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Bhutan losing belief in its yeti

Touristclick Bhutan Travel News
 

Bhutan losing belief in its yeti

by Austin American-Statesman

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 meet him."

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 foot.

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

"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 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 national park, was created in part as a place to protect the yeti.

"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 politicians.

It is a time when the yeti is increasingly unwelcome.

No one is sure how far back yeti stories go.

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 yeti.

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 mid-20th century.

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 campfires.

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 border.

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 the Himalayas.

"All evidence," he wrote, "points to a nocturnal species of brown bear."

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 yetis.

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, Wangchuck said.

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 there.' "



 
 
 
 
 
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