I arrived at Dochula Pass on a Tuesday morning. The heavy fog and cool air were a welcome change after the winding car ride up to the 3,100 meter mountain pass. On clear days the Himalayas welcome visitors from a distance, but on this socked in morning the 108 memorial chortens that make up Dochula Pass were left staring at a wall of white and soft grays slowly rolling up the mountain side. I can not speak for the brick chortens, but that was okay with me. I was not on this trip to see the Himalayas. I was on this trip to be with people.
I had not seen my friend Andy in almost four years. He was one of the people that I was most excited about spending time with and it was his spark that launched us to Bhutan in the first place. We had also decided, early in our planning, to stay in traditional farmhouses with local Bhutanese families for the entire trip. The experience of living and eating and laughing with our host families nurtured the life of this ‘people trip’ in the best way. The theme was also strengthened when we met our driver, Kencho, and our guide, Pema, outside of the airport. Within a few hours any barriers shed away and we quickly became four young men driving around Bhutan together, trading dirty jokes and calling each other out for stinky farts. This was, at its core, a people trip.
The people of Bhutan, and visiting Buddhists, come to Dochula Pass to pray. It is customary to walk clockwise around a chorten while praying (during our second farm stay we woke up each morning to find the grandmother of the house walking around a single chorten that was built on the farm, quietly praying and thumbing her prayer beads) and at Dochula Pass visitors walk a large clockwise circle around the outside of all 108 chortens. Several people were already walking their loops when we arrived, and after a morning coffee and Q&A session about Dochula Pass with our guide, Andy and I set out to capture the scene.
I started up close, moving slowly through the white and red chortens working on some detail shots of the tiered layers. The gold trim and ornate details pulled me in and the fog set a consistent tone as I worked the camera. And then I had that feeling that I dread. A feeling that sweeps in suddenly and obscures my view like the heavy fog obscuring the Himalayas in the distance: This has been done before and I am doing it no better. This has been photographed a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times and I am just adding to the gigabytes of stock photos of...The Pyramids, The Eiffel Tower, The Alps, or Dochula Pass. To be fair, this is a good problem to have. To be able to travel and capture these images in the first place is something that I should never take for granted. And, this is Bhutan. A place with limited tourism and the very phrase Dochula Pass is sure to raise some eyebrows when trading travel stories. But, once that ‘it’s been done before’ feeling kicks in - it is very hard to shake. I decided to try a fresh angle. I moved away from the chortens and backed away from the close up shots. I decided to take a stroll in the surrounding hills and see if I could get a fresh perspective on this place. I started walking up the nearest hill across the road and it was there, casually strewn below a large Cypress tree, that I found exactly what I was looking for.
The five ladies that I met that morning had come to Dochula Pass to walk the circular path and pray, as they do once or twice or month. I had stumbled across their morning break and I was immediately captivated by the close knit group. The vibrant colors of their clothing, the anachronistic feel of their cellphones being pulled out of their traditional Kira, their genuine smiles and friendly teasing with each other. I asked if I could take a picture. They asked if I would like some tea. We sat together and spoke broken English and sipped black tea with sugar and powdered milk. They gave me chhurpi (an incredibly hard cheese made from dried yak milk that I eventually had to give up on after an hour of trying to get it to soften in my mouth), and the ubiquitous betel nut that stains everyone’s teeth red. They asked me many questions about my trip to Bhutan and offered me their daughter’s hands in marriage. I told them everything I had done already on my trip and politely declined the marriage offers. They took selfies and sent text messages. I took pictures and chewed on the betel nut. At the end of our time together they packed up their small picnic and headed back to the chortens to continue their pilgrimage.
This was not a groundbreaking diplomatic connection made between Bhutan and America, and it certainly was not the beginning of a life long friendship or even a digital up keeping through social media. I never even learned their names or anything beyond the surface of their friendship and routine. But it was exactly what I was looking for on that cloudy morning - a brief but genuine moment with people I had never met before. And for me, the best part was not the click of the shutter or the flirtatious giggles. It was not the slurp of the tea or the gentle clattering of the prayer beads. It was the brief moments that we sat in comfortable silence together just looking at each other, and understanding that underneath the immense differences that could possible divide us was a core that made us entirely the same. Behind our cameras and cellphones and colorful threads and teasing and smiling laughter and language we are just people looking for other people to share these experiences. We all walk in circles every day, and whether it is on Dochula Pass or the streets of New York City - we all need some people to walk with.