Turn around or go on

It's about me, about my life – it's about all or nothing. Rinchen Chewang, the royal astrologer of Bhutan, has just inquired as to my name and my date of birth. Now the barefoot giant, clad in a blood-red robe, broods over a scroll bearing the images of some gods as he consults dice made of human bones and recites ancient verses in a scratchy voice. He narrows his browless eyes, wrinkles his smooth, childlike forehead. Suddenly, he pulls a calculator out of his robe. Solar. Digital. He adds, multiplies, subtracts. Finally, he declares: "In total, five!"

The number five! Five shall be my number. Today, he tells me, is the fifth day of the week, an ideal day to set off on an extended journey. With my companion Lhawang and Pema, our driver, I want to follow the only paved road in Bhutan, a sinuous, 600-mile stretch that makes its way from west to east. Even if we are setting out under auspicious stars, the astrologer warns us, we may want to present the gods with prayer flags and butter lamps along the way. To be on the safe side. He then tosses his bone dice into a little pink plastic bag bearing the logo Supermodern XXL, and leaves the dragon-adorned tent.

Bhutan is a land performing a cultural balancing act. Within recent memory, television wasn't available here, nor any daily newspaper, nor telephone. News was carried by messengers over the mountain passes. It was only in the early 1960s, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, that Bhutan began to open itself to the outside world – cautiously, unnerved by the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The following decade, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the idea of gross national happiness, to describe that which is to take precedence over the gross domestic product. In other words, no ruthless exploitation of the resources, least of all the vast Bhutanese forests. No unrestrained pursuit of prosperity and progress. No copy of the West. Instead: happiness! Because their king – who married four sisters, so that he, as his subjects joke, would only have to have one mother-in-law – has willed it. Thus, the Bhutanese are to lead fulfilled lives according to the values of Buddhism – egalitarian, prudently ruled, in harmony with nature. In this way, Bhutan will simultaneously open itself up and preserve its traditions. Squaring the circle?

We buy some prayer flags and butter lamps for the road gods, leave Paro and head off in the easterly direction. Always following the milky Pachu River, we pass by rice fields and houses with high, white walls and carved, colourful windows suggesting a mixture of Swiss chalet and Tudor castle. With shingled roofs, carpeted by drying red pepper pods. Lhawang, a delicate little black-haired man with a bowl cut and three months of schooling in guiding tours, is touchingly concerned about my well-being. If I so much as pluck at my scarf, he instructs Pema to close the window. If I clear my throat, he inquires as to my health. If I look too interestedly out the window, he lets me know again and again that I just have to say the word and we'll stop the car so I can have a look around.

The valley soon narrows, the fields vanish, the villages as well. Mountainsides plunge into forested ravines, and above it all we are carried along by a crumbling strip of asphalt, sometimes so narrow that two cars can squeeze by each other only with difficulty. As old as the road looks, it's not. In 1958, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the absence of a suitable transportation route, rode a yak to the court of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. After the arduous, daylong ride, the premier offered to build a road, cutting through the country laterally. Of course, there was more than convenience at stake here. Bhutan is a buffer zone, jammed between India and China, and on this new road, Indian soldiers would be able to advance more quickly on the Chinese, should it come to that. Thus, for a quarter of a century, Indian soldiers blasted their way through the eastern Himalayas until the East-West Highway was finally finished.

That's how it all started, Bhutan's process of opening up. As we reach the capital, Thimphu, on the very highway that set this process in motion, we see the incredible speed with which this transformation is starting to occur. There's construction on every corner. Hairdressers promise fancy haircuts; posters advertise webcams, voice chats, photo-scans.

The Internet reached Bhutan in 1999, and since 2003 it's been possible to use cell phones. Today, 40 foreign satellite channels, broadcasting around the clock, make it clear to the Bhutanese that they will be incapable of surviving without a Toyota Landcruiser, a microwave and a steam iron. Meanwhile, the only government-overseen national channel holds forth over Buddhist paintings, traditional wood carvers and temple restorations – reports that work like sleeping pills. But the biggest change still lies before the Bhutanese people, since King Jigme Singye's 1998 announcement that his country shall become a democracy. That seems to have confused some of his subjects considerably. "We haven't formed a party because we have a concept," one of the founders of the People's Democratic Party confesses (on condition of anonymity) in Thimphu. "We've formed a party because our king ordered it."

Bhutan's happiness policy does not seem to apply to all citizens, though. For the Lhotshampa of southern Bhutan, it meant tragedy. The predominantly Hindu Nepali-speakers were granted citizenship in 1958; yet in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the government abandoned its tolerance of cultural diversity and expelled, by some estimates, more than 100,000 Lhotshampa (see accompanying review, "Bhutanese mists"). They were subsequently confined in UN-overseen camps in nearby Nepal for almost two decades. After Bhutan repeatedly refused to allow the return of these citizens, tens of thousands began to be resettled to Western countries starting in early 2008.

As we stroll through the two main streets of Thimphu, Lhawang recalls how, a few years ago, three intersections got the capital city's first traffic lights. The people, however, protested this 'affront' to tradition so vehemently that the lights were eventually removed, and traffic officers were once again allowed to wave the traffic through. Indeed, there is still evidence of a certain nostalgia in Thimphu's day-to-day life. According to legislation passed in 1985, the Bhutanese are required by law to wear the national dress: for men, the knee-length kho, along with knee socks and leather shoes; for women the kira, an elegant full-length robe. But there are streets filled with young people in jeans, Nirvana shirts and baseball caps.

On this particular evening we're in Buzz – disco balls, black lights, mirrored pillars – dancing to American pop music. Tshergen, a 20-year-old in skinny jeans and hip Chuck Taylor shoes, explains why he left his hometown in eastern Bhutan for Thimphu: "More jobs, more money, more ladies." Almost half of all Bhutanese are under 21 years old. In Thimphu, they come looking for everything that those who wish to preserve national traditions would rather keep at arm's length. But when Tshergen hears that we want to travel eastward, he tells us unexpectedly, "In the East, that's the real Bhutan, the genuine Bhutan." The Bhutan that he urgently wanted to leave behind? "The Bhutan that tourists love."

Harry Potter
So, to the east it is. Behind Thimphu, the street wends its way up through a forest of pines. Behind the wheel, Pema is in his early 20s. Before each curve, he honks vigorously. There must be about 25 curves per mile, Pema tells me. As a vehicle comes towards us, he brushes his hair from his forehead with one hand and wrenches the wheel with the other, swerving onto the gravelled shoulder of the road above a sheer drop-off. I estimate that we have about 15,000 more curves to navigate until we get to the Indian border in Assam.

Meanwhile, Lhawang, in the back seat, seems to continue to have nothing better to do than to observe my every movement. "You must be tired, Michael," he says.

"No. Thank you very much, Lhawang. I'm wide awake."

A little later: "You must be terribly hungry."

"We just ate half an hour ago, Lhawang."

"These roads, all of these curves, Michael – it must be awfully boring."

"A straighter road would probably bore me. No worries, Lhawang."

On top of the 10,335-foot Dochu Pass, an impressive panorama greets us. Above the lush forests of Bhutan, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya, well over 20,000 feet, line up before us. We get out and walk up a hill between white stupas, where previous travellers have unfurled prayer flags amongst the trees. The forest seems to be dressed up for a celebration. We add our flags as the astrologer recommended and drive onward, down toward the ancient capital of Punakha. Soon, like a great, white stone, a dzong towers above the confluence of two rivers. The pagoda-like roofs of these monastic-cum-administrative fortresses rise up everywhere in Bhutan, dominating the surrounding countryside like enthroned kings. We scale the steep, wooden steps, give the prayer wheel at the entrance a turn and walk into the elaborately painted inner courtyard, surrounded with balustrades.

In the prayer hall, red-robed novices recite Buddhist verses and light butter lamps in front of an enormous Buddha, who holds vigil behind 54 golden columns. He is flanked by the two protagonists of Bhutanese history. During the eight century, Guru Rimpoche converted the land to Tantric Buddhism; nine centuries later, the bearded Shabdrung forged the scattered principalities into one state, and also set up the dzong-based system of administration. As many as 3000 monks are said to be studying in the dzong at Punakha, still one of the spiritual centres of Bhutan. But even in this stronghold of tradition, change has started to creep in. In one of the wings of the fortress, monks enter ancient Buddhist texts into a computer. Beneath intricately carved columns, painted with Sanskrit symbols and dragons, novices' fingers fly over the buttons of their cell phones – love notes, Lhawang tells me. They listen to music under their robes on their iPods, enjoy Harry Potter on DVD, and chase each other around through the monastery courtyard with toy machine guns.

Most of the foreign visitors that we meet along the way still want to experience Druk Yul before it becomes completely absorbed by modernity. They hurry because they have to – and, thus inadvertently become agents of that very change, even accelerating it. Because tourism is booming. The daily rate of USD 200, even when it does include car, driver and guide, should in fact discourage them. But the 18,000 tourists that visited in 2006 were already three times more than those that came in 2003; according to some estimates, this number should double in the coming three years. Until now, Bhutan has been considered an exclusive destination. Whether or not this perception can be maintained – when the inns and hotels, springing up everywhere, need to be filled – is not only questionable but existentially important. After all, there are Himalayan Buddhist monasteries to be explored elsewhere, and for less money.

In the area around Punakha, we discover several houses with phalluses painted on their façades. "To ward away evil," Lhawang explains. "As did Lama Drukpa Kunley." This favourite saint of the Bhutanese is also called the Divine Madman, due to the unorthodox methods with which he approached certain problems during the 15th century. Whenever he came across evil spirits, Lama Drukpa Kunley was said to whack them with his rock-hard penis – a thing so potent that, with its help, the venerable lama not only subjugated all the troublemakers in Bhutan but also turned them into tutelary deities. In the temple of the Divine Madman above Punakha, we are fortunate enough to experience what that must have felt like. As we bow our heads respectfully before an altar, a monk blesses us, and our heads are beaten from behind with a heavy ivory phallus.

Arriving in Bumthang, an area surrounded with rice fields in central Bhutan, most tourists turn around and go back along the same stretch, back to the airport in Paro. We, however, continue to follow our highway toward the east. Pema turns the wheel untiringly, as the streamers hanging from the rear-view mirror sway in rhythm with the curves. Behind us, Lhawang rustles around in a bag of betel nuts.

"In your country," Lhawang starts again, "in your country, I bet there aren't any roads that are so narrow and bumpy. Isn't that right Michael?"

"No Lhawang." I answer this time. "Such dreadfully narrow, bumpy, curvy, boring roads are only in Bhutan!"

Lhawang leans back and makes a satisfied sound. "Bhutan," he says after a while, "is an underdeveloped country. But it's making progress. It's really making progress."

Modern migoi
We drive very slowly. There are fewer and fewer cars on the road here, until it's just cows and goats and us. Troops of langur monkeys with white whiskers flit about through the underbrush. Between isolated villages, we see fields of buckwheat with pink blossoms, and subtropical forests with bamboo groves, ferns and lianas. Water cascades from the sheer cliffs above us, is channelled beneath the highway and shoots out, only to be swallowed in the emptiness thousands of feet below.

At each mountain pass, we unfurl a prayer flag and light butter lamps in the temples of the dzongs, in order to appease the road gods. Does it work? At one point on the way to Trashigang, Pema comes to an abrupt stop and examines with a critical eye a field of debris on the road. Above us, boulders and uprooted trees seem to wait for a whisper to slip and sweep us off into the depths below. The road is constantly being destroyed by such stray chunks of rock and, when it happens, eastern Bhutan is cut off from the rest of the country for weeks. Pema drives on. Everything seems okay but then, halfway through the field, pebbles suddenly start to clatter off the windshield. Pema accelerates, the motor roars, the car lurches, finds traction, gains momentum – and we're out of danger. To whom do we owe this bit of luck? "Prayer flags and butter lamps," says Lhawang, breathing deeply. And Pema stretches out, demonstratively, the five fingers of his hand: the number five, my lucky number! And in fact, as with our visit to the astrologer, today is again the fifth day of the week. "Otherwise, we probably wouldn't have made it," Pema tells me solemnly.

The eastern part of Bhutan is thinly populated and has, until now, barely been touched by the modernising forces at work in the west. There are few houses that have a television, tractors are rare, and compulsory school attendance is difficult to implement because many towns can only be reached by a daylong hike. In a hamlet not far from the road, a 70-year-old farmer named Kezang Dorji warns us about encounters with the migoi. "He looks like a human, but he's strong and covered in hair, like an ape but without a tail," he says. Kezang wears a red, checked kho and rubber boots. He doesn't speak Dzongkha but rather Sharchop, one of many minority languages of the east. "The feet of the migoi point backwards," he says, starting to get worked up. "You want to get away from the migoi, but you end up right in his arms. The migoi's armpits smell bad, but this smell can knock you out – and then he gets you, the migoi, and sucks out your blood." In "the time before the road" as Kezang puts it, one often used to see this cousin of the legendary yeti high up on the Yongphu Pass; but the noise from the new cars has now driven him away. The migoi now lives somewhere deep in the heart of the forest. One point for modernity.

However, in this part of Bhutan, tradition still has a trick or two up its sleeve. On the way to the Yongphu Pass, we suddenly find ourselves on an airstrip. The only 1500-foot, straight-as-an-arrow stretch of asphalt anywhere in Bhutan (other than the airport at Paro) lies on a windswept ridge, 150 feet wide and completely abandoned. According to the locals, after the landing strip was built it turned out that the local gods didn't like airplanes. So, they sent lightning and freezing rain and ice down, making it impossible to land anything. And that's why the airstrip was abandoned. Point for tradition. And it's all tied up.

The Yongphu Pass lies isolated in the clouds. In this shapeless calm, surrounded by the ghostly silhouettes of conifers and pines, we perceive very clearly why the Bhutanese consider mountain passes to be dangerous places, worlds between worlds, in which demons lie in wait for travellers and demand a decision: Turn around or go on. And all at once, as we're standing there somewhat lost in the mist, we start to understand the image presented by the place. All of Bhutan finds itself on just such a pass, at the crossroads between winter story time and 40 television channels, between messengers on foot and the World Wide Web. Can a country actually remain in a perpetual state of transition?

"Just let me know when you want to go on, Michael," Lhawang whispers. "Really. Really, no one can stand it for long on this nasty pass." He looks nervously about as something makes a noise somewhere in the mist behind us. Just then, the chirp of a bird or an insect rings out. Or is it a cry? Is it the migoi? We grab the last of our prayer flags out of the trunk. Not that we were really paying attention, but it turns out we have five of them left. We hang them hurriedly and take off downward toward the valley, constantly downward toward the hot, hectic cities of India.

Translated from German by Jason Nickels.

Michael Obert is a journalist based in Berlin. More of his work can be found at www.obert.de.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian