Source: VanityFair London: https://www.vanityfair.com/london/2019/02/bhutan-spatial-awareness
I spend the night above Chelala Pass, near a sky burial site that lay empty. With no body left exposed to the elements, ravens circle above but without reason to land today. Through my tent flap I watch the clouds lift, and for a moment Bhutan’s second highest mountain, Jomolhari, is revealed. With a soft rounded crest and a razor-sharp ridge leading up to the summit, this is a forbidden climb because mountains are decreed sacred in this Himalayan kingdom. I watch wisps of cloud drift about the peak while listening to the frantic flapping of prayer flags, before packing up and moving down, first detouring to the Buddhist nunnery at Kila. Earlier in my trip I had met some of the sisters in the market at Paro and they had offered to fix me breakfast.
Perched on a cliff like an eyrie, their settlement dates back 500 years. The series of dormitories, temples and prayer rooms feels precarious, hewn as much from rock as slatted together by pretty painted wood. Up at 3,500 metres above sea level, they’re snowed in for three months of the year. The nuns who make their home here are inevitably a hardy lot. Like their more familiar brethren, they also dress in swathes of crimson robes, their heads shaven, eyes cast down. I come across a group pounding mountain herbs into incense powder, each in turn lifting a wooden pole up high before driving it hard into a deep stone mortar. Backs to the cliffs, they shuffle aside to let me pass.
I was seeking out Anay Tshering, a young nun with fine spoken English who had been keen to talk. She was chewing gum when I found her, and she smiled with the same radiance as the enlightened deities in the niches of the temples. She took my hands together like a prayer, and we drank sweet tea while she explained why she had chosen to become a nun: originally out of fear of men and to avoid marriage, but added that her reasons had evolved. “It’s a simple life here,” she says. “There are no attachments. I’m independent. It’s real freedom.” She tells me she longs to go on the requisite three-year, three-month, three-day solitary retreat, and is awaiting the nod from her elders.
We are drawn to each other in spite of, or because of, our differences. “Are you not afraid of your husband?” she asks when I tell her I have three children. “We’re not married,” I reply, and she gasps. “But no, I’m not afraid of him. We are equals.” She nods. “We are also trying to be strong now. The government says we are equal. What the monks do, we can do.”
Change today is both the world’s drumbeat and its lament, and Bhutan is a case study in this dichotomy. An ancient kingdom and a fresh-faced democracy, Bhutan persists with cherished traditions, such as Buddhist rituals, national dress, vernacular architecture, and yet in other ways, including well-being and mindfulness, it’s absolutely on the edge. “When we do good things,” Anay says, “we’re repaid with ultimate happiness.” I turn to leave and feel a pang of sadness, sensing this could have become a friendship. Anay awkwardly hugs me. “I had a really great time with you,” she says. “Remember: always travel like a pilgrim.” Her words are a jolt. “How do I do that?” She shrugs, but replies, “Kindness. Love. Empathy. Happiness. Humility.”
It turned out Anay wasn’t the only one to impart sage advice. From the yak farmer to Bhutan’s first tattoo artist to a former supreme court judge, the people I met on this trip seemed to speak in proverbs. Wesel Dema works at the Gross National Happiness Centre in the capital Thimphu, which supports the well-publicised government policy of peace of mind over profit. The idea came about nearly 50 years ago when a journalist asked the last king about his country’s GDP. His reply was that quality of life can be measured in other ways.
“When was the last time you gave a donation?” Dema asks me. “Do you use your mobile too much, or watch TV? Did you vote? When did you last give someone a hug?”
“Really? There’s a government department for this?” I say.
“We want people to think about where their food comes from,” Dema continues, “to say no to packaging and waste; instead to plant trees, to help old people, not to buy everything just because they have the money.”
Staying another night in Thimphu, I wait at the clock tower for the tattoo artist Yeshey Nidup Tenzi. He arrives late, wearing military fatigues and high tops, with a long pigtail, at odds with his surrounds; many Bhutanese still dress in the traditional male goh or female kira, or at least a diluted form of this elegant national dress with its boxy wraparound jacket over draped skirts. Yeshey leads me to a rather seedy room, 202, in a nameless hotel. “I don’t have my own workshop yet,” he says apologetically. But he opens his backpack and shows me his sketches and equipment. “I can get anything now from Delhi or Bangkok,” he said. “But I used to make my tools — I used the remote from a gaming console, wire from a phone charger, acupuncture needles and an ordinary pen refill.”
Bhutan’s access to the world, and the world’s access to Bhutan, has transformed the country in the past 10 years or so, from cross-border trade with China and India to mobile-phone coverage and an engaged social media, as well as an increase in visitors. Recently there’s been a shot of tourism investment in the country with some big-name lodges opening and existing hotels upgrading. Yet the allure for many is still to witness the slower way of life and the very different way Bhutan operates. For example, Yeshey says he charges according to customers’ circumstances, and is happy to work for nothing. I believe him.
Down the road Namgay Zam pulls up her trouser leg and points out the lyrics of Blue Moon inked upon her ankle, drawn freehand by Yeshey she says. “I’m a crazy Man City fan,” she says, referring to the football team’s anthem. The effervescent campaign journalist is also passionate about feminism, LGBTQ and mental health—new issues for the country, but ones they do not seem afraid of tackling. “The Royal Bhutan Police just apologised at a LGBTQ workshop for not treating their community right,” Namgay says. “They stood up and said sorry.”
At the age of 33, Namgay’s influence is far-reaching, with a Facebook following of more than 55,000 amounting to nearly 10 per cent of the country’s population. Sitting outside a cafe in Thimphu, passers-by stop to say hello. She calls herself a monarchist, but not a royalist; a loyal Buddhist but who believes the religious rituals to be “expensive and unnecessary”, a proponent of education for all, but who’s also aware that that means “more monks drop out and end up in New York as taxi drivers”. She disparages Gross National Happiness as “a bit of a charade”. “I mean, not to be happy in Bhutan is okay,” she says.
I eat momo dumplings with a friend of hers, Karma Tshering Wangchuk, a blogger with a huge base of his own. He set up his Instagram account Bhutan Street Fashion to showcase the rural/urban trend for mixing fashion. “The 1990s were the worst time when my generation thought tradition was regressive and everyone wanted to wear jeans, and we started to look the same. But we’re embracing our culture now—vintage, colours, inherited jewellery and craftsmanship. Our identity is only getting stronger.”
Karma’s parents can’t read or write, let alone use social media, so “they’ll never understand what I do,” he says. It’s evidence of an unthinkable generational shift. Sonam Loday is my guide and until recently his mother paid her taxes in woven textiles in part because of their worth, but also because she couldn’t read. In contrast, her son, articulate and insightful, has talked in Europe on Bhutanese culture. A former judge, Dasho Benji, also the founder of the Royal Society for Protection of Nature in Bhutan, tells me the park rangers of old used to “paint marks on trees, get paid, get drunk and beat up their wives. Nowadays, they’re scientists, carrying cameras and binoculars, recording data and finding new species. It’s a maturing of a nation.”
I travel on to Punakha, a glorious remote valley where we pass pedestrians carrying firewood, sacks of dried chillies and babies on their backs. As our car approaches, they move to the side of the road and bow. Sonam, my guide, nods proudly: “It’s this degree of humility that I love about my country,” he says. On another day, an old man respectfully removes his hat and nods, as we roll past.
Up in the hills, I stop at an elementary school to meet the headmaster who explains the challenges of educating students in the countryside. “I tell them not to study for a job but to study for life,” he says. “Be a farmer like your parents, but be an educated one by choosing organic farming, for example.” I spend the morning at his immaculately kept school chatting with children who all speak English, the language of instruction (alongside the national language of Dzongkha). They had performed a flag-raising ceremony at the outdoor assembly and then put their hands together and closed their eyes, “to learn about concentration and mindfulness,” the head explained. When I speak to the eight- and nine-year-old schoolchildren directly, they say “it helps us to study and think more deeply.”
Further east, my favourite place in Bhutan is the ethereally beautiful Gangtey. Starting at Thoula pass, I hike into the valley through forests of rhododendron, azalea and juniper. Bushy-tailed squirrels scramble for cover and I spot a lone blood pheasant. We come across a family of semi-nomadic yak herders, who are employing an oracle to exorcise bad spirits from their camp; he’s making figurines out of dough and chanting. We drink tea together and discuss the upcoming election.
Towards the end of the trek we stop at a local monastic college where I meet Thinley Rabgye Thaye, who is a revered reincarnation. He’s only 20, but I cannot deny that he has an assuredness and serenity beyond his years. “Change is good,” is almost his opening gambit. “Of course, change can cause an unravelling of trust and you can’t help but be concerned for our culture… but be good, and it will be good,” he says smiling. “I am excited by the future.”