Hap­pi­ness on the Peaks

Cy­cling is an ac­tiv­ity that adds to the hap­pi­ness of the peo­ple of Bhutan.

Southasia - - CONTENTS -

Cra­dled amidst the Hi­malayan Moun­tains and be­tween In­dia and China, Druk Yul or the land of the dragon is a coun­try of greens and browns. The moun­tain­ous coun­try­side and the lush and large forests make Bhutan a nat­u­ral haven that soothes the soul. Af­ter putting a halt to slav­ery in 1952 and rein­te­grat­ing its me­dieval in­fra­struc­ture, na­tional econ­omy, pol­i­tics and cus­toms, the pre­vi­ously iso­lated coun­try evolved grad­u­ally into a land of un­bounded and abun­dant jun­gles and high, moun­tain­ous peaks.

Pop­u­lated by some 725,000 peo­ple and Dzongkha as the na­tional lan­guage, Bhutan gained the sta­tus of the world’s first coun­try to be a 100% or­ganic farm­ing na­tion in 2013. Plas­tic bags are pro­hib­ited in Bhutan hence mak­ing it an eco-friendly coun­try. With a 54% lit­er­acy rate and 322 schools that have tripled in num­ber dur­ing the pre­vi­ous years, Bhutan also has more than 661 op­er­a­tional health fa­cil­i­ties. It is the only na­tion that has Ma­hayana Bud­dhism as the of­fi­cial state reli­gion. Tourists’ num­bers in­creased from pre­vi­ously 2500 to 100,000 an­nu­ally. Lux­u­ri­ous re­sorts have sprouted and the coun­try at­tracts eco-tourists and those drawn to adventure in im­pres­sive num­bers. The of­fi­cial tourist slo­gan of the coun­try – “Hap­pi­ness is a place” – speaks vol­umes about its peo­ple, lead­er­ship and the ap­proach to­wards life which is preva­lent in the coun­try since 1952.

A key qual­ity of life in­di­ca­tor is be­ing used ever since Bhutan’s fourth Druk Gyalpo or The Dragon King was crowned. His Royal High­ness, Jigme Singye Wang Chuck, was crowned in 1972 at the age of 16 and he in turn crowned his el­dest son in De­cem­ber 2006. Dur­ing his rule, he de­vised a four pil­lar for­mu­la­tion and named it Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness. Gen­er­ally known as the G.N.H., it stands on the four fun­da­men­tals of eq­ui­table and sus­tain­able eco­nomic devel­op­ment, con­ser­va­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment, preser­va­tion and pro­mo­tion of cul­ture and good gov­er­nance. It also places in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity on the Bhutanese peo­ple to cre­ate and sus­tain an en­vi­ron­ment that boosts hap­pi­ness.

The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wang Chuck, af­ter pass­ing over the throne to his son, was seen giv­ing more time to what he loved as a pas­time on the streets of the cap­i­tal city. He was of­ten seen ped­al­ing up and down the hills and across the off roads. Cy­cling be­gan re­ceiv­ing royal pa­tron­age in Bhutan since then. For the past five years, Bhutan has been hold­ing ‘The Tour of the Dragon’ cy­cling race that be­gins in the city of Bumthang and ends in the cap­i­tal Thim­phu. Though high lat­i­tude-wise, it is a coun­try sit­u­ated very close to the equa­tor, just twenty eight de­grees to the north and is set­tled in a tem­per­ate zone. The cy­cle race stretches right from cen­tral to west­ern Bhutan, cov­er­ing 166.5 miles or 268 kilo­me­ters.

Cy­cling is not merely a pas­time or just an­other sport for the Bhutanese. The ac­tiv­ity holds spir­i­tual value for the peo­ple and brings hap­pi­ness as they begin their cy­cling jour­neys across the val­leys and hills. The cy­cling ac­tivists up­hold the mantra – “You can’t buy hap­pi­ness – but you can buy a bike and that is pretty close.”

With such fer­vour and sen­ti­men­tal at­tach­ment to cy­cling, The Tour of the Dragon race is a na­tional cy­cling hol­i­day. It usu­ally be­gins at 2 am and stretches for up to 11 hours un­til the first cy­clist fin­ishes the trip. Along the jour­ney through lush green fields and forests, tiny vil­lages and the hilly coun­try­side, cy­cling de­picts the prom­ise of hap­pi­ness. Peo­ple don’t re­gard it as a guar­an­tee but as a com­mit­ment. Cy­cling is a whole­some ac­tiv­ity in Bhutan and is con­sid­ered good for ob­vi­ous benefits – health of mind, body and soul. The life ex­pectancy in Bhutan was 45 years for men and 49 years for women un­til two decades ago. It went up to 66 years for both gen­ders ever since cy­cling reached the com­mon.

In a coun­try where tele­vi­sion en­tered homes in 1999 and the first road was paved in 1962, cy­cles and bikes have be­come the ul­ti­mate, popular trans­porta­tion ma­chines. As cy­clists begin the race dur­ing The Tour of the Dragon, they pass through four moun­tain passes that are as low as 4000 ft and as high as 11,000 ft. The route has twenty four kilo­me­ters of up­hill climb­ing. The prime min­is­ter him­self has par­tic­i­pated three times in this an­nual race which is su­per­vised by the Bhutan Olympic Com­mit­tee. Off road and on road bik­ers find their par­adise on th­ese hilly ways which sprout with saf­fron­robed monks along the way.

A to­tal of 46 rid­ers par­tic­i­pated in 2014 and only 22 could make it to the end, reach­ing the fin­ish line many hours later. The fifth Druk Gyalpo or The Dragon King, Jigme Kh­e­sar Nam­gyel Wangchuck, was also present at the race with his queen. Ajay Pan­dit Ch­hetri, a fa­mous Nepalese cy­clist, won the race with a time of 10 hours, 42 min­utes and 49 sec­onds. The sec­ond place was also taken by a Nepalese, Ra­jku­mar Shrestha. The third win­ner was a Bhutanese, Sonam Tsh­er­ing, who had been win­ning the race since 2012. The mo­tive and spirit of the race, how­ever, re­mains fo­cused on the hap­pi­ness that the rid­ers get out of the race. Sonam Tsh­er­ing says, “The feel­ing that you get when you are rid­ing on the trail, alone in na­ture, sur­rounded by all those nat­u­ral sounds, is one of the great­est feel­ings you can ever have. My hap­pi­ness – my own, per­sonal G.N.H. – is the moun­tain bike and the for­est.”

The 2015 Tour of the Dragon will be held on Septem­ber 5. It will also be a 268 km race, start­ing from Bumthang and end­ing at Thim­phu. Bhutan is a coun­try where hap­pi­ness is par­al­lel to gov­er­nance and reli­gion. The land of the dragon seeks and finds hap­pi­ness in ev­ery as­pect of life that prevails and cy­cling is a di­men­sion that con­tin­ues to be ex­plored. - SF

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