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Diary from Bhutan: Auspicious rain?

Type: Article

The rainy season is starting in Bhutan. In her tenth diary entry, Stephanie Earnshaw tells us how the rain affects everyday life in Bhutan and how her own good fortune might be influenced by a blessing in the rain.

I have the morning off today. School has been cancelled due to the fact that the children got soaking wet in a huge thunderstorm yesterday and their uniforms need time to dry out. This is probably going to become a more frequent occurrence now as the rainy season is starting.

Jomolhari trek: Monk at Lingtshe monastery

The children were delighted to have the morning off, of course, and I was also pleased because, only yesterday, I walked back into town from a ten-day trek in the Bhutanese mountains. It was spectacularly beautiful – and tiring! We camped at the foot of Bhutan's second highest mountain, Jomolhari; a breathtaking snow-capped peak just on the border with Tibet. We dragged ourselves up and over two very high passes, Nglile La and Yale La, both of which are at almost 5000m above sea level, and we saw many ancient Dzongs (Buddhist religious buildings) from as far back as the 8th century.

The route, though isolated (there's no mobile phone reception and no electricity except from solar panels), is reasonably well populated by Bhutanese standards as it is an ancient trade route. We even passed two small schools, as always with perfectly mannered Bhutanese schoolchildren, greeting me with 'Hello, Madam' and a small bow. We met several people taking their goods along the path to sell at villages along the way or in the big towns at either end of the route (Paro and Thimphu). Most people use horses and donkeys to transport goods but some carry them on their backs. One man was carrrying a blackboard up the mountain to a school. Embarrassingly, he was walking much faster than I was with just a little backpack. I blame the altitude ...

Whilst slogging up and down mountains, we managed to enjoy spring time in the Bhutanese Himalayas. It's rhododendron season and all the bushes were in glorious pink, red, orange and purple bloom. We also spotted marmots (fox-sized rodents), yaks, griffins and himalayan monals (which have orange tails, purple wings and a metallic green head). At one campsite near a small hamlet, dogs barking in the middle of the night made us wonder whether they were warding off bears. Luckily we didn't see any. We did see a helipad though, in between the two highest passes. It was good to know rescue was possible should we get one too many blisters or that little bit too tired. On the other hand, it somewhat ruined the illusion of being in historic, rural Bhutan.

Schoolchildren in the mountains

When we finally came back to reality we found that the 16th annual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit had started in Thimphu city. Bhutan has the honour of hosting the conference this year and the whole of Thimphu has been transformed to welcome the delegates and heads of state from the eight SAARC countries. There are flags everywhere, the buildings have been painted and the roads have been cleaned of betel nut stains. Private vehicles are not permitted into the town centre during the day (to make way for VIP cars) and children line the roads from nine in the morning until lunchtime to wave and welcome the heads of state as they drive past. Another few mornings off school!

April has been an important month - spiritually as well as politically. Earlier in the month there was the Paro Tsechu (religious festival). We visited the final day of festivities as we wanted to see the huge Thangkha (30m-high religious painting hung from the side of the Dzong), which is only shown on the last day in the hours just before and after dawn, in order not to damage the ancient artwork. Paro is an hour-and-a-half's drive away from Thimphu (where we live) so we got up at three in the morning, donned our best gho and kira (Bhutanese national dress) and sped down to Paro to see the dancing and get blessed under the Thangkha before it was rolled up for another year. About 30 minutes after we arrived it started to rain and we only had our best traditional (not waterproof) clothes to protect us. Unlucky, you might think, but quite the contrary. It is considered very auspicious if it rains during a Tsechu, especially on the final day. So hopefully I have my good fortune organized for the whole year ...

Apart from the difficulties caused by the rain, the Tsechu was extremely crowded. I've never seen such a big crowd of people in Bhutan and I half expected everyone to be very Buddhist and compassionate about things – forming orderly queues and letting everyone else get the blessing at the Thangkha first. However, it was the usual huge, lung-collapsing crush of a large crowd. I was definitely glad to get blessed and get out of the squeeze!

Despite rain and overcrowding, everyone had a good time; dressed in their best clothes and feeling very blessed in the auspicious rain. Traditional dances went on all morning but we didn't see much of them as we had to get back to work at 9am. This was no mean feat since there is only one bridge to the Dzong (which is on a hill on the other side of the Paro river) and it was completely choked with people. We walked a half-mile detour back to the car. When we finally got there (sodden and freezing), we couldn't drive anywhere as Paro's one main road was groaning under the weight of a hundred times the normal volume of traffic. When we eventually got back to Thimphu, there was time for a quick cup of tea to warm up and then off to work.

Later that day I was on the losing team (we were monumentally beaten 20-5) in a staff versus students basketball match at college. Perhaps not such auspicious rain after all. Hopefully my good fortune will manifest in other ways.

It’s teachers’ day tomorrow, so maybe a nice surprise from the students is on its way ...

Jomolhari trek: Mount Dichu Drake
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