Crestone Eagle, January 2009:
Crestonians on safari in beautiful
Story & photos by Bill Ellzey
Mount Everest is distant through the plane window.
Pinch me—the legendary Himalayas right out there—not
a photo in an atlas or National Geographic but live
on my very own retinas.
of planning and anticipation are about to become reality.
Aboard one of the two Boeing 737s permitted to fly in and
out of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, our group of seven
photo-adventurers holds its collective breath. The aircraft
is descending in a series of wing dipping turns following
a meandering valley toward the country’s only airport.
Our Bhutan Photo Safari is about to begin.
A year or so ago Tshering Dorji, Bhutanese owner of the Desert
Sage Restaurant, and myself, Bill Ellzey, photographer, started
kicking around the idea of a photo safari in Tshering’s
home country. Word got out and people signed up.
In addition to Tshering and me, other Crestonians along on
the trip are Martin Macaulay, Whitney Strong and Jim Davidson.
Dr. Allen Liebgott from Denver and Pat Bahn of Portland, Oregon
round out the group.
Why Bhutan and why now (November, 2008)? Well, Bhutan is
a mountain kingdom and we who live in Crestone have a fondness
for the beauty of mountains. It also is a mysterious and fascinating
place. Shangrila, some say. It’s about the size of Switzerland
and is the world’s youngest democracy. For the first
time in history a king voluntarily abdicated his throne believing
that a democratic monarchy would be best for his people.
And 2008 was the coronation year for his son, the 5th king
of Bhutan. In fact the crown was passed with great pageantry
during the 3 days of ceremonies while we were in country.
Nearly every Bhutanese person who wasn’t in the capitol
city, Thempu, witnessing the pageant for him/herself was spellbound
before a TV set.
the same time as the king’s coronation another head
of state was being elected half way around the world. Barak
Obama was chosen by the American people (and most of the planet)
as the new leader of the free world. [See accompanying
Of equal importance to our trip as the auspicious political
happenings, actually more so, is that Tshering Dorji is with
us. He is our own “in-house” guide. The government
trains drivers and guides, and foreigners cannot tour the
country without them.
But Tshering is not only Bhutanese, he is one of us, American,
home boy. Little did we know what respect he would receive,
and we also by association, from our tour operator, driver,
guide, government ministers and monks in monasteries simply
because of his sincerity, good humor and general character.
He opened doors for us behind which other visitors had never
At one monastery we were granted privilege to peer inside
a revered cave containing the body print in the stone wall
where Guru Rimpoche sat and meditated. Our government-furnished
guide had been taking tourists there for 14 years and the
door to the chamber had never been opened to him or his groups.
The 9 of us had a luxurious 19 passenger Toyota Cruiser bus
with huge windows at our disposal, plenty of room for each
of us to have our own window seat and camera gear close at
route was along the only paved road running east-west which
bisects the country north and south. To the far north lies
the Himalayas visible from the high passes we crossed. At
the southern extremes of the country terrain flattens out
and becomes jungle in parts.
We traveled from Paro, the westernmost point of our excursion,
through Thempu, Bhutan’s capital, and continued east
to Punaka, Wangdi, Trongsa and Bumthang, Tshering’s
hometown. We toured temples and monasteries, and a nunnery
with ties to Yeshe Kohrlo. One of the nuns had been to Crestone
where Tshering heard her sing. He prevailed upon her to sing
for us. The clarity of her voice made me close my eyes and
be completely transported from the room, fellow travelers,
everything familiar. An utterly transcendent experience.
That evening we had dinner at Tshering’s sister’s
house. In Bhutan the eldest daughter inherits the family home.
She is quite successful, having expanded the family land holdings.
And she and her helpers created a wonderful traditional village
meal which was served in the shrine room due to its size and
the special occasion.
Among her culinary skills is a knack for brewing Arra, the
powerful distilled spirits made at home throughout Bhutan
from wheat, barley or rice. At the end of the evening she
gave each of us a small water bottle full of Arra. For medicinal
Bumthang we started our journey homeward, retracing our path
west hoping to get all the photographs we passed up while
headed east. This can never be done, of course. One must always
stop for every photograph one sees. One is never at the same
place at the same time, in the same light or same mood.
But when there are so many wonderful photographs in such
photogenic territory it is impossible to stop for them all,
so we say we’ll get it on the way back. When we get
to the same spot, nothing looks the same and we drive on,
glad of the memory. In pro photo circles we give a nod to
film days of old (Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, etc.)
and say we shot a neurochrome.
Sunday evening, January 18, 6pm at the Desert Sage Restaurant
Tshering is offering a Bhutanese Buffet and slide show of
our trip. Cost is $19.95. Bhutanese food is traditionally
pretty spicy but for American pallets it is toned down with
the option to “hot it up” to taste with spices
on the side.