It’s a four-hour walk from Gelephu town. Though I’ve lived in Gelephu, I’ve never been to Umling. Growing up, I heard people say it‘s beautiful. So I thought perhaps the day’s come for me to see the place and a friend who teaches there. It was two years ago when I was working with Bhutan Observer.
The people of Umling are tanned. They wear their ghos high above their knees and carry rug sacks on their backs. As the sun started setting, I packed my things and looked for the people of Umling in Gelephu town.
It was a hot afternoon. The sun played hide-and-seek with the clouds and as I was sweating, I saw a man wearing a gho way above his knees. He must be an Umlingpa, I reckoned.
I asked him, “Are you from Umling?” He nodded and said his name was Ngawang. I requested Ngawang if I could tag along with him to Umling. He agreed, but on the condition that I helped him carry a load or two. So I received a small carton while he carried a Umlingpas huge rucksack.
“Umling is a beautiful place but we have a lot of problems during the summer,” Ap Ngawang said. I announced my credentials as we started walking away from the town. “Bhutan Observer?” he jolted, as if he had been threatened.
Then he said, “Private newspaper?” He was awestricken and asked me again, “How many newspapers are there?” I said there were three. He turned away and murmured “Oh, man! Our country is developing!”
He said before we start the journey, we’ve to charge ourselves as the route is very long. We entered a bar and he ordered two bottles of beer and a plate of juma. My head swung. The weight on my back became lighter and softer as we left the crowded and dusty town behind us.
As we moved further, I found more and more tanned people wearing short ghos and carrying large sacks. Some of them were singing while others were carrying huge loads; a few were drunk and lying on the footpath.
As we walked, we passed a long paddy field. A few minutes later, I saw a big river; it was the Maokhola over which the Gelephu MP promised to build 2.5 km long motor bridge. A long bamboo bridge connects the two banks. “When the river swells during summer, this bridge will be washed away and we’ll have to use boats.Sometimes even the boats don’t work when there are strong currents,” Ap Ngawang said, as we were crossing the bridge.
“Every year, the river claims more than two lives.” He continued. After that, we crossed several streams. Now I know the reason why Umlingpas wear their ghos above their knees. It’s not because they do not follow Drig Lam Namzhag, it is because of the streams.
At Chuzangang, we climbed a hillock. As soon as we scaled the summit a woman cried, “Come on, we have bangchang, beer, juma, and momo!” She was underneath a small plastic sheet of a hut, displaying the beverages. Ap Ngawang put down his green bag on a huge stone and asked me to come with him. He ordered two bottles of bangchang and two plates of momo. We were reenergized. The rest of the walk was a blur.
When we reached Barthang, half way to Umling, the rains poured down furiously. I enjoyed the rainy wet walk. Several people started to join us; we looked like a band of gypsies. It was a rapturous walk. Perhaps the wine and the water did that.
“We have to carry the goods ourselves because the vehicles cannot cross the rivers in summer,” Aum Lhaden, a tall woman from Lingar, said.
Another woman, Lemo, recalled a bitter experience. “My brother had broken his leg after he fell down from a tree. We have one BHU in Umling, so he was forwarded to Gelephu hospital. But he had to wait for two days as the boat couldn’t cross the river because of the strong currents and the rains,” she said.
We crossed two long suspension bridges in the Taklaikhola River.
Another bottle of bangchang and I hardly knew how I crossed the longest suspension bridges in the country.
As the crimson sun stood in the west, we reached Umling. The entry to Umling was heralded by clean air, soft green grass, and beautiful hills with streams and brooks snaking everywhere. Long paddy and maize fields, beetle nut trees and banana plants surrounded the tin roofs and wooden walls of the houses. Cows grazed contentedly nearby.
As I stopped to admire an exceptionally beautiful place, Ap Ngawang called me to a shop, “Before going home, lad, we’ve to get charged one last time.”
It seems the reason Umlingpas wear their ghos high is not just the river, streams, brooks and rainfalls outside; it’s also the wine that flows inside.