Trekking and more

The first day of our short trek, when I left off in the last post, we had a lazy morning. We ate a regular breakfast, hung around the UWICER campus, and spent an hour in Bumthang town shopping for snacks before driving to the start of the trail. We could have such a luxuriously slow morning because the hike to our first campsite was only a few hours long. Fueled by almonds, cashews and peanut butter crackers from town, we walked quickly through a section of forest and a section of meadow before arriving at our tents. After setting up our sleeping pads and bags, we hiked a bit away from the campsite to see the ruins of a Dzong from the 17th century (before the modern dzongkhag system was in place). We knew about the ruins because Professor Kuenga had done an archaeological dig on them in the past, finding mostly animal bones of the animals that the Dzong’s inhabitants had been eating. It was great fun to look out from the Dzong, placed on a rise in the middle of a valley, and imagine being a watchman, anticipating invaders.
It rained all night and the next day we got up early and packed for the eight-hour hiking day. I was fortunate to have woken to the sound of the rain, and pulled my hiking boots into the tent (others, unfortunately, did not do so). We spent the first half of the day walking up to a mountain pass through a damp cloud forest, and the second half walking through sloping farm fields, ending on a farm road. During the second half of the hike, we also wandered through a rural village. Since we could not offer words to the villagers who watched us pass, we offered smiles and cookies from our stash of snacks (they were readily accepted). Jermy (intern) was with us, but his communication with the villagers was limited as well, as they spoke a different dialect than he. Later, he told us that one old villager had asked him why he didn’t marry one of the twenty young women he was travelling with. He replied, “I plan to marry all twenty!” He knew we would find that funny.
On that long day, a team of mules, driven by a spry eighty-two year old man, carried our lunch food and water. The man, like the villagers we encountered, could not speak English, but we heard through Rinchen and Jermy that he believes he is so healthy because he is a vegetarian and does not drink alcohol or use tobacco products. He arrived at the campsite before us, having walked faster than any of us. When we arrived with sore legs and tired minds, we spent hours sitting around a roaring fire, drying our socks and shoes, playing games, and singing.
There were a few notable events during our drive back to Paro. Sunday morning, the first morning of our drive, brought wonderfully clear skies. We had views of craggy, snow-capped peaks to enjoy. Norbu, one of our drivers, agreed to stop and let us take pictures from one un-official view-point. I would have liked to have stayed there for the rest of the day, just looking. I’ve never seen mountains so big and powerful. But we had to move on, and we stopped before long at the Trongsa Dzong (the biggest Dzong in Bhutan) and then again for a delicious lunch of rice, yellow curry, potatoes, and cauliflower at a “resort” in the mountains. That night, we could not stay at the campsite which we stayed at on the way to Bumthang – it was already booked. Instead, we were allowed to camp in the schoolyard of the elementary school in the same town! There was a volleyball court and a basketball court in the schoolyard, and I played my best game of volleyball yet, as well as a three-v-three basketball game versus Jermy, Purbha (security-guard), and Yeshi (cook).
On Monday afternoon we returned to Paro. The air is colder here now, and most of the rice has been harvested. Since Monday, we students have been working on our directed research proposal drafts. In my directed research I will most likely be investigating whether soil, sand, mud, stone, and boulder extraction from rivers in the Paro Valley affect benthic macro-invertebrate communities and water quality, and further, whether a policy change restricting soil, sand, mud, stone, and boulder extraction further, would be effective, and would improve water quality. Policy currently allows extraction from riverbeds for commercial and non-commercial purposed with a permit. Research from India shows that sand extraction upsets riverine systems by destroying vegetation, eroding banks and disrupting sediment mass balance, and generally polluting rivers.
Thursday was general election day, which meant that town was largely shut down, and none of our Bhutanese professors came to teach. Last night, we received news that the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) party, or flower party, won 30 of the 47 national assembly seats. The DNT is led by Lotay Tshering who was trained as a urology surgeon in Bangladesh and Australia. He has vowed to battle high foreign debt, youth unemployment, rural poverty, and criminal gangs, using the slogan “narrowing the gap”. I think that some of our professors are happy about the results, and some are unhappy.
Today, we have all four classes, and then a cooking class from Kencho, the Language and Culture professor, and Yeshi!