Goodbye Dzong Cat, Harrison, blue pines, and Chamkhar

This is our last day in Bumthang.

The realizations come in waves – sometimes I already miss Bhutan so much, and other times I’m in denial. I think it hasn’t completely hit yet, that I won’t see these particular mountains, maybe ever again. I was just talking to my friend Alyssa about that feeling, and she said she feels it too, and that’s because this place is home to us.

Sitting here at the dzong is home, dzong cat helping us all pack is home too. So is walking to town down the mountain road, and riding into town at night, when the lights of Chamkhar suddenly seem bright and spread over a vast distance – what is Delhi going to feel like? Mumbai? NEW YORK?

Harrison, the cutest dog, is home, and so are potato momos and naja and frost in the morning on the grass that is now totally yellow and the gigantic pine trees outside my window and the heat in the middle of the day from being at 10,000 feet.

I’ll (almost definitely) post in Thimphu and/or Paro, but for now enjoy a few photos from the last few weeks!

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Wrapping up in Bumthang

Not much posting because we’re in the middle of DR write-up, and everyone is going crazy! We’ve had three days to analyze our data and prepare for individual presentations and start writing our final papers. Tomorrow morning we will all present our findings, and papers are due on Monday. On Tuesday we are having a large “Bumthang Symposium,” to which we are inviting UWICE researchers, our translators and research assistants, and any friends and acquaintances who are in the area.

It is quite an intense time, also because we’re leaving our field station at UWICE, which has been home for three months, for good next Thursday.

That day we drive to Phobjikha, where we are hoping to see the black-necked cranes that are migrating at this time of year from Tibet. We stay there for two nights in farmhouses and then travel to Thimphu on December 12th – my birthday! Two fantastic birthday presents – hopefully seeing the cranes, and then being in Thimphu again.

I wanted to conclude this post with two photographs I took this morning of the snow-covered peaks we can now see from UWICE, but unfortunately the internet is not cooperating enough to let me upload them. I’ll post them when I can, though! It’s startling beautiful.

But here is a photo, unfortunately not taken by me, of black-necked cranes.

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Dubi Shapiro

Suja and Sinchang

The last week and a half have been some of the most rewarding, stressful, and transformative days in my life. I’ve had more cups of naja (milk tea) than I can count, sat on many bamboo-woven mats on wood floors, climbed the stairs of Bhutanese homes, cuddled cats, watched a farmer chop up yak meat, and conducted a total of 73 semi-structured interviews and two key informant interviews. Yesterday I was served a full lunch by a Bhutanese family who were having a puja in their home (a ritual blessing and cleansing). I sat on the floor with my translator, Kinley, and was immediately served naja, a full plate of red rice, and cow’s cheese that was the consistency of cottage cheese, as well as curd, which is actually delicious. So much dairy! Kinley was also served potatoes and meat, which I obviously did not eat. It was an enjoyable, filling meal, and they kept offering more and more – Have some more rice! More cheese! More curd! It’s hard to turn down when they have invited you into their home and have provided more hospitality, unquestioned and un-asked-for, than almost anyone has offered you in America.

(We actually ended up going back to that house later in the afternoon to interview someone else. As you might have guessed, we were offered more – this time suja (butter tea, quite a drink) and sinchang, which is one of the traditional Bhutanese homemade alcohols (the others are ara and banchang). I probably drank two cups of sinchang and three of suja, which was not much, given how forceful the sweet old lady was who kept offering more, almost refusing to accept my protests of No, no, no, karinchela, I can’t drink any more straight butter or homemade alcohol! Karinche but no!)

I am now an expert on Bhutanese hospitality – it’s better than anything else!

The interviews are conducted by my friend Brad and I. We each have our own set of questions, but we ask them during one interview so we don’t bother people twice. During the last two days we conducted 41 interviews (!!!) because we split up with one translator each. We have conducted so many interviews (we will probably have 80 by the time we’re finished collecting data on Tuesday) that faculty and staff have started telling us that people have written theses for Masters programs based on fewer interviews. Whoa! We are both very excited about these data, and have high hopes for the final papers that are due next week.

These last two days we were in Duhr, which is a rather large, sprawling village (meaning a bit more than 80 houses) about an hour north of UWICE. It’s a fascinating place – a community of nomadic yak herders and cordyceps collectors, many of whom only live there for part of the year. Most people seemed a lot wealthier than many of the villagers I met in Tang. Some had couches, many houses were bigger, newer, cleaner… children seemed to have more time to play, and some families didn’t even do much during the entire year except for the very busy few months in early summer when they make the dangerous journey (three days north) to collect the illusive and incredibly lucrative Ophiocordyceps sinensis. Cordyceps is a fungus that grows parasitically on a certain caterpillar, and takes several years to mature. They are found mainly in Tibet, but also Nepal and Bhutan. The market for cordyceps is large and profitable, and continuing to grow. It’s considered to be an aphrodisiac in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and has other purported health properties as well.

Every year, the Bhutanese government gives a certain number of permits to people (especially those who already live in districts that have cordyceps, like Gasa and Bumthang) so they can legally collect cordyceps during the early summer. It is a fairly regulated industry and market in Bhutan, but not so much in Nepal or Tibet. But the financial benefits are obvious – these cordyceps collectors are doing well, even though life is still hard, especially in such a cold and mountainous place as Duhr. The village is nestled on a mountainside and looks out, farther north, at craggy summits that are covered in snow. Highland meadows stretch above the village, which is where the yak herders keep their yaks while they are living in Duhr.

I asked a villager about wildlife in the area, and learned that tigers live a little farther north, but then again, who knows? – He suddenly contradicted himself and said that villagers have seen tiger pugmarks nearby. And there are bear attacks in the village. They are very much living among these animals.

As I said at the beginning of this post – it has been a wild week. More later, once DR fieldwork is officially over.

I will leave you with this photo of my view right now.

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Directed Research

DR. It’s started. It’s a staple of every SFS program, and one of the selling points of the whole organization. Even more than our classes, during which we often had field exercises and lectures, DR is when we actually do field studies.

DR is not independent research, it’s directed. That means there are six groups of students, all of whom have a faculty advisor for the whole project (each professor has two groups). The groups are studying the concept of One-Health in Bumthang, avian diversity on the UWICE campus, the current social and ecological status of community forests, biodiversity on the UWICE campus compared to nearby community forests, medicinal plants and cordyceps and rural livelihoods, and a new index (created by the group) to measure wellbeing. Within each group, the students can pick their own topic of interest and design a project complete with their own objectives, hypotheses, methods, and analysis.

About a month ago we were all sorted into DR groups based on our preferences. I am really interested in the history of property rights in Bhutan, and especially the fact that all forests and natural resources were managed through common resource management systems until 1969, when the government passed the Forest Act, nationalizing all forests. Luckily I will be able to conduct research related to that topic. I’m in the community forests group and I’ll be investigating what type of property system community forests are, and how that property system is impacting the livelihoods of local people.

And we start today! After lunch my group is driving to Tang Valley, which is 2.5 hours away. We’re staying there for three days, conducting interviews and collecting data from the three community forests that are in that area. Wish us luck!

Punakha

Sorry it’s been so long! We’ve been back at UWICE since Sunday evening, and we’re all working hard on preparation for Directed Research (DR – which I will talk more about in my next post).

Until then, enjoy some photographs I took during our time in Punakha and Gasa!

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Punakha puppy

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Gasa Dzong

 

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Jigme Dorji National Park – the Mochhu River

 

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Punakha

 

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Punakha agriculture

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Punakha’s Buddhist nunnery

 

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The view from the nunnery

 

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Finals Week… (and a little about JDNP)

Hi everyone!

SFS Bhutan has finals this week, so I probably won’t be posting anything until we’re done with that and back in Bumthang (which will be on Sunday).

But I will tell you a little about last week’s trip to Jigme Dorji National Park in Gasa.

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A view from our hike after enjoying the hot springs

The moment we entered the park, I could sense that there were tigers here. And not just because I know there are tigers in the park – it was also the right habitat. The dense forest felt like a jungle, and as we made camp near a rocky riverbed, I could imagine a tiger peaking out at us from the other side of the river.

Gasa extends all the way up to the border with China (part of which is disputed territory). (Check out the map below – Gasa is the red district in the north.) On the second day, our only full day in JDNP, we drove three hours north to reach the famous Gasa hot springs, which did not disappoint. The view from the hot springs itself was incredible – we were looking straight up two imposing cliffs from the valley far below. We had a short but steep hike back up to the buses, and then drove to nearby Gasa Dzong. Unfortunately, very unfortunately, it was so cloudy that day that we did not see the snow-capped peaks that everyone had been looking forward to for weeks. But that’s ok – the view was still spectacular from the top of the dzong (just look up Gasa Dzong and you’ll see the view I’m talking about).

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We enjoyed milk tea and mushroom soup in the rain, courtesy of our fantastic cooks, and then drove the three hours back to our campsite, mostly in the dark forest, which was peaceful.

It was a terrific camping trip. And I think my heart still is, and may always partly be, in Gasa.

Bumthang → Punakha → Gasa

Yesterday we drove for 12 hours on the bumpy roads of central Bhutan to get from Bumthang to Punakha, which is farther west than our field station and closer to Thimphu. We’ll be here for about two weeks, during which time we will finish classes and take our final exams. We’re in Punakha for a change of scenery, to enjoy being in a different ecosystem (4,000 feet instead of 10,000), and to escape the Bumthang cold for a little while.

But… before we really settle into Punakha, we are going camping for two days (starting tomorrow) in Gasa, which is just north of Punakha. We’re hoping to see lots of snow-capped peaks and yaks while we’re there. Where we’re staying (and almost the entire district) is located inside Jigme Dorji National Park, which we had a lecture on today. Jigme Dorji is the only place on earth where tiger and snow leopard ranges overlap, and the two big cats peacefully coexist. How incredible…

I won’t be able to post for several days, but when I’m back, look forward to pictures of steamy Punakha and frigid Gasa!

A Bumthang Farm

On Friday we went on a FEX (field exercise) to a farm in nearby Tang valley. It was, as you can see from the pictures below, absolutely picturesque.

We have been learning about food security and self-sufficiency in Bhutan recently, and this visit put a face to what we have been learning about the complex dynamics between native land use and agriculture, international development money and agricultural schemes, and the tension between locally-grown organic food and imported, processed food.

We spoke with the farmer, with the help of our professor as interpreter, and heard about his own experience being a “progressive farmer” in the area – meaning he has accepted Swiss brown cows (which produce more milk than the indigenous breed of cow) from the Swiss Development Agency and he has joined a honeybee cooperative through which he sells his honey.

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The vegetable garden

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Chillies!

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A butter churn – the first one I’ve ever seen in real life

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Our professor (right) speaking with the Bumthap farmer

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The family also makes ara, which is a traditional alcoholic beverage consumed in Bhutan. This is one of our SFS/UWICE staff, Rinchen, demonstrating how they make ara.

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Tsechu Season

Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

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Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

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Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu

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The tents of Jakar Tsechu

The tents of Jakar Tsechu

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Jakar Tsechu

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jakar Tsechu: Day 2

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Jambay Lhakhang Tsechu

Homestay!

On Sunday we did a homestay! We paired up and drove to various houses near campus, in Chamkhar and the surrounding villages. I was paired with my friend Brad, but we ended up joining another group of two because our host sisters were best friends, so we all hung out together.

It was a fantastic day, and so great to see Chamkhar from the point of view of young people who actually live there. One of the girls’ families owns a restaurant on the main street, so that’s where we spent most of the day. We ate breakfast with them, which was fried eggs, toast, and milk tea, and then spent time getting to know each other and playing cards because one of us chillups had brought a deck of cards as a gift for them. We taught them several card games, and they taught us some games that they play with their friends.

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Milk tea

         Both girls were both pretty shy and didn’t know what we wanted to do, so we told them we wanted to do whatever they would normally do on a Sunday. They took us on a walk to the nearby (tiny) Bumthang airport, along a pretty road by the Chamkhar Chhu. As we were walking back, a car whizzed by us and we waved to three of our friends who were doing a homestay together, getting a tour of the area from their host brother.

We wanted to help cook lunch, but unfortunately they only let us peel the potatoes, and then we watched a pretty crazy Bhutanese soap opera that we didn’t understand a word of. Lunch was deliciouskewa datshi (potato, chillies, and cheese), red rice, a carrot and cabbage dish, and buckwheat pancakes. Buckwheat is the staple crop of Bumthang because it grows at high altitudes, and it has high nutritional content. I think buckwheat is delicious, but definitely an acquired taste. Some of the things people make out of buckwheat are noodles, pancakes, muffins, and cookies. Yum!

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Buckwheat pancakes

After lunch we met up with a large group of our host sisters’ friends, who all go to Jakar High School. We walked to the basketball court at the elementary school, which has a beautiful campus surrounded by the mountains. We played basketball with about ten young Bhutanese kids, some of their little siblings, and about eight of us chillups. It was great to hang out with a big group of friends and meet other people. Another group of chillups and their host siblings had made momos, which we all love, so we had a picnic as well.

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Momos

It was a fantastic experience, and I now feel more integrated with the community. I will definitely visit my host sisters again!