Sublime Bhutan: 1 Oct-8 Oct

(Click here for more Bhutan pics)

Bhutan, a small kingdom in the Himalaya, just east of Nepal, was closed to visitors for decades and still only allows a modest number each year...9000 people in 2004.  It is an extraordinary place.  The entire population  is committed to maintaining a unique culture.  Most families still send their oldest sons (sometimes not so old...see wonders if some of these younger monks want to revisit their family's decision as they get a bit older) to Buddhist monasteries and nearly everyone wears the traditional style of clothes called ghos for men and kiras for women.  A strong and traditional form of Buddhism prevails in much of the country.  People strictly observe religious traditions such as walking around small temples a total of 108 more, no show their respect, spinning prayer wheels clockwise and always keeping the common small shrines, called chortens, to one's right when walking past.  Lives of most monks revolve around dzongs, the distinctive, dramatic buildings that house monasteries and characterize  Bhutanese architecture.  See the photo gallery for more pictures of the people of Bhutan.

There is only one town, the capital Thimphu, that could be considered much more than a hamlet.  The country's population is roughly 700,000 and has been ruled by the same family for four generations.  Most of the country is mountainous and climbs to the major peaks of the Himalaya in the north.  Mt. Everest is just a few hundred miles away.  The town in the back of this picture to the right is Paro, home to the country's one airport. 


No sooner had we arrived in Bhutan's capital of Thimpu than we got our first clue into the legendary contentedness of the Bhutanese people...growing wild along the main road in town.  Nothing like convenient, fresh herbs.

It is the only country in the world without a single traffic light.  Apparently, a few years ago one was installed in Thimphu, just behind the kids in this picture and was taken out after people complained to the king.  (If only other national leaders around the world had such grave issues to deal with...more on his domestic 'problems' below.)


We were quickly to get our second glimpse into the smiles on the faces of the local people.  Above this door is a carved talisman that does double duty as a bringer of fertility to the home it decorates while also protecting against evil spirits.  These particular symbols weren't loose artistic interpretations requiring some imagination on the part of the viewer...they were anatomically correct in all detail.  One of these hanging over our door at home in Portola Valley would scare off a lot more than evil spirits...mailmen, girl scouts and trick-or-treaters for starters.

We chose not to include pictures of these things hanging from the corners of homes and painted (quite accurately, I might add) on the outside walls of many houses because of the family nature of this program.






The national sport is archery.  Laugh if you must, but trust us as your friends...if you're challenged to an archery contest by someone from Bhutan, run...don't polish your mailbox and save your dignity.  What they can do is unbelievable.  One target is to the right of the blue flag in the picture to the left...the other is 140 *meters* (see the tiny white square below the red arrow at left and think 1.5 football fields) away.  Each target is the size of a small dinner plate and the bows are made of raw wood lashed together in the middle to form a grip.  (Look at the one the guy is holding in the picture on the right below.)


Members of both teams stand at each end of the field.  Everyone competing will squat around the target while someone fires from the other end.  The small flags hanging next to the target are to help the shooter at the other end see where the target is...note the arrow already in the target, just in case you think we're joking.  The guy to the left is either a teammate of the shooter urging him on or an opponent talking trash...both were in ample evidence.  The fact that trash talking has invaded archery can't be a good sign for the future of civilization, although  Allan Iverson would be proud.

The arrows would fly in from the other end and these guys would just lean or take a small step to avoid being hit.  We had a hard time seeing the arrows at all.  A bad miss would generate a bit of dancing and singing by one's opponents (OK, maybe the concept of trash *dancing* wouldn't impress Allan Iverson, afterall) and a hit would produce something similar, although more supportive, from one's teammates.

Take a look at that target up by the red arrow again.  Amazing.


Here's a third clue to the contentedness of the Bhutanese, although this one applies only to the king.  These are his 4 wives...all sisters.  We're sorry to report that applications for the job of King of Bhutan are not being accepted from Americans.  He and the head of the church are the only ones who wear gold.  Not sure where he gets those boots.

There is a genuine affection for the king and the stories we heard about his leadership were impressive.  To the right is Andy holding a copy of the proposed Bhutanese constitution which he has endorsed as a way to distribute more power to a democratic form of government.  Interestingly, most people there (that's our guide in the red/black sweater on our trek) aren't in favor of it.  Their rationale is that elected officials are subject to lobbying and more severe forms of corruption.  They'd rather bank on having one ethical, engaged king than distribute power and (inevitably, in their minds) create a system that involves some of the less attractive dynamics of governments in the west.  We asked for a copy, but weren't allowed to take one with us.  One wonders if the king wants to hand off some of his responsibility to free up some time so he can attend to his duties at home, which are clearly burdensome.

This picture was taken inside the dzong in the town of Punakha.  The Punakha valley is less than 4,000 feet above sea level and this dzong serves as the winter home for the monks who live at higher elevations during the summer.  The winter crowd hadn't arrived yet, so it was quiet while we were there.  This picture gives you a sense for the extraordinary painting one sees on many Bhutanese buildings.

Before our trip, we read that small gifts are appreciated by the guides.  Our book suggested chocolate, trinkets and *argyle socks.*  Can't say we had a supply of argyle socks to bring, but we soon discovered why when we arrived and saw the prominent place that men's socks have in their outfits.  Unfortunately, Dolay (our guide, standing between Andy and Sophie) was wearing a plain grey set this particular day.

Each of these dzongs has several small temples inside.  We visited them each time and, after taking our shoes off, we'd watch our guide kneel and bow three times before each Buddha.  We would then receive a blessing from the monk which consisted of scented water poured over our heads.  After a day of dzong visits, we all smelled like walking potpourris.  We had simple white scarves, similar to the one Dolay is wearing across his chest.  At one particularly dramatic temple, the kids had the monk toss their scarves across the Buddha that represented wealth.  The parents, feeling our mortality more than the kids, left our scarves draped on the longevity Buddha.

Griffin powers through on one of our hikes, oblivious to the fact that one doesn't come across a curious, dignified old man in a purple fedora every day.  The Bhutanese textiles are world famous and bright colors play a big part in the decorations on the buildings and the clothes people wear.  One way religious respect is paid is by spinning wheels with Buddhist prayers painted on the outside.  Sometimes these prayer wheels are quite big and sometimes there are many in long rows.  Here we are generating goodwill from the gods by spinning each wheel (always clockwise...some seriously bad juju is headed your way if you spin them the wrong way) in a long row surrounding one of the rural temples.





Griff was attempting to power through this stretch of a hike as well but was stopped by a local who hadn't heard the results of the most recent Monday Night Football game.  Griff's Bhutanese (actually called Dzongkha) was a bit rusty, but he discovered she was a big Peyton Manning fan and was able to give her the details of the Colts' latest games.


We ran into some rainy weather during our 3-day trek.  Our guide arranged for us to be invited into a local home for a cup of hot tea and a chance to dry off.  Initially, our hosts weren't quite sure what to make of us foreigners who seemed to be walking through the hills for no particular reason.  (Roll the cursor over the picture at left to see the cheery group we were 'talking' with when this one was taken...everyone loosened up as time passed.)  Farmers in areas like this do plenty of walking - often with huge loads on their backs.  Taking off on a hike for the fun of it strikes them as more than a bit odd.  In typical rural houses like this one, the living quarters consist of three rooms:  1) the living room, where we're sitting, 2) a kitchen with an open fire burning throughout the day and 3) a small temple.  There is no chimney for the fire and the house was filled with smoke (not so visible in this picture...we were near the windows which have no glass and  smoke gets out there) and the walls all black with soot.  See the photo gallery for more pictures of our 'host' family.

Griff, already smart enough to know that it's a good idea to generate as much positive goodwill with the gods as possible when the gettin' is good, takes one more spin of a row of prayer wheels before we left this spot.  His parents expect that some (all???) of this goodwill will be drawn down when he hits his teens in a few years.  This picture was taken at the Tiger's Nest, the most famous monastery in Bhutan and one of the most extraordinary places we've ever been.  More photos of Tiger's Nest are in the photo gallery.






Here's Mt. Everest, looming large in the west as we fly from Paro to Bangkok.