Bouncing along narrow roads and climbing steep mountain trails, Eric Brandt Nielsen found himself faraway from Valdosta State University’s dance stages this past Christmas.
Twelve time zones away, the VSU dance program head spent hours on planes traveling to the other side of the world. He spent additional hours and days crammed as a passenger into a small car as his tour guide rounded hairpin turns on narrow, one-lane roads; on one side of the vehicle rose steep mountains, down the other side, one wrong turn, a long, harrowing fall from a cliff.
Reaching the promised paradise of Shangri-La is no easy feat.
“It was more of a challenge than I expected,” Nielsen says. “You have to be in good shape and it is not for the feint of heart.”
On Dec. 16, Nielsen flew out for his trip to Bhutan, a small nation nestled in the Himalayan mountains between Tibet and India.
Deciding to visit Bhutan requires much advance preparation. “Since the country is so small and accommodations are limited, tourists must apply for admission into the country,” Nielsen says. “A guide is imperative and assigned to meet you at the airport.”
A visitor must also pay the Bhutan government $250 a day for each day in country, but this fee includes food and lodging.
From Atlanta, he flew to Seoul, Korea, where he connected to a flight to Bangkok, Thailand. He spent three days there before making the five-hour flight to Bhutan.
Of course, arriving in a place that is still described as a lost world has its own perils.
“In order to arrive in Bhutan, one must take a plane over the Himalayans into Povo, which is a feat in itself,” Nielsen says. “This airport is considered to be one of the most dangerous airports to land a plane.” It is essentially one airstrip suddenly visible as the plane flies over a range of mountains.
Yet, even one airstrip is a major concession for a place that prides itself as a land where time stands still.
With 17th century and older buildings, people wear traditional dress. Buddhism is Bhutan’s religion, and the land’s king tries keeping his people protected from the outside influence of other cultures, Nielsen says.
Nielsen says Bhutan considers its “gross national product to be ‘Happiness.’”
However, cell phones have become part of the landscape. And while people often wear the traditional clothing, many wear modern sneakers beneath the robes of their ghos.
Nielsen wore a gho while attending a festival in Bhutan’s sacred city of Thimpeau. Nielsen and other tourists wore the ghos as a sign of respect for the culture.
A traditional gho “looks like a wrapped robe that goes down to your knees,” Nielsen says. “Leggings are worn to complete the look. The people of Bhutan look favorably on visitors who come dressed for their festivals.”
Still, even with the gho, at 6-foot-3 and as a Westerner, Nielsen stood out.
The festival was Nielsen’s destination in Bhutan. It is the reason why he flew so far and long and traveled several hours each day through winding mountain passes. It is why he spent several hours walking a series of small stairs and paths to reach the Dragon’s Nest Monastery.
As a dancer, choreographer and dance instructor, Nielsen wanted to study and document the festival’s sacred dances.
“It was fascinating,” Nielsen says. “The dances are typically repetitive as most ritual dances are.” Monks are the ones dancing. “The dance is more for the dancer than for the spectators.”
Dancers wear large masks and colorful costumes. These masks represent different characters. One monk wears a clown mask; he provides comedy but also on-site direction to keep other dancers in line.
As for the dances, Nielsen will share recordings with his students. Some Bhutan influences could find their way into his choreographed pieces for this fall’s annual VSU Theatre & Dance show.
“Having taught dance history for several decades, my thirst to know more about historical dances has continually grown,” Nielsen says. “Bringing students first-hand experiences back into the classroom engages the students so much more than reading from the text.”
Nielsen also spent Christmas Day in Bhutan where he was treated well but the only person celebrating the holiday where he stayed. His hosts served him a lavish meal of Asian cuisine to honor his holiday. Walking the buffet line, Nielsen named each dish for a traditional Christmas offering.
Though he grew to know his guide well, Nielsen ate alone, having already learned the guide would not share a meal with him. Early during the trip, he had invited the guide to join him for dinner, but the guide refused saying it would not be proper for a guide to eat with his employer.
Nielsen learned also that he should take his hosts’ advice. At one stop, he was offered a room with a large fireplace. The hosts said they would keep the fire stoked and going throughout the night. Uncomfortable sleeping with an open flame in his room, Nielsen told them he did not need their assistance. He awoke, freezing, middle of the night, the fire out. He went out to ask his hosts to please start a new fire and they graciously did.
Nielsen returned home Dec. 28 to Valdosta.
A well-traveled man, who has visited numerous nations, but is drawn to Asia, Nielsen says he can now check Shangri-La off his bucket list.