January 21st was spent among the rural people of Chokhar and has become one of the special days on this trip. Kinga declared it “Yak Cheese Day” because we needed some way to commemorate the day and it was the first time I tried yak cheese.
It started with a drive to the remote villages in Nagsephel (where the Nomads’ Festival was held), along which we were lucky enough to spot two different families of Black Necked- Cranes. I was able to get closer to them than I previously had at Phobjika and it was a rare sight for them to be in the Bumthang valley this late in the season. This made three straight trips away from the office with wild animal sightings… we were on a roll!
We got to the main village (which consists of about 5 large buildings) just before lunch, but since one of the buildings was the home of one of WCP’s hospitality trainees, they were ready for us. The women welcomed us into their living room and the three of us (Kinga, Gyaltsen, and myself) took our seats on carpets on the floor. We were served tea and biscuits while Kinga put in an order for lunch. At least one dish would be prepared light on the chilies and with no meat for me.
Since it would be awhile Kinga took me on a tour of a typical village in Bhutan. There was an old prayer wheel spun by a small tributary, a chorten for the religious to make their offerings, little boys practicing khuru under an old Cyprus tree, and some women weaving while chattering away in dzongkha.
When we turned one corner we came upon an old wooden shack with smoke billowing out. A toothless old woman was inside clanging pots and working feverishly to keep the fire smoldering while mashing something in another metal pan. This was where they made ara. Ara is a strong alcohol that is the pride of every house and made of rice, barley, corn, or wheat. It is distilled, brewed, and filtered in the same small building and burns going down like nothing I have tasted before.
After lunch we hiked up to the main temple in the village. It didn’t look too tough from below, but I wasn’t aware we would literally be climbing straight up the side of the hill. Some times we were going hand over hand like a ladder… much more vertical than horizontal. Since we were all off different skill levels in hiking, we each were on our own which made the chanting, drumbeats, horn blowing, and guitar strumming that much more surreal.
The view was definitely worth the climb and one wouldn’t guess how sacred of a place the temple was. Apparently it was built decades ago and had been knocked down by a multitude of natural disasters. The last one happened about 25 years ago and during the reconstruction, one of the builders discovered a rock with Guru Rinpoche’s (the second Buddha) footprint on it. The stone was placed inside the temple and since then, no harm has come to the building.
We trekked back down and stopped at some houses along the way. Every house asked us in for a cup of tea or ara. They were so welcoming and friendly and expected nothing in return. It was on our second stop when we were served yak cheese with the ara, that Kinga decided it would be Yak Cheese Day. I was given the chance to sit a loom, play archery, chat with a monk, and make an attempt to spin a prayer wheel. We also saw many more places bearing Guru Rinpoche’s footprint and the elders were the most
excited to show off these landmarks to a foreigner.
We didn’t spend the day in fancy hotels or restaurants. We weren’t pampered or following any kind of planned itinerary. We were playing it by ear and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a day. I saw how the people of Bhutan live every day and was the recipient of their pure generosity. In a country thought to be so poor… their spirits couldn’t be more rich.