Tshering is my guy in Bhutan. He’s the man who works behind the scenes to ensure everything goes smoothly and that my quirky and often difficult propositions are translated into real experience. Tshering is an essential third of the team, alongside my superb guide Rinzi and myself.
Tshering is a modest man of noble origins. Exactly how he ended up owning a small tour company is a quirk of fate. His little brother is a monk living in India. His father earned the esteemed Bhutanese title of ‘Dashu’. His wife is a teacher and studied an Australian University. Tshering most noble act of intervention today was to sort out with our hotel why we’ve been overcharged for wine corkage. I can’t help but think his time is better spent on more important things, but this is the nature of owning a really small travel company.
He’s arrived at my hotel very early today so we can have breakfast together. It’s my last day on a photo tour and we have the luxury of a late afternoon flight. The day before we climbed the trail to Tigers Nest, every one of us, and the group are enjoying a combination of sleep ins and pampering at the hotel spa. Over pancakes, Tshering and I discuss our plans for the future.
Smaller is Better
It doesn’t matter how good a tour has run, you can always think of ways to make it that little bit better. I make notes along the way to help fine tune the next trip, annotating where details have changed or when new opportunities arise that did not exist before. Mostly these are tweaking at the margins. We’ve been doing these trips in Bhutan for so long now that some things don’t even warrant a mention. Tshering, Rinzi and myself all know what the answer will be before we ask the question.
Today is different. I want to propose a whole new framework for the next few years tours. There’s a new road being built across Bhutan, an upgrade to the highway that traverses from West to East. The upgrades will mean more tourists can access Central Bhutan with greater ease, and that means more tourists attending festivals that were once impractical to visit. The main objective of my visits to festivals is to allow my group to get photographs of dancing monks - not photographs of other tourists.
I lay down a roadmap for the next few years and float the question on how to rethink the planning of the trips. At first Tshering struggles with it, his practical and experienced mind rushing immediately to the obstacles in our way. I know what I’m proposing is going to be hard work. For a few minutes he’s like a song bird in a cage, rushing along the edges and finding only the barrier. There’s a mild panic to this moment as he doesn’t yet realise the door is already open.
Giving is Receiving
Words matter. Buddhism is a philosophy that emphasises the opportunity in life to give, and it was those very words that reach into the cage and guide Tshering to the exit. I remind him that while this new plan will be hard work, that the result will be an experience for 8 lucky people that will be unrivalled by any normal ‘photo tour’. His eyes spark into awareness as he catches the meaning within, like the first light on Taktsang.
What we are planning is a truly unique gift, a chance for us to share a remarkable experience in Bhutan. Not just another tour, but a really special experience that can only ever exist for a small group of 8 people. The more remarkable the experience we design, the more special the gift we are giving to our travellers. Tshering is quietly beaming with joy, stunned into silence.
This is why Tshering chooses to run a travel company. He wants to embrace travellers to his country and share what is wonderful about Bhutan. Suddenly he sees an opportunity. Not every traveller to his country can join in with what we are proposing. The unique benefits of a photography group mean we are small enough to avoid some problems and large enough to overcome others. Tshering’s eyes grow wider and more vibrant as we dig deeper into the possibilities.
Heart of the Himalayas
Now he’s imagining the treasured experience for the next eight travellers in 2018. And those in 2019. And beyond. I started with one new concept and suddenly we have four distinct ideas on the table, all of which are beautiful designs and all of which will bring joy to a very small number of people. The bird is out of the cage and singing in the tree tops.
It’s a truly wonderful thing to design and create an experience that is genuinely unique and deeply enriching. This is what we strive for on any photo tour. Bhutan presents challenges that do not exist on normal tours, but opportunities also. For now that country remains an enclave of distinct cultural identity, held tightly by the mountains of the Himalayas and nurtured by their Buddhist beliefs. Change is upon the nation of Bhutan, but it is moving slowly. The glacier has not yet melted.
Thankfully, with people such as Tshering to guide the way forward there is still plenty of time to visit Bhutan and experience something treasured. And when you do, it is both a gift for yourself and for us.