Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Back to Bhutan

The trip in seems a repeat of the previous entry, with an overnight in Bangkok, and an in-flight conversation with a Western aid-worker.  I didn't know it at the time, but this man acts as a Greek chorus of sorts, and many of the things he mentions returned to me while I was in country.

There are no yaks off my wingtips on approach this time, but it is equally exhilarating, bumping from cloud to cloud, the wings waving as if greeting the houses that dotted the hillsides.  (I remember the quip of one Himalayan pilot, "Our clouds have rocks in them.")

Our guide Pema meets us in the usual fashion, by draping scarves over our necks.  Much like with Pacific Island leis, it is always awkward to receive them, as the visitor is never sure when exactly to remove them.  Luckily the brevity of the first drive dictates this for us, and emerging shortly afterward at Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang we are thus unencumbered. The temple presents the Bhutan I remember, a squat stone structure rising upward in a thick tower, with prayer wheels running along all four sides, and the usual group of traditionally-clad worshippers endlessly circling the grounds like film extras.  The hillside above is topped with prayer flags, and the hill itself is nearly covered by tiny white chortens, which I find out later are made of clay mixed with the ground down bones of the departed. After going one round, I climb the ladders inside the temple to view the paintings within, as the scent of butter lamps hangs thickly in the air.

The drive to Thimphu is also as I remember, along a road that clinging firmly to the riverbank.  The trio of chorten are exactly where I recalled, protecting the confluence of rivers, rooting out the bad mojo that tends to accumulate there. A grisled old cowboy sits before a general store.   India-style road signs lead us in, each with a quip whose level of wit must surely amuse the average 10 year old.  The wind too pushes us onward, as it whips through the narrow valley. 

Arriving in the capital, I am amazed at all the building that has gone on since 2003.  New buildings are of a number that could rival only that of the ones currently going up.  Traffic too, pedestrian and otherwise, seems heavier than before, and while Thimphu can hardly be called a city, it has certainly become a town a-bustle.  I don't recall this many cars moving along the main thoroughfare; my memory tends toward dogs sleeping on the irregular sidewalks.  We move along these, to buy books, and a series of traditional outfits to wear during our week in country.  The curiosity in the eyes of the people we pass, many of the younger types offer greetings.  Like elsewhere in Asia people seem to be just hanging around.  The monks are the only ones who look like they have someplace to be.

At dusk, we visit the dzong, which I'd been prevented from entering in 2003 as the King had been visiting that day.  Today, there are a number of tourists about, taking selfies beneath wooden ladders and white stone. Fifteen years ago, I'd only seen one other tourist group during my 12-day stay.  No surprise really as at that time, only 7000 tourists or so were allowed in.  Today that number has grown to 180,000.  Another change is that the locals no longer need wear their native dress.  Many still choose to do so, but there are as many people walking around in jeans and T-shirts.  Thankfully baseball caps aren't all that popular yet.

Our friends and hosts live nearby, and we enjoy a lovely dinner as the shadows of the dzong lengthened under the arc lights.  Tshering works for the royal family, and as such, he is a fount of information about a country quite curious to the outside world.  Providing an astounding amount of facts and insider knowledge about the kingdom, he is in many ways the man behind the curtain.  And his wit and conversation help shorten the long car rides in the days to follow.

Body on Japan time, I awake early, so walk over to the Memorial Choten.  A few dozen worshipers precede me, and are already undergoing their circumambulations.  A small structure has been set aside for the lighting of lamps, a practical decision in a region that often loses temples to fire.  Beside this I notice a small bit of paper decorating a rock, which reminds me of a little of Shinto.  I attempt to take a photo but am quickly scolded by a guard.  So I join in on circling the chorten, doing a series of rounds before sitting off the one side to meditate awhile.  I'm finding this difficult of late, as the passage of feet in motion tends to present a metaphor for my own life at the moment, movement dictating the current tempo.

That movement is far less physical though than the trio clad in maroon undergoing full-length prostrations.  This facet of Vajrayana continues to puzzle me.  So different than the dignified quiet of shikantaza in Japanese zen, "just sitting."  Is the idea here to use the body in order to deny the body?  And if so, isn't it a little bit absurd, like someone who spends far too much on a fine automobile, then has no money left over to actually go anywhere.  

But we at least have places to go.  We begin with a quick trip up to the Tango Buddhist college and its marvellous paintings.  The walk up at high elevation proves good training for Tibet later, as a parade of monks descends toward town, and at the top, a group of workmen continue their restorations beneath the snow-capped Himalayan foothills.

I'd heard that Thimphu's beloved Swiss bakery had closed, but Ambient Cafe proves a fair substitute.  Here is best exemplified what I most love about Bhutan: the random encounter.  During the course of a single lunch we meet a renowned explorer, a Welsh lama, and Tshewang Dendup, the lead actor in the film, Travellers and Magicians.  On Tshering's mischievous prompting, I ask the latter two my question about Detachment vs. Compassion.  Dendup is in the midst of answering when he stops and says, "Actually that's a pretty stupid question."  And I agree with him.  Getting too caught up in dogmas is a distraction from reality itself.

We arrive in the Phobjikha Valley just past dark, and immediately light a fire to warm our cabin.  Morning dawns brighter and warmer, so we set off on a long hike along the hilltops that define the valley's eastern edge.  It is refreshing to pass through a healthy forest, the path laden with pine needles.  In one village, a trio of men is moving timber into place for a new roof.  A black dog adopts us and tags along.  When we stop, he plonks himself down to sleep. You might not be so tired if you and your friends hadn't been up barking all night, you bastard.  He follows us for an hour or so until reaching a bridge.  There he suddenly turns back, having reached some sort of invisible internal barrier of his territory.

A spur of land provides an overlook.  Some benches provide a perch from which to muse.  The valley spreads out below, and its silence fills us.  We humans all share the same ability to recognize beauty in features.  There is a commonality in what we find beautiful about an anomaly in the landscape, in a passage of music, in art, or even what we consider the perfection of the human face. Where does that come from?

This valley of course is renowned for its beauty, and even more so for what it represents, as the winter migration grounds for Siberian black-necked cranes.  The birds appear to recognize beauty themselves, as they partner up for life.  How much sadder then the fate of Karma, a crane living alone at the nearby Visitor Center after having one wing permanently disabled by dogs.  And how miraculous to see another crane feeding alone out in the nearby marshes, as if staying behind to accompany its mate?                  

We retrace our drive back to Wangdue.  Unlike Japan, only a few farmhouses we pass look abandoned, no matter how remote or impossible the terrain.  Our digs for the night is another cabin, this time at the Eco Lounge that overlooks the ruined dzong, destroyed by fire in 2012. Ironically, I now find myself on the opposite side of the view that I had enjoyed on my first morning here in 2003, when the dzong had been intact.  Large turbines spin on the hill above us, as Bhutan experiments with its first wind power generation.  It is pleasant to sit in the sun on the balcony and watch the temples in the peaks above disappear with the light.  Go to sleep to the stars, awake to the Himalaya.

We break the drive to Paro with lunch in Thimphu at Hotel Druk.  There we meet Karma Wangmo, who'd guided us in 2003.  As we await the meals, Tshering and I dash out to buy books around the corner.  We'll stop again later to cross the iron bridge at Tachog Lhakhang.  The temple itself is privately owned and in a corresponding state of disarray.  I appreciate most the run-down nature of these nondescript places, one unlikely to continue as such due to a cafe being constructed in a side valley just below.

In Paro again, we climb the hairpins to the end of the dirt road where Tshering's own temple is. The views of the valley below are incredible, on a bare promontory wrapped in forest.  The runway of the airport stretches seemingly to our feet.  I doze in the room offered us, then am awakened to be told that we'll be returning to the valley since there is a problem with the water system.  Our replacement digs are equally nice, in a refurbished farm house that has a bath warmed piping hot by heated stones. 

The following day, our last, we take slow.  The original idea had been to climb up to Tiger's Nest, which I'd visited during reconstruction (and our guide Pema had been a workman there at the time.  This former yak-herder had some interesting stories, the funniest being about trading cordyceps with irate Tibetans).   But as that is an A-list destination, it would keep for next time. Tshering instead suggests a hike up to Dzongdrakha Monastery nearby.   It is a pleasant stroll under spring sunshine.  The temple is known as Little Tiger's Nest, as it has a similar imposing cliff-face location, yet this one is privately owned and the lack of UNESCO funding adds to its rustic charm.  Snoozing dogs can't be bothered to greet us, but a few little kids are up and about, helping their parents with chores.  I smile when I see that one has an inflatable REI pillow.  

The walk builds up a thirst, so it is fitting that our next stop is a new craft beer brewery run by Tshering's cousin.  A notorious partier in college, he is now channeling that experience into a marketable skill, namely in the production of the world's first beer brewed with red rice. The affiliated taproom is a few weeks from opening, but his cook does us up some food, which match the beers amazingly well.  I am in my element, gazing down at the quiet airport runway, all flights finished for the day.

As we eat, Tshering mentions a property he thinks might be for sale, so we have a look in the sake of interest.  Nestled not far from the foot of Tiger's Nest, this former farmhouse has been haphazardly opened as a folk museum, a handful of exhibits strewn within the crumbling facade.  It is a beautiful location, set off the road amidst a small orchard and within two hours hike to one of the best loved temples in Asia.  Though the structure needs a lot of work, LYL seems serious about buying the place, and we again wander the rooms, discussing what we can do with them.    

At such moments my mind kicks into the 'what if' game, and I begin to imagine time spent there.  Meals at a large table out in the garden, within the security of the high wall.  Slowly building a library of books on the Himalayas and Vajrayana Buddhism.  Leading friends up the steep trails to Tiger's Nest.  The joy of having one's own temple, a base for resuscitating my own Buddhist practice.  Bicycling down to Paro and becoming one of the recognizable features in town.  Most of all, I feel it was destined somehow, as the beams of light I that had noted during my meditations just up the road at Kyichu Lhakhang in 2003 seemed to fall on this very spot.   Of course, there are also the cold winters to consider, plus the anxious and dark walks from the car, worrying about cobras and tigers.   (We cling to this vision for a couple of weeks, until the impracticality of it all awakens in us.) 

After a quick change back at our inn, we climb the bumpy road up to Eutok Samdrup Chholing Monastic College.  At our wedding party a few weeks before, we had asked guests to offer a donation in lieu of gifts, so as to donate to this temple.  The monks are either orphans or from broken homes, and unlike boys on loan from families for the purpose of becoming monks as a means of acquiring merit, these boys have few other chances in life.  The money donated will go to a water heating system for the temple, as the cold water tends to reek havoc on health and hygiene.  The head priest is of course delighted to receive us, and the feeling is immediately reciprocated, the man radiating such a calm yet solid presence.  (At the height of my Bhutan resident fantasies I imagine studying under him.) He leads the young monks in a blessing for LYL and I, the boys rocking back in forth as they chant, thigh-bone trumpets blaring up the line.  A Thai monk visiting from Bangkok  (who bears a strong resemblance to Benicio del Toro) keeps up a similar strong presence at the other end of the hall.  When it is finished, we are shown the paintings and treasures on the upper floors, among which is an empty room used for English lessons.  Then we are asked to take one of the snack offerings on the main altar, the goddess of compassion beaming down upon us. 

After another bumpy ride back down the mountain, I find Dorjee Wangchuk waiting for us back at the inn.  It is brief visit, but a joyous one, the young man who'd guided me in 2003 now a full grown man with a more filled-in life.  I suppose we can all make the same claim, as can Bhutan itself, having moved from a small country on the periphery of the modern world to one taking cautious steps on a path of its own making.

On the turntable:  Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, "Facing Future"
On the nighttable:  Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, "From Emperor to Citizen"

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