Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

18 November 2014: Wood smoke. Cows. Chillies drying on the roof. Barking dogs. No cigarettes. K5 whiskey. Druk beer. Yak cheese. Ema datse. Children. Rice terraces. Winding roads. Prayer beads. Prayer flags. Road blocks. Check points. No whistling. Gross National Happiness. Chilli for breakfast. Field note books. Boiled lollies. Cameras snapping photos out the window. Luggage on the roof. Altitude sickness. Day packs. Drinking lots of water, but not tap water. Don't shake hands. Walk to the left, clockwise. Leave some ngultrum at the monastery. Take your shoes off. Meat-eating, alcohol-drinking Buddhists. Chicken bones. No nails - wooden pegs instead.

This time last year, I was recovering from jet lag, having flown home from Bhutan via Bangkok. Along with 18 other undergraduate and postgraduate students from the University of New England, Armidale, I had been chosen to travel to the Kingdom to undertake fieldwork with four academic/technical staff members from the university.

Bhutan holds many wonderful surprises. It's a country where the rice is red and where chillies aren't just a seasoning but the main ingredient. The country's unofficial national dish is ema datse/datshi - quite literally "chilli cheese" - and it is deliciously hot and creamy at the same time.

It is also a deeply Buddhist land, where monasteries are part of the mainstream, and where giant protective penises (some clearly ejaculating) are painted beside the entrance to many houses, while others carved from wood hang from the corners of building and act as door handles.

Penis shaped door handles.

Penis shaped door handles.

A funny side-story: I returned from Bhutan with a big black timber penis as a gift for my partner. Being Australia, of course, with our strict quarantine laws, I had to declare this item to the officials, which was a very interesting experience to say the least. On arriving home, however, my partner and I had a giggle and he put the penis in his office and we didn't think much more of it... until we hosted the under-12s cricket club's end of year barbecue at our home. My 9-year-old stepson took his friends into his father's office to look at some Lego mini figures he had set up in there. Right. So then I had an audience of 9, 10 and 11-year-old boys asking me all about this big black penis, and after giving them some background about what the penis represents in Bhutan (e.g. it is intended to bring good luck, and drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip), all I could finish with was, "So it's not a rude penis, it's just part of the Bhutanese culture. It's a cultural thing..." - desperately hoping the whole time that this point would not be lost in translation when they told there parents about the big black penis...

While it visibly maintains its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a museum. The Bhutanese are well educated, fun loving and vibrant. When I visited Bhutan, I became one of the few who have experienced the natural charm of the first country where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than Gross National Product. By law, at least 60% of the country must remain forested for future generations. I experienced Bhutan's natural wonders firsthand when travelling the mountain passes, which I'm told are resplendent with rhododendron blossoms in spring, although we were there in November.

Dochu La mountain pass at 3140m.

Dochu La mountain pass at 3140m.

Prayer flags are ubitquitous in Bhutan, found fluttering on mountain passes, rooftops, and dzong and temple courtyards. They come in five colours - blue, green, red, yellow and white - symbolising the elements of water, wood, fire, earth and iron, respectively. They also stand for the five dhyani (meditation Buddhas); the five wisdoms; the five directions; and the five mental attributes or emotions. The prayer for the flag is carved into wooden blocks and then printed on the cloth in repeating patterns.

Prayer flags.

Prayer flags.

23 November 2014: Today I visited Ura village monastery, where I walked around the building in a clockwise direction, spinning what seemed like a hundred prayer wheels in a clockwise direction, before being taken into the monastery to be anointed with saffron-infused holy water and leaving a small donation for the monks.
Ura village monastery.

Ura village monastery.

Bhutan's most famous monastery, Taktsang Palphug (Tiger's Nest Monastery) is one of its most venerated religious sites. Legend says that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon; afterwards he meditated here for three months. This beautiful building clings to the sheer cliffs soaring above a whispering pine forest.

Tiger's Nest Monastery.

Tiger's Nest Monastery.

In addition to monasteries, dzongs dot the country. Dzongs serve as the religious, military, administrative, and social centres of their district. They are often the site of an annual tsechu or religious festival. The rooms inside the dzong are typically allocated half to administrative function (such as the office of the penlop or governor), and half to religious function, primarily the temple and housing for monks. This division between administrative and religious functions reflects the idealized duality of power between the religious and administrative branches of government.

While in Bhutan, I had the honour of being allowed inside the Punakha Dzong, which was the second dzong to be built in Bhutan and it served as the captial and sear of government until Thimphu was promoted to the top job in the mid-1950s. It is arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country. Elaborately painted gold, red and black carved woods add to the artistic lightness of touch.

Punakha Dzong.

Punakha Dzong.

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I was there to do fieldwork, which included setting up camera traps in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Serbithang (where our cameras recorded 15 seconds of footage of a leopard!); and from our base at UWICE I also surveyed vegetation along an altitudinal gradient, sampled aquatic invertebrates in the Chamkhar Chu (a river in the Bumthang province) and recorded water quality information of a number of rivers, and collected existing camera traps that had been deployed several weeks early near UWICE.

Panorama of my surroundings while surveying vegetation.

Panorama of my surroundings while surveying vegetation.

The Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE) is a government based research and training institute. UWICE strives to foster better stewardship of Bhutan's natural heritage – land, water, air and species therein – through rigorous science-based research and transmission of cutting-edge science results to field practitioners, environmental leaders and policy makers. Efforts are concentrated on four main focus areas: 1) sustainable forestry, 2) conservation biology, 3) water resources, and 4) socio-economics and policy sciences.

24 November 2014: It's almost 9pm and I'm tucked up in bed at UWICE near Jakar in the Bumthang province of Bhutan. Dogs are barking in the distance... at each other? at noises in the forest? at a deer? at a bear? at a cow? at a yak? Who knows?

Wherever you go in the remote Kingdom of Bhutan, there are packs of dogs. They are rarely kept as pets and instead live alongside humans in their own social groups. Most Bhutanese people are still subsistence farmers, and dogs play an important role at the farm, warning the family about approaching strangers and keeping wild animals away. In rural environments, the dog population never gets out of control because few puppies survive until adulthood.

Just one of many local dogs at UWICE.

Just one of many local dogs at UWICE.

Other semi-domesticated animals included yaks at higher altitudes. Westerners tend to oversimplify the yak's many manifestations into a single name, yet it is only the full-blooded, long-haired bull of the species Bos grunniens that truly bears the name yak. In Bhutan, the name is pronounced 'yuck'. Females of the species are called jim, and are prized for the butterfat-rich milk, used to make butter and cheese.

Yaks at a mountain pass.

Yaks at a mountain pass.

As an emerging zoologist and animal ecologist, for me there is a lot to love about Bhutan. The mountains are carpeted in diverse forests that are abundant with wildlife, from the smallest insects to the largest carnivores. The Bengal tiger, clouded leopard, hispid hare and the sloth bear live in the lush tropical lowland and hardwood forests in the south. In the temperate zone, grey langur, tiger, goral and serow are found in mixed conifer, broadleaf and pine forests. Fruit-bearing trees and bamboo provide habitat for the Himalayan black bear, red panda, squirrel, sambar, wild pig and barking deer. The alpine habitats of the great Himalayan range in the north are home to the snow leopard, blue sheep, marmot, Tibetan wolf, antelope, Himalayan musk deer and the takin, Bhutan's national animal.

The experience was invaluable, as it allowed me to apply much of the theoretical knowledge I had gained during my studies, and to learn about the research already being conducted in the country and the conservation challenges faced. Specifically, I focused on the threat posed by hydroelectric power and the damming of Bhutan's wild rivers, since I chose to write-up the aquatic invertebrate report as my assessment task. You'll be able to read all about this in the next month when the paper I am a co-author of, "Experimental effects of reduced flow velocity on water quality and macroinvertebrate communities: implications for hydroelectric power development in Bhutan", is published in Proceedings of Bhutan Ecological Society.

But, for now... tashi delek.