Far from the airport in Paro and the seat of government in Thimphu, Eastern Bhutan sees far less tourists than the western part of the country, and yet has rich cultural heritage of its own. For many years, I have wanted to visit the semi-nomadic peoples who inhabited the eastern villages of Merak and Sakteng in the area around Trashigang, and finally set off this fall to do so. We were a group of four – three women and two men – three of us in our 60s and one in her 70s.
The trip began with a flight from Delhi to Guwahati, the capital of Assam. Here we were met by Kinley, our guide, and Sangay, our “Buddha” driver. From Guwahati, we headed out on a chaotic drive to the Bhutanese border town of Samdrup Jonkhar. The road was under repair and a blend of elephants, busses and trucks belching diesel fuel, bikers, cars, and other assorted vehicles that defy definition. It took slightly over four hours to arrive at the border, check out of the insanity of India and into the relative quiet of Bhutan.
Lodging in the east is rather basic, to say the least, and we overnighted at the basic TLC Hotel. Rumor hath it that with new hotel competition coming in, TLC is going to do some renovation, but “nothing is real ‘til its real!” For now, rooms are basic, hot water is sporadic and food is heavy in carbohydrates and light in spices.
The town is simple, perched with a market near the border that picks up on weekends. There is a simple temple or gomba, and our visit connected with the chanting of the monks. There is also a cement plant and some small industry, but overall, this is not a place for great sightseeing.
From Samdrup Jongkar, the road winds (every road in Bhutan “winds”) up the hill towards Trashigang, capital of the district. Lunch was at the top of a hill by the side of the road, with lovely viewsacross the hills and fields below. Farther on, we stopped in Kanglung at the handicrafts center, to find that the girls were busy rehearsing their song and dance for the upcoming fall Tsechu festival in Trashigang.Shy and giggling, they persevered under the watchful eye of the teacher, while we watched their practice, taking photos along the way. Then we headed down the hill to see some of the beautiful weavings in their store that are typical of this area – both cotton and silk. Prices here in Kanglung were about half what they are in Thimphu at the market, so it was good to pick up some bargains.
Our path lead past Sherubtse College, until recently the only institute of higher learning in the country and producer of many a Bhutanese government official and finally to Trashigang and a new lodge – KC Resort – just above town. Although it was fairly simple, at least it was better than Trashigang’s only other hotel – the Deojung. Food was better at the Deojung, but the KC had better rooms.
We had time to do some exploring the next day around Trashigang. One of the most interesting stops was a small temple and monastery called Gomphukora. Here, in the spring, there is a fascinating Tsechu festival, where tribal people from all over Assam as well as northeastern Bhutan assemble, not only to worship Guru Rimpoche, but to sell their wares as well. As luck would have it, we arrived just as the monks were starting a service, and could sit and absorb the calmness of the chanting. Some of the monks were having trouble staying awake and tooting their horns or banging the drums on time . . . even religion is human!
Just below the temple is a huge black rock, said to bear the imprint of Guru Rimpoche, when he meditated here. The rock is both wish-fulfilling and a cleansing rock. To get your wish fulfilled, you need to climb up over the rock. Then, to cleanse yourself of sin, you squeeze through a tiny dark passage beneath the rock. Obviously obesity is a sin in this place, as no one even slightly overweight could fit through the narrow slit in the rock! Thinley, our guide, squeezed through, but the mud at the bottom of the passage convinced me to hang on to my sins for a while!
Early the nextmorning, we drove out of Trashigang to the town of Chaling, to begin our trek. The road soon gave way to a dirt road, where we bounced around as though we were in a mix master for a couple of hours. Finally we bumped to a halt on a knoll overlooking the river and villages below.
Here we met our staff . . . and horses . . . for the trek. We had two guides, Kinley, who had been with us since Guwahati, and Kesang, a local guide from the town of Merak. He had been married, was a lay monk and had an amazing way with animals. Namgay, our chief cook, was a friend of Kinley’s and a very experienced cook. As we discovered along the way, he was fabulous, cooking the best food I had eaten in Bhutan since my first visit in 1991!! He brought his team of Tshering and Karma, who looked rather like a refugee from the Manchurian steppes, with him to both help on the trail and in the kitchen.
Bhutanese use horses on treks, as opposed to mules, yaks or people, so we also had a group of horsemen and some excellent horses.
Somewhere around eleven, the horses were packed and we set out on our way, leaving Sangay behind to meet us about six days later when we finished hiking.
For me, this was an interesting adventure in humility. Over the past 25 years, I had trekked all over Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, visiting Everest Base Camp four times, crossing Thorung La five times, hiking to Mt. Kailas in western Tibet. Yet this was different. I had a bum knee, and knew it would not take a trek. Rather than cancel the trip, however, I decided to ride a horse where riding was possible – not an easy decision. Yet, I knew well that if I wanted to get to this part of Bhutan, it was the only alternative. Fortunately, I love riding, had used horses before on treks, and figured when the downhill was too steep for the horse, I would walk using my stick. My horse was a young buckskin, full of energy and a mind of his own. He was blind in one eye, and would shy if approached suddenly on his blind side. For me, this made the experience even more fun.
The weather began gloriously as we started up the hill. Our destination, according to the itinerary, was either Shatimi or, if we could, Damnonchhu. Hah! Whoever wrote “Damnonchhu” must have been a local Bhutanese villager, as it really was too far for a group of even good hikers leaving at eleven AM. The locals could easily get there by nightfall, but they did not stop for lunch, or talk along the way. To me, a trek has to be fun – you need to stop, chat, have snacks, and enjoy yourself. No trek should be a forced march!
Well, we were lucky to have Shatimi within a reasonable distance, because, after lunch, our gloriously sunny day suddenly clouded over and it began to pour – not drizzle – pour! We slogged on for another two hours or so after lunch, finally arriving at Shatimi around 4PM.
The crew had arrived before us, and set up tents. The campsite also boasted a fire pit with benches and a wooden cover, and even a stone well for garbage, built by the Bhutan Tourism Corporation (BTC). The only thing we did not have was a bathroom tent. Had we hiked to Damnonchhu, there was a toilet built by BTC, but Shatimi had no such extra. Bless the crew – they took their plastic, rigged a toilet tent, and then hung an umbrella over it to shield the inhabitants from the rain. Then they built a roaring fire in the covered fire pit area, where we could dry our wet clothes and warm up as the chill, damp night settled in. The major challenge was not stepping in a large puddle of water or mud while trotting to one’s tent or to the bathroom, but everyone seemed to manage.
Dinner was magnificent, particularly the mushroom soup prepared by Namgay. There was something for everyone – vegetarians, carnivores, those who liked non-spicy American food, and those of us who loved to burn our lips on emadatse, the chili and cheese dish beloved by the Bhutanese. Even the rain let up and a few stars peeked out from between the clouds.
Crawling into my sleeping bag, I could not help but feel blessed. We were in good hands, the crew was wonderful. Kezang and Kinlely could not be better as leaders, and I loved my tent, with its warm light, spaciousness and cuddly bag to keep me comfortable.
Sometimes we get so comfortable in our daily life with its thermostats, fancy beds or sheets, up-to-date kitchens and other modern accouterments, that we forget the beauty of simplicity – a world in a tent.
The next day the clouds had lifted for the most part, and we could see the knoll where we had camped. Below us were some yak farms and a rainbow peaked out from above the hills. A yak herder was taking his animals past our camp, and down to their winter grazing quarters, and we ran up to photograph these magnificent animals.
Then we started off for Merak. The trail climbed up along beautiful forests of rhododendrons, spruce and fir, up to a small meadow and then to Mindrula Pass at 10,088 feet. From here we could see down across the meadows and on to the hills, behind which lay our destination. I rode up to the pass, and then walked down the hill reveling in the beauty of the area.
Near the bottom of the hill was Damnonchhu, the campsite built by BTC that had been listed as an alternative to Shatami. Frankly, given when we started trekking yesterday, we did well to stop at Shatimi, as we would never have reached Damnonchhu in the light. It was just too far.
The trail beyond the campsite led through a series of streams, some with bridges, and some without! Riding the horse through the streams was fun and easy for me, but crossings were harder for hikers. Atone point, where the stream had no bridge, Kezang picked up each of the trekkers, including Dick at about 190 pounds, and carried each person across the waters – despite our protestations that we could do it ourselves!
Lunch was in a herder’s shack off the trail well below Damnonchhu. In Bhutan, people carry food in small nesting metal containers that fit inside a put to keep the food warm. Namgay had made lunch before leaving camp, and Tshering carried these containers along so that we would have a hot lunch each day. Sometimes we are all too spoiled!
In this part of the world, a trail is a super highway, and a porter is a container truck. Often, when we passed someone, they would
stop to ask where we were going and where we were from, how the trail was, and if anything exciting was happening along the way. As we walked we passed several people carrying large pieces of board for a house, hunters dressed in the furof some local animal, herders and other people walking from one village to another.
Each person merited a conversation, and since there were few westerners who visited this area, we were definite curiosities. We, on the other hand, were fascinated by the people we met!
As we walked along the path, Kezang told us a bit about the chief deity, Ama Jowo, who led the Merakpas (as the people of Merak were called) up into the hills to their village of Merak. The area near Merak is dotted with special stones bearing stories of Ama Jowo, her exploits, and imprints of various parts of her body.
Ama Jowo also is the protector of the different fauna of the area, and one cannot eat meat before making a pilgrimage to her holy mountain. Each year, in the summer, there is a big local festival honoring Ama Jowo, and the people hike up the hills to worship at her temple.
One of the sad moments as we walked was passing a chorten, a small religious monument to the gods often built in memory of someone or as merit points for a next life. When building a chorten, one always places some special relics inside for the gods, as well as food for them to eat, flowers and other things they might enjoy. Often too, there are some beautiful carvings that are part of this monument.
We passed just such a chorten along the way, but the carving that sealed it was gone, and the inside was empty. Kezang explained that the stone and relics had been stolen and then sold to collectors for a large sum of money. Everyone in town knew who had done it, because the people had bought a car and other things, but no one had done anything.
Here in this country of Gross National Happiness, a country that was trying to develop positively in this modern world of internet, television and other “things”, it was sad to hear that the trade in stolen art existed, just as it did in Nepal and many other countries. This is one of the reasons that the Bhutanese have tried to control where tourists can go and not go, and limit access to certain places. Yet, as this theft shows, the buyers may be foreigners, but the thieves are local.
The trail began to climb and the forests gave way again to alpine meadows. Eventually, we passed a small town called Gengo, where Kezang had once been the caretaker for the local temple or gompa. Across the ravine from Gengo was our campsite and Merak was just beyond.
It had been a full day, with a lot of ups and downs, and we were thrilled to be in camp. We had time to do some wash, have tea and write in journals. Since Merak is at 11,480 feet, as the sun went down, the air became quite chill. We bundled up in our warmest clothes, enjoyed the soup and warm food Namgay prepared, and went to sleep rather early, looking forward to spending a full day tomorrow in Merak.