The Crestone Eagle, January 2009:
Crestonians on safari in beautiful Bhutan
Story & photos by Bill Ellzey
Mount Everest is distant through the plane window. Pinch me—the legendary Himalayas right out there—not a photo in an atlas or National Geographic but live on my very own retinas.
Months of planning and anticipation are about to become reality. Aboard one of the two Boeing 737s permitted to fly in and out of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, our group of seven photo-adventurers holds its collective breath. The aircraft is descending in a series of wing dipping turns following a meandering valley toward the country’s only airport. Our Bhutan Photo Safari is about to begin.
A year or so ago Tshering Dorji, Bhutanese owner of the Desert Sage Restaurant, and myself, Bill Ellzey, photographer, started kicking around the idea of a photo safari in Tshering’s home country. Word got out and people signed up.
In addition to Tshering and me, other Crestonians along on the trip are Martin Macaulay, Whitney Strong and Jim Davidson. Dr. Allen Liebgott from Denver and Pat Bahn of Portland, Oregon round out the group.
Why Bhutan and why now (November, 2008)? Well, Bhutan is a mountain kingdom and we who live in Crestone have a fondness for the beauty of mountains. It also is a mysterious and fascinating place. Shangrila, some say. It’s about the size of Switzerland and is the world’s youngest democracy. For the first time in history a king voluntarily abdicated his throne believing that a democratic monarchy would be best for his people.
And 2008 was the coronation year for his son, the 5th king of Bhutan. In fact the crown was passed with great pageantry during the 3 days of ceremonies while we were in country. Nearly every Bhutanese person who wasn’t in the capitol city, Thempu, witnessing the pageant for him/herself was spellbound before a TV set.
At the same time as the king’s coronation another head of state was being elected half way around the world. Barak Obama was chosen by the American people (and most of the planet) as the new leader of the free world. [See accompanying article].
Of equal importance to our trip as the auspicious political happenings, actually more so, is that Tshering Dorji is with us. He is our own “in-house” guide. The government trains drivers and guides, and foreigners cannot tour the country without them.
But Tshering is not only Bhutanese, he is one of us, American, home boy. Little did we know what respect he would receive, and we also by association, from our tour operator, driver, guide, government ministers and monks in monasteries simply because of his sincerity, good humor and general character. He opened doors for us behind which other visitors had never seen.
At one monastery we were granted privilege to peer inside a revered cave containing the body print in the stone wall where Guru Rimpoche sat and meditated. Our government-furnished guide had been taking tourists there for 14 years and the door to the chamber had never been opened to him or his groups.
The 9 of us had a luxurious 19 passenger Toyota Cruiser bus with huge windows at our disposal, plenty of room for each of us to have our own window seat and camera gear close at hand.
Our route was along the only paved road running east-west which bisects the country north and south. To the far north lies the Himalayas visible from the high passes we crossed. At the southern extremes of the country terrain flattens out and becomes jungle in parts.
We traveled from Paro, the westernmost point of our excursion, through Thempu, Bhutan’s capital, and continued east to Punaka, Wangdi, Trongsa and Bumthang, Tshering’s hometown. We toured temples and monasteries, and a nunnery with ties to Yeshe Kohrlo. One of the nuns had been to Crestone where Tshering heard her sing. He prevailed upon her to sing for us. The clarity of her voice made me close my eyes and be completely transported from the room, fellow travelers, everything familiar. An utterly transcendent experience.
That evening we had dinner at Tshering’s sister’s house. In Bhutan the eldest daughter inherits the family home. She is quite successful, having expanded the family land holdings. And she and her helpers created a wonderful traditional village meal which was served in the shrine room due to its size and the special occasion.
Among her culinary skills is a knack for brewing Arra, the powerful distilled spirits made at home throughout Bhutan from wheat, barley or rice. At the end of the evening she gave each of us a small water bottle full of Arra. For medicinal purposes, naturally.
From Bumthang we started our journey homeward, retracing our path west hoping to get all the photographs we passed up while headed east. This can never be done, of course. One must always stop for every photograph one sees. One is never at the same place at the same time, in the same light or same mood.
But when there are so many wonderful photographs in such photogenic territory it is impossible to stop for them all, so we say we’ll get it on the way back. When we get to the same spot, nothing looks the same and we drive on, glad of the memory. In pro photo circles we give a nod to film days of old (Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, etc.) and say we shot a neurochrome.
Sunday evening, January 18, 6pm at the Desert Sage Restaurant Tshering is offering a Bhutanese Buffet and slide show of our trip. Cost is $19.95. Bhutanese food is traditionally pretty spicy but for American pallets it is toned down with the option to “hot it up” to taste with spices on the side.