Posted on May 20, 2009

Trongsa is the turn around point for this first trip, and by now the group has learned the drill. They are more than comfortable with Bhutan and the Bhutanese. The daily mantra "this is the best place yet" does not change, yet the place does. They're on vacation, though in fact it's a cultural tour (my description). And with a culture both inscrutable and open, we need a wing man. Dorji is our wing man (though he thinks he's the guide), spiriting us through this extraordinary country of his, providing introductions and dispensing information. It's not unlike your all time favorite class, where everyone willingly stayed after the bell rang, to ask more and more questions.

This is the most boisterous group I have taken to Bhutan, quiet they are not. Do not misunderstand: this is no complaint, in fact a compliment to them all. I've heard it said, laughter lengthens one life, if indeed true, the amount of time I have remaining on this planet is now more than it was a week ago.

This is the most boisterous group I have taken to Bhutan, quiet they are not. Do not misunderstand: this is no complaint, in fact a compliment to them all. I've heard it said, laughter lengthens one life, if indeed true, the amount of time I have remaining on this planet is now more than it was a week ago.

Trongsa town is one of the most beautiful in Bhutan. We are at the Yangkhil Resort, a mile from town, with every room facing town and the dzong. It's the biggest dzong in the kingdom, a strategic one, as centuries ago all travelers had to pass actually through the dzong when moving from east to west.. While today there is a road, begun in the west and now extended to the east, the former foot paths largely determined where the road might be. We are sticking firmly to the road, this is no trekking trip through Bhutan. Out foot excursions are limited to regular 3 or 4 hour hikes, or better said walks, nice as they are, there seems not much strenuous about them. Of course we meet many foreigners who are trekking (when asked the difference between trekking and hiking, Berous opines, "price, if it costs a lot of money it's trekking, otherwise you're just hiking").

By the dzong there is archery tournament underway. Archery in the national sport in Bhutan. But this does not quite convey the gist of it. Archery is a passion, practiced everywhere and by everyone. Well, not quite, women were traditionally excluded from archery, but Bhutan is eager to do right by all its citizenry, so archery is now open to women, with (a government campaign underway) to bring women into the sport. A female archer even went to the Beijing Olympics.

Traditional dress is required for archery, so what one sees is men in dresses (I mean ghos) shooting arrows 450 feet at a tiny target. Three times the distance of international archery standards. The players of the 2 opposing teams each shoot 2 arrows, and while I cannot even see the target the idle team stands just feet from the target, casually moving away as the other team shoots. I am nervous at 20 feet away. If they hit, they shout (the only time in Bhutan we hear raised voices, but what are you going to do when your voice needs carry 450 feet), and dance. Those who miss get insults hurled at them (questioning their sexual prowess, amongst other guaranteed to elicit laughter comments). To add to the fun, there are anti cheer leaders (jeer leaders) women who dance and chant, and make sure to hurl their litany of insults at the bad shooters. The games go on all day, and anyone is free to come watch.

From Trongsa we descend 90 minutes to the winter palace of the third King. At lower altitude, so warmer, close to tropical. Winding as always down a twisted road, passing waterfalls and green terraced rice paddies. The rice paddies, all built a millennium ago, resemble 3 dimensional contour maps. Each terrace follows the contour of the land and this informs its size and shape, so that no two are equal. They are exquisite feats of engineering and works of beauty. Not a Bhutanese invention these terraces are found throughout Asia, and exhibit wise land use, the terraces permit cultivation of steep land, and the terracing itself makes the land erosion proof, water diverted from streams irrigates them all, top to bottom. Crop cultivation is a thing of necessity, but here also a thing of beauty.

Kungta Rabten, the site of the palace is just a speck of a village (making it larger than most Bhutanese inhabited places, which might best be described as hamlets). The former palace, grand in its own tiny way is an all wood building (unusual, as most buildings are stone or rammed earth and then timber). It's no larger than a good size home in the USA, in need of repair, but certainly not lacking in charm. No longer in use, but a caretaker shows us around (as Dorji often brings people here, he knows the caretaker). And while not a monastery, there are now 20 plus monks living here. Interesting, several of these became monks after attending school for some years, so they speak English and are more than happy to converse with us. One gives us a fashion show, as he slowly wraps his red robe around his torso, then makes precise and elaborate folds of his belt, and then, with all the dramatic flair of a model on a catwalk, knowing cameras are clicking, lets the final red outer robe waft into the air, and settle perfectly over his shoulder. Aside from the fact that he then retrieves his cell phone, this scene could have taken place in the 17th century.

The new king, the 27 year old fifth king, with his movie star good looks (all the Bhutanese Kings, like the Bhutanese themselves, are an attractive bunch, causing one of our group to comment about the monks "before coming to Bhutan, I never found men of the cloth to be hot"), recently visited the old winter palace. He suggested to the monks they could make it more inviting by planting flowers, so the surroundings, inside the stone wall are now full of seedlings for what promises to be a colorful garden.

Outside the palace wall is a grassy area. Which today is serving both as archery and soccer field. The two teams of archers, the requisite 450 feet apart are shooting arrows, while on the field, beneath the path of the arrows a soccer game is underway. The archers are shooting with traditional wood bows (not the often used compound bows, imported from USA). While they must shoot upward, so that the trajectory of the arrow leads towards the target, it seems crazy. No, it does not, here in Bhutan, different rules govern so many actions, that after a short while, we're no longer speechless at the spectacle, and it just seems natural. Sure why not, soccer and archery, same time, same field. Yet again, only in Bhutan.