Feature December 17, 2015
Land of the Thunder Dragon
'The Power of the River: Expedition to the Heart of Water’
The kingdom of Bhutan floats like a small, perfectly formed altocumulus cloud above the tiger’s tooth of India as it slices its way into the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Shrouded in mystery for years, Bhutan remained isolated from the rest of the world until the 1960s, standing as a tiny landlocked nation, tumbling south along the eastern edge of the mighty Himalaya, the tallest mountain range in the world, and extending only about 189 miles from west to east and 90 miles from north to south.

The Power of the River Expedition traveled from western Bhutan, site of the famous Punakha Dzongkhag, to the village of Khenkhar in eastern Bhutan, where a 4,000-foot descent took them to the Drangme Chhu for a nine-day float trip.

Snow blankets much of the country for half the year, drifting past ancient monasteries, towering peaks too sacred to climb, fluttering prayer flags and riverside temples that almost sing of the sacred river Alph, and caverns measureless to man popularized by Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Centuries of isolationism and topographical extremes have kept this ancient sovereign kingdom unknown to the rest of the world for most of the last century. Bhutan had no diplomatic relations with any other country until 1961, the first paved road was built in 1962, and TV was only legalized in 1999 (making it the last country on the planet to do so).

Originally founded as a Buddhist sanctuary in the 8th century by Guru Rinpoche, who is said to have flown over the Himalaya on the back of a flying tigress, Bhutan, known locally as “Druk-yul,” the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is dominated by high mountain peaks, creating a natural border with China in the north. Deep river valleys cut from north to south, draining the glacier snowmelt and monsoon rains before tumbling through valleys of spectacular cypress, pine and subtropical and tropical rain forests toward the foothills in the south.

Bhutan mapPrayer wheels and religious ceremonies such as Tshechu, featuring costumed dancers and held annually to celebrate the birthday of Guru Rimpoche, are as much a part of daily life as the rivers and mists that descend from the Himalayas.

 The drop in elevation is spectacular. In less than 90 miles from north to south, Bhutan contains 11 different vegetation zones and features over 70 endangered and threatened species, including the mythical snow leopard, mighty tiger and hundreds of bird and plant species, all of which offer a biodiversity rich enough to be considered one of only 10 global environmental “hotspots” on the planet. About 72.5 percent of the area is under forest cover, and the law requires the country to maintain 60 percent forest cover in perpetuity—a concept related to the policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) introduced by the fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972.

Bhutan’s tallest peak, Gangkhar Puensum, at 24,840 feet, stands as the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The lowest point is marked in the valley of the Drangme Chhu, one of Bhutan’s largest river systems, which has its headwaters high in the Himalayan glaciers beyond the most remote, eastern part of the country, and drops to around 322 feet as it crosses the border into India.

It is here, along the banks of the mighty Drangme Chhu (“Chhu” means river in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan) that Bhutan’s story begins to intertwine with the Wood River Valley.

It wasn’t the first place that drew Hailey local, Sun Valley Ski Patrol supervisor and global outfitter and guide, Bryant Dunn, to Bhutan. But it has, to date, been the most powerful.

“Bhutan is 12 time zones away,” said Dunn, who first traveled there in 2007 via special invitation from the royal family to assess the fishabilty of the kingdom. “It is literally right between your feet. I tell my kids when I’m gone, just look down and that is where I am.”

Bhutan

That first trip was in collaboration with another Wood River Valley local, Gerry Moffat, who currently serves as the whitewater consultant to the Kingdom of Bhutan. Dunn was hooked. Himalayan Flyfishing Adventures was founded as a way to share his amazing experience, and Dunn spent the next five years planning ways to get back. 

In global terms, the Land of the Thunder Dragon has been slow to open its doors to international travelers, welcoming 5,599 tourists in 2002 and expanding those numbers to just fewer than 44,600 tourists in 2012. By contrast, Maryland, the closest U.S. state in size to Bhutan, hosted 35.4 million visitors in 2012, generating revenue of over $14.9 billion. 

“Bhutan is the most beautiful place in the world, with the most amicable and loving people that I have ever met,” recalled Dunn, who has traveled to more than 50 countries on six continents. “It is very special, and I thought it would be a wonderful thing to show the world this spectacular place … and to do so through the eyes of a
fly-fishing conservationist.”

BhutanMisty Dhillon, expert on the elusive golden Mahseer, was part of an international team hailing from Bhutan, India, North America and Europe that was hand-selected by expedition leader Bryant Dunn.

That thought became a vision. The vision became an obsession. And then, in April of 2015, with the help of Dunn’s Bhutanese business partner, Ugyen Dorji, the dream became a reality in the form of a documentary film project. 

After years of hard work behind the scenes, Dunn departed on a month-long cinematic expedition to the farthest reaches of Bhutan as part of a five-person team of elite anglers from North America, Europe and India, and a six-person film crew, with a supporting Bhutanese cast and crew. He was the expedition leader. The goal: to be the first anglers ever to fish the Drangme Chhu. “Power of the River: Expedition to the Heart of Water,” a cinemagraphic and ethnographic project filmed in the United States, Bhutan and India was born. But what happened next was like a river running its course.

Dunn said the visuals were easy. “You’ve got fish. You’ve got an endless number of rivers in a country at the base of the highest mountains in the world that are full of fish, that are never fished,” he paused, adding that the fly-fishing film genre has grown tremendously in the last five to 10 years and is really a conservation movement more than anything else. He was also quick to point out that the film was never intended to be “fish porn” (a few guys go somewhere exotic, catch a bunch of big fish, sit around the campfire, fade to black).

Bhutan

The team was formidable: Karma Tshering, Bhutanese guide and wilderness expert; Dave McCoy, featured angler and Patagonia brand ambassador; Misty Dhillon, featured angler and Mahseer species expert; Jean-Andre Corpuz, globetrotting adventurer and featured angler; and finally, Dunn himself as expedition leader and international adventure outfitter. Writer, director and producer Greg Hamilton handpicked the film crew, which included Matthew Whalen, Andy Danylchuk, Jocelyne Chaput, Stefan Smulovitz and Tshering “Paco” Penjore, along with an entire Bhutanese team on the ground. 

“The film’s mission has always been to show a higher value of rivers,” said Hamilton. This was not going to be fish porn. Almost from the outset, the project became something dramatically different for all participants. Hamilton is a cultural anthropologist by training and had 20 years' experience working with Warren Miller Films before moving into the documentary genre and winning national awards for his directorial debut, “The Movement.”

“Bhutan is a unique place,” Dunn said. “I wanted to show it through the eyes of a fisherman, using the fly-fishing expedition as a vehicle to move the story through the region: west to east across the kingdom for three weeks and then 10 days north to south down the Drangme Chhu.”

Bhutanese woman and daughter. Photo by Bryant Dunn.“They were not talking about damming the river when we first started the expedition,” said Dunn. “Now they are doing measurements and building roads to a potential dam site.”

Suddenly, the urgency behind the project exploded.

Hamilton added that most people don’t even know there is a Buddhist kingdom named Bhutan or where it is, let alone the issues it faces as a country. “Bhutan’s claim as ‘the happiest place on earth’ from the tourism slogans gives it a misnomer,” reflected Hamilton when speaking from the post-production studio this past fall. “People think it’s just a Shangri-la and they tend to dismiss the problems that the people of Bhutan face.”

“What interested me about the project was not the fishing, but the people and the place, “ said Hamilton. “For me, the story was about ‘why should the world care about this: the idea of happiness over place … They never make the statement that they are a happier country than other countries, but have said simply that what makes them different is their commitment to placing that as a goal. The commitment is ambitious, and it’s in danger.”

Featured angler Misty Dhillon, who was born in a small Himalayan town in northern India and has spent his life studying the golden mahseer, a hard-fighting migratory freshwater fish species found in the Drangme, reflected on the incredible depth and simple happiness, the very real humanity, of the people. “It is the land that has accepted them and sustains them,” said Dhillon. “They are connected with it because it is a part of their ancient culture.”

“Bhutan is at a crossroads,” agreed Dunn, who cited Bhutan’s geographical location as a resource-rich country sandwiched directly between India and China as being not exactly an enviable position. “They value environmental resources, but they have to take care of themselves, and how do they do it? Hydroelectric is one way.” 

India needs the power. And they will pay for it—both the building of the dams and the energy they produce. Hydroelectric power in Bhutan is big business, with nearly 75 percent of it being exported for sale outside of the country, generating in 2012 energy sales of 3.7 billion Bhutanese Ngultrum (approximately $68.8 million). That
is a tremendous sum for a country still in the process of building infrastructure—hospitals, roads, schools—and increasing its standard of living. And Bhutan’s needs are growing. Total population is currently around 767,000, a figure that rose 32 percent from 1995 to 2015 (coupled with an increase in life expectancy, from 47 years to more than 66 years, in the same period). Progress and modernization needs to be supported, and Bhutan doesn’t want to rely on foreign aid.

Bhutan

Bhutan’s “Tenth Five Year Plan” clearly outlines the government’s view: “Economically, the vision pictures that hydropower-led development and growth will have helped the country achieve a high degree of self-reliance, with much of the responsibility for financing of development in its own hands.” 

Additionally, the Bhutanese view hydroelectric power as clean energy, especially in the face of traditional wood-fueled energy sources that impact forests. An official Power Sector of Bhutan report estimates total hydropower potential at 30,000 megawatts (MW) with more than 71 large sites having been identified and 11 potential large scale power plants already in the pipeline (as of 2008)—including two on the Drangme Chhu, one of which could be a massive project with an installed capacity of 1,800 MW.

“This is about so much more than rivers,” Dunn asserted. “It is about the resources and the people. And how much the resources mean to them and what they intend to do with them, or to them, or not do to them. 

“The film started with this idea of: let’s show this beautiful place,” added Dunn. “Now it may be: let’s show this beautiful place that is about to be erased from the planet.”

Dunn points, with hope, to the fact that both the Queen Mother and the King of Bhutan have stated that the Drangme Chhu is the most beautiful place in the world. Dunn, Hamilton, and the many others involved in the “Power of the River” filming expedition, believe the film can help open eyes about the complex challenges facing Bhutan: the power of water, geopolitical relationships, human consumption, conservation and the issues of maintaining a unique culture in the face of change. “It is about the lives of people just like you and me,” Dunn said.

Is Bhutan the Shangri-la it is rumored to be? Can a policy of Gross National Happiness co-exist in a country moving toward modernization? 

Only time will tell. But perhaps, as photography critic and Ansel Adams collaborator Nancy Newhall asserted, “The wilderness holds answers to questions man has not learned how to ask.”

And as Greg Hamilton concludes in his final cuts, “Bhutan will either be an example, or a cautionary tale 10 years from now.” 

The documentary, “Power of the River: Expedition to the Heart of Water” was in editing at the time of publication. It is scheduled for release in March 2016. 

This article appears in the Winter 2015-2016 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.