Several women and teens squatted at the edge of the precarious road and bashed stones from a slide into gravel-sized bits. A toddler who hovered near one of the sari-clad women pounded his own rock with a stick. The musical clink clink clinking drew us to where more laborers crouched on a long and growing pile of gravel. They were sheltered by a tarp from the hot sun though none wore protective glasses. A heap of rocks at the far end of the gravel reminded us of their endless task.
Now we understood the source of the material used for the road construction we had passed. I had witnessed this scene in other developing countries and wondered again: is it good or bad, this monotonous work? Hand work provides many jobs. However, machines would work faster and more efficiently, but they are expensive and unavailable. The roads built by machines last much longer because they can prepare the road bed better, but repairs to the high labor low quality highways keep locals employed. I had time to consider these dilemmas as we pursued the Bhutanese birds.
In Bhutan’s early history invading armies crossed over mountain passes into the settled valleys. They were successful until the seventeenth century when dzongs were built as fortresses and monasteries. The isolated Bhutanese grew their own food, made what they needed, lived and died within a few miles of their birth places. Monasteries provided the only education for a few chosen boys. With a small population, abundant land and rich natural resources, Bhutan was tempting to any aggressor and when China invaded neighboring Tibet in 1959, the threat arose of another incursion. There were no roads then, but even the dzongs would be useless against the Chinese and their modern equipment. The Western-educated king understood that his country’s defense depended on stronger ties with the global community.
The ties the king sought rested on greater commerce, and commerce meant roads. Even now, after years developing a system of roads, one-fifth of the population is more than half-day’s walk from an all-season road and another fifth lives one to four hours away. Currently, Bhutan has 3750 km (2250 mi.) of all-weather roads, a little over half of which are paved. Violent storms hammer the hillsides during the rainy season and slides are common due to the poor quality of road construction. The challenge of carving roads from the steep mountainsides continues.
I became fascinated with how Bhutanese roads were constructed as my birding group searched for Bhutan’s fabulous birds. Heavy equipment was being used only on the project to widen the road to the capital that we crossed on our first day.
After a rewarding morning of blood pheasants and monals, we turned toward Thimphu, the capital city, our stop for the night. All vehicles travelling between the country’s only airport in Paro and Thimphu must creep along a one-lane road with turnouts on a narrow ledge through a deep canyon. For years that road was adequate, but recent increases in tourism, commerce and government services have overwhelmed it. There was no alternative.
Construction was underway during our visit and traffic flow was periodically held at the Paro Bridge while sections of the mountain were blasted onto the existing road. In a short time, heavy machinery cleared the site and dug a crude track for the next pulse of vehicles.
We arrived at the bridge in plenty of time for the last passage allowed that day. Once our line of trucks, buses and cars crossed, I thought we could relax, knowing we would make it to Thimphu that day, but it was not an easy trip.
In construction sections where the road had been hastily reclaimed from the blast debris, our small bus followed the line of vehicles through and over the piles and pits of dirt and rock. I was amazed that no one got stuck and I wondered if the laborers watching our passage might have to lend a hand if that did happen. On one crude section, the truck in front of us tipped so far I feared it would topple on its side. At times, we were so close to the edge I had a clear view of the river below and tried to have faith that we would not topple over as well. I personally believe that if you don’t name something fearful, it doesn’t exist. I noticed that the normally chatty birders with me were very quiet during the transit.
After an hour on the crude track, we approached a junction in the road where the river we had been following joined another. Some traffic continued to the right toward India while we crossed a bridge and turned northeast toward Thimphu. The road improved. Hillsides were less formidable; the road bed was packed and ready for paving. Eleven kilometers from Thimphu, we sped along the paved, two-lane asphalt into the city.
On every other construction site, people did most of the work, aided only by aged dump trucks to haul workers, rocks and gravel.
Bhutanese kings did not want the people to lose their culture as the country changed. In the early 1970’s, the king created a unique measure of success that is gaining international recognition. While we use our Gross National Product to measure the strength of our economy, Bhutan uses the Gross National Happiness (GNH) scale to measure the quality of life. In moving toward their goal of economic self-reliance for the country and sustainable happiness for individuals, the king tracks progress by evaluating elements of society’s greater good. Among these important elements are the economy (consumer debt), the environment (pollution) and physical well being (health). He felt the monarchy, in which the government was primarily an administrator, needed become a democracy to give the people more power and responsibility. While we were in Bhutan, they were preparing for the practice election to be held soon after we left. Notices on poles and in stores reminded people how to participate. Some older people were not enthusiastic about the process. They liked for the king to make the major decisions without their help. But the younger ones, especially those who had lived outside the country, were supportive.
Bhutan’s closest economic partner is India, based on the agreements worked out almost a century ago that preserved Bhutan as an independent country. For years, only India was allowed to invest in Bhutan. Road building has always been part of the aid given by the Indian government and contracts are awarded to Indian companies. Indian laborers who do the actual road construction build temporary shelters of used lumber, poles and black plastic on the few shoulders wide enough to accommodate them. They live there in shifts of three or four months and then return to their homes in India.
My birding group spent three weeks in rural Bhutan walking the hand-built roads. After driving to a good birding spot, we walked in the quiet forest in a ragged and sprawling line listening for birds. There were long periods during which we were alone on the road and the birding was excellent. Occasionally a loud truck hauling rocks or gravel passed us. Cars were less frequent. We were in no danger since the vehicles traveled so slowly. It was the custom for the drivers to decelerate and smile and wave at our little group of tourists. They beeped their horns as well. We tried to be gracious and could only hope it hadn’t spooked some elusive bird.
On one of our walks, we rounded a corner and found a crew of six men and women building a stone gutter on the uphill side of the road. One laborer dug out the square ditch. The blue overalled mason hoisted and manipulated the large, flat-sided stones that would form the U-shaped gutter. Other laborers finished the work by filling the spaces with small rocks and mortar. Water for the mortar came from the streams that rolled down the gullies at every crook in the road. The finished gutter was big enough to carry large volumes of water to the culverts. Because of the steep slopes, culvert work is dangerous and the spillways are constructed by specialty crews.
I took out my camera and approached the workers. They paused for a photo without hesitation, pleased by my interest. They grinned with pleasure at the tiny digital image. In other countries, such an event might evoke demands for money, but they thanked me for my attention and got back to their jobs.
On another road, one of the little three wheeled tractors putted down the road and I repeated the “may I take your picture” sing language. The driver nodded enthusiastically and posed a bit stiffly. When he saw that the image included the two people sitting behind him in the box of the tractor, probably hitchhikers, he motioned that I should take a photo of just him and his machine. He seemed much more pleased with that framing. Though I expected him to ask for a copy of the photo, he seemed content for me to record what was important for my use.
In several remote places, the one-lane tarmac road had been augmented by digging the shoulders down four inches, filling the depression with fist-sized rocks and covering it with dirt. The firm surface supported the infrequent times that vehicles had to pass in opposite directions and the free roaming cattle munched on the grass that grows in the dirt. It was a creative way to meet the two needs on that portion of the road.
In a side note, we encountered cattle almost daily and the occasional yak. They roamed up and down the near-vertical mountainsides, creating paths anywhere it was possible. I kept an eye out for those paths because it was a way to get off the road and out of sight for a private moment to pee.
One day we heard the deep clack of heavy rocks colliding. Around a corner, a young man stood near a loose waist high wall of large rocks that curved, open to the slope, almost blocking the road. When he saw us, he yelled uphill. A voice drifted down in reply. I was curious to know what they were doing, but nothing happened until we were well clear on the other side of their work area. As the others continued down the road, I held back.
The young man on the road shouted uphill again. Out of the bushes, a rock came bouncing down and hit the barrier with a clonk. More shouting and yet another rock rolled down from above but the timing of the bounce caused this one to fly over the barrier, hit on the edge of the road and disappear into the void. The lower man shouted up and laughed. A loud grunt returned from the bushes. The uphill man moved into view, dressed in shorts and rubber boots. He picked up a sledge hammer and pounded on a large boulder until the pieces were a more manageable size for him to kick into a roll. One of them refused to move so he sat down above it and pushed with his feet, grunting and shouting what I can only assume were some colorful words of encouragement until it loosened up and joined the pile at the bottom. These rocks would be driven to the stone bashers we had passed earlier.
Once the roads are constructed, the maintenance is left to the Bhutanese and the government employs more than two people per kilometer. The workers live in government built cement-block houses, sooty from cooking fires. Several families live in each tiny community. During the dry season, they clear weeds from the hillsides and clean out the gutters to prepare for the rains. Because the Himalayan mountain range is the youngest in the world, the soil on top is less compact than in older mountains resulting in frequent slides when the soil becomes saturated.
When a slide does occur and blocks the road, the first vehicle on the scene returns to the nearest town to report it. Trucks collect the laborers from their settlements between the towns on both sides of the slide. Within an hour they are attacking the debris with shovels and wheelbarrows. What they lack in heavy equipment they make up for in sheer numbers and in relatively short time, the traffic is moving again.
Besides the road construction, we noted the smaller changes that were occurring, still guided by the GNH priorities. The first tourists entered Bhutan in 1974, and since then tourism has been encouraged but been tightly controlled. Most come for trekking, birding or cultural events. The tourism infrastructure, hotels, roads and support services, is slowly improving and planners have been looking for another site for an airport to take the pressure off the one in Paro. The Phobjikha Valley, thirty miles east of Thimphu, was considered but the valley is only one of three where the rare and endangered Black Neck Crane winters. Preservation of the cranes was readily determined to be more important than an airport and the planners continue their search.
In addition, the new electrical lines were removed from the Phobjikha Valley when it was discovered that the cranes could not avoid the wires during take offs and landings. Some of the people in the valley were disappointed to have their electricity removed even though they understood the rationale, but they will soon have solar panels on their roofs. Until then, the new lodge where we stayed uses a generator, and everyone knows to have a flashlight handy for night time wanderings after lights out.
Change has not come without tension. Any work must still be congruent with the king’s desire to preserve national identity, traditional values and the concept of “One Nation, One People.” But in this desire lurks the dark side of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. The majority of Bhutanese are of Tibetan origin, arriving in the 8th century bringing their sect of Buddhism with them. Known as Drukpas, they predominate in the government and civil service. In the early 1980’s the monarchy declared their cultural norms to be the standard for all citizens, polarizing the Nepali-speaking southerners. They are now about 35% of the population. The king’s requirements for dress and language meant these southerners had to wear a traditional dress that was not theirs and speak a language not their own. The 1988 census alarmed because the new policies that determined citizenship seemed to discriminate against them. Their leaders tried to get the government to review the policies with no success and they organized anti-government rallies demanding fair treatment. In the early 1990s, government forces cracked down on their acts of dissent, forcing one hundred thousand illegal immigrants to leave Bhutan for camps in Nepal.
Even for those who were able to stay, we heard that access to health care, higher education and the better paying jobs is strongly determined by ethnicity. Only full-blooded Drukpas are considered for the measure of Gross National Happiness. The transition to democracy may help diffuse this situation. All the recently elected members of the new parliament agree this issue is a priority and the two governments of Nepal and Bhutan are negotiating a solution to the refugee situation.
A good example of how the Bhutanese are slowly modernizing is demonstrated on a small scale with how they are solving the dog problem. Bhutanese Buddhists revere all life, even the dogs that wander the streets, breed at will and bark all night. Dogs are especially prolific in the towns and annoying to everyone. Even at our tent camp at 10,000 feet, a small pack wandered around our tents at night. The first time the dogs erupted into a loud chorus of barking I was frightened out of a sound sleep. I had not expected to encounter dogs in such a remote place but I thought they might be after the reported rare mountain bears that roamed the area. But no such luck. They were probably farm dogs patrolling their territory, surprised at our intrusion.
Several years ago, Thimphu officials initiated a spay and neuter program and more recently, ownerless dogs are taken out to their own “retirement home” far from the city where they can live out their doggy lives and bark all they want without disturbing anyone.