Free media’s other ace?

When Dasho Kinley Dorji was appointed as the MOIC secretary last year, I hinted that that could be both good and not-so-good for our media.

Now, it appears that the government has recruited Tenzin Rigden, apparently on a short-term contract, as their “media advisor”.  Tenzin Rigden worked in Kuensel, owned Bhutan Media Services, and started and owns Bhutan Times. He’s commands considerable influence in the media circle.

So, like Dasho Kinley, Tenzin’s appointment to the Prime Minister’s Office can be good for the media. Or, it could be dangerous. We’ll know soon enough.

But for now, what we need to know is this: who is paying for Tenzin Rigden? If he is being paid by the government, his position should have been advertised and the recruitment carried out in accordance with the RCSC’s guidelines. It wasn’t.

Biking right

About a month ago, I’d written about bicycling with my son. In response to that article, two readers, TOJT and Romeo, cautioned against biking in Thimphu – they warned that inexperienced motorists and road rage make biking in the capital a dangerous exercise.

I’ve been biking a lot recently, and find that Thimphu traffic is generally respectful of bikers. But there are times when our roads can become unsafe: immediately before and after office, when every one seems to be in a hurry, for example. And, sometimes, when negotiating passing and oncoming taxis and trucks. And, when confronted with the occasional angry motorist.

So, yes, we need to do need to make Thimphu’s roads safer for bikers. In this regard, I’ll be calling on several agencies in the coming months. These include:

  • Thimphu City Corporation to discuss improvement of existing roads, and their plans to construct biking paths;
  • Road Safety and Transport Authority to talk about existing and new regulations on biking; and
  • Associations for operators of taxis, trucks and buses to explore means of promoting better awareness for bicycling safety;

But, most importantly, we, bikers, need to learn how to ride safely. We need to ensure that our bikes are roadworthy; that we always wear safety gear, especially helmets; that we undergo adequate training; that we ride in control; that we respect other forms of traffic; and that we obey traffic rules.

[Continue Reading…]

Banking on vouchers

Happy banker

Happy banker

B-mobile’s strategy to market their cellular phone services in rural Bhutan is aggressive. In Sombaykha, for instance, where they introduced their services recently, B-mobile had a representative traveling from village to village dishing out free SIM cards and offering recharge vouchers at initial discounted rates.

Our farmers were delighted. Everywhere the B-mobile representative went, farmers rushed to welcome him. In addition to giving free SIM cards, B-mobile automatically doubled the value of each farmer’s initial purchase of recharge vouchers, subject to a maximum purchase of Nu 500. This meant that if a farmer was willing spend Nu 500, she’d walk away with a free SIM and vouchers valued at Nu 1000.

Obviously, astute farmers wanted to double the value of their money by buying as many recharge vouchers as possible. And they did. How? By simply getting hold of people – friends and relatives – who weren’t otherwise going to subscribe to the cell phone service, and requesting them to purchase the maximum Nu 500 worth of vouchers.

Take my cousin, Sangay Dorji. He got 7 people, including himself, to get SIM cards. For each card, he purchased Nu 500 in vouchers. B-mobile matched every Nu 500 with an equal amount of free recharge vouchers. So, he ended up getting a total of Nu 7000 worth of recharge vouchers.

“Wai, Sangay!” I chided him, “Do you really need so much talk-time?”

“I’ll need to buy vouchers anyway,” he replied, “so I might as well get them now at half the price.”

“Besides, I won’t use up all the vouchers for talking,” he continued, “or for sending text messages. I’ll use most of it as money.”

“Money?” I enquired, “What do you mean?”

“You see, if I want someone who is in Samtse – say, my neighbour Aum Kunza – to buy me Nu 200 worth of tea leaves, I can just transfer that amount of talk time to her phone, instead of sending her cash. It’s simpler. It’s quicker. And it’s much safer.”

“Similarly, I can transfer my talk time to Ap Nado when he ploughs my fields, or to Ani Gaki for a bottle of her ara, or to Zow Samdrup for husking my paddy. And naturally, they could use their talk time to pay me for using my mules.”

Voucher banking. The possibilities are endless. And for our village folk, who still don’t have farmers’ banks, this unintended service might become essential.

It’s good thing that B-mobile is aggressive.

Connecting Bhutan

Many of you would have noticed that I was able to regularly update this blog during my recent visit to Sombaykha and Gakiling. And, that I was able to tweet about my experiences there. Romeo, a regular commentator, was sufficiently impressed to remark:

It is indeed incredible that you are connected through out your trek and able to keep us informed of your whereabouts and also update your informative blog. How is this possible? Are you carrying your laptop along and that you are connected through satellite to the internet? Hasn’t Bhutan progressed in terms of communication?

Yes, it is incredible that I could stay connected through most of the trip. After all, both Sombaykha and Gakiling are remote gewogs that can be reached only by undertaking an ardous journey on foot.

But no, I did not use a satellite service to connect me to the internet. That would have been expensive and cumbersome.

What I did use was B-mobile. You see, they had recently expanded their coverage to many parts my constituency, and wherever I could catch their signal, I could access the internet. This is possible because I have subscribed to B-mobile’s 3G services.

3G allows me to connect to the internet at a blistering speeds of up to 7.6 Mbps (but more likely 2 Mbps as the bandwith is shared among concurrent users). But 3G is currently available only in Thimphu. In other parts of the kingdom, the 3G subscriptions automatically downgrade to EDGE or, if that is not available, to GPRS. EDGE, which is available in all dzongkhag headquarters, allows speeds of up to 128 Kbps, and GPRS, available everywhere else, up to 54 Kbps depending on signal strength and hardware configuration.

All this means that I can now connect to the internet on my phone or, if I use a data card, on my laptop anywhere I am able to receive a B-mobile signal. That was basically how I blogged and tweeted through most parts of my constituency.

But that’s not all … Tashi Cell, Bhutan’s second cellular service provider, has also expanded to my constituency. And, I’m sure that they too provide mobile access to the internet. So, I actually had a choice!

Yes, Romeo, Bhutan has indeed progressed in terms of communication.

Road to Merak?

Breaking ground

On 7 January, Kuensel reported that:

A 28 km farm road will connect Merak to Radhi, the nearest semi-urban centre to the gewog. On January 5, a simple groundbreaking ceremony of the farm road was conducted, which was attended by villagers of Khardung, Tokshingmang and Merak. The road will begin in Khardung, pass through Tokshingmang and end in Merak.

The same article went on to quote Lyonpo Jigme Tshultim, who is the Speaker of the National Assembly and the MP of Radhi-Sakteng constituency, explaining that the new road would benefit many people and that “Merak is one place with potential for tourism and, with access to road, tourism can be promoted.”

Exactly two weeks later, on 21 January, Kuensel quoted the Prime Minister as saying that: “…Places like Laya, Lunana and Soe in the north-western part of the country and Merak and Sakteng in the east would not be linked by road.” And that: “A road connection to Merak and Sakteng … would bring the community less benefit.”

So will Merak get a farm road? Yes, they will. Kuensel’s photograph clearly shows that Lyonpo Jigme Tshultim will give them a road even if he has to dig it himself!

Starry-eyed plan

Almost all your comments on “Visiting tourists” expressed concern about the Prime Minister’s executive order to prepare a blueprint to do away with the minimum tourist tariff. The poll asking, “Should the minimum tariff for tourists be removed?” drew a similar response with 82% saying “No!”

Thank you for your comments. As promised, I’ll share your views with the government.

Today, I wish to draw attention to another blueprint that the Prime Minister has ordered. In the same executive order (of 13 November 2009), the Tourism Council of Bhutan was directed to constitute:

A cross sector implementation team consisting of the MoEA, MoF, TCB and ABTO to frame and present the blueprint for … Mandate all hotels catering to tourists to upgrade to at least 3 Star category.”

The idea, ostensibly, is to ensure “high value tourists” even after liberalizing the minimum tariffs by forcing them to stay in expensive hotels.

But how would we monitor that tourists, who will no longer be required to use tour operators, are actually staying in 3 Star hotels? How could we do so without becoming a police state?

Will all hotels currently catering to tourists be willing and able to upgrade to at least a 3 Star category? What will happen to those that are unable to upgrade?

And, what will happen to the guest houses in Bumthang? Where would tourists stay when they visit Bumthang? Where would tourists be allowed stay when they travel almost anywhere outside Thimphu and Paro?

Gakiling eggs

Searching for markets

Guess how much an egg costs in Gakiling? Two ngultrums! Yes, farmers there are willing to sell their eggs for a pittance. And still they still don’t get any buyers. That just shows how little access they have to markets.

“Yoed ba chin tsong sa med. May ba chin nyo sa med,” is how Ap Tshering Wangdi had described their predicament a few years ago.

But some farmers have now decided to take matters into their own hands: they’ve decided to, collectively, sell their eggs in Thimphu. And, Rinzin, a young farmer, has volunteered to collect the local eggs and bring them to the capital every week.

So look out for Gakiling eggs – organic eggs laid by free range indigenous chickens.

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.

Walking tall

Record setter

Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha are three villages perched precariously on the steep slopes of a mountain opposite Dorokha, Denchukha and Dumtoe.

Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha were, until recently, part of Mayona Gewog under Samtse. In 2007, these three villages and several equally remote villages of Dumtoe (Samtse) and Samar (Haa) were combined to form the kingdom’s newest gewog, Gakiling.

Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha hold the disagreeable distinction of being among the poorest villages in Bhutan.

They also hold the most unfortunate record of never having had a dzongdag visit them. That’s correct: no dzongdag has ever visited these villages, never when they were part of Samtse, and not since they became part of Haa. That is, not till today. Earlier today, Dasho Karma Weezir, the Haa Dzongdag, crossed a make-shift cane bridge over the Amochu, completed an arduous trek uphill, and, just as dusk was settling in, became the first dzongdag to ever visit the three forgotten villages.

The simple residents of Dramekha, Ngatsena and Thangdokha are overjoyed that their dzongdag has finally visited them. I joined them in welcoming the CEO of our dzongkhag. And in congratulating him.

Dasho Karma Weezir became Haa Dzongdag in May 2009.

Highway to Dorokha

Yesterday, I was at Dorokha. We drove from Samtse to Yabala, and walked the rest of the way.

The trail to Dorokha is broad. And, its alignment is comfortable – the path hugs the mountainside and gradually descends to Dorokha. But, because of the heavy traffic at this time of the year, the trail can get rough. The migrating cattle, work horses and constant stream of people marching on the “highway” to Dorokha and back takes a toll on the road. There are pebbles, mud, dust and loose stone over the rocky outcrop that is the trail.

Still, the road bears a busy, almost festive, look. Farmers seem rush to sell their cardamom and mandarin oranges. And then they rush back home with provisions for the year – rice, cooking oil, soap, tea, sugar, salt and clothes. Only to rush back transporting more of their cash crops. Shopkeepers in Dorokha and beyond stock up on goods for the year. Petty contractors transport construction material. Semi nomadic farmers tend their cattle and transport butter and cheese. And, enterprising locals set up temporary tea shops to cash in on the seasonal traffic.

Next year, however, at this time of the year, the trail will not be as busy. In fact, most of it will not be around. The motor road which is being constructed, much of it on the trail itself, will have been completed, and a lot of today’s transactions will be aided by vehicular traffic.

So as I walked to Dorokha, I did so deliberately, fully aware that that would probably be the last time I get to tread on the old highway, one that has quietly borne witness to the unfolding of Bhutan’s remarkable history.