I spend the night above Chelala Pass, near a sky burial site that lay empty. With no body left exposed to the elements, ravens circle above but without reason to land today. Through my tent flap I watch the clouds lift, and for a moment Bhutan’s second highest mountain, Jomolhari, is revealed. With a soft rounded crest and a razor-sharp ridge leading up to the summit, this is a forbidden climb because mountains are decreed sacred in this Himalayan kingdom. I watch wisps of cloud drift about the peak while listening to the frantic flapping of prayer flags, before packing up and moving down, first detouring to the Buddhist nunnery at Kila. Earlier in my trip I had met some of the sisters in the market at Paro and they had offered to fix me breakfast.
Perched on a cliff like an eyrie, their settlement dates back 500 years. The series of dormitories, temples and prayer rooms feels precarious, hewn as much from rock as slatted together by pretty painted wood. Up at 3,500 metres above sea level, they’re snowed in for three months of the year. The nuns who make their home here are inevitably a hardy lot. Like their more familiar brethren, they also dress in swathes of crimson robes, their heads shaven, eyes cast down. I come across a group pounding mountain herbs into incense powder, each in turn lifting a wooden pole up high before driving it hard into a deep stone mortar. Backs to the cliffs, they shuffle aside to let me pass.
I was seeking out Anay Tshering, a young nun with fine spoken English who had been keen to talk. She was chewing gum when I found her, and she smiled with the same radiance as the enlightened deities in the niches of the temples. She took my hands together like a prayer, and we drank sweet tea while she explained why she had chosen to become a nun: originally out of fear of men and to avoid marriage, but added that her reasons had evolved. “It’s a simple life here,” she says. “There are no attachments. I’m independent. It’s real freedom.” She tells me she longs to go on the requisite three-year, three-month, three-day solitary retreat, and is awaiting the nod from her elders.
We are drawn to each other in spite of, or because of, our differences. “Are you not afraid of your husband?” she asks when I tell her I have three children. “We’re not married,” I reply, and she gasps. “But no, I’m not afraid of him. We are equals.” She nods. “We are also trying to be strong now. The government says we are equal. What the monks do, we can do.”
Change today is both the world’s drumbeat and its lament, and Bhutan is a case study in this dichotomy. An ancient kingdom and a fresh-faced democracy, Bhutan persists with cherished traditions, such as Buddhist rituals, national dress, vernacular architecture, and yet in other ways, including well-being and mindfulness, it’s absolutely on the edge. “When we do good things,” Anay says, “we’re repaid with ultimate happiness.” I turn to leave and feel a pang of sadness, sensing this could have become a friendship. Anay awkwardly hugs me. “I had a really great time with you,” she says. “Remember: always travel like a pilgrim.” Her words are a jolt. “How do I do that?” She shrugs, but replies, “Kindness. Love. Empathy. Happiness. Humility.”
It turned out Anay wasn’t the only one to impart sage advice. From the yak farmer to Bhutan’s first tattoo artist to a former supreme court judge, the people I met on this trip seemed to speak in proverbs. Wesel Dema works at the Gross National Happiness Centre in the capital Thimphu, which supports the well-publicised government policy of peace of mind over profit. The idea came about nearly 50 years ago when a journalist asked the last king about his country’s GDP. His reply was that quality of life can be measured in other ways.
Staying another night in Thimphu, I wait at the clock tower for the tattoo artist Yeshey Nidup Tenzi. He arrives late, wearing military fatigues and high tops, with a long pigtail, at odds with his surrounds; many Bhutanese still dress in the traditional male goh or female kira, or at least a diluted form of this elegant national dress with its boxy wraparound jacket over draped skirts. Yeshey leads me to a rather seedy room, 202, in a nameless hotel. “I don’t have my own workshop yet,” he says apologetically. But he opens his backpack and shows me his sketches and equipment. “I can get anything now from Delhi or Bangkok,” he said. “But I used to make my tools — I used the remote from a gaming console, wire from a phone charger, acupuncture needles and an ordinary pen refill.”