I’m well overdue for a blog post! So much has been happening in the past few months. Who knew life could get so busy during autumn and winter in Bhutan! I completed my Masters, we played tour guide for a number of visitors and we also left to spend a couple of weeks in the warmer climes of India over Christmas/New Year as many Bhutanese do at this time of year also. But for now, this post focuses on autumn in Bhutan, our visitors and some of the traditional festivals we attended.
The period between the monsoon rains finishing in late September and before it starts getting cold (mid November) is a beautiful time in Bhutan. The mountains take their cloudy hats off offering clear distant views, the air is fresh but the days are sunny and dry. This is harvest season. Whole communities are out in the fields harvesting the rice and buckwheat by hand. Absenteeism from offices in Thimphu is higher than usual as people go back to their villages to lend an extra pair of hands to the task. And everywhere, bright red and green chillies are spread out to dry on rooftops in preparation for the cold winter months.
This time is also peak tourist season. While the number of ‘Chillups’ around town are noticeably greater, it feels far from being overrun thanks to Bhutan’s policy of low volume, high value tourism. While there is no precise quota, the daily tariff of US$250 per day (a pre-paid amount which covers your accommodation, meals and transport) naturally keeps numbers down. Initially I had mixed feelings about this policy as it makes this amazing place out of reach to so many people including many of our family and friends who may have otherwise visited us this year. On the other hand it protects Bhutan’s unique environment and culture, matches supply and demand in a controlled and managed way and creates an exclusivity about visiting Bhutan which works to the country’s advantage in marketing itself.
I spent last weekend in Kathmandu, Nepal which is only a 1 hour flight from Bhutan and must be one of the most scenic trips in the world passing directly by Mt Everest. While Nepal is the only other Himalayan country of the original 6 that has retained sovereignty (Tibet having been swallowed up by China, and Sikkim, Assam and Ladakh by India), it was interesting to experience the contrasts with Bhutan, particularly regarding its approach to tourism. Applying for a visa on arrival in Nepal was incredibly easy whereas obtaining a visa to Bhutan is notoriously difficult. But with that comes some drawbacks. Nepal is much more touristy than Bhutan with shop keepers and taxi drivers constantly touting for your custom. It is much more crowded with both tourists and locals alike while Bhutan is quite sparsley populated. It also suffers from industrial pollution, so much so that our return flight was delayed by 2 hours due to the thick smog hanging in the valley. Merely one hour later we landed in Bhutan amid clear blue skies. Having written in my last post about the highly revered monarchs in Bhutan, the other interesting comparison was visiting the Palace in Kathmandu where the Nepali Royal Family had been murdered by one of their own in 2001. That leaves Bhutan as the only surviving Himalayan Kingdom. I can see now why they like to call Bhutan the last Shangri La!
Bhutanese citizens are entitled to invite 2 foreign guests per year to visit Bhutan who are exempt from paying the US$250/day, but they have to have met outside of Bhutan. Likewise, as Jordi holds a Bhutanese work permit, he was provided the same entitlement but only after we had been in Bhutan for 6 months. We later discovered that parents (of the one with the work permit) can be allowed in addition to the 2 ‘guests’. The 6 month mark for us clicked over at the beginning of September, so during the beautiful Bhutanese autumn we were fortunate enough to have visits firstly from my Mum and then Jordi’s parents (plus my Aunt who came on a private tour).
For the standard tourist to Bhutan it is mandatory to travel with a tour guide and a driver. So as we travelled around Bhutan with our ‘guests’ we were often asked “Where is your Guide?” or “You don’t have a Guide?”. It was great to play tour guide for our visitors and have the opportunity to see Bhutan anew through their eyes, which made us realise how much we’d learned and absorbed about this country and its culture, people and traditions.
There are many Tshechu (festivals) at this time of year and we were able to take in several of them with our visitors. I purchased a new Kira especially for the Thimphu Tshechu. Tshechu time is when everyone dresses in their finest outfits. Kiras can cost anything from AU$12 for basic machine made cotton to AU$1,400 for hand woven and embroided silk on silk (known as Kushuthara) which can take up to a year to make and are absolutely exquisite. I went for a middle of the road Kira of silk embroided on cotton for the equivalent of AU$130 which I will take home with me as one of my treasured souvenirs from Bhutan. The expensive ones are often woven by the female members of the family in the village homes and passed down from generation to generation.
The masked dances are the key feature of Tshechu. And in fact, one of the traditional masked dances that is performed as part of Tshechu festivals (the Drametse Ngachham) is recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Bhutan as yet does not have any physical UNESCO world heritage sites. There is a national park (Manas) that straddles the Bhutan-India border where the Indian side is already recognised but the Bhutanese side is still being considered. In many ways the whole of Bhutan could be a UNESCO world heritage site given its incredible natural beauty, intact biodiversity and widespread and well preserved unique traditional architecture. However, the influx of tourists that the UNESCO world heritage ‘tag’ brings would seem to be in direct conflict with their tourism policy. I have already witnessed this to some extent when attending the Tshechu festivals. International tourists with their large tripods and mega telephoto lenses take up prime position with seemingly little consideration of the locals for whom such festivals are an important religious observance.
Thimphu’s Tshechu occurred in late September/early October and was held in Tashicho Dzong at the northern end of town. Prior to Tshechu is what is known as Drubchen which is 3 days of dances within the Dzong courtyard and has a more intimate feel. The Tshechu itself attracts many more people and is held in the large formal festival ground adjacent to the Dzong. Being the capital, the dancers who perform here are often professional, selected from RAPA (Royal Academy of Performing Arts), whereas in other districts they are generally performed by the monks and laypeople.
In Phobjikha valley we were there on the day prior to the Gangtey Goempa Tshechu and witnessed the monks rehearsing without their masks, allowing us to see the expressions of concentration as they twirled to the sound of the traditional drums and horns.
In Bumthang valley, the Tshechu at Thangbi Mani has a unique element. 2 large bonfires are lit on the river bank until they are a roaring inferno and participants run between them in frenzied excitement and it is believed to cleanse one’s sins in the process.
Another key element of many Tshechus is the unveiling of the Thondrel, a huge religious embroidery that fills a whole façade of the Dzong or monastery. It is usually unveilied on the last day of Tshechu, very early in the morning before the sun’s rays have a chance to fade the cloth. Devotees line up to receive blessings from this amazing work of art.
By the time our final ‘guest’, Jordi’s sister Juliette, visited us in December, winter had well and truly set in. The Black Neck Cranes had arrived in Phobjikha valley, their winter roosting ground. At the homestay where we stayed it was impossible to flush the toilet first thing in the morning as the water in the pipes had frozen overnight! A long soak in the hot stone bath and sitting around the bukhari (combustion stove) with a glass of ara (local homebrewed spirit) were a welcome way to warm up in the cold evenings!
Bhutan doesn’t have ‘daylight saving’ as in some other countries where the clocks change to account for longer or shorter daylight hours. Instead, Government offices (Jordi’s included) transition to “winter hours” in early November which means they finish the work day at 4pm instead of 5pm (but they don’t start any earlier)! With the long dark evenings and not much to do we started teaching salsa classes …. but I’ll save that story for another post!