Friday, February 26, 2010
Land of the Thunder Dragon
Imagine a country where there are no “chain” establishments, no billboards, not even a single stoplight. Where the air is as crisp and clear as the water that flows in the rivers originating from the glaciers of the high Himalayas. Where the country’s largest and most major highway consists of two lanes: one each way. Where you can see several highly-endangered species in their native habitat. Where the people live simply, but everyone smiles instead of stares, waves instead of begs, and you’re a hundred times more likely to be invited to share tea in the home of someone you just met than to be taken advantage of by someone trying to make a fast buck. Must be some enchanted kingdom, you say? You bet.
Bhutan has all the normal elements of a fairy tale – there’s a king and royal family who are openly revered; history books teach legends of dragons and flying tigers, demons and “divine” madmen, wise religious leaders and enlightened kings; the national sport is archery (target size: average computer screen, distance: about 1.5 football fields, equipment: some bendy wood, a length of string, and an arrow); most people wear traditional dress most of the time; and it certainly is “a land far, far away” in several senses of the term.
Our introduction to the country consisted of the plane winding left and right, threading its way through tall mountains on either side, and then the runway of the country’s only airport (because there’s only one valley wide enough) appeared at the last moment as we made a final turn so low we were starting to worry about the wing scraping the treetops. Walking out of the airport (comparable in size to the airport in Bismarck, North Dakota), we were immediately greated by our guide, Tenzing, and our driver, Tenzing, who put white scarves around our necks and officially welcomed us. Right from the start, we knew that this was going to be a different kind of place.
We did a lot of hiking/walking/trekking, ate some good food (one of their typical cheeses tastes just like Bulgarian cirene, and K was in little-pig-heaven with the spicy peppers), and accumulated a whole lot of merit with all the temples, stupas, and otherwise holy sites we visited. The scenery was gorgeous, the people were truly enchanting, and the fresh air was a complete and welcome departure from Mumbai. I’ll share with you a little of what I’m talking about…
Of all the places I’ve traveled, the people of Bhutan are the most friendly and welcoming toward outsiders that I’ve ever encountered. It hasn’t even (yet) occurred to them that they could do what so many other populations do and take advantage of tourists with inflated prices for sub-standard goods. The land itself – the steep mountains, the many and varied forests, the terraced farmland – is beautiful, the architecture is unique with colorfully decorative details, and they’ve done an excellent job of preserving a strong sense of tradition. It truly is a seductive, enchanting, fairy-tale-like kingdom. And I want to go back again.