Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter bio simply reads “Enthusiast.” This succinct description captures the spirit of the television personality and chef who died by suicide in June. It was his aptitude for traveling, or simply experiencing, that brought Bourdain to Bhutan for the season 11 finale of his show, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” which aired on June 24, 2018. In this episode, like many others, Bourdain experienced the country, its culture, its people, and the food that tied them all together. For Bhutan, the environment cannot be fully acknowledged without understanding the impact of the region’s glaciers.
A mountainous country in the eastern Himalaya, Bhutan has a complicated relationship with its glaciers. On one hand, glacier water fuels the hydropower dams that account for Bhutan’s largest export; yet, climate-related impacts like glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) also threaten lives and have been responsible for some of the most catastrophic events in Bhutan’s recent history.
Bourdain did not overlook the impact of climate change on Bhutan’s glaciers during his travels. Along with his friend, filmmaker and writer Darren Aronofsky, he traveled to the Punatsangchhu hydropower dam in the final episode. The dam lies about 80 kilometers east of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. High above the dam’s edge, with the rushing glacier water far below, the two were able to speak with Nawang Norbu, director of the School for Field Studies’ Bhutan program.
“There are many studies showing that the Himalayan glaciers will disappear in about 50 to 60 years,” warned Nawang Norbu, to which Bourdain appeared shocked. “Whoa, whoa, whoa— that’s soon!” he said.
“Both Anthony and Darren were keenly aware of our connections to nature and were genuinely concerned about the fate of our planet,” Nawang Norbu told GlacierHub. “We were also acutely aware of how we were still so reliant upon nature despite our technological prowess.”
Nawang Norbu stated that they went on to discuss how Bhutan, as a small country, is dependent on nature and its cycles, recognizing that climate change will have a serious future impact on the region.
“I found Anthony to be a deep thinker, highly intelligent and very curious about our world and its cultures,” Nawang Norbu said.
It appears that Bourdain’s concern for such sobering topics was not limited to when the cameras were rolling. “I think he was truly taken away by the care and dexterity with which Bhutan has been able to conserve its culture, values and environment; he was genuinely concerned about how we may be better able to steward the wellbeing of our planet,” Nawang Norbu added.
This attitude toward the natural world is fitting in a country that is tied so heavily to its environment. Earlier in the episode, Bourdain’s narration explains that “policy-wise, Bhutan is something of an environmental wonderland.” He was referring, in part, to the constitutional requirement that 60 percent of Bhutan’s lands remain forested. The country is currently exceeding 70 percent. This, along with the country’s rapidly growing hydropower sector, has allowed it to become the first carbon-negative country, meaning Bhutan absorbs more carbon dioxide than it releases.
“Respect for the natural world is fundamental to Bhutan’s spiritual identity,” continues Bourdain. This stems from the country’s official religion of Mahayana (tantric) Buddhism, a faith practiced by 75 percent of its people. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index is a further reflection of this identity. “The pursuit of happiness is collective,” according to the Center for Bhutan Studies, and happiness isn’t measured by subjective well-being.
“Our happiness is very much linked to our respect of, and the wellbeing of, our natural environment,” Benji Dorji, often referred to as Bhutan’s “Godfather of Conservation,” told GlacierHub. He discussed nature, Buddhism, and their connection in Bhutan during a home-cooked meal with Bourdain that consisted of recipes that had been passed down through generations of Bhutanese farmers. The conversation progressed from the dwindling number of days with snowfall to the disappearance of some glacier lakes before coming to the respect for nature seen in tantric Buddhism.
“You don’t mess with nature,” agreed Bourdain during the episode.
Benji Dorji found Bourdain “most respectful of Bhutanese culture and traditions,” which carried throughout the show and culminated in Burning Lake, where Bourdain and Aronofsky took part in a Bhutanese death ritual.
“We debated the fate of the country, the fate of the world. He was perplexed as to how mankind’s endless hunger to consume could be curtailed,” wrote Aronofsky in an article for CNN following Bourdain’s death.
Bourdain spent his time in Bhutan witnessing the enduring beauty of the high glacier-covered peaks and Bhutan’s efforts to protect them. These efforts fall in step with the people’s gentleness and drive to create happiness wherever possible.
Bourdain captured the effect that traveling the world had on him in his book, “The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones.” “Travel changes you,” he wrote. “As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks—on your body or on your heart—are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”
To read more about tracking glaciers and rivers in Bhutan, check out our previous article.