This year in Bhutan
In this Himalayan Ruritania the ruling elite used to worry that tourism would destroy their culture. Now they think it’s their best hope of preserving it.By John Ryle • September 2003 • Condé Nast Traveller ( “Guarded Welcome”) • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 7,074 words
A queen ascending
I was walking in the mountains of western Bhutan, with a guide and two muleteers, along the high path that leads from Thimphu to Paro, from the capital of this pocket-sized Himalayan state to its only airport. The previous night we had camped near Jele Dzong, a mediaeval fortress-monastery on a pass high above the Paro Valley. There’d been no other foreigners to be seen since we left Thimphu.
Then, on the last morning, as we were leaving the dzong, a group of travellers came into view in the valley below us, twenty strong, on a zig-zag path ascending through the larch forest.
“Ah,” I thought, as I watched the tiny figures moving slowly upwards. “Finally, some more tourists.”
I was mistaken, though. As they approached, my guide, Kezang, took a closer look through his binoculars. He lowered them rapidly and stepped back. The newcomers were not a tourist party, he informed us. They were the entourage of one of the young queens of Bhutan, on their way up from the royal apple orchards a thousand meters lower down the valley.
As we watched, the queen in question—one of four sisters all married to the King of Bhutan—began to make her way up directly up towards the dzong, preceded by her bodyguards and a group of lamas. The bodyguards wore khaki; the monks were in bright saffron robes that swelled with each gust of wind. The queen waved to us, so I doffed my hat. She called out a greeting, but the wind carried her words away, toward the high peaks on the border with Tibet, where dazzling snowfields framed dark crags trailing artful wisps of cloud.
The two groups, the royal party and ours, paused, breathless, for a moment or two, at the pass. We kept a respectful distance. Then the queen continued up to the dzong in the bright morning air, with her monks and bodyguards; and we resumed our descent to Paro.
On the Druk path
The high path from Thimphu to Paro—the Druk, or Thunder Dragon Path, as it is called in travel guides—is Bhutan’s main trekking route. It was October, the height of the season, but I’d seen no other travellers, Bhutanese or otherwise, until our encounter that day. Kezang, the guide, said there had been none for a month, though he was expecting more. Here at three thousand meters, Bhutan’s former seclusion from the world still seemed to endure. No crowds, no litter, no electricity, no cell phones, no sign of change yet. And a queen, on pilgrimage, on foot.
Down in the valley, though, it is a different story. Globalization is finally coming to Bhutan. There is mass education, satellite TV and, for the first time, an active attempt to expand the tourist industry. These days tourism, perhaps surprisingly, is seen not as a threat to the old ways, but as a future cure for the growing problems of development, one that can serve to meet the aspirations of a newly-educated citizenry and solve the growing problem of unemployment.
When I first visited Bhutan fifteen years ago the official attitude was very different. At that time the country had been, if anything, in retreat, backing away from the opening to the rest of the world that began in 1972 with the coronation of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. This time, on my second visit, I was interested to see what impact the new tourism policy was having on the country—and whether it could act as any kind of solution for the problems of modernity.
The hardcore Himalaya
Of all Himalayan countries, Bhutan is the most alluring to westerners, at least to those with a romantic view of history—and a penchant for monarchical rule with its attendant social hierarchies. It is the most remote country in Asia, the least touched by modernity, and the least affected by violent political conflict. (There are exceptions: groups of Assamese insurgents have found refuge from the Indian army inside the southern border of Bhutan, and, more significantly, there are renewed rumblings from the country’s displaced Southern Hindu minority, many of them exiled in Nepal, long a reproach to Bhutan’s otherwise decent human rights record.)
Tucked into the eastern end of the Himalayan chain, between China and India, Bhutan’s survival as an independent state into the present century is itself something of a miracle. With the neighbouring kingdom of Sikkim swallowed by India, and Tibet taken over by China in the 1950s, Bhutan is the only remaining officially Buddhist state in the region. It is also, with less than a million inhabitants and more than a dozen indigenous languages, the most variegated, both in its terrain and its human geography.
The Paro Valley, where all air-travellers arrive, looks like an oriental version of Switzerland, a giant zen garden, with tiny boulder-strewn plots gleaming with wheat and barley. In the growing season flooded rice fields mirror the mountains and the sky; the valley floor is threaded silver with irrigation channels that flow from the Paro river as it hurtles towards the plains of Bengal. This central part of the country could be termed Himalaya Lite, an ecozone that starts at a thousand meters and ends at three thousand, before the high peaks begin.
As you travel up the Paro valley away from the motor road, on foot or horseback towards Tibet, the terrain gets steeper and wilder; three days travel through ravines dense with larches and rhododendrons brings you to the treeless summer pastures, and, beyond them, the realm of rock and ice. This high, cold zone is a different realm: this is hardcore Himalaya, home to blue sheep and snow leopards (though you would be lucky to catch sight of the latter).
In the other direction, southwards from the central zone of the country, the Paro valley descends into yet another environment, lower, flatter, hotter and more verdant, where rice paddies and tea plantations alternate with dense jungle. The latter is the habitat of some of the last remaining elephants and tigers in the subcontinent. This transition from north to south in Bhutan—from mountains to plains, from the big freeze to the big heat—is repeated the length of the country. As you travel east or west in the middle altitudes—whether you are walking, or driving on the country’s only motor road—you must move continually up and over the passes that join one valley system to another. There are no flat stretches.