losing belief in its yeti
He remembers the darkness
of the pine forest, 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
long held out against the modern world, Sonam
Dorji 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
Dorji, 77, sitting on the wooden floor of his
small farmhouse. "If you travel the ancient
trails, even today, there's a good chance you'll
His son-in-law, listening to the
old man's stories, laughs dismissively.
Tshering Sithar is 39, a bulldozer
operator helping pave the road to this village,
which until recently could only be reached on
"What is there to say?"
Sithar said. "There's nothing out there
in the forest. Any educated person today knows
"We can't live today like
we did in the 17th or 18th century. Our culture
has to be dynamic," Bhutan's Finance Minister
Khandu Wangchuck said. "Within the last
40 years, we've jumped 300-400 years."
And the yeti? Wangchuck pauses.
"I think most people today know this is
just a story."
What does it mean, though, when
accepted fact decays into mere folk tale?
In the West, the Abominable Snowman
is something from a "Scooby Doo" cartoon
or part of the latest "Mummy" movie.
But across the Himalayas, the beast
was long believed to be 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.
The yeti was just one more creature.
For Bhutan, a country unnoticed
by much of the world, it became something even
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 national park,
was created in part as a place to protect the
"Everyone knew it was there,"
Dorji said. "It was like the bears or the
leopards. Why would we question it?"
Until the early 1960s, Bhutan had
sealed itself off for centuries, with life revolving
around crop cycles, Buddhism, tiny feudal city-states
and revered royalty. It had no roads, no electrical
network, no currency, no telephones, no airports.
Trade depended on barter. Tourists were barred.
Only after China invaded neighboring
Tibet in 1959 did the king decree Bhutan 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.
While tourism remains restricted
— visitors must pay $220 for each day's
stay, in advance, just to get a visa —
20,000 tourists came last year, nearly 10 times
as many as in 1991. In a nation where kings
had held absolute power, democratic elections
in March brought forth a generation of ambitious
It is a time when the yeti is increasingly
No one is sure how far back yeti
In the first century A.D., the
Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described immensely
strong Himalayan animals with "human-like
bodies." Chinese manuscripts from the 7th
century mention hairy creatures similar to the
In Bhutan, most people call it
the "migoi" — strong man —
but it goes by a number of names across the
Himalayas: glacier man, snow goblin, wild man.
To Westerners, it is known as the
yeti — a name believed to come from a
Tibetan word for bear — and it has gripped
outsiders' imaginations since reports of a strange
Himalayan creature began filtering out in the
Mountaineers brought back many
of the stories, telling of strange footprints
in the snow, of mysterious animals spotted walking
on two legs, of tales their porters told around
So the yeti hunt was on. In 1954,
Britain's Daily Mail newspaper sent out a search
party. In 1960, Mount Everest conqueror Sir
Edmund Hillary searched along the Nepal-Tibet
Soviet expeditions followed, as
well as TV crews, scientists and hucksters.
Plenty of tantalizing clues have
been found, from footprints to hair. But science
can explain most — they often prove to
be from bears — and five decades of searching
has turned up no body, no high-quality photograph.
The great Italian climber Reinhold
Messner spent years tracking yeti stories across
"All evidence," he wrote,
"points to a nocturnal species of brown
But 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 grayish footprints about 12 inches
long. All, according to small signs, come from
Wangchuck, the national director
of conservation, 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.
"As a biological entity, it's
very difficult" to believe in the yeti,
But does it exist? "It's very
difficult to say no," he said.
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