Thursday, June 03, 2010

Bicycling in Bhutan

When I asked Marian Marbury of Adventures in Good Company where I should plan a bike tour, she immediately suggested Bhutan. I’d never heard of it. But her enthusiasm piqued my interest.

At about the same time, I received some unsolicited literature in the mail from a Bhutanese bicycle touring company. Before I knew anything more than Bhutan was nestled between China and India, I was heading to the small Asian country to plan a bike tour. It was providence.

The first thing you learn about Bhutan is how hard it is to get to. Halfway around the world is a long way to fly. There’s only 1 airline – Drukair – that flies into Bhutan and only one city – Bangkok – that offers daily flights. However, I’m thankful for this, as it will help slow down the change that is quickly overtaking Bhutan. If you want to go to Bhutan, then you have to go soon. But I get ahead of myself.

Bhutan is twice the size of Maryland, with a population smaller than the metropolitan area of my hometown of Rochester, NY.  Three-fourths of the country is covered in forest. The capital city of Thimphu doesn’t have a stoplight. In fact, there isn’t a stoplight anywhere in the country. They’ve only had paved roads since the 1950s and there’s very little traffic.

The monarchy government declared a democracy, appointed a Minister of Domestic Happiness, and opened the nation’s borders to tourism just a couple years ago. They’re working hard at bringing the positive side of modernization, such as electricity and education, to all Bhutanese.

But I couldn’t help but wonder as I passed the line of hotels under construction by the airport, how long will it be until Bhutan starts to see some of our western problems? There is no talk of pollution, unemployment, crime, corruption or homelessness in Bhutan. They just don’t exist as they do here in the western world.

There’s no separation of church and state in Bhutan either. Buddhism is a way of life. Prayer flags are everywhere. They live their faith. I’ve never been to a place that treasures traditions, honors natural resources, and cherishes life like in Bhutan.  I’m not a religious person, but Bhutan felt like a holy place to me.

Maybe a story from my trip can explain it best. As we were driving in Bhutan, we heard a small thump. We stopped and all got out of the car to see a bird lain dead in the middle of the road. I watched as my guide picked it up gently, petted it, and then set the bird softly down in the tall grass on the side of the road.  He said hopefully, “The bird’s soul will return to the world as a higher being.” All I could think about is the times back home when I’d hit a bird and never stopped.

You’ll surely come away from Bhutan with your own lessons. I was reminded to stop and care about the little things.

Bicycles in Bhutan are still an anomaly. If you want to see a place in transition before it’s changed forever, before it becomes the next China, India or even Vietnam, then join us for Bicycling in Bhutan. I guarantee that it will be beautiful and fascinating. And you might even learn a lesson or two.


Bob T said...

Bhutan! Very nice. A stone's throw from Sikkim. Not many bikes in Sikkim either.

Bob T said...

Sorry about the pic. Thought I got rid of that!!