Back from Bhutan!


All the guide books we consulted before arriving in Bhutan stated that we wouldn’t be able to see the snow-capped Himalayas during our time there.

Day 3 in Bhutan: …lunch with our tour guide, Sonam, and our 6 fellow tourists.  A solo walk around Paro, home of the country’s only airportimg_0048…and then the hour long drive to the country’s capital, Thimpu.  The rest of the day and all of the next merge into a haze of temples, crafts schools and creators and

magnificent views in every direction.

People are more than friendly.  Food is adequate considering we are in a country devoid of slaughterhouses, a country where nothing is deliberately killed.  Today we drove over a pass celebrated with 108 chortens (a.k.a. stupas, usually small structures containing the relics of saints).

Day 4: The scariest road I’ve ever ridden (including that time in Utah when the elk ran in front of my downhill careening bike): less than two full lanes wide, often with a shoulder measured in inches, looking straight down for hundreds of meters.


Already changes are happening inside me.  Last night we re-met an American couple who’d sat in front of us on the plane.  They complained of their driver’s slowness.  What was his hurry in this land where every inch is a tourist attraction and rushing on such roads bespeaks insanity at best?

The roads are scantily but diversely populated: unattended grazing cows and, at higher elevations, yaks; trees occasionally filled with monkeys; both adults and children walking alone or in small groups always ready to wave or wave back.




Bhutan is different.  The impact of topography dominates all else.  Buddhism leads all to harmony.  The world here is vertical, severely so.  This determines the size and shape of farms and villages, the layout of the roads, and the pace at which life proceeds.


Isolation has saved Bhutan from both physical and cultural invasion.  The last invaders, the Tibetans, came and went in 1612.  The current wireless invasion, tv & the internet, may ultimately pose a greater threat to the country’s integrity.  The king, only a few years back, forced the people to abandon absolute monarchy in favor of constitutional monarchy and stepped down in favor of his more contemporarily minded son.  He also replaced the concept of gross national product with that of gross national happiness as the measuring stick of the country’s success or failure.  His goals were to allow for modernism in tune with nature and to strengthen traditional values over the invading western values.


No one in this country looks particularly rich or poor.  No one seems afraid of work or disrespectful of it.  Today our group climbed about 400  steps from the Trongsa Dzong (home of both the government and the Buddhists) to the Tower Museum.  Coming back down we met a traditionally dressed woman sweeping those stairs.  Sweetly she broke her concentration on the task at hand to pose for a photograph.img_0654

Yesterday, driving the mountain highway between Puhakha and Wangdue we passed an older woman sitting on the shoulder and using a small  sledge-hammer to pound rocks into gravel for the road’s repair.  Somehow it was easy, looking at her focus and diligence, to see the universe as made up of just this: all fitting together, fulfilling our roles in the totality.  And just this is the overwhelming feeling of Bhutan.  Just this–what truly is in all it’s glory.

Maybe day 6: Back to me for a moment: a noticeably deeper feeling of freedom.  I can drink Sanka without feeling cheated, meditate on the toilet seat (dressed, of course, with the cover down) and feel comfortable in my body–even the feet–and age.  Right now my work life in The Bronx feels no less or more encapsulated than this trip–and all feels graceful and manageable and still ultimately interdependent.  Even my increasingly rare  moments of being irritating and irritated fit into this.

  • img_05271Outside the bus window an old man, barefoot, walks by.  At one time (and perhaps at some time again in the future) I’d think, “Poor guy.”  Today I think, “Wow!”
  • To see the Himalayas as young is to understand again the Buddhist concept of impermanence and continual change.  Come to think of it, that also applies to battery life.
  • These thoughts of transiency hold the promise of comfort.  Someone said it, “to whom nothing is dear, to him not anything is grievous.”
  • Riding along the mountain road, seeing an occasional solitary walker, I imagine–or do I feel–their self-contained contentment.
  • Seeing this culture, so different from my own re values and methods and rewards, knowing there are still others–all of which produce satisfactions and sufferings–I begin to question my belief in the ‘absoluteness” of my culture’s values.  Individuality, self-fulfillment, competition, prominence, safety, success, accumulation, popularity.  Not that they are wrong, but that they just represent one opinion.


Tiger’s Nest

Day 7: Back from the Tiger’s Nest, a 1000 meter climb, climaxing in a flight of 700 steps, to the temple built into the cliff.     Paro Taktsang (it’s official name) is one of the most famous monasteries in Bhutan. It was built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated in the 8th Century.  Padmasambhava (I have been gently reminded) was the person often called the Buddha in person by Tibetans and Bhutanese alike.  He was invited to Tibet to bring the Buddhist teachings there.  On the way to Tibet, he traveled (according to legend) flying on the back of a pregnant tigress, and stopped at the meditation cave Taktsang (“Tiger’s Nest”) in Bhutan for a meditation retreat.

I made the first half of the trip up on the back of  an old pony the color of whose mane remarkably matched that of my beard.  Where did I end and the pony begin?img_1007

Little did I suspect when we started  off that I would find myself, deep in Bhutan, approaching the holiest monastery in a country filled with monasteries, squarely in the middle of an old Jewish joke.  Junior, as I came to call the pony, was quite fond of resting.  This meant that his handler spent much of the trip pulling him forward via the lead rope.  To paraphrase the joke: I was there because I was going to Tiger’s Nest.  She was there because she was taking me.  But why Junior?!  How much easier had she simply attached the rope to me and left him behind to rest and graze.

Nonetheless it was a delightful–if occasionally scary ride.  Junior, like all pack ponies, was determined to stay along the out side of the trail and, whenever possible, lean over the precipitous edge to graze.  It became my job to remember that, when he did that, his head and neck were well over the edge of the cliff.

*     *     *

Not a parable (but it could be)

Maybe it was in Jakar or Wangdue, but it was defintely in one of the towns on the way back to Paro.  Me, walking alone in a marketplace surrounding a large parking area just above the local  dzong.  Focused on all around me.  At one point I photographed a young girl, perhaps 4 years old, climbing a ladder just inside a doorway.  She wore pink.

A block later, looking off across the parking lot ringed by low retail buildings, I feel a hand take mine.  The grip is warm and remarkably firm.  It’s her!


The 4 year old in pink.  She leads me down the street and left at the corner.  She walks deliberately.  She seems to know where she (we) is going. My first reactions are panicky.  O my God!

67 year old male tourist and

4 year old local girl!!!

screams the  headline from back home.

“But Officer, Officer…”

Ahead I see a group of boys, ages 10-12 or so.  I am somehow able to  explain to them that I don’t know the girl child, that she may be lost.  They then take her to various shopkeepers in a vain effort to reunite her with family.  Eventually we approach two policemen and explain just what I’ve explained to you.

“I don’t know who she is or why she took my hand or why she took me where she took me…” I tell the older officer.  He smiles.

With warmth and without irony he says, “Perhaps she was  your daughter in another lifetime.”

*     *     *

In our ten days in Bhutan we never heard a child cry.  We never heard voices raised in anger or horns honk for any reason other than safety.  We saw the one traffic cop in this country of no traffic lights.  He was smiling.

Bhutan also looks and feels like this:


To see all 415 Bhutan photos click:

Published in: on May 2, 2009 at 9:41 pm  Comments (6)