By Andrea Gross
Photos by Irv Green
It was a crazy idea, this plan to go to the Himalayas in November. I’m not into hiking, can’t even contemplate trekking and despise the cold. Whatever possessed me?
Authenticity, that’s what. The opportunity to see a country that was still untainted by the outside world. Foreigners weren’t allowed in until 1974; there wasn’t any television until 1999. But the capper was this: my husband and I would get a chance to learn about a place that operates according to the tenets of Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. In other words, the people value GNH more than GNP. Now how charming is that?
So, a few weeks before our frequent flyer miles were going to expire, we set off for Bhutan, a small country tucked between Tibet and India. “That mountain over there is Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world,” our pilot says casually, as he threads the plane between a gap in the mountains and heads for the narrow runway that marks one of the most dangerous airports in the world.
I grip the armrest and remind myself that he’s one of fewer than a dozen pilots who’s certified to fly into Bhutan. On the one hand, I’m glad my pilot is such an expert; on the other, I’m terrified that maneuvering between the peaks is so dangerous that I need such an expert.
An hour’s drive gets us to Thimphu, the country’s capital and the largest city in Bhutan. With a population of just over 100,000, there’s no need for a stoplight. Instead a lone policeman, encased in a small gazebo and outfitted with white gloves and a shrill whistle, stands at the city’s busiest intersection and directs traffic.
The architecture in the city center is distinctive—white buildings with graciously curved walls, windows outlined in red—and the people are all dressed in the national dress, which is required attire when in public. Thus, men are outfitted in ghos (belted robes) and women in kiras (a blouse and skirt combo). This, according to the government, will help the country retain its cultural identity.
The style of dress is defined, but the color and patterns are not. Weaving is an intrinsic part of Bhutanese culture, and hand-woven ghos and kiras incorporate intricate patterns, sophisticated dying techniques and rich colors that have made Bhutanese textiles known and admired throughout the world.
After a visit to the Royal Textile Academy and the National Folk Heritage Museum, we head to rural areas, where we find prayer flags strung up and down hills, past buildings and across mountains. This, according to the Buddhists, who comprise 75 percent of Bhutan’s population, creates a vast network of harmony and compassion.
Bhutan is primarily agricultural, and as we drive along the road that unites the country from west to east, we’re enveloped by green. By law 60 percent of the land must be forest, but in reality more than 70 percent—containing an estimated eight million trees—remains undeveloped.
Although the villages are small, the houses are substantial. The government encourages folks to build their homes in a three-story style that is unique to Bhutan. The ground floor is reserved for cattle and other animals; the second for storage, and the third for people.
Prior to 1969, monasteries and nunneries were the only places in Bhutan where children could receive a formal education. Today there are also government-sponsored schools, and most children are able to receive some sort of education beyond that offered by their parents. State-run schools begin with a half-hour assembly that includes a morning prayer, songs and various speeches and announcements. Children are taught both Dzongkha, which is the official language, and English.
As for sports, archery is the national sport and every village has its own archery range. Using bamboo bows (although modern compound bows are becoming more common), teams of archers stand a football-field away from the target, which is less that a foot in diameter.
After ten days in Bhutan, we’re accustomed to the altitude and charmed by the attitude. Visiting a nation that espouses Gross National Happiness is most definitely worth the harrowing flight through the Himalayas!
For information on other international destinations, see traveltizers.com.