I walked 150 high altitude miles of Bhutan's Himalayas in October, through snow, rain, mud, glacial moraine, yak stampedes, over high passes, and saw some of the most beautiful remote landscape in the world. What did I come home with? Pictures of doors and windows and dzongs and children. In this isolated part of the world where buildings are white washed mud and stone, the doors and windows are splashed with color.
Know what the most common response was when I said I was going to walk Bhutan?
You guessed it -- "Where is Bhutan?"
Well, it's a small Buddhist Himalaya kingdom bounded by Tibet on the north and India on the other three sides. The geography is so difficult Bhutan was never conquered or colonized. Mountain climbing was not allowed. Tourists visas were difficult to obtain. Smoking is not allowed. By law, 60% of the country must be covered by forest. Until not long ago, Bhutan was essentially a medieval agrarian society. Most of the people probably didn't know about "us" until television and Internet was allowed in 1999. And so the culture remained fairly pure.
In the 1980's His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk introduced his goal and philosophy for the country: Gross National Happiness (GNH). Success measured by the people's happiness, not the gross national product, or shopping, or material acquisition.
He envisioned bringing the country into modernity based on Four Pillars - economic growth and development, preservation of their cultural heritage, preservation of the environment, and good governance based on integrity, efficiency, accountability and transparency.
In December 2006, the king abdicated to his son, Jigme Khesar Namgeyl Wangchuk, 26 years old, Oxford educated, and single - the world's youngest head of state who is supervising the transition to a democracy with a constitutional monarchy. A few weeks ago, elections were held for the upper parliament. The oldest elected parliamentarian is 45 years old, and most are in their 20's and 30's.
The next elections in March will form the lower parliament, and Bhutan will be on its way to a westernized democracy with a goal of happiness for its people.
Sound like Shangri-La?
At the end of January, about two weeks ago and a few days after the March elections were announced, the country experienced a series of bomb blasts believed set off by Nepali militants. It seems that in the early '90's, the Bhutan authorities, in a type of ethnic cleansing, stripped citizenship from Hindu Bhutanese who were Nepalese in origin. About 100,000 fled or were forced to leave the country. Most crossed the border to Nepal and still live in refugee camps. An agreement between Nepal and the US last year to resettle 60,000 Bhutan refugees in the United States created more conflict with those who believed they should be allowed to return to Bhutan. The conditions have been fertile ground for Maoists and communist groups to foment militantism in the camps and the bombings appear related to disrupting the elections.
Are you asking yourself, is that what I think it is?
Yes, two large, hairy penises. In Bhutan the penis is a symbol of good luck, and they are everywhere. It is not unusual to come across a guest house or restaurant, like this one in an idyllic 13,000' village, and be welcomed by twin dicks. Or to go to the village spring and have to collect water out of a penis shaped pipe.
The doors of Bhutan are opening. Wishes for Good Luck and Happiness to them as they let us into their world.