The expansive lands in Bhutan are the perfect demonstration of simplicity and stewardship of what nature has to offer. In the mornings, the winds are strong, whipping our faces, bringing the sharp scent of the crops over. This is where we splurged hours watching cows grazing, looking up to the skies for more clouds-gazing. Here in the high lands, the sun seemed brighter than ever, and cast a glorious path of light across the green meadows. The prayer flags fluttered on, that subtle and solemn reminder of the spirituality that underpins much of Bhutan. This is the kind of place where you cast off the thread to daily life, and let yourself loose in the freedom of the greens. It’s that reminder to slow down, reel it in, and just breathe.
In summer when we arrived, we were treated to Bhutan’s weather finery – a fair share of cool breezes and warm sunshine, even sweet short drizzles that tickled the skin. The strong summer winds can dip the temperature down to a chilly 10-14 degree Celsius. We were sitting out having coffee one late afternoon when the wind went cold suddenly.
I fumbled for the zipper on my parker, finally zipping it up for warmth against the early evening chill. The winds blew on for the night, an invitation for the leaves along the road to dance along. Ugyen summed up summer this way – “Bhutan’s summer, very flexible! One minute rain, one minute sun! Very flexible!” We couldn’t agree more!
The greens of summer and spring are surely Bhutan’s gifts to great inspirations. This is where the greens spring forth produce of all aromas and colours. A well-kept backyard garden is all you need for the kitchen table. Mint stalks are thick and firm, almost like a shrub, no kidding! The freshness of the green mint can lift the weight off any salads or sauces, a must-have in the herb garden. The pungency of coriander adds depth to many stews and soups. Homegrown limes, lemons and tomatoes take on oddly beautiful shapes, and even the unripened ones have a subtle sweetness and perfect firmness to make the most hearty meal.
Just a side note – contrary to popular belief, most Bhutanese aren’t vegetarians. Much of the meat in Bhutan are imported from India, and Bhutanese cuisines feature much beef, mutton, and chicken, propped up together with the seasonal produce. According to Ugyen, legend has it that in the past, locals used to “chop up dead bodies and throw them into the rivers so they become food for the fish”, hence till today, many Bhutanese refrain from eating fish or seafood, even though fish are aplenty in Bhutan. Once in a few days, we were served panfried fish (I don’t recall any seafood for sure!), but I really couldn’t stomach much of the fish that had been overcooked. And having heard this story from Ugyen, I couldn’t help but churn a little whenever I saw fish on my table in Bhutan!
I recall my first long ride in Bhutan with Ugyen masterfully identifying the different trees and plants lining the mountain roads. I could easily identify the iconic pine trees, but never did I expect so many varieties together. From some angle, they looked like Lego trees to me! The towering pines, proudly and densely clustered together towards folds of clouds, dreamy and Christmasy.
By law, at least 60% of Bhutan must remain forested for all times to come. Her environmental and cultural conservation ensures that the fragile environment does not fall prey to derelict tourists and unnecessary modernism. Bhutan’s revenue comes from mainly exporting hydroelectric power to India, tourism and agriculture. Whatever revenue it generates is intentionally ploughed back into the community, the preservation of the kingdom’s natural biodiversity and anything that promotes the country’s wider philosophy of Gross National Happiness that Bhutan has come to be famous for.
Preserving the natural environment hasn’t been easy for Bhutan these recent decades, with the bane of global warming weighing heavily on the world. After dinner one night, the ever hospitable Dasho brought out his sandalwood ara, and poured out big glasses to share with us. How conversations flow when like-minded people meet! Dasho is a well-connected, well-read man who has had decades of experiences foraging in the forests, cooking in the kitchen. He shared that until the 1970s, the rivers in Bumthang froze up firmly and one could safely cross the rivers simply by walking on them. Half-eaten fish lying frozen on rocks by the rivers were a common sight in winter too. Otters would catch the fish, bring them up on land to enjoy by the rocks, starting first by feasting on the fish head. However, in the wintry cold, the rest of the caught fish would have frozen up before the otter could finish it, so the fish would be left half-eaten while the otter slid back into the river to fish for more. Sadly, one cannot find such frozen half-eaten fish by the river banks anymore, due to the harsh reality of global warming that has made winters less cold, and otters are now able to enjoy their prey long before the freeze takes over.
This story hit me with a pang, that our worldly obsessions with consumerism, our disposable culture, our indiscriminate pursuit of modernity have consequences far more dire than we can ever imagine. So much of nature has been given to us, but have we been good stewards? As city dwellers who delight in the magic of bokeh from street and car lights, who are too quick to turn to our smartphones for the latest updates on anything and everything, this place reminded me of something. That in the majesty of nature stripped down to its raw elements, we remember we are mere nomads in this creation. That we are to take care of what’s given to us and use it in its fullest glory.
Green is free, but it ain’t cheap.
The sun put on a sweet coral-hued sunrise just outside the lodge as we set off for the airport. We give thanks, for moments like this. Oh Bhutan, you’ve been so wonderful to us. Thank you for showing us the way to sustain development yet remain responsible towards our resources and Mother Earth. Thank you for showing us traditions need not be compromised in the face of modernity. Thank you for your beautiful people who value simplicity and happiness above creature comforts. Thank you for letting your seasons, your produce and your land be our inspirations. Thank you for everything, and we can’t wait to return to your mountains of green again! Thank you, Druk Asia, for your thoughtful planning and unparalleled hospitality, and the pleasant flights we had courtesy of DrukAir, the national airline of Bhutan! Tashi Delek!