2 1/2 Hours of Amity and Archery in Bhutan

Weekends in the Field, Where Play Is the Point

A series of occasional stories and pictures looking at life in foreign countries through the prism of time.
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 10, 2008


It is about 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday when Bhakta Shangshou receives the call on his cellphone. The sunlight has just begun pouring through the pine forests and apple orchards.

His wife and children are still in their beds, tucked under thick, itchy blankets made from yak wool, insulated against this Himalayan town's chilly mornings.

"Are you coming?" the caller asks in a booming voice.

"Oh yes, let me get my bow and arrow," Shangshou responds, glancing over his shoulder to make sure he doesn't wake his family. "I will get there as soon as I can."

By 7:15, Shangshou, a computer technology lecturer, is dressed in a traditional gho, an outfit worn by Bhutanese men that is a cross between a Scottish kilt and a Japanese kimono -- the top is robelike, the bottom is cut like a skirt. Black socks are worn up to the knees.

By 7:30, he is in his car, with a steel-tipped arrow in the back seat.

Minutes later, just as he rolls through a valley and into a gentle clearing, Shangshou hears the sound of high-spirited victory songs, tunes filled with mockery. "You are too foolish to win," one song rings out. "Oh, Bhutan, how beautiful our streams, our mountains, our land of the thunder dragon," goes another.

This is the start of Shangshou's weekend ritual: datse, or archery, Bhutan's national sport.

Every weekend, in a field above mustard and buckwheat farms, men from two surrounding villages sling their arrows at targets about 460 feet away. The games take place all over the country and, with interruptions for chili and cheese lunches and green tea, can last up to four days. In a largely rural, isolated country, the games are part town meeting, part sport. Above all, they are entertainment.

"I am happy my wife is very cooperative and even supportive of my archery addiction," says Shangshou, cleaning the morning dew from his bow. "I can be out here for days. I just love it."

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