relaxing with friends and restocking on some goods unavailable in most of the other towns.
Our first visit was short trip for Losar during the weekend of 01 March, and though we’ve been for one other weekend in April we’ll only recount this first visit in detail as both consisted largely of socializing, eating and drinking.
Losar is a new year’s celebration that involves family gatherings, drinking and dangerous sports. This is Losar for those in Bhutan’s west only (the eastern Losar had taken place in late January while we were in Thimphu), but with Bhutan’s rural-urban migration patterns and the spread of civil servants around the country the Bhutanese seem to celebrate both Losars no matter from which part of the country they originated or in which part they now reside. Who needs an excuse to drink buckets full of ara and throw darts and/or stones at targets/each other? Losar weekend also comes with an entire free Saturday for those who normally are required to work a half day, and so this was our first opportunity for a foreign teacher get together in Trashigang.
In all, the congregation amounted to eight. As this was our first weekend back with friends after our first month or so in towns, we didn’t do much other than sit around, talk, drink and eat. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed up as people fled the city to their hometowns to spend time with family, and we had to virtually beg our way into restaurants in order to be fed.
Our first night in Trashigang we did go to an odd kind of Bhutanese impromptu nightclub/Losar party setup in a school hall. This is a country that outlaws the importation and sale of cigarettes outside of a small personal allowance for those entering the country, but the hall was surprisingly filled with smoke. And also with young sweaty people dancing, and an accompanying stank that almost overwhelmed the smoke.
The next day we quickly discovered that the entire town of Trashigang was closed and vacated, more empty of people and life during this beautiful sunny day than most towns would be at 3 am during a violent storm. We decided on a day trip 17km north to Rangjung, where Aussie teacher Travis is stationed.
The road to Rangjung is a well-travelled one and despite only being slightly shorter than the one that travels one hour south to Kanglung, it also only requires 25-30 minutes. It is therefore much, much easier to catch a ride to Rangjung, even on this holiday where traffic was scarce even by Bhutanese standards.
We did, however, walk a bit before we were able to find a ride. Of course there were five of us (Travis and Kevin had headed to Rangjung already, Jonathan stayed behind in Trashigang) and it is always difficult to find a vehicle with that many seats.
When a seemingly fully-loaded Bolero finally stopped, we prepared to fit two or three of us in while the others continued walking. However, after a reshuffle the driver insisted that we all could fit and indeed we did. From there it was a quick fifteen minute ride to Rangjung, where Travis waited.
Rangjung is a pleasant little valley, and here in early March this balmy anomaly on Bhutan’s topographic and climate maps was already stained in reds and yellows from the early bloom. Here Bhutan’s ubiquitous grey and white barren peaks and impossibly steep crevice-like valleys take a break and give way to gently-sloped land, a wider valley nestled between green hills that some here might liken to India’s dooars but which in actuality would still be some of the most tumultuous terrain in almost any other country.
Rangjung itself is a pleasant town that seems to have escaped the unfortunate brightly-colored concrete facelift that some larger Bhutanese towns have been subjected to. While it’s not on the main highway, Rangjung’s proximity to Trashigang means it might be the third most developed of the towns in which foreign teachers are placed (aside from Trongsa and Trashiyangtse).
The focal point of the town is the Rangjung Goempa, located atop a hill centered in the valley the newly repainted temple dominates its surroundings. As we walked up towards the main temple we passed Garab Rinpoche (www.dudjom-newtreasure.org/index.pup/en/masters/dungse-garab-dorje-rinpoche) playing khuru with some monks. Photos of the Garab Rinpoche are plastered on the walls of homes and restaurants and the inside window of almost every car in eastern Bhutan, and Rangjung is his base when he’s in the country, though he now travels and teaches in other places for much of the year.
We left Rangjung behind in the evening, returning to Trashigang.
Mongar and Kidekhar
In early April we took a weekend trip to Mongar for a book fair. The book fair was widely attended by schools in eastern Bhutan as this is their main opportunity to spend their government allowance for books. As such, we again met many of the other foreign teachers in town and a group of us stayed with Paul, who was stationed about 5 km outside of Mongar in Kidekhar (I say ‘was’ because Paul has since moved back to Canada).
Whereas Rangjung has avoided the rebuilding and expansion via calamitously-colored concrete buildings, Mongar has perhaps been the epicenter of this new Bhutanese practice (aside from Thimphu). Mongar is nicely situation on a sloping hillside, as is Kidekhar above it, but this place is dramatically lacking the charisma of other eastern towns like Trashigang, Trashiyangtse and Rangjung.
Still, Mongar is quite a bit larger than those other examples and with its lack in character come some perks – more shops with a multitude of options unavailable in most of the rest of non-Thimphu Bhutan, restaurants and bars and a bit of a night life. One night we did end up at karaoke bar, something I don’t think we can even find in Trashigang.
Coincidentally, on the Saturday of the weekend that we visited Mongar, Garab Rinpoche was also visiting along with Dudjom Yangsi Rinpoche. Dudjom Yangsi Rinpoche, a Tibetan now living in Nepal or India depending on who you asked, had been invited to tour Bhutan by Garab Rinpoche. This was, by all accounts, a very big event and nearly everyone in the general vicinity of Mongar congregated in the main field to observe and be blessed by Dudjom Rinpoche.
We first watched as Dudjom Rinpoche addressed the crowd from the stage. Following this, he descended, joined by other monks, dancers and a small musical accompaniment, and began walking through each row of the crowd blessing each visitor. It was blisteringly hot on this Saturday afternoon, and though we were only maybe 30% of the way back in the crowd we still waited well over an hour for him to reach us (well actually just Brett as Angie had retreated from the heat and failed to return before our blessing).
Kanglung is basically just up the road from Khaling, 22km and just above an hour of travel over the pass at Yongphula. We’ve mostly travelled through this place every time we go anywhere, it is the nearest town on the road to the rest of the world.
Kanglung is situated just below Yongphula on the Trashigang side and sports a view out across the valley at eye level with Gongthung. That is, it’s fairly high up the mountainside and should have great views that include the snowcapped Himalaya behind the peaks immediately across the valley. Unfortunately, there is almost always a hazy boundless cloud cover that removes the Himalaya from view, if not also Gongthung itself. In total, on about 20 trips through this region we have collectively seen the Himalaya once – when Brett was on tour with Mountain Hazelnut. Indeed we spent four full days here at Carmelita’s home and barely even saw Gongthung once through the clouds. Even the homes just down the hillside from Carmelita’s routinely disappeared into the foggy sky. The best I can explain this haze is to imagine the opaque smog of Beijing (or even Los Angeles on a bad day) bleached white.
This place is best known in Bhutan as the home of the country’s first university. Sherubtse College was founded in 1966 by Canadian William Mackey, himself a legend here for bringing western education (he also started Bhutan’s first high school, Khaling Higher Secondary School, just up the road from our house). The presence of this place gives Kanglung and odd feel, and I can’t say I’ve felt the clash between traditional farming culture and the young Korean- and Western-influenced youth cultures with any more intensity than it is felt here. It’s only an hour from Khaling by road, but culturally it might be a continent and two decades away.
We can’t say that we really enjoy the feel of Kanglung. It’s a dreamland for many young Bhutanese, but it’s also a blunt depiction of the violent shift of the cultural foundation here – yes, less violent than in many other places, but subtly violent nonetheless. Kanglung is erosion and decay, and many of the youth here have that cloudy white haze in their every vision of the future and what it brings for Bhutan.