Tom White

Freelance Visual Journalist, Educator and Artist
    Among the Elementals by Tom White 
Among the Elementals
Location: Singapore
Nationality: British
Biography: I grew up in Bradford, West Yorkshire in the north of England and am currently based in Singapore. My work has been published and exhibited internationally and between 2015-2022 I taught Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at Yale-NUS... MORE
Public Story
Among the Elementals
Copyright Tom White 2023
Date of Work May 2015 - May 2019
Updated May 2019
Location Bhutan
Topics Bhutan

The following text is extracted from a much longer piece on my journey through the Bhutanse Himalayas.

Bhutan.   Mention the name of this Himalayan Kingdom and the mind conjures up visions of a remote land, untouched by the outside world, mysterious and exotic. The last Shangri-La filled with peaceful valleys of fluttering prayer flags and happy novice monks. But I was not here to explore exotic cultures and traditions, to visit monasteries and festivals. I was here to trek.  I am no mountain climber, but I have always enjoyed being outdoors and a brush with wilderness, even on occasion looking for the more challenging paths. However this was no stroll among the heather, this was the Himalayas. 

There is little by way of independent travel in Bhutan. Pre-arranged tours are the only realistic way to visit. While this may be off putting for some, the towns are small enough to explore without getting lost and guides are supremely helpful and flexible if you want to switch up the itinerary, or take as much or as little time in a place as you like.  Many people visit Bhutan for its many festivals and cultural heritage, which doesn’t require much spontaneity. If you are trekking, you’ll need a guide. At one point on our trek I encountered one of our guides at a fork in the path. “The campsite is this way”, he said. Noticing my glance he grinned “The other way is to Tibet”.

Walking through these alpine forests I happily proclaimed to my trekking companions and guides that it was just like being back in my home county of Yorkshire. Beautiful though Yorkshire undoubtedly is, it is certainly not the Himalayas. The inaccuracy of the comparison was most likely due to a mild dose of altitude sickness which took its toll as the day wore on. By mid-afternoon my head was throbbing like I'd spent all weekend in the pub downing ales.

That evening as I rolled into camp, I mentioned a slight headache. Joni alerted Penjor and he immediately turned to me and without a pause stated, “Headache? Hot tea.”

No self-respecting Brit ever refuses an offer of tea and within seconds I'd been poured said hot tea liberally sweetened. I drank many cups, ate the delicious food prepared for us and popped a couple of pain killers. The headache remained, but eventually I settled into my tent and slept.

All these mountains are sacred. The Bhutanese warn against any attempt to summit them.  Our guide, Penjor tells us stories of foreign mountaineers who have tried and failed. Some paying with their lives, disappearing or becoming corpses to be found by Nomads and Yak herders traversing the ridges and slopes.

I am reminded of Nan Shepherd’s book ‘The Living Mountain’ where she explores in sensuous detail the richness of the Cairngorms mountain range in which she lived, with little focus in her wanderings on the goal of reaching a particular summit. There is so much more to a mountain than reaching the top. 

During the trek I would talk with the guides about their lives and their knowledge of the landscape. I would hear sincere declarations on how the natural environment was a resource that should not be carelessly exploited. 

Much later I would read a quote from Bhutan's minister of education Thakur Singh Powdyel:

"It's easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich, yet we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world.”

After several days in the Himalayas the contradiction of human domination over nature was forefront in my mind. Balance, harmony, respect. These are words that I use time and again in regard to our relationship to the world in which we live and are a part of. 

Or as Nan Shepherd states: "One walks among elementals, and elementals are not governable."

While progressive environmental and social policies make Bhutan an example of controlled and somewhat sustainable development much of Bhutan’s small population remain poor. An opening up of the country and growing urban population has brought a small measure of modern vices to the streets. The country relies on its hydropower projects for revenue and is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Neighbouring both India and China as it does, it does not remain immune to geopolitics.

Like many visitors and several well-travelled Bhutanese I spoke to, I feel a strong desire to return. The last Shangri-La is not untouched but, in many ways, it is indeed unspoilt. Let us hope it remains that way.

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