A One Horse Town

We turn from the Wang Chu into the Haa Valley, stopping for lunch in the town of Haa itself. Paro, our final destination of the day and the site of Bhutan’s only airport, is forty miles away, half that if we could tunnel straight through the mountains.

The Haa Valley is beautifully manicured. Rice and potato, asparagus and wheat, millet and barley fields unroll beneath us like a by-the-numbers painting. When we reach the town, we are the only vehicle moving on its wide and treeless main street. An old graying pony is standing motionless in the center of the road, its hind legs knocked-kneed together as if it were sleeping off a drunk like Lee Marvin’s horse in Cat Ballou.

We decide to walk before lunch. It is like walking down the center of a street in a western movie. The road is dusty and so, too, are the shops on either side. People peep out from behind doors or windows, examining the strangers in town. When we make eye contact, they smile or wave. We wave back.

A young man comes towards us. He is thin as a rail and smartly dressed in a military uniform. What, I wonder, is a soldier doing in this innocent spot?

“Good afternoon,” he says in perfect English.

He tells me he is in the Bhutanese army. He says that just up the road is the headquarters of the Indian army in Bhutan. It is here because China, i.e. Chinese occupied Tibet, is just 40 miles away. He points up the road toward the mountains in the distance. He says the border is closed.

I ask him what he does in the army.

"I train people."

"In what?"

“Discipline,” he says.

He is a reminder that however serene Bhutan may seem, it is not free of the world it has been hiding in. The Bhutanese are nervous. And so, of course, are the Indians. They have made their anxiety known to the Chinese by establishing a military presence in the town of Haa, the sleepy, one horse town of Haa.

After lunch we drive up and up and up until we reach the Chele La Pass. A sign says the pass is 3988 meters high. In fact, it is only 3810 meters high. Either is high enough. A chill wind is blowing, rattling the sea of prayer flags that have been planted here. Below we can see the Haa valley and in a few minutes we will enter its neighbor, the Paro Valley and begin the twenty-mile descent to Paro itself.

That night Nancy and I have dinner at a hotel owned by Peldon Tschering's brother, Uygen. It is a beautiful hotel. Designed by an American architect, it has a Buddhist shrine that is worthy of any temple we have seen. Magnificent pottery and wall hangings tastefully placed around the atrium-like lobby combine art, religion and luxury into a single elegant pot pourri. The contrast between the simplicity of the town of Haa and Uygen’s hotel just five miles outside of Paro underscores Bhutan’s attempt to stand with one leg in the past and the other in the future.

Uygen is there when we arrive. We introduce ourselves. He is startled to find that we are from, of all places, MIT, the university that his sister attended. We tell him we know her, that she, in fact, told us to be sure to visit his hotel. He offers us a glass of wine. We talk.

The conversation quickly turns to the coming democracy. Like everyone else we have spoken to, Uygen believes democracy is a good thing but worries about the timing of it all. Still, he thinks Bhutan is well fortified against mishap. It will have, not one, but two living kings, one who abdicated and his son, who will be crowned in 2008. Such collective wisdom, he thinks, will be Bhutan's salvation.

Uygen's biggest concern is literacy. He thinks that for democracy to be effective, literacy must be 100%. Currently, Bhutan hovers around 50%. He asks me what I think. I tell him that I don’t think that literacy will be a problem in a country where people talk to one another. I tell him if I were Bhutan, I would study the democracies of the world, try to understand their failings, where they have gone wrong and why. I point out, for example, that in the United States over the last quarter of a century there has been an unprecedented migration of wealth into the top 1% of the society. This has undermined the middle class and threatens the stability of the nation. The lesson for Bhutan is not to allow too great a disparity between its rich and its poor. Otherwise it risks tearing the fabric of its society in two.

He asks me what democracy I would recommend he study.

After thinking for a minute, I say, "Study New Zealand. You both have strong social support systems for education and health care. You both have minorities that need to be dealt with fairly."

When we part, he hopes we will return soon and stay in his hotel. So do we.

Click here to listen to this entry in audio