Bhutan Part Two
Somehow I thought that time would slow down a bit if I move to such a different place. But it didn't. Not a bit. A third of my time in Bhutan is already over - 121 days to go, 61 down.
So I guess it's about time that I update this little travel log with what I've been doing the last days. One thing is clear: I enjoyed every single one of it.
This article is part of a series. Check out the other ones if you haven't yet.
Especially the warm and sunny winter days, which are perfect for hiking up to the prayer flags to catch a wonderful view of my new home, Thimphu. Taking a short cut back through the woods turned out to be not such a great idea though since most trees and bushes here have thorns.
But that little excursion gave me appetite for a longer hike so on the next day we went up to the nearby monastery, Phojeding. After three hours marching uphill we reached a building complex that houses over 60 monks during the summer time, but only 7 monks stayed for the winter. By those were received with cookies and Ngaja aka Milktea - black tea with milk and plenty of sugar. A very young monk was eager to use the opportunity to practice his English and translated our conversation with one of the elders. On the way down I discovered that Bhutanese snowmen seem to have long pointy noses.
This hike also led to my first contribution to OpenStreetMap which I always use for hiking since in Germany the quality of the maps is incredible and I haven't found a single trail that was not also marked in them. Naturally, the amount of information for Bhutan is a lot less but still considerable at least concerning streets. I was positively surprised how easy it was to add our path.
Unfortunately I haven't been to the mountains much since, partly because of weather, partly because a series of forest fires motivated us to stay away from the trees. During about three weeks, there were almost constantly something burning and the helicopter (the only one in the country) could be heard every other day. One day, the valley was filled with thick smoke caused by a major fire some ten kilometres away.
A very rare treat for me was the opportunity to attend a Puja in the home village in Punakha of a good friend of my sister's. Pujas are religious ceremonies that almost every family does once per year and for special occasions like the birth of a child or a successful harvest. During two or three days, monks stay at the house, chanting and making music which sounds like something this. I heard that sound almost every day when walking through Thimphu since Pujas are usually held during the two month winter vacation.
All 25 households of the village were invited, there was a lot of food and since I didn't want to be the only one using a spoons, I learned to eat rice and chilli with my hand which was harder than I thought.The trick is to squeeze the rice into a ball and then dip that into the chilli sauce. This also seems to be the reason why rice is always served and kept on a separate plate. I especially enjoyed the Ara, a rice wine which is a little sweeter than Sake and traditionally served hot mixed with fried egg.
Until late at night the villagers and monks danced and sang together. I didn't record it myself but this video comes pretty close to what it sounded and looked like. While I was trying to learn the moves, one of the group from Thimphu that I was with informed me that we have been challenged to a rap battle by the youngsters. Unbelieving I came outside were a group of eight to fourteen year old were assembled and a little boy was indeed already rapping in Hindi while another was beatboxing. Luckily I still knew a couple of Blumentopf pieces by heart.
Back in Thimphu I started a new project at drukhost, a local software development company. To kick-off the project, we did the probably first event storming workshop in Bhutan. The idea is to create a platform for Bhutanese movies about which you can currently only get very sparse information on facebook.
Another project I got quite excited about is to create tools for running complementary currencies. I wrote about this in my previous article and also created a project homepage. I want to find a group to start a community currency in Thimphu but so far I have little more than an idea and am not sure if the remaining four months are enough time.
So I'm going almost every day to the office now where I keep warm with plenty of tea and work with two other guys on a website for Bhutanese movies. Going by bike is a lot of fun in the morning but the climbing the 300 metres elevation back up is quite an evening work-out.
Driving here requires some serious getting used to. Traffic rules are pretty much non existing, cars tend to suddenly stop in the middle of road without warning and signalling before making a turn is widely considered unnecessary. The fact that most of the streets have no markings and are not lit at night helps as little as random cows and horses standing around. And while bike helmets are mandatory, seat belts are not and absolutely nobody puts them on.
But at least in the city most streets are paved. Windiness plus potholes reduce the cruising speed on country roads to an average of about 40 km/h, turning even small distances into a day trip. It's funny how the perspective changes though. While going five hours from Berlin to Munich seems like a major trip back home, spending eight hours on a bumpy road seems like a minor thing here like when we went to Gelephu last month.
So I wasn't too opposed of taking the car to the far east to visit Mountain Hazelnuts although it's about 16 hours to Bumthang and then another 6 to the headquarters in Lingmethang. But I also didn't mind to exchange that 16 hours on a bumpy road for 35 minutes in the air. Although it felt a little bit like cheating. But the view from the plane was incredible.
And I got plenty of road adventure. From Bumthang you we had to cross a 4000m high pass. Including snowy roads, steep cliffs and no railings. And at almost the very top, the driver suddenly stops and steps outside. Curiously I follow him and find him look at a flat tire. That wouldn't have been a problem hadn't the spare wheel been flat as well. So we had no other option than to walk to the next village and wait almost 3 hours for another car to pick us up. But the Ngaja was good.
During the next three days I got to know a lot about hazelnuts, shared my knowledge about software development, tried Bhutanese whisky, enjoyed the subtropical climate and most of all an evening of hot-stone baths next to a beautiful river. All in all a very nice getaway.
Almost half the days of February were holidays, including two days for the Bhutanese new year, three for the king's birthday and even two more for the birth of the crown prince.
This gave me the perfect chance to witness the Punakha Tchechu, a traditional Bhutanese festival. Since my sister got pretty sick two days before, she stayed in Thimphu with her husband and I went together with two German friends who were visiting at that time. Taking a Taxi for a two-and-a-half hour ride felt unusual to us but it turned out to be common practice for the locals. So we dressed up in Gho and Kira, drove to a beautifully located resort and went to bed early to not miss the presentation of the secret scroll at six in the morning on the next day. Getting there that early required waiting on the pitch black dirt road for a taxi for over half an hour but we made it in time - just to be turned away at the gates. Turns out foreigners can only see the scroll with special permission. Bummer.
The general admission would only be three hours later. Enough time enjoy the view on the Punakha Zong from the river and get some breakfast. And although I won't even try to put the colours, the masses of people, the dancing and the music into words, let me just say that it was completely worth the wait.
A little less crowded was the second cultural highlight. During an unconventional world tour, Joss Stone gave a concert in Thimphu. I didn't expect it to be a huge event but I was still surprised when we entered something that was little more than a school gym. When Joss entered the stage there were maybe 300 people there so during her second song she jumped down from the stage and animated almost everybody individually to come closer and dance with her. A very unique experience.
Meanwhile the seasons have started turning, the trees have started blooming and today was the first day that really felt like spring. I still can't believe it's already March.
I sincerely hope that I start writing more frequently than once per month but knowing myself I wouldn't bet on it.
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