Our hike along the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) from Pele La continued down through a vast open meadow, passing by a campsite of semi-nomadic yak herders and a few local farmers along the way. My guide Singay and I were headed to the village of Rukubji where we would stop and enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal at a local farmhouse. As one of the first authorized trail guides of the TBT, Singay has been setting up a network of passport ambassadors along the way who offer food and lodging to intrepid travelers.
I was looking forward to having a traditional meal and learning more about the Bhutanese way of life for many of its people. Per the World Bank, roughly 60% of Bhutanese live in rural areas today as opposed to almost 96% in 1960, before the first highway was built. The past 60 years have seen more change and modernization in Bhutan than ever before.
As we entered the village, Singay told me that Rukubji is known for its special Lhakhang (temple), Kuenzang Choling. It is believed that the temple was built over 300 years ago by a Lama named Tshendhen Duelwa. Unlike most temples, it is not built on a ridge with a view out over a valley, but rather on an extended plateau and close to two rivers. Local legend says the temple was built on top of the head of a snake demoness which was subdued by Duelwa.
Rukubji is also famous for its unique local dialect. While Dzongkha (which translates into the “language of the fortress”) is the official and national language of Bhutan, there are over nineteen spoken dialects throughout the country. Given its mountainous topography, many communities have been isolated for centuries and developed their own unique dialects that can still be heard today.
The village is a perfect example of a traditional Bhutanese settlement with a magical past. There are plenty of legends of course behind the creation of this village as already mentioned above. However, what makes Rukubji even more unusual is that it is the only community in Bhutan where houses are all clustered together. There are 74 households and a village school surrounded by a large field of crops that the community divides up into household plots. There, they grow turnips, pumpkins, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, peas, potatoes, carrots, beetroot, and buckwheat. No fertilizer is used so it is all done organically and each farm plot is owned and farmed by a household.
What produce is not used to feed the family, is pooled together and exported to India. The main cash crops are cabbage and potatoes, making this small rural community fare pretty well. The new opportunity of hosting travelers hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail is yet another revenue source for the village and also provides travelers with a unique opportunity to dine in a family farmhouse and connect with the local community. Oftentimes, these are the best experiences a traveler has when exploring a new country. That certainly holds true for me.
We arrived at a beautiful farmhouse owned by Rinchen Dema, the oldest daughter of the family. Inside we were introduced to Rinchen’s family and welcomed with a cup of hot butter tea, as is tradition. Singay and I gathered around the small dining area and kitchen and learned more about Rinchen and her family’s life in Rukubji. Apparently, a mother tiger has moved into the area and has been killing livestock to feed her cubs. It has worried the local community a great deal and there are risks now walking along the paths to connecting villages. Rinchen told us that one of her sisters lives in the next village, a thirty-minute walk further down the TBT and now the area is restricted due to the dangers of the tiger. Singay and I were supposed to continue our hike in that direction after our lunch. Obviously, there would be a change of plans.
After we sat down on the colorful cushions on the floor, Rinchen brought over bowls steaming with white rice, ema datshi (chilies with cheese), buckwheat pancakes, and chicken curry. Traditionally Bhutanese eat with their hands, grabbing a ball of rice, and rolling it around in their hands to clean them off before digging in. I was handed a fork, and I dove in as soon as I filled up my plate as high as possible.
The flavors were spicy, fresh, and rich, warming my soul and filling my stomach with much-needed nutrients. Bhutanese love their red chilies, which can be found in almost every meal. They are also seen everywhere throughout Bhutan, driving on rooftops and hanging from windows. Chilies are as much a part of the culture as tradition, religion, and legends.
After lunch, Rinchen gave us a tour of the farm where we met her gregarious uncle who insisted on getting his photo taken with me. I actually preferred the photo I took of him, smiling with his wide, happy grin asking me about my visit to Bhutan. I learned about the vegetables they grow and was told my own meal was fresh from the farm that morning. Farm-to-table dining at its finest, Rinchen mused.
I took a shot of Rinchen and me with a view of her farmhouse and land. (Behind us is the area where I would have continued the hike for the day if it was not restricted).
And of course, I couldn’t leave without taking a photo of Richen’s beautiful sister and niece. For me, a huge part of travel is the people I meet along the way. Being able to connect with people and share a meal is a pretty special experience.
Like always, I wish I had more time to savor the moment. But alas, it was time to go. We wouldn’t be continuing our hike to the next village of Chendebji that day. Yet my cup was full. It had been a day to remember along the Trans Bhutan Trail. One I certainly would never forget.