Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Sky Catches Fire, the Rivers Run Red, and It Snows

A day before New Year’s, and our last days in Bhutan: the perfect time for auspicious and inauspicious signs. We walk out of the grocery store at just the time the sun set. Normally in Bhutan all that happens when the sun sets is that it gets dark, because there is no pollution in the air. Jon Strassfeld, in Paro, happened to catch a picture of the sun set this particular day:

In Thimphu this phenomenon appears as a dark-orange streak that covers more than half the sky. As we watch it, the sun manages to break through the haze and briefly stares at us, a blood-red ball. I run into my student, Yeshey Samdrup.

“So, is this auspicious or inauspicious, do you think?” I say.
“There was a forest fire today, sir,” Yeshey says.
“Ah, inauspicious,” I say.

Haa continues to burn the next day, but the sunset is only a mild purple color. However, the smoke has seeded clouds that roll in during the night. Now, in addition to there almost never being colorful sunsets in Bhutan, there is almost never snow, because precipitation falls mainly during monsoon season. In addition to this, while it gets damn cold during the night, during the day the fact that we are at 27 degrees latitude kicks in and the sun heats things up to around 70 or 80 degrees, even in the dead of winter. However, this New Year’s day, because the clouds were thick enough to block out the sun, we awake to snow falling gently over cypresses.
Pictures to come as soon as I ask Feyer’s dad to send some, as he was the only one taking pictures that day that I know of. At any rate, New Year’s day also happens to be the day that we hike to Taktsang.

Quickly I break off from Jon and his parents. Completely alone in the woods, the only sound I can hear is the sound of Bhutanese hollering down from Takshang. All around me snowy wisps of old man’s beard moss trail from the trees, stirring gently in the breeze. As I climb over ridges, the only thing I can see is a grayscale sky. The clouds are all around, the soles of my worn-out shoes let in the snow, and I sweat as I climb as quickly as I can.

By the time I reach the monastery, the sun has burned through the edges of the haze, and a light-blue sky advances slowly over the ridge. I turn and look below. A valley-sized cloud blows in, writhing and boiling. It melts like licked cotton candy, and then it twists and writhes, elongating into the form of a dragon, its gaseous horns crowning a featureless face. It slams pressurelessly into a ridge, and rolls over as mist. A minute later, I hear the thundering of a jet flying into Paro.

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