Friday, March 1, 2013

Kuzu zangpo la!

I am in Bhutan! We arrived on the 25th in Paro after a somewhat tricky snag in the travel plans when we landed in Bangkok, Thailand on the 23rd. All that meant was that one of our group didn't have the documentation she needed to enter Thailand since she is not a US citizen, and so she and I stayed in the airport hotel until our flight with Druk Air into Bhutan. It all got cleared away, and the rest of the travels have been smooth sailing. I am moved into my room at the Royal Thimphu College, and we started classes today. It is a lot to get used to, and is at times a little overwhelming, but it has been an incredible ride so far, and it has only been one week!

But, before I get ahead of myself, I should back up to the beginning. Mom dropped me off in Boston last Friday morning (thanks Mom!) and all the flights went smoothly, though I was surprised that the longest leg--the 14 hour flight between Washington D.C. and Tokyo was the most comfortable. I did have a great conversation with a guy named Matt on his way to Portland on the flight from Boston to D.C., who was one of the few people I had met at the point who knew quite a bit about Bhutan! He had done a year teaching English in South Korea, and said he loved living in Asia.

Mountains in Easternmost Russia
I was happy to have a window seat on the long flight, and when I wasn't sleeping or watching Searching for Sugarman, which was a great movie, I was glued to my window. Flying above the Bering Strait was breathtaking. It seemed impossible to gauge the scale of anything I was seeing, but great sheets of ice were broken by intricate channels of moving water. I couldn't help but imagine monstrous polar bears and giant squid roaming these frozen seas. When we crossed beyond there, immense blue, grey, and white mountains suddenly emerged from the plain of ice encasing the ocean. We had reached this easternmost peninsula of Russia, and though it was the most remote of wastelands, I couldn't bring myself to call it that given the intense beauty of these landscapes. I remember writing in my journal that it seemed like the other colors had not been invented yet. Though I can hardly think what it appeared like at ground level, from thirty-two thousand feet, it seemed to be untouchably pristine.

Flying above Japan was also very beautiful, with volcanic craters and mountains interspersed with the straight lines of cities and roads. The turn-around to the flight to Bangkok was quick and I slept most of the way there. However, when we got to Bangkok, we had that snag, but in time we sorted it out, and Ana and I eventually got to the hotel airport (Louis' Tavern Dayrooms, rentable by the hour) and called it a night. We ended up having a great time in the airport the next day, wandering through all the shops, and making fools of ourselves taking pictures with all the random airport statues and whatnot. We got some pitchers of Thai Chang and Tiger beer, but couldn't buy anything else in the shops since the airport officers had confiscated our passports (I guess to make sure we wouldn't try to get through immigration again, and so that they could set up things with Druk Air for our flight) and they require seeing your passport when making any purchases at the shops. Oh well. We'll see Bangkok on the return in July. That seems so far away right now!

Druk Air Airbus A319 at Paro International Airport

Coming into Paro was smooth, but because of my seat and the clouds, I couldn't see much of the landscape as we were coming into the airport. They do the whole landing by sight though, without much other navigational equipment due to the complicated terrain around the airport, so it was a very impressive landing.

At the airport we went though customs, paid the $40 entrance fee, collected our bags, and exchanged our dollars into ngultrum. About 55 ngultrum equal 1 US dollar. From there we met our guide, Tsewang, who took us to all of our stops in Paro and Thimphu so far, and will guide us on any other excursions we do outside Thimphu through the semester. He is a very smiley, energetic, trove of knowledge and kindness.

The Conch-shaped Museum Building
Our first stop was to the National Museum which had exhibits in some of the traditional arts like Thanka paintings, festival dance masks, as well as a room with some weapons and traditional instruments and another room with all kinds of information on the plants and animals of Bhutan. Unfortunately, we didn't linger here as there was so much more to see, but it was a nice introduction to some of the organisms we may see. They had some particularly impressive leopard hides, stuffed birds, and the hide of a gharial which looks somewhat like a cross between a crocodile and a platypus. The museum proper (currently the exhibits are in a neighboring building because of a recent fire) is shaped like a conch shell, one of the eight auspicious symbols of Bhutan.

"Auspicious" is the word of Bhutan. Tashi delek is a phrase meaning something along the lines of "auspiciousness and blessings;" odd numbers are more auspicious than even numbers, the eighth, tenth, fifteenth, and thirtieth days of the Bhutanese lunar calendar are auspicious days in which it is especially common for people to visit temples, and so forth with many other examples.

Kyichu Lhakhang Temple

That first day we also visited a temple called Kyichu Lhakhang after checking into our hotel: the Jigmeling Hotel. The Kyichu Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan. It was built in the 7th century as one of 108 temples built to subjugate a demoness/ogress. The temple there in Paro was built on her foot; there is another to the north I believe built on her knee. The two buildings (one from the seventh century, and the other from the 20th as a commission from the third queen if I remember correctly) have prayer wheels built into shelves in the walls. These must always be spun clockwise, and when spun, release the prayers and mantras written thousands of times on the scrolls rolled inside the prayer wheels. Inside, monks were chanting and playing instruments, and a few of them chuckled as us in our western clothing and clear bewilderment at what was going on.

Prayer Wheels in the wall of the Temple

No pictures are allowed inside any temple, shrine, or dzong, but these areas are always covered in paintings and weavings and statues to the many deities and their multiple incarnations. Conservation of these works of art is becoming a big movement, and so now, some of the walls are covered with cloth or plastic sheets in order to protect them from the harm of incense or butter lamp smoke. We were lucky to find the door off the innermost shrine of the Buddha inside the temple. We were also told to offer our wishes to the Lord of Compassion who has eleven heads and a thousand arms in order to help him uplift as many at once as he can. But, Tsewang said, the best wishes are those that are big, and extend beyond oneself to your family and all of your past lives and past parents too.

We returned to the hotel for our first Bhutanese dinner. The meals at restaurants and the hotel have more variety than the meals here at the college, but I am getting used to the food more or less. There is always rice (food and rice are the same word in Dzongka) and there are usually chiles in a spicy cheese sauce. Sometimes there have been fried vegetables or momo, a type of dumpling. Tea and/or broth is usually also served, and sometimes there is a cabbage dish as well. Most things are very spicy or very salty, or both.

The name of our hotel means somethings like "expansive place" and it was a very comfortable stay. The blankets here are very thick, and once we figured out how to use the giesers (the water heater) we could take warm showers. Across from our hotel was a textile shop where women wove very intricate kira. Kira are the national dress for women, and it consists of a waist-to-ankle wrap skirt, a blouse called a wanju and a jacket called a tego. This shop across the street was apparently where the kira worn by the new queen in the royal wedding was made. I didn't get a chance to look around in that shop, but we did wander through a few shops selling thankas or jewelry or trinkets or electronics. I haven't bought any souvenirs yet, but shopping here is certainly an experience. It's somewhat unpredictable what will be sold in each store.

A man shooting archery in Paro

We also walked past an archery match where two groups of men in their gho (the tunic-like national dress of men) where playing a game for fun or practice. They used compound bows, and shot at a target that was about 125 yards away. And they hit it! It was unbelievable. The two teams would make fun of eachother in order to distract the shooter, but their aim is true nonetheless. I might try to be involved in the archery club here at RTC; I was told I should be able to, even though I am a girl, and archery is usually only for men. 

I will write more very soon to catch you up on the last few days leading up to the present. We have done a few hikes, and even after spending a week here, and doing a fair amount of exploring, it all feels entirely unreal. Bhutan is spectacular to witness in all of the senses--visually, tactility, spiritually. I have much more to share with you! And please, always feel free to email me with thoughts, questions, or whatever else you would like. I'd love to hear from you!

P.S. I have learned how to say two dzongka words for sure. They are Kuzu zangpo la, which is a polite greeting, and (not sure of the spelling on this one) Ka dinche la which means thank you. Hopefully I'll learn more with time.

Looking north from the Paro Dzong

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