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"Just Walk Into That Cloud": Finding Bhutan in Books and Film

"Happy peasants in bountiful fields. A King who's too good to be true.... I'm making photos, shooting video and collecting stories. Everybody in Bhutan's got a story -- some of them might even be true."

North of India, south of Tibet, with fewer than a million people, this landlocked Swiss-sized monarchy, “sandwiched between Methuselahs”, Russ and Blyth Carpenter aver in a memorable if odd metaphor, “(Bhutan) seems like a printer’s error.” Most accounts nod to its historical impenetrability, its vast vistas, and its mix of colorful folk tradition and impassive sophistication. Its Buddhist ethos encourages the personal touch: there’s a lack of any “impersonal” stoplights in its capital, Thimphu, even as it exceeds 100,000 residents-- where Michel Peissel found in 1968 but three small buildings next to its dzong or monastery-fortress.

No cities existed in Bhutan until recently. Rapidly modernizing while directing its Gross National Happiness strategy, the region’s last independent Buddhist enclave aims to balance economic opportunities and educational progress in what many Westerners mistake as still a semi-feudal, isolated Shangri-La. With diverse ecosystems and regional cultures, the nation hunkers below the jagged Himalayas. A central expanse of rugged mountain valleys separate linguistically and culturally diverse Buddhists, who have evolved to farm and herd at an altitude of two miles or more high. They are unsuited to live in the tropical lowlands, where Nepali and Hindu-dominant peoples raise crops on terraces and fields.

Bhutan is expensive to explore: a daily tariff imposed of $250 keeps tourism low and requires guides and itineraries approved in advance. However, lodging and food are covered; a third of this fee funds sustainable development. The fear of becoming another Nepal, with a degraded ecology and sullied infrastructure, impels Bhutan to enforce “high value, low volume” on its visitors, by jeep or on trek. It discourages settlement by foreigners and it commands national dress to be worn by guides, those in schools and public service, and those visiting the center of any district, the dzong, on official business.

For those who have not seen Bhutan firsthand, this article surveys the books and media available. I compiled this after not finding an equivalent resource on the Internet or in print. The reading lists in guidebooks, while helpful, left me wondering what else lay on the shelves. By investigating histories, travel narratives, novels, photo-journalism, film, and guidebooks, you can learn a lot from an armchair—which will likely encourage you to begin to save up and plan your own excursion.

Those Few Who've Gone Before

Through the middle of the last century, Bhutan only received 13 Western expeditions. George Bogle reports on the first, in 1774-1775. He wished to connect the East India Company with China, via Tibet. In between lay Bhutan. In The High Road to China, Kate Teltscher retells in 2006 the young Scotsman Bogle’s journey. Out of cleverly chosen samples of British-made and Indian-exported goods, this first trade mission lobbied to sway the Panchen Lama. "How else to seduce a nation than with a tempting display of luxury goods, scientific instruments and mechanical toys?"

However, Bhutan managed to dissuade the eager empires, Chinese, Tibetan, or British. Most Westerners further comparisons to "feudal" dzongs and "medieval" customs such as archery (the national sport, originally to repel Tibetan invaders) or unquestioned fealty when they encounter Bhutan. Its never-colonized, semi-feudal period under an absolute monarch lasted past when men landed on the moon. A handsome 1982 edition of Views of Medieval Bhutan features an introduction by Michael Aris, who tutored the Wangchuck royal family for six years when the nation was opening up to modernization. Aris (who would marry Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi) presents the meticulous observations of Samuel Davis. A surveyor and draftsman for the Bengal Army, he accompanied the second British embassy, in 1783, to Druk Yul, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

These elegant depictions attest to the only foreign artist "of distinction" to show Bhutan, and the first outsider to paint scenes from these mountains. Aris notes that his fellow Englishman's "legacy played no part in the development of those imaginary utopias which the west continues to locate in the trans-Himalayan region." Aris annotates and excerpts Davis' journal, and nods to its secular, and largely un-Romantic tone, also a part of the naturalistic art Davis brings to the plates reproduced here. "If sublime and romantic qualities are sometimes found expressed in his art this is surely because Davis, like most of us, was constitutionally incapable of reacting otherwise to certain combinations of mountains, light, fortresses and forests."

The Traveler's Take

The thunderbolt is the dorje, the bell-like scepter wielded by lamas in the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition, the lands those of Sikkim, Chumbi, and Bhutan, the time, 1920. The Earl of Ronaldshay’s 1923 account, Lands of the Thunderbolt, while not free of its era’s imperial tone, given this "practicing Presbyterian" author, remains lively. In the footsteps of Bogle and Davis, the Earl shares their enthusiasm for leaving the humid plains of Bengal behind. He begins his ascent at Darjeeling into what at that time was a series of Buddhist-ruled principalities separate from the rest of patchwork British India's jurisdictions. One of the first visitors to the Eastern Himalayas who articulates a modern Western understanding of the unusual mindsets he analyzes, he combines wit with wonder, drollery with description.

Subtitled A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, Michel Peissel’s 1970 account, Lords and Lamas, of his September 1968 trek over 400 miles of footpaths reveals a crucial moment of transition from a feudal, medieval fastness to a nation finishing the first span of an east-west highway that will change Bhutan irrevocably. India's fear, in the Cold War, of Chinese threats south of Tibet spurred them to fund a paved road to connect the shorter ones coming up steep valleys from the Gangetic Plain. After six failed attempts to get royal and bureaucratic approval, Peissel is finally allowed in the country. Bhutan admits its first traveler to carry in foreign currency, and he resolves once inside to follow Captain Robert Boileau Pemberton's 1838 route across the six ranges and passes dividing the core of the corrugated and unstable realm.

One of four sisters married to the fourth Dragon King, Ashi (an honorific for a royal woman) Dorje Wangmo Wangchuck takes us down paths Peissel yearned to follow, in what is now a constitutional monarchy. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon deftly introduces facts about its people; topography in the three zones (humid foothills, temperate valleys, and alpine highlands) as one follows the main lateral road west to east; history; monarchy, and modernity, all in 20 pages. This prefaces a necessarily "elevated" perspective, but a cogent 2006 overview. She then blends her family’s history with tales from treks to care for those neglected in its remote hamlets.

So Close to Heaven: the Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas focuses on the Wangchuck dynasty in its Bhutanese coverage. As a New York Times journalist based in India, Barbara Crossette favors a style akin to “The Gray Lady”. The 1996 book unfolds as if feature articles in a tone mixing personal encounters with interviews with diplomats, royalty, and, via translators at times, everyday folks. There's a distance between her and her interlocutors which is expected, given her position and strategy.

One of the first accounts by a Westerner who visited (as of the mid-'80s, although this is not specified) the then-less accessible eastern reaches, Katie Hickman's Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon proceeds in expected fashion. That is, she's a competent travel writer and her integration of the remarks of earlier visitors helps give background for her own Raj-reminiscent trek by horseback. Oxford-educated, from a diplomatic family, with an international upbringing and dynastic sponsorship to cut red tape, she exudes the air of privilege.

For longer tales from about the same relatively "early-modern" (the road paved, but not yet electricity, TV, phones, or the internet) period in the eastern region, the most popular remains Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth (2000). Ken Haigh's Under the Holy Lake (2008) complements it well and deserves equal acclaim. Both teachers of English from Canada, Zeppa and Haigh nearly overlap in place and time with Hickman, but their extended stints allow them a deeper insight into these districts. Their honest, unadorned reflections better the brief glimpses of many Westerners, on limited budgets and itineraries. Enriched by hindsight, Haigh and Zeppa apply literary sensibilities with precision to evoke wisdom and ponder lessons.

After Easter Sunday Mass in Khaling (despite the Buddhist state religion, teachers often come from India and Catholic regions), Haigh looks back over the scene. "There were bright green highlights on the pasture, almost yellow, and deeper green in the pastures of the ravines. A lone white cow ambled down the hillside and onto the road where it was struck by a passing truck." What Haigh shares with Zeppa is a determination to avoid the soft-focus, combined with an acknowledgement of the love-hate feelings that may come once the initial confusion or infatuation wears off and the reality of separation from Canadian comfort sinks in.

A decade or two later, Western narratives feature consultants who land in Thimphu and remain for assigned periods, as the royal civil service expands and foreign aid flows in to assist the Gross National Happiness program. Just before the introduction of television, The Blessings of Bhutan features rural Oregonians Russ and Blyth Carpenter. They arrived in the late '90s to become freelance advisers and eloquent if agnostic analysts of its GNH mindset. Brooklyn-born L.A. transplant Lisa Napoli’s 2011 Radio Shangri-La presents a media-savvy journalist’s efforts to jumpstart a fledgling station in the capital. Her big-city hustle and mid-life ennui meet a slowdown, and impel reorientation. Yet, most memoirs arrive from guests chosen to work from outside the United States; Bhutan favors European, Canadian, or Down Under expertise.

In 100 pages of Hidden Bhutan, Austrian ex-pat Martin Uitz explores its off-road, off-beat side. Although he works in its Ministry of Finance, one of a hundred foreigners in its booming capital, Thimphu, he nods to the bureaucratic morass and civil service's perks only in the opening chapter. Rather, about the same time in the same place--halfway through the past decade--as Lisa Napoli’s radio endeavor, Uitz roams out of the city to explore scenery as close as a few hours walk up slopes to yak herders and a takin reserve.

Episodes on the Snowman Trek comprise a fast-paced chapter. Finding three recent accounts of “the toughest trek in the world” over 25 days and crossing many Himalayan passes over three miles high, I welcomed Trish Nicholson's Journey in Bhutan. She traveled there long before the other two writers I read -- although she does not reveal this until an afterword. While Nicholson did not take the full Snowman Trek reported in diary form as Yakking with the Thunder Dragon by Mark Horrell or at book length by Kevin Grange as Beneath Blossom Rain, this New Zealand-based anthropologist in her shorter, 100-mile expedition (with other Westerners and a few guides, ponies, and yaks) allows more coverage of the less secluded countryside seen before and after the trek than that witnessed by her two male counterparts 20-odd years later.

For those not wanting to read a whole book about a 200 mile trek, Uitz’s chapter conveys the gist of this difficult journey. Uitz loves the tsachu hot springs which entice the traveler to Gasa and ease the burdens of a summer trek -- the exception to the narrative rule as the three accounts above take place in the fall, hastening before the snows set in.

Seasons matter. Summers plague trekkers and hikers with leeches and monsoons. Winters close mountain passes. Spring has less rain, but more visitors. Likewise with autumn, but the roads may not be repaired from the landslides that constantly threaten to close off the lone lateral highway. Meanwhile, experts keep trying to assist Bhutan with its logistical challenges. In Dragon Bones (2011), Australian IT engineer Murray Gunn accompanies his new French wife to Bhutan for an extended consultancy, where she's hired to advise its dairy industry's agronomists.

Like his compatriot Launsell Taudevin's With a Dzong in My Heart memoir set in 1988, Murray Gunn finds that advising the locals about Western methods clashes with rank-pulling bureaucrats, a more lackadaisical work ethic than he expected, and a series of culture clashes mixed with awe at the kingdom's beauty, Buddhist traditions, and courtly atmosphere. While Gunn repeats many of the trekking adventures others do in his account, unique to what I've read in other versions, he listens to his guide: "This is our life. We have to come up here no matter what the weather's like and we do the same trails over and over until our feet are sore. And we can never go anywhere else. There's no holiday for us."

Reports by Gunn or Uitz should be chosen over the holiday taken in James W. Gould’s So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan. At 8,400 words, this 2012 e-book relates too casually the history, religion, and culture of a bit of Bhutan as seen by the author over a week. Even if this duration must endure as most likely for a less affluent traveler, given the per diem tariff increase, choose longer books by those lucky enough to stay longer in Bhutan. I have not covered two popular, New Age-filtered, memoirs in print, all the same; both of their authors achieved a permanence few Westerners can, by marrying Bhutanese men so as to stay there forever.

A Magical Place, Captured in Literature

Almost all who enter Bhutan must leave. Based on a 1931 British expedition to award a knighthood to the King of Bhutan, Desmond Barry’s 2004 novel Cressida’s Bed features as its protagonist a character taken from a real-life doctor’s expedition, that of half-Irish expatriate Christina Devenish. In her early 30s in Calcutta, a free-love advocate, a Theosophist who finds no contradiction with the practice of medicine, she possesses her spirituality and her sexuality confidently. While Barry's depiction of her entry into a Bhutan divided between monarchy and theocracy lacks the sensual and visual evocations of many other writers who've visited this kingdom, it's refreshing to have a more physically rendered, less enraptured presence embarking there. "She set foot on the soil of Bhutan, Alice through the looking glass racked with menstrual cramps, the sweat cooling on her forehead and her back under her sticky frock, and she was desperate to empty her bladder in the shadows of the luxuriant rainforest."

Kunzang Choden’s 2005 novel The Circle of Karma, the first in English by a Bhutanese woman, tells over 40 years the story of Tsomo. At 15, in the remote region of Kurtai, she soon falls in love with another woman's husband. This leads soon to pregnancy, but the results spur her not to a happy marriage, but family strife. She flees to pound stones to pave the first roads across the kingdom, putting this section somewhere about ten years after the Chinese suppression of Tibet. Years aren't mentioned; the novel unfolds in an indirect narration by Tsomo, who finds unhappiness often, and exiles herself to India.

Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based Elsie Sze integrates information into The Heart of the Buddha (2009) to situate Marian and Ruthie within the admittedly challenging scenario they find as their paths intersect in Bhutan. Sisters and twins, the two protagonists reflect upon their Chinese Catholic upbringing, their Canadian identity, and their position in a realm where Buddhism is the state religion, where a benign monarchy and compliant press rule.

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