Moun­tain Mat­ters

Moun­tain trekking could bring in greater eco­nomic div­i­dends.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Mahrukh Fa­rooq The writer is an as­sis­tant editor at Slo­gan and has an in­ter­est in advertising, media and public re­la­tions.

There has al­ways been an el­e­ment of mys­tery sur­round­ing Bhutan, a land many have come to as­so­ciate with tales of the fan­tas­tic, mainly be­cause of an ab­sence of his­tor­i­cal records re­lated to the re­gion. Known as Druk Yul or ‘Land of the Thun­der Dragon’, Bhutan is the only coun­try in the world that has man­aged to re­tain the Tantric form of Ma­hayana Bud­dhism ( Drukpa Kagyu) as its of­fi­cial re­li­gion.

In spite of nu­mer­ous ur­ban set­tle­ments spring­ing up as a re­sult of mod­ern­iza­tion, much of Bhutan con­sists of ru­ral vil­lages where farm­ing is pre­dom­i­nantly the way of life. The Bud­dhist faith con­tin­ues to play an in­te­gral role in form­ing the cul­tural, so­cial and eth­i­cal fab­ric of Bhutan’s so­ci­ety with chort­ens or stu­pas (re­cep­ta­cles for of­fer­ings) lin­ing the road­side and each Bhutanese home fur­nished with a spe­cial room made ex­clu­sively for prayer; a cho­sum.

Such is the aura that is Bhutan evokes the ut­most rev­er­ence from any­one who sets foot in the re­gion. Yet, there is another ex­tra­or­di­nary fea­ture that not only com­mands re­spect but also leaves one in com­plete awe and ad­mi­ra­tion of the near-mag­i­cal prop­er­ties of the coun­try. This is the Bhutan moun­tain range which sports some of the most prom­i­nent ge­o­graph­i­cal fea­tures of the coun­try. Lo­cated in the south­ern end of

the Eastern Hi­malaya, it has one of the most rugged moun­tain ter­rains in the world with el­e­va­tions rang­ing be­tween 160 me­tres (520 ft) to over 7000 me­tres (23,000 ft) above sea level. The high­est peak, north cen­tral Kula Kan­gri, sits at 7,554 me­tres (24,783 ft) above sea level.

De­spite harsh weather con­di­tions and to­pog­ra­phy which is nearim­pos­si­ble to over­come, most of the coun­try’s moun­tains have been scaled by dare­dev­ils and climb­ing-en­thu­si­asts fol­low­ing the open­ing of Bhutan’s borders to moun­taineer­ing in 1983 by the na­tional Tourism Com­mer­cial Or­gan­i­sa­tion. The re­stric­tions im­posed prior to this pe­riod aimed at pro­tect­ing the spir­i­tual im­por­tance of the coun­try’s moun­tain peaks as well as its pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment. By 1992, all the top 40 moun­tains had been con­quered, save for one; ly­ing on the bor­der be­tween Bhutan and China with an el­e­va­tion of 7570 me­tres (24,836 ft), the Gangkhar Puen­sum. Be­lieved to be the high­est point in Bhutan, the Gangkhar Puen­sum re­mains the high­est un­climbed moun­tain on the planet. Given the cur­rent cir­cum­stances in Bhutan, it is most likely to stay that way.

In 1994, all peaks over 6000 me­tres were closed for trekking af­ter protests were held against the scal­ing of Bhutan’s moun­tain tops. In lo­cal mythol­ogy, tow­er­ing moun­tains are said to be home of spir­its and are, hence, con­sid­ered to be to­tally of­flim­its. It wasn’t long be­fore moun­tain climb­ing was com­pletely banned in 2004.

Even the pe­riod dur­ing which it was pos­si­ble to scale the lofty Gangkhar Puen­sum was wrought with nu­mer­ous chal­lenges, al­beit of a dif­fer­ent na­ture. As the moun­tain is lo­cated on the Bhutan-China bor­der, moun­taineers look­ing to as­cend the moun­tain from the Chi­nese side run into a range of prob­lems mostly re­lated to a long-stand­ing dis­pute be­tween the two coun­tries. Bhutan has never been able to come to terms with the bor­der sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the two coun­tries and, as a re­sult, 269 sq. km (104 sq. miles) of the land, i.e. the north­ern half of Gangkham Puen­sum, re­mains in dis­pute. Sub­se­quent sur­veys con­ducted since 1922 have put the moun­tain in sev­eral dif­fer­ent places and at sev­eral dif­fer­ent el­e­va­tions. China claims the bor­der to split the sum­mit be­tween the two coun­tries; Bhutan, on the other hand, claims the en­tire moun­tain.

The clash has re­sulted in just one ex­pe­di­tion be­ing con­ducted in the past 20 years by a Ja­panese group of climbers who even­tu­ally had to set­tle for a sub­sidiary peak, the Guangkham Puen­sum North, also known as Liankang Kan­gri which has an el­e­va­tion of 7,535 me­tres (24,413 ft). Ever since then, the moun­tain has been vir­tu­ally un­touched by man, a fact which has, in­ter­est­ingly, made it a rather pop­u­lar sub­ject for nu­mer­ous low bud­get, made-for-tele­vi­sion movies.

The lift­ing of the ban on moun­tain trekking in Bhutan is a rather sen­si­tive topic, specif­i­cally due to the re­li­gious im­pli­ca­tions at­tached to it as the way of life of the Bhutanese peo­ple cen­ters on their re­li­gion. If the Bhutanese gov­ern­ment, specif­i­cally the na­tional Tourism Com­mer­cial Or­gan­i­sa­tion, were to re­alise the ben­e­fits of in­creased tourism as a re­sult of an al­lowance of moun­tain climb­ing in the re­gion, trekking en­thu­si­asts and hik­ers around the world would prob­a­bly be able to live their dream of scal­ing the sup­pos­edly ‘un-scal­able’ moun­tain. In ad­di­tion, if both the Chi­nese and the Bhutanese gov­ern­ments put aside their dif­fer­ences for the sake of in­creased in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure, the Gangkhar Puen­sum would be an ex­tremely pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion. Un­til that hap­pens, the moun­tain will con­tinue to in­spire awe amongst many.

Tow­er­ing moun­tains are said to be home of spir­its and are there­fore off lim­its.

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