Is This Shangri-La? Why Not.

Shangri-La…the perfect realm, shrouded in profound mysticism… visions of sacred monasteries, fluttering prayer-flags, maroon-clad monks in meditative chants… up among lofty snow-clad peaks deep in the Himalaya.

To a Bhutanese, the notion has been a source of much pride, disappointment, realisation and, perhaps, serious thought. While I have neither heard the subject discussed in Bhutan, nor "Shangri-La" mentioned, except by an occasional tourist, I have been bombarded by it elsewhere. "Wow, you're from Shangri-La?" "How is it in Shangri-La?" "Is it really Shangri-La?" The more academic ones want to compare Bhutan to James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

Well… Who knows?

About eight years ago, as an overseas student in Australia, I addressed a group of businessmen. I spoke in a general way about Bhutan- her geographical situation, and her people, a little history, some culture and religion, After my talk, one man questioned me: "How will you adjust at home after all these years of luxury"?

I told him we had differing views about luxury. To him nice homes, cars, central heating, automated household appliances and physical conveniences were all that mattered. In my country, many people are not familiar with a lock and key, as they have no need to lock up. People venture out alone at night, they are generally content as very little importance is given to monetary matters. The air is free of pollution. That, to me, was true luxury.

Looking back, I am a little surprised, even today, by my spontaneous response that evening. Was it an indignant outburst of patriotism from a Bhutanese youth or a genuine emotional response that bespoke values that a Buddhist upbringing had nurtured in me? I do not know.

Until the early 1960's Bhutan may have indeed been the last Shangri-La. Before it emerged from its zealously gathered isolation, very few outsiders had seen the "forbidden kingdom." When the kingdom launched itself into the development process 25 years ago, it was one of the last countries to tread the path of modernisation.

Bhutanese, particularly the youth, who ventured out to be worldly wise found a world that seemed to be just beginning to value the traditional and the unchanged. The outside was looking for peace, which for us was still a natural way of life, My parents and my neighbours did not even know that two World Wars had been fought, so innocent were we of the outside.

Suddenly we were the lucky ones. For the young everywhere, it was trendy to be from Bhutan, for the elders, it was a geographical find, and for the development process which was taking over, it was a new baby. All these despite the inconveniences facing the Bhutanese traveller. Many airport authorities did not recognize our passports, never having heard of Bhutan; post offices sent back our mail; our driving licenses were not accepted; and often people did not know quite how to react or what to talk about with us because they had no idea where we came from.

Then the confusion began. When the armies of "development experts" arrived with new ideas ranging from the import of yak sperm from Russia to establishing telephone and facsimile links with New York through satellite, Shangri-La seemed only surface deep. At first all our traditional ways seemed wrong, and traditional values began to suffer. Twenty years of exposure brought drastic changes: traditional robes gave way to faded denim, warm woolens to synthetic fabric, indigenous games to Kung Fu movies, and our language to Western slang.

Bhutan pulled her reins in 1987. She placed new emphasis on preserving traditions and culture. Development became a more cautious process with priorities to forge a unique national identity for the people…

But I have digressed.

On a recent visit to remote parts of eastern Bhutan, I met a Western couple who were about to leave the country as the husband had completed three years as a consultant in agricultural research. In the last days, the villagers had been coming in to bid farewell. On their last morning an old lady came to say goodbye. She had walked a long way and had brought them all she could afford: two tomatoes. 'These poor farmers," they said, visibly moved, "are the most wonderful people we have ever met."

It is always fun to travel in the remote villages of Bhutan. It is also a learning experience. These villagers who have never been to school, and have travelled little, represent a civilization that is not taught in the classrooms. It makes you happy to meet a person for the first time ever who will take out a grimy piece of yak cheese and offer it in a gesture of friendship. Fortunately, it is these "real people" that make up most of Bhutan.

In these desperately poor villages, the doors are always open. People will share everything they have. The last lump of cheese, the last bowl of rice, and the last strip of dried meat is offered first to the visitor or "guest." And everyone is a welcome guest. Perhaps this is religion in its purest form.

Could this, then, be the real Shangri-La?

Kinley Dorje is a journalist in Bhutan

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