Friday, August 13, 2010

Eastern Bhutan -looking back

July 2010

Kanpara in Eastern Bhutan.

I’m sitting on the porch of a forest ranger’s house watching the monsoon and remembering the first day I arrived in Bhutan nearly two decades ago. It was early September and the last of the rains threatened to close Paro airport. Then, much of the country was undeveloped with only a two lane road that stretched across the country, wide enough for a handful of cars and long-distance buses to share space with migrating yaks and skittish pack pony caravans, herding dogs in tow. In the early 90s adventurous travelers journeyed to Bhutan staying in simple government lodges in Paro and Thimphu, the capital. Only with official permit, could you make a day trip over the high Dochula pass to Punakha, where the theocracy resided during winter. Bhutan’s airline, Druk Air, had limited service into Paro, so travelers made the eight-hour twisting and turning drive up from the Indian west Bengali plains to Thimphu, awed by the sight of the Himalayas rising abruptly from the Gangetic plains and dramatic terrain changes from tropical vegetation to the glistening, snow-capped mountain peaks. With limited air and road access, Bhutan received less than 2000 visitors a year in those days.

A lot has happened in 20 years. Television, Internet, cell phones, Indian Marutis, and Toyota land cruisers have all arrived. With a government target of 100,000 visitors by 2013, new hotels blending modern amenities with Bhutanese architecture are being built in every part of the kingdom. From western to eastern Bhutan, road crews have removed parts of mountains, shifted hamlets, and bull dozed rice plantations to expand Bhutan’s network of roads linking hamlets that were once accessed only by arduous hikes on near-vertical trails. Druk Air has daily flights into the kingdom, and is inaugurating its first domestic flights to central and eastern Bhutan this fall. Bhutan saw its youngest King crowned in 2008, coinciding with its transition from a monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy. People say Bhutan will never be the same. Externally, perhaps, but inside their hearts, the Bhutanese are still the gentle people of the Himalayas.

My journey to eastern Bhutan is coming to an end. This year’s research yielded more data for my on-going craft project that has taken me to some of the most remote parts of eastern Bhutan. Although this region is one of the poorest in the country, its people are generous, kind, and compassionate. Just a few days ago while coming back from a 12 mile trek through the mountains, I nearly collapsed on the trail because of the heat and lack of water. I had failed to pack an extra litre of water in my day pack. An elderly woman leading a pack pony caravan stopped and offered me a cucumber. This woman, who was now without a water source herself, had earned ‘white pebbles’ for the next life. Buddhists believe when you help someone who is in dire need, you earn 'white pebbles'. When you die, you come up before the judgment maker, who either condemns you to the burning hells of the after life, or pushes you on to a good rebirth if you have amassed more good deeds, or ‘white pebbles’, than bad.

Tashi Delek!

K. Zurich Fung

Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Other Worlds - eastern Bhutan -

On Saturday I am leaving for eastern Bhutan. Getting there will involve a long flight to Bangkok, an overnight at the Nov Suvarnabhumi Hotel, then a flight to Calcutta with an 8 hour layover - I''ll have time for a quick inspection trip of a new hotel property in town - then it's back to the airport for a short flight to Guwahati, Assam. The next morning at dawn on Tuesday, I'll make my way north to Samdrup Jongkhar, the Bhutanese border town with Assam. After visa formalities, I'll join Karchung my long-standing friend and research assistant for a short drive to Pema Gatshel in the southeast. Bhutan is not easy to get to but it's certainly easier traveling from Assam into Bhutan, than flying from Bangkok to Paro, then driving three days to get to the far east!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Other Worlds - West Africa

Personal Adventures to Other Worlds:

This week: West Africa

It’s that time of year again when I start to plan for upcoming trips. At the top of my list is an ethno-cultural journey to West Africa in January 2012. I go beyond the capital cities to remote societies - some very secret -for a true sense of the African people.

Ghana is one of the best-kept secrets in West Africa. It’s English speaking and culturally diverse from the Cape Coast replete with forts and castles to Kakum National Park where a seven bridge rope walkway suspended 150 feet about the ground let’s us experience the rainforest canopy. Not to be missed is the Adae Kese Festival, the annual blessing of the royal stools, where thousands of Ashantis, the most powerful clan in Ghana, gather to honor their King. “Talking” drums announce each tribal chief and his clan in a royal spectacle fitting of a Bertolucci movie. I attended this electrifying festival in 2009. The music got under my skin, everybody was swaying to the beat of drums including all the Ashanti chiefs decked out in kilos of gold jewelery. You might be thinking, travel hype, but it’s true!

I am amazed at the artisans who create wooden coffins in fanciful shapes like coke bottles or boats, mix natural dyes for funeral Adrinke cloth, weave exquisite kente cloth on vertical looms, and engage in lost wax metalwork. West Africans have magic in their hands. You can see the creative genius of the Dagomba people in northern Ghana whose figure eight houses are painted in ancient symbols depicting their clan’s ancient history.

One of my favorite experiences is to walk through a crowded market and identify the market queen. She may control certain commodities; she has a long history in the market and is revered. She often ‘holds court’ when there is a dispute between vendors.

Forget about planes within West Africa. They are unreliable. I prefer to journey overland to French-speaking Burkina Faso where ancient societies, half a day’s journey from Ouagadougou (Wag’ a do’-goo) communicate to ancestral spirits through mysterious trance dances. The Bwabas, stunning in their raffia costumes and three-foot ancestral plank masks, stomp, jump, and whirl to the frenzied beat of drums. Trust me, you can’t see these places by flying from big city to big city.

Mali is a magnet - it draws me back again and again. It’s so ancient and there’s a rhythm of life untouched for centuries. I love to explore Djenne observing the largest mud mosque in the world and the granddaddy of all West African markets at Djenne.

The commercial energy is felt everywhere. Herbalists display botanicals for malaria, peptic ulcers, headaches, arthritis and cola nuts for energy. Vendors advertise bright crayola colored fabrics, hung on horizontal wooden poles, tiered from the ground up to 10 feet. Busy fish vendors haggle over prices of dried catfish mounded high in plaited baskets. The meat section draws long queues of women for slaughtered steer, goat, lamb, and chicken; for men, there's the tool section, the rope section, the drum section, the shoe section, and the soap and cream quarter, where women gather in clutches to buy shea butter made from the fruit of the flamboyant tree. The din of conversation-both commercial and intimate-is an intoxicating rhapsody.

My clients ask me about the difficulty of traveling to the Dogon country. No, you don’t have to camp or trek - although you can! There is an adequate lodge at Sangha (called an encampment) with simple rooms and attached baths with hot water at certain hours of the day. Believe me, it’s worth roughing it for two days. Since the 1930s anthropologists have been lured to the Dogon culture to study their unusual mud and thatch architecture, masked stilt dances, and complex belief systems.

Lastly, I fly to the 'ends of the earth', Timbuktu. I amble through that fabled town, formerly the heart of the Sahara salt, gold, and slave trade, visiting houses of the former explorer’s like Rene Caille. With permission of the Imam of Timbuktu, I always drop in at the new museum, where rare 16th century Islamic manuscripts, tell of a city of intellectuals in which every family owned its own library.

On the front end of this trip, I'm looping in Togo and Benin, regions steeped in voodoo. Witness ceremonies that will transport you to another time as fetishers (voodoo high priests) perform sacrifices, chant prayers, and utter praises to the ancestral spirits. The village communities join in frenzied dances falling into deep trances that sometimes lead to catatonic states with muscle spasms.

Yours in Travel,

Kathleen Fung

Far Fung Places

My Other Worlds - eastern Bhutan

Another fascinating part of the world is Bhutan. For nearly two decades I’ve been journeying to Bhutan, finding deeper connections each time I revisit. Since 2004 I have specifically focused on eastern Bhutan identifying artisans still making crafts and textiles by hand in the time honored ways. In this age of globalization there is often a disconnection between the artist and the finished product. How often have we purchased a beautiful textile not knowing how it was made or the woven story it portrayed through its rich motifs? The number of master craftsmen is diminishing year to year, which threatens the knowledge as the skill is passed down orally from generation to generation. Last year I spent nearly four weeks in Eastern Bhutan hiking on rugged mountain trials to meet master craftsmen in their 80s. This June I return to continue my research of these unknown heroes who are preserving the future by honoring the past

Modernization and westernization have not taken over this remote region, the poorest in the country, where ancient traditions still thrive. Villagers still gather for bon festivals (Bonism, or nature worship, was the belief system before Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan) to appease the local deities. In Drametse, a heritage village in a mountain summit, locals bow deeply to show respect. A departing guest might be given cooked red rice in a banchung (woven two-lidded basket) or ara (the national drink of Bhutan made from grain) in a palang to assure a safe journey.

Where is eastern Bhutan? If you look at a map of Bhutan, you’ll see that it’s divided into districts. Start from the west at Paro district and keep moving east past Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdueprodrong, Trongsa, and Bumthang districts until you come to Mongar, the administrative capital of the east. The space in between covers a lot of ground, about 300 miles through mountainous terrain. From Mongar, look north to Lhuntshi, which borders China, then drop down to Trashiyangtse, Pemagatsel, Trashigang, and Samdrup Jongkhar. Within this region lie the Sharchops, the people of eastern Bhutan, with ancestral ties to Tibetans, Burmese, and the people of Yunnan province in China. In addition to their village dialects, they speak Sharchopa, a completely different language from Dzongka, spoken in the rest of the country.

Previously a traveler bound for eastern Bhutan had to start in western Bhutan and drive clear across the country, a solid three-day journey through mountainous terrain. To encourage travel to the east, the government has approved tourist entry from Assam, its neighbor to the southeast. A traveler can fly from Delhi or Bangkok to Guwahati, Assam, and then journey by car four hours to the border of Bhutan at Samdrup Jongkhar. With newly constructed feeder roads linking remote villages, some recently electrified, travelers can go beyond the large towns of Mongar and Trashigang to explore rural communities previously a four hour walk from the road. Although eastern Bhutan’s infrastructure is still fragile, travelers can stay in comfortable, clean hotels with private facilities. The big moon festivals in spring like the Gomkora draw thousands of Sharchops and Merak people, dressed in their finest attire for days of sacred dances, blessings, and trading. Anyone interested in ethnology should not miss a journey to East Bhutan, 2011. Watch for our March 2011 journey featuring the Gomkora Festival, which is being led by Karchung our manager in Bhutan.

Tariffs will rise to $250 per person per day in 2012, so if you are interested in seeing a unique part of Bhutan, as yet undiscovered, join us for eastern Bhutan.

Kathleen Fung

Far Fung Places