Looking out of the airplane window with wide eyed wonder, the icy Central Himalayan peaks soon gave way to the rolling mountains of Bhutan. An endless green carpet of thriving flora filled the vision stretching till the horizons. Rivers of mist snaking through the valleys stirred into sight as the airplane drew closer to Earth.
Quite unexpectedly, the airplane banked left and jolted sideways. The staff and the usual passengers nonchalantly continued with their business leaving me to question my state of wakefulness. Turns out it wasn’t an embarrassing daydream but the pilot was indeed one of the two Swat Kats. On inquiry, it was communicated that landing at Paro airport is in fact one of the trickiest in the world and few pilots are qualified to make it! I decided not to query their credentials. Too late for that anyway. The tricky bit is to veer around a mountain side maintaining the right altitude banking left till an angled opening into the valley is reached. The plane then needs to straighten up and align with the tarmac quickly. The tarmac is not visible to the pilot till the time the plane goes around the mountain completely, leaving little reaction time. Evidently, we did land.
When in Thimphu…Chill
After an hour-long drive from Paro Airport we were at Taj Tashi Hotel in Thimphu. A structure reminiscent of the classic Dzong architecture with characteristic towering walls and protruding roofs. Inside, an expansive atrium was aglow with soft orange light of candles and warm lights. A magnificently huge iron bell hung from the center of the lobby directly above a quiet fountain with floating flowers, as if to make a huge splash if things got too peaceful.
If peace is a crime, Bhutan has been in state of war! Quiet streets, where cars wait for pedestrians to cross, cars wait for other cars to cross, cars wait for dogs to cross and chickens cross the roads because cars halt for them too…everyone was annoyingly patient. And all this discipline without traffic lights! Apart from the patience; the quiet demeanor and inner-peace-smiles made me feel like a loud angry ogre. An ogre who was being felt welcome by kind hotel staff and even random strangers. A stroll around the neat and tidy city was refreshingly relaxing.
The next day, the warmth of the hotel room, the smell of spa-esque incense and rain shower fitted bathrooms was a lot to surmount in order to start the day. This was compounded by my fiendishly consistent will to oversleep. But having had a taste of the quality of people there, I knew that a car would be punctually awaiting my half-hazard self to turn up. I shortly readied myself and skip-stepped down to the lobby. Where sure enough, the car stood with its engine rumbling.
First stop was the Paro Taktsang. Popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Peeking in and out of the flowing mist, a golden roofed marvel looked tiny against the sheer cliff that it rests on. One had to abandon the car miles away to start the foot journey towards a destination that seemed a tad too long. My concern reflected on my fellow trekker’s faces. How does one get there? With no visible path near the monastery, the gradient seemed too steep for any skills available to a creature capable of bipedalism alone.
Tsering, the courteous and well-informed guide, smartly dressed in her traditional dress: Kira had skipped much ahead with an agility of an Ibex except that she had slippers for hooves. Looking back she would have noticed an idiot gawking at the impossibility of the task undertaken. Pulling myself together, I began the journey up a rain washed muddy slope. The weather was as shifty as an alleyway occupant selling merchandise exhibited inside one flap of a cheap overcoat. Rain and an overzealous sun seemed to be fighting for a window seat to our sweaty misery. Alas after a long arduous climb, we reached up a mountain peak answering the “how do we get there” question. Clearly climbing up one peak was not the answer. We had to now come down a steep slope, cross over a bridge cradled between two mountains and then climb up a set of seemingly infinite stairs. My knees were clearly going to “jointly” plan a mutiny against their owner.
At long last, I clumsily reached the monastery. A view of the valley below was breathtaking. The green was overpoweringly green, perhaps conspiring to make one forget other colors. However, numerous colorful prayer flags fluttering in the misty wind were standing up for their rightful representation. In the distance, one could see two valleys. Where one shone under the bright sun, the other was being splattered with rain and shadowed by massive grey clouds. Clearly, someone in that village had called Zeus and Poseidon to a party and left them unattended with the drinks. Whatever drunken tantrums had occupied the Gods, the result was astonishingly beautiful.
Goatalope and Fort Awesome
If Gods are a bit unstable, evolution is definitely a mad scientist high on acid. The Motithang Takin Preserve, seeks to…well…preserve one such marvelous outcome of evolution’s experiments. They seemed to be half goat, half antelope-cow and definitely aware of their weird uniqueness. They held an impish smile as they looked upon the equally odd hairless monkeys with their cameras, as if trying to ask, “Guess what I am?”. “Guess! Guess! Why you Takin so long?”.
There are several forts and palaces all around Paro and Thimphu. All worth visiting. But the Punakha Dzong calls for a special mention. A magnificent palace-fort located right at the confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, it is marked by an iconic wooden cantilever bridge that arcs over the intrepid currents. The courtyards huge enough to tempt one to yodel loudly to check whether the voice would echo. But I’m sure this world changing experiment was never undertaken but for the stern looking monks around. The campus contains a hall with a golden statue of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche (Monk credited from brining Buddhism to Bhutan) and pillars plated with intricately carved gold. The massive structures belie the delicate decorations within, right from the pillars, to the walls, to the doors are painstakingly done up with detailed designs and paintings. One could imagine every worker and every artist putting their heart and soul in the task assigned. The artistic touch and the aesthetics seem to ooze with love and care.
A pride in the culture, a love towards the monarch and genuine deep seeded happiness shows in all and sundry. Much credit to the wise policies adopted by the country and of course the high thinking people. Bhutan’s policies make other policies look like homework scribbled on the way to school. Also like a precocious child, Bhutan first redefines the questions in order to answer them. Where the world powers flex their GDP infused muscles, Bhutan eats right and develops on its core concepts which are quite simple.
Ask the right questions
The simplicity lies in asking the right questions.
Where do we live? Even though its roundness is still surprisingly doubted, all do agree that we live on the Earth.
What ensures the delicate balance of nature? Among other mind numbingly intricate sciences on which nature works, most definitely the flora and fauna around us.
What can humans do about it now that they are the unchallenged species? Protect it.
How does protecting the nature help us? It gives us clean air and water (a resource that seems to be emigrating from “highly developed” areas of California and Cape Town), provides adequate resources for present and future generations and reduces reliance on international markets. I’m sure a more learned man will point out numerous other advantages.
How do you protect nature? Not allowing for its over-exploitation. Controlling inclement growth and maintaining focus towards development in terms of education, health, connectivity and agriculture. No point having swanky car showrooms and elaborate malls without adequate health care facilities, good schools, good roads, food and water! We’d end up with unhealthy, entitled, ill-informed people honking angrily for no particular reason. Sounds like some place we know?
How else does being tree-huggers help us? It gives us healthier people who tend to be less whiny. A sustainable lifestyle does not pressurize them to earn more. Hence their life goals are not limited by the bank-account-balance-rat-race. Correct pronunciation of brand names, for the want of sounding elite, are least of their worries. One would rise above stating pointedly that its “Air-rmes” not “aermezz” or maybe the other way around. Who cares?! At this point, it should also be noted that the people’s attitudes matter. If we are to want more than we need, if we are to be consumeristic, we ought to remember that our overconsumption of food, water, electricity, clothes, wanting fancy jewelry and too many cars are all at a cost of an invisible exploitation of someone else’s world. (Ref: Sugar/Coffee/Chocolate/Textile/Spice/Diamond luxury demand in human history)
What does happiness lead to? Unquestionably, kindness! The increased mental bandwidth to be empathetic, to care, to love. To indeed wait for the chicken to cross the road. A good environment for both the present and the future of well…everything!
Bhutan has ensured free education that focuses on teaching children how to think, how to hear other’s points of view, learn without assumptions and relearn abandoning assumptions. It has ensured free health care, subsidized electric cars, good infrastructure, happier people and all while being carbon neutral…and now carbon negative.
Bhutan, if personified, would be a silent wise person who has found its path. But its humility keeps it from preaching it to the world. A world which remains a confused child stepping on its own shoelaces.