Monday, August 11, 2008

Losing the Yeti in Forgotten Nation of Bhutan

Found a great article on The Anomalist today about the rapid modernization of the once isolated nation of Bhutan, and the resulting loss of some of its ancient traditions. Bhutan became famous in the 20th Century for its legend of the Abominable Snowman, or "Yeti" - the feared vicious wildman of the Himalayas.

Now, as modern conveniences such as electricity and paved roads are finally reaching the country, the younger generation is beginning to scoff at the terrifying tales of the Yeti as told by their elders:

SIGNYAR, Bhutan (AP) — He remembers the darkness of the pine forest, and the footprints, and his terror when the creature began to howl. He remembers the stories of his childhood, of a beast that stalked the upper reaches of the mountains, and how fear spread through the village every time it was spotted.

In a remote Himalayan kingdom that held out against the modern world for as long as it could, the old man remembers a time when the yeti was a normal part of life.

"The creature has always been out there, and it's out there still," says Sonam Dorji, 77, sitting on the pockmarked wooden floor of his small farmhouse. It's a cold Himalayan morning, and he warms himself beside a wood stove. The smell of burning pine fills the room. "If you travel the ancient trails, even today, there's a good chance you'll meet him."

His son-in-law, listening to the old man's stories, laughs dismissively from across the room.

Tshering Sithar is 39, a bulldozer operator helping pave the road to this village, which until recently could only be reached on foot.

"What is there to say?" he asks. "There's nothing out there in the forest. Any educated person today knows this."

The story goes on to detail a fascinating clash between rapid modernization and the old traditions that are being pushed aside. In a nation that has supposedly advanced 300 - 400 years in the past few decades, the Yeti is becoming increasingly unwelcome.

Just a decade or so ago, the yeti helped explain the often intimidating natural world nearly everyone lived in — the nighttime shadows, the terrifying noises on lonely forest paths, the strange footprints. But increasingly, the sounds of the forest are drowned out by music played on cheap stereos smuggled in from China.

People who no longer need the yeti can dismiss it. Believing, Choden says, "is an implicit sign of being too traditional, or even backward."

Now I'm not saying there's no Yeti - after all, most of the world didn't believe in gorillas until just over a hundred years ago, and the Himalayas are far more remote and inhospitable than the mountains of central Africa - but clearly the burden of proof for such a claim is pretty high.

This kind of marginalization of traditional beliefs is, of course, ripe for a feature film: "young punks who laugh off the Yeti warnings of their forefathers get a surprise on their camping trip". But it's also emblematic of the world as a whole. As access to instant worldwide information and fact-checking becomes the norm, old wives tales are often pushed to the side. And even though there's a temptation to wish we still lived in a world full of the unknown and mysterious, where ghosts and goblins might be hiding around every dark corner of the woods, and isolated magical villages still exist high in the Himalayas, we must ultimately be clear that the new paradigm of prosperity and knowledge is preferable - even if it isn't always quite as fun.

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