Would you believe that there is a far off land where people still believe in a massive spiritual world filled with deities, both friendly and ferocious? A land where individuals will go to great lengths to appease those deities, including an annual ritual, which each household performs, to intricate paintings of phalluses on houses to promote fertility? How about a land where multi-colored prayer flags flutter in the wind while water turns road side prayer wheels continuously in a clockwise direction?
I speak of course, of Bhutan, a nation that first opened its doors the world in the mid-1970’s and goes to great lengths to guard its culture and natural resources. As you drive through this tiny nation’s epic valleys, you pass nothing but fairytale-like medieval architecture, adorned with traditional windows (which are mandated by the government), intricate carvings and beautiful paintings. The suit and tie are non-existent here. Government leaders, office workers and even students wear traditional dress and for elaborate functions, add a shawl where we in the west would add a tie.
For such a tiny, undeveloped nation, green, eco-friendly technology is becoming quite big here. Power is generated hydroelectrically, though through special turbines that are placed directly into rivers without the need for constructing dams. Houses not yet reached by power lines are given free solar panels by the government to generate their own electricity. If someone cuts down a tree to aid in the construction of their house, they are required to plant a new tree in its place.
What is perhaps most baffling in my mind is the religious aspect of this culture. Yes, they are Buddhist, but this form of Buddhism is almost unrecognizable from the Theravada tradition practiced in Southeast Asia. It, along with the rest of the aspects of this culture, is almost other-worldly.
In the past two days, my family and I have covered a good deal of ground, making it halfway through the country after 10 stomach-churning yet stunningly beautiful hours of driving. The one road from East to West, which our guide Sither affectionately calls “Highway 1,” winds its way through the foothills of the Himalayas, with the snow-capped behemoths visible in the distance. At every mountain pass, stupas are erected, which we drive around clockwise to make merit (good karma) while passing the prayer flags that weave their way through the dense forest.
Yesterday, we began the day in Thimphu, Bhutan’s traffic light-less capital (they were added, but deemed too impersonal compared with the traffic police so they were removed) before setting off for the Phobjikha Valley, the wintering grounds for the rare, endangered black neck cranes. Though many had already returned to their summer homes in Tibet, several lingered, which we were able to spot hanging out in a potato field this morning!
Our accommodations were amazingly rustic, with rooms heated by a traditional wood burning stove and electricity provided by a generator, as power lines would be disruptive to the cranes.
Bhutan is one of the best countries in the world for bird and wildlife watching (as evidenced by the cranes), a theme which continued on our journey today, as our bird species spotted count jumped into double digits. We were even able to spot the incredibly rare Golden Langur, a monkey whose spotting is supposed to be a good omen on a journey.
Our route has taken us higher and higher into the mountains, crossing mountain passes up to 3,400 meters (11,154 feet). Along the way, I spotted my first ever Yak, which are herded at these higher altitudes. Their milk and fur are used by many people here. At dinner last night we were even given the chance to sample Yak lung, though one of us took up the offer (interesting side note, it is illegal slaughter any animals here due to a Buddhist precept forbidding harming another creature. An animal that has died from natural or accidental causes may be butchered, but most meat is imported from India.)
As today came to an end, we descended into the Bhumthang valley, the central region of the country. This will be our home for the next 2 days in a wonderfully thankful break from those lengthy drives. On the agenda is exploring this fascinating region, dotted with significant temples, including some which date back to the 7th century! That and we will be doing the deed that we came to this country to do…fulfill my grandmother’s last wish by scattering her ashes here.