The best possible shed


I’m in Shaba, a small village in Sombaykha. The recent earthquake damaged all 12 of its houses. Luckily, no one was injured. And thankfully, most of the houses have suffered only minor damages.

But one house was hit hard. It has been damaged beyond repair. It’s still standing. But barely so. And it is no longer safe. That house belongs to Ap Zhep, aged 70, and his family.

Fearing aftershocks, every family scrambled to erect temporary shelters for themselves immediately after the earthquake.

And because Ap Zhep was practically homeless, the entire village got together to build him a shed. They pooled their resources–they contributed tarpaulin, CGI sheets, timber and labour–to build his family the best possible temporary shelter.

I was pleasantly surprised when I visited Ap Zhep’s temporary home. It boasts a spacious room with proper floorboards and a full sized traditional stove. Plus it has a store room and a covered verandah. He claims that the only reason he doesn’t have electricity in his shed is because it’s not safe to climb on the roof of his damaged house to remove the solar panels.

But it’s not just in Shaba that the community joined hands to help one of their own. In Shebji, a neighboring village, the residents got together to build a shed for Aum Sonam and Dorji Wangchuk. And I already know that I’ll hear similar heartwarming stories across other villages in Sombaykha.


Zhabdrung’s gifts

Zhabdrung's Zhabdrung

Here’s a story from Sombaykha to commemorate Zhabdrung Kuchoe:

Topche was a nyagay – a strongman. About two hundred years ago, he left his village, Nakhikha in Sombaykha, to serve in Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa’s court.

In addition to being famous for his great physical strength, Boed Topche, as he was known, was also an exceptional swordsman. Legend has it that he would fight nonstop against the Zhabdrung’s enemies. And that at the end of each day, he would have to soak his hand in a bowl of hot water to dislodge the sword from his bloodied hand.

At the end of Boed Topche’s career, the Zhabdrung summoned him and commanded that, for his outstanding services, he could choose something – anything – to take back to his village. But Topche would not identify anything, insisting that serving the Zhabdrung was his reward.

When the Zhabdrung repeated his command for the fifth time, Topche gazed at a statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a statue built by Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa himself, and submitted that that statue would remind him of his master and lama.

The protector

As Boed Topche traveled to his village, farmers from all over Sombaykha gathered to welcome him back, and to receive and accompany the sacred statue in a ceremonial procession to Nyebji Goenpa. But as soon as the statue was installed in Sombaykha’s main monastery, the entire village became mute.

Upon hearing the incident, Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa summoned Boed Topche and gifted him another statue to accompany the statue of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. That statue was of the Talo Gyalpo, the Zhabdrung’s guardian and a protector deity of the Punakha region.

Our elders tell us that Boed Topche ran from Talo to Sombaykha in a single day. And that the villagers were able to speak again soon after the Talo Gyalpo was also installed in Nyebji Goenpa.

Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa’s statue of Zhabrung Ngawang Namgyal is still in Nyebji Goenpa. And Sombeps still worship it as their most sacred relic.

HM's Zhabdrung

But Nyebji Goenpa now has another precious Zhabdrung statue. Earlier this year, during the birth anniversary of His Majesty the King and about two hundred years after installing the Zhabdrung statue, the villagers in Sombaykha congregated to receive and install another image of Zhabdrung NgawangNamgyal. This one – a beautiful gilded bronze statue – was gifted by His Majesty the King.

I’m sorry

Yesterday, near Tergola

We walked from Sipsoo in Samtse through Sombaykha, and arrived in Dorikha in Haa yesterday. I couldn’t go online during the entire journey, as I couldn’t connect to B-Mobile’s signal. Their cellular signal was generally unavailable and in the few places that I could connect to B-Mobile, their signal was weak, and data transfer impossible.

It wasn’t like this last year. Then, when I traveled through the same villages, I’d been able to connect to B-Mobile and go online through most of the journey. And I’d celebrated their coverage in Connecting Bhutan.

This time I couldn’t blog or tweet or update my Facebook status. I couldn’t even make phone calls. So I’m sorry for not staying in touch. And I’m grateful to the several readers who have kept the discussions on this blog going.

But connectivity in this remote part of Bhutan is actually still very good. The difference is that now it is powered by Tashi Cell, not B-Mobile. So if you go to Sombaykha or Gakiling, remember to carry a Tashi Cell subscription. I certainly will.

I’m in Dorikha enjoying a crisp winter morning, indulging in my aunt’s hospitality, and making full use of the first B-Mobile signal I’m receiving in days.

Am back in Thimphu later today.

Birthday celebrations

Sombaykha Dungkhag

Sombaykha is the latest of our country’s 16 dungkhags. It was established barely two years ago to serve the two remote gewogs of Sombaykha and Gakiling. The offices of the dungkhag, which consists of three makeshift houses, are located in Sibthang along the banks of the Amochu.

Last Sunday, on 21 February, farmers from Gakiling and Sombaykha, descended on their dungkhag to celebrate His Majesty the King’s birth anniversary.

This week’s banner features the dungkhag office. More photographs of the festivities are in the gallery.


Hidden paradise?

Tomorrow I’ll be in Samtse. But before I leave Sombaykha, I should share with you its etymology.

Sombaykha = sang as in sangwa or “secret” + bay as in bayuel or “paradise”

Sombaykha = A paradise hidden by Guru Rimpoche


Bjamdabchen is a small meadow surrounded by oak forests, where herders from Sombaykha graze their cattle every autumn. We’ve set up camp in that meadow. I’ve latched on to a caravan traveling to Sipsoo – they’re carrying smoke-dried cardamom and will return with rice, salt, tea, cooking oil and clothes. So, there are quite a few of us at the camp.

We have a roaring fire going. Dinner’s cooking. Ap Gep Tsheri is singing praises to his root guru. And, Rinchen is coaxing him to sing about beautiful Seldon. This is an unscheduled treat.

But, tomorrow will be a struggle. We start trekking at 4:00 AM! Otherwise, I’m told, we won’t make it to Sipsoo.

Hospitality business


Shebji is Sombaykha’s northernmost village. And, civil servants, especially Dzongkhag officials, traveling to Sombaykha normally spend a night in there. After walking continuously downhill from Tergola (at about 4000 meters) through alpine meadows, giant rhododendron forests, and subtropical jungle to Shebji (about 1500 meters), most travelers are happy to rest their tired knees in this little hamlet.

Now, in accordance with our age-old traditions also still practiced throughout rural Bhutan, travelers can choose to eat and drink, rest and sleep in any one of Shebji’s eight houses. Each one of them would feel honoured and very happy to offer their hospitality to any traveler, even if the traveler was not known to them.

Most civil servants choose to rest in Aum Kunzang’s home. Aum Kunzang and her husband, Ap Kinely, who served as a Mang-gi Ap at one time, happily welcome all of them to their two-storied farmhouse and offer them their best tea, food, ara, and bedding. They have a constant stream of visitors to entertain – two to three groups every week during the winter months, some traveling to Sombaykha, others returning to Haa. Yet they don’t charge a thing. There’s no price attached, or expected, for their generous services. And, it would be downright rude to enquire.

So how do they manage? Another tradition allows travelers to gift a little something – in kind or in cash – as a token of their appreciation to their hosts. Naturally, the hosts always refuse. But, if their guests exercise a little determination, they have no option but to accept.

Aum Kunzang’s guests always leave a gift for her. Those “gifts” more than cover her expenses. In fact, she’s embarrassed that she makes a tidy profit from her hospitality – hospitality that she charges nothing for.

GNH and business, not mutually exclusive.

Visiting Sombaykha


“It must be very difficult”, I’ve been told more than once, “having only two members in the opposition.” Yes, it is difficult. And frustrating. But it is enjoyable too.

What do I enjoy most about my work? Visiting my constituency. Trekking through Sombaykha, Gakiling and the parts of Samma that don’t have motor roads are a highlight of my work as an MP. And I never tire of meeting the people I that represent – simple folks living mainly off subsistence farming.

I am in Sombaykha. This time, my visit will take me through every village in Sombaykha, over the pass at Batashay, and down to Sipsoo in Samtse.

The banner features the mountains beyond my constituency. I took the photo this morning, from Tegola, which stands at about 4,000 meters.