After spending our first week in the main city of Thimphu, we made the drive east towards Phobjika—a small, rural farming village where we would stay for the next few nights. This picturesque region houses the Black-Necked Crane Center that seeks to protect and conserve the unique Black-necked Crane that ventures to this region, as well as educate visitors on this special bird. The community of Phobjika was kind enough to provide several houses for us to occupy for the duration of our stay. We learned from local families about farming and the traditional stories behind the absence of rice paddies in this region. We witnessed the country’s beloved game of archery along with a match of darts.
We hiked around the valley with local guides to learn about the biodiversity of this region, which is unique as a high-altitude wetland. Phobjika is one of many examples in Bhutan of small enterprises seeking to increase ecotourism. The loyalty to traditional methods and values is strongly represented, and gives tourists a glimpse into a region seemingly unfazed by globalization.
We departed from Phobjika eager to reach a place we could call home for more than a couple nights. That place would be the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE)—an institution in Jakar, Bumthang that is home to prospective forest rangers and forest conservation officers of Bhutan. This government-funded research institution is where the SFS team will be located for the bulk of our time in Bhutan and where we will pursue the majority of our academic interests.
We use an old dzong as our classroom—originally constructed as the palace for the first King of Bhutan. We live in a building just up the hill from the dzong, and despite the little friends we’ve made (rats and centipedes), it is the perfect accommodation for our group. Even further up the hill is our canteen where we eat all of our meals prepared by the amazing SFS kitchen staff who meets all of our dietary needs while still exposing us to true Bhutanese cuisine.
But before we could get too comfortable at UWICE, we had the chance to experience another homestay, this time, in the city of Jakar, with the families of local tenth-grade high school students. We stayed with these families for two days and two nights getting a real taste of their lifestyle and viewpoints. Some were provided with a small shack, using the nearby school for kitchen and bathroom facilities while others of us were put up in mansions equipped with televisions, laptops, and even maids. It was very interesting to compare experiences after this weekend, but it opened our eyes to the city we are calling home for the next four weeks.
To enrich our cultural experience even further, we participated in the local and traditional Tsechu festivals in Kurjey and Nimalung. These festivals are held every year in honor of Guru Rinpoche. All decked out in our traditional garb—kiras for girls and gohs for the guys—we tried to experience these events to their fullest. With so much culture packed into one event, it was almost overwhelming, but the Bhutanese people are enthusiastic and encouraging of outsider participation, appeasing any uneasiness we may have been feeling. Truly a special day and a Bhutan “must-see” for our group.
Despite the usual weather patterns consisting of monsoons around this time of the year, we have sustained almost a full week of pure sunshine, with the first signs of rain drizzling in just now.
With only a few weeks ahead of us, it is hard to imagine we are passing the halfway point of this trip. We still have so much ahead of us, and if the first few weeks are any indication, we are in for quite the trip.