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Bhutan in off-season

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Akhil Sharma :
here is only one traffic light in Bhutan. It is at the top of the main road in Thimphu, the country's capital. A policeman in a tight uniform stands beneath it, guiding vehicles. The policeman stands there because when the traffic light was installed, people complained; they said the impersonal nature of being directed by a light felt rude, like they were not being recognised as individuals.
This is the essential truth of Bhutan. It is such a small country that everything feels personal; there is the sense that whoever one interacts with might be a distant relative or a friend of a friend and so, in every interaction there is both a formality and a friendliness. I visited Bhutan in January, getting day after day of clear skies and brisk winds. January, February, March are off-season in Bhutan as are several months in autumn, and so, almost half the year can be considered off-season. During these months, what is already an intimate experience becomes even more so.
On my first morning in Bhutan, I went past the traffic light and there were no cars. The policeman was standing beneath the light, rubbing his hands to keep them warm. He seemed a bit at loose ends. I flew into Paro from Delhi. My tour was arranged by Brown and Hudson, a company that charges a premium because it is so good at arranging trips where one gets to experience a place intimately, either through one-on-one interactions with chefs or museum directors or by accessing a place at an angle. A jeep picked me up at the airport and began driving me to Thimphu.
The landscape of Bhutan is a lot like the landscape of Switzerland, mountains and sharp green valleys. I rolled down the window. A soft hissing wind filled the vehicle. After several weeks in Delhi, the silence was so strange that I had the sense that there was something wrong with my hearing.
In the silence one can hear well. Sound carries further. It is like how voices skip across water. Standing on one side of a street, one can hear two men on the other side conversing. To help me get beneath the surface of Bhutan, Brown and Hudson had arranged for me to have dinner with the former royal chef Kezang Tenzin, a large, handsome, cheerful man. Mr Tenzin is an advisor to a charity that encourages vegetarianism and the dinner was in a bare white cafeteria-type dining room.
Almost everyone who comes to Bhutan from India is, of course, struck by how interwoven the two countries are - the fact that one can pay in rupees, the fact that people hum Bollywood songs. In almost every instance this sharing of cultures and resources is a wonderful thing. There are, however, certain things which inevitably are not as good as they can be.
The Bhutanese are Buddhist and slaughtering animals and even eating meat is discouraged by their understanding of their own religion. I was told that there are no slaughterhouses in Bhutan and that almost all the meat that is consumed in Bhutan comes from India. In fact, if meat from India stopped arriving, Bhutan would become much more Buddhist in its cuisine than it actually is. The charity that Mr Tenzin supports teaches young women vegetarian cooking. The idea is to make meat eating less of a default. The four or five women I spoke with were all slender and dark haired. When they laughed, they covered their mouths with a hand. Each woman said that being vegetarian was a more moral way of living than being a carnivore but all said that they could not imagine not eating meat. Before this, I had appreciated that the presence of India would be a pressure on Bhutanese culture. I had not, however, appreciated the intimate way that something as simple as eating meat would cause Bhutanese people to question whether they were being as good Buddhists as they could.
Up close and personal
My plan was to see most of the major sites of Bhutan, two of which were the black-necked cranes in Phobjikha Valley and the Tiger's Nest. I left Thimphu and began the 125 kilometer drive to the Phobjikha Valley. Both because the switchbacks force you to go slow and because the scenery is literally breathtaking, the drive took close to six hours. At various times I stopped and got out into the thin bright sun. There are astonishing views of the eastern Himalayas. One stands on a hill and in the distance are snow-capped mountains endlessly reiterating themselves like a CGI effect. Equally lovely, and part of the journey of any traveller through Bhutan, are the prayer flags that cover mountains. The flags are printed with prayers and the idea is that they are carrying these appeals to heaven.
The black cranes reside almost exclusively in the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya and their extraordinary, almost philosopher's beauty, causes people to travel the world to see them. I was staying at the Gangtey Lodge, Amankora, and one morning I began biking to the Black-necked Crane Visitor Centre. The centre overlooks fields where the black-necked cranes come and peck the remains of the harvest. As I biked past fields, I saw the cranes moving slowly and carefully through them. They looked very much like men in robes, leaning forward and thinking as they walked. Seeing them in their natural habitat, I realised that this is why one travels to places as remote as Bhutan. There are so few tourists that what I was seeing was how the cranes had been viewed for hundreds of years, before tourists travelled the world to see them, and when only local farmers got to admire them. I stopped my bike and stood by a field and a crane nearby reached down in a bow to pick up something. I bowed as well.
Climb every mountain
I continued east from Phobjikha. Along the way I stopped at Punakha, which was the capital of Bhutan for 300 years and is currently the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body. The main site of Punakha is a white palace called the Punakha Dzong. In many ways, the architecture of the palace, the courtyards and the high walls is not surprising. What is surprising is that there is a bridge that connects the parking lot to the complex and beneath it is a stream full of enormous fish. Because the Bhutanese do not fish, the fish leap out and splash as if completely unafraid. From Punakha I went on to Paro. One of the iconic images of Bhutan is the Tiger's Nest, a collection of white pagoda-like temple chambers attached to a sheer cliff. When you stand at the bottom of the mountain and look up at the Tiger's Nest, the complex feels like a hallucination. One begins climbing the mountain, going up and up. The climb can take three hours. One passes waterfalls and keeps climbing, pausing periodically and avoiding looking down for fear of vertigo. And when one finally arrives there, one is moved by the dedication that must have led to the enormous effort that built this temple.
I had wanted to visit Bhutan for many years, and to finally visit this country when there were almost no other visitors, made the experience almost private. The temple, the bowing black necked crane, the prayer flags flapping, I knew that when I would think of them, the memories would come not just as images, but as emotional moments.
(Akhil Sharma is an award-winning writer based in the US. He has contributed to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and authored novels)

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