Down the other side of the highest pass of our journey, Norbu connected with another uncle and cousin he had not seen for many years, but this time it was prearranged. They had hiked down from their village with a bottle of a homemade spirit called ara, an essential element of social interaction, especially in eastern Bhutan. We sipped ara and ate hard-boiled eggs on the side of the road while they had a chance to catch up, but as always, we had to keep moving on.
We turned off the main east-west road onto a dead end route heading north to Lhuentse. Norbu pointed out his native village across the river valley and high above us on a steep hillside. We wished for his sake, as well as ours, that we had time to hike up there. Instead, we spent the night in Autsho village, and continued the tradition of an evening exploration in search of spontaneous interaction with its residents.
It wouldn’t be a day in Bhutan without a visiting a dzong, so up to Lhuentse we went. It was smaller than most, but with receiving less visitors overall, we had the opportunity to enter a larger proportion of the complex than most dzongs allow.
After lunch, we began our return trip down the valley to Menbi where Sonam, of Bhutan Swallowtail Travels, is from. Despite no foreigners ever having visited the small village, Sonam had convinced his older brother to host us for the night. As he toured us through the village, we caught curious faces peeking through the windows of almost every house. He graciously showed us his family’s home that they had both grown up in as well.
When we returned to his new house that he designed and built, the ara began to flow and never stopped. We learned the hard way that as soon as you take a sip from your small bowl, it will be refilled to the top! We also discovered firsthand how the hard work of churning butter became much easier after a few cups of the potent hooch. While we were unsuccessfully sloshing the milk without creating any butter, his wife cooked up another Bhutanese specialty of egg, butter, and—you guessed it--ara!
About the time we really needed to let our filled-to-the-brim ara bowls sit that way for a while, neighbors began to pour into the house. All women of various ages, they were each a representative of a different household. Matt and I joked just between ourselves that the men were too afraid, so they sent their bravest women meet us. They sat around the perimeter of the living room and we proceeded to smile at each other, giggle a little bit, and smile again. Our hosts poured ara for everyone, although we noticed that the elderly women’s refusal was actually respected. Each woman brought the same gift and placed it before us, woven baskets containing puffed rice and traditional bamboo containers accented with silver filled with yet more ara!
While we were generally humbled to be treated as honored guests, I was also recognizing elements of an article I came across in the airline magazine on our flight to Bhutan. The author explains, “In Eastern Bhutan, tshochang is a traditional way of receiving guests by local communities. A member from each household comes with some ara, eggs and grains and gather where guests stay for an ‘ara session’. Tshogchang, often accompanied by jokes, songs and dances, mostly continue well into the night.” Everyone was a bit too shy for songs and dances--including us--but Norbu did an excellent job as the sole translator at the party to keep conversation flowing, and that alone was special enough.
Luckily, we were also saved from the awkward position of not knowing the appropriate way to reciprocate their generosity. The article continued with, “[The] guests usually give some money as soelra to the members who organized and contributed to the tshogchang. The amount depends on the guests, but should be at least equivalent to the value of the ara and food items offered.” With Norbu’s assistance, we navigated this aspect with as much grace as we could manage with the limited perspective of outsiders. In addition to small sums of ngultrum, we opened a bottle of Bhutanese whiskey despite having no short supply of ara in the room. We at least had the instinctual foresight to bring the whiskey as chom, a general gift one brings when visiting a home. We were surprised to find out it was the first time most of the women had ever tasted it.
Tshogchang is an element of a broader hospitality system referred to as a neypo network. “Through the neypo system, Bhutanese villagers have become experts in hosting and entertaining guests. These rich traditions have been in existence for centuries. Although some of the practices are vanishing, many of them have evolved and adapted themselves to changing times, and they continue to be of importance for Bhutanese social relations and community cohesion. Understanding these customs is of tremendous benefit in developing sustainable rural tourism, because they are integrated and rooted within the existing traditions.” I was thrilled at the unfolding of an unexpected “before it’s gone” experience, and relieved that I had happened to read an article that allowed us to experience it with a degree of cultural awareness and sensitivity.
Once our visitors departed, fortunately not that late in the night, we ate dinner of fish, rice, and various vegetables with the family on the kitchen floor. While it was delicious, it did little to soak up the alcohol and I was in pretty bad shape the next morning. Eating breakfast was enough of a challenge and I simply couldn’t stomach th bowl of ara that was automatically poured for us. Forget about coffee, this is a perfectly normal way to start your day in eastern Bhutan! Our hosts seemed to understand when we meekly declined to drink it.
While I have focused a lot on the ara, our time with Sonam’s brother and family was really so much more than that. Beyond just the glimpses of daily life we got while wandering through other villages, in Menbi we were immersed in it, even if we were still foreign and it was still foreign to us.
We took some parting photos and said our goodbyes, heading a short way down the road to a 41-meter-high Guru Rinpoche statue recently-built on a ridgeline. At the entrance gate to the site, we were advised not to go any closer because of a swarm of aggressive wasps. We thought we would give it a try anyway and continued up the path until we saw several site workers at the top who were dashing around and swatting their arms in the air. We decided that our view from below was good enough and backtracked down the valley to the main east-west road.
It was an all-day drive to get to Trashiyangtse in the far northeast corner of Bhutan. We only stopped to watch some guys playing an intense game of lawn darts at the top of a foggy pass. We were content with a mellow day of watching the scenery go by, the lush jungle punctuated by waterfalls shifting to crispy dry pine forest and open slopes the further east we traveled. When we arrived to a surprisingly large and developed town, we settled in to a memorable room at a “professional homestay” with colorful patterns and Buddhist symbols painted on the walls.
The next morning, we ventured a little further up the road to the periphery of the Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary containing vast tracks of inaccessible wilderness. Our exploration was just within a river valley lined with farmsteads along a dirt track, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We chatted with farmers in their fields and “gangs” of roaming teens incongruously sporting urban clothes in their rural surroundings. One older gentleman explained how farming in the valley was becoming more difficult due to climate change. The increased flow from a higher rate of glacial melting is widening the river and eating away at cropland. A highlight was observing an archery match between teachers of the local school. They invited us in to the spectator tent for tea and beer when they noticed us standing out in the afternoon drizzle, but the archers themselves were completely unfazed by the weather.
When we returned to town, we stopped by Chorten Kora, a smaller version of the one in Bodhnath, Nepal with a funny story. In the 18th century, a renowned lama wanted to replicate the Nepalese stupa so Bhutanese would not have to make the difficult journey to see it. He traveled to Nepal himself and created a model using a carved radish, but it shrank on his return journey and distorted the original dimensions, thus giving Chorten Kora its own unique look.
Before leaving Trashiyangtse the next morning, we toured the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, which refers to thirteen specific arts and crafts. We watched students in their respective classrooms focused on their chosen trade, whether embroidery, thangka painting, sculpture, metalwork, or wood carving. Interestingly, our driver Tshering was a graduate of the school in the specialty of metalwork.
Returning down the valley, we stopped at Gom Kora, a monastery with a scenic riverside location and sacred rock formations visited by Guru Rinpoche. In the middle of our tour led by a resident monk, two women approached us for a photo with them. This alone is not unusual, but it was the first time someone had informed us that we were the first foreigners they had ever seen!
After lunching in Trashigang, we headed to the village of Rangjung and stayed at the guesthouse of a newly established monastery. This area is known as the “rice bowl of the east” and indeed had many photogenic terraces stacked up the sides of the valley. It is also close to the range of a nomadic highland people called Brokpas who venture down to the city for trade. We only saw one older Brokpa woman wearing her traditional dress waiting for a ride out of town, but perhaps if we had been able to spend more time in the area, we could have found an opportunity to learn more about their culture.
We made a late afternoon exploration of Radhi village, known for raw silk textiles. It was the furthest east we traveled, and close the furthest east possible in Bhutan. Ideally, we would have then turned south and crossed into India in order to fly back to Thailand. However, misinformation about Indian visas required us to make a marathon two-day drive back to Paro instead. It felt like rewinding the movie of our trip in fast forward! When we were finally closing in on Thimphu, someone hit the pause button just to torture us a bit more. The only road was closed for several hours while a landslide was being cleared.
Upon finally checking in to our cherished Peaceful Resort at 11 pm, we were led to a new cheaply constructed multi-story building that lacked any of the charm of their original building. Presumably, they decided to cater to large Indian tour groups like the one that checked in shortly after we did. In just two weeks, everything had changed and we couldn’t say it was for the better. However sad we were for the “loss” of the Peaceful Resort as we knew it, it was a poignant reminder to be grateful for all we had experienced while crossing the country. In this world, the only constant is change. Sometimes it even happens in Bhutan.