So here is an update, finally! Our busy schedule and lack of reliable internet has made blogging pretty impossible. Sundays are our only free days, so weekly updates may be possible. A lot has happened since I arrived in Bhutan on June 1st, so a few highlights:
I got my first glimpse of the snow capped Himalayas on the plane to Paro, where we landed on the country's only airstrip (and only straight stretch of pavement). Jigme, our wonderful driver for the program, picked me up and took me straight to the trailhead to the Tiger's Nest monastery, where the rest of the group was already hiking. The strenuous hike up was probably not the best thing to do right off the plane before getting acclimated, and unfortunately I did not have time to catch up with the group and make it to the monastery. I may try to do the hike again our last day in Paro before my flight to Kathmandu. We then had a lecture at the national museum, immediately followed by the drive to the capitol, Thimpu. Everything was moving so fast, I barely had time to take in all of the beauty around me, the
On the way to Tiger's Nest
rich culture, and the incredible fact that I was in Bhutan!
The next few days we spent in Thimpu, a busy city nestled in a valley bottom. We drove around to different locations for lectures on such topics as community forestry, human-wildlife conflict, park management, eco zones, local flora and fauna, and even a lecture on Bhutanese culture from the author of a book we read before the program. We were treated like international delegates; officials from many different agencies had prepared talks especially for us, and we were always welcomed as honored guests with tea and momos, delicious dumplings! We were even invited to a celebration on July 2nd, the day on which the 4th king was coroneted. This day is nationally celebrated as Community Forestry Day (similar to our arbor day). We were included in this day of speeches, dances, and of course tree planting! The event was held at a monastery above the city, and planting cypress trees alongside the young monks that live there was an amazing experience! There was even a skit put on by some of the students who participated about deforestation!
The next morning I woke up early with a few
other students to explore the city and take photos. We went to the Big Buddha on the hillside, still under construction. It is the largest sitting Buddah in the world! We also went to the national chorten, which was bustling with devotees chanting, counting prayer beads, and circling the structure, always clockwise. It is bad luck to circle any religious structure counter-clockwise. Later that day we went to the Takin reserve. The Takin is the national animal, and it is strange looking. The legend is that the Divine Madman, an important figure in Buddhism here, was asked to perform a miracle, so he asked for a cow and a goat, ate both animals, leaving only the bones, combined the skeletons of the animals. Upon chanting over the bones, a new animal came to life, the Takin!
Unfortunately while in Thimpu, most of our group was at one point or another hit with altitude sickness, and our departure to Jakar was delayed a few days. One thing that can be counted on here is that the schedule constantly changes! It can be quite frustrating, but I realize that no group has ever done a program like this in Bhutan, so
we are constantly having to figure out how to get things done, like getting our visas extended or driving to rural mountain villages. The drive to Jakar was long and a little scary. Most of the roads are narrow with a plummeting drop on one side and a cliff face on the other! The drive, although terrifying, was spectacularly beautiful. We drove through dozens of different landscapes and forests, from broad-leafed subtropical forests to high alpine conifer forests. There are 46 species of rhododendron in Bhutan, and parts of the drive were blanketed in them.
We finally arrived in Jakar, Bumthang where the UWICE center is located, and I think the district is the most beautiful one we've been to! The center is high up a mountain road from the small town, overlooking the lush valley where potato, buckwheat, and rice is grown. The dorms at the center were built in preparation for our arrival, and they are meant to be available for future SFS programs and maybe other partnerships with UWICE. The staff is super nice, we have a bird expert and community forestry expert that often accompany us on our field exercises. There are also the trainees,
students of the center who are learning resource and environmental management. They have been really helpful in helping us understand the culture here and are a lot of fun to hang out with! We have been watching world cup games with them at the canteen, which is a cute family run shop on campus where they will make you the most delicious ramen with fresh vegetables and eggs for 80 cents! The power goes off often, which interrupts the games, but we have a good time hanging out anyway.
Yesterday we went to 3 monasteries in the valley. One of the monasteries was having a ceremony for their Lama who had passed away. They hold these on certain days after the death of a Lama, and it was the 49th day after his passing and the last of the ceremonies before he will be reincarnated. The ceremony was a spectacle, with monks chanting, drumming, and blowing horns before the alter with the Lama's ashes.
Most days we have classes in the morning, either taught by our SFS professor Robin, or by someone from UWICE, and field exercises or trips in the afternoon. We have done some explorations of
the town and streams, and on Tuesday we start our 4 day trek to a local community forest. There are two research groups, one group is working on community forestry and the other, my group, is working on watershed assessment. We will camp in Tang valley for a while at the end of the program to collect data for these directed research projects, the results of which we will be presenting at a research symposium in Thimpu before we leave. Community forestry has been practiced here for many years, but very little work has been done with watershed management. The research we do here with UWICE will actually kick off the nation's first attempt at watershed assessment and management.
The group of students are amazing, we get along well and everyone has different skills and perspectives that they bring to the group. We are all in awe at this opportunity, and the longer we are here the more we realize that we are experiencing something that very few, if any, westerners have experienced or ever will. The Bhutanese people are kind and their appreciation of the natural environment is astounding. I think we have much more to learn here,
I like the face the one on the left is making!
and I can't wait to see what the next few week bring!
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