Bhutan only opened its doors to outsiders about a decade ago, and according to the tiny Himalayan kingdom's records, less than 6,000 foreign tourists visited last year.
Yet that relatively miniscule number still represents the highest figure for visitors in its recorded history. So to call Bhutan isolated would be an understatement underscoring the fact that knowledge of the country outside its borders is extremely limited.
To shed some light on this remote land, Bhutanese director Ugyen Wangdi opens a fascinating window with his film Price of Letter, which screens today at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival. A traditional documentary, the film looks at the life of one man, whose job it is to deliver the mail by foot to the district of Lingshi, high in the Himalayas near the border with Tibet.
The trip takes about five days from the capital of Thimpu and leads the mail runner, Ugyen Tensing, through bear-infested forests, over glacial streams and over snowy mountain passes.
For city-dwellers accustomed to the conveniences of modern living, Tensing and, indeed, most of Bhutan lives in conditions that are almost impossible to fathom. Once outside Thimpu, which only has 50,000 residents but is referred to in the film as "the big city," the country quickly becomes a land that remains in a state that by Wangdi's own account has remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
Tensing picks up his small backpack stuffed with mail at the central post office in Thimpu and begins his journey. He does not have a tent, he wears simple rubber boots, while his clothes double as a blanket at night when he curls up on the hard ground. By contrast, tourists to the Himalayas will typically bring an obscene array of gear to face every imaginable contingency.
Running time: 68 minutes
Screening time and location: Tonight, 7pm, Shih-Ming Hall of Taiwan Cement Building
As Tensing narrates the film, which is made up mostly of footage of him trudging along high ridges, through fog and over passes with breathtaking panoramic views of the mighty Himalayas, Tensing is amazingly placid despite the hardship. He's been running the mail between Thimpu and Lingshi for almost 30 years and simply counts himself lucky that nothing tragic has happened. Nature, after all, displays its fearsome wrath on almost every trip, he says.
On the first day out of Thimpu, Tensing encounters a man with three horses whose progress has been stopped by a landslide that wiped out the trail. Upon meeting Tensing, he says matter of factly, "You must help me repair it."
It is not so much an order given Tensing by a stranger, but is a simple statement of fact. Without Tensing's help, the man will be forced to turn back. So Tensing is delayed a day as he helps the man repair the trail, after which both carry on together until their paths split. It's difficult not to marvel at the readiness with which Tensing helps the man and wonder if his altruistic spirit was the way people in contemporary societies once were.
It is details such as this and the stunning scenery which gives the viewer an indelible impression that Bhutan is like no other place else on Earth.
The mostly Tibetan population maintain traditional dress and religion, while subsistence comes from rudimentary agricultural and herding. Contact with the outside world and with the trappings of modernity is clearly minimal, especially in remote areas like Lingshi, where Tensing's family lives in a basic stone house in a gentle valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks.