Bhutan is a curious country; as though you’ve stepped into the past, where time moves slower and the barrage of things that beg for your attention in a city like Mumbai, suddenly don’t seem as essential. In August, I spent four days in Thimphu, the capital, where I attended the ninth edition of the annual Mountain Echoes literature festival, an initiative of the India Bhutan Foundation, in association with the Jaipur-based literary agency Siyahi. The festival, which enjoys the patronage of Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, took place across multiple venues. I spent most of my time at Royal University Of Bhutan, where speakers enthralled an audience of locals, school kids and international media.
Each morning, Mountain Echoes kicked off with a performance by the students of Royal Academy Of Performing Arts, followed by sessions that encompassed everything from ecology and politics, to Bhutanese literature, censorship of the press, and even the The Beatles’s contribution to pop culture.
A performance by the students of Royal Academy Of Performing Arts
An unexpected surprise came my way on day two. I sat in on a lecture by American scholar Daniel C Taylor, Bhutanese writer and journalist Tshering Tashi and expeditioner Karma Singye Dorji, on the yeti—my favourite talk. We’ve grown up hearing tales of the Abominable Snowman, but never anything like this. Taylor has spent his life combing the high peaks and lush forests of Bhutan and neighbouring Nepal in his quest to find the yeti. His talk was accompanied by unseen images of the Bhutanese kingdom from the ’60s, including yeti footprints, and vignettes of local life.
Rappers Kezang Dorji and Maynia Dhubee OG in conversation with singer Kinley Phyntso (centre)
Every evening saw soirees, where delegates, speakers and media interacted late into the night, without the daytime’s formal tone.
I soon realised that my observation of Thimphu, of being slow-paced, was wrong. There is a vibrant undercurrent here that permeates the deeply conventional surface (locals have to wear their traditional dress on a daily basis to school, work and all formal gatherings). At night, in Thimphu, everything changes. Take the bar around the corner from my hotel, for instance. Outside, you’re in Thimphu; inside, you could be anywhere. Skinny jeans-clad youngsters knock back drinks as music thumps from the speakers. The capital’s creative crowd flocks to places like these after dark, once they have shed their inhibitions with their traditional ghos (for men) and wonjus, kiras and tegos (for women), for western wear.
The festival opened my eyes to Bhutan’s multiplicity, but being out and about in the city focused them. It also led me to Karma Wangchuck (33), the country’s biggest street-style blogger, and Kezang Dorji (28), its most popular rapper. These two youngsters have ordinary day jobs (Wangchuk works at an NGO, while Dorji is a business performance analyst), but like many of their peers, they transform and truly come alive after hours. The former chronicles the country’s vibrant fashion on Instagram (@bhutanstreetfashion). The latter, a self-confessed nationalist, uses his music to encourage the youth to strengthen their roots, at a time when the conservative Himalayan kingdom is slowly opening up to the rest of the world.
The two of them, to my mind, symbolise the Bhutan of today: a country at a cultural crossroads, questioning and defining its growing role on the global stage—not only as a political player, nestled as it strategically is between India and China, or an envy inducing bucket list-worthy destination (Indians are luckily exempt from the daily fee of US$250 that most foreigners have to cough up in order to experience it), but as a country that is warm and welcoming, and has so much to offer. If you’ve ever wanted to visit, go; I urge you. And there’s no better time than during Mountain Echoes. If a descent into the lush Paro valley or the fireside conversations with the likes of Taylor, or spoken-word poet Sarah Kay (whose performance captured every heart there), isn’t the best way to glimpse the soul of this warm country, I don’t know what is.