Beside the Punakha River, deep in the heart of Bhutan, Lady Gaga was crooning Bad Romance.
The music, booming out of a car stereo which someone had parked by the low wall separating the property from the river, the doors of which someone had flung open so the music pounded in the quiet mountain air, its heated beat contrasting the chill of the winter night fogging up our whiskey-thick breaths and the crackling of dry firewood on the bonfire in the center of the gathering.
I stood nursing my whiskey and soda listening to Karma Pani (not his real name), a tour guide who had earned his nickname with his ability to drink whiskey like water. He was lucid. He was much taller than me, and he and I huddled talking about Shakespeare.
Finding an English literature aficionado in the middle of the Land of the Thunder Dragon was a pleasant surprise. Not a fan of large parties in which one must engage in general talk, I appreciated being able to speak to someone about something more substantial than the weather.Karma Pani had a breadth of knowledge about writers I knew. He quoted from Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice. I was charmed by his recitations of entire soliloquys from the plays, his eyes alit with a fire within, his thin face dappled by the bonfire flames that night beside the Punakha river.
It was New Year’s Eve in 2010, and I was on assignment for PhotoYou magazine in Bhutan, which I was visiting for the first time. Ten days of photographing the country (strictly culture and lifestyle, no religion, were the instructions from the editor, since the previous issue had a feature on Tibet focusing on religion) and almost no limitations on the(non-religion) content of the article. As long as I used the Canon camera and lenses the magazine had sent to me via courier to my base in Bangkok and produced images and 1000 words on the experience, I was free to inquire into the theme of the travel piece.
The staff at the Hotel Zangto Pelri was having a NYE party courtesy of management. As one of the few non-local residents in the hotel at the time, I was invited. It was just about below zero Celsius, and the staff had set up a bonfire beside the river. A table with finger snacks and lots of Druk 11,000 beer and whiskey was the centerpiece of the entertainment, and of course the car stereo booming Lady Gaga, and the bonfire.
It didn’t take long for people to dance. Karma Pani and I didn’t dance. We sipped our whiskeys in between slugs of the potent local beer Druk 11,000 and did our spoken survey of the Romantic poets.
I learned that he had been a customs officer in a border between Bhutan and an adjacent country, and a long time back, as a young officer, he’d let the post get to his impatience. He was jailed for taking some kickbacks. And he used the time in lockup to read every book he could get his hands on. Mostly, Shakespeare and English literature.
I thought he had made very good use of potentially wasted time.
Time seemed to have forgotten the country of Bhutan, isolated for a long time from the rest of the world, legally only adopting television showing media from outside its borders in 1999. Most of the shows on television were imports from India, with soap operas dominating the prime time showing and cartoons in the morning.
In the Phobjika Valley, a 6-hour drive from the capital city of Thimphu, I spent a night in a hotel featuring a running hot shower and a wood-burning stove for heating the bedroom in the sub-zero night temperatures.
The next day the guide and I walked the valley and spotted a vulture soaring down toward some prayer flags on a ridge. “There might be a horse dying or has died,” the guide said. She then explained the idea of a sky burial. In many places in this mountainous country, families might bring their dead to a high plateau. “There are crows which serve the vulture like he is their king,” she said, “and they lead him to the dead body. This is a sky burial.”
As the slopes of the valley took us back to the farmhouse where we were to have lunch, the guide pulled out her cell phone to check that lunch was ready. The cook had texted her that it was. Inside, we were the only customers of the farmhouse restaurant, the chef of which on a future trip in 2012 would teach my friends how to make momo, a dumpling filled with vegetables and cheese, and ema datse, the distinctly Bhutanese dish of fresh chili peppers in a cheese sauce.
After the deep cold of Phobjika Valley at its altitude of 2900 meters, it was a relief to reach Phunakha, warmer at an altitude of 1310 meters.
On New Year’s day 2011 after breakfast at which the revelers of the night before were nowhere to be seen, we took the four-hour drive back toward Paro, the last place in the itinerary before I would fly back to Bangkok. The winter landscape on the drive back, 124 miles of thick forest, reminded me of the Bhutanese constitutional provision that 60 percent of the country would always be forest. A humbler and more ubiquitous marker of how the Bhutanese value nature were the prayer wheels at every running stream beside the highway, spinning as the glacial runoffs from the Himalayas gushed down. In Bhutan it seemed, nature was part of every prayer.
Nearing Paro town, we stopped to witness an archery tournament. Archery is the national sport in Bhutan. The sports meet was festive, with the women in their kira, the national female dress, singing and dancing for entertainment while the men competed with their fiberglass bows in the ancient game, which used to feature bamboo bows.
A man ambled over in his colorful gho, the men’s national dress which looks like a cross between a kimono and a jedi robe, tied with a stiff belt in the middle. He reached into the folds of his robes and produced a business card which he handed over to me. It introduced him as a Harvard graduate in sustainability development, and we spoke about the hydroelectric projects that are the highest earners for the country, selling electricity to neighboring India.
After the conversation, he was called away by his archery team and I watched them raise the bows up, not aiming straight but on an estimated trajectory that would take the arrow into the air above the target some hundreds of meters away, to drop toward the target. When the projectiles hit the target board, which was often, and especially when it struck close to the bullseye, the men sang and danced around the target board, celebrating the shot.
The winter dusk soon overtook the sky.
That night would be the first snowfall of that winter. The next day Paro valley lay hushed in a white blanket. I started writing the article at a table facing the window, pausing once in a while to watch the snowflakes drift down. It was late evening, after scribbling for hours what was to be the first draft, when I finally closed the notebook. I shrugged on the heavy winter jacket and stepped out onto the balcony of my hotel room and watched the snow fall some more. It wouldn’t be the last season in Bhutan, I told myself. The next trip would have to be in the spring.
And that was how another story began.
References for information used in this post:
Altitude in Bhutan. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.bhutantravelbureau.com/about-bhutan/township-altitudes/
Lubow, A. (2008, March 01). The Changing Face of Bhutan. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/the-changing-face-of-bhutan-21194661/
Recommended reading: Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa