20 – Embracing Impermanence

I was about to publish this blog yesterday morning when the very sad news came through that my Nana had passed away.  All of a sudden the title of this post took on a whole new meaning.  What was a post about our 12 months in Bhutan coming to an end had broader implications of the impermanence of life itself.  And this was quite significant because in the blog post I was exploring some of the Buddhist teachings that I’d picked up this year including the Buddhist approach to the cycle of life and death.

What prompted me to write a bit about Buddhism was that Jordi and I had been reflecting on the highlights and challenges of our time here and we mostly agreed on everything except for this one.  Jordi would list Buddhism under challenges, but I would actually consider it as one of the highlights.  For me it has been a fascinating experience to learn a bit about Buddhist teachings and experience how it is manifested in everyday life, in the only country in the world where Buddhism is the national religion.

Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan from Tibet in the 13th Century.  It is so ingrained in the culture that Bhutan would just not be the same without it.  On an aesthetic level, it makes the visual landscape what it is: for instance, the colourful prayer flags strung up on mountain sides, sending prayers on the wind to all sentient beings;  the prayer wheels housed in chu mani harnessing hydropower to spin the wheel and ring a little bell, likewise to send prayers to all sentient beings;  and of course the other structures dotted across the landscape such as mani walls, stupas and Lhakangs which house important Buddhist relics and are places of worship.

Pre 1960’s, when the modern education system was introduced to Bhutan, entering the monastic body was the only way to receive a formal education.  The monastic system still remains alongside the modern school system.  The peaceful nature of the country might have something to do with the fact that there are more monks than military in Bhutan (approx. 10,000 monks in a population of 750,000).  There are also Buddhist nuns but a lot fewer of them.  The head Lama of the country, known as the Je Khempo, is considered to have the same status as the King.

At a deeper level, many of the Buddhist teachings I’ve picked up through the year really resonate with me.  Particularly the parallels between some of the Buddhist concepts and modern scientific thinking: for instance between the concept of interdependence/samsara/reincarnation with systems thinking; the concept of karma with Newton’s Third Law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; and that Buddha urged followers to think freely, question everything, don’t blindly follow.

I also made a link in my own head between Buddhism and Shakespeare and a quick google search revealed that I’m certainly not the first one to do that!  This was specifically in regard to the Buddhist practice of training the mind through meditation to overcome suffering and promote compassion, with the notion that all such things originate from the mind.  This immediately made me think of the quote from Hamlet: “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so!”

Connected to this is that a lot of our suffering stems from our attachment to things.  Buddhism teaches that we need to train our mind to let go and understand the impermanence of all things.

…….. just like our time in beautiful Bhutan!  …  and in a broader sense life itself

 

 

And just for the record, here are some of the highlights and challenges of our year in Bhutan, what we’re looking forward to about returning home and what we’ll probably find challenging about being in Australia again.

The highlights include:

  • The spectacular natural environment (mountains, forests, rivers, lakes)
  • Outdoor activities (hiking, cycling, running, rafting). In fact, this is the subject of Jordi’s blog https://bhutanrunsandrides.wordpress.com/
  • The beautiful Bhutanese people with their unique wisdom and welcoming hospitality
  • The wonderful friendships we’ve made both Bhutanese and Chillips
  • The meaty conversations and exchange of ideas on Politics, Religion, GNH, Development and everything in between, particularly at conferences such as Mountain Echoes and E3
  • Feeling that we’ve made a positive contribution in the various voluntary work we’ve undertaken, and for me personally the variety of activities I’ve got involved in as a freelance volunteer
  • Field trips to remote parts of the country along crazy winding roads and on foot
  • Both finishing our Master’s degrees while in Bhutan and being able to integrate examples from Bhutan into our studies
  • Homestays (staying with a family and getting an insight into the lifestyle in rural Bhutan)
  • Hot stone baths
  • Traditional architecture and Dzongs
  • Festivals
  • Experiencing the changing of the seasons
  • The view from our little apartment (across the glinting golden temple rooftops of Changangkha Lhakang to the snow capped mountains beyond and the city of Thimphu in the valley below)
  • Experiencing cultural integrity
  • That it’s not overrun by tourists thanks to Bhutan’s tourism policy (although 2015 has been declared “visit Bhutan year”)
  • Discovering or reviving pass times such as snooker/chess (Jordi) and meditation/yoga (me)
  • Personal and professional development in a different cultural context

The challenges have been:

  • Getting used to the large number of stray dogs and their nightime barking
  • The driving culture (a different approach to roundabouts and pedestrian crossings than we expect in the west)
  • The spitting of Doma (a stimulant consisting of an areca nut, a betel leaf and lime paste which when chewed produces a red saliva)
  • Waste management
  • The cultural tendency to place blame and find excuses to save face
  • BST (Bhutan Stretchable Time)
  • While we’ve loved the Bhutanese food and beer after a while we’ve started craving some variety

What we’re looking forward to:

  • Reconnecting with family and friends
  • Fresh seafood, fresh salads, tropical fruit and variety of cuisine in general
  • Pale ales and good red wine
  • Good coffee (although Ambient Café is pretty good!)
  • Multiculturalism
  • Swimming at the beach and ocean baths
  • An ergonomic office set-up
  • A work culture we’re familiar with
  • Our own comfortable bed
  • Our bath/shower
  • An oven
  • ABC TV, Triple J radio and the Saturday SMH newspaper
  • Getting back into our interests such as Parkrun, choir, film society, gardening etc
  • Going to the cinema
  • Driving a car/scooter again
  • Seeing what’s changed and what’s the same in our home town
  • Returning to some of our favourite cafes and restaurants
  • Going camping
  • Our Graduation

What we’ll probably find challenging:

  • Consumerist values
  • An increase in administrative stuff
  • The price of things
  • Less predictable weather
  • Bogans
  • Driving again

Thank you to all the wonderful people who have touched our lives this year.  To steal a line from one of the other Aussie volunteers, “it’s the people that make the place”.  We are the last of our batch of AVIDs who arrived a year ago to be leaving.  It is the week of farewells with a beautiful picnic in the forest last Sunday and Jordi’s workplace farewell dinner last night.  But we dearly hope to have the opportunity to come back to Bhutan one day.

Group Photo

 

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“These mist covered mountains

Are a home now to me.

But my home is the lowlands

And always will be”

 

R.I.P. Nana.  Perhaps we’ll meet again in the next life.

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19 – From Boedra to Salsa

Within the last few months we somehow went from learning and performing a traditional Bhutanese folk dance to teaching salsa classes!

The 5th December 2014 was International Volunteer Day.  In Bhutan, various international and local volunteer organisations got together under the leadership of the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) to celebrate the day with an event in Thimphu’s Clocktower Square.  The event included stalls for volunteer organisations to present their work and recruit more volunteers, speeches, a discussion panel on volunteerism and musical entertainment.

In the planning stage for the event, the question was, what sort of entertainment should we have? An idea was proposed that it could be fun for international volunteers to perform a traditional Bhutanese dance and for Bhutanese volunteers to perform an international (Japanese) dance to promote the cross-cultural aspect of volunteerism.  So for a few weeks leading up to the event, Bhutanese volunteers learned a Japanese fisherman dance.  And meanwhile, a group of Australian, Thai, Finnish and American volunteers under the coaching of our wonderful Bhutanese teachers, Tshering and Tenzin, learned a Boedra dance.  Boedra is a traditional folk dance of Bhutan performed by men and women.  For the performance itself, one of the Aussie volunteers was able to source matching kiras and ghos for us from her school’s drama department.  And this was the result:

 

 

Even though Bhutanese folk dances tend to be very slow and sedate, it’s actually harder than it looks!  Despite making a few mistakes along the way we had so much fun and made some wonderful friends in the process!

When our teacher Tshering discovered that Jordi and I danced salsa she was quite excited and exclaimed that she’d always wanted to learn salsa!  She asked us if we could run some classes.  She found us a venue and “Salsa Bhutan” was born: a 5 week beginner’s salsa course through January and February.  Our students were a mix of Chillips and Bhutanese.

Last week we found ourselves back on stage at Clocktower Square, but this time it was our students, performing the salsa routine we taught them, as part of the program of the first ever Bhutan International Festival!  This festival ran for 10 days and brought together all sorts of collaborations between Bhutanese and international artists in the fields of music, dance, art, photography, film etc.  It was quite an ambitious program for the first one but despite a few teething problems it was a great success and is set to be an annual event.  I was really proud of our salsa students who were able to perform what would normally be considered an intermediate level routine after only 5 weeks!

We had to get a bit creative with our costumes, given that it was impossible to buy stretch fabric in Bhutan.  A friend had the great idea of making them from a bunch of red t-shirts.  The body of the t-shirt became the girls skirt, the sleeve of the t-shirt became the guys neck tie and the collar of the t-shirt became the band around the guys fedora hats!

The funds we raised from the class registration fee will be donated to Camp Rural Urban Friendship (CampRUF) a non-profit organisation which brings together rural and urban youth for camps during school holidays to bridge the ever widening rural/urban divide in Bhutan.

Aside from the salsa teaching, I was also involved with the photography component of the Bhutan International Festival assisting with the curation of an International Photography Competition and 2 outdoor photography exhibitions.

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Luckily I still had some time to participate in some of the other creative workshops that were taking place as part of the festival, such as the fashion design workshop.  In fact, today I found out that I won the design competition and my design (inspired by a traditional Bhutanese Kira) is going to be made by a Bhutanese non-profit textile organisation!

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The festival culminated in the Bhutan International Marathon in Punakha valley.  Jordi entered the half marathon and came 7th (out of 117 participants) and was the first Chillip to cross the line (in 89mins).  For Jordi’s overview of the event, check out his blog post.

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While I was busy supporting Jordi and our other friends who were running, I received a call inviting me to meet the King and Queen of Bhutan!  They had requested an audience with the Bhutan International Festival artists and organisers.  However, with only 2 hours notice and being a 3 hour drive away there was no way I was going to make it in time!  So it looks like I missed my opportunity.  I did however, shake hands with one of the Princesses as I went up to receive the certificates on behalf of the Photography competition winners during the festival awards ceremony.  I had to learn and rehearse the correct way to bow in a kira to Bhutanese royalty and I think I pulled it off!

18 – Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

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.

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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.

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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 TshechuTshechu 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

17 – Brush with Royalty

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On November 11th, whilst much of the world was commemorating Remembrance Day, the Bhutanese were celebrating the birthday of their highly revered fourth King (popularly known as K4).  This year marks the commencement of his 60th year in which many events are planned, culminating in an even bigger celebration this time next year.  In Thimphu, thousands gathered at the National Stadium for a program of speeches and cultural performances.  We dressed up in our Kira and Gho and went along to be part of the celebrations, hoping to finally catch a glimpse of Royalty which had so far evaded us in our 8 months here.  School kids marched with banners declaring “Happy Birthday Your Majesty”, there were traditional dances performed and a bunch of balloons were released into the clear blue sky carrying the message “Long Live Our King”.  But unfortunately, K4 didn’t grace his own birthday party (or not this one anyway).  I was once again bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t seen K4 or K5 for that matter, but little did I know this was going to change.

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First though, a bit about why K4 is so loved by the people.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck (K4) was born on November 11th 1955, the only brother among 4 sisters born to the 3rd King of Bhutan.  As a young Prince he undertook his secondary education in India and England as well as Bhutan.  His ascendance to the throne was unexpectedly premature due to the sudden death of his father.  But this new responsibility that was thrust upon him at the age of 17, making him the youngest monarch in the world, was evidently something he had been well prepared for as time would soon tell.

The Bhutan he inherited in 1972 was an idyllic Himalayan Kingdom just emerging from centuries of self-imposed isolation.  The list of achievements made during his 34 year reign are quite phenomenal:

  • Opened Bhutan to tourism
  • Coined Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the guiding philosophy for the country’s development
  • Connected far flung regions of Bhutan via road and to the electricity grid
  • Established insurance
  • Continued to build up the modern system of education constructing schools and colleges throughout the country
  • Built up a modern health system of hospitals and health centres throughout the country
  • Provided clean safe drinking water
  • Established the National Environment Commission and Bhutan Trust Fund for the Environment
  • Established the first banks and securities exchange
  • Established the first national airline
  • Commenced the development of hydropower
  • Established Bhutan Broadcasting Service and opened up to foreign media, television and the internet
  • Established a postal service
  • Established diplomatic relations with other countries and joined international bodies such as UN, IMF, World Bank etc
  • United the country with the desire to preserve its unique cultural heritage, values and national identity

But perhaps his most significant achievement and the one he is most known for is how he gradually and systematically prepared the country and its citizens for democracy, through the decentralisation of administrative powers, the strengthening of the judiciary, the writing of a constitution, the establishment of an electoral commission and an anti-corruption commission and ultimately relinquishing control of the government to the people.  The final act was his selfless abdication from the throne in 2006, handing his son a democratic constitutional monarchy.  That same year he was listed in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.  Bhutan’s first democratic parliamentary elections were then held peacefully and successfully in 2008.

“As I hand over my responsibilities to my son, I repose my full faith and belief in the people of Bhutan to look after the future of our nation, for it is the Bhutanese people who are the true custodians of our tradition and culture and the ultimate guardians of the security, sovereignty and continued well-being of our country”  (9th December 2006)

Part of the celebrations on the 11th November included the launching of a website specifically for this coming year of celebrations, showing a time line of his achievements, photo gallery of his reign and calendar of events.  A special publication looking back over the years of his reign was also published and distributed with the national newspaper.

Aside from his achievements, he is also known for having 4 wives who are all sisters.  His wives are all still very active in public life sitting on various charity boards etc.  One of them was recently in Australia raising money for girls education in Bhutan.

To date, our only brush with Bhutanese royalty was a delightful meeting and lunch with one of the princesses (K4’s niece and the current King’s cousin).  This came about because she studied her final years of high school in Australia 12 years ago where Jordi’s Dad was her Maths teacher.

Today, however, I was out for a bike ride with a friend on the quiet country road that heads north from Thimphu towards Jigme Dorji National Park (named after the 3rd King of Bhutan).  And there, riding towards us in the opposite direction on his mountain bike, wearing a smart but simple grey Gho, was K4 also out for a leisurely Saturday morning ride!  I greeted him with a “Kuzuzangpo la” and a bow of the head and he replied “hello” in English!  If I’d had my wits about me I would have also wished him a belated Happy Birthday, but I was just a little bit start struck!  Where else in the world could you meet the highly revered ex-King of the country riding a bike unaccompanied on a quiet country road?  Everyone has their stories of their brush with K4 and now I finally have mine!

As a final note, perhaps it is an indication of the humility of the man that despite how much his people love him and go to great lengths to honour his birthday with a great deal of fanfare … as he enters his autumn years with a phenomenal list of achievements behind him, K4 prefers the simple pleasure derived from a solitary bike ride along a quiet country road.

16 – Energy, Economy and Environment

Bhutan is in a very unique and interesting stage in its development at this moment in time.  It is one of the 48 “Least Developed Countries” in the world as defined by the UN, but with a goal to graduate to a “Middle Income Country” by 2020.  A large part of its economic growth strategy hinges on its ability to exploit the pristine fast flowing rivers running through the country in the form of hydropower and export the electricity to neighbouring India.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a conference here in Thimphu entitled “E3, Ideas at the confluence of Energy, Economy and Environment”.  It was an exceptionally well run and very interesting 3 day event held at the fabulous Taj Tashi hotel.  Local delegates (from the hydropower corporations, various government ministries, academia, the private sector and environmental groups) as well as delegates from all over the world came together to explore this E3 nexus in the context of Bhutan.  Not only did I glean some invaluable information for my final Masters project, I also made some new friends and met some truly inspiring people.  This post is based on my thoughts and learnings coming out of that conference.  (p.s. that’s me with the green folder in the 3rd row!)

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In 2006 the Royal Government of Bhutan signed an agreement with the Government of India to develop 5,000 Mega Watts (MW) capacity of hydropower which was then upgraded in 2009 to a commitment of 10,000 MW by 2020.  There are currently 4 large hydropower plants in operation in Bhutan, another 4 under construction and a further 12 planned in order to reach this target.

Even with only the first 4 being online, hydropower is already the single biggest contributor to Bhutan’s GDP (14%) and contributes 29% of the government’s revenue (tourism is the next largest contributor).  In comparison with its Himalayan neighbours, Bhutan is now the best economically performing state per capita.

However, despite this progress, Bhutan’s current account deficit is 23.5% of GDP due to the large financing loans the Royal Government of Bhutan incurs from the Government of India to fund the capital cost of constructing the hydropower plants.  And this will only get worse before it gets better.  The 4 plants currently under construction are costing US$3.2 Billion and the 12 proposed projects are estimated to cost in the order of US$11.2 Billion.  Even though they are financed on a part grant/part loan basis (on a ratio of 30:70 for the latest ones), many people have raised concerns about this level of foreign debt. Others argue it is self-sustaining and by 2020, Bhutan will be raking it in.

Thanks to a huge nation building effort over the past few decades, almost all households across Bhutan are now connected to the electricity grid – a mean feat given the topography.  As a result, power is widespread and it’s also fairly consistent and reliable by comparison to its Asian neighbours.  The country is currently meeting its domestic demand except for periods in winter when electricity has to be imported. Most of the year Bhutan generates surplus power which is sold to India where there is a huge and ever growing energy demand.

Yet, while Bhutan is exporting what most people consider to be ‘green’ hydropower, it is still a net importer of energy: in the form of the more greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting energy sources of gas (for cooking) and fuel (for cars).

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Bhutan is the only country in the world to be carbon neutral and it has made a commitment to remain so.  This is easily achieved currently due to the fact that there are hardly any polluting industries and there is a large expanse of forest cover (with a constitutional commitment that it never drop below 60% coverage).  However, as the population becomes more affluent and starts using more energy, domestic demand is forecast to rise.  In fact, one study suggests that in a business as usual scenario, emissions are forecast to exceed Bhutan’s carbon sequestration capacity in around 2035.  To combat this, Bhutan will need to overcome its domestic dependence on fossil fuels.

One of the challenges to reducing domestic GHG emissions is that the main source of energy in Bhutan is still biomass (burning wood for cooking/heating).  This not only depletes the forests but is also a significant contributor to the country’s GHG emissions.  Efforts are being made to improve the efficiency of wood burning stoves but also to wean people off using wood in preference for electricity for cooking and heating. In an attempt to facilitate this, the government provides a certain quota of electricity free to rural people.  However, there is a huge cultural barrier to overcome here, and hence this strategy has had little to no success to date.  Further, there is little incentive to invest in alternative renewable energy options even though Bhutan has proven potential in wind power, solar hot water heating and biogas. This is because electricity is already reliable and plentiful; hydropower is already considered to be ‘green’; and alternatives can’t yet compete with hydro on price.  [Just to give an idea, our monthly electricity bill for the two of us living in a 1 bedroom apartment in the capital city is the equivalent of about AU$6.  In Australia, for the equivalent time period and similar energy usage we’d pay about AU$100 per month].

The other main source of GHG emissions is transport. The only form of ‘public transport’ in Bhutan is the 20 seater Coaster buses that ply a handful of city circuits and the long distance routes between Thimphu and distant towns and villages.  The idea of building a train line between Bhutan and India was recently scrapped.  As the road network expands and affluence increases, more of the population can afford vehicles. In response, the government is encouraging people to buy electric cars though tax incentives and high import tariffs on petrol cars. In theory, electric cars would be recharged from the ‘green’ hydropower, but until the infrastructure for recharging is established, nobody wants to be stuck in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayan mountains with a flat battery!

You’ve probably noticed by now the inverted commas each time I mention ‘green’ hydropower.  Here’s where I come to the question, how ‘green’ is hydropower really?  The Royal Government of Bhutan’s seemingly single minded focus on hydropower and its big push to develop this quickly is being questioned by several onlookers in terms of how it stacks up against Gross National Happiness (GNH), the cornerstone of Bhutan’s development philosophy.  Does it satisfy economic, environmental, social and good governance goals (the 4 pillars of GNH)?  And is this fast pace out of step with the more considered ‘middle path’ approach Bhutan has taken to date?

Environmentally, the negative impacts caused by these hydropower plants appear to be being played down somewhat.  The common argument is that most of the impacts occur during the construction phase (dust, noise, downstream pollution) so they are temporary and the Environmental Management Plans (EMP) includes mitigation measures to combat these impacts.  How effectively those EMP measures are implemented, monitored and evaluated however, is another question.  Similarly, what about the impact of the transmission lines which cut a swathe through the forests.  Further, with the impacts of climate change already being felt (glaciers retreating, monsoon season becoming less predictable and extreme weather events becoming more prevalent), what risks does this pose on the hydro schemes from upstream activities (e.g. increased sedimentation and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods).  Conversely, are the projects going to exacerbate climate change impacts for more vulnerable downstream communities in terms of the quality and quantity of water for drinking and irrigation?

Likewise, the social impacts (displacement, health issues, etc) also seem to be being played down with the argument that families displaced as a result of these projects are well compensated, are offered jobs on the project and financial shares in its operation.

On the plus side, the revenue from the sale of power across the border is used to develop Bhutan’s hospitals, education system and other national infrastructure to the benefit of all Bhutanese.  In fact, this is a significant argument used in favour of retaining state ownership of these plants as opposed to opening it up to private development. To date there is no policy structure for private sector development of hydro in Bhutan.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in the next 6 years and beyond.  There is this idea that Bhutan could become “the Saudi Arabia of hydropower” for the South Asian market, but at what cost and what risk to this little Himalayan Kingdom and its GNH?  Will there be any river in Bhutan that will remain un-dammed?

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Thank you to the QED group for organising a fantastic conference and I acknowledge QED as the source of the 2 images used in this post.

 

15 – Druk Path Trek

As thousands gathered in cities throughout the world last Sunday for “the biggest climate march in history” a small group of us were undertaking our own march of sorts … through muddy pine forests, over high mountain passes, across icy cold rivers and along the rocky ridges of Bhutan’s Himalayas.  Normally, the Druk Path (from Paro the Thimpu) is a 5 to 6 day trek with mules to carry your gear and a team of local porters, cooks and guides.  This team of mules were carrying all the gear for a another group who were doing the doing the trek at the same time as us:

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We, however, decided to attempt it in 3 days carrying all our own gear (tents, food, everything).  What a crazy idea!

There were 6 of us in the group: our 2 canadian friends Scott and Chris from our apartment building, David who has recently arrived from the U.S., Jordi, myself and our Bhutanese Guide, Tshering.

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Physically, I felt fairly well prepared.  We had done several day hikes on weekends during the past few months around Thimphu.  Thatspa peak – a 22km, 11hr walk ascending to 4000m ASL:

Thatspa 2 hike

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And Talakha peak – a 19km, 10hr walk ascending to 4200m ASL:

Talakha Peak Hike

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What I wasn’t prepared for with our 3 day Druk Path Trek however was the weather!  We started planning it some time ago and actually chose the 3 days leading up to “Blessed Rainy Day” (23rd September) which traditionally signals the end of the wet season, in the hope that the worst of the monsoon rains would be over and we would have good weather.  Til now it had been a fairly ‘mild’ monsoon season.  Sure enough, it decided to make up for lost time in the final 3 days of the season!  (A cyclone hanging over the north east of India sent non-stop rain our way for almost 3 days straight).

The trek starts from above the Dzong in Paro and climbs steeply up to Jili Dzong from where it more or less follows the ridge line to Jimilang Tsho (lake) at the farthest point.  From here the path comes down to Thimphu via Phajodhing monestery (see yellow route on map below).  Our plan was to camp the first night at Jangchulakha and the second night at Simkotra Tsho.  On the morning of our second day the guide that was with the other group who had also camped the night at Jangchulakha warned us that Jimilang Tsho lake had swollen with all this rain and the path was impassable.  As a result we had to take a detour (the red route).  This required a steep descent on a ridiculously muddy path and crossing an icy cold knee deep raging river and then climbing up the other side.   I took one look at the river and almost had a break down.  Before I really knew what was happening, one of the guides that was with the other group told me to jump on his back and he carried me across.  He was incredibly strong and sure footed for such a slightly built guy!  And I was eternally grateful that I didn’t have to walk the rest of the day in wet boots … although, by the time we reached camp that night, my boots and socks were soaked through from several more creek crossings, marshy meadows and rain.

Druk Path

The rain continued incessantly.  Pitching and packing up camp was particularly tough.  As was the freezing cold – we were unable to make a fire as the wood was too wet.

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The main disappointment after climbing so high (up to 4,200m ASL), was that there were no views – it was a complete white out most of the time.  So it didn’t matter that we had so much distance to cover and limited time to stop and admire the view … as there was hardly any view to admire anyway!

 

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Miserable weather aside, the lakes that we passed were quite beautiful, and eerie in the mist, reminding me somewhat of Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain National Park.

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The icy waters of these lakes and rivers make their way here from the glaciers in the far north of the country.  The glaciers of the Himalayas are the 3rd largest area of ice in the world (after the Arctic and Antarctic).    These waters continue south into India and Bangladesh.  In fact, 40% of the world’s population get half of their drinking water from this source.  It truly is a vast pristine wilderness.  “The land that time forgot” and “The Last Shangri La” are cliches often associated with Bhutan.

But while Bhutan absorbs more carbon than it produces, it is not immune to the impacts of global climate change.  In recent decades these glaciers have been retreating much more rapidly due to global warming.  Areas that were once glaciers are now huge glacial lakes and the build up of water pressure on the terminal moraine is increasing the risk of GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods).  Downstream settlements may have as little as 20 minutes warning to evacuate.  Of the 2674 glacial lakes in Bhutan, 24 have been identified by a recent study as candidates for GLOFs in the near future.

So it was heartening to read about the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets in the People’s climate march (400,000 in New York City alone), to appeal to world leaders for action on climate change.

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…. and meanwhile, there was definitely a sense of personal achievement in finishing this mammoth trek in tough conditions!

 

 

14 – Architecture and Construction Bhutan style

My volunteer work at the moment is focused on the village planning projects with the Ministry of Works and Human Settlements (MoWHS) (my other jobs either being complete or having taken a back seat for a while).  Given that I’m currently on a uni break and working more in the MoWHS office, they’ve also asked me to prepare some conceptual designs for modern buildings but in the traditional Bhutanese style, for some steep sites in a new village in the far East of Bhutan.  So it seems an appropriate time to write a long overdue post on Bhutanese architecture.

Traditionally, buildings in Bhutan have always been built without plans by skilled craftsmen who pass on their knowledge and skills from generation to generation.  Qualified Architects in the modern western sense are a relatively new phenomenon in Bhutan.  The Senior Planner I report to in the Department of Human Settlements, Mr. Ugyen, (6 years my senior) studied Architecture in India and when he returned to Bhutan with his qualification, was the 13th Architect in Bhutan!  (There are now around 70 qualified Architects in the whole of Bhutan).  He went on to obtain a Masters in Urban Planning from the University of South Australia in 2001 and now heads the Regional Planning and Development Division within the Department.  This is a team of only 6 people who are responsible for planning throughout the entire country outside of the few major urban centres.  This is an area roughly comparable in size to the Hunter Valley and Greater Sydney combined, but with a population size similar to the Hunter region only, spread across some of the most inaccessible and rugged terrain in the world.

To date there are no Architecture courses offered in the colleges and Universities of Bhutan, so all Bhutanese Architects qualify overseas.  There is a huge emphasis on education in Bhutan lead by a push from both the Monarchs and the Government.  The Government provides a lot of scholarships to Bhutanese school leavers to enable them to further their education abroad.  The Australian government has also been providing scholarships for Bhutanese students to study at Australian Universities since the 70’s under the Colombo Plan.  I met the Vice Chancellor of the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) at the launch of the Bhutan Australia Alumni Association last month.  He was one of the first to study in Australia.  He was sent to Perth as a young boy to complete high school followed by a university undergrad degree in teaching.  These days the Australia Awards program focuses on Masters and PHD scholarships.  This year the program received over 400 applications for a possible 50 scholarships.  Australia is a very popular destination for Bhutanese wishing to further their studies.   Recently it was announced that the same program will soon be supporting Australian students to study in Bhutan.  While Architecture is not yet offered here, Engineering (civil, electrical, electronic & IT) is offered at the College of Science and Technology in the southern city of Phuentsholing.   The first law school for Bhutan is currently being established just outside Paro.   And according the VC, the Royal University of Bhutan may be offering Architecture in the near future.

I recently met the current president of the Bhutan Institute of Architects  (the professional association for Architects in Bhutan) Ms Dorji, who completed her Architectural studies in Australia.  One of her first projects when she returned from Australia as a junior architect with the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs (MoHCA), was the reconstruction of what is probably Bhutan’s equivalent of the Sydney Opera House in terms of iconic status: Taktshang Monastery near Paro, which had been destroyed by fire in 1998.  This is the one you see in all the promotional images of Bhutan – it not only clings almost impossibly off the side of a cliff, but is also shrouded in significant Buddhist myths and legends.  She explained to me how they set up a camp at the base of the cliff with a temporary office, sleeping huts, material storage and construction area.  No measured drawings or similar documentation of the structure had been recorded so for the reconstruction efforts they had to go off old photos and diaries.  Apparently a call went out worldwide to people who had visited Taktshang appealing for photographs.  From these, a detailed scale model was built at the base camp rather than plans (as the Bhutanese craftsmen couldn’t read plans).  The materials were then winched up the cliff on a pulley system, and the full sized version constructed over the course of 5 years.

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It is extremely encouraging that both Ugyen and Dorji share a strong commitment to do all they can in their respective positions to ensure the traditional Bhutanese architecture survives and thrives despite the emergence of the cheaper modern building materials of concrete, steel and glass and the influence of western values that are more and more prevalent, particularly in the capital, Thimphu.  One of the initiatives to encourage this is the provision of subsidies for the use of traditional building materials.  Such incentives will form part of Bhutan’s first Planning Act which is currently being drafted by the MoWHS.

Buildings in Bhutan are traditionally built of rammed earth, stone and timber, and their style is quite distinct and very unique.  There are 3 main types of building: the large imposing Dzongs (fortresses) which are the municipal and religious headquarters in each district, houses which are predominantly large rural farmhouses and religious structures of various kinds (from large temples to small chortens or stupas).

 

Dzongs

Before Bhutan was unified under a monarchy in the early 20th Century, the country’s 20 or so districts (Dzongkhags) were ruled by Governers (Penlops).  Many battles were waged over the centuries by Penlops for control over neighbouring districts or from neighbouring Tibet so the Dzongs were not only the administrative and monastic headquarters for each district, but primarily acted as fortresses in these battles for control.  So naturally they are massive imposing structures and often positioned in strategic locations on traditional trade routes between districts as their other function was to collect taxes in kind (rice, yak meat, woven fabrics etc) from travellers passing through.

The legendary Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who came to Bhutan from Tibet in the early 17th Century is credited as the great Dzong builder.  While some have suffered from fire or flood and been re-built over the years, the Dzongs remain as the important headquarters for each district and also now of course, important tourist attractions.

While each one is different there are some common characteristics.  They generally have a central tower called an utse.  Surrounding the utse is a central paved courtyard.  And surrounding the courtyard is 2 or 3 storeys of rooms looking onto the courtyard.  It is generally divided into two wings, one for the monastery containing the temple and monk’s quarters and the other for the district government offices. The external walls slope inwards (battered walls) enhancing how visually imposing the Dzongs appear.  They are constructed of either stone or rammed earth and then whitewashed except for the distinctive dark red band around the top part of the walls (kemar) with intermittent white or golden circles.

Dzongs have what’s known as a Jabzhi roof, a square lantern shaped structure with pitched roof on top of the main roof which is yellow or gold in colour.  It is decorated at the corners with carved garudas or alligators and crowned with a sertog (a golden cupola).  These types of roofs are reserved for Dzongs and religious architecture and are not permitted on houses.

Paro Dzong

Paro Dzong

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong courtyard

Punakha Dzong courtyard

Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong

Zhemgang Dzong

Zhemgang Dzong

Jakar Dzong entrance

Jakar Dzong entrance

Jakar Dzong Monastic wing

Jakar Dzong Monastic wing

Typical house

The typical traditional house in rural Bhutan is 2 or 3 storeys where the ground floor houses the animals and the upper floors house the family, with an open sided attic (shambarnang) for drying things like corn and chillis.  The attic is usually accessed via a steep ladder carved out of a whole tree trunk.  Bhutan is traditionally a matrilineal society so houses and property are passed down through the female line.  When a couple marries, the husband moves in with the wife’s family.

The walls of the lower floor is traditionally constructed of stone (eastern Bhutan) or rammed earth (western Bhutan) which is pounded by hand and either left in its natural colour or rendered with lime and whitewashed.  We stopped to watch some women pounding a rammed earth wall on our ride around the Punakha valley in June.  They were singing in order to create a rhythm as they pounded away with their hand held wooden paddles.

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The most striking feature of a Bhutanese house (and most buildings for that matter) is the window assembly, known as a rabsel.  There are various styles, but it is typically a timber framed structure which wraps around three sides of the upper floors jutting out over the lower storey.  It incorporates the windows and has an elaborately carved cornice feature.  Traditionally the windows were not filled with glass, but rather timber shutters.  The wall space between the windows was traditionally infilled with woven bamboo and then plastered with mud, wattle and daub style (shaddam).

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Traditionally the pitched roof is clad with wooden shingles held down by stones but more commonly these days they are being replaced by corrugated iron.  The crowning feature is a white prayer flag on the centre of the roof of the house.  The strip of blue cloth at the top represents the sky, the yellow at the bottom the underworld and the red in the middle the space between the sky and the earth.

The exterior and interior of Bhutanese houses can be highly decorated.  The timber window frames are painted with floral and animal motifs and walls with auspicious symbols such as the Buddhist swastika and the phallus.

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With the abundance of forests it’s not surprising that Bhutanese houses and temples have some beautiful timber features: heavy tongue and groove doors with high thresholds you have to step over, exposed carved beams and the widest and most beautiful floorboards, naturally polished by the passage of generations of feet passing over them.

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Religious structures

Religious architecture in Bhutan includes Goemba (Monasteries), Lhakhang (Temples) and various types of Chortens (stupas).  Monasteries and Temples are similar in structure and design to Dzongs but on a smaller scale.  Like the Dzongs, they tend to have the distinctive white washed walls with the dark red band (kemar) around the top, the elaborately carved and colourfully painted rabsel window assembly and the golden Jabzhi roofs.

The most breathtaking aspect of monasteries and temples however, is their interiors.  The walls are decorated with detailed colourful paintings depicting Buddhist teachings, called thankas.  They are initially painted on stretched canvas and then stuck to the walls like wallpaper, so if a wall needs repairing or rebuilding, the thanka can be carefully peeled off, rolled up and stored and then reinstated on the repaired wall.

Similarly the altars in the temples and monasteries are amazingly elaborate.  They tend to be colourfully painted carved timber cabinets filling an entire wall and housing statues of eminent Buddhist figures.  In front of them will be a table to make your offerings of money or food amongst the butter lamps and burning incense.  And above, colourful fabrics hang down from the ceiling.

Chortens on the other hand are not really buildings but sculptures containing religious relics – you can’t enter them, instead you walk around them.  But you must walk in a clockwise direction otherwise its bad luck!  They are often found in places considered inauspicious to ward off evil spirits, such as road junctions and mountain passes.

The National memorial chorten in Thimphu is in the Tibetan style (ie its more rounded than the Bhutanese simpler squarer style) and was built in honour of the 4th King.  At all times of day and into the evening you can find the elderly people of Thimphu doing laps chanting their prayers in time with their spinning hand held prayer wheels or as they shift their prayer beads along a string.

One of the beautiful things about hiking in mountains in Bhutan is that whenever you cross a stream, you’ll likely find a ‘mani chukor’.  This is a type of chorten build over the stream with a prayer wheel inside it and where the water has been redirected through the structure to turn the prayer wheel.  With each revolution of the wheel a little bell rings.

Another type of chorten is linear in shape, (known as mani walls), and are often found on the old walking trade routes between districts.  Locals will make mini stupas the size of a fist from clay to place inside these walls in memory of loved ones who have passed away.  The tall white clusters of vertical prayer flags adorning hillsides and mountain tops where they catch the wind are for the same purpose.

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Modern building and construction

Most new buildings in Thimphu are constructed of concrete, glass and steel which are now more readily available.  By law they still must incorporate aspects of traditional Bhutanese architectural decoration which is done with mixed success and questionable quality e.g. a simplified version of the rabsel is fashioned out of concrete around conventional aluminium window suites.

Due to a shortage of Bhutanese labourers, most of the construction workers are Indian labourers who typically eat, sleep and wash in makeshift huts on the building site where they work.  They come from the poorer Indian states and by coming to Bhutan can earn up to 3 times what they would back home.  The women can often be seen sifting and shifting the gravel by hand, sometimes with babies strapped to their backs as they work, while the men are laying and levelling the concrete.

Construction in Bhutan, as with most developing countries, exhibits what would appear to the western eye to be shocking disregard to work health and safety standards.  I’ve certainly seen some doosies walking around Thimphu over the last 6 months.  Here’s some of my favourites:

Here a worker is jack hammering the edge of a 2nd storey suspended concrete slab (no PPE no scaffolding):

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In this one, workers are site welding roof trusses … on the top of a 6 storey building:

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And my all-time favourite: this footpath is adjacent to the construction site where the new headquarters for the Bhutan National Bank is being built.  The ‘site safety fence’ separating the footpath from the sheer drop down into the construction site is woven bamboo matting.  To stabilise the steel reinforcing bars while forming the concrete columns for the new building, the re-bars are tied back with ropes through the ‘safety fence’ and across the footpath to re-bars drilled into the gutter, creating the perfect trip hazard for pedestrians!

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13 – Jordi’s work

I’m handing over the reigns to Jordi for this post on his experiences so far of working in Bhutan ….

As it’s been almost 6 months since I have been here, it’s probably high time I shared some insights about my work, which after all is the reason I’m here. It’s not all just hiking, running, cycling etc. There’s also some serious work to be done…

jordi riding to work

So what is it that I actually do? Well, I’m here as a water engineer working with the Department of Forests, which sits under the Ministry of Agriculture. Most people find it strange that I’m under this ministry. So do I.

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My actual work team is known as the Watershed Management Division, or WMD (an unfortunate acronym). It’s a small and relatively new division having only been created 4 years ago and it’s fair to say they are still finding their feet. Its mandate is to provide technical and policy advice on Bhutan’s catchments in terms of land use, water quality issues, flooding etc. Comparable organisations back at home would be the NSW Catchment Management Authorities (now defunct).

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The WMD is responsible for catchment management across all of Bhutan which is challenging because of the complex relationship between environmental protection and the subsistence livelihoods of the local inhabitants. Also, there is little or no technical information available for much of the country’s catchments and the WMD team has limited resources to collect more data. Most of the country is highly inaccessible for starters and many catchments need to be assessed on foot. Even the smallest catchments can take weeks to investigate being several days hike to reach as there are no roads.  All in all it’s quite a big task for a team of 12.

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The WMD office has a very flat structure with all staff reporting to one manager. “Chief”, as he is known, is the WMD representative, office manager, HR manager, project director on all projects and generally has authority over everything. “I will speak to Chief” is a common response to most questions.

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As with all government offices in Bhutan, it is mandatory for staff to wear traditional dress to work (gho for men, kira for women) although chillups are permitted to wear western office attire. I actually really like seeing everyone in traditional dress and so I try to wear my gho as much as possible as well. On the other hand, the weather has been pretty hot lately and my gho doesn’t breathe well.

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A typical day for me in Thimphu will be spent in the office building, which we share with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). I guess an office is an office is an office so it’s really not that different to back home, except that this one is a little more rustic, more crowded, and there’s a few more electrical cables lying around on the floor for people to trip over. All the staff are Bhutanese except for 2 “chillups” (foreigners) being me and a Dutch volunteer who’s actually Iranian, grew up in America and was previously living in the Solomon Islands. Interesting chap. It’s good to chew the fat with him over lunch at the restaurant next door. Buffet course for $2.50 or a bowl of chow mien noodles for $1.50. Naan or roti bread for 20 cents.

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One of the most important tasks for the WMD team is to assess the current state of all the catchments across the country, firstly through a coarse and largely desktop-based assessment of entire river basins, and then with a more detailed assessment of the critical or degraded catchments within each basin. One of my key work objectives for this year is to review and revise the current catchment classification system to determine which catchments are critical.

My other major work objective is to help develop management plans for the critical catchments. These are generally quite complex as any recommendations for land management interventions or river protection measures need to be developed in coordination with the local communities and other relevant stakeholders.

One of the catchments I am currently working on is in Wangdue, which is the next main valley heading east from Thimphu. Water from this catchment is used for drinking purposes in the large nearby town of Bajo, so water quality is critical. On a recent site visit we collected water samples which showed that the raw water is actually reasonable, except during the monsoon period (ie: now) when high sediment loads are discharged into the river.

Bay Chhu watershed

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The last few months have been relatively quiet for me work-wise. Budgets ran out before the end-of-financial year and then it took a while for budgets to be approved at the start of the new financial year! Also, field visits are less than popular at this time of year due to the threat of landslides and road closure.

My biggest challenges so far at work have been communication and fitting into the Bhutanese work culture. I don’t speak a word of Dzongkha which doesn’t help. That’s my fault, no one else’s. But it’s more than just the language barrier, Bhutanese culture dictates a very indirect communication style. Anyone who’s worked in Asia probably knows what I mean.

The next couple of months are likely to be busier.  I’m planning a field trip for a catchment study near Trongsa in the centre of the country.  All in all I’m enjoying the challenge and looking forward to the next 6 months.

12 – Homestays and hot stone baths

I’ve stayed in 3 different homestays now in different parts of the country on various trips away from the capital.  This has been an incredible way to get an intimate and authentic glimpse of daily life in rural Bhutan.  It is also much cheaper than staying in hotels, plus you know your money is going directly to the local community.

The first one was in Haa, a beautiful valley in the west of Bhutan.  To get there the drive goes over the highest road pass (Chele La) in Bhutan at almost 4000mASL.  Then the amazingly scenic road winds down into this beautiful narrow valley.

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Haa Valley Homestay  is run by a family of 3 brothers.  Two of the brothers, Ugyen and Chimi have houses set up for guests and the third brother, Dodo, speaks English and handles all the bookings.  I stayed in Ugyen’s house where three generations of the family live under one roof: Ugyen and his wife, their two school aged children, and the Grandfather and great Aunty.  It was fascinating to observe the interactions between the different generations; a stark reminder of just how rapidly Bhutan is changing.  Great Aunt, in her full Kira, would be sitting cross legged on the kitchen floor, the soles of her bare feet hardened with years of hard work and her teeth and gums red from chewing Doma (bettlenut).  She would giggle each time Ugyen answered his mobile phone and talked into this funny contraption.  Ugyen’s wife, Dole Bidha, in her half Kira, was up at the crack of dawn to cook our breakfast before heading off to perform traditional Bhutanese folk dances and songs at the Archery tournament final.  And then there was 11 year old Tenzin in her jeans and T-shirt (if she could get away with it!) keen to show us her dance routine to the latest pop song and doing all the translating into English for her parents.

Ugyen’s house is a traditional farmhouse which is over 150 years old.  The fire wood is stacked high under the entry stairs – the main source of heating through the winter months and of course the fuel for hot stone baths.

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An open attic is where maize and other vegetables are hung to dry.  All Bhutanese houses have an altar room, often with elaborately decorated altars where offerings are made and family prayers and rituals are held.  In Ugyen’s house, the altar room is converted into a bedroom whenever they have a homestay guest, with a heavy curtain pulled across to conceal the altar niche.  Homestay accommodation is usually basic but comfortable – a mattress on the floor with sheets, blankets and towels provided.

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Homestays can apply for small grants from the Tourism Council of Bhutan to make any necessary alterations to their homes to receive foreign guests such as installing a western style toilet and constructing partition walls to create separate bedrooms.  The hosts also usually receive some hospitality training, sometimes with assistance from WWF or JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency).

The second homestay I stayed in was in Nasiphel, 22km north of Jakar in Bumthang valley, central Bhutan.  Here, Pema was our host.  She is one of 3 sibblings but the only one that has remained in the village with her parents, the other two having received a college education are now working elsewhere in Bhutan.  They have a huge traditional farmhouse which they’ve extended at the back to include several guest rooms and a western style toilet.  Pema cooked us the traditional buckwheat pancakes for breakfast which the Bumthang valley is famous for, with homemade strawberry jam made from wild strawberries collected from the forest.

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After breakfast we watched as Pema’s parents rounded up their handful of cows for milking.  Some of the milk is used to make small cubes of cheese which is threaded on a string and hung to dry outside the window.

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The third homestay was in Gangtey in Phobjikha valley, another beautiful valley halfway between Thimphu and Bumthang (about 5 hours drive east of Thimphu).  The community in this valley have got together and created a Community Based Sustainable Tourism (CBST) organisation.  It consists of 10 homestays in the upper valley and 10 homestays in the lower valley, with an English speaking coordinator who allocates guests to the homestays.  Our host was Phub who’s house is situated in the main part of the village right near the temple and surrounded by beautiful pink roses.

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Her husband was away at the time as he is a traditional artist and had been asked to paint some murals in one of the temples in Punakha.  Their daughter and mischievous 4 year old granddaughter lives with them and also their son, a recent college graduate who is following in his fathers’ footsteps.  He showed us one of the fabulous paintings he and his father are currently working on in their attic.

The CBST organisation in Phobjikha also organised a mountain biking guide for us.  Karma took us for a ride along the rough road through the beautiful Phobjikha valley stopping for tea and biscuits with the caretakers of a temple and then returning the same way.  This valley is famous for the endangered Black Neck Cranes which migrate here from the Tibetan plateau in October/November.  They love the large flattish bowl shaped RAMSAR listed wetland area in the base of this valley.  It wasn’t the time of year to see the cranes when we were there, but we enjoyed our ride which finished up at our guide’s house where he had arranged for us to have a hot stone bath!

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So what is a hot stone bath?  Well, they are a large bath, made of wood, sometimes even carved out of a whole log!

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They are usually in the back yard of a house , like this one pictured below at Ugyen’s house:

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Communal ones might be located in a field.  They have a shed like structure around them for privacy, but one end of the bath will usually stick out beyond the wall.  This is where the hot stones are placed.  The stones are heated up in a roaring bonfire until they are white hot (which can take quite some time!).

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The bath is filled with water from a stream and the stones added to heat up the water.  When the water has reached temperature, you get in!  And relax …… your host will usually ask if It’s hot enough, and if not, will add more stones from the fire into the end of the bath.

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If you’re visiting Bhutan, I highly recommend the homestay and hot stone bath experience!

 

 

11 – The Thunder Dragon has descended

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We are now well and truly in the midst of the monsoon season in Thimphu.  The days are warm and humid with temperatures up around 30°C and then they typically break with a shower in the afternoon which seems to wash the air clean.

There are other days that are just grey and drizzly where the clouds hang low over the mountains.

And there are nights that we fall asleep to the sound of the rain falling on the metal roof next door.

Then there are the occasional thunder storms that roar up the valley, and dump their load all at once turning roads into rivers and then stop just as suddenly as they started.

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The rivers have swollen and the landscape is vivid green, lush and overgrown, quite a contrast to when we first arrived.  Even the marijuana that grows wild has become so abundant along verges and in vacant blocks that community clean up days have been organised to uproot the stuff!

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But this weather doesn’t seem to deter the construction workers – buildings and road widening continue unabated!  Tell that to an Aussie contractor next time he submits an Extention of Time claim for a few millimetres of rain!  But here, in my opinion they really should halt works during the monsoon season, particularly the widening of Bhutan’s main East-West road.  The section they’re working on at the moment, between Dochula Pass and Lobesa is a mud bath at best.  Every time I’ve had to travel that road in the past few months we’ve been delayed several hours due to a truck getting bogged and impatient drivers trying to overtake and ultimately causing gridlock.  On the last occasion, Jordi actually got out and started directing traffic!

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After I returned from my work field trip in June the surveyors had to stay on a few extra days to finish taking the levels and measurements of the existing villages to prepare the survey plans.  I had been waiting for the call from the office to advise that the survey plans were ready so we could commence some concept designs and wondering what was taking so long.  I later learned that an electrical storm had fried the surveyors laptop on which they had been recording all the data.  The office in Thimphu had to dispatch a car and driver to drive a spare laptop out to site – a 2 day drive.  Part of the way there, the driver encountered a landslide that had blocked the road and there was no access.  Instead, he had to drive all the way back to Thimphu and then south into India and back into Bhutan from the southern border to reach the surveyors!

Knowing the risks of driving during the monsoon season, when my friend Nicci and I went on a trip to Bumthang during the July school holidays we decided to drive only 1 way and purchase domestic air tickets to fly back.  The flight only runs twice a week and we were lucky enough to get seats on the last plane before they were scheduled to finish until after the wet season when flights would resume.  Our last full day in Bumthang we enjoyed a beautiful clear sunny day riding our hired bikes around the valley.  But of course, the day of our flight the cloud was so low it was touching the runway and the rain was pelting down.  We hung around in hope, but ultimately they cancelled the flight.

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It just so happened that the other passenger, a Singaporean tourist, had a guide and a driver and 2 spare seats in their car …. and a deadline to make a connecting flight!  Thankfully they agreed to give us a lift with them for the 11 hour drive back to Thimphu.  And what a drive that was.  As I’ve described before, the main road that traverses the country is narrow and winding with plenty of blind corners and landslips waiting to happen.  It hugs the hillsides, invariably with a steep cliff towering above you on one side and a steep drop on the other.  Now imagine this in the dark and rain, with zero visibility due to the fog, along a road that is for large sections unsealed and muddy from the roadworks, with no street lights or reflectors, and random obstacles like cows appearing in the middle of the road!  I won’t forget that journey in a hurry! Those Buddhist meditation classes I’ve been attending came in very handy 🙂