When I first arrived in Bhutan to work for the Centre for Bhutanese Studies (CBS), they couldn’t find me any accommodation. In the meantime, they suggested the Thimphu Hotel, a cheap, loud and cheerful place that looked down on the only traffic island in the entire kingdom, from where I could see the dancing traffic cop in his painted box being completely ignored by everyone. The hotel was a mix of Himalayan plumbing – no water, an alarming clanging of pipes, then a sudden, scalding torrent – glacial service and wide smiles. I bought a small side-lamp; the connection started smoking. Then the toilet flushed on its own volition. I didn’t dare turn the TV on and had to remind myself, at 58, and after many journeys, that most of my adventures had begun like this.
In 2013 there were only 57 Caucasian workers in Bhutan. Including me, it was 58. There was a smattering of Japanese and Danes, plus a small but largely invisible army of Indian engineers working on the vast, expensive and challenging hydro-electro projects. India needs energy, Bhutan needs money.
Observing the way the Bhutanese drive, and their almost heroic incapacity to follow any rules, is one of the most entertaining things I have ever experienced. Locals slow down for animals ambling across a road, as they don’t know any better, but speed up for pedestrians, because they should. As a result, the one pedestrian crossing in the capital is not only a complete waste of paint but a dangerous undertaking. An email from a media chum in Bangkok enquired:
“Which side of the road do the Bhutanese drive on?’’
‘’Any side they damn well please,’’ I wrote back.
It is said that the first lesson a pilgrim learns is that most of the baggage we carry is useless, so when I finally opened the door to an unfurnished appartment in Thimphu, I knew exactly what they meant. Concrete floors. Bare rooms. A Zen-like freezing nothingness. When I enquired about a fridge, the landlady looked at me as though I’d just arrived from the Sahara and said, ‘’Come January, the kitchen will be your fridge.’’ She was right. I had to stab the coffee inside the jar with a knife most mornings, often losing all sense of decorum in the process. But by then, Bhutan was home. And I had loved it from the start.
Any sensitive person will soon become acutely aware that the Bhutanese share their physical territory with thousands of spirits and deities. Taxis may have Manchester United stickers on the back window, but on the tape player, are prayers. Rocks, rivers and peaks have
profound value. One treads carefully. These unseen meanings, to us at least, have enormous importance to them. All dzongs (fortress monasteries) are temples of Bhutan’s guardian deities and to enter one is to step back 300 years into a world of strict discipline, reverence, beauty and serious, unquestioned power. It’s Full Monty Mediaeval, and once inside, the wider world means absolutely nothing.
It’s a steep hike up to Gasa, which is high and north of Punakha Dzong, the most beautiful and revered monastery in Bhutan. Although the view from the tiny mountain hamlet is jaw dropping, by the time I reached the place my legs were no longer speaking to each other. On the way up, I counted 14 caravans: tough little ponies accompanied by tough little people. They were coming down from Laya, a cardio-sapping two day trek north of Gasa. The caravans carried yak tails and fur, betel nut, cordyceps, indigo, incense, disgusting cheese, and whatever else that is sellable from the high altitude pastures. What, I enquired, do they carry on the way back? “Pot noodles, beer, brandy and batteries.’’ replied my companion.
A friendly shoe-seller in Paro I got to know took me to two cliff-top monasteries that are not in any guidebook. One was crumbling, freezing, on the edge of a dark, unlit cliff, like something out of Lord of the Rings. I half expected Gollum to loom out of the mist at any moment, with a live fish in his mouth. The other was bright sunshine, glossy coated dogs and tea with monks. So, I asked the question I always ask when I get the chance. “If rebirth is such an essential element of Buddhism, how come we can’t remember our past lives?’’ ‘’Perhaps they weren’t worthy enough to be remembered,’’ said one of the monks. And winked.
I still feel that his reply justified the price of being there.
By about the 25th of every month a close colleague at the CBS always started calling me from a different phone number. I knew the signs. He
had no money for a refill card, let alone lunch, and the only thing in his wallet was a dead moth.
‘This is quite normal for many Bhutanese,’’ he always said, “Oh, and can you lend me Nu 500 (about £10) till Friday?’’
‘But I won’t get it on Friday, will I?’ “Probably not, but this is quite normal for many Bhutanese. And you are my friend.’’
He always did pay me back – about two days before he asked me to borrow it again.
I lent him the same Nu 500 for almost three years.
‘Does this ever bother you?’ he once asked me.
‘’No, this is quite normal for many Brits.’’
In case you were having any doubts, Shangri La really does exist in Bhutan. The word is a mix of Sanskrit (Shang) and Tibetan ( Ri-la), meaning ‘’Mountains Without Enemies’’ and suggestive of a place where there is complete peace, without aggression from the outside and aggressiveness from within.
‘’There is a very old monastery on top of a high mountain in Eastern Bhutan and a three day, very challenging hike from the nearest road head. Its name is a literal translation of Shangri La,’’ I was informed by a highly regarded Bhutanese historian, Dasho Karma Ura, who was also my employer at the Centre for Bhutanese Studies.
‘’Where exactly is it?’’ I enquired, trying not to drool with anticipation. “I am not telling you.
The article was used and edited with the permission of the writer who is a free lance journalist and former consultant with the CBS currently based in London
By Roger Beaumont