04 April 2010

"Branding Bhutan" — or the story of a "Trek through Time"

The 19 February issue of Science includes an article on Bhutan titled, "Improbable Partners Aim to Bring Biotechnology to Himalayan Kingdom" (v. 247, p. 940-941). Reading it over lunch the other day, I thought, "Hmmm... well, that's interesting." Then I read a subheading on page 941, "Branding Bhutan." "Wow," I thought, "we have come a long way since 1974." Is this good or bad? Or neither? Is it just the natural course of things in a country both protective of its borders and open to change?

Just a little over 35 years ago, in October 1974, National Geographic featured on its cover a picture of a new leader coming to power in Bhutan. The cover caption read, "With his great-great-grandfather's five-colored scarf on his shoulders, 18-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuck formally becomes monarch in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. John Scofield's picture story highlights the color and enduring traditions of the sequestered nation."

A dusty copy of this issue remains on the bookshelf in the living room of my grandmother's house, though she passed on in 2003, and my aunt lives there now. An avid Nat Geo reader, my grandmother, Lillie Asmus, felt something in her heart shift as she read the article and took in Scofield's pictures. She had to go there, no matter what it took.

But Bhutan was closed to tourism — until young Wangchuck realized the potential benefits of well-regulated tourism. In 1975, upon permission from the king, a small party brought together by an up-and-coming adventure tourism company, then called Mountain Travel and now known as Mountain Travel Sobek, was allowed to trek this 38,394 km2 country.

My grandma was a member of that first group of American tourists. At 65, she was the oldest, and probably the most determined. Still recovering from a stroke she'd suffered six years earlier, she walked with a limp, and she'd lost her ability to take hand-written notes. Fortuitously for me, she carried with her the whole time a tape recorder, and each night recorded notes and impressions about the trek. She played those tapes for me back in 1992, and we spent several hours going over the events that touched her the most. On 28 June 1992, the Boulder Daily Camera published our account of her adventure in an article titled, "Trek through Time" (p. 1C, 3C).

The trip had multiple highlights, but I think the most significant one was the presence of Tenzing Norgay as sirdar (guide). Tenzing, you may recall, was the Nepalese sherpa who, with Sir Edumund Hilary of England, became the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest in 1953. Quoting from my 1992 article, "In countries like Nepal and Bhutan, and even India, Tenzing (who guessed his age in 1975 to be about 61 by our calendar) was revered almost as a legend."

My grandmother said that she liked Tenzing "instantly" and still blushed years later when she told me that after she presented the sirdar with a pair of mittens (knit by my aunt), "He kissed me on my cheek and gave me a big hug."

The group began the official trek in Paro, northern Bhutan. The tiny guest houses quickly set up for tourists could not hold the entire group, so grandma volunteered to take a tent. This was mid-January, but, grandma recalled, it felt to her to be the right thing to do because "Tenzing did it too."

The group's trek continued to Tiger's Nest (Taktsang), the ancient Buddhist monastery perched on the edge of a narrow, grassy cliff. It's a rather treacherous trail up to Tiger's Nest, and not for the faint-of-heart. For safety, the group was required to take to horseback (which frightened my grandmother more than walking), but when the horses could go no further, they made the rest of the approach on foot, down so many steps my grandmother could not keep count, and finally up again, into the temple.

After several days in Bhutan, the group returned to India, trekking through Nepal and Sikkim (now a part of India).

I'll save my grandmother's time in Sikkim for another post, but I will tell you she met the last king of that country, and we still have the ceremonial prayer scarf she exchanged with him before tea. And I'll also save the next part of the story — the 80-mile trek along the Nepal-India border and the visit to Tenzing's home — for another time. Then there's grandma's trek in the Scottish Hebrides. Oh, and I must tell at some point the story of her honeymoon, bicycling through Europe in 1935.

But back to Bhutan, and the Science article.

Thimpu businessman Wangdi Jamyang has teamed up with a British mycologist (Nigel Hywel-Jones) to "Brand Bhutan." That is, according to the Science article by Richard Stone, they're "crafting a business model for biotech in the kingdom." You see, among its many natural riches, Bhutan is the home of a fungus (Cordyceps sinensis or "yartsa guenbub" in Bhutanese) "that fetches outrageous prices as a Chinese medicine." Wangdi wants to trump the poachers coming in across the border, ensure that the fungus is collected without violating the country's "Buddhist reverence for the environment" (which is one reason behind keeping the country closed to tourists for so long), and, of course, keep the profits in-country.

According to the article, the decision by Bhutan's leadership to allow collection of the fungus each June has "pulled many rural Bhutanese out of poverty," with earnings in that one month surpassing "a year's income from yak herding."

It's a good idea. As biotech adviser Hywel-Jones notes, "The best ideas come when you're in a forest." Long before Bhutan allowed western tourists into the country, it was known as "Lho Men Jong, or 'Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs.'" Bhutan's relatively pristine countryside is flush with fungi. Those fungi, managed in Bhutan's farsighted manner, could provide opportunities for advances in medicine as well as increased financial "happiness" for the country's citizens.

Grandma sold her trekking boots back in 1990. If I had those boots here now, I'd look them over quizzically, wondering if they'd ever trod upon the insect fungus that now might be leading Bhutan into a future delicately balanced between protecting its soils and reaping its environmental rewards.

If grandma were here, she'd clap her hands together, smile, bow, and send her best wishes across the seas to the country that so touched her life.


  1. I want to be just like your grandma when/if I grow up!

  2. What a terrific story! I just discovered your blog through a mutual friend and will definitely check back in. I love your twist on the intersection of science and culture.

  3. Just came across your blog. It was a very promising idea at the time but sadly failed. I moved back to Thailand in July 2013. Bhutan still has a lot to learn about business in the big wide world. And, especially, the bureaucracy of the civil service needs to learn to serve the people and not itself.