Bhutan's Two Directions: Up and Down

Most countries have four directions: north, south, east and west. From where I sat, Bhutan, a country the size of Switzerland, had only two: up and down. This is a country, I learned once I got there, that rises from 500 feet above sea level at its Indian border to almost 25,000 feet at its Tibetan border. It does all this rising in a distance of a little under two hundred miles, roughly the distance from New York to Boston. Think of Bhutan as if it were the forehead of a very worried giant. Think of me as a miniature version of that giant. According to one guidebook, the roads in Bhutan curve sharply every nine seconds. That is an accurate observation give or take a second either way. I know. I timed it. The problem is the roads do all this curving on the sides of mountains. Look out the left side of your vehicle and you see blue pine and rhododendron bushes barely a couple of arm lengths away. Look out the right side and you see a cliff dropping a sheer thousand feet to a river in the crotch of a valley so far away it looks like a piece of string. Maybe the driver knows what he is doing. I don't. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here.

Nancy and I flew into Bhutan on the 9th of May, 2007. We had flown from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan, a four hour flight with a stopover in Calcutta. Sengey Wangdi was unlucky enough to sit next to me. He spoke English, the second language of Bhutan, as well as Dzongkha, the national language. It was a seating arrangement made in heaven. He taught me how to say, "I want water" in Dzongkha. Nga chu shuge. "How are you?" Che gadey bey yoed go? "I don't like hot buttered tea with salt." Nga suja mige? Then Sengey prodded me to say to the flight attendant when she came around with drinks, Choe zharim du. "You are beautiful." She knew perfectly well where the pass was coming from.

Sengey gave me his telephone number and told me to be sure to call him in Thimphu if I needed help.

One of Sengey's friends said to me: Nam du na bam zharim du ga? "Are there any beautiful girls on the plane." When I nodded my head and said, "Du," he convulsed with laughter.

I think I am going to like the Bhutanese.

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