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