Earthquake!

As we drove home earlier this evening, my wife noticed that Taba was in total darkness. And she observed that the residents were huddled, in the dark, outside their houses. It was an eerie sight.

We were driving, so we hadn’t felt the earth move. A powerful earthquake, measuring 6.9 units, had hit the Himalayas. Its epicenter was reportedly in Sikkim.

In Bhutan, thankfully, no major damages have been reported. But posts on Twitter indicate that the tremors were felt throughout our country. I’m concerned about our farm houses, old monasteries and dzongs – they, and their residents, are the most vulnerable. And I’m especially concerned about them in our two western most dzongkhags, Haa and Samtse – they border the Indian state of Sikkim.

If required, please help your neighbours. Please cooperate with the authorities. And please, please stay safe.

UPDATE: Hearing reports of cracks in houses, including some in the Tashichhodzong. Also, several landslides along Thimphu – Phuentsholing highway.

UPDATE: Several houses damaged in upper Haa. Three people referred to Thimphu hospital. A few others treated for minor injuries.

UPDATE: More information on PM’s Facebook page.

Crazy bear?

Peaceful?

A bear recently wrecked havoc in the meditation centre in Tango. Thankfully, it did not attack any of the monks.

But others have not been as lucky. Earlier this month, a bear mauled and killed a man in Dawakha. A little upstream, in Jabana, a farmer managed a narrow escape after stabbing a bear two times. Further upstream, in Shari (Haa), a man was severely mauled by a bear. And on the other side of the Wangchu, in Chapcha, another man was seriously mauled by a bear.

Be careful when you venture into the forests. Never go alone. And always try to alert and scare away any bears in the vicinity.

Bears forage at this time of the year. Many of them do so with their cubs So they are naturally nervous. And they will attack if they are startled.

But the recent spate of bear attacks may not be normal. A single bear could easily cover Shari, Jabana, Dawakha, Chapcha and Tango in a couple of days. So could it be that the same bear visited all these places? Could it be a rabid animal? Could it be the bear that the brave farmer in Jabana stabbed?

Regardless, it would be advisable for the concerned authorities to look into the matter immediately … before more lives are endangered.

Zoom on garbage

Screaming for help

Are you an important government official? If so, did you receive an invitation to attend Young Zoom on Garbage, the art festival currently on at the Clock Tower Square? And if so, did you make it to the festival?

Chances are that you didn’t.

Young Zoom on Garbage is meant to be an innovative and powerful way of drawing much needed attention to a very serious problem. So the organizers sent out more than 200 invitations for yesterday’s opening function. But only a handful showed up: barely 10% of the invitees were able to attend the inaugural ceremonies.

That’s too bad.

The participants – about 60 children, mostly students, who, incidentally, took part in the project’s many activities during much of the last year – have put on quite a show. They have transformed the Clock Tower Square into an awesome display of Thimphu’s waste, as they caused discarded cardboard boxes, beer bottles, cement bags, newspapers, mobile voucher cards, prayer flags, cigarette boxes, computers, and heaps of plastic bottles, wrappers and bags to effortlessly morph into a video dome, a walk-in pinhole camera, a robot, a towering monster, giant raindrops, a plastic monument, a photo gallery, and an enormous hand clutching our vulnerable world.

At the Clock Tower Square, our garbage looks strangely attractive. But the message is not lost: we produce too much waste.

I congratulate VAST, the organizers of the event, for continuing to champion what their founder, Asha Karma, calls ABC on NGP (Advocacy Behavioral Change on National Garbage Problem).

And I congratulate TCC, for co-organizing the event, giving support and adding to the event’s success.

To register your support, and to make the festival a bigger success, visit the Clock Tower Square, especially if you are one of the 200 important invitees.

Our banner, featuring the “Walk the River” photo exhibition, is an open invitation to you, your family and your friends to zoom on garbage at the VAST art festival. The festival runs through Sunday.

Social forestry

Free tree

Social Forestry Day is good time to reflect on the health of our forests, and to help nurture them by planting trees around our homes, schools, villages, towns, and in barren hillsides.

So we – my family, that is – were happy that we had the opportunity to do something different yesterday: we saved a few trees!

Yes, I’m being dramatic, I know. What we did do was uproot a few of the smaller trees (small plants actually, especially rhododendron) along the Taba – Langjophakha road and transplant them in front of our house.  The trees were destined to be destroyed, as they were in the path of the road-widening project that is currently going on along the road to Taba.

If they survive, we would have, in a way, saved them!

Talkin’ Takin

Takin care

Takin, reindeer, yak calf, takin calf, sheep’s head, donkey, deer, drey daza, goat, sheep, lamb face, blue sheep, foal, cow calf, shaw, black foal, jatsham, mitun, thra –bum.

The last Big Picture contest generated a rich variety of answers, including the right one, takin calf. “Karma S.” is our winner.

The takin mother and calf was photographed in the Motithang Takin Preserve, a 20-acre sprawling blue-pine forest that was established in the early 1970’s to accommodate a pair of young takins that was gifted to Bhutan during the coronation of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

The two takin thrived. And at one time, as many as 16 offspring lived together in the Motithang preserve. But five generations of inbreeding has reduced their current numbers to seven. Still, tourists and locals alike continue to flock to Motithang, to view Bhutan’s national animal, the curious and much loved dong gyem tsey, widely believed to be Lama Drukpa Kinley’s handiwork.

The Nature Conservation Division have recently taken over the Motithang preserve, and have already started expanding and improving the facility. And to improve the takin stock, they’ve started introducing a few takins from the wild.

First two female takins, both already pregnant, were introduced to the preserve. Both of them have given birth to healthy calves. Then two more calves, a male and a female, both abandoned by their herd, were bought in. And finally, just last week, an adult male takin was added.

All of them were caught along the Mochu’s lower valley, at Khauza, which are the takin’s winter grazing grounds. But the Bhutan Takin (B. taxicolor whitei) can be found in most parts of northern Bhutan – from Haa in the west, through the Jigme Dorji National Park to Bumthang in Central Bhutan. Experts suspect that they can also be found in the east.

For those of us who live in Thimphu, the easiest place to see takins, if we’re very lucky, is above Phajoding or in the Dodena forests.

Or we could simply visit the Motithang Takin Preserve.

Happily exhausted

Very big perk!

I’m in Dorikha, totally exhausted. But I’ve had a hot stone bath, an extra large bowl of buckwheat noodle soup, copious amounts of o-ja (milk-sweetened tea), and a glass of Ani Gaki’s stiff ara. I’m sitting near a bukhari, typing, under the watchful gaze of three inquisitive nieces. And I’m already forgetting the pain of the last two days.

Yesterday, after meeting the people and touring the village of Thangdokha, we decided to take a shortcut down from the remote village to Somchu, a tributary of Amochu. The “shortcut” isn’t a path; it’s lunging in an approximate direction downhill, while hacking through undergrowth and nettle. My arms still feel sore and numb thanks to the thorns and stinging nettle.

After we finally made to Somchu, we waded across its icy waters, and climbed to Gongthangka and then to Sektena, both villages populated by Lhotshampa Rais. By then I felt literally drained out, as I had developed a diarrhea.

Last night, as I dozed off on Ap Gharay’s shikua (a porch) I remembered how, almost two years ago, my wife and I waded across the Somchu and took the same “shortcut” up to Thangdokha. The urgency of the impending elections drove me uphill. But, I still don’t know where Tashi’s strength and determination came from. If I was thankful for her support then, I’m now eternally grateful.

Incidentally, Ap Gharay’s real name is Dhan Bir Rai. His nickname comes from ghar meaning house. About 30 years ago, after Dhan Bir built his house, his neighbors started calling him “Gharay” as his was the only house that had been properly constructed. Dhan Bir’s sobriquet continues to be relevant: his is still the only proper house in the neighborhood of 29 households.

Today, we walked 12 hours. Most of it was uphill, from Sektena (at about 1500 meters) to Sel-la (about 3800 meters). And I almost couldn’t make it. Two magic potions helped me: ORS and Red Bull.

The oral rehydration salts replenished water and restored minerals and salts in my body that I would lose continuously to heavy sweating and the many trips to the bushes. The Red Bull simply pushed me uphill when my legs wouldn’t.

I may have been struggling, but the beauty of the trail wasn’t lost on me – the crisp predawn air, the warmth of the morning sun, the shade from the broadleaf forests, relatively flat meadows, real shortcuts, the season’s first primulas, the sweet scent of daphne flowers, rhododendron trees preparing to blossom, the 360-degree view from Ayto Pcheku, farmers returning from shopping in Haa, and the distant view of the new road being built to Sombaykha.

And, at Sel-la, just as I crossed the pass, gasping for air, nature gifted me with a rare sight – the sun offering its final rays for the day to the sacred Mt Jumolhari.

I’m in Dorikha, exhausted, but totally satisfied.

Saving Thimphu

Clear signs

Clear signs

The International Institute for Environment and Development, in their book Climate Change and the Urban Poor, have identified Thimphu as on of the world’s 15 most vulnerable cities to the effects of climate change. The IIED warns that climate change could cause floods, landslides and fire in our capital.

This, obviously, is cause for concern. We must take the dangerous levels of our exposure to climate change seriously. And, we must do our best to work with the world to reduce global warming.

But, Thimphu is vulnerable not just because of climate change. We, the residents of Thimphu, are equally responsible for making our city vulnerable to disasters. We generate far too much garbage, and we don’t manage our waste properly. We drive too many vehicles and burn too much timber, making the pollution that hangs over Thimphu clearly visible in the winter. Added to that, Thimphu’s population is growing too fast.

So, while we demand the world to take concrete measures to fight global warming, we must also remember to do our part to protect Thimphu from ourselves.

Hidden beauty

haa mountains from chelelaYesterday, on my way back from Haa, I stopped at Chelela (altitude about 3,900 meters) to see the sun set over our western mountain ranges. These mountains above the Haa valley offer some of the best, yet least known, treks in our country. They include a trek to the legendary lake Nub Tshonapatra, which I hope to revisit and write about in 2010.

UPDATE: Lampenda Chuup’s comment reminds me of the beauty that can be seen in and from those mountains. So I’ve changed the title from “Hidden treks” to the more appropriate “Hidden beauty”.

Another disaster!

Today, on True Bap the blessed rainy day – I join the nation in offering my prayers and support for the victims of the deadly earthquake that struck our eastern dzongkhags yesterday afternoon. BBS and Kuensel have reported loss of lives and extensive damage. The international media has also expressed concern.

Government officials are already at work, contacting the gewogs and accessing the damage. The full extent of the earthquake’s destruction will not be known for sometime. But there’s one important sign of hope: since yesterday evening, no more deaths have been reported.

I am in Dehi, en route to New York, to attend the UN General Assembly.

Coping with disaster

white water rescue

To the rescue

On 27 July 1996, six boys from Begana went on a picnic to Tango. They lost their way in the thick forests, and despite the best efforts of the rescue teams – soldiers had literally combed the jungles – the students could not be found. 12 harrowing days later, police stumbled upon four of the boys in the forests above Punakha. The mountains had, by then, claimed the lives of two boys.

That shocking incident led Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, who was the education secretary at that time, to formalize, improve and expand scouting in Bhutan. He believed that the Begana students would not have had to go through hell had they had some basic survival skills. And he looked to the scouting movement to provide these and other important skills to our students.

Thirteen years later, on 27 July 2009, eight boys from Tshimasham went on a picnic by the Wangchu. Only one made it back home.

The scouting movement has spread to every corner of Bhutan. And, its contributions to the education of our children – by giving them leadership, life and survival skills, and by teaching them teamwork and discipline – can never be measured.

But we need to do more. A lot more.

Our last poll asking if we are prepared to cope with disaster is telling. 97% of the participants think that we are not prepared at all. 3% feel that we are sufficiently prepared. And not one person thinks that we are very well prepared to cope with disasters.

All of us know that we’ll have many more disasters. Storms, floods, mud slides, fires and earthquakes: we expect them all. So let’s prepare for them, as best as we can. There’s no doubt that our government is working to improve the disaster preparedness and disaster management levels in the kingdom. And that our government is already developing the ability to carry out rescue during disasters.

Rescue operations are complicated and dangerous. And they require expertise. All the more reason to prepare immediately, in earnest.

Consider whitewater rescue, the type that would be deployed in all our fast flowing rivers. Whitewater rescue teams would need training in safety, kayaking, swimming, ropework, rescue gear and first aid. They would also require a thorough understanding of our rivers and river systems.

The good news is that such trainings are conducted regularly in many parts of the world. The Red Cross Society may be a good place to start. The other good news is that many of us – teachers, monks, soldiers, guides, politicians, officials, businesswomen – would be willing to volunteer to learn and to apply rescue skills. We should use these advantages.

We expect our children to return home after a picnic. But, if and when an innocent outing turns dangerous, we need to know that we are prepared to render all possible help. That is our duty.

This week’s poll is about Dzongkha, our national language.