Monday, September 28
Saturday morning we landed at one of the scariest airports in the world. We survived. I would have predicted that it would have been the highlight of our day. But somehow it wasn’t. A few things went wrong in the hours that followed, but they were balanced by other moments that I can only describe as mind-blowing.
That’s not to say our arrival wasn’t noteworthy. Boarding for the flight from Bangkok started a few minutes earlier than scheduled. The weather was sunny and clear. The Drukair Airbus pilot had a reassuringly Teutonic accent, and our stop in Calcutta to pick up passengers went without a hitch. Then we were off for the 55-minute flight to Paro, the site of one of Bhutan’s three airports (and the only international one).
Halfway into the trip I was thrilled by my first sight of an actual Himalayan mountain poking up through the cloud layer. I was stuck in an aisle seat but loosened my seatbelt and strained as far as possible over Steve in the middle. The peaks we glimpsed were white as marble and jagged. I wanted to yank the friendly lady from Macao out of her window seat, the better to stare at them.
Then we were descending, and soon I could soon see patches of green forest below. Fortunately, I had watched (3 times!) the video that can be found online by googling “Scary landing at Paro Bhutan,” because it prepared me for what followed. There’s no place in Paro (or Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital), that’s clear enough of mountains to allow a jet to make a straight and gradual descent. Instead, planes go down fairly quickly to about 5000 feet, at which point they’ve over the airport. They keep descending into Paro Valley, and just when it appears they will definitely slam into the mountainside in front of them, they bank sharply, dropping and twisting their way back up the valley until they’re over the tarmac and able to touch down. Probably it was just as good I wasn’t at the window; I would have disgraced myself by gasping and moaning at how close we came to the terrain. What made the whole experience not that terrifying was that it only lasted maybe 5 minutes. And then we were rolling to a halt before the tiny mountain kingdom’s glorious airport terminal.
Passengers flowed off the plane and into the terminal on what felt to me like a wave of relief and adrenaline. As difficult as the Bhutanese make it to visit to their country, they make up for that with a quick and easy passage through immigration — a swift passport stamp, and then the immigration agent gives you a postcard featuring a beautiful image of the country, complete with postage, ready to be mailed. (That’s never happened to us at any other border in the world.)
The bad things that happened to us in the hours that followed were:
— At the airport, no guide or driver was waiting for us (unlike for all of our fellow travelers.)
Eventually, one of the guides who was milling around approached us and told us he’d gotten a call from his friend, who been pressed into guide service at the last minute. Apparently he was covering for our scheduled guide, absent for reasons that to date have still not been made clear to us. He urged us to hang out at a nearby coffeehouse, assuring us that the replacement crew would arrive shortly. It was more than an hour, but we instantly liked Ugyen, the guide, when he showed up; our vehicle, a Hyundai SUV, looked to be in reasonably good shape.
— Late in the afternoon, after we’d made the hour-long drive to Thimphu and had lunch and checked into our hotel and headed for the town’s central marketplace, we found an ATM (one of the few in the country.) When Steve and I asked it for 10,000 ngultrums (or “nu”s, as the people have nicknamed their currency), the machine dealt them out to us. Howie then went through all the same steps up to the words “Take Your Money Below” appeared on the screen. But no money appeared. It’s possible he’ll eventually get recredited for the $160, (but it promises to be a long process.)
On the other hand, the day was filled with sights so beautiful and strange they made our jaws sag. On the drive to Thimphu, we stopped at our first Bhutanese temple, this one founded by a Tibetan ascetic in the 15th century. Here’s the bridge he built over the river that runs next to it.
One of the temple’s caretakers, a direct descendant of the ascetic, was about 70 years old and dressed in the national outfit for women (which looks a bit like a kimono, but warmer). Her teeth appeared to be dripping with dark blood — the distinctive look for those who chew betel nuts (which apparently is most of the Bhutanese older generation.) She welcomed us inside and let us poke into her smoky kitchen, then we spent some time admiring the temple interior. I’m tempted to call it “baroque” because of the extremely detail and complexity of the ornamention. Except never in the Western world’s baroque catalog have I seen so many images of violent conflict and sadistic tortures, mixed in with copulating gods and goddesses.
I felt simultaneously awestruck and depressed. As a writer, I struggle most when describing landscapes and art works. Within a few hours, I began to realize there was no way I would be able to communicate the way those two things come together in this place. The valleys are so lushly green; the hillsides so vertiginous. In their natural state, they would take your breath away. But the buildings that have been created here also are astounding. Not only the temples and monasteries, but even common country homes are sturdy and covered with beautiful colors and images. The poverty of the people is evident, but they live amidst something that looks like a movie set.
And the grand buildings — of which we will see plenty on this trip — could hold their own with those in Earth’s most powerful capitals. Toward the end of our first day, Ugyen and our driver chauffeured us through a section of the valley where the Bhutanese Supreme Court and the National Asembly and a huge monastery fill huge majestic spaces. We were ogling all the distant sights, when Ugyen suddenly blurted out, “That was the king!” He pointed to a couple of cyclists, rapidly disappearing down the road. The current king, Bhutan’s fifth, is just 33 years old and a legendarily passionate biker. He lives in a modest house near the monastery and is married to a gorgeous 23-year-old. (We see the royal couple’s photo everywhere.)
I was glad to see him, if only for a few seconds. It made me think that even if I can’t do justice to the art and nature here, there will still be interesting things to write about.