If you are Facing in the right Direction, all you need to do is keep Walking
Nestling in the Himalayas between China and India lies Bhutan. It’s Bhutanese name Druk Yul means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”
Photography by Tom White
A novice monk skips across the courtyard of Rinpung Dzong, a large Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist monastery and fortress in the Paro District of Bhutan. It houses the district Monastic Body and government administrative offices of Paro Dzongkhag.
The Happy Monk…One thing I try to avoid is unnessecary clichés. Sometimes it’s impossible. Here in the Rinpung Dzong Buddhist monastery and fortress in the Paro District of Bhutan I saw a young novice happily skipping across the courtyard. “Ok”, I said to myself, “just one picture of a happy monk, but don’t make a habit of it.”
This isn’t Yorkshire.
The first stage of the Jomolhari trek follows the Paro Chhu river through the Jigme Dorji National Park. Bhutan is almost three quarters covered in forests and this day was spent amongst beautiful alpine valleys with clear running snowmelt rivers.
These forested valleys are not just a pleasure to walk through. According to the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) , Bhutan’s forests absorb almost three times more CO2 emissions than the country’s 700,000 population produces.
Concern over climate change and resource management means plans to grow the agroforestry sector and protect current woodland are in place, though development continues. Current and future hydropower projects are able to supply the vast majority of the country’s electricity, though many mountain valleys are off grid. Surplus electricity is sold to India.
Development is measured against Bhutan’s famous Gross National Happiness Metric. Up here I was certainly feeling the joy. Though that could also have been the thinning air making me lightheaded.
Holy Mountain of Jomolhari
In the morning, the clouds cleared to give us a view down the valley to the northwest. Looming over the end of the valley at 7,315m is the Holy mountain of Jomolhari. On the other side is Tibet. The goddess who resides here is one of the Five Tsheringma Sisters who watch over Bhutanese and Tibetan people and their faith. All these mountains are sacred. The Bhutanese warn against any attempt to summit them. Our guide, Penjor tells us stories of foreign mountaineers who have tried and failed. Some paying with their lives, disappearing or becoming corpses to be found by Nomads and Yak herders traversing the ridges and slopes.
After a reasonably leisurely breakfast, we set off.
The Bhutanese regard these mountains as deities watching over the land and its inhabitants below, not as challenges to be conquered.
Yak Herding in the Bhutanese Himalayas. This can be a pretty lonely business. Many herders stay away from the villages (which consist only of a few houses) for up to several weeks, even months in some cases as the Yak roam in search of fresh pasture. Some herding tribes are semi nomadic.
The Tsho Phu Chhu Valley.
It was time to tackle the pass. This day would take us to almost 5000 metres. The sun had been shining that morning but having climbed a steep slope the weather shifted as we turned into a roaring wind that tore along the desolate looking Tsho Phu Chhu Valley.
The sky clouded over and I struggled against the wind along a rough path interrupted by uneven rock. After four days I was now becoming acutely aware of the different rhythms of the mountains. I felt as though I was beginning to dissolve into the landscape and the landscape surrounding me became less of a sight and more of a place of being.
The sides of the valley rose up steeply on each side. Landslides are not uncommon and I’m told this is Snow Leopard territory, with herders occasionally losing a young yak to the predator. I had no expectations of seeing this rare and elusive creature though.
Bhonte La Pass.
A train of horses approach the Bhonte La pass at 4,890 m above sea level along the jomolhari loop trek in Bhutan. The jomolhari loop is a popular tourist trek which follows still used trade routes and paths linking remote mountain villages.
As I turned my back on the lakes and approached the highest point of the trek both the landscape and the weather turned once more. I was now walking along the edge of a vast plateau bordered with a crown of peaks. Snow and ice clung to the shadows and coated the summits. The pass cut between two of these and yet again I began to climb.
I began to feel somewhat delirious with effort and altitude. Eager to reach this goal I moved too fast, stopping frequently to catch my breath, and to look up at the pass that never seemed to get any closer. The ground beneath my feet was alive with extraordinary detail I began to wonder if I was in fact staying still while the rocks on either side shifted their position around me.
Once over the pass the terrain shifted dramatically, opening up into a wide slope of scree through which there was no definite path. Down we went, sliding fluidly, surfing along mini avalanches with each step. The way up had been marked by heavy footsteps, a pinpricking of the peripheral vision to a blur and laboured breaths. The way down speedier and lighter, the world expanding before me in contrast to the narrowing focus of attention that had marked the ascent to the pass.
Soon, the scree gave way to firmer ground, scattered with rocks and dusty soil held in place by tough mountain grasses. Ahead another group of trekkers rested in the shadow of an upturned lip of ground on a ridge, like a wave of rock and earth that had rolled down the mountainside and crashed into an invisible wall, curving it up and back on itself. Skirting round them we paused at the invisible wall, looking out over a vista that expanded to fill our entire vision. A wide and undulating meadow walled by mountain peaks to the left and right and cascading into a valley running horizontal across our vision beyond which mountains rose again to continue the immense folds of the Himalayas. Somewhere down in that valley was our campsite. The pack horses that had overtaken me on the ascent were already far ahead, moving at a pace that was impossible for me to match.
Children in Thimphu.
Bhutan’s capital since 1961 and home to around 100,000 people. Since the country was unified under Ugyen Wangchuck in 1885, successive Kings have gradually devolved power and Bhutan has over the years transitioned from absolute monarchic rule to a parliamentary democratic constitutional monarchy.
After a week of relative solitude in the mountain valleys, Thimphu’s unhurried streets felt – almost – like a bustling metropolis…
I walked the streets, photographing and exploring. In a small block of offices, I chatted to a couple of people running an employment agency. They were keen to try to get Bhutanese jobs overseas. A lot of young people want to leave to find work, though maybe not permanently, they said. Many Bhutanese already work abroad or study overseas at university. They asked if I could help them find jobs in the UK. Not my area of expertise I’m afraid. I’m all for the free movement of goods and people – I’ve lived and worked in different countries and see no reason why people should not be able to choose to cross borders, work and contribute to that society. I wonder how many young people eager to leave will find their way abroad, and how many of them will return, and for what reason.
Whilst progressive environmental and social policies make Bhutan an example of controlled and somewhat sustainable development much of Bhutan’s small population remain poor. An opening up of the country and growing urban population has brought a small measure of modern vices to the streets. The country relies on its hydropower projects for revenue and is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Neighbouring both India and China as it does, it does not remain immune to geopolitics.