LAST THURSDAY: For The Tribe
Silver globes of sound
bounced off Red Barn walls
where you danced at 3 AM!
with viral vibrations
rippling off Murph’s bass
a transcontinental root
rumbling down the Feather River Canyon
its flaming glow balls
gliding in Pacific
rolling up the Duars
and the slope of Eastern Himalaya
on the Brokpa trail
TIM’S TRAVELOGUE PART 2: a dream within a dream
“Dreams are lies, it’s the dreaming that’s real” Two Djinn
In the wee hours of my birthday (December 28th 2010) I was riding shotgun in my friend Lisa’s car between Boulder and Longmont Colorado. We glanced out the frosty window and saw a shooting star streak across the horizon. I wished on it to go to Bhutan.
“Team tenacious” set out from Phongmay on a beautiful clear day. Morning dew shimmered off every blade and needle. My companions Ian and Vicky from Australia were gracious enough to arrange and acquire the permit for the trip. Our guide was a driver from Sakteng named Lobzang. Before breaking trail I saw two ravens flying east. The first section of the trek took about 4 hours to reach the beautiful valley town of Jongkhar. This settlement is a transit town on the Brokpa trail with one shop and one guesthouse. It is a shire with terraced fields of maize, bamboo fences, and cattle scattered among farmhouses. About twenty minutes out of town is a shady spot by the river with several wooden shelters where we stopped for our pack lunch including some bomb burritos courtesy of Ian. The next section meandered along the raging river through warm broadleaf oak forests where dappled light descended onto the steamy path. After a few suspension bridges stretching high above the river the trail climbs steeply for several hours through thick forest. The Brokpa easily stride into Sakteng in one day, but we are not Brokpa and had to stop short. We pretty much invited ourselves into a farmhouse perched atop a hillock in the last village before the ascent over the pass into Sakteng. Just after we arrived and refreshed ourselves with black tea the rain began to pound the tiny village. I retired to the makeshift shop cum bar to have a coke. A village woman a few years my senior began to put on an impromptu cultural show singing and dancing to the amusement of me and the others gathered. I countered by teaching her some “biyou” disco-trance moves and before long we had a dance party going with the little kids.
The next day we headed out early climbing the steep trail for about five hours through primal mossy oak and pine with vibrant mushrooms, and gushing waterfalls that washed over the narrow switchbacks. At the top of the pass at about 10,500 feet we encountered a row of prayer flags and a wall of small prayer wheels. Suddenly Sakteng appears, the most enchanting green valley of middle earth. A view that makes warm butter melt inside your chest, frogs leap in your throat, and Cuckoo birds and stars swirl around your head. One almost drops to their knees in reverence to the sparkling pastures of the high plateau. A landscape of rolling green mountains and a blue gray river, a postcard addressed from the goddess and delivered by a guruda to the edge of the earth. This is as east as one can travel in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
The Brokpa people are Tibetan refugees who were granted this abundant parcel by the third king after the Chinese invasion of their homeland in the Sixties. Everything in the settlement has been carried in from Trashigang and Phongmay over twenty miles walk up several thousand feet. The Brokpa have even managed electricity recently. It’s astounding to comprehend the effort involved in lugging in endless bags of rice, building materials, school desks and so on. They are a people constantly on the move and Sakteng felt deserted as many of the tribe was in the “highlands” grazing yak or making supply runs moving their herds and horses up and down the trail. And as it turned out we had only missed the naked dances by two days.
We descended into the magical valley and set up our camp at the guesthouse, a basic complex at the outskirts of the village. My injured arm was in acute pain from the weight of the pack so to loosen up I went for a walk along the river. By the time I broke into “Easy to Slip” the rain clobbered me soaking every piece of clothing I had on. Did I mention it was all the clothes I brought for the trek. I sprinted and dashed through soppy mud in a torrent to the guesthouse. Upon arrival I disrobed and crawled into my sleeping bag. A relentless rain fell throughout the night. The next day Vicky lent me a shirt while my clothes dried in the morning sun. We headed to the local schoolhouse that was still in session and met some students. Ian and I were happy to stumble into a class eight. We talked with them about the “Magic Brocade” a story we both taught. The students wore colorful traditional regalia. The boys dawned a red tunic and blue pants while the girls displayed more colorful tunics. Some of the classes were held in a UNICEF tent while others in stone structures. The students appeared well fed and happy. Our guide led us up the pastured mountainside to a magnificent temple. We stepped inside to view the statues of the Guru and Sangay Dempa and lit butter lamps for long life. The building contained several monks and two gleaming conch shells. Ian and Vicky split down the mountain and Lobzang led me to another temple on an adjacent ridge. The trail was treacherously muddy and I slipped several times. During the monsoon the rains come in the afternoon so we gathered around a campfire, ate noodles, and talked. At sunset there is little to do but climb into sleeping bags for the duration of the long dark night. On our second morning in Sakteng we packed up and made the arduous climb out of the valley into the dense forests. On the way out I got a hitchhiker on my ankle in the form of a leech. The wound bled incessantly for the next eight hours as we wound our way back along the river. The original plan was Sakteng only so I did not get a chance to search for the Blue Poppy which is located on the high passage between Sakteng and Merak. On this day we pressed hard passing groups of cheery Brokpa herding their animals on rocky trails. They slapped their cow’s hides with switches while whistling and making a shushing noise. The scent of manure baked in the sun and the clank of cowbells punctuate their music of movement in harmony with the river. The Brokpa themselves have a strong aroma of yak butter and smoke as this trek employed all the senses. The wind rushed through narrow ravines blowing over countless wooden bridges. We decided to push on all the way through Jhonkhar and into Phongmay. After twelve hours of walking we spotted the back of Meme (Becky’s Mountain) crossed the last suspension bridge over a swift muddy river and climbed back to the road.
Sakteng proved to be a wild place and a playground for nature’s deities, demons, and goddesses. A place most unchanged in millennium where people can only survive without intent to conquer the elements. My mind flipped through its pages remembering that Drukpa Kunley had never tamed the demons of the East as he had turned back at Bumthang. Hence forth, the demons retreated deep into the cover and open pastures of this unparallel region. I never saw the Yeti but assume he lingers in the pastures over the high peaks with the blue poppy, or dwells in the impenetrable forests alongside the leopard and red panda.
We immerged into a humid twilight with fireflies chased by laughing children and drove across the two rivers that threatened to flood out Becky’s road back to Rangjoon.
Ian and Vicky, thank you for helping make my dream come true and planning all the important details for this trek. I am forever grateful to you both. It is inspiring to spend time with a couple so in love after many years together. My own dream is to find someone to share my life with in that same way.
“The floorboard creaks and out come the freaks” Zeke
I met Becky and Norrine on a Wacky Wednesday in Trashigang. They had been traveling together since the retreat and relayed their wild eastbound tales on a gloaming glide to the T-Gang Dzong. Norrine led us inside where she chatted up and photographed a group of inquisitive monks. I snuck up into the bowels of the Dzong into a maze of chutes, ladders, and secluded chambers. The rich wood reeked of history. I was caught red handed by some red robes while spinning a row of prayer wheels and escorted out into the courtyard. Norrine was still holding court with the growing crowd of monks. On the way to town we saw Igor circumnavigating his chorten before we adjourned to the garden for dinner. Norrine observed it was a “haven” The spot has indeed been an important gathering area for good food and camaraderie. Set among tropical flowers and vines we ate chow mien and headed back to the KC where we munched on homemade cookies for desert and commenced in a bull session that endured past midnight. Norrine wore her alpaca shawl and spoke like an oracle, a divine light cast on her dark impish complexion. I had forgotten the swords of truth that she wielded back at the Dragon Roots in Thimphu carving fillets of wisdom. At dawn Norrine bunked out to Thimphu and I boarded a bus to Sandrup Jhonkhar while Becky remained snoozing at the hotel, dreaming of her own unfolding story.
AN INDO-BHUTAN ADVENTURE
“This town is like a circus around the clock, tiger’s roam the streets, the doors ain’t got no locks” My Home is on the Border
The bus ride to Sandrup Jhonkhar takes all day and this Thursday was not an auspicious day for travel. We encountered several road blocks as a drizzle graduated to a steady downpour. I had hoped to view the scenery on the last unexplored road in my beloved region but the bus spent the day driving in a cloud. The road passed steamy high altitude forests with sprawling ferns and towering rhododendron filling deep valleys. After several passes the sloppy road funneled out of the Himalayas through disheveled broken foothills. Suddenly you hit the valley floor with a thud under a painted rock carving of the Guru. Through a misty haze a fine view of the Indian plains of Assam. After registering at an immigration checkpoint I sauntered into the sweltering border town of Sandrup Jhonkhar. I immediately located the walled demarcation between Bhutan and India following the concrete wall with barbed wire on top into a boggy marsh. I saw a rusty iron gate where a group of Indian kids ran, sticking their limbs through the bars and greeting me friendly. A Bhutanese immigration officer came down from his tower and told me I was in a restricted area. I backtracked into town and followed the cement wall to the Indo- Bhutan gate and the official crossing. I pleaded with the immigration police who surprisingly allowed me to cross into the Assamese town of Darranga. I had finally made it to India! I walked unaccompanied for ten minutes into the outskirts of Darranga taking in the dark faces and dilapidated structures on the frontier of the subcontinent. I chatted with some street children and evening walkers before realizing suddenly, I wasn’t in Bhutan anymore. I knew I needed to return HOME. I walked out of the bazaar and down the wide wet lane under swaying palms past rigshaws, tata’s, and buggies towards the exquisite broad gate that welcomed me back for the first time. I thanked the guard who snapped a photo of me in India before returning to Bhutan’s Sandrup Jhonkhar.
On the Bhutan side Indian’s, Nepali, and Bhutanese lolled around the bazaar. I picked up a pot, bucket, and floor mats before checking into a hotel and eating dinner. The town also contained a massive ornate golden prayer wheel whose bell tolled the humid air. I had reached the Southeast of the kingdom at an elevation of less than 500 feet. The next morning I saw a taxi full of passengers headed back to T-Gang Dzongkhag and piled in. We beat our way back through the roadblocks and pouring rain. I got out to pee near the Pema Gatshel junction and had five leaches on me when I climbed back in the vehicle. A class twelve Bayling girl peeled them off my clothes and bleeding fingers laughing. We rode the 150 twisty miles back on cliffs past sinewy Indian road workers, rainbow clouds, and tuffs of fogs that gobbled the mountains.
The ride took me back to Tsenkharla by 10:00 PM where on my doorstep my favorite dog was convulsing from starvation and disease. Apparently several k-9s have died since I left. Another reminder of how brutal this place can be. It bothers me to have a smelly dying animal on my stoop especially my pal “Red” who bounded after me across campus and now cannot stand. Flies circle his emaciated body and he won’t eat. The students are due to arrive tomorrow and classes begin in two days. I have to complete my assessments and close up the books from the first semester. I also need to track down a paycheck for June. It was a satisfying break that took me all over the “land of terror” I was fortunate to see some of my BCF colleagues and even squeezed in a bit of time with Becky. I will not forget the smiles of the Brokpa children and enthusiastic Kuzuzongbola greeting from Brokpa elders. Or the stunning sight of the Lhuntse Dzong. I covered hundreds of miles on foot or in vehicles and met some fascinating folks along the way. Thank you too for sharing in the adventure! Oh by the way if you are reading this HM, please come to Tsenkharla!
P.S Unfortunately the dog died this afternoon and we buried it near the boy’s hostel. This poem is a work in progress based on the Sakteng trek.
The Brokpa Trail
Two ravens fly east
as a frog leaps
along the muddy path
where a scarlet UFO
leaches onto a mossy oak
whose disfigured limbs
clutch earthly mist,
its serpent roots
grasp a cliff,
as waterfalls dash
under temple of doom bridges
while lost dappled rays
inside silver raindrops,
falling through a broadleaf canopy
on black and yellow butterflies
dancing in the pads of yeti tracks
cosmic shushes and whistles
chirped from Brokpa lips,
up a stone staircase
reaching hardcore source,
an on time arrival
in goddess’s rocky pasture
where the blue poppy
opens to birth
a mountain maiden