by Kate Dernocoeur, guest blogger
The chance to visit a deeply peaceable culture is a rare opportunity. At home, immersed in everyday life, I find it hard to believe a place like Bhutan can possibly exist—but it does. It is also difficult to believe six years have passed since my journey there, its physical beauty and inner loveliness remain so vivid. As my journal exclaimed the very first day: “Oh! This is one of the top five most happy days I’ve ever had…to be in the mountains—the crisper, cleaner air, the quiet. This is brilliant.”
Called Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) by its people, the Kingdom of Bhutan lies in the Himalayas east of Nepal, sandwiched between Tibet and India. Although tiny (half the size of Indiana, with just 12.5 people per square kilometer), Bhutan nonetheless looms large as one of my most immensely memorable times. For fourteen days in November, 2005, Bhutan held me and my adventure travel buddy, Margaret Idema Cheff in thrall as we joined a group to hike across some of the planet’s most magnificent terrain.
Our route involved tent camping and long, physical days. We trekked 100 miles over two 16,000+ passes (55,000 vertical feet in all). For five days, we camped above 13,000 feet. Two of those nights were at the base of 24,000-foot Chomolhari, a round, soft-shouldered sacred mountain where the protectress of Bhutan, Chomo, is said to live. The king declared it off-limits to climbers long ago, when Bhutanese farmers expressed their concern about upsetting the goddess. By contrast, neighboring Jichu Drakye at 22,000 feet is notably sharp-pointed; they say a male deity lives there…!
On one “rest” day, we climbed above 14,000 feet—an elevation rivaling Colorado’s top peaks—for a stunning view of these and other mountains as we rested beside a turquoise hanging lake. On the King’s birthday, we visited the hamlet of Lingzhi and watched a tournament of the national sport of archery (the goal: hit an 11-inch target from 460 feet!).
Although the journey was a revelry of nature’s art and decor, equally meaningful were visits to Paro (site of the nation’s only airport), and the capital, Thimphu. Everywhere, architecture and art flourishes; even everyday structures such as beams and walls are relentlessly and intricately decorated.
Bhutan gained its independence from India in 1949 and was influenced by both its culture and the British government. Closed to visitors until the mid-1970s, it retains an impressive degree of non-Westernized national identity. Although this is eroding fast in the internet age and with widened visitor policies, nearly everyone we encountered still wore traditional garb: “gho” for the men and “kira” for the women.
The atmosphere of this mostly-Buddhist nation is calm, kind, and gentle—an unanticipated emotional salve which left me deeply impressed. Despite the rigors of a place that still relies mostly on subsistence farming, the fabric of Bhutanese society continues to hold joy and happiness as primary values—so much so that the government measures not GDP, but Gross National Happiness as a relevant economic indicator.
http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/asia/bt.htm (May 4, 2011)
http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Asia-and-the-Pacific/Bhutan.html (May 4, 2011)