Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La

High in the Himalayas the mountain kingdom of Bhutan has been isolated for centuries. In Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La Theodosia Greene gives a rare glimpse of this beautiful land as she travels through the Himalayas to the  springtime Buddhist Paro Tschechu Festival.

“I admit that I’m too scared of dying to go on these offbeat Shangri-La adventures,” said my white-knuckled friend as the Druk Air plane dove through a hole in the clouds, skirted the brown mountain crags and swooped down toward the only airport in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Maile and I were en route to Paro for the Buddhist spring festival.

“Relax,” I replied.  “Bhutan is the jewel of the Himalayas.  Fresh air, no pollution, gentle people and perhaps we’ll have an experience of boundless consciousness, who knows?
Maile closed her eyes in nervous prayer, her personal substitute for this Royal Bhutanese airline without radar.

Prayer flags flying in Bhutan.

We dropped steeply into the Paro Valley, wheeled sideways over green quilted land, terraces, cliffs, a castle, rock-studded roofs and the grey-ribboned Paro River.  “My God,” gasped someone staring out the window, “It’s like we’re threading a needle through the mountains!” With a jolt, we skidded expertly onto the tarmac. When I opened my eyes, we rolled up to a white castle-like building with a brown-shingled roof and hand-painted eaves. There was the happy sound of more than one hand clapping.  It was the white prayer flags rippling in the chill March wind.

Whoever heard of Bhutan?  Hardly anybody. And that’s how the Bhutanese preferred it, at least until 1974. The size of Switzerland, this independent Buddhist kingdom ranges from 21,000 foot-high snow-covered peaks to jungle lowlands 600 feet above sea level.

Alpine yaks, blue sheep and rare snow leopards live in the north, and elephants, rhinos and tigers inhabit the south. It is known for its rigid environmental and cultural preservation policies, which makes it one of the most pristine natural and cultural destinations in the world. Its 600,000 human inhabitants consist of Drukpa people of Mongoloid descent and Nepalese farmers. Bordered by China (Tibet), Nepal and India, Bhutan, like Tibet, only recently opened its doors to the outside world, and the government is very strict about the number of tourists allowed in the country.

Consequently, there aren’t many cars, hotels or restaurants. The few roads are wildly scenic but terrifyingly narrow, so tourists must hire a car with a driver and translator.

The modern road system wasn’t begun until l960 (at the same time that telecommunications reached the kingdom). And only in l983, an air link to Calcutta was established. Today, Druk Airlines owns only two airplanes, but when the biannual festival rush is on, the royal family lends its own private plane for any overflow of tourists.

In mid-March, the air is clear and crisp, fragrant with pine and wood-smoke. Waiting for us were two young men, Dorji, our translator-guide and Jevan, our driver.

Dorji instructed, “First, we go to the Druk Hotel, then to the Paro Tschechu festival.  It’s an important Buddhist celebration held every March according to the lunar calendar.  It lasts for 5 days.  At dawn on the last day, everyone comes to get special blessings when a giant appliqued thongdrol is unrolled from the top of the three-storied monastery.  It pictures Guru Rimpoche, our patron saint of Bhutan who flew in from Tibet on the back of a tiger.”

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