Nation of Bhutan is losing its old beliefs in the yeti

Sunday, August 10, 2008

SIGNYAR, Bhutan -- He remembers the darkness of the pine forest, and the footprints, and his terror when the creature began to howl. He remembers the stories of his childhood, of a beast that stalked the upper reaches of the mountains, and how fear spread through the village every time it was spotted.

In a remote Himalayan kingdom that held out against the modern world for as long as it could, the old man remembers a time when the yeti was a normal part of life.

"The creature has always been out there, and it's out there still," said Sonam Dorji, 77, sitting on the pockmarked wooden floor of his small farmhouse. "If you travel the ancient trails, even today, there's a good chance you'll meet him."

His son-in-law, listening to the old man's stories, laughs dismissively from across the room.

Tshering Sithar is 39, a bulldozer operator helping pave the road to this village.

"What is there to say?" he asked. "There's nothing out there in the forest. Any educated person today knows this."

Many traditional beliefs remain deeply ingrained in Bhutan, but the monster is now increasingly forgotten, and the link to an ancient past is more often seen as a sign of ignorance.

Changing times

In the West, yetilike creatures long ago were reduced to myth. But across the Himalayas the beast was seen as real, known for generations in a half-dozen countries from Tibet to Pakistan. It was a region flush with wildlife, where tigers, bears and wild dogs roamed thick mountain forests and remote river valleys. Here, if nowhere else, the yeti was simply one more creature.

For Bhutan, a country barely noticed by much of the world, it became something even more.

In a nation stumbling nervously into modernity, the hulking mountain beast was publicly celebrated, becoming a 20th-century talisman against unbridled change and a link to ancient traditions. Stories of its travels were told by the king and top government officials. The Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, a large national park, was created in part as a place to protect it.

"Everyone knew it was there," Dorji said. "It was like the bears or the leopards. Why would we question it?"

But changes barely imaginable just a few years ago are accelerating.

Until the early 1960s, Bhutan had sealed itself off for centuries. It had no roads, no electricity network, no currency, telephones or airports. Trade depended on barter. Tourists were barred.

Only after China invaded neighboring Tibet in 1959 did the king decree his country would no longer be fully closed off. The first paved roads came in 1963, the first tourists in the early 1970s, international phone service in the 1980s, television and the Internet in 1999.

Suddenly, Bhutan has reached an uncomfortable crossroads. This is a time when the dynamism of modernity regularly clashes with modernity's pitfalls. Child mortality rates are plummeting, crime is on the rise and a college education is no longer just a dream.

It is a time when the yeti is increasingly unwelcome.

Historic yeti

No one is sure how far back the stories go.

In A.D. 79, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described immensely strong Himalayan animals with "humanlike bodies." Chinese manuscripts from the 7th century mention hairy creatures similar to the yeti.

The tales change from region to region across Asia -- yetis were man-eaters in some places, grass-eaters in others. In many places, the beast was seen as a harbinger of death, a combination of man, animal and demon.

Some things, though, were certain. It was tall, hairy and strong. It lived mostly in the high mountains and avoided people. Everyone knew it was out there and feared it.

Plenty of tantalizing clues have been found, from footprints to hair. But science can explain most -- they often turn out to be from bears -- and five decades of searching has turned up no body, no high-quality photograph.

The great Italian climber Reinhold Messner has spent years tracking yeti stories across the Himalayas and even caught a glimpse of it a couple times. But in the end, the truth was obvious to him. "All evidence," he wrote, "points to a nocturnal species of brown bear."

Belief versus science

Or maybe not.

Ask politely, and Sangay Wangchuck will take you into a meeting room at the headquarters of Bhutan's conservation department and show you half a dozen framed plaster casts mounted on the wall. The frames show the outline of irregular footprints around 12 inches long. All, according to small signs, come from yetis.

Wangchuck, the national director of conservation, knows what it is to wrestle with belief and science.

He has a master's degree from Yale and a doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He's a scientist who oversees legions of rangers and researchers. His training tells him not to believe in something unless he has proof.

But the yeti stories run deep here, and denial means more than casting off an old belief.

"My parents, my village, they still believe," said Wangchuck, a genial, erudite man.

When he talks about the yeti, words stumble out in sentence fragments, trying to straddle the line between science and heritage.

"As a biological entity, it's very difficult" to believe, said Wangchuck, looking down at his desk. But does it exist? "It's very difficult to say no."

So this man of science has found a very unscientific middle ground. "I tell people: 'Let's not dig too much into it. Let's talk about it, but leave it at that, and not conclude 'Yes, it's there,' or 'No, it's not there."'

Talk to most Bhutanese, though, and few have quandaries.

Sonam Dorjee runs Om Bar, a Thimphu gathering spot popular among the rich, the royal and the well-connected. "I believe in it about like you do," said Dorjee, smiling. "These are stories for country people."

Later, driving through the nighttime Thimphu streets, he talks a little more. "Look, this country is changing so much. There's a lot of money here now, a lot of business. Some of these beliefs aren't going to survive."

Here's the thing, though, about how countries modernize: It's seldom a dramatic transformation from one era to the next, even in an isolated country like Bhutan. Instead, it's an inexorable slide that often remains invisible until -- in retrospect -- the change becomes obvious.

"The common belief is that traditionalism dissolves in the solvents of modernity," said Mark Dailey, an environmental anthropologist at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., who has studied China's modernization. "That's an oversimplification and simply not true."

The reality is that cultures change piecemeal, and often find themselves holding onto beliefs that can appear contradictory.

"People tend to be stubborn," said Dailey. "Traditional beliefs help root them."

Outwardly, this country holds tightly to its culture. Laws require everything from traditional dress -- robes for men and ankle-length skirts for women -- to historic styles for new buildings.

But Bhutan can sometimes feel like a hollow, Bhutan-themed reproduction of itself, where even gas stations are ornamented with carved wooden pillars.

Some of this is pure economics. Much of Bhutan's revenue is derived from tourists who come in search of beautiful mountain scenery, ancient beliefs and a society unsullied by the larger world.

"We want to attach an economic sense to the culture," said Khandu Wangchuck, the finance minister. The key players in the culture business -- travel agencies, tour guides, hoteliers: "Their whole livelihood will depend on maintaining our culture."

The value of the yeti, on the other hand, is not what it once was.

"Our stories grew around things that we could not explain," says Kunzang Choden, a Bhutanese writer who collects yeti stories.

Just a decade or so ago, the yeti helped explain the often intimidating natural world nearly everyone lived in -- the nighttime shadows, the terrifying noises on lonely forest paths, the strange footprints. But increasingly, the sounds of the forest are drowned out by music played on cheap stereos smuggled in from China.

People who no longer need the yeti can dismiss it. Believing, Choden says, "is an implicit sign of being too traditional, or even backward."

Which, in Bhutan, no one wants to be. Even the most traditional families dream these days of well-paying jobs for their children, of lives that will take them away from ancestral homes and centuries of rural life.

Dhau, a 53-year-old farmer who uses only one name, was raised and still lives in Zamsa, a small village separated from the nearest road by a cable bridge barely large enough for a bicycle. He grew up to be like his own father, and he once expected his children would grow up to be like him.

But today there's a primary school not far away, and three years ago electricity reached the village. He has an electric cooker and a ceiling fan that can chase away the clouds of monsoon insects. One of his children is in high school, boarding in town. Another is studying computers.

Asked if he wants them to move back home someday, he was stunned by the question.

"Of course not," he said, stopping to talk as he walked home from his fields on a cloudy afternoon. "Life is difficult here, not like in the towns. I want them to get government jobs and live easier lives."

By nearly all appearances, he is a man from another time -- a subsistence farmer who works his fields with handmade tools and who holds tightly to a deeply mystical form of Buddhism. He believes fiercely in miracles and demons.

But like the tigers that roamed these forests a century ago, the yeti he once knew is gone. His children don't know about it, and he doesn't miss it. Its loss has left no obvious holes in his cultural soul. If it survives, he says, it went far away a long time ago.

"My parents used to talk about it, about meeting the huge man in the forest," he says. "But we don't talk about it now."

Then he walks away, following a dirt path toward a wooden house where electric lights now chase away the night and whatever might be hiding in its darkness.

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