|looking at Haa, one day's journey from Tibet|
For our last group excursion as Bhutan IV, we traveled by bus, truck bed, and foot to our camping site in Haa, one of the south-western dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan.Our tour guide, Tsewang is from Haa originally, from the tiny village of Dorikha. A few other men from his tour company joined us for the trip, including Tsewang’s nephew Zencho, whom Tsewang is training to become a guide himself. Zencho explained to me that at one point many decades ago, there were only two households left in Dorikha, because so many people were moving to the cities or leaving because the laws about land ownership were changing. Though by no means the remotest of villages in the country (there is a road that leads right to it, after all), this weekend was definitely the most time I got to spend just out in the Bhutanese wilderness.
We stopped for tea at Tsewang’s nieces’ house, and went up the hill to the local monastery to pay a visit. The monks were not home, however, so we simply enjoyed the view of the neighboring village, Shari, across the valley in the distance, and took in the last stretch of warm sunshine we would see and feel for the remainder of the trip. When we made it back down from the monastery, two Mahindra Jeeps were waiting to drive us the rest of the way along the road to our stop for our camp site. The road was impassable for the bus past the monastery because of its steep switchbacks and pudding consistency after the weeks of spring rains.
|Mahindra and Mud|
Psyched for the ride in these trucks, I called dibs on at seat in the bed of the first truck, much to the confusion of the drivers, who were puzzled as to why we all wanted to sit in the backs, rather than the warm, dry cabs of the vehicles. But, our smiles and refusals to budge eventually gave way to the standard Bhutanese half-shrug of acceptance. “Alright, well here’s a tarp for you all and the bags.” We settled in on top of our backpacks-made-seat cushions, and started our two hour ascent. It was a bumpy ride, and when it began to rain, I was glad for my raincoat and the tarp, and happily faced into driving mist as the jeep roared through deep puddles and fishtailed through the deep rutted mud of the road.
When we passed the high point on the road, in the thick of the cloud forest, where all the world except the 10 feet before you on the road, and the two feet on either side, and the vague semblance of the other truck behind you is gone, there is nothing to be done but to fill that narrow and simultaneously vast world with the great shouts of “LHA GHELOL!”
“Glory!” “Victory!” “Wooooooo!”
Let me tell you, my heart went out of me in those moments, and I thought of and missed all you other adventurers in my life. Especially my fellow subjects in the Empire Yacht Club of Das Haus. Ah, so much love to you all!
We got to the campsite soon enough, and were extremely privileged that our tents had already been set up by some of Tsewang’s crew. The campsite was in a small clearing, populated mostly by rhododendrons and low-lying white-topped blue-undersided five-petaled flowers. At first light that morning, we had a rare glimpse of the surroundings and view before the omni-present clouds of that elevation (about 3500 meters) returned.
But, before I get ahead of myself, I want to describe one very special moment After we had settled in at camp, many of us wanted to go for a walk and explore the area. We set off down the road, walking along the more compact sections, but inevitably through many puddles made by the frequent waterfalls that did their best to wear away the road that had cut the mountainside. Bhutan is in general a very quiet country (where there isn’t construction happening), but when one is outside hearing range of a waterfall, and the only sounds are muffled bird calls through the enveloping clouds, and the dripping of water off of the juniper branches, one cannot help but notice that one’s voice becomes lower and softer, and the conversation one has with her walking partner turns to the serious and beautiful things of the world.
This became especially clear when Ben K. and I were walking by no particular point in the forest, when we both stopped, noticing that the light of the muted sun coming through the trees in that place was something special, and otherworldly. I said, “Do you want to go up there?” Ben replied, simply, and perfectly, “yes.” So we scrambled up the dirt bank, left our raincoats at the base of a large mossy tree, and walked up further into the forest. The sun blurred everything before into grey silhouettes, and it felt more the light was bearing us up into the woods, rather than the soft, saturated ground where we tread. I really felt like I was going to heaven.
|a clearing in the cloud forest|
There is a passage in The Wind in the Willows, one of my favorite children’s books, in which the main characters, Rat and Mole, are in search of a lost baby otter. They find him on a small island of their river home, curled up at the feet of the wild god Pan. Upon seeing the god, Kenneth Graham writes, “and still as they looked, they lived. And still as they lived, they wondered.” That is how I felt.
The magic of that moment did move on to other places though, but generously left its mark, because as we came to a level place in the forest, the trees gave way to a rolling meadow, where there stood the frame of a cow shed. We ran around in this muddy clearing, and when it became clear that the sun was setting and dinner was soon to be had at camp, we regathered our coats, and returned, humbled, and hungry. We had goat for dinner, and it was surprisingly good. Like, delicious. I swear to you, we eat infinitely better on these excursions, even when camping, than we do back at the mess. Whoda thunk it.
It happened to work out that I had a tiny tent to myself, which at first I was excited about. But as the night came on and stayed long, I wished I had had some body heat to share through the long cold night. The view in the morning was well worth it though, as was the promise of the hike to two peaks about 4200 meters that day. We started early, with Tsewang’s commands that we “take baby steps” and that stopping for breaks is “out of the question” because it is better to go perpetually and slowly than to ever stop, at all.
The hike was incredible, though at times very strenuous, but what worthwhile hike isn’t? We passed through at least three eco-zones, moving through juniper and pine dominant, to almost exclusively rhododendron forest, to the sparse herbaceous scree near the peaks. We were in the cloud forest the entire time, which really allows one to see the wind as it blows these misty clouds through the trees and clearings and rock outcroppings. We had to resort to using echoing shouts of calls (coooooo-wee!) to keep track of each other in the white-outs that happened fairly often. Most of the time, we were not following any trail, just the occasional cow or yak path, and Tsewang’s expertise of the area and the safe way up the steep mountains, since he had herded cows through these parts when he was a boy.
When we did reach the summits, we again shouted Lha Gyelol! and spent time exploring the crags and ridges of these bizarre, vertical mountains. As seems to always be the case however, we couldn’t spend nearly enough time, and soon made our way down the other side. In a clearing near the top, Ben G. found a set of cow jaws. He handed one to me, and I carried it like a prized possession for the rest of our hike. It was a seriously awesome gift.
|near the summit of our second peak, Chebdokha. Rhododendron flowers as far as the eye can see.|
|mystery mushroom, do not eat|
We had decided that morning to spend our second night at Tsewang’s ancestral home instead of camping again, since we had been promised the opportunity of learning how to milk cows. As we took one of Tsewang’s legendary short cuts back to the road, he told us that rhododendron flowers are actually edible, though “they can make you intoxicated.” So of course, trusting our never-failing guide, several of us start nomming down rhododendron flowers. A few minutes later, Tsewang adds, “though, some people think they’re poisonous.” What. Shit. He continued, laughing, and pointing at a slimy mushroom, “I wonder if you could eat that too!” What. The. Eff. I see the blood drain out of many of my friends faces. We all try to tally up how many flowers we’ve just eaten. I can see that we’re all thinking the same thing: we are going to die.
I figure that I am probably (hopefully) going to be ok. (Spoiler alert: I was. After all, I’m alive to tell you about it.) I’d only actually eaten a handful of flowers. They did taste really bad, so I had spat out most of what I’d tried. Some others were clearly in distress though, as the number was getting to be very high, as they counted out their snack on their fingers. Let’s just say we had to wait a few minutes at the road while these unlucky ones hacked up their florivorous meal.
|coming down from Chebdokha|
That night, after we had ended our big hike and supped on emadatse, we walked back up the hill a little ways to where some of Tsewang’s other relatives were about to do the evening milking of the cows. In Haa, the common practice of raising cows is to tether the calves to a cow shed while the adults are allowed to roam free for the day to graze (within the limits of where the herder leads them). The mama cows return at night to their young, and the people milk these sturdy, hefty animals by hand into round wooden buckets. During the day, the herders collect fodder from the forest to feed the calves, but when the milk for the humans is collected, the calf gets its share, often sucking quite forcefully on the annoyed-looking mamas.
|an expert at work|
We were each given one try at milking, and it was much harder to do than I expected. You have to pull from high up on the bag of the udders, not just the teat, and it is a difficult combination of requiring a good amount of pressure, while being relatively gentle. I only got a few successful squirts before I had to give up and let the experts do the job. I hope I get another try in Germany while I wwoof his summer.
That night, like in Bumthang, the girls were allowed to stay in the family shrine room, a spacious room with a large altar at one end, and an open floor space where we set up our sleeping bags. It was a welcome change from the cold wet tent the night before.
As we drove back toward Thimphu, via Paro, we passed the three iconic “hills” of Haa. Each is representative of the god of power, god of wisdom, and god of compassion, and the people of Haa are said to be divided according to these attributes too. Haa is also well known for the twin Lhakhangs of the district, the Black and the White Temples, named and painted as such because according to legend, the Dharma King of Tibet released two pigeons, one black and one white into Bhutan. He built the temples where the two birds each landed. The Dharma King is one of the prominent figures like Guru Rinpoche who were instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Bhutan many many centuries ago. You may remember me mentioning the Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro, built in the 7th century as one of 108 temples built to subjugate a great ogress whose body was stretched all across Bhutan and Tibet. It was the Dharma King who caused those 108 temples to be built overnight and trap the ogress.
|the three famous hills of Haa|
Legend also has it that Haa used to be called Het, which is a two character word in Choekey and Dzongkha (Choekey is the language used for the monastic texts, the only written language of the land for a long time). Het means “suddenly” and the region was called this because of the Dharma King’s power to summon thousands of people in no time at all so that the temples could be built quickly. But, somehow over the years, this second character of the name was lost, or people forgot it, and the name changed to Haa.
As we reached Chelela, the pass between Haa and Paro, we stopped for lunch and to look at the spectacular view from this 3900 meter point in the road, the highest road point in the country. We could see the peaks we had summited the day before in the distance, and Tsewang pointed to the furthest point the eye could see of Haa. He said that from there, it was one day’s walk to Tibet. This, I could hardly believe, but I did. He explained that even though there is an army presence guarding the border, people used to sneak in and out regularly to smuggle goods, but that it was no longer economical to do so.
|Haa side of Chelela|
|Paro side of Chelela|
|this bird know's what's what|
From the top of Chelela (la means pass, whereas lha means god), we could also see Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, that we had hiked to all that time ago back in February. I wished that I had a flying tiger to carry me from Chelela over to Taktsang again. We saw yaks grazing, and Ben and Ana and I rolled the broken tops of the prayer flag posts down the hillside. As the afternoon wore on, we descended from the pass and took the long road back to Thimphu, through the city of Paro and through the great sheer near-empty valley that connects the two main districts, and back up the hill to RTC. We said goodbye to Zencho and Leki and Tsewang for the second to last time, which was bittersweet. I have two weeks left in Bhutan. I am sure I will miss it. Yet, I intend to shout Lha Ghelol! many times more, whenever the moment is right.
|rolling wooden blocks down the mountain|
|Yaks at Chelela|
Last extra tidbit: While out to celebrate Guru Rinpoche’s birthday yesterday with a friend in Paro, we stopped at a rock that jut out from the cliff side at the edge of the road. The rock was painted bright blue and decorated with depictions of Guru Rinpoche and his consorts. In gold letters, many excerpts from some of Guru’s known writings were written in the swooping sharp letters of Dzongkha with English translations below. I copied a few down in my notebook, including this poem:
“Do not take lightly the small misdeed,
Believing they can do no harm.
Even a tiny spark of fire
Can set alight a mountain of hay.
Do not take lightly small good deeds,
Believing they can hardly help.
For drops of water one by one
In time can fill a giant pot.
When the eagle soars up, high above the earth;
Its shadow for the moment is nowhere to be seen;
Yet bird and shadow still are linked.
So too our actions:
When conditions come together,
Their effects are clearly seen.”
Ok. I lied; this will be the last bit. It’s too good not to share:
“Impermanence is everywhere, yet I still think things will last. I have reached the gates of old age, yet I still pretend I am young. Bless me and misguided people like me, that we may truly understand impermanence.”