Monday, 27 February 2012

The Road to Rukubji

The next day I continued my journey solo. No Mr Thukten by my side and no convoy to get me out of paperwork scrapes. It was exciting. I knew the first leg up to Dochu La as I'd been there before, but beyond the magnificent temple and the chortens, it was virgin territory for me.

Before I left I went to visit Mr Thukten's family in Thimphu. They live in the courtyard of a temple. Inside the temple the Buddha sits with half-smile and half-closed eyes. Legend has it this statue spoke a word in the fourteenth century. The temple has been there that long. It opens out onto a small courtyard, around which the family lives – four generations. I met a child of 11 months and his great-grandfather. I had the privilege of sharing their Losar lunch, which was spectacular and massive! As is always the case here, the company was friendly and fun. I am made welcome everywhere in Bhutan, by everybody I meet. It is very important in Bhutanese culture to welcome guests as family, and tea is served everywhere within minutes of arrival, be it Suja (butter tea) or Naja (sweet tea). I lingered here, despite the lengthy drive I had before me. Perhaps I was a touch nervous too... At 2pm, I headed for Dochu La and from there, into the unknown.

The road wound down the side of the mountains in snakey turns to the Punakha valley, Wangdi and then back up the next range of mountains to Pele La. I stopped for tea in Wangdi two hours after leaving and then went on. The road deteriorated as I headed up. Evidence of recent landslides could be seen, and several sections seemed poised on the cusp of immanent collapse. The edges of the road were crumbly in places, and there were long sections of rubble. It wasn't too bad though and I was enjoying the drive.

As I headed up Pele La, the foliage changed from lush temperate woodland trees to highland spruces and pine. Mists descended and it grew cold. I'd already picked up one hitch-hiker, an old man, drunk from his Losar celebration and in high spirits. He giggled for about half a mile and then got out. As the temperature plummeted, a boy of 12 stepped out into the road with his arms waving. Behind him was a woman and 5 young girls between 3 and 15. I did a quick calculation of car space, ignored the result and stopped.

Bhutanese are hardy. They live in a steeply mountainous country and most of the population are subsistent farmers. They can handle work. They can handle the cold. They can handle themselves. But this was too much... the family was walking over the snow-smattered pass as the sun was falling. When I dropped on the other side (having driven alongside banks of snow), I figured it would have taken at least an hour and a half walking, probably two to make the journey. I put the heater on full to get their bones warm and played them eighties classics. I'm not sure how the classics went down, but the heat was appreciated.

As I descended towards Rukubji the visibility dropped to about 10m. I arrived at 7pm. Iman came to meet me by the main road because the turn off to the village is a jack-knife turn onto a thin rubbly path that is barely visible from the road. I somehow managed to see her headtorch bobbing in the valley!

Rukubji. I could describe it as a sandwich of ancient earth bread with heavenly layers of yaks, cows and potatoes. but that would be a bit daft, so I'll just say it's lush. It has real-life Ents - million year old oak trees that crowd a hillock on the edge of the village. It has a river, two in fact, that rush down the valley sides and meet in the middle. It is rural like you might think of olde England as. Potatoes grow everywhere because they supply Bhutan with them. The water comes straight from the hills and tastes sweet. First thing in the morning, the air is a tonic, a gaseous elixir that probably has the same effect on the body as a good hour of yoga (this is artistic license – I've never done a full hour of yoga). It's a very beautiful place.

At first I was insanely jealous, because this vision of lushness is what I had in mind for myself when I decided to come here. It's much harder for her – no indoor plumbing for instance. No hot water unless it comes from a metal pan that sits atop the bukari (wood-burning stove). It's 3000m up, so its cold too. In her first few weeks, clothes left on the line would be iced up in the morning. If a little green light isn't on in her kitchen, she can't even use a rice cooker because all the electricity comes from a micro-hydro plant. If she turns her heater on, lights go out in the village! And there's very little English spoken. Luckily, she is well-suited to the circumstances. She's hardy too, and to be honest, dream or no dream, I'm not sure how I would cope. She has systems. Lot's of them. I'm a bit slapdash. Systems tend to erode with time. So perhaps it's for the best that I'm here in Pakshikha with mates around me and my hot shower.

And I am happy here. I do have mates. The school really is a family. Sure I miss stuff - my kingdom for a night in a bar with a good pint of English ale and old mates. Or some rock to clamber up! A five-a-side football pitch to run like the clappers around. The staffroom banter at Chepstow. Banter in general (though I'm making inroads on this front).

I will start teaching properly tomorrow too, and that is the main reason I came here. The classroom will change everything, especially as I currently have 33 periods of 50 minutes timetabled in each week. We collectively pray for science teachers to materialise, me more than anybody. If anyone would like to volunteer to come and help... I thoroughly recommend it, and I'll put a good word in for you...   

PS - I appear to have mislaid all photos of Rukubji and the Black Neck Cranes that we went to see. They're the spectacular birds that fly over the Himalayas every year. I was lucky to see them - none of the teachers I have spoken to here have (except for on telly). A bit gutted about that. Ah well.

1 comment:

Iman Mefleh said...

I love how you describe Rukubji. Fantastic. Thank you so much for coming to visit! What a special treat!