Monday, November 27, 2006

Dzongs and dongs; chillies and willies; and forests of prayer flags: images of Bhutan

It's Wednesday, November 8th, and I am seated at one of the two dial-up computers at the Riverview Hotel in Thimpu. Thimpu, the capitol city of Bhutan, home to the king and his four wives. The king lives by choice in a log cabin while his four wives each have their own palaces, but I digress. Next to me is one of the people from the Crane Foundation trip, and he's equally frustrated with dial-up, but we want election results. It's Tuesday November 7 back in the states. Our guide walks into the room and says "Only Democrats seem to come to Bhutan." Then he laughs and leaves us to our search. My neighbor says "We've got the House, we've got the governors, what's with the Senate?" At dinner, our three little groups have a victory party.

Bhutan is the last Bhuddist Kingdom in the Himalayas. Their form of Bhuddism is Tantric Bhuddism, and our guide keeps telling me that the highest form of enlightenment is sex without desire. Then he giggles. He tells me that penises are on the exterior of every home as a way to keep the ego in check. Think about this, gentlemen. If I have to explain, well, it spoils the fun.

Two and one half hotels have elevators in Bhutan. The half is being constructed. I climbed stairs, and more stairs, and then more stairs. I hiked at elevation, I rode a horse at elevation, and climbed more stairs. In nine days, I rode on one elevator, and that was when I did a hotel site inspection. Who needs a stairmaster? Let me send you to Bhutan!

For some reason, blogger is limiting me to three images on this post. I will have to publish others later. The Dzongs, fortresses with both a government and monastic section are imposing features scattered around the country. Chillies drying on rooftops, or next to doorways. Celebrations of the king's birthday with dancers and games. The Black Necked Crane Festival in the Phojbika Valley (at 9000 feet, I found it hard to call it a valley.) Forests of prayer flags along mountain passes, rivers, streams.

Bhutan doesn't have a GNP. Instead, they measure their GNH: Gross National Happiness factor. A very poor country, but somehow people are happy, cheerful, friendly. They are at peace with themselves, for the most part. In 2008, the king is retiring and his oldest son (first wife's son), the Crown Prince, will ascend the throne in what will become a strictly ceremonial role. The king has decided Bhutan needs an elected government, so along with his retirement, the Bhutanese will vote for the first time. And as he moves his country toward a more modern direction, the king has encouraged improvements to the infrastructure. Currently, roads (which are hand-built) are almost all one-lane, twisting, death traps through this extremely mountainous country. I watched crews of Indian workers breaking rocks along the roadside as roads are being widened. Several luxury hotels are coming in, or have already been built: Aman Resorts have a group scattered strategically around the country; the Uma Paro is part of our hotel group; Taj is putting a property in Thimpu.

But travel is controlled. Mountaineering is not permitted after yak herders complained: after Jimulhari, the highest peak in Bhutan (24,000+ feet) was climbed, yaks began to die, avalanches killed yak herders, illnesses crept in. The government outlawed mountaineering. You may not travel independently in Bhutan: you must have a visa, and a guide at all times. And while there are many cheap hotels and guest-houses, backpackers are discouraged.

The air is clean. Trash is limited. Dogs are feral and everywhere. Mountains, forests, rivers, birds - I saw a white-bellied heron, one of only twenty left. I saw the most beautiful hornbill. I saw other birds I can't name. And of course, the black-necked crane, making a comeback - up to about 150 now.

I recognize how lucky I am to be able to travel as much as I do. Yes, it's a part of my job as a travel agent, but so many of my collegues limit their travels to easy destinations that I wonder why they bother. This was not an easy trip. Nothing was familiar, but everything was inspiring. I live at sea level, so I was short of breath for the entire trip, but my god, did my butt get a workout on those stairs! And everywhere I turned, it was beautiful, inspiring, and amazing. Bhutan is the next really hot destination - and only a handful of travel professionals will be able to send people there with any real knowledge. I'm still processing this trip, it was so exotic, I don't have words for all of what I feel. But my heart feels at peace, and I know that comes from this trip.


Frederick said...

wow, that first picture left me breathless. I hope I don't catch the traveling bug again, last time I didn't come home for four years.

Sigrid Jardin said...

Thanks for this amazing post and for your observations on this wild and exotic place. It was an eye opener to read about it!

DivaJood said...

Frederick, here's the thing: you can't stay in Bhutan for four years, so there is that limit! Thank you for the comment about the photo - I have a handful that I am actually going to print, and hang around my desk - I got lucky, really.

Sigrid, I'm only just getting started on what it was like. Just so complex. I loved it.

Coffee Messiah said...

Beautiful place, and interesting re-creation of your visit.

I noticed in our travels (my dad worked at UAL for 42 yrs) that the poorer places, although different, left more to the imagination, and indeed people were happier. Although with so much less than we are offered here in the states.

All that helped inspire me to see you can live on alot less and it's not that hard ; )

Thanks & Cheers!

pissed off patricia said...

Call me shallow but I can't get over the pic of the giant penis. Wow, that's some welcome sight

Peacechick Mary said...

Same here on the first photo - it looks like a masterpiece painting. I can't wait to see the rest of the photos. Maybe Flickr or someplace where we can view. That first one should be copyrighted and it would sell well someplace. Thank you for this post. It's the best of the day, maybe the week.

DivaJood said...

Coffee Messiah, thanks for stopping by. You're right - we actually do better emotionally when we "downsize." Simple is good.

POP: Okay, you're shallow. No, kidding. I had one photo of a penis painted on the wall of a building - complete with short hairs - but it was too blurry for words. The photo, I mean.

Peacechick, thanks. I don't know if the post is the best, but the trip was right up there.

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous read! Not to mention, illuminating. The top photograph is gorgeous - transporting.

[And loved the er, door knocker, no, coat rack? Um. Okay.] ;-)

Tina said...

Hmm... After Baby to Be arrives, perhaps I need to somehow squeeze in a trip to Bhutan to get rid of my post-natal babyfat on those stairs?

Lola Heatherton said...

Well, my goodness sakes alive. I am having the vapors over that second photo. I could simply go to Bhutan and bear EVERYONE's children, if that's an indication of anything.

robin andrea said...

It sounds like an amazing place. I'm glad it's so far away and only the most intrepid traveler will make it there. My BIL and SIL went a few years ago, and they were equally as blown away by it as you were. A fantastically beautiful mountain country. I'm so glad you were able to make the journey.

Helen Wheels said...

THis is amazing, DivaJood. I felt like I was there along with you. I am so envious of your trip! What a magical place. Thanks for the lovely descriptions and information.

DivaJood said...

Karina, thanks for the comment about that photo - it made me feel like I'm able to go back into art. As for the coat hanger, well.

Tina, whatever works for you - stairs, high altitude - but I think just chasing two little ones around will help.

Lola, my guide said that the highest form of enlightenment is sex without desire. I said "What's the point?"

Robin Andrea, Bhutan is just on the cusp of being the hot destination. With a group of luxury hotels in place, it becomes like going to Africa: adventure AND luxury all rolled into one. I got to go before it becomes hot, and so I feel lucky.

Helen, thanks! I know how lucky I am, and I want to let people in on what it feels like to be in a place like this.

Anonymous said...

You are inspiring. Great post.

DivaJood said...

lulu maude, thanks!