Losing the yeti in forgotten nation of Bhutan
Sunday, August 10, 2008; 12:30 AM
SIGNYAR, Bhutan -- 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."
Many traditional beliefs remain deeply ingrained in Bhutan, from astrology to the worship of Buddhist priests. But the monster is now increasingly forgotten, and the link to an ancient past is more often seen as a sign of ignorance.
"We can't live today like we did in the 17th or 18th century. Our culture has to be dynamic," says Khandu Wangchuck, Bhutan's finance minister. "Within the last 40 years, we've jumped 300-400 years."
And the yeti? Wangchuck pauses. "I think most people today know this is just a story."
What does it mean, though, when accepted fact decays into mere folk tale? When a belief that helped tie a land together is relegated to myth, what happens to the culture that believed in it? And how can a country that entered the 20th century just a few years ago make its way in the globalized world of the 21st?
In the West, yeti-like creatures long ago were reduced to myth. The Abominable Snowman is something from a "Scooby Doo" episode, or part of the latest installment in Hollywood's "Mummy" franchise. To mainstream science, the notion of Bigfoot is little more than a joke.