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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Yeti myth dying out as Bhutan modernizes

August 19, 2008

Tim Sullivan, Associated Press
The San Francisco Chronicle A-12
August 17, 2008

A local man carries a load on his back as he walks on an ... Sakteng
Wildlife Sanctuary manager Tenzing Wangchuck show... Sonam Dorji
(right) relates a tale of his encounter with ... Karchung (left) and
Kelzang, members of Bhutan's reclusiv...

(08-17) 04:00 PDT 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,"
says Sonam Dorji, 77, sitting on the pockmarked wooden floor of his
small farmhouse. It's a cold Himalayan morning, and he warms himself
beside a wood stove. The smell of burning pine fills the room. "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, which until recently could only be reached on foot.

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

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

"We can't live today like we did in the 17th or 18th century. Our
culture has to be dynamic," says Khandu Wangchuck, Bhutan's finance
minister. "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? When a belief that helped tie a land together is relegated to
myth, what happens to the culture that believed in it? And how can a
country that entered the 20th century just a few years ago make its
way in the globalized world of the 21st?

Persistent myth

In the West, yeti-like creatures long ago were reduced to myth. The
Abominable Snowman is something from a "Scooby Doo" episode, or part
of the latest installment in Hollywood's "Mummy" franchise. To
mainstream science, the notion of Bigfoot is little more than a joke.

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. Once Bhutan bothered to set up a
postal system, in the early 1960s, it issued stamps honoring an
animal that science insists does not exist.

"Everyone knew it was there," Dorji says. "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,
with life revolving around crop cycles, Buddhism, tiny feudal
city-states and revered royalty. 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.

While tourism remains highly 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 held absolute power, democratic elections in March brought
forth a generation of ambitious politicians.

Bhutan is a place where almost everyone was born in a village but
where few people see a future in farming - and where a minuscule
modern economy means there are precious few other jobs.

Thimphu, Bhutan's increasingly crowded capital, has everything from
majestic royal palaces to micro-traffic jams of a few dozen cars. On
weekend nights, bored, unemployed young people brawl outside dance bars.

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.

Ancient tales

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 "human-like bodies." Chinese
manuscripts from the seventh 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 very
strong. It lived mostly in the high mountains and avoided people.
Only a handful of yak herders might report sightings with any
regularity, but everyone knew it was out there, and feared it.

In Bhutan, most people call it the "migoi" - strong man - but it goes
by any number of names across the Himalayas: glacier man, snow
goblin, wild man.

To Westerners, though, 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.

Just maybe, some thought, there could be truth in those tales. The
high Himalayas are among the most isolated, forbidding parts of the
world. Couldn't something - perhaps a species of gorilla, or even a
form of proto-human - have hidden for centuries amid the crags?

Similar tales had proven accurate before. In 1902, a German soldier
proved that central African legends of an enormous, hairy mountain
beast were based in reality. But Capt. Robert von Beringe came home
with proof: the body of a mountain gorilla that he had shot.

So the yeti hunt was on. In 1954, Britain's Daily Mail newspaper sent
out a search party. In 1957, a Texas oilman took up the chase. Three
years later, 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 turn out to be from bears -
and five decades of searching has turned up no body, no high-quality
photograph. Eventually, even many fervent yeti hunters see the truth
in more prosaic explanations.

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."

Difficult to believe

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 grayish 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," says 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, says
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," says 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," says 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," says 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."

Symbol of the past

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

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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