Bhutan: Monsoons and Miracles
Our airplane is several miles from its destination in Paro, Bhutan. It’s late afternoon, and we’re flying so low we can almost count the individual blue pine trees in steep forests below. The airport’s altitude is 7000 feet, and we’re still in monsoon clouds. Soon we can see the branches on the trees, mingling tentatively with loose tufts of vapor, whispering the presence of a mystery. We spot women in small rice paddies, close enough for us to name multiple colors in the kiras, their traditional clothing. Sharp embankments are within shouting distance of our wings, and children on mountain roads stop to wave enthusiastically as we descend. We’ve been told that a safe arrival in the Paro airport takes a skilled aviator, so it’s a good time to remember that miracles are known to happen here. Though most people have still not heard of Bhutan, it is a world unlike any other.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is nuzzled in the eastern Himalayas, north of India and south of Tibet. Not only is it in the mountains, it is virtually all mountain. The country ranges in elevation from about 600 feet to 24,778 feet, and only 8% of the land is tillable. Flying is the only way for tourists to get there. Druk Air is the exclusive airline to fly into Bhutan, with a fleet of two 72-passenger airplanes. It has the distinction of being the only airline to routinely fly over eight of the tallest peaks in the world.
The word Druk means dragon. Druk Yul is what Bhutanese call their country, translated as the Land of the Thunder Dragon. It is listed as one of the ten biodiversity hot spots in the world, with an estimated 165 mammal and 5500 plant species, 500 of which are considered medicinal. There are about 770 bird species. In contrast, North America is reported to have about 800 species of birds, in a land mass more than 400 times larger than Bhutan. Seventy-two percent of the Kingdom is covered with forests. A remarkable 26% of the entire country is protected by national parks and sanctuaries. Most of the giant peaks have never been explored by westerners and are considered home to the deities, so climbing them is not allowed. Bhutan is so protective of its environment that killing a black-necked crane means life imprisonment. Plastic bags are illegal.
The king of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is respected both internationally and at home. In his 26-year reign he’s been credited with opening Bhutan to the visitors for the first time. Bringing in tourists is one thing, but delivering Bhutan to the 21st century is quite another. Bhutan’s resources are as vulnerable as they are impressive. It has a population of about 650,000 people, most of whom are scattered in remote valleys narrowly wedged between high mountains. It measures 180 miles long and 100 miles wide, a land mass about one-fifth the size of Oregon. The majority of people live on subsistence farming with an average annual income of $510.00. Roads have been built within the last 20 years, and though they connect some regions, most of the country can only be reached by footpath. In order to be cautious with its capacity to absorb visitors, Bhutan’s annual tourist count is about 7,000.
We have come to trek and to experience the culture. We’re also drawn to the high mountain passes where prayer flags are planted in auspicious locations and where invocations are best heard by the gods and goddesses of the Himalayas. We each have our own list of requests for our challenged world, and are eager to set these prayers free. Once our plane lands, we touch the tarmac in gratitude and bow in reverence toward the mountains, which totally capture our attention. The mountain pass through which our airplane flew is already obscured. These are monsoon clouds, not the angry hit-and-run variety, but more of the what’s-the-hurry, drooling kind. They hang low on the mountains like gauze petticoats, allowing a seductive look upwards.
Gradually we notice another subtler, equally magnificent quality. It’s the sweet, unassuming silence. No traffic on the ground or in the air, no leaf blowers, and blessed be, no car stereos. In fact, the airport parking lot has exactly 12 cars. Listen to that quiet, we whisper to each other. There is literally nothing to hear except the wind and the birds. Considering ourselves aficionados of quiet, we are now officially in heaven.
It’s easy to like the Bhutanese at once. For example, we are told by two immigration officials that our visa expired last week. We explain our itinerary. They smile and shrug, saying something we will hear many more times in Bhutan: What can you do? They extend our legal time with a proper stamp and without fee. Leaving the building, we are greeted by a local man wearing a Bhutanese man’s attire called a gho, which resembles a colorful knee-length bathrobe with rolled-up sleeves. He holds up a sign with our names, which is especially charming since we are the only tourists in the entire airport. His name is Wangdi, and he is to be our guide. He introduces us to our driver Sharub, which sounds just like “Shut Up”. This name turns out to be apropos, since Sharub knows no English and will never once speak to us. He is a good sport, and has a perpetual smile with perfect teeth.
We’re shuttled to a hotel set among forest and flower paths, and given tiny keys on brass key holders so heavy they’d make your pants fall down. Tourist season officially began one week ago. So far we’re the only guests in the hotel. Our next several days are spent hiking, taking countless photographs, and visiting remarkable fort-monasteries called dzongs. When we visit the Paro dzong, Wangdi proudly tells us this particular structure was featured in the movie Little Buddha. We also climb to an especially sacred monastery called the Tiger’s Nest, notched precariously into a sheer cliff wall. It’s Bhutan’s most famous landmark.
Visiting a farmhouse, we sip yak butter tea with a widow who is old friends with Tshering, our gracious travel agent. The farmer woman’s son has just graduated from college in India and has returned to help her with the farm. For the benefit of their family and the world, they have hired a dozen monks and nuns who are chanting and fasting in an adjacent room. We are invited to duck through a curtain to join them, and the chanters welcome us by squeezing closer together on the floor to give us space. We are told that all Bhutanese people have a specific place in their homes for worship. As Buddhists, they pray for all sentient beings. Little do we realize how especially timely this is.
The evening prior to our trek two other Americans approach us with troubled faces. They’ve just called home. The date is September 11th and it’s 9:15 am in New York. Since we have no further access to news, we learn very little more until the next morning when we are leaving on our trek and are joined by a dozen schoolchildren. We are able to infer the ominous developments from them when we ask them why they’re out of school. Because two big buildings in America fell down, madam. As it turns out, the king has closed the country so his people can light butter lamps for us, in mourning. We carry the news of America and the king’s compassion like backpacks into the mountains. When we reach the high altitude passes, our supplications are even more fervent than we imagined when we left home.
May the miracles that have protected Bhutan fly from these mountains to protect the entire world. May we create a world safe for all children to wave greetings to airplanes. May the illusion of separation be lifted so we can remember our compassion for each other. May those who govern do so wisely. May we keep places of mystery, peace and quiet safe for the whole world to visit.
To learn more about Bhutan, visit www.lhayul.com. To plan a trip to Bhutan, email Tshering Pem at email@example.com. To learn more about nature in Bhutan, email the Royal Society for the Preservation of Nature at firstname.lastname@example.org.