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A Flight On the Wings of A Dragon

By Meenakshi Iyer

Paro/Thimphu: Not scared of flying, not even scared of heights, yet I prayed hard while the Drukair airbus was about to land in this tricky, tiny airport nestled amid the steep mountains of the eastern Himalayas.

As I sat soaked in the serenading view of the lush green Paro valley, sporadically blotched with patches of clouds, a fellow traveller blurted: “Madam, only eight pilots around the world are qualified to fly into Paro.”

And, I believed him when the plane swerved through the sharp 18,000 feet tall peaks and inched closer to what looked like a ‘truncated’ runway—just about 6,500 feet long.

Yet, with my unsettling nerves, I could not miss the sight of the uncluttered expanse, lush green mountain foliage and uniformly scattered tin thatched houses….

To experience good things in life, one needs to take risks and I understood that after a safe landing at Paro, amid claps and cheers of fellow passengers. The doors of the KB205 flight were thrown open to the winds and I took a lungful of it – the fresh air that has, as of now, become an expensive commodity.

A giant-sized coloured billboard of the fifth King and queen of Bhutan – HRH Jigme Khesar (pronounced Gesar) Namgyel Wangchuck and Gyaltusuen Jetsun Pema Wangchuk, caught the tourists’ fancy and most of them lined up for a quick photograph and thereafter, sounds of the cameras’ click click click, resonated in the calm.

Far beyond the picturesque Paro Airport – the gateway to Bhutan – I witnessed dun-coloured fields leading to thriving slopes of cypress, pine and oak with clusters of fluttering white prayer flags – vertical strips of cloth raised on towering poles.

This is what I flew into, leaving behind the competitive, progressive, yet despondent hubbub that bore me and put a forced smile on my face. The land of gross national happiness changed all that and much more.

The mystic land of Bhutan that translates to “Edge of the Earth” measures its development through the unique concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than the universal metric of Gross National Product (GNP).

As the overcast sky thundered, I moved out of the tarmac where my affable local guide, Dhanapati, waited for me with a can of apple juice and mineral water. Dressed in traditional Bhutanese Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera, his coy smile and moony eyes were worth a capture.

He spoke English with a smattering of Hindi that he picked up by watching Bollywood films. “Ranbir Kapoor achcha lagti,” he told me about his favourite actor. Our Tata Hiace veered on the mountainous hairpin bends and Dhanapati adjusted the volume of a Hindi song that right now has become an anthem in India – “Budtameez dil…”

And that played on in a loop until I requested him to shut it off and my ears opened to the susurrating steel grey waters of the Chhu river, flowing through the Paro valley, and its occasional splashes against the well-rounded rocks enthralled me throughout the hour-long drive from Paro to capital Thimphu.

With a six lakh plus population, Thimphu is the largest city in Bhutan with buzzing markets, sprawling hotels and restaurants. With fresh construction taking place at every nook and corner of the city, it seems Bhutan is all set to fiercely promote itself as an upcoming tourist destination.

But as of now, it was a sheer relief to not to spot a McDonald’s, Subway or any other MNC food outlets offering junk and I hope Bhutan stays that way – plumed in its own myriad local, cultural and traditional flavours. Even as the craze of western clothing picks up at its own dawdling pace, it is a treat to watch the majority men and women in traditional Bhutanese attire. The youth comes across as cultural and simple, yet modern in their outlook.

I ask 17 year-old Tashi what she wants to do in life, expecting the usual mundane answers – engineering, medicine, accountancy, and she knocks me off by answering that she wants to be a good human being. So then, it is not hard to comprehend why the last Shangri-La on earth, stays happy and contended.

The Bhutanese architectural norms are uniform – white-washed rectangular buildings with sloping and crested roofs. The colourful motifs of phallus, dragon and lotus on the walls of shops and houses are to ward off the evil spirits. Largely a Buddhist country, Bhutanese belief in gods, religious effects and ghosts, is strong.

Day kicks off early in Bhutan and through my gilded hotel window; I see the sun coming out of its slumber from the chasm between two hills. A school boy flashes a smile as he bids his mother good bye; the naughty wind ruffles the neatly combed hair of a young girl in bright green ankle-length Kera; a man, in the dusk of his life, struggles to open an umbrella; the lone dog on the street barks, and a young couple passes by with their new born safely ensconced in the father’s arms… The everyday glimpses in the dragon land are hard to be missed and to be cherished forever.

A saunter through the serpentine roads leading to the tranquil hillocks; crossing a wooden cantilever bridge covered with multi-coloured flags, a glance at the serene chortens (stupas), a stopover by the Po Chhu river and spinning the prayer wheels – is a mediation, a prayer in itself, for which no quiet corner, or no instructor is needed.

Interesting facts about Bhutan —

Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment. Among its requirements: at least 60 percent of the nation must remain under forest cover at all times.

One-third of Bhutan’s population is under the age of 14; its median age is 23.4 years.

Thimpu is one of just two capital cities in Asia that does not have a single traffic light. The other is Pyongyang, North Korea.

Bhutan is the only nation in the world where the sale of tobacco is banned.

At 24,840 feet, Gangkhar Puensum is the highest point in Bhutan – and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.

Anyone found guilty of killing a highly endangered and culturally sacred black-necked crane could be sentenced to life in prison.

Bhutan is one of the last countries in the world to introduce television to its people. The government lifted a ban on TV – and on the Internet – only in 1999.

A Bhutanese is not allowed to wear pants while visiting government offices, and during official and religious functions.

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