At first glance 50 year old Lingzhip Ugyen Tenzin looks like any other man from the mountains â€“ ruddy-cheeked, craggy and weather-beaten. He is not generously built though and appears rather frail. But he has a bustling energy about him that belies his years and frugal frame. And he certainly treads on a mean pair of legs.
The man with the dual job â€“ yak herder and Bhutan Post mailman â€“ has been walking between Thimphu and Lingzhi for the last 27 years. Whether it shines, rains, or snows, he is dutifully on the road for at least 96 days in a year, about 2,600 days so far and still clocking.
He makes the trip between the general post office in Thimphu and the community mail office in Lingzhi dungkhag once a month, and some times more, ferrying letters, official documents, newspapers, and small parcels or packages. It takes him eight days of trekking, both ways, over narrow rock-strewn mountain trails â€“ slushy and tricky in summer and slippery and hostile in winter.
One winter, on his way back to Lingzhi, he was caught up in a blizzard. He thought the blizzard would wane in a couple of days and camped in a small roadside cave. But it went on for almost nine days. And he was carrying food to last for only four days. He had to cut down to a meal in two days. â€œA few more days of the blizzard and I would
have died of cold and hunger,â€ he says. He had yet another close shave. During a foul monsoon he was attempting to cross the Thim Chhu, which crisscrosses the trail to Lingzhi more than a dozen times, over a make-shift log bridge. He lost foothold and fell into the river. The river, raging with dare-devil ferocity, swallowed him up.
â€œI thought that was it for me,â€ recollects Ugyen with a bewildered smile. â€œI thrashed about with one hand for something to hold on and clutched the mail bag with the other. Even if I was going to die I wanted to do so holding the mail bag.â€ After being swept away for some 200 metres downstream, he managed to latch on to the branch of a tree and hoist himself out of the jaws of death.
Added to these are the other potential dangers of the wild. He often comes across fresh tiger paw-prints although he has never met one until now. â€œBut bears plenty,â€ he says with a deadpan nonchalance. â€œBrown, black, big and small â€“ all kinds.â€ Once, at a sharp bend, he found himself face to face with a huge menacing looking one. â€œBoth of us stopped dead in our tracks,â€ he recalls. â€œHe seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He sized me up for a moment and must have sensed I was harmless because he walked away into the thickets above the road.â€
Despite these occupational hazards that often dangle his life to the razorâ€™s edge, Ugyen is not complaining about his job. In fact he is charged up about it.
â€œFor me it is not about carrying letters or delivering packages,â€ he says with some emphasis. â€œIt is about doing something for my community, about trust, about bearing good news for others.â€
He says the biggest perk of his job is to see people greeting him with eager smiles and joy, especially upon his return from Thimphu. â€œSometimes they are so happy to see me they treat me to grand meals.â€
â€œOf course the other good thing is I get paid handsomely,â€ he says and adds, with noticeable pride, that he receives Nu 5,200 a month. A princely amount compared to the Nu 217 he got when he reluctantly took the job in January 1976.
Asked for how long he intends to carry on being a death-defying mailman, he has a readymade reply: â€œAs long as there is breath in my chest and spring in my footstep.â€
Just as well because Bhutan Post is happy with the services of its intrepid mailman. â€œNot a single letter or package misplaced or lost in all these years,â€ says his boss, Chief Postmaster Sonam Tshering of Thimphu general post office. â€œHe is very responsible and reliable.â€
Ugyen himself is a happy and satisfied man too. â€œAn illiterate man like me couldnâ€™t have asked for a better life,â€ the father of five says. Besides the salary his heard of 50 yaks also brings his family a substantial income through chhugo (hardened cheese) and butter.
On this trip Ugyen is in a particularly garrulous mood which, to some extent, seems to have been inspired by the rattling bottles of rum tucked in his bag. Like most men from the highlands, Ugyen is fond of chhang and possesses a rather vigorous appetite for it. For his four day trek back home, he is carrying four bottles of his favorite liquid, the AWPâ€™s Royal XXX rum.
â€œI normally finish only one and a half but one needs more of this stuff around this time of year to beat the cold,â€ he says with a disarming missing-tooth grin.
With this earthy piece of philosophy he takes to the ancient trail from the base of Chari monastery with his pet horse and trusted companion for the last nine years, Norbu, in a plume of dust singing a merry song.
Contributed by Tshering Gyeltshen (Kunsel Online)