Sunday, June 2, 2013

"Just Walk Into That Cloud:" Bhutan in Books & Film

North of India, south of Tibet, with fewer than a million people, this landlocked Swiss-sized monarchy, “sandwiched between Methuselahs,” Russ and Blyth Carpenter aver in a memorable if odd metaphor, “seems like a printer’s error.”  Most accounts nod to its historical impenetrability, its vast vistas, and its mix of colorful folk tradition and impassive sophistication. Its Buddhist ethos encourages the personal touch: there’s a lack of any “impersonal” stoplights in its capital, Thimphu, even as it exceeds a hundred thousand residents-- where Michel Peissel found in 1968 but three small buildings next to its dzong or monastery-fortress. No cities existed in Bhutan until recently. Rapidly modernizing while directing its Gross National Happiness strategy, the region’s last independent Buddhist enclave aims to balance economic opportunities and educational progress in what many Westerners mistake as still a semi-feudal, isolated Shangri-La. With diverse ecosystems and regional cultures, the nation hunkers in below the jagged Himalayas. A central expanse of rugged mountain valleys separate linguistically and culturally diverse Buddhists, who have evolved to farm and herd two miles or more high. They are unsuited to live in the tropical lowlands, where Nepali and Hindu-dominant peoples raise crops on terraces and fields.

It will be expensive to explore: a daily tariff imposed of $250 keeps tourism low and requires guides and itineraries approved in advance. However, lodging and food will be covered; a third of this fee funds sustainable development.  The fear of becoming another Nepal, with a degraded ecology and sullied infrastructure, impels Bhutan to enforce “high value, low volume” on its visitors, by jeep or on trek. It discourages settlement by foreigners and it commands national dress to be worn by guides, those in schools and public service, and those visiting the center of any district, the dzong, on official business. 

For those who have not seen Bhutan firsthand, this review article surveys the books and media available. I compiled this after not finding an equivalent resource on the Internet or in print. The reading lists in guidebooks, while helpful, left me wondering what else lay on the shelves. By investigating histories, travel narratives, novels, photo-journalism, film, and guidebooks, you can learn a lot from an armchair—which will likely encourage you to begin to save up and plan your own excursion.


The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet by Kate Teltscher (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)

Bhutan, through the middle of the last century, had only received thirteen Western expeditions. George Bogle reports on the first, in 1774-1775. He wished to connect the East India Company with China, via Tibet. In between lay Bhutan. In The High Road to China, Kate Teltscher retells in 2006 the young Scotsman Bogle’s journey. Out of cleverly chosen samples of British-made and Indian-exported goods, this first trade mission lobbied to sway the Panchen Lama. "How else to seduce a nation than with a tempting display of luxury goods, scientific instruments and mechanical toys?"

Views of Medieval Bhutan by Michael Aris (London: Serindia and Washington: Smithsonian, 1982)

However, Bhutan managed to dissuade the eager empires, Chinese, Tibetan, or British. Most Westerners further comparisons to "feudal" dzongs and "medieval" customs such as archery (the national sport, originally to repel Tibetan invaders) or unquestioned fealty when they encounter Bhutan. Its never-colonized, semi-feudal period under an absolute monarch lasted past when men landed on the moon. A handsome 1982 edition of Views of Medieval Bhutan features an introduction by Michael Aris, who tutored the Wangchuck royal family for six years when the nation was opening up to modernization. Aris (who would marry Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi) presents the meticulous observations of Samuel Davis. A surveyor and draftsman for the Bengal Army, he accompanied the second British embassy, in 1783, to Druk Yul, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.

These elegant depictions attest to the only foreign artist "of distinction" to show Bhutan, and the first outsider to paint scenes from these mountains. Aris notes that his fellow Englishman's "legacy played no part in the development of those imaginary utopias which the west continues to locate in the trans-Himalayan region." Aris annotates and excerpts Davis' journal, and nods to its secular, and largely un-Romantic tone, also a part of the naturalistic art Davis brings to the plates reproduced here. "If sublime and romantic qualities are sometimes found expressed in his art this is surely because Davis, like most of us, was constitutionally incapable of reacting otherwise to certain combinations of mountains, light, fortresses and forests."

Travel Narratives:

Lands of the Thunderbolt: Sikhim, Chumbi & Bhutan by the Earl of Ronaldshay (1923; Berkeley: Snow Lion Graphics, 1987)

The thunderbolt is the "dorje," the bell-like scepter wielded by lamas in the Vajrayana Tibetan tradition, the lands those of Sikkim, Chumbi, and Bhutan, the time, 1920. The Earl of Ronaldshay’s 1923 account, Lands of the Thunderbolt, while not free of its era’s imperial tone, given this "practicing Presbyterian" author, remains lively. In the footsteps of Bogle and Davis, the Earl shares their enthusiasm for leaving the humid plains of Bengal behind. He begins his ascent at Darjeeling into what at that time was a series of Buddhist-ruled principalities separate from the rest of patchwork British India's jurisdictions. One of the first visitors to the Eastern Himalayas who articulates a modern Western understanding of the unusual mindsets he analyzes, he combines wit with wonder, drollery with description.

Lords and Lamas: A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan by Michel Peissel (London: Heinemann, 1970)

Subtitled "A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan," Michel Peissel’s 1970 account, Lords and Lamas, of his September 1968 trek over four hundred miles of footpaths reveals a crucial moment of transition from a feudal, medieval fastness to a nation finishing the first span of an east-west highway that will change Bhutan irrevocably. India's fear, in the Cold War, of Chinese threats south of Tibet spurred them to fund a paved road to connect the shorter ones coming up steep valleys from the Gangetic Plain. Peissel, after six failed attempts to get royal and bureaucratic approval, finally is allowed in the country. Bhutan admits its first traveler to carry in foreign currency, and he resolves once inside to follow Captain Robert Boileau Pemberton's 1838 route across the six ranges and passes dividing the core of the corrugated and unstable realm.

Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Ashi Dorje Wangmo Wangchuck (New Delhi: Penguin, 2006) 

One of four sisters married to the fourth Dragon King, Ashi (an honorific for a royal woman) Dorje Wangmo Wangchuck takes us down paths Peissel yearned to follow, in what is now a constitutional monarchy. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon deftly introduces facts about its people; topography in the three zones (humid foothills, temperate valleys, and alpine highlands) as one follows the main lateral road west to east; history; monarchy, and modernity, all in twenty pages. This prefaces a necessarily "elevated" perspective, but a cogent 2006 overview. She then blends her family’s history with tales from treks to care for those neglected in its remote hamlets (see: Tarayana Foundation).

So Close to Heaven: the Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas by Barbara Crossette (New York: Vintage, 1996)

So Close to Heaven: the Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas focuses on the Wangchuck dynasty in its Bhutanese coverage. As a New York Times journalist based in India, Crossette favors a style akin to the Gray Lady. The 1996 book unfolds as if feature articles in a tone mixing personal encounters with interviews with diplomats, royalty, and, via translators at times, everyday folks. There's a distance between her and her interlocutors which is expected, given her position and strategy.

Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon: A Journey through Bhutan by Katie Hickman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988)

One of the first accounts by a Westerner who visited (as of the mid-1980s, although this is not specified) the then-less accessible eastern reaches, Katie Hickman's Dreams of the Peaceful  Dragon proceeds in expected fashion. That is, she's a competent travel writer and her integration of the remarks of earlier visitors helps give background for her own Raj-reminiscent trek by horseback. Oxford-educated, from a diplomatic family, with an international upbringing and dynastic sponsorship to cut red tape, she exudes the air of privilege.

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa (New York: Riverhead-Penguin, 2000)

Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan by Ken Haigh (Edmonton: U. of Alberta P, 2008)

For longer tales from about the same relatively "early-modern" (the road paved, but not yet electricity, TV, phones, or the internet) period in the eastern region, the most popular remains Jamie Zeppa's Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan . Ken Haigh's Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan complements it well and deserves equal acclaim.   Both teachers of English from Canada, Zeppa and Haigh nearly overlap in place and time with Hickman, but their extended stints allow them a deeper insight into these districts. Their honest, unadorned reflections better the brief glimpses of many Westerners, on limited budgets and itineraries. Enriched by hindsight, Haigh and Zeppa apply literary sensibilities with precision to evoke wisdom and ponder lessons.

After Easter Sunday Mass in Khaling (despite the Buddhist state religion, teachers often come from India and Catholic regions), Haigh looks back over the scene. "There were bright green highlights on the pasture, almost yellow, and deeper green in the pastures of the ravines. A lone white cow ambled down the hillside and onto the road where it was struck by a passing truck."

What Haigh shares with Zeppa is a determination to avoid the soft-focus, combined with an acknowledgement of the love-hate feelings that may come once the initial confusion or infatuation wears off and the reality of separation from Canadian comfort sinks in.

Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on My Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli (New York: Random House, 2011)

The Blessings of Bhutan by Russ and Blyth Carpenter (Honolulu: U. of Hawai'i P., 1999)

A decade or two later, Western narratives feature consultants who land in Thimphu and remain for assigned periods, as the royal civil service expands and foreign aid flows in to assist the Gross National Happiness program. Just before the introduction of television, The Blessings of Bhutan features rural Oregonians Russ and Blyth Carpenter. They arrived in the late 1990s to become freelance advisers and eloquent if agnostic analysts of its GNH mindset. Brooklyn-born L.A. transplant Lisa Napoli’s 2011 Radio Shangri-La presents a media-savvy journalist’s efforts to jumpstart a fledgling station in the capital. Her big-city hustle and mid-life ennui meet a slowdown, and impel reorientation. Yet, most memoirs arrive from guests chosen to work from outside the United States; Bhutan favors European, Canadian, or Down Under expertise.

Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Martin Uitz (2006; London: Haus, 2008)

In a hundred pages of Hidden Bhutan, Austrian ex-pat Martin Uitz explores its off-road, off-beat side. Although he works in its Ministry of Finance, one of a hundred foreigners in its booming capital, Thimphu, he nods to the bureaucratic morass and civil service's perks only in the opening chapter. Rather, about the same time in the same place-- halfway through the past decade-- as Lisa Napoli’s radio endeavor, Uitz roams out of the city to explore scenery as close as a few hours walk up slopes to yak herders and a takin reserve.

Episodes on the Snowman Trek comprise a fast-paced chapter. Finding three recent accounts of “the toughest trek in the world” over twenty-five days and crossing many Himalayan passes over three miles high, I welcomed Trish Nicholson's Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson (Collca e-books, 2012). She traveled there long before the other two writers I read--although she does not reveal this until an afterword. While Nicholson did not take the full Snowman Trek reported in diary form by Mark Horrell (Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Snowmen Trek, 2011 e-book), or at book length by Kevin Grange as Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World  (Lincoln: U. of Nebraska P., 2009), this New Zealand-based anthropologist in her shorter, 100-mile expedition (with other Westerners and a few guides, ponies, and yaks) allows more coverage of the less secluded countryside seen before and after the trek than that witnessed by her two male counterparts twenty-odd years later.

For those not wanting to read a whole book about a two-hundred mile trek, Uitz’s chapter conveys the gist of this difficult journey. Uitz loves the "tsachu" hot springs which entice the traveler to Gasa and ease the burdens of a summer trek--the exception to the narrative rule as the three accounts above take place in the fall, hastening before the snows set in.

Dragon Bones: Two Years Beneath the Skin of a Himalayan Kingdom by Murray Gunn (Hong Kong: Blacksmith, 2011)

Seasons matter. Summers plague trekkers and hikers with leeches and monsoons. Winters close mountain passes. Spring has less rain, but more visitors. Likewise with autumn, but the roads may not be repaired from the landslides that constantly threaten to close off the lone lateral highway. Meanwhile, experts keep trying to assist Bhutan with its logistical challenges. In Dragon Bones (2011), Australian IT engineer Murray Gunn accompanies his new French wife to Bhutan for an extended consultancy, where she's hired to advise its dairy industry's agronomists.

Like his compatriot Launsell Taudevin's "With a Dzong in My Heart" (1994; CreateSpace e-book 2011) memoir set in 1988, Murray Gunn finds that advising the locals about Western methods clashes with rank-pulling bureaucrats, a more lackadaisical work ethic than he expected, and a series of culture clashes mixed with awe at the kingdom's beauty, Buddhist traditions, and courtly atmosphere. While Gunn repeats many of the trekking adventures others do in his account, unique to what I've read in other versions, he listens to his guide: "This is our life. We have to come up here no matter what the weather's like and we do the same trails over and over until our feet are sore. And we can never go anywhere else. There's no holiday for us."

So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan by James W. Gould (Amazon Kindle, 2012)

Reports by Gunn or Uitz should be chosen over the holiday taken in James W. Gould’s So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan. At 8400 words, this 2012 e-book relates too casually the history, religion, and culture of a bit of Bhutan as seen by the author over a week. Even if this duration must endure as most likely for a less affluent traveler, given the per diem tariff increase, choose longer books by those lucky enough to stay longer in Bhutan. I have not covered two popular, New Age-filtered, memoirs in print, all the same; both of their authors achieved a permanence few Westerners can, by marrying Bhutanese men so as to stay there forever.


Cressida's Bed by Desmond Barry (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004)

Almost all who enter Bhutan must leave. Based on a 1931 British expedition to award a knighthood to the King of Bhutan, Desmond Barry’s 2004 novel Cressida’s Bed features as its protagonist a character taken from a real-life doctor’s expedition, that of half-Irish expatriate Christina Devenish. In her early thirties in Calcutta, a free-love advocate, a Theosophist who finds no contradiction with the practice of medicine, she possesses her spirituality and her sexuality confidently. While Barry's depiction of her entry into a Bhutan divided between monarchy and theocracy lacks the sensual and visual evocations of many other writers who've visited this kingdom, it's refreshing to have a more physically rendered, less enraptured presence embarking there. "She set foot on the soil of Bhutan, Alice through the looking glass racked with menstrual cramps, the sweat cooling on her forehead and her back under her sticky frock, and she was desperate to empty her bladder in the shadows of the luxuriant rainforest."

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden (New Delhi: Penguin, 2005)

Kunzang Choden’s 2005 novel The Circle of Karma, the first in English by a Bhutanese woman, tells over forty years the story of Tsomo. At fifteen, in the remote region of Kurtai, she soon falls in love with another woman's husband. This leads soon to pregnancy, but the results spur her not to a happy marriage, but family strife. She flees to pound stones to pave the first roads across the kingdom, putting this section somewhere about ten years after the Chinese suppression of Tibet. Years aren't mentioned; the novel unfolds in an indirect narration by Tsomo, who finds unhappiness often, and exiles herself to India.

The Heart of the Buddha: A Novel by Elsie Sze (Austin: Emerald, 2009)

Hong Kong-born, Toronto-based Elsie Sze integrates information into The Heart of the Buddha (2009) to situate Marian and Ruthie within the admittedly challenging scenario they find as their paths intersect in Bhutan. Sisters and twins, the two protagonists reflect upon their Chinese Catholic upbringing, their Canadian identity, and their position in a realm where Buddhism is the state religion, where a benign monarchy and compliant press rule.

Photojournalism + Film: 

The Dragon Kingdom: Images of Bhutan by Blanche Christine Olschak with photography by Ursula Markus-Gansser and Augusto Gansser (Boston: Shambhala, 1984)

Since Tantric Buddhism dominates, until very recently as the state religion, it merits attention. A Swiss-based trio of scholars in The Dragon Kingdom reports from nascent stages of the kingdom's connections with the West. The Buddhist-based analysis is therefore very light on modernization, which had just begun in the period they visited in the early 1980s. It can be perused in a sitting, as a quick introduction to Bhutan’s traditions and panoramas.

Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods by Christian Schicklgruber and Françoise Pommaret (Boston: Shambhala, 1998)

A folio-format study, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods commemorates a Viennese exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in 1997-1998. While scholarly, and hefty in size and substance, it endures as a corrective to romance or brevity in Western accounts. As co-editor Christian Schicklgruber introduces the collection, it mirrors how a visitor would approach Bhutan. Visual impressions, "the lay of the land," flora and fauna, architecture, history, art, politics, and regional peoples and their distinctive dress unfold.

Not an exhibition catalogue in the usual sense, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods instead presents an in-depth examination of the nation. While very factual in tone and heavily academic, the contributors serve as a cross-section of native and European scholars best able to explain this kingdom seriously to an audience for which fantasy and effusion seem to suffice given its dominant portrayal in certain media as a happy hideaway. (This book reincarnated as an award-winning 2001 Austrian website, but that's long defunct.)

Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert Dompnier (Hong Kong: Living Colour, 1999)

Robert Dompnier in Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon offers photography taken in the 1990s, emphasizing tradition, “tsechu” dances which enliven vivid rituals through the year at many a dzong, and crafts such as weaving, costumes, and intricate architecture which persist not as folklore for tourists but as organic expressions of Buddhist perceptions in everyday settings. While short on text, the presentation is handsomely arranged. The bright textiles, dresses, and painted facades leap out. The size allows a map far larger than in most books on Bhutan--but a tiny caption warns: "The borders as shown on this map are neither authentic or [sic] correct."

Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom by Michael Hawley (Cambridge MA: Friendly Planet, 2004) fact sheet from MIT and Friendly Planet

As for size, "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom" as the younger sibling to the world's biggest book continued raising funds for medical and educational projects. Friendly Planet, Friendly Planet, a charity spinoff of M.I.T., generated income in an innovative fashion, as digital photography and bookbinding skill combined with high-tech expertise under a team led by Professor Michael Hawley, who ran the campus Media Lab's special projects division. The big brother book, 5' by 7' and weighing 150 lbs., dwarfed the two Bhutanese schoolchildren the team "adopted" on their initial November 2001 visit, when displayed at Harry Winston's gallery in Manhattan. This 2003 book symbolized the meeting of high rollers with a worthy cause, and demonstrated how a $15,000 volume could support other schoolchildren and families in the remote areas of this region, reached only by trails, far from the touristy areas the book documents.

For the smaller companion, itself considerable at a foot by two feet and 15 lbs., this expands the original. It reproduces the immense photos and doubles their number, if in less stupendous manner, by explaining how the original was assembled, and how the team returned to Bhutan in 2003 to bring aid to villages and schools from the moneys raised by the big book. Now out-of-print, this follow-up 2004 volume also contributed its profits to Friendly Planet, and Hawley's text and captions, garnered from a cooperative of eleven photographers, conveys the appeal—if in rather soft-focus moods despite the digital accuracy--of the Buddhist kingdom and people.

Bhutan Heartland  by Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld (Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle, 2010)

Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld report in 2010 from spring times on the Lateral Road, the east-west connection across the vertiginous valleys and high passes that furrow between the Himalayas and the subtropical plantations. As these Australian-based photographers and social workers explain early on in Bhutan Heartland, the choice they faced, to move from west to east, is repeated, if perhaps in reverse, by the natives of this kingdom daily. That road, and increasingly the feeder routes paved along what have been yak trails and footpaths, represents for this constitutional monarchy's Gross National Happiness plan a way to increase access to within a day's hike of most of its still largely rural citizens.

The authors efficiently intersperse a lot of background (a glossary and too-short reading list are appended, and a link to van Koesveld's photo archive website) that some earlier authors have struggled to include. It's the right amount for a newcomer: less footnoted and less weighty than the Fortress study but more in-depth than Dompnier, and less-dated than Dragon Kingdom. For handsomely reproduced photographs and accessible text, it’s a great place to begin a virtual visit.

Dreaming Bhutan: Journey in the Land of the Thunder Dragon  by Nicole Grace (Santa Fe: Mani Press, 2011)

Nicole Grace’s Dreaming Bhutan presents in "a brief glimpse" over forty photos on the right side, and a spare text which could fit on a postcard on the left, leaving lots of blank space. Perhaps the slightly blurred resolution of some of the photographs fits the title, as she in promotional material for this 2011 book explains how she wants to show "dreaming" not "of" but "Bhutan" itself--as a portal to enlightenment. A romanticized approach directs Grace's gaze. It prefers "a world of enchantment, ancient rituals and dress that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years."

Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth by Mary Peck (Santa Fe: Merlin Press, 2011)

From visits totaling seven months from 1999 to 2005 to this Himalayan kingdom, Mary Peck's fifty-six black-and-white photographs in Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth, each on its own right-hand page facing a blank left, command attention. Many have captions as endnotes; a few do not. This 2011 removal of words from image (except four brief poems, one by Gary Snyder, another by W.S. Merwin, and a pair of his translations from Muso Soseki) allows the reader to look at the landscapes, people, ceremonies, and architecture as if witnessed first-hand. Grace’s captions inspire curiosity as to their short length; Peck’s pages suggest a trust in unpredictability ahead.

In her afterword, "Bhutan's Curve of Time," Peck relates how directions were given by Bhutanese. Each of her inquiries led to a local range of instructions--by a resident. "Just walk into that cloud." one man told her. Beyond circumscribed limits, hemmed in by gorges or peaks, paths or landmarks, the estimates faded, and new ones emerged with the next encounter, the next person down the trail.

Karma Ura situates his nation within these same furrowed contours. As a distinguished leader of  the monarchy’s think tank implementing the nation's evolving Gross National Happiness policy, Ura explains in his thoughtful forward the scope of GNH. He sums up the country, full of micro-climates dividing one valley from the next. He notes how "the food chain is more or less completed within one's own valley." Therefore, the mythology, community, and the land are integrated over generations to support the people in an intimate, in-depth knowledge-- differing from the fragmented skills promoted today as a solution to education and modernization.

Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness by John Wehrheim (Chicago: Serindia, 2nd ed. 2011)

John Wehrheim’s Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness gazes, through words and via a camera. While limited of course to his choice, the combination invites the reader to become a viewer. This Chicago-born, Kaua’i-based hydrologist who mingles narrative journeys with black-and-white silver gelatin photography between 1991 and 2006 in his afterword warns: "The words and events are true but not always in the order and sequence implied."

Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness (DVD Vendetti Productions, directed by Tom Vendetti, produced by Robert C. Stone and John Wehrheim, 2009)

Under the direction of its fifth king and such experts as Karma Ura, "Gross National Happiness" increasingly grows familiar as a catchphrase to sum up Bhutan's ambitions to orient itself within harmonious precepts as taught by Buddhism and shared equitably among its peoples to assure mutual comfort, educational advancement, and spiritual progress. Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness, a one-hour 2009 video produced by Thomas Vendetti and John Wehrheim, introduces GNH. This kingdom's initiative under its watchful monarchy seeks to promote wise globalization while nourishing traditional lifestyles, as Bhutan perches between a covetous China and a teeming India.

Bhutan: Land of Serenity by Matthieu Ricard (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008)

Unlike some photo-narratives on this often-mythologized kingdom, Matthieu Ricard’s Bhutan: Land of Serenity takes a sober, almost detached approach that reveals this monk’s calm. After a decade in the company of the Dalai Lama's tutor there (Tibetan refugee Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche), and now the Dalai Lama's French translator himself, French-born Ricard brings the same considered evaluation of Buddhist practice and culture that his sponsorship and appearance in the films Brilliant Moon and The Spirit of Tibet demonstrate about his devotion to his exiled mentors. What this has to do with Bhutan as a larger entity comes across more gradually. Three pages introducing each of these eight sections of his brilliantly reproduced color photography, 1980-2007, convey this more vividly than the miniscule font (too small, let alone the captions even smaller) do in this admittedly handsome, compact text, translated by Ruth Sharman.

Travellers and Magicians (feature film directed by Khyentse Norbu, 2003. DVD Zeitgeist Films, 2005)

As the first feature-length film from Bhutan, reincarnate lama-director Khyentse Norbu's 2003 follow-up to his festival success of soccer-mad Tibetan monks in 1999’s The Cup generates attention-- by that statement alone.

Travelers and Magicians nestles in a familiar frame: the varied cast hiking or hitching on the road hears a story along the way. The plot unfolds genially and gently. It's not fast-paced, and reflects the steady, shrewd sensibility of its makers and actors. Norbu wishes to offer the world and his own homeland a reflection of how Buddhist themes might enrich people, as if painting a traditional tapestry by the light of cinema. The bonus feature elucidates this philosophy as it underlies the film. For more backstory on the director, consult Lesley Ann Patten's nearly concurrent (if unevenly directed) documentary "Words of My Perfect Teacher" (2003, Festival Media 2008 DVD) about Norbu, under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

(To link more interdependence in a small kingdom, while the cast of Travelers and Magicians--the first film in Dzongkha, the native language taught in schools there along with English--is billed as non-professionals, I understand that the lead character of Dondup is the exception. Played by Tshewang Dendup, a Thimphu-based radio actor, he appears in Jamie Zeppa's memoir, for Dondup in real life was the genial student with whom she as a young Canadian teacher fell in love. In turn, Martin Uitz discusses the reception of this and more low-budget films in Dzongkha during the past decade.)


The Rough Guide to First-Time Asia by Leslie Reader and Lucy Ridout (London: Rough Guide-Penguin, 5th ed. 2010){This is helpful for planning, checklists, advice, warnings, websites, and reading lists, even if Bhutan gets the same rapid coverage as two-dozen of its continental neighbors.}

Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (Odyssey Guide) by Françoise Pommaret (Hong Kong: Airphoto, 6th ed. 2009)

Bhutan Handbook (Footprint) by Gyurme Dorje (Bath: Footprint, 2nd ed. 2010)

Bhutan (Country Travel Guide) by Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra  (Oakland: Lonely Planet, 4th ed. 2011)

For those who want to see more of Bhutan than a film depicts, three guidebooks mediate between the armchair and the adventure. Gyurme Dorje, as a Himalayan expert, offers in Footprint’s Bhutan Handbook practicalities similar to Lonely Planet's Bhutan (Country Travel Guide) by Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra. The Footprint guidebook in format and layout resembles Lonely Planet, but Dorje’s background coverage in a separate chapter of religious, artistic, and literary contexts does not match the scope of Odyssey’s Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom by fellow Tibetologist (and Bhutan-based scholar) Françoise Pommaret, who authored the first such guidebook, and co-edited Fortress. Rather, like Lonely Planet, Footprint provides a concise introduction; both in turn examine the capital Thimphu, followed by the western, central, and eastern regions.

Lonely Planet tallies nearly 300 pages; Footprint adds about 80 pages in a slightly larger font. Color photos are about equal; seven (blue-hued) Lonely Planet and nine (pink-shaded) Footprint chapters can be downloaded separately or together. I've sampled both guides in their PDF versions--they did not convert legibly to my Kindle Touch. Also, even kept as PDFs, a Kindle font cannot be matched to their format neatly or very legibly. On a PC, in color, the PDF files scan better; the maps hang together with the text, sidebars, and illustrations.

Footprint lacks Lonely Planet's verve and Odyssey's anthropological bent, but it instructs. Its background chapter delves into Buddhist contexts such as the auspicious symbols and prayer flags. Dorje explains: "The sparse population, the slow, measured pace of daily life and, in some sectors, an almost anarchical disdain for political involvement have encouraged the spiritual cultivation of Buddhism to such an extent that it has come to permeate the entire culture."

Bhutan: A Trekker's Guide by Bart Jordans (Milnthorpe, Cumbria: Cicerone, 2nd. rev. ed. 2012)

For those leaving its lateral highway behind, Bart Jordan’s Bhutan: A Trekker’s Guide (Cicerone; 2nd. rev. ed. 2012) details twenty-seven yak trails and footpaths across this vertically-biased kingdom. Jordans' "Dutch-English" describes affectionately and carefully (one drawback, if minor: a few glitches remain in his idiom, or the proofreading) many remote sights and dramatically situated sacred landscapes infused by belief. This same guidebook was taken along on the Snowman Trek by Kevin Grange; the practical itineraries and mythical lore it shares will reward anybody planning a few days--or weeks--in the unpaved northern or central regions.

Wrapping It Up

Leaving this short shelf, I wonder how Bhutan can welcome those of us who peer or edge in—through books, through videos, the authors and filmmakers introduce change-- without too many gatecrashers. Few Bhutanese deny themselves their new television, internet, or cellphones. The New York Times featured the kingdom as one of this year’s top destinations: luxury eco-resorts proliferate. Pico Iyer surmises how Bhutanese with formidable etiquette mingled with skillful deference-- inherited over centuries of civil service, monastic preferment, and feudal hierarchies--enforce customs which admit visitors at a polite distance. Traversing the east-west highway, one follows the ancient routes past the formidable dzong guarding each district. Housing monks and officials, these monastery-fortresses force any approaching along a single path through the vertiginous terrain of steep slopes and sudden ravines to reveal themselves. Travelers have to trudge through or ride by the dzong. Passes can be patrolled, and roads checked to monitor jeeps and tourists-- just as trails have always been, to protect princesses or to patrol among pilgrims.

Perhaps Bhutan will survive so both visitors and natives will coexist happily. In John Wehrheim's last chapter, at a bar in Thimphu, he tells an ambitious Indian who wishes to push Bhutan twenty years forward that such a jolt will leave it like Sikkim: invaded by immigrants, overrun by India. Forty years behind its neighboring fellow (ex-)Buddhist principality Bhutan may lag, but better that than the fate of tiny Sikkim--let alone giant Tibet during the past half-century. In a parallel conversation with a Tibetan-descended man, whose family in part escaped Chinese decimation, Wehrheim sums up his subject slyly. "Happy peasants in bountiful fields. A King who's too good to be true. The usual. I'm making photos, shooting video and collecting stories. Everybody in Bhutan's got a story--some of them might even be true."

(P.S. My budget and the limits of my local libraries narrowed what I could evaluate. Detailed reviews of each title above appear on my blog and Amazon US. This article in slightly edited form, different headings, and without hyperlinks appeared in Pop Matters as Just Walk Into That Cloud: Bhutan in Books & Film on March 19, 2013.)

P.P.S. For assistance, thanks to: Cathie Crooks (Alberta); Eliza Ferrier (Footprint); Harry Hall (Haus); Steve Hirashima (Hawai'i); Leah Koontz (Norton); Claire Miller (Fremantle) and Meaghan Miller (IPG); Patrick Rosca (Mani); Sarah Spencer (Cicerone); Pete Spurrier (Blacksmith); Britney VanBurkleo (Lonely Planet); Naomi Weinstein (Penguin). Veteran travelers to Bhutan, Kai von Hirschfeld and John Wehrheim, suggested superb selections. (Photo: #48 of 50 by John Wehrheim from the Bhutan book via Serindia.)

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