The unusual country of Bhutan

The unusual country of Bhutan

The Parotaktsang Palphug Buddhist Monastery, also known as the Tiger's Nest, in Paro district. (Photo: Today's Zaman)

July 26, 2013, Friday/ 15:42:00

Thimphu -- We head out from İstanbul on a plane, most of the passengers on which are not even familiar with the name of the country to which we are going. After a flight of around six hours, we transfer in the Indian capital of New Delhi, finishing our journey with the only airline company in the world that flies to Bhutan. This second flight lasts two hours, and we look out the windows at the snowy mountain peaks below us, arriving finally at the Paro Airport.

Descending into Paro, one is aware that this is one of the most difficult airports in the world to land at due to the surrounding mountains. We pass very close to the mountains around us and find ourselves suddenly in the middle of the Paro runway. The moment we leave the plane, we realize that this country resembles no other we have ever visited.

It takes another two hours by road to get from the Paro Airport to the capital city of Thimphu. Bhutan, for those who don't know, is in Asia, between China and India. Its area is 38,394 square kilometers and its population is just 750,000. Bhutan is not a country about which we hear much. It has two enormous neighbors; in fact, it is one of the smallest countries in the world and is landlocked. For many years, Bhutan had only limited communications with other countries. Until 1961, there were no roads leading into Bhutan!

The country accepted its first official tourist in 1974. These days, Bhutan accepts more tourists, though still keeps the numbers limited, with the aim of protecting its own traditions and ways. There are around 40,000 tourists a year who visit Bhutan, this ever-so-interesting country.

The conditions of the past

The extreme isolation and lack of roads leading into Bhutan through the mid-1900s meant that anyone who wanted to get there -- until 1961 -- would either walk or ride in atop the back of an animal. There were also no railroads or no air connections. And then the first highway opened up in 1961 that led into Bhutan. As it is now, the total length of all roads in Bhutan is just 5,363 kilometers. Citizens from other countries across the world -- with the exception of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives -- all need visas to enter Bhutan. Bhutan is four hours ahead of Turkey.

Many people in Bhutan have roots that go back to Tibet. In fact, the citizens of Bhutan very much resemble people from Tibet. When it comes to both language and culture, the Tibetan influence can be felt very strongly here. There are also many citizens here who are an ethnic mix of those from India and Nepal. Bhutan truly is an unusual country. There is even a handful of Europeans who live in Bhutan, though there are no Turks. The average life span of people from Bhutan is 66 years of age.

The native language in Bhutan is the Dzongka language, which is taught for 10 hours a week at schools here. English is also taught very successfully, and the younger generations in particular have picked it up quite fluently. The Dzongka language uses 30 letters, and is a dialect of Tibetan. At the same time, though, a full 60 percent of the Bhutanese are illiterate.

There is just one airline that flies into Bhutan: Drukair, which belongs to Bhutan. Drukair possesses just three airplanes. After all, it is not that easy to get to Bhutan!

Tourists who wish to obtain visas for Bhutan must deposit at least $200 for each day they will stay, though this can go up in price depending on the quality of the hotel at which you stay. The price per day can include your hotel, transportation, guide services and three meals per day. In other words, it is a package tour. Even when you are talking about the absolute minimum price, a tourist who is planning on spending just four days in Bhutan must pay the international travel agency a minimum of $800 up front. Without this money being paid, you cannot enter the country. Groups made up of fewer than three people pay an even higher price.

In other words, the Bhutanese are in favor of wealthier tourists visiting their country! What they are not looking for is the classic backpacking types, or tourists not able to spend a lot of money. In fact, this way of approaching tourism has become an important doctrine for the Bhutanese. What they are saying is something like, “We just need a minimum number of tourists and we will be able to protect our culture, our natural beauty, our forests and so forth.” They underscore that they really don't want too many tourists. They cling fast to the idea that too many tourists might pollute their nature, and their country as a whole. Bhutan can only look to 40 years of experience in tourism.

Never in its history has Bhutan attacked another country. On the other hand, the Tibetans have attacked Bhutan on seven different occasions, though the Bhutanese always protected their country.

This is one of the reasons why you can see large castles and forts in the more crowded regions. Every region has its own fortress, and they were all built during the mid-1700s. These days, the buildings are used by city administration. It should also be noted that Bhutan has never been colonized. In 1910, the king of Bhutan managed to gather the entire country under one flag. Before that, there were a series of smaller kingdoms throughout the country. In other words, the current state of Bhutan, in its current manifestation, has a history of just 100 years.

A constitutional monarchy

Bhutan is ruled by a constitutional monarchy. It has a king at its helm. Each significant residential region of Bhutan boasts a “dzong” or castle fortress. The dzong in the capital is located in an important center. It is from here that Bhutan is ruled and administered. The working offices of the king and all his ministers are located in this dzong. Buddhist monks also reside here. After all, these dzongs have a religious dimension to them. In the local language, this castle is actually called the “Tashichho Dzong,” or “Castle of Religion.”

And so, this castle-fortress is the heart of Bhutan, and is where the king's throne is located. Actually, though, the real residence of the king is a small building just outside the dzong. This place is under special protection, of course. It was in 1969 that the third Bhutanese king had the castle-fortress rebuilt, as it had burned to the ground in the past. Some Bhutanese apparently walked some 13 days on foot (there were no roads between the cities at that point yet) to reach the construction site in the capital.

Most of Bhutan sits at a high elevation and has many mountainous regions. In the winter, there is a sharp wind, while the summer sees cool, softer temperatures. The highest point in Bhutan is at 7,570 meters above sea level: the Gangkhar Puensum peak. In the southern plains of Bhutan, near India, there is a more tropical climate that pervades.

Bhutan is a safe country. It has one of the smallest, least developed economies of any country in the world. In the past decade, however, this country has begun to take very good advantage of its natural sources of flowing water and rivers. Its hydroelectric power stations not only provide electricity to all of Bhutan, but this small country sells a not insignificant amount of electricity to India as well. It is predicted that in the coming years, these new power stations will in fact bring in considerable revenue for Bhutan.

Only India and Bangladesh maintain embassies in Bhutan, while 16 European countries maintain smaller consulates here.

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