THIMPU, Bhutan — They look like springer spaniels on steroids, but with imposing horns: husky black-and-white yaks crowd the so-called road, abruptly eyeball-to-eyeball with the driver, Tshering, and our leader, Dr. John Constable, in the front seat as the van rounds a rock-walled curve.
The van is not labeled with a bumper sticker such as “This vehicle brakes for yaks!” Nevertheless, Tshering, alert as ever, stops and allows a smiling herdsman to sort out the jam. Good idea to let the Himalayan track be cleared because there are no guard rails, and the next stop could be a non-stop plunge of 3000 feet. Tshering means long life, and we hope that Lumbu Tshering has been well named since he holds a few lives in his steadily-steering hands.
Every twisty mile on these skimpy shelves, the one-lane mountain roads of Bhutan, is an adventure, but so far in his eight-year career as a driver Tshering has batted 1.000. In his business .999 will not do.
The yaks go their way. The van resumes its route to Thimpu, and another of Constable’s Wanderers, Dena Willmore, says, “Wouldn’t you love to have the yakburger franchise in this country someday?” MacYak?
Doesn’t sound like something that would get royal approval. Not that the conservative, yet enlightened, king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, can keep the 21st century out of his diminutive craggy domain. But he does hold the line amazingly well with an un-Asian emphasis on birth and ecological controls, education (English required) and a refusal to be overrun by tourists.
Wishing for his compatriots what he calls GNH (gross national happiness), his majesty, a handsome 45-year-old, seems to have insured his own by marrying four beautiful sisters. Each has a small palace of her own while he lives in a log cabin with nearby, often-used, basketball hoop, content to play musical queens. Jigme Singye Wangchuck also shares top billing with the Dalai Lama in portraits seen everywhere, recognition of his role as guardian of the country’s religion, Buddhism.
A remote plot about the size of Switzerland, but inhabited by merely 600,000 citizens, Bhutan is bordered by Tibet and India. Its one entry point is the Paro airport where you hold your breath as the plane slithers into pinched Paro Valley, no place for claustrophobes.
If you want to call it Shangri-La revisited, I guess it fits even though we’ve been Shangri-La’d to the point of triteness over the years since James Hilton’s novel, “Lost Horizon,” (and the movie) appeared. Whether it’s the bracing mountain air, scenic grandeur, the friendliness and openness of the people — a seeming innocence — you may find yourself humming Shangri-La-la-la-la-la.
However…however, the king bravely permitted the invasion of cable TV last year — 42 channels including MTV, Indian smut movies, CNN. Maybe there goes the neighborhood?
“Oh, our children will learn to watch only the good things like National Geographic, and programs from the BBC,” a young mother told me.
Whatever, Bhutan, not as primitive as when I first visited 15 years ago, is experiencing seeping modernity. VCRs, some private cars, better accommodations and restaurants, computers, high-tech bows-and-arrows for the national sport, archery, American T-shirts featuring such as the World Wrestling Federation’s “Rock.”
“You can’t isolate yourself any more,” says John Constable, heading his third expeditionary force here for Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. “But I think the Bhutanese are being careful about joining the outside world. Wisely so.”
Although Bhutan qualifies as Third World, that doesn’t seem quite right. Hopelessness and ghastly poverty don’t appear to be in style. Good health does. People walk prodigious distances, work tremendously hard. but, “It’s our way of life,” says a guide, Sonam Dorji. “It’s a hard life, but we’re used to it. Life is mainly rural, and there’s enough to eat.”
Its Own World might be a better classification for this rare and placid, almost insignificant chunk of the Far East. No traffic snarls (unless you encounter herds of yaks, cattle or sheep), and not a single traffic light in Thimpu, the capital, population 40,000. A signaling policeman presides at the principal downtown intersection, Chhoeten Lam and Norzin Lam, not far from the Cyber Cafe where you can go on line for a slight fee.
“I’m not sure whether that’s a plus or minus,” says Arthur Blackman. Neither am I. Is there no place to escape the bloody eek-mail?
One-storey buildings predominate. Sidewalks heave and sink capriciously, making you pay attention. Lots of space as open as the kids, who chirp eagerly, “Hello!” and “Hi!” and try out their elementary school English. Has nobody warned them not to talk to strangers?
Tin-roofed, the open air Sunday market is spread out on concrete platforms. Piles of dried fish, chillies, bananas, apples, mangoes, pineapples and rice, all sorts of green vegetables, potatoes, melons are everywhere, along with butter wrapped in leaves and thick creamy yoghurt. Merchants calculate the weights of produce with hand scales like lady justice. Babies wail, customers haggle. Clothing, jewelry, fabrics, toys, pots and pans are in the mix.
At a park alongside the Thimpu Chhu River an archery tournament absorbs spectators in a small grandstand.
“This will go on all day,” says Sonam Dorji, “and everybody has a good time.”
But does anybody ever hit the target? You wonder, noting that the two tombstone-shaped wooden panels are not only unimpressive in size (4 feet high-by-18 inches with tiny bull’s-eyes) — but they are almost 500 feet apart. The teams need all day since most of the arrows miss at that distance.
But nobody has a better time than the players. When an arrow does strike home, the shooter and his teammates celebrate with a dance that would put National Football League end zone showoffs to shame, screaming, “Wo-ho! Wo-ha!” at some length while the fans cheer. Moreover, trash-talking is in vogue. Members of one team taunt the other’s shooter, and jump around as further distraction. Keeping the contestants enspirited are stopovers at the bar tent during the strolls to change ends of the field.
After a few hours of that even William Tell might misfire spectacularly, and spectators are advised to stay alert for stray missiles.
“Oh, yes, occasionally an unwary bystander might get hit,” says Sonam. Breaks of the game.
Most imposing building in this — or any — town is the dzong, an overpowering combination fortress-monastery. Here it’s the Trashi Chhoe Dzong. A vast array of whitewashed granite walls and buildings with red tile roofs it contains the secretariat (a legislative body), the throne room and king’s offices as well as monks’ quarters and countless Buddhas.
Rising in the center, the utze, a five-storey tower, is considered the sacred house of God. Marvelous murals and carvings of dragons and other wondrous animals adorn building exteriors. The dominant Buddha is a 25 footer of gold behind glass in the kunre, a huge room lined with soaring burgundy pillars where monks pray, eat and sleep on the hardwood floor.
Off by itself is a chorten (a small, domed shrine), this one memorializing the king’s royal predecessor and father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who died in 1974. The faithful believe that making the circuit, a clockwise walk of about 100 yards around it, helps atones for one’s sins. Not a bad idea, although my friend, Aurelio, says I ought to keep going, do enough laps to amount to a marathon.
And that I should take every dog I can find with me. I know what she means after enduring the canine cantata outside of the Druk Hotel the night before. A melodically versatile ensemble, they employed every imaginable growl, bark, yip, bay, keen, yelp, whine, howl, moan, yowl, woof-woof and cry once the concert began at 1 AM.
But Dottie Norwood, a dog fancier, says that we just don’t fully appreciate Bhutanese culture.