SPORTS IN BHUTAN
The Bhutanese are a fun-loving people fond of song and dance, friendly contests of archery, stone pitching, traditional darts, basketball and soccer (football). The Bhutanese government says: “We are a social people that enjoy holidays and events as the perfect opportunities to gather with friends and family. . Basketball is fairly big in part because the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and the last king, Jigme Dorje Wangchuk, like the sport very much. There is a well attended a girl’s basketball tournament in Thimphu. Soccer is very popular both as sport to play and watch on television. Some kids play cricket. Bhutan has sought to become a member of the international cricket organizing body.
Men wear their ghos — traditional Bhutanese dress — when they play soccer, shoot archery or engage in drunken games of Bhutanese darts. King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk dresses in a grayish gho with long socks and white sneakers when he played basketball.
Mountaineering in Bhutan
Despite having some of the world’s most impressive Himalayan peaks, mountain climbing is banned. The In Bhutan, the climbing of mountains higher than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) has been prohibited since 1994 based on local beliefs that they are sacred homes of protective deities and spirits. A lack of high-altitude rescue services is also a consideration. The prohibition was further expanded in 2003 when mountaineering of any kind was disallowed entirely within Bhutan. Gangkar Punsu is likely to remain unclimbed unless the government of Bhutan changes its policy [Source: Wikipedia]
Gangkhar Puensum (7,570 meters, 24,840 feet) is the highest mountains in Bhutan and the highest unclimbed peak in the world. It is in Bhutan, on or near the border with Tibet (China). The mountain is sacred to the Bhutanese. Bhutan's government has repeatedly turned requests to climb it, even from the Tibetan side. Foreign mountain climbers were been banned from climbing Bhutan’s sacred peaks in part because of complaints by yak herders that live around the peaks. [Source: Associated Press, March 24, 2008]
After Bhutan was opened for mountaineering in 1983 there were four expeditions to climb Gangkhar Puensum that resulted in failed summit attempts in 1985 and 1986. In 1999, a Japanese expedition successfully climbed Liankang Kangri, a 7,535 metres (24,721 feet) subsidiary peak (not an independent mountain), separated from the main peak by a 2 kilometer- (1.2 mile-) long ridge to the north-northwest.
Golf and Pets in Bhutan
Golf has made its way to Bhutan. Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “It's the only public golf course in Bhutan, and among the world's most remote. But the Royal Thimphu Golf Club — with a 2,800-yard, par-34, 9-hole layout — has plenty of local enthusiasts, most of whom are government officials or businessmen. Kids are beginning to play too, due in part to the work of Rick Lipsey, a golf writer for Sports Illustrated , who created the Bhutan Youth Golf Association in 2002. One of its missions: to teach Bhutan's children friendship, honesty, integrity, morality, and self-motivation — through golf. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]
Every animal is like a pet in Bhutan. Many Bhutanese cities and villages are filled with stray dogs. The killing of animals, especially dogs, is considered a sin in the Bhutanese form of Buddhism. In some places horses run loose. Sometimes you see people in the countryside walking good luck pigs on a leash.
Entertainment in Bhutan
Bhutanese have limited access to modern forms of entertainment. In the 2000s, crowds in Thimphu were entertained by comedians that performed from the back of truck. Sometimes the crowds were quite large. At that time you could find makeshift dance clubs in the basement of apartment buildings in Thimphu. Some had strobe lights and televisions with videos of the dance songs that were being played. Young Bhutanese in fashionable street fashion dance into the wee hours of the morning. Religious festivals and folk traditions such as archery, darts, singing and dancing are still the primary forms of entertainment and recreation for many people.
The BBC reported in 2016: Smartphones and karaoke bars are now common in the capital, Thimphu, and young people, the majority of the population, have taken to social media with ease. This has led to a boom in street fashion, alongside more open discussion of politics. [Source: BBC, April 14, 2016]
In 2018, Reuters reported: “For decades Bhutan had no television, no traffic lights and a culture that had barely changed in centuries.But bars now dot the capital, Thimphu, while teenagers crowd internet cafes to play violent video games, and men smoke and gamble in snooker halls. Inside a gaudily lit dance club, guests watch a 38-year-old woman swaying to the songs they choose, usually traditional folk music but sometimes a Bollywood number or two. [Source: Reuters, January 18, 2018]
Sports and Bhutan’s Kings
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reigned 1972-2006) had a passion for basketball and played goalie in soccer for a while until he realized that Bhutanese were afraid to score goals against him and then switched to basketball. He liked to play the game well into his monarchy and was regarded as a skilled three point shooter and playmaker. Describing the king at his court in the early 1990s Bruce Bunting wrote in National Geographic: "Dark-haired and straight backed, he was dressed in the traditional robe, or gho, all Bhutanese men wear. The king worked his way down the court with regal assurance, dribbling past defenders who gave him a wide berth, he sank the basket." These days he’s into mountain biking (See Below). [Source: Bruce W. Bunting, National Geographic, May, 1991]
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck enjoyed watching basketball in his free time. He had tapes of NBA games sent to him from New York. Meeting were sometimes interrupted so the king could listen to the final minutes of Lakers’ games on his shortwave radio. He didn’t have satellite television before his subjects. He relied on his radio and reports from newspapers brought in from India one or days late. He also enjoyed playing golf.
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (reigned 2006 to now) is said to be a decent basketball player and archer. At Wheaton College in Massachusetts he played varsity basketball.He lives in modest cottage and is famous for inviting his subjects to tea. Among those who were invited in the early 2010s were members of the Thimphu weight-lifting club. [Source: Adam Plowright, AFP, September 12, 2011]
A U.S. Embassy cable in 2005 released by WikiLeaks revealed King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck not only held a “very positive opinion” of the United States but was also a fan of the NBA and the Philadelphia 76ers. After a couple of games with the embassy basketball team, the political officer at the time said he was “a natural two-guard,” had a good shot and ball control, and was “quick enough to drive to the lane to score.”
Olympics and Bhutan
With rare exceptions, the only sport that Bhutan has fielded an Olympics team for is archery. Bhutan fielded an Olympic team at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. All three members of the team were archers. The members of the team eschewed traditional wooden bows in favor of fancy imported models.
The first Olympics that Bhutan participated in was the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. For each Summer Olympic Games from then until 2008, Bhutan was only represented by archers. Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. The first non-archer to compete for Bhutan was Kunzang Choden in the 2012 Olympics. She competed in the women's 10 meter air-rifle event. The 2012 Bhutan team contained no men. Bhutan has never won an Olympic Medal. In spite of the fact that Bhutan is very mountainous, it has never competed in the Winter Games. [Source: Wikipedia]
The Bhutan Olympic Committee was formed in 1983 and recognized by the IOC the same year. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Bhutan had six athletes in one sport — archery. At in 1988 it had three athletes in one sport — archery. At Barcelona in 1992 it had six athletes in archery. At Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, it had 2 athletes in one sport — archery. At London in 2012 it had two athletes in two sports; At the 2004 Olympics, Tshering Chhoden of Vhutan, seeded 54th, upset No. 11 seed Lin Sang of China.
Soccer in Bhutan
The introduction of television into Bhutan was sparked by the World Cup Soccer Final of France in 1998. The 3-0 victory of the home side over Brazil was watched by thousands on a big screen in Bhutan's National Square. TV in Bhutan was such a success that a year later, in 1999, television was brought to Bhutan. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]
In some places in Bhutan, you can Buddhist monks who have thrown off their crimson robes to play soccer, in Manchester United and Chelsea jerseys. One 13-year-old boy told Reuters: "I would love to become a science teacher and watch Cristiano Ronaldo play for Real Madrid," [Source: Reuters, January 18, 2018]
In 2002, on the same day as the World Cup final between Brazil and Germany in Yokohama, Japan, Bhutan played the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat in Thimphu to determine who would be at the bottom of the FIFA’s world ranking. Bhutan won 4-0 and ended up 202nd in the FIFA ranking while Montserrat finished 203rd . The game was dubbed the “Other Final” and was the subject of a film by the same name.
The soccer match was staged and organized by the film producers that made film not FIFA. The film is well made and stylishly produced. Not long before the game, Montserrat had been devastated by a volcanic eruption and is only home to 5,000 people nayway. The team required five days, one boat trip and five flights just to get to Bhutan. Their coach bought his first whistle during the layover in Britain. Bhutan’s victory can at least be partly explained by the fact that the Bhutanese players were used to playing at the 2,340 meters (8,000 feet), the elevation of the pitch, while Montserrat players were used to playing at sea level and many players got sick during the stop over in India. More than 25,000 fans rooted for the home team.
Archery in Bhutan
Archery (dha) is Bhutan's much-loved national sport. The Bhutanese are well known for their archery skills, and archery competitions are commonly held at the time of festivals and national holidays. The bow and arrow play a significant role in many Bhutanese myths and legends; images of the gods holding a bow and arrows are considered especially favorable. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Archery was declared the national sport in 1971 when Bhutan became a member of the United Nations. Bhutan also maintains an Olympic archery team. Archery tournaments and competitions are held throughout the country. Archery is played during religious and secular public holidays in Bhutan, local festivals (tsechu), between public ministries and departments, and between the dzongkhag and the regional teams.
Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Bhutan's virgin forest terrain seems perfect for archery. Its valleys are wide open, its population tiny at just over 600,000. “One does have to be careful not to hit someone who is walking by," says Karma Chophel, 39, chortling. He works in construction and is wearing big white sneakers with his gho.”
James Sturz wrote in The Atlantic: “Every village has at least one range. According to legend, in the 15th century the Buddhist mystic Drukpa Kunley launched an arrow from Tibet, with a prayer that his descendants would flourish wherever it landed. When it crossed the Himalayas and hit a house in Bhutan, he followed it there and seduced the owner’s wife, forever endowing the country with a twinned reverence for archery and the phallus: giant paintings of the latter, spilling semen, adorn buildings throughout the kingdom to protect residents from evil spirits. The pastime involving narrower shafts gained additional sway in the 1980s when then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck embraced the compound bow. [Source: James Sturz, The Atlantic, January-February 2012]
Archers have traditionally had their arrows blessed before competitions. In the old days, Bhutanese archers used bamboo or cane bows and arrows. They are cheap, hand-made and not very accurate. The bows were traditionally made from cane found on the slopes of only one mountain. Sturz wrote: “Today, traditional bamboo bows are spurned by anyone who can afford a modern, American-made, carbon-fiber weapon — even if, at US$1,500, it may cost a full year’s wages.”
Reporting from Yiwakha, not so far from Thimphu, Bhutan, Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “It is about 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday when Bhakta Shangshou receives the call on his cell phone. The sunlight has just begun pouring through the pine forests and apple orchards. His wife and children are still in their beds, tucked under thick, itchy blankets made from yak wool, insulated against this Himalayan town's chilly mornings. "Are you coming?" the caller asks in a booming voice. “Oh yes, let me get my bow and arrow," Shangshou responds, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he doesn't wake his family. "I will get there as soon as I can." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 20, 2008]
“By 7:15, the computer technology lecturer is dressed in a traditional gho, a cross between a Scottish kilt and a Japanese kimono — the top is robelike, the bottom is cut like a skirt. By 7:30, he is in his car, with a steel-tipped arrow in the back seat.
“Minutes later, just as he rolls through a valley and into a gentle clearing, Shangshou hears the sound of high-spirited victory songs, tunes filled with mockery. “You are too foolish to win," one song rings out. "Oh, Bhutan, how beautiful our streams, our mountains, our land of the thunder dragon," goes another. This is the start of Shangshou's weekend ritual: datse, or archery, Bhutan's national sport.”
In traditional Bhutanese archery, competitors shoot at a targets 160 meters a way. Men that stand near the targets are sometimes pierced by arrows. In the old days it was common for archers to taunt their opponents by dancing around in front of the targets before they shot. Now that many archers are forsaking traditional bows and using US$1,500 compound graphite bows that allow archers to hit targets with more accuracy and power. Opponents no longer dare to dance around in front of the target.
Describing Bhutanese archers, Arlene Blum wrote in Smithsonian "Two teams of archers were matched in pairs, each intent on hitting a target 150 yards away across a ravine. Each man lifted his five-foot-bow, unloosed an arrow with a lunge and a great cry, and then ran after the arrow, yelling as if to urge it to the target. On the rare occasions when the target was hit, the archers would all dance about wildly, singing loudly and swigging arrah, the local fermented rice beverage. As the day progressed, the shouting became increasingly enthusiastic and increasingly wide of the mark."
During competitions, archers are "allowed to jeer an opponent, jump in front of the target as he shoots, or undo him between shots with homemade wine and groups of 'seven, nine, or eleven women dancers.'" Beautiful and gentle Bhutanese cheerleaders support their teams with songs and chants and make insulting remarks and repeat nasty rumors about their wives, ideally timed right before the archer shoots.
Friendly Archery Competition
Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Every weekend, in a field above mustard and buckwheat farms, men from two surrounding villages sling their arrows at targets about 460 feet away. The games take place all over the country and, with interruptions for chili and cheese lunches and green tea, can last up to four days. In a largely rural, isolated country, the games are part town meeting, part sport. Above all, they are entertainment. “I am happy my wife is very cooperative and even supportive of my archery addiction," says Shangshou, cleaning the morning dew from his bow. "I can be out here for days. I just love it." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 20, 2008]
“The matches bring together Bhutanese of all classes and backgrounds. In this case, rice and chili farmers play side by side with bureaucrats and doctors. The teams divide and mix quickly into 15 players each. At 8 a.m., the first arrow is launched through the mountain air and across the field. All around are green fields of rice paddies and hilltop monasteries, with their white, yellow and green Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the strong wind.
“Karma Chophel, 39, aims at the target, which is decorated with clouds and dragons. He misses, but at least the arrow doesn't hit anyone. At 8:30 a.m., everyone gathers for a butter tea sold by local merchants. “As a farmer, it's low season now and archery is my favorite form of entertainment," says Nado, 45, a buckwheat farmer who uses only one name. "Television is not for Bhutanese people all the time. We like to be out in our landscape with our bows. Archery is more interesting than the TV."
“Tournaments include female teenagers and folk dancers — almost like cheerleaders — who dance and try to distract opponents. At this game, there are no such women. But the men are happy to stand in for them. “You are very bald," one man shouts as an archer takes aim. “You are stupid," another yells out, laughing so hard he tumbles to the ground.
At 9:15, Shangshou takes his turn. He tries to concentrate. He ignores some taunts. "I know, I know," he says. "It doesn't bother me." Then in a fairy tale-like moment, his arrow soars across the field and right onto the target. He is given a colorful flag, a sign of a win. He tucks it into his gho and looks out over the hillside. Columns of maroon-robed monks are walking to their prayers. Women with straw baskets on their backs are hauling bright red chilies to market. Shangshou just smiles. “Now all this was worth waking up for," he says, and runs to get in line to shoot again.”
More Seriousness of Bhutanese Archery
James Sturz wrote in The Atlantic: “A trio of dogs loll on their sides in the morning sun, oblivious to the arrows whooshing invisibly above them at 200 mph. When the shafts appear with a telltale thwack in the foot-wide oblong targets, the dozy beasts don’t even bother looking over. The hundred or so spectators in the bleachers here at the Changlimithang Archery Ground in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, are another matter. Like true fans everywhere, they know to arrive with cushions and cardboard panels to sit on. Among them are a dozen monks, who have come by taxi and will have to return to their monasteries by the end of lunch. But more enthusiastic still are the players on the field: each time an archer lands a shot, his teammates — clad in ghos, the knee-length, white-cuffed robes that Bhutanese men wear — stream around the targets to strut, yelp, and sing, even flashing a little thigh as they kick their legs like cancan dancers. [Source: James Sturz, The Atlantic, January-February 2012]
“High-tech bows are the only ones I see at Changlimithang today. The competition I’ve come to watch, the Yangphel Open, is in its 15th year, and among Bhutan’s biggest. It began with 252 teams of five archers each; after three weeks, 78 teams now vie for quarterfinal slots. Three squads compete at a time, shooting at targets 476 feet away — more than twice the Olympic distance. From the sidelines, the challenge looks insurmountable, which is why, even in this Buddhist country, plenty of bravado is involved. “Archery is a manly game,” explains a 29-year-old competitor named Kunzang. (Many Bhutanese go by just one name.) “With bamboo bows, you see the arrows coming, so you can stay by the target and dodge. But not with compound bows.”
“Of course, no serious player attributes his prowess to mere equipment. Most agree that the sport requires patience, practice, and inherent talent. Many also maintain that drinking alcohol helps to calm archers’ nerves. “We’ve been criticized for permitting this,” says Kinzang Dorji, the president of the Bhutan Archery Federation and two-time former prime minister of Bhutan. “But without alcohol, traditional archery would be incomplete, because it’s also a game with singing, dancing, and merrymaking. But we have rules during competitions.” In addition to banning intoxication, these rules prohibit aiming bows at spectators or at other players.
“Still, sports based on weaponry do have their perils. At Changlimithang, I’m careful not to cross the range until dancing triggers a break in the action. But mishaps do occur: during the tournament, the winner of a shoot-out to name Bhutan’s best archer (prize: an Indian-made Maruti Suzuki A-Star hatchback) revealed that he’d been shot in the past. So had the runner-up. And so had the Bhutanese Parliament member Ugyen Tenzin, who had to be airlifted to Calcutta for neurosurgery when an arrow lodged in his brain in 2010.
“Yet accidents aren’t what frighten archers most. Matches between villages and the final rounds of large tournaments such as this aren’t complete without cheerleaders who trash-talk the competition, employing the kind of sexual innuendo one might expect in a country with 10-foot penises painted on the walls. Some teams also hire tsips, astrologers believed to possess mystical powers. Tsips can be used to divine players’ relative luck and help establish a lineup, but some also curse the opposition by shaping effigies of its archers and then immersing them in pit toilets, burying them at intersections, or smearing them with menstrual blood. Between matches, a monk named Rinzin Wangchuk assures me that Bhutan has outlawed such black magic. “We have respect for all sentient beings,” he says. “But you have to make your tsip happy, or he’ll curse your village so it never wins again.”
“At Yangphel, I also meet Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, a younger brother of Bhutan’s king and the head of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, which fields teams in just one sport: archery. The prince, who is 27, is competing at Changlimithang, and when I ask him what he loves about the sport, he gestures to the spectacle all around us, as archers storm a target and begin to sing and dance. “It’s in my blood,” he says. (His team would go on to win the tournament.)
Mountain Biking in Bhutan and the King’s Passion for It
Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times magazine: In Bhutan, there is a king who rides a bicycle up and down the mountains. Like many stories you will hear in this tiny Himalayan nation, it sounds like a fairy tale. In fact, it’s hard news. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, is an avid cyclist who can often be found pedaling the steep foothills that ring the capital city, Thimphu. All Bhutanese know about the king’s passion for cycling, to which he has increasingly devoted his spare time since December 2006, when he relinquished the crown to his eldest son. In Thimphu, many tell tales of close encounters, or near-misses — the time they pulled over their car to chat with the bicycling monarch, the time they spotted him, or someone who looked quite like him, on an early-morning ride. If you spend any time in Thimphu, you may soon find yourself scanning its mist-mantled slopes. That guy on the mountain bike, darting out of the fog bank on the road up near the giant Buddha statue: Is that His Majesty? [Source: Jody Rosen, New York Times magazine, October 30, 2014]
“The fourth king is the most beloved figure in modern Bhutanese history, with a biography that has the flavor of myth. He became Bhutan’s head of state in 1972 when he was just 16 years old, Under his leadership, electricity and modern medical care reached Bhutan’s remotest areas; the country established a hydropower industry and lead an effort to draft a constitution and institute free elections., a process that culminated, in 2008, with the country’s first general election. But the king’s most celebrated contribution is in the realm of what might be called political philosophy. It was he who formulated Bhutan’s signature quality of life indicator, Gross National Happiness, an ethos of environmental sustainability, cultural preservation and “holistic” civic contentment that has made Bhutan a fashionable name to drop in international development circles and among New Age enlightenment seekers.
“Somewhere along the way, the king took up bike riding. Bhutan may have been the last place on earth that the bicycle reached. (The country’s first paved road wasn’t built until 1962.) Today, though, bicycling culture is taking root in this unlikeliest of settings: a place of forbidding 10-percent grade climbs and rugged mud-and-rock-mottled roadways that challenge the sturdiest tires and suspension systems. Bhutan’s discovery of the bicycle is, on the one hand, on-trend: We are in the midst of a new bicycle boom, which is putting millions of new cyclists on the road and bringing cycling-promotion initiatives to the agendas of governments across the globe. But the bicycling movement in Bhutan is unique: a craze for the ultimate populist transportation machine that has been handed down from the palace to the grass roots. “There is a reason we in Bhutan like to cycle,” said Tshering Tobgay, the prime minister. “His Majesty the fourth king has been a cyclist, and after his abdication, he cycles a lot more. People love to see him cycle. And because he cycles, everybody in Bhutan wants to cycle, too.”
The king is not only high-ranking Bhutanese with a passion for mountains biking. Tshering Tobgay was the Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2013 to 2018. Gardiner Harris wrote in the New York Times: In 2009, “while competing in the first Tour of the Dragon, billed as the most difficult one-day mountain bike race in the world, he fell and broke his jaw after riding 42 miles. In searing pain, he got up and rode the rest of the race — 124 more miles.” [Source: Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 4, 2013]
Tour of the Dragon: The World’s Hardest Mountain Bike Race?
Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times magazine: “Every year” since 2009 “Bhutan has held what amounts to a national bicycle holiday — a celebration of the peculiar pleasures, and rigors, of bicycle riding in the country. The Tour of the Dragon is a 166.5-mile road race that stretches from Bumthang, in central Bhutan, to Thimphu, about 65 miles from the country’s western border. It is a spectacular journey, following a route through unspoiled forests and fields, over rolling river valleys and past mountainside farms, touching just a few tiny villages along the way. The ride is almost comically strenuous. Cyclists must tackle four mountain passes that range in height from just under 4,000 to nearly 11,000 feet; in places the road grade reaches 5 percent and the straight uphill climbs stretch on for nearly 24 miles. Tour organizers boast that it is the most difficult one-day bicycle race on earth. [Source: Jody Rosen, New York Times magazine, October 30, 2014]
“This year, the Tour of the Dragon fell on a Saturday in early September. It was an overcast but dry day at the tail end of Bhutan’s three-month-long monsoon season. That morning in Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square, the central gathering place in the city’s downtown, builders briskly assembled a stage for the presentation of medals. Nearby, at the race’s finish line, workers for the Bhutan Olympic Committee, which oversees the race, milled around wearing bright orange uniforms with matching baseball caps; on their chests, several workers had pinback buttons with a photo of a dashing young couple: Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the 34-year-old current Bhutanese sovereign, and his queen, Jetsun Pema, 24.
“The sun broke through the scattered cloud cover around noon and a little while later, the first rider showed up in Thimphu: a short, slight man, perched on a mountain bike that was spattered with mud. His bright-hued Lycra shirt and shorts were emblazoned with the word “Nepal.” It was Ajay Pandit Chhetri, the five-time Nepalese national racing champion, who was riding in the Tour of the Dragon for the first time. He broke the finish-line tape 10 hours, 42 minutes and 49 seconds after the race’s 2 a.m. start time, besting by 17 minutes the previous record, set in 2012 by a Bhutanese cyclist, Sonam. This year, Sonam struggled to the finish in third place, behind Chhetri and another Nepalese racer, Rajkumar Shrestha.
“The Tour of the Dragon is not quite the Tour de France. It is a charmingly homely affair. Just 46 riders, mostly amateurs, took part in this year’s event; only 22 made it to the end, most of them straggling in hours after the winner. One of the most vigorous riders was an unofficial participant, a man often referred to in Bhutan by the nickname “H.R.H.”: His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck, age 30, the crown prince and heir presumptive to the Bhutanese throne. Like his older brother, the current king, the prince has taken after his father when it comes to bicycles. The prince is the president of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, and the Tour of the Dragon is his brainchild. This year, the prince spent much of the race churning up and down the slopes to ride alongside participants, offering pep talks, tracing and retracing his path along the torturous mountain passes. Eventually, he jumped off his bike and got in a chauffeured car, speeding ahead of the pack so he could greet the winner in Thimphu.
“That evening, the race-finishers assembled in a tent facing the big stage in Clock Tower Square before a crowd of a few thousand that gathered to watch the awards. Eventually, the Tour of the Dragon riders made their way to the dais, where they were congratulated by the crown prince and by Tobgay, the prime minister, a cyclist himself who has raced in three Tours of the Dragon. When the ceremony was over, I caught up with Chhetri, the race winner, and asked him if he planned to ride again next year. His answer was impressively when-in-Rome. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m just so happy that I was able to come to Bhutan this year.”
“To ask a Bhutanese about happiness is akin to asking a Frenchman about wine or a Brazilian about soccer: It is the expected question, the question he is perhaps a bit weary of answering — yet he will gamely respond, unfolding not just a rote reply, but an admirably subtle disquisition. Gross National Happiness, or G.N.H., is the big talking point when it comes to Bhutan. It is also a source of intense debate, a fluid concept which, many Bhutanese contend, is often misunderstood, especially by the outside world.
Bhutan’s Best Mountain Bike Rider
Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times magazine: “Sonam Tshering, 27, is a native of Thimphu who has thought a great deal about the connection between the bicycle and happiness. He is the sixth of eight children in a devoutly Buddhist family; his father, now in his 80s and retired, worked for the government as a tax collector. At a young age, Tshering decided that he wanted to be a monk. (A family friend, an astrologer, explained to Tshering why he was so drawn to the monastic life: He’d already been a monk, in an earlier life.) But Tshering had another passion, too. “When I think back to my childhood age,” he told me, “I was always very much attracted to wheels.” [Source: Jody Rosen, New York Times magazine, October 30, 2014]
“In 2010, when Tshering was 23, a friend told him that the Bhutan Olympic Committee was sponsoring a daylong bike race from central Bhutan to Thimphu: The inaugural Tour of the Dragon. The B.O.C. had provided five bicycles to be used by young Bhutanese interested in cycling; one bike was still up for grabs. Tshering agreed to take part. He knew how to ride a bike, but had never owned one; he’d never ridden a bicycle with gears or tried to cycle up a mountain. On that first Tour of the Dragon, Tshering gave out after 112 miles — but he was hooked. The Olympic Committee allowed the riders to keep their donated bikes, and Tshering spent the following year training and self-educating, learning about seat positioning, gearing strategies and other technical aspects of mountain biking, while building up his speed and stamina. In 2011, Tshering again entered Tour of the Dragon. This time, he won.
“Today, Tshering is a semiprofessional rider. He has participated in several races internationally, including the 24 Hours of Moab, a major mountain-biking event held each autumn in the Utah desert. I met Tshering one early evening in September, a couple of days after the Tour of the Dragon, at a spot well known to Thimphu’s cyclists — a high mountain road dotted with fluttering Buddhist prayer flags on the city’s southern side. Tshering had recently hurt his back, an injury that had kept him out of the 2014 Tour. But he had his bicycle in tow: a Commencal Meta SX, a high-end French mountain bike, with 26-inch wheels and a hot pink aluminum frame, which he’d been given by a local sponsor. Tshering was wearing a black T-shirt and florescent yellow shorts. On his lower left leg, there was a tattoo: a grinning skeleton on a bicycle.
“Tshering is one of the Bhutan cycling scene’s favorite sons. He has cycled with Tobgay. After Tshering’s 2011 Tour of the Dragon victory, he was invited to ride with the prince, H.R.H. (“The moment I entered the palace gate, I prayed from inside and said, ‘Let not this be my last time here.’ ”) That winter, Tshering spent two weeks with the royal family at their vacation compound in Manas, in southern Bhutan. There, he went on frequent bike rides with Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king, who encouraged him to pursue his cycling dreams. Tshering told me that the rumors were true: The 58-year-old former king always rides wearing his traditional gho, and is an exceptionally hardnosed cyclist. “He is like one of the toughest riders in Bhutan I’ve ever met,” Tshering said. “He’s not a very technical rider, and downhill isn’t his specialty. But climbing uphill — I don’t think anyone can top him.”
“Tshering doesn’t imagine that he can be a top international mountain racer. His goals are more modest, or at least more community-minded. He coaches a local cycling club whose 24 riders range in age from 10 to 19. He envisions a time when the club will have a state-of-the art training facility and can compete at the international level. As for his own cycling: He finds the kind of fulfillment on a bike that you might expect of an erstwhile aspiring monk. You could say that Tshering has not so much abandoned his religious practice as transferred it — exchanged the Buddhist prayer wheel for the spoked and metal-rimmed kind. Tshering said: “The feeling that you get when you’re riding on the trail, alone in nature, surrounded by all those nature sounds, it 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.”
Mountain Biking and Gross National Happiness
Jody Rosen wrote in the New York Times magazine: “There is another line of thinking about happiness that is gaining currency these days: that happiness is a thing — specifically, a bicycle. A favorite mantra of cycling-boosters goes like this: “You can’t buy happiness — but you can buy a bike, and that’s pretty close.” In 1896, Arthur Conan Doyle voiced the same sentiment, in less bumper-sticker-friendly fashion. “When the spirits are low,” Conan Doyle wrote, “when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without the thought of anything but the ride you are taking.” [Source: Jody Rosen, New York Times magazine, October 30, 2014]
“Tshering is not alone in linking cycling to Gross National Happiness. In 2010, then-prime minister Jigme Thinley told a reporter that he hoped “to make Bhutan a bicycle culture.” The current prime minster, Tobgay, concurs. “Gross National Happiness is about wholesome development. And cycling, like any worthy sport activity, is also about wholesome development. It is good for the soul, good for the body and good for happiness. You cannot love cycling and not be an environmentalist. It is one of the reasons we must encourage more cycling in Bhutan.”
“We are used to hearing such talk from bicycle activists in the metropolises of the West, who champion the bike as the redemptive green machine — the Little Victorian Relic that Can Save the World, with a carbon footprint of nearly zero and a rack in the back to hold your kale. It is odd to find the same ideas circulating in a country like Bhutan, arguably the most pastoral, environmentally progressive place on the planet. But if you gaze down on Thimphu from the mountain road where I met Tshering, you take in a familiar tableau: a landscape steadily being mutated by car culture and urban sprawl. Thimphu’s population has more than doubled in a generation. (The figure today is about 100,000, and growing rapidly.) Everywhere you look, there are automobiles chugging up newly constructed roads and buildings rising behind bamboo scaffolding on land which, just a few years ago, was one vast rice paddy, stalked only by peasant farmers and their livestock.
“The notion that mountainous Bhutan can be transformed into “a bicycle culture,” a Holland of the Himalayas, seems, to say the least, far-fetched. (There is a reason that the bicycle has thrived in northern Europe: The countries there are, as the saying goes, low.) To the extent that a bike culture is taking hold in Bhutan, it is a fun-house mirror version of the one advocated by most cycling activists. The thrust of today’s global cycling movement is to normalize cycling: to establish the bicycle as transport not sport, to promote bikes as everyday commuter vehicles and clear more room for them on the roads. But except for a few places in Bhutan — the flat plains near the Indian border in the country’s south — bicycles are not used to just get around. When Bhutanese ride bikes, they do it like Tshering and the fourth king: They hop on a sporty bicycle with lots of gears and go bombing up and down the mountains.
“For his part, Tobgay doesn’t see Bhutan’s landscape as an impediment to cycling. “In fact, our terrain in Bhutan is bicycle-friendly,” Tobgay told me. Westerners have a mawkish habit of discerning Buddhist parables in even the blandest Bhutanese policy pronouncements. Yet it is tempting to find a larger metaphor — for happiness, both personal and gross national — in the prime minister’s assessment of Bhutan’s cycling topography. “If it’s all flat, it’s no fun,” Tobgay said. “Here in Bhutan, there are ups and there are downs. Wherever there’s an up, there’s a down. Both parts are fun. In that sense, I think Bhutan is perfect for bicycling.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022