A visit to the kingdom of Bhutan is an unforgettable experience of a lifetime.
My travelling partner and I were fortunate that the notorious freezing winds of Himalayan winters were nowhere in evidence during our visit in late-January to early February. Even at high altitude, the temperatures in Bhutan were comfortable, lying as it does south of the latitude of Cairo.
Bhutan is an enchanting palette of mountain scenery, riverine valleys and bountiful hospitality in an ancient corner of the Himalayan world. The kingdom was neither colonised by Europe nor its traditions and arts interfered with by missionaries.
Bhutan represents an ancient civilisation that extinguishes all notions that any other civilisation could be compared with it, least of all the Western civilisation that believes itself to be superior.
Also laid to rest are the stale narrative certitudes on the “traditional” East versus the modern West, omnipresent for generations in historical texts.
And Bhutan is not alone. Among the mighty 20,000 foot above sea level snow-capped peaks that stretch thousands of miles across Central Asia, is an inland archipelago of Silk Road societies perched in poetic balance as a terra incognita of the imagination linked by trade, tradition, language, religion, literature, architecture and the art of social cohesion.
These Silk Road societies, Tibet, Bhutan, Darjeeling, Nepal and Sikkim, are a land apart but equally integral to the global economy.
It is in this peaceful atmosphere of pacifist Buddhist that 750,000 Bhutanese live with neighbouring India and Tibet. The communities are scattered among a series of mountain ranges in villages and towns where, free education and health services, agriculture and trade sustain life.
Wholly untouched and unimpressed by fast Western lifestyles and addiction to technology and latest gadgets, Bhutanese move peacefully and at a proudly selective pace into a modernity of their own choice.
Hidden from history
Just as for centuries Ethiopia’s mystical Christian Kingdom of Prester John piqued the imagination of early European travellers and traders, in Euro-American literature Bhutan was often heavily romanticised.
Seen either as a mythical Shangri-la or paradise lost cut off from the outside world or as an oriental den of depravity and licentiousness, these images are as meaningless as reducing East Africa to a stagnant backwater of endless wars, drought and famine and nothing in between.
The truth is that for millennia, moving caravans of intrepid traders and herders with pack animals carrying all manner of goods through steep mountain passes defined the Himalayan way of life.
Visits to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, or to the satellite towns of Paro and Punakha, are reminders of this earlier age when each settlement was a transit arena of lively, cosmopolitan bazaars.
At the heart of Central Asia, Tibetans, Mongols, Indians, Uzbeks, Kirghis and Tajiks were all drawn to these trading emporia. Despite treacherous mountain barriers, the appearance of Chinese Muslims, and their llamas attested to the easy social atmosphere of those congenial mountain towns.
Here kilims from Afghanistan, silks from China, wool from Kashmir and turquoise from Tibet were loaded onto pack animals destined for distant cities such as Kolkata and Kalimpong in India, and all the way to perhaps East Africa’s famous trading emporium at Zanzibar.
Over bales of textiles and carpets, innovative ideas, religious beliefs and books were also generously shared as evidenced by the spread of similar architecture, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam throughout the Himalayas and the parts of the world it came into contact with through trade.
Despite the serene calm and healthy highland air that the mountains induce, surprises too are often in plenty.
Who knew if the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism today living in exile in Dharamsala might suddenly appear? Or that a black man from Kenya — an object of great curiosity — would be among recent travellers to the mountain kingdom?
Today it is only the nomads, identified by their yak clothing and eccentric hats who have survived as “relics” of the past. In Paro I met one nomadic woman who every few weeks leaves her mountain habitat for market day in the town. On this day, cellphone in hand, she had come with her daughter to exchange butter, dried cheese and yak leather for rice and tea.
The riches of Central Asia had long been known to adventurers of the great cities of Europe. By the 13th century intrepid Genovese traveller Marco Polo had written his famous tales of the thriving markets of Asia. Having visited Central Asia, he remarked on the advanced civilisation of well-organised societies certainly equal to anything going on in Europe at the time.
Fast forward to the mid-20th century, Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer spent seven years in Tibet, and wrote a book titled, Seven Years in Tibet, that became a bestseller and was adapted into a film in 1998 starring Brad Pitt.
In Bhutan, stunning architecture adhering to a single style and standard size by government fiat throughout the whole country prevents ugly, out-of-scale skyscrapers from marring the gorgeous mountain scenery with unseemly projectiles. Patterned after fortresses and Buddhist monasteries extant from the 13th century, contemporary residential homes, farmhouses and hotels all keep to this standard template.
Everywhere you turn, you see visually-inspiring edifices adorned by carefully carved beams and ceilings of intricate patterns painted in organic colours. One encounters facades adorned with mythical animals, birds and other expressions of artistic wonder.
Surprisingly, phalluses, flying and flowery that some might call “outlandish” are also popular. Found in every society as symbols of patriarchal power, Bhutanese phalluses are carved as large, free-standing sculptures, some neatly “circumcised” pine, some are three metres tall or small and delicate for dangling on key chains.
As every curio shop is well-stocked with these mementos, obviously they are in high demand with tourists of a certain proclivity as favoured souvenirs for home decor in cities around the world. Whether out of a wicked sense of humour or simply local tantric tradition, these phalluses are ubiquitous and of obvious delight to their Bhutanese observers.
Breaking free of well-planned itineraries of predictable, organised travel, we hired a very likeable guide called Kharka and driver, Ugyen, to take us at our own pace through mountain passes to the valleys where historic sights of interest are situated.
Travelling at a languid pace in tandem with Bhutanese lifestyle through clean, well-ordered countryside, centuries of time dissolved into a medieval era of monasteries and fortresses. Continuities with the past that the Bhutanese so admire can be seen in the distinctive architecture and processions of Buddhist monks.
Draped in flowing saffron robes, the celibate monks, still live collectively away from their families as they roam freely through, say, the stately, well-maintained Palace of Great Happiness that is their home.
Built in 1637 in the Punakha Valley of Happiness, it is also Bhutan’s most impressive fortress. We also visited prayer wheels or chortens where Buddhists, who make up 80 per cent of the population, express their transcendental yearnings, as they spin them for hours. Nearby, prayer flags of white cotton on posts fluttered in the wind as memorials to the dead.
The Bhutanese are attractive people, their excellent manners, bountiful hospitality, good taste and quiet reserve is reflected in their choice of harmonious edifices, clothes, food and a parliamentary democracy steered by a popular young king assisted by a few far-sighted town planners.
Certain agreed-upon national precepts in Bhutan are to be assiduously observed. Conservation of the nation’s natural heritage is paramount. Despite several new hotels having been built throughout the country to accommodate controlled numbers of tourists, 72.5 per cent of the country is to remain under natural forest cover.
Mountain climbers and hikers wishing to scale Mount Everest, the highest peak of the Himalayas have to go to neighbouring Nepal as mountain climbing is prohibited in Bhutan.
Bhutan is traditional but its tourism industry offers international standard service. For the adventurous, Bhutanese cuisine is healthy and delicious.
To stem the influx of Western clothing fashion, the government asks its employees to preserve their indigenous dress.
The taking of life, whether human or animal is forbidden in Buddhism and so even as Bhutanese enjoy their meat, animals reared for consumption are driven south to the Indian subcontinent for slaughter by Indian Muslims and the meat brought back to Bhutan. Whether a quaint idiosyncrasy or hypocritical affectation, no questions are asked.