Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bhutan - 1968

In my blog on Elections in Bhutan yesterday I mentioned I'd been in Bhutan first in 1968 and had written something about that trip and promised to post it. Here it is:

In the spring of 1968 Chet wanted to make a trip to Bhutan and Sikkim. Technically he was the US Ambassador to both of these countries, but he’d never been to either place. In addition to Chet and Steb, our party consisted of Bob and Mary Brooks, Jock Shirley, and me.

Bhutan is really at the end of the world. It is in the eastern Himalayas, surrounded on three sides by India; on the north it borders Tibet. Earlier in the 60’s, Ken Galbraith, when he was Ambassador, went into Bhutan partly on the back of an elephant. The first jeepable road into the country wasn’t built until the mid-60’s. Tourism didn’t exist. Also, it was a militarily sensitive area, since the Indians and Chinese had fought a war up in that area in 1962. So you could only go in as a guest of the King, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck.

We flew into Bagdogra in northern West Bengal (where in the past I would travel en route to Darjeeling,) and boarded two Russian helicopters owned by the King. They were ancient, rickety, stripped down and noisy, but they flew. Bagdogra is on the plains at a low elevation. Bhutan’s capitol, Thimpu, where we were headed, is at 7,710 feet, so I had the impression of going up and up but never being very far off the ground.

As we approached Thimpu it looked to me like I imagined a California gold mining community would have looked in the 1850’s. There seemed no rhyme or reason to the layout – houses dotted all over the hillsides. It was a valley with a river running through it. At the end of the valley was something I would not have seen in old California – a huge building overlooking the whole place. This was the dzong, a grand, multi-storied, decorated wooden structure that was, in fact, the King’s Palace and government headquarters.

We headed for a landing in an open field, a maidan, and it seemed like everyone and everything was running toward the maidan. I have a mental image of boys and girls, men and women, old people, dogs, cows, all running to catch a glimpse of these strangers from the sky. It was wild.

We were loaded into Land Rovers and went to the official guesthouse, where we were offered the first of many cups of yak butter tea. We had been greeted and treated graciously by smiling, beautifully dressed people from before we climbed aboard the helicopters in Bagdogra, and every step of the way after that. I don’t think these people were ‘being nice’ because they had to. It seemed more their nature to want to take care of their guests in the best way they knew how. My impression of mountain people everywhere I saw them in Asia – Indian, Tibetan, Nepali, was positive. Lovely, sweet natured, happy despite very poor circumstances in some cases.

Now, the yak butter tea, that was another story. It was like scum floating atop a steaming, salty concoction that to my taste didn’t have much to do with tea. But I can’t remember turning up my nose or turning aside local food anywhere I’ve gone, so I managed.

In Bhutan, the King and Queen were estranged. It was a Himalayan version of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys. The Wangchuck clan was headed by the King; the Dorje family was headed by the Queen. They even lived in different cities – the King in Thimpu and the Queen in Paro.

King Jigme Dorje Wangchuck died in 1972 at the young age of 46. His 16-year-old son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the present King, succeeded him. Monarchies are not particularly well thought of these days, but I have to say that the path that the elder Wangchuck put his country on – a gradual opening to the world while maintaining a genuine concern for the welfare of his people – which path has been followed by his son, is hard to fault.

Shortly after we finished our tea we headed for the dzong to have an audience with the King. We were greeted when we alit from our Land Rovers. We were greeted at the entrance to the dzong. As we climbed several flights of wooden stairs, at each landing we were greeted again, and then when we got to the top we were greeted and escorted into the throne room. We noticed that different people we saw were wearing different colored scarves, each one a lovely plain color. What we didn’t realize is that the colors indicated the rank or status of the person.

The throne room was in no way ostentatious. Along one wall was a bench, with small tables in front. On each table was a steaming cup of yak butter tea. How nice. Several of us sat down; others wandered around. What appeared to be the main seat, the throne I guess, was also simple in design, and in a different part of the room. Bob Brooks was near the throne, taking pictures, when a Bhutanese gentleman, who came in after we arrived, and who was standing near the bench, said to Bob, “I don’t think there will be enough light for your pictures.”

I was standing near Bob when he said no, he thought it would be OK and continued what he was doing. I then noticed Jock Shirley, in a state of some anxiety (Jock is a very proper man), trying to get Bob’s attention and mouthing the words, “That’s the King. That’s the King.” After a short time we got the message and rejoined the group. The King, who seemed perfectly fine with our informality, sat with us around the little tables, and our audience began.

Our stay in Bhutan was only two days, and it was memorable. We didn’t do any heavy- duty diplomacy. There weren’t any serious matters of state to handle. We were basically honored guests and sightseers. We were taken care of by senior government officials. Anything we wanted they would do their best to provide us.

We wandered through the center of Thimpu, such as it was. There were markets and simple stores. The people were friendly and approachable, and it was clear that we were an oddity to them. We visited magnificent Buddhist temples. We went on a drive through the countryside. We asked about buying some masks, cloth or other items we enjoyed, and were told that everything would have to be made specially, so it would take some time before it could be completed and sent to us. We decided against ordering anything.

On the second day, in the maidan where we’d landed, a lunch and cultural program was organized for us. There were two large tents, one side of which was open to the maidan. In one tent were chairs where we could comfortably enjoy the activities in front of us. In the other tent was a buffet for our lunch, filled with local delicacies I’ve never seen or tasted before or since. The dish that stays in my mind is yak testicles in some kind of zesty sauce. I found them – ummm – let’s say they were OK. I don’t think I went back for seconds.

The cultural show featured music, dancing and archery. The archers were aiming at small targets a long long way away. I would say about 300 yards. Archery has a long tradition in Bhutan, and it shows. When an archer let loose his arrow he would run toward the target as the arrow was in flight. During his run he would yell something like, “Woooo wooooo wooooo woooo,” until the arrow landed. I was given two explanations for the ‘wooooo wooooo.’ One person told me the archer was asking help from the gods in guiding the arrow to its target. Another told me he was giving windage information back to the archer who was to follow him. I like to think both are true.

As we left the next day to catch our Russian helicopters, which would take us to Sikkim, I was conscious of how physically beautiful Bhutan is. The long, beautifully colored flags that lined the driveway of the King’s guesthouse were flapping in the breeze. I didn’t think much at the time about coming back or not coming back to this mountain kingdom. I did return – 35 years later. But that’s a story for another time.


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