Great Kingdom

Arjun Pradhan2022/09/13 19:16

The baying of dogs woke me up my first morning in Bhutan.Otherwise, the main town square outside my room was empty, and silent.A huge full moon sat atop the golden mountains in a sky already blue.To the west, strips of mist snaked in and out of the hills as if to heighten an air of unreality.

The baying of dogs woke me up my first morning in Bhutan. Otherwise, the main town square outside my room was empty, and silent. A huge full moon sat atop the golden mountains in a sky already blue. To the west, strips of mist snaked in and out of the hills as if to heighten an air of unreality. Below, workers in hoods, carrying scythes—like refugees from some biblical tale—were marching towards the fields, and schoolchildren too, in their traditional gray-and-purple jerkins. Around the golden stupa at the edge of town there was already a loud muttering of monks, and old women in turquoise beads and plaits circling around, counting their rosaries as they walked, and candles fluttering in musty antechambers. Already, the warm Himalayan sun was bathing the medieval buildings in light. Thimphu is the only real town in Bhutan, yet its population is no bigger than a crowd at Shea Stadium when the place is half empty. It takes just a morning to explore the capital. There is only one main street, and all its shops are numbered. One reason for the numbers, perhaps, is that all the names are identical. As soon as I walked out of the Druk Hotel, I came across the Druk Liquor Shop. Also the Druk Variety Corner. Just around the corner, Druk Jewelleries. A little farther down, the Druk Medical House (which specializes in shoes). Just past the huge display of 1988 Thai Air advertisements that guards the Druk Hotel was the office of Druk Air, the national airline of Druk Yul (or the Land of the Thunder Dragon). Inside, however, there was little decoration. Just a Thai Air ashtray, a whole display of Thai Air destinations, and a life-size cardboard cutout of a Thai Air stewardess joining her hands together in the traditional Thai wai of greeting. I went into Yu-Druk Travel, but it was empty—save for a huge cardboard cutout of another Thai Air girl. I passed through a dark archway, over a plank placed above some sludge, up a narrow, unlit staircase, and past an enormous padlock, into the office of Tee Dee U Car Rental. Its main feature was a pretty picture of a Thai Air hostess bowing her respects. By eleven-fifteen on this weekday morning, a sign was already up outside Druk Consult: CLOSED FOR LUNCH 1– 2:30. Thimphu, I would later find, is a roaring, crowded, feverish metropolis by Bhutanese standards. By any other standards, it is a miracle of calm. Shopkeepers sat outside their stores, serenely knitting in the sun. Monks rested their heads on green benches in the plaza, soaking up the rays under a tall Swiss clock. At the town’s main intersection—its only intersection, in fact—a policeman directed traffic with the straight-arm precision of an archer, hands extended toward the occasional car as if he were holding a bow. The only talkative things in Thimphu were the trash cans. WHOEVER YOU MAY BE, announced one receptacle of dirt, USE ME TO KEEP THE AREA CLEAN. Under the startling blue of heady winter skies, I took in the exotic roll call of store names in what may well be the world’s most indigenous land: Dolly Tshongkhang Shop No. 15, Sonam Rinchen Beer Agency cum Bar, Llendrup Tshongkhang Cement Agent (Shop No. 31, Thimphu), Tipsy Tipsy (Deals in Tipsy Extra Special; Tipsy Strong Beer). Many of them had a curious kind of offbeat innocence: Tshewang Fancy Store, SPARK Fashion Corner, Etho Metho Handicrafts, Hotel Sam Druk (“Fooding and Lodging”). SALESMAN: MUST LOOK HONEST, pleaded a less than reassuring sign in one shop. And though the most famous fact about the Forbidden Kingdom was its young king’s love of professional basketball—the “Fearless Lion” could traditionally be seen almost every afternoon practicing jump shots in the middle of town, while dressed in ceremonial robes—there was not much hoop action in sight. The liveliest thing in town, in fact, seemed to be the posters of Phoebe Cates—Phoebe Cates pouting, Phoebe Cates smoldering, Phoebe Cates smiling. A local video store was advertising Paradise, starring Phoebe Cates. (If only, I thought, Phoebe Cates worked for Thai Air, how simple Bhutanese decoration would be!) And then, a little farther on, up a small rise, I saw an octagonal white cottage with a spotted red toadstool outside and cacti around its walls. Inside was a chuckling mechanical monkey that announced the time, a set of dollhouse chairs, a sign that said MODUS: CASH-DOWN, and a pink button with which one could summon the proprietor, a white-haired Swiss man who looked as if he were on his way to see the Brothers Grimm. Here at last was the most famous establishment in the “Land of Hidden Treasures”: its only Swiss bakery! Bhutan has long been celebrated as perhaps the ultimate Lonely Place in the world, a snow-capped Buddhist kingdom tucked away in the depths of the High Himalayas. For years at a time, nothing is heard of the secret land of archers. At the time I visited, Bhutan had no TV, no daily newspapers, no air links with the outside world save Dhaka and Calcutta; its Olympic athletes had never seen boats before they left the country, or high-rise buildings, or even crowds. And such was the isolation of the land that it seemed to belong to fairy tale. “Ghosts, witches and crawling spirits are so familiar that often valleys and settlements are named after them,” noted a standard political survey of the country; early British explorers came back with tales of bloodthirsty arrow duels in which the spectators would tear out the liver of the loser, eat it with butter and sugar, mix the fat and blood with turpentine in order to produce candles, and turn the bones into pipes on which they could play strange melodies. Even relatively prosaic books like Two and Two Halves to Bhutan, a relentlessly matter-of-fact account of a British doctor taking his family (and a teddy bear called Aloysius) through the unpaved wilds of Bhutan during the 1960s, contained sentences like the following: “The head lama of the dzong, the omze, is assisted by a Lopon Kudung in charge of discipline; the champen instructs gaylongs in dances, music, reading and writing.” What facts did occasionally emerge from the sequestered kingdom, moreover, served only to confirm its air of other-worldliness. Bhutan had not been part of the Universal Postal Union until 1969, yet since then it had invented steel stamps, three-dimensional stamps, talking stamps (in the shape of records), and stamps made of silk. A woman I had never met, in Denmark, wrote to inform me that a man named Rob Roy had recently put on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the remote Bhutanese settlement of Tashigang. A U.N. official in North Korea filled my ear with tales of the intoxicating substances grown by foreign advisers based in Thimphu. And at the Olympic Games in Seoul, mysterious snippets about Bhutan kept catching my eye: first, the secretary of the Bhutanese Olympic Committee acknowledged that “Many athletes thought we were in Central America or Africa,” and then—not coincidentally, perhaps—an item in The Olympic Villager told how a Bhutanese guest of the Bhutan-Korea Friendship Society had gone into a local hairdresser requesting a “light wave on the side” and come away with an Afro. One month later, on the “Descending Day of Lord Buddha from Heaven,” just two weeks before the king’s thirty-third birthday, on the day of the “Meeting of Nine Evils,” word trickled out that His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the “Precious Ruler of the Dragon People” and long the most eligible bachelor in Asia, had made formal his marriage to four local sisters (in part, perhaps, because they had already borne him eight children). The most singular fact of all, though, was that Bhutan had never opened its doors to the world. Cut off entirely from planet Earth until a generation ago, Bhutan had always been an area so remote that it hardly seemed to appear on any maps. Taken over—and united—by a fleeing Tibetan lama in 1616, it had never enjoyed any contact with reality until, in the early nineteenth century, the British government in India had begun annexing it. After the Bhutanese retaliated, rejecting ultimatum after ultimatum, they were finally given some tribute in return for the territory and, in 1907, with the blessing of the British, they found themselves with a hereditary monarchy, ruled by King Ugyen Wangchuk (great-grandfather of the present king). But having seen change come so violently to Tibet (when the Chinese invaded in 1950), and so suddenly to Sikkim (with the incorporation of the tiny kingdom into India in 1975), and so surreptitiously to Nepal (with the gradual influx of global villagers), the Hidden Kingdom had decided, in recent times, to barricade its doors ever faster. In all its history, Bhutan had never seen more tourists in a year than Disneyland sees in a single hour; its first and only foreign minister once told me that too many visitors were “not very high-class people.” Just before I arrived, moreover, it had raised the price of entry for tourists to $250 a day and, in addition, forbidden all tourists from visiting the only tourist attractions in Bhutan—its monasteries. I, however, was in a special position. Because Bhutan depends so much on India for its independence, Indian passport holders are allowed to come and go in Bhutan as they please, to stay as long as they wish, to make themselves at home inside the world’s remotest kingdom. It sounded to me like an irresistible opportunity: to live for a while, as a native, inside the “world’s last Shangri-la.” So it was that one winter day I went along to the Calcutta office of Druk Air, to ask about buses to Bhutan. Locating at last the dusty staircase in an apartment building where the office is situated (squashed between the Royal Customs Office of Bhutan and the Consulate General of Bhutan), I waited for an hour outside an emphatically locked door. Then, suddenly, a large man with a heavy mountain air above his Lakers T-shirt appeared before me. Hurry, hurry, he said, the plane was leaving in two hours—maybe less. But I wanted to go by bus! Yes, yes, he said, but this was a special plane— the first jet ever to land in his country! The British Aerospace 146 had enjoyed its maiden flight just three days earlier, and upon landing in Bhutan had received a formal blessing and shugdel ceremony from the entire monk body (I later saw pictures of the occasion—a group of bewildered-looking Englishmen in ties, surrounded by chanting monks, all seated cross-legged on a runway in the middle of nowhere). Today was going to feature its first commercial flight! A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a historic occasion! If I didn’t move quickly, I would have to go the usual way—on an aging, sixteen-seat propeller plane. And so it was that one hour later, I found myself standing in Dum Dum Airport, in front of the booth that Druk Air shares with JAT (the Yugoslav airline), now entirely empty. And standing. And standing. Then I noticed a tiny line of Bhutanese passengers checking in at the Thai Air counter, down the hall. It seemed a simple enough procedure: hand the attendant your case, watch him smash himself in the leg, wait for his curses to subside, then proceed to the departure lounge. A few hours later, I joined twelve disoriented passengers scattered amidst the eighty seats of a spotless new $30 million jet, the fiery red-and-gold dragon of Bhutan leaping across its tail. “I’m in civil aviation,” a Canadian next to me explained. “We’re trying to make it safer to land in Bhutan.” I see. “Yes,” offered a Bhutanese man nearby. “They’re only charging fifty percent for this flight. That’s because there’s only a fifty percent chance of surviving.” Oh, really? “You see, the minimum for a safe landing is around four thousand feet,” the civil aviation expert continued. And how long was the runway at Paro? “Around fortytwo hundred feet.” Oh, excellent. Ahead of us all, as the plane took off, were the highest mountains in the world, mysterious and snow-capped in the blue, blue sky. Below us, a few huge monasteries—massive, whitewashed, multistory fortresses—were tucked into the folds of lonely valleys. No roads were inscribed across the hills, no settlements or people: just huge white blocks in a sealed-off world, and shafts of sun like giant searchlights. Slowly, almost shyly, the plane began to descend over mountains with monasteries perched improbably on their tops. Then, very slowly, it veered in upon a tiny opening in the mountains and touched down. Around us all, in the empty valley, was nothing but silence. A few villagers gathered wordlessly beside the two-room airport: pink-cheeked peasant women, runny-nosed toddlers with woolen caps pulled down over their eyes, sturdy men in multicolored dressing gowns. A girl called Karma, or Universal Law —the sister, it mysteriously appeared, of the Lakers-loving official in Calcutta—quietly checked us into the “Lotus Garden of the Gods.” And then we were outside, in a Druk Air minibus (its only decoration, a sticker for Thai Air), and alone in a soundless world. An hour or so later, the bus started up, and we set out on the winding two-hour trip into town, hugging the edges of the narrow mountain road. Occasionally, we passed buildings—giant, terraced Tudor-seeming fortresses, their shingled roofs held down with stones, their white plaster walls dotted with rows of perfect bay windows—twenty or thirty openings in all—and their frames painted with flowers or the tails of snarling dragons. Then night began to fall, and lights came on in the forbidding buildings, shining like candles in the dark. Finally, we came round a corner, and there, before us, at our feet, was a fairyland of lights. We descended into the valley and drove past rows of many-windowed towers, as if into the heart of some enormous Christmas cake. Then the van stopped, a door opened, and I was released into the chilling night. The streets were cold and empty, save for a few hooded figures shuffling past. On every side stood heavy mountain fastnesses. A few faint lights shone in small arched windows. I was alone in a city of candles. The only particular sights for a visitor to see in Bhutan are its dzongs, the huge whitewashed seventeenth-century fortresses cum monasteries cum administrative centers—constructed without nails or plans by the country’s first Tibetan rulers—which tower above every settlement in the country and are themselves overbrooded by watchtowers. My second morning in Thimphu, therefore, I set off to visit Simtokha Dzong, which guards the hillside five kilometers out of town. Five kilometers—a little more than three miles—is, however, a long distance in Bhutan: three hours by foot, I was told, and roughly half an hour by car. (Yuri Gagarin had circumnavigated the globe before Bhutan had installed its first road.) After wandering around in circles for a while, I came at last upon an ancient Indian Mahindra jeep, held together with bits of soggy tissue. The driver patted the dust off his front seat and, with a flourish, presented me with the place of honor beside him (a rather mixed blessing, I felt, since the person in the front seat had to enjoy the gearshift thrust between his legs). A woman—a rather thick peasant woman—bundled into the front seat beside me, one snot-nosed issue perched on her lap, another suckling furiously at her breast. Seven or eight other unfortunates piled into the gloom behind us. The woman held her nostrils and violently expelled the contents of her nose. A man behind me—rather inauspiciously, I thought—began muttering a series of prayers. The others tuned up with a preparatory series of coughs, groans, and sneezes. And so we rattled off toward the breakneck curves. Above the mirror in the jeep were some Technicolor stickers of fourarmed Hindu gods; along the dashboard were two soulful portraits of German shepherds and a sticker that said “1987 Visit Thailand Year.” We drove past trucks that said “Ruff and Tuff,” trucks with illuminated Buddhas on their foreheads, trucks with slanting Nepali eyes painted eerily above their headlights. Whenever the trucks passed by, so too, very often, did songs, as the passengers seated on sacks in the back sweetened their tortuous journey with song. At one point, our driver braked suddenly and began fumbling desperately through a clangorous collection of antique wrenches and pliers kept below his seat. Then he got up, ambled over to a hut, and brought back some water. Opening the hood, he pressed the accelerator down with his hand, threw some water into his mouth, some more onto the engine, and some more in the direction of the thick woman’s children. At this, the large family—to my relief—disembarked. Then we started up again, jolting past neat official signs, flowering gold lettering on crimson boards: National Mushroom Development Programme, National Stove Project Training Site, Office of the Gyalpoizimpa. We drove past women breaking rocks by the side of the road, past shepherds beating along their flocks of yaks, past colored banners that proclaimed: THERE IS NO CURE FOR AIDS BUT IT IS PREVENTABLE (to a people who, in six cases out of seven, could not read a word of anything, let alone English). Mostly, we went around curves. Sometimes, when we did, I was thrown on top of the driver, rendering him almost incapable of steering; sometimes I was pushed into the woman—or, after she left, towards the door. This was unfortunate, because the jeep had no door. It was also unsettling because there is an average of fifteen curves per kilometer in Bhutan (and foreigners in Bhutan measure direction in this way. “I covered 4,500 curves going across country,” an intrepid sixty-yearold Englishwoman later told me, only to be put in her place by an international adviser who said, “That’s nothing! I covered 5,500 on the round trip from Thimphu to Phuntsholing”). I began to miss my human cushion, the snorting madonna and child. A little later, the driver jerked to a halt, and one of the passengers emerged from the back, eager to conquer the precipitous curves. Muttering an impromptu prayer above the steering wheel, he turned the key, pressed the clutch, and then, eyes wild, mouth bloodied by betel nut, lurched towards the chasm. Gears jammed, the jeep swerved madly between mountain face and precipice, and I recalled that the Bhutan Motor Vehicles Act Parts I and Il was one volume that had never—I had checked—been taken out of the Thimphu Public Library. With a terrible convulsion, the jeep screeched to a halt, and the acolyte driver, muttering some term of hatred for the jeep in particular and the automotive industry in general, returned to the darkness in back. A man handed out some paan to calm all our nerves, and then we were off again, wheezing past prayer wheels painted with skulls, hills still radiant with gold and copper and green, wispbearded old men who seemed to be walking across the whole country. THANKS, said signs as we left little settlements, and SEE YOU AGAIN warned the mudguards on jeeps. And so it was almost every time I moved in Bhutan, where trips are decidedly more a matter of traveling than arriving. If I was lucky, public transportation meant my own size-nine feet, laboring up mountains while shiny acronymed Land Cruisers whooshed past (though sometimes, even in the tourist center of Paro, on the only main road in the country, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, I walked for more than an hour without seeing a single vehicle). If I was unlucky, it meant a jeep, and the stench of gasoline, the suffocating dust, the endless stops and starts, the shriek of horns round every curve, the ritual emptying of noses on the floor. If I was doomed, it meant a local bus—known to foreigners as the “Vomit Express” (though “Express,” of course, was something of an embellishment). Simtokha Dzong, when I arrived, was in a state of expectant calm. Like most Bhutanese dzongs, and like the medieval monasteries they so strongly resemble, it had a school attached, and now, in December, exams were drawing near. Everywhere I looked—perched in trees, scattered across the hillside, wandering up and down the bending road—students in tartan tunics were huddled over books or memorizing some ancient scripture. It was a noble sight, the brown-and-red-cloaked boys on the rich golden hills, in the shadow of a whitewashed citadel and a sky of guiltless blue. The students seemed a serious lot, and theirs, I learned, was a singularly tough regimen. Every day they had nine periods—in thirteen different subjects—as well as one and a half hours of prayer at dawn, one and a half more at night. Like all male Bhutanese, they were not allowed to cover their knees—even in winter—until the head of the monk body had done so. True to their country’s highly traditional ways, they were also being taught classical dance, ancient methods of carving wooden blocks, and, especially, Bhutan’s native Dzongkha language. As soon as the exams were over, they would do two weeks of “social”—cleaning the monastery and helping out around town—and then they would take two- or three-day bus trips back to their distant homes for the only vacation of the year. “Bhutan people say, ‘Keep your cows at home, send your children to school,’ ” explained one of the students. “If the cows go far away, they will forget you. But if the children go, they will understand.” There was only one thirty-minute period for sports every day, he went on, and these consisted not of “football, volleyball, these kinds of modern sports, but old pastimes—like how to throw a dart.” Just as he was saying this, I noticed some boys careening up and down the hillside in pursuit of dogs. A few mischievous characters were sheltering puppies in their cloaks, others were carrying them along by their ears. The whole mad chase was attended by much hilarity and yelping. I suspected that this might be one of the traditional sports. “Oh, no,” cried my new friend. “These people”—he pointed to a Royal Government of Bhutan truck drawn up outside the monastery gates—“these people are coming to collect the dogs. You see, these dogs do many dirties here.” “How many live in the dzong?” “One hundred.” “One hundred?!” “Just now, they will be taken to the Indian border and let out there.” “The Indian border! That’s seven hours away!” “Oh, yes, very far.” Thus Bhutan could claim another export, and the most over-populated country in the world would find itself with one hundred more mouths to feed. As soon as the commotion had subsided, and the truck pulled away with its yapping captives, I decided to make my first attempt on the dzong. When I approached, the young boys huddled over their books near the entrance assured me solemnly that I would need a permit. But a permit was nothing more than a nod of acquiescence from a rheumy-eyed caretaker who was sitting nearby in dirty robes. Within seconds, I was following him and a young monk through the entrance, our bare feet cold on the sunless stone. The old monk opened a huge dungeon door, and we found ourselves inside an enormous prayer hall. The place was dark, very dark, and empty. A golden Buddha sat before us, scarcely visible in the gloom. We walked in farther, and the darkness began to envelop us. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear—only the dark voices of the monks outside. Coming out once more into the prayer hall, the caretaker led us through the chamber to another unlit antechamber, shiny elephant tusks placed like giant cashews at the feet of Avalokitesvara, Buddha, and Tara. Old scriptures were stacked in bundles on the floor. On every wall, black gods in necklaces of skulls were copulating with milk-white, red-tongued demons. The old monk began to chant, and suddenly we were in a different place; the silences were charged. Then we came out again, past a locked door guarded by a skull-wreathed deity, and up to a dragon-headed shrine. The young monk slapped down a one-ngultrum note. The sage handed him three dice. Closing his eyes tightly, the young monk pressed the dice to his forehead, then shook and shook them in his hand. Then he deposited them on the altar. Once more, and again once more. The old monk considered the throws, said something brief, and then we were back out in the sun. In the days that followed, I traveled to all the famous dzongs in Bhutan: to Paro Dzong, entered by crossing a medieval bridge and slipping in through a side gate; to ruined Drukgyel Dzong, the very picture of some aged European castle, all its windows gutted, and cluttered now with crows; to Punakha Dzong, the winter home of the principal monk body, a gay festival of bird song, of trees flowering as red as the monks’ robes laid out along the riverbank outside—an Oxbridge college surprised in midsummer, so it seemed, a mild and light-filled place of tidy gardens and neat bridges, its green-and-golden-and-yellow-fringed prayer wheel shining in the sun; and to Ta Dzong, the whitewashed, spiral-staircased watchtower that is home now to the National Museum, and so to a piece of moon rock donated by Richard Nixon, and to mounted heads of a blue sheep, a golden cat, a black panther, and a golden takin, all leading to its crowning glory: an entire floor given over to a chapel and the country’s stamps (though it must be said that Bhutan’s famous stampmakers may be running out of subjects worthy of their art—the once-lofty celebrations of the United Nations, the Apollo space missions, and the paintings of da Vinci and van Gogh have now been replaced by commemorations of Princess Diana’s babies, the two hundredth anniversary of manned balloon flights, and Donald Duck). The central dzong in Bhutan, however—and the last word in Bhutanese vigilance—is the massive fortification at Tongsa, set in the very heart of the country, bestraddling the path that was once the country’s only road and looking out over valley after valley after receding valley, all the way to the distant snowcaps. Tongsa Dzong is less a building than a whole town unto itself, courtyard leading to quadrangle, quadrangle to passageway, passageway to courtyard, stretching on and on and on, incorporating every last detail of daily life. Burgundy robes were laid out on the sun-baked stone to dry. Monks polished incense holders on the whitened terraces. Gaylongs, or young novices, went back and forth, hoisting cumbersome buckets of water. Having penetrated the inner courtyard of this formidable place, I sat down to collect my thoughts. As soon as I took out my notebook, however, I noticed a little monk edging closer to take a look. And then another. Then two more. Then a gaggle of others, and then still more, until I was all but buried in a circle of red, scarcely able to go on writing because of the twenty-four tiny monks crowded around me. Feeling obliged somehow to provide a little entertainment, I set about drawing a raccoon. “Mouse.” “Pussycat.” “Bear,” the monks cried out, rather undiplomatically, I thought. Somewhat piqued, I changed the game and began writing out the letters of the alphabet. A chorus rose up around me: “… B, C, D, E …” At this point, controversy broke out as to the correct order of the letters to come: “V, Q, W, E, G …” The linguistic issue was still unresolved when someone spotted my Instamatic, presumably the only camera in central Bhutan. Asking if he could borrow it, the little monk set to clicking away at all his friends. They clicked away at him. Everyone clicked away at me. “Address, address,” cried someone, and a tiny gaylong began copying out in my pad: “Gangchuk Monk Body, Tongsa, Bhutan.” “Address, address,” came the cry again, followed by more requests for my address, my name, for more raccoons. Never had my drawings been so popular! Then there came a highpitched cry from an upper window: “Mr. Pico, Mr. Pico.” I looked up, to see five impish faces peering down at me from the archways above. Two full pans of water came crashing down beside us. Then, as if in atonement, or at least in repayment for the raccoons, the little monks led me into a central prayer hall, plopped themselves down above their texts, and began bawling out their chants, beaming at me as they did so and waving. As soon as this traditional sport concluded, an eleven-year-old urchin who had learned English from a man called Cyrus presented himself as my companion for the day. Up and down the hills he led me, pointing out the cry of a deer, showing me a picture of Padmasambhava, the Indian mystic who had brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century, explaining the town’s greatest attraction. “Nineteen eighty-seven Japanese lights! Last year, water was only up in there. Just now Japanese bring light there.” “So now light no problem?” “No. One month now, no light.” The gist of this confusing exchange became clear only when I returned to the huge and empty hilltop guesthouse that was my home in Tongsa. By five-thirty, it was pitch black. For the next fourteen hours, I was alone in the unlit and unheated old building, able at last to see why my Survey of Bhutan had matterof-factly announced, “Black magic is a part of Bhutanese life.” The greatest of all Bhutanese monuments however—its Potala Palace or Mont-Saint-Michel—is Taktsang, the temple perched improbably on the side of a three-thousand-foot sheer cliff, wedged into the side of the mountain like some bird of prey’s high aerie (and known as the “Tiger’s Nest” because it is believed that Padmasambhava flew to this impossible site on the back of a tiger). Taktsang is, without doubt, one of the most remarkable places in the world, extraordinary enough to make Machu Picchu seem workaday. And its sense of miracle is intensified by the steep and arduous climb that every pilgrim must make to get there. I made the trip alone, one cloudy winter morning, accompanied only, now and then, by a toothless old man, almost as slow as I was, and his two ponies. The tinkle of their bells led me through woods, over streams, across creaking wooden bridges, through packs of snuffling wild boars. The climb seemed endless. Then at last, after ninety minutes, we reached an open space, a hilltop crisscrossed with dove-white prayer flags. There, ahead of us, was Taktsang. But as I climbed, it disappeared again, and then came back, and vanished once more, round every turn, until at last, an hour later, the “Temple of Heaven” announced itself with a clear-singing prayer wheel and the steady hiss of a waterfall. Arriving, near breathless, at the top, I felt like a conquering hero—until I recalled that some devout Bhutanese make the whole ascent on their stomachs, one full-length prostration following another for three weeks or more. At the entrance, a few young monks looked out at me with the incredulity I felt I deserved. Then they led me into a compact prayer hall, its window open to the valley below. Rainbowed streamers fluttered from the ceiling. The sunlight flooded onto scalding thankas of wild-eyed demons and tongue-joined copulants. Orange flowers sat below pictures of orange-robed Buddhas. The waterfall sang, the cliffs plunged down, a few dirty-chinned little monks scampered up the dented logs that served as stairs. And as I left, I heard them singing from an upstairs window. And so, in time, I came to settle into the rhythms of this silent country, to come to know its patterns so well that the days began to pick up speed and blur. At dawn, in Thimphu, the mist swaddling the western mountains. In the mornings, the quiet tennis-ball sound of wood being chopped outside my window. At lunch, in the hotel, a team of Japanese “salarymen” lined up in dark suits around a large table and muttering gloomily, “Muzukashii desu, ne?” (“It’s difficult, isn’t it?”), as they bravely did battle with their curries. At four o’clock, the officials streaming out of the cottagelike buildings in Tashichhodzong, the central government complex, like schoolboys just released from class, healthy young men, most of them, sturdy and solemn, bearing thick black briefcases, white scarves worn like sashes over tartan kilts. As darkness fell, the bright young things of Thimphu—all six of them—assembling in the Benez café to gossip about boyfriends, in the “convent English” of wealthy girls from private Indian schools. And then, after dark, lights shining like candles in the manywindowed houses, and the streets all chill and silent. All night, the yelping of the mangy dogs, and then, at dawn, the light returning with the sound of jeeps, a reveille of horns, the clatter of boxes loaded onto trucks. And gradually, as the days went on, I began to make a life inside this Sleepy Hollow world. I took over a small room in the Druk Hotel. I signed on as a member of the Thimphu Public Library. I bought balcony tickets to Stallone movies at the local cinema (where the crowd seemed especially taken with Terry Funk, in the part of Frankie the Thumper). And I took my clothes to the town’s dry cleaner—less deterred than I should have been, perhaps, by its enigmatic motto, “Cleanliness before Loveliness”—and bargained the proprietress down to an express seven-day service. Sometimes I moved to Paro and adjusted myself to its bucolic, mildbreezed rhythms. In the mornings, when I awoke, girls singing as they worked. Afternoons in Paro Dzong, all red-and-gold serenity. Later, in the failing light, a gradual chill sharpening the air. Monks making their slow way back to temples. Children singing folk songs in the dusk. The valley suspended in a virgin silence. “Idyll” was a word from which I was accustomed to recoil, yet truly I felt that there could be nothing lovelier than this peaceful windless valley, so innocent it did not know the meaning of the word. Even in December, it was spring in Paro. And sometimes, walking home through avenues of willows, golden under cobalt skies, I felt as if I had stumbled upon the hidden Arcadia of Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet. A sequel, perhaps: Several Weeks in Bhutan. The weeks, too, began to take shape as I grew accustomed to Bhutan. On Saturday afternoons, copper-faced men would gather in front of the avenue of willows behind the hotel and there, in the brilliant sunshine, the mountains behind them, send straight arrows shooting through the quiet air. Farther along, beyond the Sportsgrounds, was the peaceable bustle of the weekend market. Boxes of “Power-Packed” Surf, piles of fruit protected from the sun by rusty umbrellas, cows’ heads lying on the ground. Photos of orange-robed monks, cartons of “Ready to Eat Cheese Crispies,” men banging cymbals in an afternoon sweetened by the scent of tangerines. The heads alone caught all the scene’s variety: bowler hats, woolen caps, Yankees baseball hats; cowboy hats, turbans, turquoise-twined plaits; green scarves, pink bows, and bobbled woolen berets. Weekends were also the time when news came to Thimphu, in the form of Kuensel, the two-year-old weekly English-language bulletin. This was a paper rich in surprises. “Yak semen is being imported from Mongolia for the first time,” cried the front page. The first page of the World News section was given over to a long article on the thirtieth anniversary of Paddington Bear. The letters column featured a generalized exhortation to “Make a habit of keeping your bowels moving regularly.” And one whole page of the twelve-page paper was taken up by an advertisement for Thai Air. The bowel injunction was not, it seemed, untypical. One week, five different articles on pages 2 and 3 of Kuensel addressed the issue of health. A review commended the Chode Junior High School for its fine “health drama.” The Dzongda of Paro opined that “Animal health is human wealth.” The weekly quiz was devoted to AIDS. And the Leisure Page was, rather surprisingly, dominated by a comic strip with the title “Why Is Tobacco Bad?” Health was a natural enough concern, of course, in a land where the average life expectancy is only forty-four and where two hundred schoolchildren must sometimes share a single cold-water tap. But the thrust of Kuensel’s campaigns was more specific—and, in its way, more generalized. “SMOKING,” announced the sign at Thimphu bus station. “Buddhist Dharma says smoking is a great sin. Modern science has proved smoking is dangerous to health. Medical science says—Smoking is very bad to your health.” In much the same spirit, the Ministry for Social Services presented itself as a “smoke-free zone” and went on to proclaim: “Blessed are those who stopped smoking. More blessed are those who never started it.” Even at the turn of the century, I later discovered, official Bhutanese law was fulminating against “a most filthy and noxious herb, tobacco, sure to steep the sacred images and books in pollution and filth” and likely, it was felt, to cause “wars and big epidemics.” That it was still harping on the theme almost a hundred years later seemed testimony not only to the constancy but also to the inefficacy of the appeal. Besides, in a country whose king’s most famous passion (after basketball) was Havana cigars, the antismoking campaign did not, I thought, have a promising future. Sometimes, in the afternoon, I ventured inside the inner sanctum of the public library, a kindergarten-size room appointed with a few rickety babyblue shelves, less than four feet tall, and a couple of worktables, distinguished by a total absence of lights. This last deficiency, given the library’s opening hours (1:00–6:00 p.m.), occasionally posed problems. But the patient explorer was amply rewarded for his pains. For the Thimphu Public Library had everything from Woody Allen to Czeslaw Milosz and García Márquez (though, through a quirk of cataloguing, the shelves were labeled not with the categories of books but with the names of donors—thus “IMF” and “World Bank” signs led to Tender Taming and The Magic of Love, and Barbara Cartland was brought far closer to Barber B. Conable than either might ever have expected). And the staff was full of typical Bhutanese solicitude. When, once, I settled down with Jackie Collins’s Rock Star, a teenage librarian hurried up to present me with some notepaper. On days when the library did not satisfy my literary needs, I could always turn to the ever-talkative trash cans, to the city’s loquacious bumper stickers (FLOWER IS TO KEEP BUT NOT TO TAKE, advised one epic of gnomic lyricism, GIRLFRIEND IS TO MAKE BUT NOT TO BREAK), or to Bhutanese toilet paper (for in U.N. adviser—crowded Thimphu, even this came wrapped in tubes that muttered, “CCD camera, power supply … and reliable platform [version Il] … with highly integrated … graphics software … serve the needs … C service code”). My most profitable reading, though, came in the volume entitled Bhutan Telephone Directory 1986 Fire Tiger Year. This seventy-sixpage publication sufficed for the entire country (two pages, in fact, were enough for all the private companies in Thimphu), and many of its pages contained invaluable tips for living. It began, alarmingly, with “Guidelines for Telephone Users” (“Dial carefully to avoid wrong numbers. Speak clearly, not loudly. Please be brief on telephone. Urgent calls may be waiting for you”). It quickly moved on, however, to more recondite material, advising readers that it takes an operator thirty-five seconds to answer for a trunk (i.e., long-distance) call and that “when you dial for booking, you come in queue.” Trunk calls, however, came in six categories: Urgent, Lightning, Distress, Important, Immediate, and Most Immediate. But was Urgent faster than Lightning? And why was Immediate the same price as Most Immediate? And what did any of it mean, since a Distress call was treated “same as ordinary call”? Much of this, in any case, was academic, since only “His Majesty” and “His Holiness” were allowed to make Most Immediate calls (“State Monks” and “Red Scarf Officers” were allowed to make Immediate ones). And all of it, besides, was based on the highly unlikely eventuality that a call could be placed at all. I tried one trunk call—from Paro to Thimphu, forty miles away—but having dialed carefully to avoid wrong numbers, waited thirty-five seconds, and come in queue, I ended up forced to speak so loudly (but not clearly) that I could probably have been heard in Thimphu without benefit of telephone lines. Local calls within Thimphu were scarely easier, since they had to be booked from my room, and my room was not hooked up to any switchboard. Even if it had been, I would probably not have managed to make a call, since there was only one line in the hotel, and if any of its thirty or so guests was using the phone, the line was used up. Even a call within the hotel was treacherous: every time a caller asked for room service, his shouted requests were broadcast to everyone in the dining room. Things went wrong every day in Bhutan. Keys fell off chains, doors locked one in, taps refused to turn. Twice in twenty minutes one night, the lights went off, and then again as I was busy flooding my bathroom. The reception desk at the Olathang Hotel—though there were less than a dozen guests in its fifty-six rooms—was littered with a pile of sad pink slips: “Room 411 No Hot Water.” “Room 423. No Electricity. No Water.” “Room 417 …” One night I awoke with a start at 4:15 a.m. to see the puny heater that was the only thing standing between me and frostbite spitting out white sparks, hissing like a snake, and then, with a magician’s flamboyant puff, exploding into oblivion. Yet what was most surprising about Bhutan was how little, really, went wrong, how efficiently everything worked. Like the other countries of the High Himalayas, Bhutan had an air of gentleness and calm that left no room for chaos. And the Bhutanese I met were unfailingly punctual and unreasonably honest. Their voices were soft and measured, in the dignified Himalayan way, resonant with a sense of energy contained. And what impressed me most, the longer I stayed, was not so much that the people did not know foreign goods as that they did not seem to want to know them. Theirs seemed a genuine innocence, the result of choice as much as circumstance, in a protected land where schoolboys told me that their favorite parties were the ones that featured “monk dances.” All the time I was in Bhutan, nobody ever asked me for a favor or troubled me with an outstretched hand; the Bhutanese people hardly seemed interested in me— as a foreigner—at all. Again and again I had occasion to recall that the ever informative Olympic Villager in Seoul had declared that of all the 160 teams at the games, the Bhutanese was the most polite. The little girls who greeted me along the road sang out, “Good afternoon, sir,” and followed it up with a graceful bow; even the soldier who, quite rightly, evicted me from Tonga Dzong was all courtesy and apologies. At the same time, however, I suspected that this flawless politeness was also a way of keeping foreigners at a distance. Part of the local reticence arose, I thought, from a shyness that was utterly engaging, and part of it from an unfeigned sense of cultural dignity and pride that was genuinely moving. But there was also a wariness, a watchfulness in the people, as strong as in their impenetrable dzongs. And the dzongs themselves struck me always as strategic more than spiritual establishments; as fortifications rather than golden palaces or monasteries. Bhutan had the red-robed monks, the butter lamps, the chants, the scriptures, the prayer halls, and the faces of Tibet, but it had none of that country’s fire and intensity, none of its radiant magnetism. Bhutan may have got its name from the Sanskrit Bhotanta, or the east end of Tibet. Yet it seemed in many ways a near inversion of Tibet. And where in Tibet the air fairly vibrates with the strength of religious devotion, Bhutan struck me as a strangely secular place. This sense of self-enclosure, the sense that people and buildings were always keeping an eye on one—Bhutan had little of the instant friendliness of much of Asia, just as it had none of its importunacy or intrusiveness— clearly matched the institutionalized suspiciousness of the government itself. Even in hotels, Bhutanese doors were guarded as tightly as those of any Manhattan apartment, with padlocks under double bolts. And the country’s great fear—of being overrun by tourists, being “Nepalmed,” in a sense—was not, of course, without foundation. Nepal, after all, had hardly opened its doors to the world before it was being colonized as the ultimate hippie outpost, Shangri-la on two dollars a day; in the twenty years since, temples had been disfigured, the people’s respect for temples had been deformed, and most incredibly of all, per capita income had actually fallen. “There is a perception abroad that we are trying to discourage tourism,” a top Bhutanese official told me over tea one day. “That is not true. We want to encourage it. But we want tourists in the package form. Look at Nepal. There are people there who are dirty, with long hair and bad clothes. Women who will have sex with anyone. Pot, marijuana. People sleeping in the streets.” His voice picked up heat as he thought of the countercultural Gomorrah. “This we do not want in Bhutan.” As he continued his tirade, with impassioned defensiveness, I began to detect another strain that had grown more apparent to me the longer I spent in the country: the fact that the government is more than ready to make all the people’s decisions for them. “We are officially a constitutional monarchy,” this high-ranking official told me, “but really we are a democratic monarchy—a democracy with a king. One hundred of the one hundred fifty members of our National Assembly are democratically elected. Eight of our ten-man Royal Advisory Council are chosen.” What he neglected to say—protesting so much—was that the majority of the voters, and even the candidates they chose, were illiterate; that none of the advisers wanted, or was likely, to go against the king; that in many respects Bhutan is still in a state of benevolent despotism. The government provides all its people with free education and health care; in return, however, it feels free to make certain demands of them. All buildings must be constructed in the traditional style. No school trips may be taken out of the country. No Bhutanese may hold foreign currency. No Bhutanese may study abroad— unless he is sponsored by the government. If he is sponsored, he must sign a pact promising to return to serve the country. And when he returns, he must go through a reeducation program to remind him of his heritage. Christian churches are banned in Bhutan. A foreign woman who marries a Bhutanese man must wait fifteen years to gain Bhutanese citizenship. A Bhutanese woman who marries a foreign man immediately loses all her rights. The Bhutanese love their country—and just in case they don’t, the government reminds them that they must. I met only one person in Bhutan who felt bold enough to discuss this feudal legacy with me, a government official of unusual eloquence. The most disturbing thing about the situation, he said, was not that the government made the people’s minds up for them but rather that the people seemed to want it so. Released from serfdom only thirty years before, the masses still seemed happy to have their civil servants do their living for them. And the government did everything possible to encourage this dependency, even going so far as to provide “Etiquette Training” for government officials to remind them that they must, when meeting the king, perform a full three-part prostration, as if in the presence of a temple. The same kind of anxious authoritarianism was evident, I felt, in the government’s handling of the outside world. Bhutan, of course, has a long and distinguished tradition of standoffishness. As early as 1838, officers of the never-colonized country were bastinadoing residents who got too close to foreigners; and when the British threatened the Bhutanese with vengeance (for whisking off cattle, and sometimes British subjects, from across the border), the Dragon Ruler responded by simply threatening the British with a divine force of twelve angry gods, who were, he added, “very ferocious ghosts.” (Some of this, no doubt, must be taken with a pinch of salt—or barley meal, at least. When Sir Ashley Eden pronounced the Bhutanese to be “immoral and indecent in their habits to an extent which almost surpassed belief,” he may have been airing a largely private grievance. According to a British clergyman, writing in the July 1898 Calcutta Review, in the course of Sir Ashley’s 1863 visit, one Bhutanese “took a large piece of wet barley meal out of his tea-cup and, with a roar of laughter, rubbed the paste all about Mr. Eden’s face. He then pulled his hair, slapped him on the back, and indulged in several disagreeable practical jokes.”) Yet even allowing for peeved exaggeration, Bhutan had long shown a singular gift for keeping the world at arm’s length. And even now, with great civility and customary efficiency, the Bhutanese had foreigners exactly where they wanted them: the foreign advisers were accommodated in the twenty-dollar-a-night hotels downtown, while tourists “in the package form” were sequestered in remote hilltop hotels, an hour’s walk from the locals, paying $250 a night. Protecting the country’s culture was one reason for continuing the policy. But there seemed to be another. For by now, Bhutan’s cachet lies primarily in its remoteness: people want to visit it precisely because most people cannot visit it. Bhutan is a beautiful and peaceful and magical land, but so, too, are many of the areas around the Himalayas; and those who want to explore the mountains can do so with more convenience and comfort, at literally one-tenth the price, in Nepal, while those who are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism can now go straight to the source—Tibet—or to the high lunar spaces of Ladakh. What attracts foreigners to Bhutan is mostly the fact that, as the travel brochure says, it is “one of the most exclusive and rare destinations for any tourist.” And Bhutan guards its chastity with an iron lock. If the Hidden Kingdom were to open up to the world, there might be not only cultural but economic loss. In recent years, however, the pressure on the isolated kingdom has begun to build. The Dalai Lama describes how twenty-eight Tibetans living in Bhutan were suddenly arrested, tortured, and thrown without trial into jail. And recently, when the Dragon Ruler issued his latest edict ordering all Bhutanese citizens to wear traditional dress while in public—and, in the same breath, expelling every immigrant who had arrived since 1958—the roughly 400,000 Nepalis who represent almost a quarter of the population rose up in protest, stripping Bhutanese civilians of their clothes and calling out for democracy, until they were violently put down. Even in the course of my own stay, I could sense the first stirrings of a modernizing impulse. The new jet was one sign of this, and there was already talk of an airport terminal that would hold 160 people. One afternoon I wandered out of the Druk Hotel to watch the archers in the Sportsgrounds, and returned less than an hour later to find the nation’s first American Express stickers proudly plastered to the door. The country had even just completed its first feature-length movie, a $6,500 spectacular about a star-crossed couple: she dies, he throws himself on the funeral pyre, and both live happily ever after as an ox and a cow. Yet what I remember best about Bhutan seems unlikely to change very soon. What I remember best is sipping chilled mango juice in the sunlit mornings and walking through blue afternoons, silent save for the snapping of prayer flags; or climbing up mountains to the whitewashed monasteries and watching the lights come on in the valleys below. When, on my last day in Bhutan, I returned to the Thimphu library, to cancel my membership there, one of the young librarians hurried up to greet me. “Just now you go to America, sir?” Yes. “How long to America, sir?” Maybe two days. “Oh, sir! America is very far from Bhutan! Here in Bhutan, sir, we cannot imagine America!” The same, I thought, was more than true in reverse


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