Monday, May 3, 2010

April 27 – April 29 – A Sixteenth Century Palace and a Village in Rural Bhutan

During this period we experienced really one of the highlights of the trip. We visited the village of Ugyen Choling. This village just received electricity in the past year, and is not presently reachable by car or bus. The main attraction is the 16th century palace of a former governor, which the descendants have turned into a museum and formed a foundation to maintain it as a cultural asset.

After a morning visit to the Jakar Dzong and the winter palace of the second king of Bhutan, we are on the road. Fifteen minutes after leaving Jakar, we turn off the paved road to a hard-packed but unpaved road. We will drive this road for about a half-hour to a nunnery which we will visit. While we are there, James will have his head shaved by one of the nuns. At the end of our visit it is noon and we have our lunch on some tables adjacent to the nunnery.

The Bridge at the end of the road and the start of our hike
After lunch, we climb the unpaved road for an hour until we reach a village at the end of the road. There awaiting us in a field by the river are women from Ugyen Choling, who will help carry our luggage the rest of the way to the village. We have all pared down our luggage to essentials, clothes for two days, and our camera equipment. We and our own guides and drivers will carry the camera equipment.

We started up the trail under cloudy skies and all brought ponchos or other rain gear. We had a one hour uphill walk ahead of us. The trail is hard packed dirt about as wide as a single lane road. It rises in slopes about 50 yards long with a landing at the end before the nest slope in the opposite direction, like a set of ramps in a building. As we went on, it started to drizzle, and then rain, and then rain harder, and then rain was mixed with sleet. We are at 8,000 feet climbing upwards with a camera or two on our persons, and I was making it to the next ramp, so that I could catch my breath for a minute or two. When the sleet started, I forgot about catching my breath, and just wanted to get to the end of the journey and under shelter as quickly as possible. Finally, we reached the village, and then the guest house, and up the stairs into the great room, where a bucari was warming the room. The hike up the hill had taken an hour and four minutes, at least thirty of those minutes in pouring rain and sleet. Our luggage had already arrived and I went to my room and took off my soaked jeans and put on my sweat pants/pajamas for the trip. We had tea and our evening meal. I then retired to my room with its own lit bucari, arranged my jeans near the bucari to dry.

Raising Prayer Flags
The next day we awoke to a breakfast of porridge, eggs, and toast in the great room. After breakfast we went outside to help Namgay raise a set of prayer flags that he had wanted to place around the chorten at Ugygen Choling.. We had some long poles made from shaved trees. Long strips of different colored cloth were tied almost the whole length of the pole and then each pole was placed in it s position around the chorten.

Afterwards in the morning, there was an archery match between our guides and drivers and the men of the village. I watched for awhile and then toured the museum which has artifacts from the original owners of the property. Afterwards, Robin invited me to tour a local farm house with him. It was well constructed and in the traditional style. There was an extended family of grandmother, the farmer, his wife, and their grown children. The grandmother is 83 years old and has lived in the house all her life. It has a wood stove in the kitchen, a treadle-powered sewing machine, and everyone sleeps on quilts on the floor. However, electricity reached Uygen Choling last year and there is a flat screen TV with cable input. It is interesting to see the shift to modernity play out in Bhutan.

Lawn Darts
Lawn Darts

The Peanut Gallery

After lunch, there was a lawn darts match between our guides and drivers and the local men. This was a holiday for the village, and the whole village turned out to watch. Lawn darts is somewhat like archery on a shorter field. There is a target at either end of the field and the players alternate throwing at the two targets to compensate for wind effects. Interest is added to the game when one of the spectators (tourists) sponsors a target. The sponsor places a bill either dollars or ngultrum (Nu) on one target or the other, and the first player to hit that target wins the money. Nu is the Bhutanese currency, which is pegged to the Indian rupee, and both currencies are accepted equally in Bhutan.

The lawn dart game continued all afternoon with women and children from the village watching and cheering the players on.

The Palace
Dancer in Costume
During the match, I went into the temple in the main building to photograph a dancer that Robin had hired to dress in costume and pose for the photographers on the tour.

Awards Ceremony and Dance
We had dinner at six, and then went over to the main building for a ceremony to present the awards for the archery and dart matches. Again all the people from the village were present and there was dancing to Bhutanese music. After the dancing, there was an award ceremony. We had brought all the prizes. A local farmer had won both the archery and darts matches and he was awarded with a new set of arrows. However, there were prizes for everyone. Prizes for all the other local players, prizes for the local girls who had sung and danced during the lawn darts match. In addition, the tourists had brought gifts which were handed out, including reading glasses for some of the older people. After the awards there was more dancing and celebrating.
Guesthouse where we stayed

The Way Down
The next morning we woke up and after breakfast started the hike back down to the cars. This time it was downhill and the weather was pleasant. The walk was easy and we took pictures of the farms and fields on the way down. When we reached the footbridge and the cars, it was the end of a wonderful part of our journey. It is likely that people who visit Ugyen Choling in the near future will be able to arrive by car or at least four wheel drive vehicle. There is a plan to construct a vehicle bridge across the river, which has only been delayed due to a local official misappropriating the funds allocated, but the bridge will probably be complete within a year. While tour busses won’t be able to make the climb, certainly the 4WD vehicles that we were using could, and the village will be changed, in some ways for the better, and in some ways not.

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