Back to the Promised Land

Posted on November 29, 2009

OK, so God did not promise this bit of real estate to Abraham nor anyone else, and the only Jews here are a handful of tourists, and bibles, old or new testament are close to non existent. But at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, this is my Promised Land: Bhutan, pulls me like gravity, and here I am for my 6th visit.

Tiny Bhutan is the meager filling sandwiched between India and China. It's all mountains, and these peaks are responsible for Bhutan never having been conquered or colonized. Unkind terrain to any potential invader. These same Himalayan peaks kept the Bhutanese isolated, so that until 1960 there were no relations with the outside world, nor any of the technological advances that the rest of the world took for granted. No cars, roads, currency, electricity, running water. Bhutan was 400 years behind the rest of the world. In 50 short years the Bhutanese have acquired all the amenities of the 21st century, while keeping all the aesthetics of the 17th century. It's as close to time travel as you can get, and you only need a visa, not a wayback machine.

I work with Dorji, a Bhutanese guide, as all tourists are required to travel with a guide, adhere to a preplanned itinerary, and pay a minimum daily government mandated tariff. All this is to minimize the disruption of tourism on local culture and environment.

Late fall by the calendar, but winter as far as the Bhutanese are concerned, with mornings just above freezing and days in the 60's. The Bhutanese are distinctively attired, as most men wear ghos (an ankle length robe, when tied and elaborately pleated if falls to the knees, and looks much like a dress, combined with shiny black shoes and ankle socks), and the women wear kiras, ankle length skirts with a tunic like vest above the waist. The ever present monks wear red robes, which fold and drape in such a way that they appear to float when they step quickly. Most everyone has added scarfs, a multitude of varieties, around the neck and shoulders, or covering their mouths, it's apparent they are aiming for looks as well as function. And hats, almost all the same variety knitted by women in shops, always the same yarn that has a bit of glitter to it. Crimson is the most popular color, but mine is orangey brown. No, I'm not attempting to blend in. Just keep my ears warm.

I am usually the only foreigner in sight, as there are so few outsiders in Bhutan. Only a few hundred are admitted at any one time, and the winter low season, coupled with the economic crisis as the Bhutanese call it, sees even fewer tourists. Foreigners cluster at the few hotels, but once on the street, we are strongly diluted by the presence of locals. In some places this might be cause for consternation, though not here. These are a friendly people, and on the street I frequently hear my name called, acquaintances from previous visits.

The economic crisis, disrupting your lives and mine, has left me with no clients on this trip to Bhutan. In the past I've always had a small group. I work with Dorji, a Bhutanese guide, as all tourists are required to travel with a guide, adhere to a preplanned itinerary, and pay a minimum daily government mandated tariff. All this is to minimize the disruption of tourism on local culture and environment. So it makes Bhutan an expensive destination, It also ensures all goes smoothly and visitors get good insights and views into Bhutan. Dorji, spoke with ministry of tourism, and as I "promote tourism in Bhutan" they have given me a 3 week trip, with Dorji and a driver to explore parts of Bhutan I've not seen before, as well as revisit areas I am already familiar with. I consider myself one lucky person.