When I emerged from my Punakha hotel room in the morning, my guide and driver were already hanging out at the Hyundai looking bored in their glamorous Bhutanese robes and black knee socks. Tobgay the driver spotted me first, and came loping down the hill – with his big trademark smile – to wrestle away my luggage.
I’d been a little weirded out at first by all this service, but Bhutan has set minimum daily tariffs for tourists – by going on a solo trip with a local agency, I was given the minimum ($240 for a single, covering hotels, transportation, admissions, and food) and didn’t have to pay extra to an external agency who was really only booking via a local agent anyway. And all my payment went straight to Bhutan. In exchange, I was treated like a princess, which was a step up from my usual me-dragging-around-my-dirty-rucksack-on-buses routine I’d been using all year on my trip around the world.
We drove out of Punakha past the dzong and up to mountain roads. These roads were in landslide territory and were frequently under construction or being repaired.
"I need to confirm the phone number of the hotel for tonight," said Tsering, my guide. We stopped in the next small town, where he went into one of the tiny stores to confer with a shopkeeper, or maybe there is such thing as Bhutanese Yellow Pages. I got out of the car and wandered around, taking photos of still-more phallic paintings on the sides of buildings while stepping over sleeping dogs, snoring in the mid-morning sunlight.
The rural towns of Bhutan tended to have more phallus art, less wealth, and some anemic shops that sold little more than staples and a few snacks. But people never looked hungry, even though Bhutan has one of the world's smallest (though fast-growing) economies. The CIA World Factbook reports that 23% of Bhutanese were below the poverty-line in 2008, but the only really skinny person I saw was leading me around, and ate plenty, especially if it came with chili.
I stood and studied the village election advertising board, which seemed so straight forward compared to the media barrage we get at election-time at home. These signs are new as Bhutan just got a constitution and a representative democracy, complete with elections and voting, a few years ago. Voting was instituted by the departing king, who had stepped down in favour of his son to give him a year-and-a-half's experience as head-of-state before Bhutan became a democracy.
Tsering appeared with the phone number he'd been seeking. All was well in the Phobjikha Valley, it seemed, and so we proceeded on into the winter resort of black-necked cranes.
These birds were currently in Tibet, so I wouldn't get the chance to see them.
"Can we go to the information centre, then?" My guide assured me we would, right after we checked into our lovely, rustic, pine-panelled hotel in the hills over Gangtey village.
The valley had just gotten electricity a few years ago. No one had wanted to disturb the cranes with cables and unnatural structures, so they'd had to lay an underground cable when the birds were in Tibet.
Because Bhutan is just that sort of place, where the rights of some birds are more important than an entire valley having electricity.
After a quick lunch and the trip to the black-necked crane information centre and another monastery, Tsering took me for a hike. The trailhead was by a village dart match, where men were playing darts while two small daughters amused themselves by creating jacks out of pebbles. I knelt down to check out the jacks-game, giggled when I spotted a Spider-Man book-bag with a Batman logo, and asked if the girls could go to five-sies.
They grinned and turned red. One of them wiped her nose with her sleeve.
Both of them could get to five-sies.
Tsering led me down a slope and along the nature trail.
We walked for a few hours, and at the end, I wished I'd asked for the longer hike, as I enjoyed the day in the shade of the woods.
We arrived at a creek at one point, quite unexpectedly as usually the water wasn't too high to cross. But today, it was much too high.
Tsering walked around the creek, examining our options. There weren't any.
"I will carry you," he declared.
"But I'm taller than you and fatter than you. I weigh more. How can you carry me?"
Tsering was forced to admit that I was right.
In the end, I rolled my jeans up to my knees and carried my Pumas in my hands, while Tsering fretted nearby.
And somehow, as we walked on, the conversation turned to funny things people believe sometimes and how when Tsering was a little kid, his grandfather used to tell him stories about the Bhutanese three-legged dinosaur.
I laughed. "Three-legged dinosaur?"
"Yes, but the Bhutanese three-legged dinosaur didn't live millions of years before humans. He lived at the same time as early humans, but very far away. He'd never seen a human. And then one day, he heard of them for the first time. And when the Bhutanese three-legged dinosaur found out about humans, he destroyed all the three-legged dinosaur eggs to save his descendants from having to share the planet with mankind."
I stood silent for a moment. That was a beautiful story, indicative of Bhutan's overall attitude towards the environment and nature.
"Can I ask you a question about Bhutan?"
"Who would win in a fair fight: yeti, white lion, or Bhutanese three-legged dinosaur?"
“The yeti, of course. It has the advantage as it may or may not be real. But the other two are definitely fiction.”
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