travel writing

The Magical Kingdom of Bhutan

The Tiger’s Nest

In travel as in life, it’s often the things you don’t do that give rise to later regret…We are staring at Taktsang (“Tiger’s Nest”) where it is said that Guru Rinpoche, the founding father of the Bhutanese strain of Mahayana Buddhism, arrived in the glacial valley of Paro more than a millennium ago on the back of a legendary tigress bearing the gift of Buddhism from Tibet. He meditated for three months in a cave where a dzhong (monastery) was later built. Today Tiger’s Nest is one of the most sacred pilgrim sites for every Bhutanese. Tragically in 1998 the monastery caught fire however, the pelphug (holy cave) in which Guru Rinpoche meditated was found intact and safe. This holy site has since been accurately reconstructed in its precarious eyrie on a cliff 900 metres above the valley floor, 80 km from the village of Paro (2250 precipitous metres above sealevel!) in the tiny Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan* which itself is nestled in the Himalayas, wedged between the two giants of India and China.Plodding donkeys and mules have brought us up from the floor of the moraine Paro Valley through a forest of tree-sized rhododendrons, Spanish Moss-draped indigenous blue pines and manmade copses of eternally fluttering upward prayer flags.It’s a clear day and we can clearly see Mount Chomolhari the snowcapped sacred peak of Bhutan.

We catch our breaths at this teahouse, a beautiful and tranquil resting station for tourists and Buddhist pilgrims striving for their ultimate goal of the Nest. But an injured foot has robbed one of us (Rob) of the opportunity of the last steep kilometre -not that non-Bhutanese non-buddhists are likely to be granted permission to enter this holiest of Holy sites. But it’s a welcome opportunity to enjoy a pot of local tea (we pass on the salt and butter) and reflect on the absolute peace in the mountain air.

Above: The authors, Rob & Lyn Walker. (The Tiger’s Nest can just be seen between them on the distant cliff.)

Simplicity

The inspiration and home for James Hilton’s Shangrila (“The Lost Horizon”), Bhutan has long been a source of fascination and mystery. Isolated by its own unique geography – and protected by enlightened government policy- the country is still stunningly beautiful and its people honest, open and unspoiled. The King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is perhaps most famous for his decree that Bhutan’s progress will be measured not by GDP, but Gross National Happiness (a concept which free-market economists might have some trouble getting their heads around.) With a population of anywhere between 700,00 and 2.2 million (estimates vary -illegal Indians and refugees in the south are difficult to count), the country has more Buddhist monks than soldiers, and by law holds more than 60% of the land mass under forest at any one time. While he’s encouraging his people to adopt democratic conventions, the King’s power is virtually absolute, which makes social and environmental planning very efficient.For hundreds of years the Bhutanese had enjoyed lives of simplicity, travelling mountainous tracks between villages by foot or on horses and donkeys, bartering goods and remaining blissfully unaware of technological changes sweeping the rest of the planet.

Twentieth century

Until the 1960s the country had no sealed roads, financial currency, electricity, telephones, schools, hospitals, postal service – or tourists. In the 80’s the King decided, that as part of the nation’s plan to unify the largely rural country, it would adopt a national language. “Newcomers” speak Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi. Of the dozen or so local spoken dialects the King chose Dzongkha , spoken by about a quarter of the population. As it was an oral language only, the government’s first step was to create a written form. The first official Dzongkha dictionary has only been created since the year 2000 and the previous year saw the simultaneous introduction of the internet and the country’s first TV station.The Bhutanese not only respect their pristine natural environment, they worship it. Buddhism has been the predominant value-system for at least 1300 years, so all forms of sentient life are considered sacred; from the rare takin, (the national animal which looks like a cross between an antelope and a goat,) snow leopard, golden langur, blue sheep, tiger, water buffalo and elephant to the smallest mouse. The country has been identified as one of the great global endemic bird areas, harbouring some of the most exotic species of the Himalayas (770 species identified to date), an amazing variety of orchids and medical plants and over 50 species of rhododendron.To safeguard this biodiversity- and their unique culture- the government-run Tourist Corporation controls all tourism. To avoid the “hippy effect” which turned Katmandu from a young person’s Nirvana in the 70’s to a pile of plastic bags, air pollution from 2stroke bikes and uncontrolled drug addiction, independent travel is not permitted. The Corporation controls all tours in and expects visitors to spend at least 8,600 Ngultrum a day (US$200) on accommodation and tours. In 2004 there were only 9000 visitors.

Let’s get physical…

 Being entirely within the eastern Himalayas , Bhutan is a very mountainous and landlocked nation. Mountain peaks in the north reach up to over 7 000 m, the highest point being the Kula Kangri at 7,553 m. The southern part of the country has a lower altitude, and contains several fertile and densely forested valleys that flow down into the Brahmaputra river in India.The local climate varies from tropical in the south to cool winters and hot summers in the central valleys, with severe winters and cool summers occurring in the Himalayas.The majority of the population lives in the central highlands. The country’s largest city, the capital Thimphu (population 27,000), is located in the western part of these highlands. Thimpu is clean and well-planned. Its ancient architecture in wood, mud and stone is faithfully preserved and its modern buildings are constructed of stone and concrete, but conform to the traditional architecture. Even the Hotel River View where we stayed merged with this local ambience of white moraine in the wide Thimpu River valley and white structures with their highly ornamented red and gold eaves..

The journey so far… 

By way of Darjeeling and Siliguri in north-eastern India, we followed the valley of the Teesta River and entered Bhutan at the border town of Phuentsholing (the spelling is flexible), travelling in minibuses on very narrow and winding roads which are maintained by India’s Border Roads Organisation. These roads are prone to washaways and landslides in the wet season and were being repaired as we drove on them. Tar was being heated over open flames in 44 gallon drums and mixed with gravel made on site (i.e smashed with sledge hammers.)The melting Himalayan snows provide Bhutan (and much of India) with huge volumes of harvestable water. The sale of hydro-electric power to its southern neighbour is a major sustainable income-earner for Bhutan.Each turn on the snaking road opens up a new spectacular vista. Every major valley is a place of pilgrimage and each mountain seems to have a fortress/ monastery dzhong .From Thimpu, the largest town/city, we head for Punakha, going over the highest point at Dochu-La Pass (3088m) where a dense fog thwarts our anticipated view of the higher distant snowcapped Himalayas. It’s so cold there is frost on the roofs of the chortens and Rob manages to slip on ice and cause himself further injury. (Meanwhile we’re getting tragic news by internet that back home the Eyre Peninsula bushfires are raging.)The Punakha Dzhong, which we reach by a rickety suspension footbridge, was built as a fortress on a tongue of land at the confluence of the Rivers Pho and Mo in 1637. Confluences of major rivers -” chuzom”- are invariably explained in graphic legends and revered as sacred sites. At the chuzom it is believed powerful evils can join forces, so massive shrines ” chortens ” (Bhutanese) or stupas (Tibetan) have been erected.Speaking of erections, the phallus is a traditional symbol of power and fertility in Tantric Buddhism and erect penises are painted on many older houses.

The People

Bhutanese are physically similar to the Tibetans. There is an assumption (but no written record of when) Tibetans crossed over the Himalayas and settled in the south. Both peoples worship the tantric guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the 8th century.

Right: The local Paro Valley farmer who led our donkeys and mules to the teahouse below the Taktsang.

Family Life

Bhutanese women have traditionally had more rights than women in surrounding cultures, the most prominent right being the exclusive right of land ownership. The property of each extended Bhutanese family is controlled by an anchor mother who is assisted by the other women of the family in running affairs. As she becomes unable to manage the property, the position of anchor mother passes on to a sister, daughter or niece.Both men and women work in the fields, and both may own small shops or businesses. Both may be monks, although in practice the number of female monks is relatively small.Marriages are at the will of either party and divorce is not uncommon. When a young couple marries they decide whether to live with the husband’s or the wife’s family depending on which is most in needed of labor.

Bhutanese names

Except for royal lineages, Bhutanese names do not include a family name. Instead two traditional auspicious names are chosen at birth by the local lama or by the parents or grandparents of the child. The first name generally cannot be used to determine if the person is male or female; in some cases the second name may be helpful in that regard. As there is a limited reservoir of acceptable names to chose from, many people share the same first and second names. An informal system then comes into play. If Chong Kinley from Paro valley is visiting Thimphu valley she is known there as Paro Kinley. If she is in her home valley of Paro, she is identified there by her village, Chong Kinley Chozom. In her small village she may not be the only Chong Kinley, in which case she is identified by the name of the house she was born in, thus Chemsarpo Kinley.Paro While the dzong at Paro is ancient (from here, Bhutanese repelled invading Tibetan armies in the 17 th Century), the town itself is only newly-created, something of a Wild West town with an Asian flavour. Being at the end of a long glacial valley, this is the only place in Bhutan suitable for a runway for international aircraft. It’s from here the following day that we’ll experience the heart-stopping exercise in triangulation that the pilot refers to as “take-off”. Fortunately the modern airbuses regularly manage to spiral in and out of the confined valley without incident- although we noted that the stewards did not waste time on the usual life-raft/ emergency landing drill. Looking down on the jagged Himalayan peaks, you realize that emergency procedures would be superfluous. Much better to effect a last-minute conversion to Buddhism?All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, or driglam namzha , while in public. Men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, called a gho , folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach. Careful observation revealed that in 2005 this pouch is likely to hold a wallet, mobile phone and a packet of cigarettes! Women wear colorful blouses over which they fold and clasp a large rectangular cloth called a kira , thereby creating an ankle-length dress.Our guide Tashi ( Tashi delek means “good luck!”, so we’re not sure whether Tashi was “good” or “luck”!) took every opportunity to have a decadent western cigarette and chat up a local girl. We even saw him do a few ‘drug deals’. Betel nut isn’t encouraged by the government, but persists & seems to be intergenerational. Young women have lips and tongues permanently dyed red and older Bhutanese have seemingly long teeth through the recession of gums (see the photo of our very hospitable donkey guide who later also showed us around his traditional farmhouse.)Bhutan is the first country to completely ban the sale of tobacco, although no doubt a healthy (unhealthy?) black market exists and our guide seemed to have a reliable source. Local chokerscan import, but the excise is crippling.You can’t help but wonder if these charming people can withstand the onslaught of the worst excesses of Western capitalism. On the morning I (Rob) was ill in bed in the hotel in Thimpu, I was able to watch US TV by satellite. The programme was Oprah’s Spring Collection -one of the most obscene examples of conspicuous consumption I’ve ever witnessed.Can these quietly confident Buddhist people, so recently thrust into the 21 st century adopt the best from the West, while rejecting the worst?You try to be optimistic.Meanwhile, back at the teahouse near the Tiger’s Nest, the smaller group of our party who had trekked the final leg to Taktsang, return excited and triumphant. Not only did they reach the ultimate sacred site, they were permitted to enter the inner sanctum, guided by a monk. Apparently there are always exceptions to the rule in Bhutan and these non-Buddhist teachers from the West have been admitted to the holiest of holy sites.Yes. It is the thing that you don’t do that later you regret.But then, you have to save something for another time, don’t you?

• • • Notes:*

The name Bhutan derives from Bootan, the source of which is open to dispute. The name was used by Marco Polo and later British explorers. It was also used as an alternative name for Tibet on some early maps. Violent storms coming down from the Himalayas are the source of the country’s local name Druk Yul , which translates as Land of the Thunder Dragon. Rob and Lyn Walker travelled to India and Bhutan in January 2005 as part of a DECS/Access Asia Study Tour.Access Asia study tours are designed to extend educators’ understanding of all aspects of Asian culture and to promote Studies of Asia in our schools. The tours are open to all South Australian educators. Rob Walker is a teacher of Music and Drama at Woodcroft Primary School and part-time writer. website: <www.users.bigpond.com/robwalker1>Lyn Walker has taught Senior Geography and Economics at Marden Senior College. She currently works as a TRT at Woodcroft College.

This article was originally published as “Teachers in Shangri-la” in the South Australian Geographer, 2005

It was reprinted online in the (now defunct) Australian Reader as Land of the Thunder Dragon (12/05/07)

 

 

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