Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sherig Century Walk

Right now I am up to my neck in exam paper correction but since I have whined long and loud about this time consuming process before I will return to the less commonplace activities of last week before I forget them completely. 

It was an exceptional week for us. We were only at school on alternating days and each non-school day was long, demanding and filled with activities. The XC class picnic on Tuesday, Martha’s 49th day ceremony on Thursday and by Saturday morning the long anticipated and much discussed Sherig Century Walk was on.

When I first got wind of the walk, it was the beginning of the term and Ian and I had just hiked up to Sakteng and back so I felt very confident that a walk on a paved surface to Trashigang would be an easy task. Therefore I was quick to volunteer to participate, even though I was wary of sleeping on the floor in classrooms with the students. From our school 10 male and 10 female students were selected in way that ensured each class had at least one representative and the 5 staff simply volunteered.

We BCFers got talking about it and it seemed that all of us in the Trashigang District had volunteered to take part. It was an interesting way to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of education in Bhutan and an incredible opportunity for the students to interact with each other. All the schools in the district participated and that meant a 3-day walk for some.

Months disappeared quickly and just a month out from the start date rumors started spreading that the walk was now going to be to Yongphula. In the usual Bhutanese way it was difficult to have this confirmed but it did seem to be the case. Suddenly the parameters had changed and our easy 17 km stroll was to be followed by 2 more days of steep uphill climbing with the task getting more and more difficult and the distances increasing each day. At that point 3 days on the floor with students after walking all day looked like a big ask to me but there was no way to back out.

I had my doubts that I had the stamina to make the distance but I was also worried about the primary students starting from Merak and Sakteng. Robust and fit as they are, they were still looking at 5 consecutive days of walking!!

Ian and I did an few evening walks of 8kms or so and even decided that a 16km practice run would be a good idea the week before. As Becky was staying with us Saturday night, we packed a picnic lunch and set off for a picturesque little village almost at the halfway point between Rangjung and T/gang, planning to turn around and walk back after lunch, but enthusiasm took over and we walked all the way into Trashigang, after our picnic.

That boosted my morale, as, although we were tired on arrival we were fine the next day. We were all set to give it our best shot when the parameters changed again and we were back to the original plan with celebrations relocating to T/gang. Good! Confidence was high and we were relieved that it would be a relatively easy task and thrilled that we would be able to attend the memorial service for Martha as well.

Added to our joy was the fact that Becky’s principal had suggested that she stay in a hotel not at the school in Trashigang and with us in Rangjung, as space was going to be at a premium in the classrooms. That motivated us to enquire if we could also opt for a night in a hotel and permission was instantly granted.

Mid afternoon the schools above Rangjung started pouring into town. They were warmly welcomed and after a few formalities everyone was housed in classrooms for the night and Becky came back to our place with us.

The next morning the parade left looking like crusaders with the traditionally clad Merak students leading the student contingent out through the school gates. 

The roadside was lined with well wishers from both Rangjung schools ensuring we all got a grand send off.

All along the way the students kept up the singing of the song especially written for the event and spirits were high.

Local business people and residents came out onto the street to wave and encourage the walkers as we passed through villages and snacks, and refreshments were offered at intervals throughout the day.

Students had been enquiring about lunch almost from the time we left Rangjung so there was great excitement when the cooks from RHSS passed us on the road in a van laden with steaming pots of rice and curry. We all knew that we would soon see those pots set up in the fields and a good feed was coming our way.

The logistics of getting so many students feed and housed, let alone keeping them moving and having them arrive at the correct places at exactly the right time seemed nightmarish but in the usual Bhutanese fashion it all just happened and even appeared effortless.

Our long snake of walkers increased all day as schools from mountainous areas higher up waited for our arrival and joined us on the “blacktop” road. 

Cars and trucks slowed as they passed through the ranks and some even made donations.

The final contingent from Bartsham and Bidung met up with us just 4kms from Trashigang. JD was among them and they had already covered 20km on dirt roads by then. The younger primary school students in the ranks were beginning to flag and it was a final uphill slog for those little legs and tired feet but there was not one mishap or injury and no-one dropped out along the way.  

As our lines of students from the east arrived in T/gang those arriving from the west merged with them for the final uphill haul to the Trashigang Middle Secondary School campus.  

Among the walkers from the western schools it was not difficult to spot Ashley who had done the 22kms from Kanglung, with her students and Simon who had been on the road for 3 days. When the locations changed from Yongphula to T/gang our win became his loss and he had walked all the way from Wamrong. 

Rehearsals for the grand ceremonies, dances, songs and presentations that would take place on Sunday were underway within 30 minutes of arriving at the school and not a word of complaint came from the lines of around 1000 students assembled from over 60 schools. By then they were all cooling off as the cool night air descended and the wind picked up. Reunions of old classmates now studying in different schools added to the excitement levels.

Amassed were students from primary, community, lower secondary and higher secondary schools and even Sherubste College to say nothing of the powerful and important. They had come from remote communities, small hamlets, villages and larger towns and there was certainly and air of festivity.

The following day saw the arrival of distinguished guests including Nancy Strickland representing BCF. There were the usual rounds of speeches, and the launching of the Rangjung HSS website as well as the Bidung LSS Silver Jubilee School Magazine and many cultural performances by the participating schools.

For me the highlight was certainly seeing the Brokpa students of Sakteng perform a traditional song and dance.

The few schools that had buses were ferrying students back to their respective schools and returning for those without their own transport, by early afternoon. Seats in those buses and DCMs were at a premium and hoards of singing students were seen hanging out of the windows as they headed home. We jumped at the chance to get a ride with Nancy in the Landcruiser and even kidnapped Simon and brought him back to Rangjung for the night when he heard that his school was not leaving until Monday.

All in all, the walk was really a grand celebration and great fun.

Now 4 days into exams, I am trying my level best to get the first paper marked before the Trashigang Tshechu begins next Thursday. Though I would like to attend all 3 days as we did last year, we will settle for 2 as a reward for having reached the halfway point with the marking.

The end is nigh and emotions are running high.

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