Mountain trekking could bring in greater economic dividends.
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.