More than 7,200 miles separate Bozeman, Montana and Thimphu, Bhutan. But they may be closer than you think.
BY BAY STEPHENS
Mt. Everest gleamed a brilliant white through the porthole of the small plane. Then Ken Ryder spotted Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Ryder, a middle-aged boutique homebuilder from Bozeman, Montana, smiled to himself. He’d dreamed about these mountains since his college days in the late ‘60s.
The Drukair airplane threaded down through the Himalaya’s steep-sided canyons to Bhutan’s only airport at 7,300 feet above sea level. Ryder’s host, Sonam Jatso, greeted him warmly, taking his bags and leading him out to the Toyota Hilux pickup. They drove past ancient monasteries, quaint villages, serpentine rivers and sweeping mountain slopes.
More than once, Ryder asked Jatso to pull over so he could photograph traditional rammed-earth homes under construction. This was, after all, why he was here: to observe Bhutanese building techniques and consult his client, Druk Construction, on how mechanization might improve efficiency.
It was 1997, and neither internet nor television had touched down in this secluded nation. Little did Ryder know that this was the beginning of a rich 20-plus-year relationship with the country. He would go on to lead teams of Bozeman craftsmen and tradespeople to help build the kingdom’s first Bhutanese-owned five-star hotel, its first log cabin, and a state guesthouse for the Bhutanese government, currently under construction. The endeavors would afford the opportunity for upward of 25 Bozemanites to experience this hidden country for a month or more. Many would fall in love with Bhutan and its people.
Ryder and Jatso made their way toward the capital, Thimpu, a small city of about 50,000. The Toyota bounced between rice paddies ringing the city, then through narrow streets to drop Ryder at a small guesthouse in the heart of town. Accommodations were simple but that was part of the adventure.
Ryder spent a week in the capital and one day found himself standing by a vegetable stand as thunder boomed down from the mountains. It was legend revealing itself: the rumble of the great dragon that Tibetans witnessed centuries ago when they crossed northern passes to pick medicinal wildflowers. Ryder was awestruck.
This was Druk Yul, as the locals know it: Land of the Thunder Dragon.
On that first trip, Ryder toured 11 of the kingdom’s 20 dzongkhags, or districts, taking copious notes on construction practices. The insane amount of hand labor stood out more than anything else. Upon returning stateside, Ryder wrote a report concluding that, if one tool would improve the efficiency of construction in Bhutan, it would be the Wood-Mizer Sawmill.
A nifty piece of machinery, the Wood-Mizer can transform massive logs into beautiful planks or pillars and be towed behind a truck. The thin blade yields more wood than a circular saw, saving timber in accordance with Bhutan’s lofty environmental standards.
Ryder mailed Jatso a VHS tape—this was the ‘90s, remember—of the Wood-Mizer in action. And in November 1997, Jatso bought one in Oregon and shipped it across the Pacific.
That sawmill cut the timber for the next two projects Bozeman builders would have a hand in, along with many others. Ryder estimates the machine has sawn more than 4 million board feet of timber. While Wood-Mizers had scarce been heard of in the East at the time—and could only be purchased in the U.S.—today, they are ubiquitous in Bhutan, and dealerships operate in Singapore and Thailand.
A couple years later, a young Bhutanese businessman, Ugyen Rinzin, visited Bozeman. He and Ryder had become friends on a prior visit thanks to a mutual connection in Jennifer Read, former owner of the Tibetan Trader apparel shop in Bozeman. This time, Rinzin was there on business. He wanted to build a hotel in Bhutan’s Paro Valley that would wed traditional Bhutanese architecture with modern amenities.
Ryder toured the young entrepreneur around several Bozeman construction sites, recalling Rinzin’s amazement at the efficiency, use of power tools, quality of stonework and plumbing.
Rinzin asked Ryder to assemble a volunteer team of Bozeman builders, crafts- and tradesmen to come to Bhutan and turn his vision into the Zhiwa Ling Heritage hotel. In exchange for their time and efforts, these Montanans would experience a country whose resources, culture and people the rest of the world wishes were more accessible. The job would afford them special travel status, side-stepping the tourist fees and visa hassle often required of visitors.
Ryder called on trusted subcontractors and friends: Bruce Tollefson to head woodworking; Mark Croghan and Jeff Madsen for stonemasonry and tiling; Pat McMullen of PJ’s Plumbing and Heating as master plumber; and Larry “Barney” Barnard as master electrician.
From 2001 to 2005, these volunteers and others came for monthlong stints. The American builders shared a consistent impression of the people as remarkably welcoming, gentle and warm.
“They’re humans [and] have their issues like everybody else,” Barnard said. “But one-on-one, they’re kind. All their mannerisms, their tone of voice, it was hard not to be impressed and drawn in.”
“One-on-one they’re kind. All their mannerisms, their tone of voice, it was hard no to be impressed and drawn in.”
The time building the Zhiwa Ling fostered vibrant relationships between the Montanans and Bhutanese, according to Karma Lotey, the CEO of Yangphel Adventure Travel, Rinzin’s guiding company that now operates the hotel. “We went out together, socialized together and we taught [the Americans] … archery,” Lotey said of Bhutan’s national sport.
Barnard learned the customary way to drink tea, dipping a finger in and flicking one drop out for the deities, another for Buddha, then enjoying the rest.
When the project came through, it featured 45 well-appointed suites, a yoga studio, restaurant, greenhouse with Bhutanese orchids, Meditation House, spa, tea house, a view of the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, and an in-house temple with 450-year-old wood from a treasured monastery. Its design recalls a dzong, the monastery fortresses throughout Bhutan built to ward off Tibetan attacks.
In 2015, National Geographic added it to the list of Unique Lodges of the World, the first hotel in all of Asia to make the cut and remains the country’s first and only 5-star Bhutanese-owned hotel.
“Zhiwa Ling is a work of art, painstakingly constructed, carved, and painted by Bhutanese artisans,” Nat Geo wrote. “… The stunning architecture conveys an atmosphere of timeless tradition that fits right into Bhutan’s cultural landscape.”
The hotel became a benchmark for quality as well. Lotey said hotels constructed after the Zhiwa Ling replicated aspects of it such as the intricate carvings, façade, architectural style, double-glazed windows, and quality plumbing. The hotel even inspired a Zhiwa Ling-esque house in Telluride, Colorado.
After the hotel’s completion, the Americans returned home and a decade passed. Ryder and Barnard thought fondly of the country almost daily.
“Yarington recalls the sawyers, tough like the bark of the trees through which they hewed, stilling their chainsaws to move earthworms out of harm’s way.”
Inn April of 2015, Ryder stumbled upon a Facebook post of then-Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay giving a $1 million check to the Nepalese government after the devastating earthquakes. Intrigued, he visited Tobgay’s Facebook page and followed a link that said, “Email me.”
In his “curious and sometimes impulsive way,” as Barnard put it, Ryder drafted a note to the prime minister about an apprenticeship program for Bhutanese youth that he’d been mulling over, and shot it across the globe. Prime minister Tobgay responded that same afternoon. Though their correspondence didn’t result in an apprenticeship program, it did lead to another invitation: come back to Bhutan and build the kingdom’s first authentic log cabin.
Thrilled, Ryder rang Barnard, who contacted his friend and master log builder Skip Brelsford. And just like that, handfuls of volunteers began making their way across the sea for monthlong rotations between 2016 and 2017.
The project proved challenging due to its remote location in the forest district of Haa, the large number of Bozeman volunteers, and it being their first build with the government. It stretched Ryder and others thin, but they persevered, made new friendships and deepened existing ones.
The volunteers worked the days and explored the pine-clad slopes during free time. John Yarington, a middle-aged carpenter on the project, was curious about Buddhism and fond of running. He would clock out and jog up to 12 miles to visit one of the many monasteries tucked away on the slopes and join the young monks in prayer or play—they loved soccer.
The Montanans noted how Buddhism, the national religion, wasn’t just practiced on Sundays. Once, Yarington was walking through the site with a carpenter named Tshering, talking about the project. Mid-sentence, Tshering shot his arm out in front of Yarington: “Stop!”
Confused, Yarington looked around, then watched his counterpart bend down to retrieve a spider from the ground where the American was about to step. Tshering transported it to safety and resumed the conversation.
Yarington recalls the sawyers, tough like the bark of the trees through which they hewed, stilling their chainsaws to move earthworms out of harm’s way. “That kind of thing is a part of their daily life, whether they’re on the construction site or at a monastery,” Yarington said. “It’s like their life is their religion and I was really struck by that.”
On National Day in December 2017, Barnard, Ryder and Brelsford were honored for their contribution of the log cabin to the nation of Bhutan. Wearing traditional Bhutanese garments known as ghos, the Americans met Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth king since the people unanimously voted in a hereditary monarchy in 1907. His son and the current Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck introduced himself to the Americans as well.
The Bhutanese adore their monarchy and call their current leader the “Dharma King” for his compassion, according to Karma Lotey. “We have been gifted with one benevolent king after another,” Lotey said.
The day after National Day, Ryder and Barnard got the chance to sit and talk with His Majesty for half-an- hour while the king inquired about their home lives and perceptions of Bhutan. “That was pretty cool,” Ryder said. He thanked the king for allowing them to volunteer in his country. “And [the king] looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘No, the honor is mine.’”
“Bhutan’s government responded proactively to the pandemic, shuttering its borders early. As of mid-November, the country of 817,000 people had not seen a single death, and only 369 total cases.”
The log cabin led to another project with the government: a log and wood-frame state guesthouse in Thimphu. Despite a delayed start, the project was on a roll and lessons learned from the previous build were paying dividends. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, slowing progress to a crawl and barring other Montanans from entering Bhutan.
Barnard flew to Bhutan on March 6, 2020 for his shift, planning to leave in April. As of November, he was going on nine months in the country and dragging the project along any way he could. A third of the way finished, he estimates the guesthouse will take at least another year to complete.
Bhutan’s government responded proactively to the pandemic, shuttering its borders early. As of mid-November, the country of 817,000 people had not seen a single death, and only 369 total cases.
While Barnard awaits another friendly Bozeman face, he enjoys relative comfort. Bhutanese friends, the work, and even his Bhutanese fiancée—or am su, in Dzongkha—whom he met while working on the log cabin, are all within the country’s borders.
Yarington, Ryder and other volunteers have their eyes peeled for when flights into Bhutan resume. In the meantime, lockdowns have prompted reflection, including on how quickly Bhutan, the Gallatin Valley and the world are changing.
A WORLD IN FLUX
The difference between today, compared with the pre-television and pre-internet Bhutan that Ryder first encountered in 1997, is staggering.
The country has developed in leaps and bounds, but Ryder sees the law of unintended consequences at work. After a decade away, he remembers his shock upon returning in 2015 and finding concrete apartment buildings and hotels hulking where the rice paddies surrounding Thimphu had once been.
Instead of using GDP to measure progress, the country goes by Gross National Happiness, a metric they consider more holistic. The government provides free internet and education to its people and a GNH board reviews all development proposals to ensure they abide by strict pillars: sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development; good governance; preservation and promotion of culture; and environmental conservation.
Despite its careful approach, the broadcasting of American culture over social media has resulted in youth fleeing to the capital seeking new lives: having an apartment, car and office job. Such migration is both emptying the countryside and filling a city that lacks substantial economic opportunity.
“I’m really somewhat dismayed about the amount of rapid development and, ironically, unhappiness that it’s caused in a country that prides itself on being a happy country,” Ryder said.
And climate change is slamming Bhutan—the world’s only carbon negative country—rapidly melting glaciers into lakes that burst and sweep away whole villages.
“My people and my country have done nothing to contribute to global warming but we are already bearing the brunt of its consequences,” said former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay in a 2016 TED Talk.
Additionally, tensions between India and China which sandwich Bhutan, are heating up. Together, these countries represent a third of the world’s population and both have nuclear arms.
As they’ve watched Bhutan develop, Ryder and Barnard have also watched Bozeman grow up, though far less intentionally and sustainably. Like many Bozemanites of their generation, they miss pre-‘90s Bozeman, before rapid growth changed the community’s fabric. Barnard acknowledges that he benefited from the growth as an electrician, but also says he never lacked work before development exploded.
“We need to do everything in our power to protect public lands and not denigrate them,” Barnard said. “Ostensibly, that’s why everyone came here. But people tend to make a mess of their own nest sometimes, and that’s what we’re doing here [in the Gallatin Valley].”
Bozeman was their first love, Bhutan their second. The two master craftsmen hope to impart sustainable timber construction practices to replace concrete construction.
“Concrete has become a very common material for construction, but for the cold climate concrete is not really good,” said Tenzin Dorji, a Bhutanese interior designer who worked with Ryder and Barnard. “I think we should get back to timber but use modern technology. In that part we can learn from you guys.”
Wood-frame construction suits the country’s resources and environmental ethos. Indeed, only a small fraction of Bhutan’s allowable quota of forests is harvested annually. A 2019 World Bank report stated that making more robust use of forests might boost the dearth of income opportunities in rural areas, keeping younger populations from fleeing to unemployment in the city.
Only time will tell, but Tenzin believes the two Americans’ time in the Himalayas will have long-reaching effects. He expects wood-frame construction will become commonplace and plans to use what he’s learned from them for his own projects, merging Bhutanese architecture with American techniques.
“Their contribution will always be remembered,” Dorji said. “A lot of Bhutanese have learned a lot from them and continue to. They have been very generous.”
These Montanans’ legacy will far outlast them, either through the work of the Bhutanese friends and apprentices they’ve taught or in the structures they’ve helped to realize. Ryder and Barnard’s initial romanticism of Bhutan has been tempered by their decades-long relationship with the country— they know it’s not Shangri La. But they count themselves fortunate seeing how the country has enriched their lives, and the small role they’ve played, and will continue to play, in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Bay Stephens, is a skier, kayaker and writer currently based in Ireland. He is a former Associate Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine.