For many of us in the modern world, genuine heart-to-heart connections are severely lacking. There is an epidemic of loneliness in the West, which has been assessed as being as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Our focus has shifted towards pure materialism, so that far less value is placed upon our shared society. 

However, Cowes woman, Nina Ross, who recently mounted an exhibition of photographs from Bhutan at Quay Arts in Newport, believes she may have found the answer to social isolation in this remote, Himalayan mountain kingdom. She hopes that the artwork she put on display will contribute to a book focusing on the shared imagination of the Himalayan region and show how social connectivity and happiness might be encouraged in the west.

Shangri-La is a mythical, harmonious Himalayan valley, described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel and subsequently immortalised in film. The Islander went to meet Nina to ask whether she had found the utopia of Shangri-La on her travels to Bhutan.

She said: “Bhutan is the most isolated country in the world. It wasn’t until 1982 that they first accepted foreign visitors. You still have to go there with a guide and stick to the itinerary. The Bhutanese want to protect their country and generally content way of life from unhealthy foreign influences.”

Nina continued: “People are unequivocally happier in Bhutan than in the UK. The West encourages individuality, whereas the Bhutanese appear happier because they support each other, partly because of their Bhuddist beliefs. The environment seems very calm, and there appears to be very little crime and violence. You do not see any beggars even in the capital.

“The Government does its best to resist Western influences and consumerism. Regarding material goods, if you’ve never seen it, then you don’t want it.

“It is now possible to get a flight into the capital, Thimphu. However, Thimphu doesn’t seem like a large conurbation, but more like a small country town, such as Newport, on the Isle of Wight. The whole country, which is the size of Switzerland,  has a population of just 750,000 (the size of Leeds).

“Because Bhutan is mountainous, the people have to live in isolated communities. I went to the highest inhabited village, Laya (12,000 feet). The people there were really friendly and interacted with us in a curious manner. I took a photograph of a woman who had never seen a photo of herself before. She was surprised and bewildered, interested but cautious.”

She added: “The young now have smartphones, so they know more about what the rest of the world is like. Therefore, I feel it unlikely Bhutan can remain as it is at present.”

Nina Ross is currently seeking to raise £8,000 for her research into a book on the countries of the Himalayas. More on her work can be found at her website: ninarossremotecultures.com

Colin Clarke
Author: Colin Clarke