Happy Together

Tradition meets modernity in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan

By Kate Siber

Photo by Kate Siber

My group traveled through the high mountains and operated in the typical Bhutanese fashion: leisurely and luxurious. A cook, two horsemen, and a trekking guide accompanied the four of us, and mules carried our provisions, tents, and a slew of fold-up tables and chairs. Most days we walked for fewer than five hours at a gentle pace, focused more on the scenery than on our progress. The first day, the scenery included apple orchards, moss forests, and a small village, where every yard hosted a mess of horses and chickens.

That first evening, I climbed up to a tiny monastery. The wind whipped the prayer flags that were strung along a ridge to send written prayers to heaven on the breezes. A boy monk hidden in the wind-rattled stone tower sang a stark, melodic phrase, but other than those hushed murmurs, there was silence. This was another corner of the world that held much spiritual power, obvious even to an atheist like myself. I emptied my brain of thoughts and watched the shifting sea of prayer flags in front of a crisp skyline of peaks, dark against the setting sun.

For the next three days, we traveled along rolling, exposed ridges and through forests of pines and rhododendrons, alternately climbing and descending. Our efforts were rewarded with views of 23,997-foot Chomolhari, Bhutan’s highest peak, and other royally magnificent peaks; cloudless nights; and evenings spent feasting on curries and Bhutanese specialties, like chilies in cheese sauce, next to a campfire. Temperatures plummeted after dark, but we were well-fed, well-warmed, and tuckered out from the alpine wind, sun, and walking. We slept soundly.

By day we chatted with yak herders and passed lakes that the Bhutanese believe are haunted by fickle, powerful spirits. One morning we found evidence of one of the world’s most elusive creatures, a snow leopard, who had unsuccessfully stalked our mules after dark. By night, we chatted about Arnold Schwarzenegger films and movie stars who have visited Bhutan—“I saw Demi Moore one time!” chimed in quiet, shy Phutsho one evening as we huddled around the fire.

In many ways, my guides, particularly Chencho, personified the country’s transformation. In my room later in Punakha, Chencho told me about the nature of his Buddhist practice and how he performs rituals in his hometown’s temple in order to appease his protective deities while he flicked through channels looking for English soccer, a country-wide obsession. He adores basketball just as much as archery, Bhutan’s national sport, and listens to Kenny Rogers and 50 Cent as well as Bhutanese traditional and pop songs. He was constantly punching text messages into his phone but also prostrated solemnly in front of shrines in temples without hesitation.

Chencho, who is 28, is a prime representative of the first generation of Bhutanese to be introduced to Western life—a generation that grew up with an aching awareness of the outside world and a desire for its trappings. Modernization has come late but quickly to Bhutan. Until the ‘50s, when the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck initiated the process, the country was essentially a feudalist state, operating much as it had been for centuries. With the help of subsidies from India and other countries, it slowly developed an infrastructure of roads, national health care, and education. In 1971, Bhutan joined the United Nations and established ties with other countries. It was only recently, in 1999, that television and the Internet were introduced; cell phones only came two years ago.

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Issue 25

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