I want to speak of Bhutan. I want to share my experience with anyone who wants to listen.
We were met at the airport by our guide, Ratu Drupka, and our driver, Mr. Wangdi. Ratu was very highly recommended to us by two friends who have traveled with him before. It is already clear that he is an intelligent, knowledgeable, sincere, and kind person. Though he is a worldly man who has traveled outside Bhutan, and is currently writing a book on the oral tradition of his village, he is also a profoundly Buddhist man, as are the vast majority of Bhutanese. What it means to be a Buddhist in Bhutan is the main topic of our conversations with him throughout this trip.
There are about 20 dzongs spread across the major valleys in Bhutan. First built in the 1600’s when Guru Rimpoche unified the country, they were part fortress, part regional government center, and part monastery. Though the fortress function is no longer necessary, the dzongs remain today the seat of regional government and active monasteries.
Buddhism in Bhutan is intertwined with an ancient indigenous religion called Bon. Deities live in the mountains and rivers and the monks perform rituals in every village and deal with the spirit realm. It’s quite a mix of the Buddhist teachings I know and indigenous cultural beliefs.
Here is Ratu sharing some of his extensive knowledge.
For Bhutanese, the high peaks of the Himalaya are sacred, and that is why those peaks in their territory have never been climbed. Two Japanese climbers tried to climb one of them a few decades ago but, we are told, they were lost. Years later some of their equipment was found near the mountain’s base, but never their bodies. Our guide, Ratu, suggested that the accident that befell them was no accident. The mountain diety will have her way. 60 % of Bhutan’s forests are virgin, and the government has committed to keeping them uncut.
When I asked Ratu if the word Shangri-La meant anything to him, he answered yes. Shangri-La, he told us, is a Sanskrit name for a place in the unexplored high mountains where hidden treasures lay. When asked the nature of these hidden treasures, he told us there were sacred writings in those high mountains, and these writings will emerge only at some time in the future when the people of Bhutan have lost touch with Buddhism and need to be reinvigorated. So Shangi-La could be said to be the unexplored peaks that hold these sacred writings.
Bhutan’s first road connection to the outside world did not come until the 1960s when a road was established from India on the south to western Bhutan. And then it was not until the early 1980s that the slow and windy, one-lane, east-west national highway was constructed. Before these recent dates, the only way to get to Bhutan or to travel through its relentlessly mountainous gorges was to walk or ride horseback. Television and the internet did not arrive until 1998 upon the decree of the revered 4th King, who spoke to his people of the potential benefits and dangers that this new form of contact would entail.
So I share this story of Shangri-La as told to us today in an attempt to provide some context as we got our first look at those unclimbable sacred peaks. In the spirit of our time here, they seemed to me more than merely beautiful. And, as a bonus, we came across our first yak at the same time at a road summit of about 11,000 feet. It turns out that yak owners bring them down to this “lower” elevation to graze for the winter.
If by chance you’ve ever seen a photo of Bhutan, it was probably one like this of the Tiger’s Nest ( Taksang in Bhutanese) built crazily high on a cliff face 500 years ago. For marketing purposes it’s Bhutan’s Eiffel Tower or Great Pyramid. What makes Taksang special, besides its astounding location, is what makes all the “tourist sites” in Bhutan special. That is, they are not dead museum pieces; they are fully alive religious and historical spaces that have deep significance to most people who live here whether they are traditional villagers or up and coming city folk.
I cried when leaving Bhutan. When it was time to say good bye to our guide, Ratu, and our driver, Wangdi, I felt such a welling up of emotion. It was inexplicable as I did not need to stay longer, nor did I want to move to Bhutan. So what was it that I felt? I eventually came to the realization that I was mourning for us, here in the States. Our election of Mr Trump had just taken place, and I was aware of all the hatefulness taking place at home between people of different political beliefs. The contrast was too much for me, and I felt so sad. I think that if the planet is alive, then Bhutan is its heart. The heartbeat of the world is here, and it is being well cared for by these lovely people in their amazing land.
If you ever go to Bhutan, just know that it matters who your guide is. You will be with him all day every day and he will be the voice of Bhutan for you. www.bhutanekatours.com Ratu Drukpa. We love Ratu.