Yaks and Snowy Mountains
This morning, we left Phobjikha and drove 3-1/2 hours to Punakha. As we climbed out of the Phobjikha valley, we encountered a yak herder. It was a woman who, as we walked down the hillside, was herding the yaks by throwing stones and yelling. We walked down to her little tent which was made out of blue tarps and yak hair fabric.
She and her husband, who was off on the other side of a tall hill fetching drinking water, are part time nomads. Her mother and her kids live in a permanent home, while the middle generation herds the yaks. She milked a mother yak, who had a week-old calf. There was another baby in the herd. Yaks have a reputation of being cantankerous, but our driver started petting one, so Maria took the opportunity. That yak wandered off so another woman approached a young (not newborn) calf, whereupon the mama yak threatened her.
Just a few minutes later, we reached to pass at the top of the valley and there was a range of snowy mountains! About 15,000 feet, these are not the high Himalayas that form the Tibet border, but another range that runs north and south through Bhutan.
As we drove back along the same road that we came up on, Tenzin talked about Bhutan’s tenuous status in the region. India is throwing its weight around, exerting pressure by preventing Bhutan from establishing bilateral relations with China. They are building hydroelectric dams, so Bhutan’s biggest export is electricity – to India only. China had troops establish a presence in some disputed areas on the Tibet border. Tibet is gone, now being absorbed into China. The former kingdom of Sikkim, just to the west of Bhutan, was absorbed by India in 1975. While Bhutan is trying to limit the visitors through its low-impact, high-value tourism policy, they have a more difficult time restricting Indian visitors who came in large busses, and left their garbage everywhere. Indian busses have crashed into locals’ cars on the narrow winding roads. Bhutan has gently tried to alleviate the situation by requiring all vehicles to be driven by Bhutanese and requiring all groups to have a Bhutanese guide, who ends up being basically a trash collector.
It feels like we’re seeing a place that is going to be disappearing pretty soon.
After a terrible lunch, we went to our hotel in Punakha, which is much more comfortable than the nice, but cold, spartan tent where we slept the past three nights. Across the valley from the hotel is the fertility monastery, where a 15th century monk defeated a demon that was eating travellers’ cows. This “mad monk of Bhutan” espoused the philosophy that sex and alcohol were the path to enlightenment. He travelled around half naked and having sex with many women, to show that he was detached from each of them. In his honor, they built a monastery here. Inside, it is a pretty conventional monastery, except for several large wooden penises around the place.
We hiked up to the monastery, through rice paddies and three little villages. Paintings of penises were on the walls of many houses, and farmhouses along the trail were converted into phallus souvenir shops. It’s like a very artistic junior high boy had gone wild.
Here, 5000 feet lower than we have been for the past three days, it’s much warmer, highs in the upper 60s. It gets pretty hot in the direct sunshine.