Bhutan: Forbidden Border

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I read somewhere, several years ago, when Bhutan was an unimaginably far-away fairyland (instead of an unimaginably close fairyland), that Bhutan’s King had some kind of GDP-equivalent statistic that quantified both the economic well-being and the spiritual happiness of his subjects. The figure took into account religion, environmental beauty, family, etc. Beyond this vague and alluring factoid, however, I know nothing about the tiny mountain state floating high in the Himalayas which, for two months in 2005, would make up my northern physical horizon, and whose colorful gates would shout to me, “NONE SHALL PASS.”

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“WELCOME. BHUTAN IS ENDOWED WITH ITS UNIQUE TRADITION AND CULTURE EVOLVED SINCE THE DAWN OF CIVILIZATION. DZONGKHA, THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE AND DRIGLAM NAMZHA, THE TRADITIONAL ETIQUETTE AND NORMS ARE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT SYMBOLS OF BHUTANESE DISTINCT IDENTITY THAT ENABLED OUR COUNTRY TO REMAIN SOVEREIGN AND INDEPENDENT THROUGHOUT THE AGES. THE ONUS LIES WITH ALL BHUTANESE PEOPLE TO FURTHER PROMOTE, PURSUE AND SAFEGUARD THE UNIQUE NATIONAL IDENTITY.”

Interesting first impression: a sign that begins with a one-word welcome and ends with a reminder about maintaining “etiquette and norms.” Perhaps it is a warning to would-be meddling foreigners not to mess with the “unique national identity.” This would be understandable for a nation which only recently opened its borders to curious westerners, albeit, only those in a tour group or working for an NGO.

Whatever the case, this sign at the Gomtu border, only 11 kilometers due north of our house in Birpara, was probably ignored by most of the thousands of plastic-helmeted Indian cement factory workers who passed it each day. I found the sign fascinating, but only because I knew I wasn’t going to see much more of Bhutan that day, not without a visa. The Bhutanese Royal Family could rest assured, the “Dzongkha” and “Driglam Namzha” were under no threat from this traveler, who would have to let his imagination run with the clouded peaks.

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A few weeks later, and a bit farther east, the border at Jaigon was livelier but no more accessible to the white skin of my wife and I. We watched with envy as Mani, our Nepalese-Indian driver, crossed the border with nothing more than a casual wave to buy cheap gasoline in Phuntshoeling, the mountain-hemmed Bhutanese town only meters away. We had to be content to browse the Indian market stalls that lined the straight ditch serving as national border. We watched international commerce in action as an Indian momo seller conducted business across the ditch, hanging his dumplings from the tip of an umbrella, which he then opened to receive his money.

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But that was as close as we got. On the drive back to Birpara, Bhutan was, once again, an impossible fairyland, a Royal Kingdom rising in all its glory behind the tea gardens, doors closed so that its measured happiness could continue to pervade.

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